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Northern Mountains

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Isaan Heartland

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Tracing Thailand's prehistory and early history
Isan western plateau


From: Thailand: Traits and Treasures, National Identity Board, ©2005 by Office of The Permanent Secretary, The Prime Minister’s Office, ISBN 974-9771-52-4



To the west of the heartland of Isan, as Thailand’s northeastern region is widely known, lies the highland flanked by the Phetchabun Mountain and the Phang Hoei Mountain ranges, which separate the northeastern from the central region. Given the nature of the terrain, mountains may serve as topographical co-ordinates of the western plateau of Isan. They are Khao Phanom Khom in the south, Phu Dan I Pong in the mid-west, Phu Mok Bo Wai in the northwest, and Phu Ang Lo as well as Phu San Ta Saeng in the east. The high mountains in the west are the headwater areas of the Chi River and its tributaries as well as of numerous minor tributaries of the Mekong River.

The western plateau is dotted with mountains and small plains which tend to be inundated toward the end of the rainy season, except for some levees or ridges. Above this level are the alluvial and bedrock terraces. It is in these locations where the human habitat evolved throughout history. As the bedrock of the Khorat Plateau, by which name geologists refer to Isan, is sitting on one of the world’s largest rock salt stocks, surface water collection is vital. Reservoirs of small or medium sizes have been built and operated in elevated terrain. This has become a necessity due to the ongoing expansion of the frontier of human habitat and its corresponding activities, notably agriculture which still is the major source of livelihood.


There is strong and varied evidence of how conducive the western plateau has been for living organisms, since time immemorial, as well as for human habitat, which appears to be one of its earliest sites worldwide.

The concentration and variation of fossils of dinosaurs suggests that the physical conditions were favourable for the evolution of animal life, hundreds of millions of years ago. Beginning in 1986, geologists prospecting for uranium in a terrain shaped like a smokestack, a plain surrounded by mountains, incidentally discovered dinosaur fossils.

This site lies in the southern range of the mountain called Phu Wiang, located in Phu Wiang District of Khon Kaen Province. The first such finding was the skeleton of a large herbivorous sauropod. It was also spectacular for the fact that threequarters (75%) of all its bones were found, including thigh, leg, rib and spine bones. This rare specimen was classified as a gosaurus and recorded as Phuwianggosaurus Sirindhornae, in honour of H.R.H. Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn. At other spots, fossils of ten carnivorous dinosaurs were discovered. Another first was a fossil of a hitherto unknown dinosaur which was named Siamosaurus Suteethorni after the scholar who found it. Moreover, the oldest fossil found of a Tyrannosaur, 120-130 million years old, was named Siamotyrannus Isanensis. To protect the site and its surrounding area, the Phu Wiang National Park was set up in 1987. It covers an area of 380 square kilometres, straddling the districts of Phu Wiang, Si Chomphu and Chum Phae. To date, nine pits were excavated, yielding 68 footprints of the small carnivorous genus named Coelurosaurus, together with a large footprint of a carnasaur. On the rock plateau named Lat Chat, more than 50 fossils of many kinds of small predator dinosaurs, crocodiles and mollusc shells were found which are dated as of 140 to 150 million years ago. Of the Jurassic Period as well are the fossils at a site called ‘shell graveyard’ in Mueang District of Nong Bua Lam Phu Province. There, masses of petrified mollusc clad a 50-metre high cliff, with crocodile fossils nearby.

At close distance toward the northeast, not far from the shore of the Nam Phong Lake, are the Kut Kwang Soi and Ban Kut Kho Moei Prehistoric Sites, within the boundaries of Non Sang District in Nong Bua Lam Phu Province. In its far northwestern corner is another area of archaeological significance, named the Phu Pha Ya Prehistoric Site, which lies within the province’s Suwannakhuha District. These sites have deposits of petrified wood, namely, silicified, agatized, as well as opalized woods, and wood-stone. Near the provincial capital of Nong Bua Lam Phu, now within the perimeter of the Nam Tok Thao Tai Forest Reserve, are two sites known as Susan Hoi Lan Pi, the “graveyard or cemetery of shells which are millions of years old”. There, stuck on a steep cliff, fossilized shells from the Jurassic Period, about 140 to 150 million years ago, indicate that the area had been part of an ocean. Fossilized mollusc shells of various sizes were found, some as heavy as half a kilogram. In the surroundings with soils consisting mostly of slate, sandstone and gravel, fossils of crocodiles were found.

Evidence of human habitat some 30,000 years ago was found at the Non Mueang Archaeological Site in Chum Phae District of Khon Kaen Province. Based on excavations at the site of 35 hectares, during 1982 to1983, three significant periods are distinguished, including the Late Prehistory, the period of Dvaravati realms and that of Khmer rule. Of the prehistoric period, complete skeletons were excavated, orderly buried with tools, utensils, earthen crockery of various types, colourengraved and band-ceramic vessels, ornaments such as bangles and anklets, as well as beads made of colourful stones. Apart from wholesome artefacts, pottery fragments and shards with red designs, either engraved or with indented rope design, called band-ceramics, were found scattered all over the site, along with animal bones, mollusc shells, colourful stone beads, and iron tools. There are strong indications that the prehistoric people practiced field cropping, and that the site remained inhabited until into the Khmer Period of the11th to 12th centuries.

Many of the ubiquitous caves bear testimony to prehistoric habitats. Not only did they shelter their occupants but they also preserved their artistic manifestations. At the Phu Pha Ya Prehistoric Site in Suwannakhuha District of Nong Bua Lam Phu Province, notably two caves are renowned for their prehistoric coloured pictographs on rock walls. Tham Lang, ‘the lower cave’, has drawings in red colour on a 5- metre long wall, featuring geometric patterns, animals, and human hands. Tham Bon, ‘the upper cave’, has pictographs in red colour which are grouped. The square shaped tableaus feature distinct human figures and animals which resemble reptiles. The animal pictographs are large-size drawings. All of them are about 3,000 years old.

The cave named Tham Lai Thaeng stands out among numerous other caves in a forest reserve which reaches from the Phu Pha Man Range in Khon Kaen Province all the way to Phu Kradueng, the landmark mountain of Loei Province. A plane rock slab, two square metres in size, shows some 30 prehistoric pictographs which feature human figures and animals.

In the Mum Cave, an important site of the Phu Kao – Phu Phan Kham National Park in Non Sang District of Nong Bua Lam Phu Province, prehistoric pictographs on large sandstones are drawn in colour or engraved. They depict a variety of figures including fish, snakes and axes as well as geometric patterns. Ten prehistoric sites in Udon Thani Province may serve as examples to illustrate how people were attracted by the mountains, hills and highland to make a particular site their homestead. In the Phra Siang Rock Shelter the upper-level rocks feature eight prehistoric paintings. Pictographs on the ceiling of the Nang Usa Rock Shelter feature large geometric designs. Paintings at Tham Wua, “Cattle Cave”, and Tham Khon, “People Cave”, rock shelters in the Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, covering an area of 192 hectares within Ban Phue District, show cattle and people. In “Cattle Cave”, the pictographs in red ochre show three bulls, and the drawings in black on the rock of “People Cave” show eight human figures which appear to be holding hands. Artefacts found in the caves include sandstone idols and stone axes. The surroundings of these two rocks forming a natural shelter are dotted with ‘giant cauldrons’ and outlandishly-shaped rocks, which seem to have been carved or inexplicably eroded. The peculiar shapes likely resulted from glacial movements, millions of years ago. The site seems to have been occupied from prehistoric times, 6,000 to 4,000 years ago.

Findings at the sites of the monasteries named Wat Ku Kaeo Rattanaram, also known as Wat Ku Kaeo Ban Chuet, and Wat Pa Phu Khao Thong give evidence of human habitat in prehistoric times. For example, findings at the latter monastery include pottery, images and tools made of bronze, weapons, and skeletons. Mueang Nong Han Noi, located in Prachaksinlapakhom District near the lake named Nong Han Kumphawapi, is a prehistoric site with traces of a once large community. It is part of the Ban Chiang World Cultural Heritage Site. Most prominent among the prehistoric sites is Ban Chiang located in Nong Han District.

Since 1957, villagers chanced upon an increasing number of pottery fragments with red-painted designs. While doing sociological field research, an American student named Steve Young took the initiative to get some pottery shards carbon-dated. The result indicated that the pottery had been made around 5600 years ago. Systematic excavations were started in 1972 at the monastery named Wat Pho Si Nai and at one villager’s homestead. They led to startling discoveries of human skeletons and ceramic ware, some dating back over 5,000 years. The site was obviously a burial ground, as evident from human skeletons. Finds include an exceptional quantity of pottery with spiral, volute and arabesque decorations, stone and glass beads, ornaments, tools, and animal bones. All archaeological evidence suggests that prehistoric people lived in the foothills at the confluence of two streams. They practiced field cropping and animal rearing. Their houses were of a rectangular plan and built on stilts. Some scholars assume that the findings at the Ban Chiang site predate those made earlier at sites in the Middle East and in China, which had so far been recognized as earliest evidence of the Bronze Age. The Ban Chiang findings certainly shed new light on both Southeast Asian history and the topographical origin of civilization.

Considered to be cultural property of outstanding universal value, the archaeological site of Ban Chiang, together with its surrounding area, was declared a World Heritage Site. It comprises three components. One is the Ban Chiang National Museum with a wealth of artefacts and displays explaining the ancient Ban Chiang culture and technology. The complementary component is an open-air museum in the compound of the monastery named Wat Pho Si Nai where burial grounds were excavated. Another component of the Ban Chiang World Heritage Site is the prehistoric site of Mueang Nong Han Noi, located at close distance.

Also in Udon Thani Province, excavations of an oval earth mound, 200 by 150 metres and six metres above the surrounding ground, which is located at Non Khi Kling, were started in 1982. They yielded twelve human skeletons, four of them children. All of them were buried along with ceramic vessels and beads. Findings also include items made of iron as well as bronze and two pairs of golden earrings.

Some 70 kilometres away from Ban Chiang, as the crow flies, in southwestern direction, are the prehistoric sites of Ban Kut Kho Moi and Ban Kut Kwang Soi in Non Sang District of Nong Bua Lam Phu Province. There, some farmers chanced upon ancient objects and human skeletons, in 1993. Archaeological surveys and excavations yielded more items such as human skeletons, pottery including ceramic bowls, bangles made of bronze or stone, quartz beads, sandstone moulds used to cast bronze ax-blades, iron tools, and mortars of the kind most likely used to grind medication. All these artefacts date from one and the same period. Especially the numerous ceramic bowls are similar to the ones of the Ban Chiang Civilization.

Some exquisite prehistoric objects found at Ban Chiang are preserved and displayed at the Khon Kaen National Museum. They include pots of dark hues and pottery with a beige background decorated with volutes of dark red spirals. Moreover, the museum’s Ban Chiang collection holds many bronze artefacts, produced between 6,000 and 4,000 years ago.

The earliest historical monument on the western plateau of Isan, to date, was found in Khon Kaen Province. It is the Don Mueang Am Inscription on a limestone slab. Written in Pallawa letters and Sanskrit language, the inscription refers to King Chitrasen of the ancient Chenla Kingdom in the 7th century.


Some of the prehistoric sites introduced above were inhabited as well in historic times. The earliest examples are religious monuments dating from the Dvaravati Period. This has become evident through excavations at the Non Mueang Archaeological Site and in the Phu Phra Bat Historical Park.

At the renowned prehistoric site of Non Mueang in Chum Phae District of Khon Kaen Province, excavations of an oval-shaped mound, conducted in the years 1982- 1983, uncovered the remains of a Dvaravati city which flourished in the 8th to 11th centuries. On the area of 35 hectares, the city core was surrounded by an earthen embankment and a moat, with another embankment and moat running parallel at some distance. Inside this wider perimeter, there existed several settlements. Seven large excavation demonstration pits make this unique plan and its physical details visible. Numerous stelae, bai sema2, speak of the size and importance of this ancient city. Its site remained inhabited until into the Khmer Period, during the 11th to 12th centuries. One of the Dvaravati bai sema, an exceptionally fine stela found on the ancient site, was used as the foundation stone of the Khon Kaen Municipal Hall.

The Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, located in Ban Phue District of Udon Thani Province, is known for its many rocks and boulders of peculiar shapes which resulted from glacial motion, millions of years ago, and dot its area of 192 hectares. Much more visible than the prehistoric traces are the many ancient buildings, mostly of the Dvaravati Period. It is obvious how rocks were used to create most of the ancient buildings and objects. In some instances, rocks were used in situ as components of buildings. In other instances rocks were shaped and decorated to form a stupa. Or else, rocks were chiselled into such shapes as a foot. Archaeological finds at the sites named Phra Phutthabat Lang Tao and Phra Phutthabat Bua Ban, also known as Phra Phutthabat Bua Bok, include religious buildings modified from rocks complete with sandstone bai sema, sculpted stelae, and sandstone Buddha images. An ancient Buddha Footprint in miniature, paraphrased “inside the Bot”, and a great many sandstone bai sema, both at Wat Phra Phutthabat Bua Ban, date from the Dvaravati Period. They are sculpted and engraved, featuring human figures as well as ornamental patterns.

Of similar origin is the site of Phu Phra, part of the white sandstone mountain range called Phu Laen Kha, in Mueang District of Chaiyaphum Province. The cliffs of Phu Phra are covered with engraved Buddha images. In a pile of vast sandstone blocks is one stone pole carved with seven Buddha images. Sheltered beneath a rock overhang is a seated Buddha statue in the posture of subduing Mara, called Phra Chao Toe.

At the site of the present pagoda named Phra That Nong Sam Muen, located in Phu Khiao District of Chaiyaphum Province, was an ancient city of a Dvaravati realm that flourished during the 7th to 11th centuries. Traces of an earthen rampart as well as a moat and ruins of buildings remain. Many artefacts were discovered, especially bai sema, sandstone stelae. The monastery named Wat Kut Ngong in Mueang District of the same province is known for its marvellous ground with many bai sema of the Dvaravati Period. Most of the stelae are large stone slabs carved from monoliths. The front of many is engraved with ornaments. Few show beautifully sculpted images such as the Buddha seated beneath the Bo Tree, or banyan tree, and one shows a Boddhisatva standing in a lotus blossom. Some stelae bear an inscription on the rear side in Sanskrit language using Pallawa letters, dating from the 7th to 9th centuries and relating texts which convey the Buddha’s teaching. Also, reference is made to the year 1215 of the Buddhist Era which corresponds to the year 672. This ancient site is deemed to be one of the exceptional ensembles of Dvaravati bai sema, in the whole of Isan. Archaeological evidence indicates that there were several Buddhist monasteries, both inside and outside the ancient city perimeter. One of these stelae, bai sema, was relocated and consecrated as the City Pillar, lak mueang in Thai, of the Phu Khiao District Centre. Situated in the same district, there is an ancient sanctuary surrounded by a laterite wall. Its central laterite pagoda known as Prang Ku houses several Buddha images, including a seated stone Buddha image in meditation posture, dated as of the Dvaravati Period.

In Chaiyaphum Province as well, there in Khon Sawan District, the monastery named Wat Khon Sawan houses a large sandstone Buddha statue, Phra Phuttha Rup Yai. It is three metres tall and locally known as “Luang Pho Yai”. On the grounds are several large sandstone stelae, bai sema, engraved with Jataka episode pictorials and inscribed in Mon letters. More such stelae are scattered in the surroundings. The entire ensemble dates from the Dvaravati Period, created during the 9th to 10th centuries.

At a site named after the monastery of Wat Maha That Chedi, locally known as Phra That Don Kaeo and located in Kumphawapi District of Udon Thani Province, the ancient stupa built in the Dvaravati Period, with a lower base sized 14 by 14 metres and 1.25 metre high and a second level base measuring 10 by 10 metres and 1.5 metre high, is encased by the present chedi that rises about 36 metres. It features a bas-relief around the base, surrounded by bai sema, stelae, and columns, all these dating from the 7th to 8th centuries.

Owing to the durability of sandstone, more ancient sites of the Dvaravati Period were identified particularly in Udon Thani Province, based on the discovery or excavation of sculpted sandstone stelae called bai sema. At the monastery named Wat Phra Phutthabat Bua Bok, research on a veritable sandstone bai sema site indicates that it was inhabited by a large community. Its inhabitants were skilled in creating numerous large and exquisite pieces of art of different sizes and carvings. Of a unique kind are carved stelae showing human images. In total, 31 such stelae were installed in eight positions.

On an earth mound without moat at the foot of Phu Phrabat Hill in Ban Phue District, the monastery named Wat Non Sila-at Wanaram is surrounded by 25 bai sema. These stelae depict stories of Lord Buddha’s past lives and human figures. The main stela is over three metres tall, and all others are between 1.5 and two metres high. Another oval mound without moat, called Ban Hin Tang, is dotted with altogether 37 bai sema sculpted from sandstone and decorated with carvings. Some are as tall as three metres. While some are still grouped indicating the location of a completely dilapidated Buddhist temple, others are scattered across the mound. The excavated sandstone Buddha images and bai sema suggest that the ancient town of Mueang Nong Han Noi was a large community. On account of prehistoric findings in surrounding mounds, this area is encompassed into the Ban Chiang World Heritage Site.

At close distance from Phu Phan toward the south, in Nong Wua So District, the edifice named Phra Phutthabat Bua Ban enshrines a footprint of Lord Buddha. Its battlements are carved in decorative patterns of the Dvaravati Period. In the Phra Siang Rock Shelter, renowned for its prehistoric pictographs, 20 stone Buddha images created during the Dvaravati Period are placed in the niche between the upper and lower rocks.

Fine pieces of the Dvaravati Art are preserved and displayed in the Khon Kaen National Museum. Most of the pink sandstone stelae have moulded bases. They originate from the precinct of Phra That Yakhu in Kalasin Province. One stela inside the museum building has a very fine bas-relief showing a scene from the life of the Buddha. Most of these stelae date from the 8th to 9th centuries. Moreover, the museum holds a whole series of stucco Dvaravati pieces which had decorated the sanctuary of Phra That Yakhu in Kalasin Province. Other such precious artefacts originate from the ancient Dvaravati city named Nakhon Champa Si in Maha Sarakham Province.


Under the vigorous impact of the expansion of the Khmer Empire, the Dvaravati Period with its highly creative though rather small realms ended. In some instances, the conquerors had their landmarks built on earlier foundations. Mostly, however, new sites were chosen for the characteristically grand physical lay-out of Khmer sanctuaries and strongholds.

The largest Khmer sanctuary in the north of Isan is the Prasat Pueai Noi, locally called Phra That Ku Thong, situated in Pueai Noi District of Khon Kaen Province. Compared to such sanctuaries as Phimai, Prasat Phanom Rung or Mueang Tam, this sanctuary is a smaller one, yet a particularly beautiful one. Its architecture is a blend of the Baphuon3 and Angkor Wat4 styles, in Thai known as the Ba Puan and Nakhon Wat styles. Prasat Pueai Noi was constructed during the 11th and 12th centuries. The site is composed of three towers, prang, built of brick and sharing one laterite base, surrounded by rectangular structures called bannalai which served as library buildings. Each prang has a stone chapel complete with gateways called gopura in Sanskrit, or sum pratu in Thai, one facing east and the other west. Each chapel entrance is decorated with a lintel showing neatly sculpted religious themes. In total, 13 complete lintels were found which feature spectacular Khmer stone carvings. Also, a statue was erected of Narai Banthomsin. Inside the gateway, gopura, to the central prang a stone inscription written in ancient Khmer letters and language reveals that this sanctuary was a satsana banphot, built at an elevated site, dedicated to Brahma and affiliated with the Shiva tenet. The whole structure is surrounded by laterite walls and a moat in horse-shoe shape. Outside the moat is a pond. In 1935, this sanctuary was registered in the Government Gazette as an important historical site.

Several ancient sites in Chaiyaphum Province date from the Khmer Period. The outstanding example is the monument of one of the hospitals5 built on the order of King Jayavarman VII (1181-1220). In characteristic manner, this hospital or infirmary is placed inside a sanctuary, which was built along the route called ‘royal road’ that connected Angkor with Si Thep in present Phetchabun Province, Central Thailand, via Prasat Phanom Rung and Phimai. This outpost is named Prang Ku after its main edifice. It is situated in Mueang District. In its centre is the main sanctuary, a square prang of five-metre side length built on a platform, with the pavilion-like structure of the ward for the sick and disabled in front. The complex is surrounded by a wall. All these structures are built of laterite. Nearby to the northeast lies the well-preserved pond in amazingly perfect condition. The central tower, prang, houses several images. The stone Buddha statue in meditation posture from the Dvaravati Period was probably brought there from elsewhere. The statues of a four-handed Avalokitesvara and of Nang Pratya Paramita are characteristic of the Mahayana Buddhist Khmer Period. The standing Buddha statue in the rare posture with one hand on the heart was likely placed there after the collapse of the Khmer Empire, owing to its obvious Ayutthaya style. The gateways, gopura, inside the sanctuary are in ruins. Preserved, however, are components made of sandstone including door and window frames as well as columns and lintels on the northern and eastern sides. One lintel depicts the Buddha in meditation posture.

To the northeast of this ancient hospital or infirmary in the sanctuary of Prang Ku, at a distance of some 90 kilometres, as the crow flies, lies the small Khmer sanctuary named Ku Kaeo, in present Mueang District of Khon Kaen Province. As evident from its structure and inscriptions, it was a Mahayana Buddhist sanctuary built around the turn of the 13th century. In a Sanskrit inscription, the resolve of King Jayavarman VII is recorded to get sanctuaries built which encompass a hospital or infirmary, called arokhayasan, so as to propagate both the faith and to provide medical care for the sick and disabled. The ancient site has a main tower, prang, with statues of a Bodhisatva, Phra Narai Song Khrut and Phrom Song Krabue, along with a library building, bannalay. All this is surrounded by a wall. Outside in northeastern direction is a pond, baray, built of laterite. These Buddhist sanctuaries complete with hospitals are two of altogether 104 such edifices built during the reign of King Jayavarman VII.

At the monastery named Wat Kut Yang, in Ban Khwao District of Chaiyaphum Province, are the remains of a Khmer sanctuary which was built in the Baphuon style during the 11th to 12th centuries. Known as Ku Daeng, the square and tall laterite structure with stairways on four sides is preserved, together with a Ganesh statue. Of its four gateways, gopura, the brick walls are dilapidated, and only the sandstone columns remain.

Other examples of remains of the Khmer Period in Chaiyaphum Province are sculptures and two inscriptions. At the present site of the chedi named Phra That Nong Sam Muen in Phu Khiao District, which must have been the centre of a city in the Dvaravati Period, as evident from some existing earthen ramparts and moats, Khmer-style structures, sculptures and artefacts were found. Of great importance is the Bayon-style6 statue of the Buddha seated under a canopy of Naga heads, Phra Nak Prok in Thai, built in the 13th century. The “Phu Khiao Inscription” in ancient Khmer letters is similar to the one preserved at the monastery named Wat Ku in Chatturat District. In Non Sang District of Nong Bua Lam Phu Province, at the site called Non Wat Pa, remains of an ancient Khmer sanctuary were unearthed. Most important is a statue of the Buddha seated under a canopy of Naga heads, Phra Nak Prok in Thai, made of laterite in the ancient Khmer style.

Several prehistoric sites in Udon Thani Province were chosen, time and again, to establish religious or strategic centres. During the expansion of the Khmer Empire, the ancient site known as Mueang Nong Han Noi in Prachaksinlapakhom District, now part of the Ban Chiang World Heritage Site, was taken over from a Dvaravati realm. A Khmer tower, prang, has been preserved, albeit modified into a chedi during the Lan Chang Period. In like manner, immigrants from areas to the east of the Mekong River, settled on prehistoric ground, modified existing Khmer structures into pagodas, chedi in Thai, of the Lan Chang architectural style. These ancient, adapted edifices grace the present monastery named Wat Ku Kaeo Rattanaram, also known as Wat Ku Kaeo Ban Chit, located in Ku Kaeo District. Among the numerous, dilapidated structures and unique objects in the Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, located in Ban Phue District, are some such of Khmer origin. They are among those which were created by making use of rocks and boulders scattered in the area. Enshrined at the foot of the Phu Phan, to the south and at close distance from the Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, is a footprint of the Buddha. The battlements of the chedi named Phra Phutthabat Bua Ban consist of some carved in the late Dvaravati and others done in an early Khmer art style.

The complex Non Mueang Archaeological Site, located in Chum Phae District of Khon Kaen Province, yielded significant evidence of three distinctive periods. Further to prehistoric findings and the artefacts from the Dvaravati Period, it also held remains of the period when the Khmer had established themselves on this site of 35 hectares. It served as one of their strongholds until in the 12th century. Fine examples of that period are preserved at the Khon Kaen National Museum. Though from neighbouring sites, on display are Khmer statues, including an exquisitely carved lintel of the 11th century representing Indra, from Ku Suan Taeng in Ban Mai Chaiyaphot District of Buri Ram Province, and a large armless Shiva of the 12th century, from Ku Noi in Na Dun District of Maha Sarakham Province.


While some of the ancient sites introduced above were deserted, others were never really abandoned. Typically, successive inhabitants carried on modifying structures, in due course of repairing and rebuilding, as it were. Venerated Buddha images and statues continued to attract worshippers, even in sanctuaries which were no longer intact. Most such ancient Buddha images had, indeed, triggered the construction of new monasteries in ancient compounds or nearby.

At Prang Ku in Mueang District of Chaiyaphum Province, the standing Buddha statue, created in the Ayutthaya style, and displaying the rare posture of holding a hand upon the heart, remains a local focus of worshipping. At a deserted site in Ban Phue District of Udon Thani Province a community of Lao immigrants resettled and built the monastery named Wat Phra Phutthabat Bua Ban. This is evident from the Lan Chang style reflected through wooden Buddha images and buildings. Moreover, some structures and objects of historic times in the surrounding Phu Phra Bat Historical Park show modifications of rocks to create an edifice such as a chedi or a religious image in the Lan Chang style.

Four Buddhist monasteries are chosen as examples of upholding the function of a religious centre. They are Wat Phra That Nong Sam Muen in Phu Khiao District of Chaiyaphum Province, Wat Si Khun Mueang, also known as Wat Nai, in Mueang and Wat Tham Suwannakhuha in Suwannakhuha districts of Nong Bua Lam Phu Province, as well as Wat Ku Kaeo in Prachaksinlapakhom District of Udon Thani Province.

Although the time of the founding of Wat Phra That Nong Sam Muen on the site of an ancient, large Dvaravati city is unknown, its architecture and artefacts show a blend of Lan Na, Lan Chang and Ayutthaya styles. Hence, it was presumably built during the 16th to 17th centuries, at the time when King Chaiyachettha ruled Lan Chang. Phra That Nong Sam Muen, the main chedi, stands on a 32-metre wide square base and rises to the height of 45 metres. It has twelve faces and enshrines ancient Buddha statues, some cast from bronze, some made of laterite. This chedi is considered to be one of the most complete and most beautiful chedi or pagodas, incorporating art features of the Lan Na, Lan Chang and Ayutthaya Periods.

Wat Si Khun Mueang, or Wat Nai, is situated within the old city walls. There is no evidence when it was built. Historical records show, however, that it was renovated in 1572, after King Chaiyachettha of Lan Chang had fled from Wiang Chan, the present Vientiane, upon the Burmese invasion and settled in Nong Sum Chang, now known as Nong Bua Lam Phu. The monastery encompasses an ancient structure, a large pond, and a historical monument, the statue of King Chaiyachettha housed in the chedi.

In the cave called Tham Suwannakhuha, a rock wall painting depicts King Chaiyachettha, the exiled ruler of Mueang Wiang Chan across the Mekong River. The nearby monastery named after the cave holds an inscription written in “Dharma Isan” letters. Further to its astrological content, the shape of an ogival merlon and its size appear to be unique. Shaped like a pointed arch, resembling the merlon or solid upper part of a crenellated battlement, the stone slab measures 135 by 70 centimetres.

When Lao immigrants from Lan Chang settled at the site of the deserted ancient town of Mueang Nong Han Noi, they modified the Khmer structures to build Wat Ku Kaeo. The Khmer prang, or towers, were built over to create as many chedi in the Lan Chang architectural style.

Structures founded in the Ayutthaya Period have become characteristic of the style in which innumerable buildings such as monasteries were designed and built. One such example is the monastery named Wat Chedi Phum in Nam Phong District of Khon Kaen Province. Although there is no historical record as to when its main chedi, Phra That Kham Kaen, had been built, it was presumably constructed in the same period as Phra That Si Song Rak in Dan Sai District of Loei Province. The latter was built during 1560 to 1563. The foundation of the Phra That was designed and built in the shape of two tiers of overturned lotus blossoms, with the upper tier receding. While this foundation with a side length of some eleven metres is curved, it supports the indented square cube resembling a throne topped with the part containing relics of the Buddha. The upper part with indented corners tapers toward the finial with a tiered umbrella. Phra That Kham Kaen is 19 metres high. It is the result of local craftsmen’s ingenuity and skills. Their accomplishment was recognized by getting the ensemble registered as a national historical site, in 1935.

At an ancient site in Mueang District of Nong Bua Lam Phu Province, where remnants of a city wall run the length of one kilometre, two Lao aristocrats and their followers took refuge and established Ban Si Khun Mueang, in 1759. A subterranean shelter in the monastery named Wat Si Khun houses some Buddha images in the Lan Chang style. Another group of Lao immigrants from Vientiane increased the population and led to the founding of the town named “Nong Bua Lam Phu Nakhon Khueankhan Kapkaeobuaban”. Late in the Ayutthaya Period, the chedi named Ku Lan Chang was built in the Lan Chang style at the monastery named Wat Nong Bua in Mueang District of Udon Thani Province.

Architectural features in old monasteries of buildings called sim in the Isan vernacular, their ordination and assembly halls, known as ubosot or bot in most regions of Thailand, are common. Examples are the monasteries named Wat Thung Sawang Pako and Wat Pa Phu Khao Thong in Udon Thani Province. The building called sim is a structure of two levels, either with or without walls. At the lower level is a veranda, surrounding a raised platform which forms the upper level. The roof is cantilevered to the extent that it provides protection from sunshine and rainfall. Tassels decorate the lower roof lines which have the appearance of wings spread.


In recent history, the creation of structures and the conservation of the built environment went hand-in-hand, as evident in ever more locations. Examples of this tendency range across the broad spectrum from individual buildings such as an edifice in a monastery or a museum to complex historical parks.

The monastery named Wat Chai Si in Mueang District of Khon Kaen Province, built in 1865, has a traditional sim, the monks’ assembly hall, elsewhere known as ubosot, with walls at its upper level. A master painter from Maha Sarakham created murals depicting Buddha’s life story along with people’s everyday life, animals and plants, painted in the realism manner. In Udon Thani Province, there in Ban Phue District, Lao immigrants arriving between 1885 and 1893 built the present structures of the monastery called Wat Non Sila-at Wanaram. It houses two wooden Buddha images in Lan Chang-style attire.

In the Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, Ban Phue District, Udon Thani Province, an ancient prang was dismantled and a new miniature chedi rebuilt into a concave rock with a surface measuring 193 by 90 centimetres. It took many years to build, from 1920 until completion in 1934. The edifice rising out of the rock is called Phra Phuttha Bat Bua Bok, given its resemblance to the Asiatic pennywort, a locally common forest plant, known in Thai as bua bok, or else in the Isan vernacular as phak nok.

Building a new monastery, in 1929, at an ancient site in Kumphawapi District of Udon Thani Province, a stupa of the Dvaravati Period was encased in the main pagoda, known as Phra That Don Kaeo, of Wat Maha That Chedi. Resembling the famous Phra That Phanom in Nakhon Phanom Province, the chedi is about 36 metres high. It has three tiers,with stucco reliefs on each tier featuring episodes from Buddha’s life story. In the same province, the monks’ assembly hall, sim, in the monastery named Wat Thung Sawang Pako was restored in 1932, to lasting effect.

A present landmark of Chaiyaphum Province, the 14-metre tall statue named Chaiyaphum Phithak Buddha, stands in the compound of Wat Chaiyaphum Phithak, locally called Wat Pha Koeng. In the Isan vernacular, the word koeng describes the high side of terrain that is not level. In fact, Pha Koeng is a cliff in the Phu Laen Kha Range, with the monastery situated on its top. As the moon would rise above it, the landmark statue is locally called Phra Chan Sio Ok.

Upon the unearthing of the remains of an ancient Khmer sanctuary with a statue of the Buddha seating beneath the canopy of Naga heads, Phra Nak Prok in Thai, made of laterite, and other artefacts at the site called Non Wat Pa in Non Sang District of Nong Bua Lam Phu Province, the site of another such ancient sanctuary was chosen for the construction of a new monastery, starting in 1958. Named Wat Tham Klong Phen, it is located in Mueang District of the same province. Museums were built and historical parks established for the systematic preservation of the cultural heritage and conversation of the built environment. Two examples are introduced hereunder. The Khon Kaen National Museum, a branch of Thailand’s National Museum, holds fine artefacts found or excavated at numerous sites in the upper part of Isan. They have been added to the museum’s collection for safe-keeping, research, and display.

The Phu Phrabat Historical Park in Ban Phue District of Udon Thani Province covers a mountainous area of 5.5 square kilometres around Khao Phu Phan. Rocks shaped by glacial motion or erosion are scattered all over. There are prehistoric sites at cliffs and in caves, remains of settlements built by combining rocks with structural components, rocks sculpted into the shapes of pagodas and statues, and Buddha statues as well as bai sema, stelae characteristic of the Dvaravati Period.


Throughout the highlands, there is an abundance of rocks and boulders. They served as a natural resource, both in situ and as required elsewhere. Likewise, much use was made of the ubiquitous laterite, geologically a residual product of decayed mudstone that is red in colour and has a high content of iron oxides and hydroxide of aluminum. Then, there is rock salt which is still exploited in some locations of Udon Thani Province. Water resources are unevenly distributed, both topographically and seasonally. Overall, water supply is precarious, which has a direct impact on the availability of aquatic resources such as fish. Deforestation has taken a big toll of the natural vegetation cover. Hence, the necessity of environmental conservation became evident. Salutary measures were taken through the establishment of nature reserves. They vary in size and by major objective.

Several nature reserves were established in headwater areas. Examples are the Tat Ton National and Sai Thong National parks in Chaiyaphum Province which form part of the headwater area of the Chi River and its upstream tributaries. The Tat Ton National Park on the Phu Laen Kha mountain range covers an area of 213 square kilometres. The Sai Thong National Park is located in the Phang Hoei mountain range and covers 319 square kilometres.

The main purpose of most nature reserves is to protect or rehabilitate forests. Their proportion is largest in the mountain ranges, as compared to the highlands. There seems to be no lowland forest left, for any such rare, remaining forest would invariably be a protected area. The following five examples of nature reserves cover parts of more than one province. Overall, they represent the sheer magnitude across the four provinces of Chaiyaphum, Khon Kaen, Nong Bua Lam Phu and Udon Thani. In descending order of area size in square kilometres, these are the national parks named Phu Pha Man (350); Phu Wiang (325); Phu Kao – Phu Phan Kham (322); Nam Phong (197); and Phu Laen Kha (133). Forest reserves are smaller in size such as Than Ngam (125) and Wang Sam Mo (30) in Udon Thani Province. Others include Tham Pha Phuang and Pa Dong Lan in Khon Kaen Province; and Nam Tok Thao To in Nong Bua Lam Phu Province.

An exemplary protected area is the Pa Phu Khiao - Thung Kamang Wildlife Reserve in Chaiyaphum Province. Its area of 1,560 square kilometres encompasses rocky sandstone mountains covered with dense forests which enclose a plateau. In its midst is a grassland of 830 hectares, called Thung Kamang, where herbivorous animals graze and carnivorous animals prey. The mountainous terrain is literally perforated with caves. There are far too many as to be called up here. Examples are the caves, tham in Thai, named Khrop, Pa Thewada, and Kaeo in Chaiyaphum Province; Arahant, Phaya Nakharat, Lai Thaeng, Khang Khao, Phra, Phu Ta Lo, and Pha Phuang in Khon Kaen Province; Mum,
Erawan, Lang, Bon, and Pha Ya in Nong Bua Lam Phu Province; and Lai Mue, Non Sao I, Khon, and Wua Daeng in Udon Thani Province.

Likewise, many waterfalls embellish the headwater areas. They cluster in the high mountains and, hence, are characteristic of some provinces rather than others. Owing to the terrain, Chaiyaphum Province has most waterfalls, called nam tok in Thai, including Tat Ton, Tat Fa, Pha I-ang, Thep Prathan, Thep Phanom, and Sai Thong. Others are Tat Rong, Tat Yai, Tat Pha, Phalanthong, Huai Mo Tak, Sankayuan, and Huai Khao Lam in Khon Kaen Province; Yung Thong and Than Ngam in Udon Thani Province; and Tat Fa in Nong Bua Lam Phu Province.

Large stretches of mountain ranges appear to be strewn with masses of rocks. The area of greatest concentration is a reserve named Pa Hin Ngam National Park, located in Chaiyaphum Province. This protected area, like similar ones, is littered with large rocks of unusual shapes such as a nail, serpent’s head, ancient castle and radar aerial, a gigantic rock arch, and a rock pool shaped like a volcano cone.

Natural vegetation cover is largely confined to the mountains. Forests are of various types. The spectrum includes evergreen dry highland forests; dense virgin forests; hardwood forests of both sal trees [Shorea obtusa (Dipterocarpaceae)] and timber trees called daeng in Thai [Xylia xylocarpa (Leguminosae)]; deciduous tree forests; crag forests in steep and rugged rocks and cliffs; and forests with sundry trees. Jungle in the proper sense, hardly penetrable shrubs and scrubs with sparse wood, covers large areas. Also, there are virgin groves of prong [Cycas circinalis (Cycadeae)], a palm-like plant with handsome, long, feathery leaves, as well as expansive bamboo thickets.

Forest tree species include hardwood such as Malabar ironwood [Hopea odorata (Dipterocarpaceae)], krabak [Anisoptera cochinchinensis], daeng, yang [Dipterocarpus alatus (Dipterocarpaceae)] and sal, as well as fir [Abies spp.], pradu [Pterocarpus macrocarpus (Leguminosae) and nonsri (Peltophorum inerme (Leguminosae)].

Upon the onset of the rainy season, vast patches of savannah in protected areas turn into blooming meadows. During June through August, some green grasslands are dotted with myriads of pale-violet turmeric blossoms [Curcuma domestica (Zingiberaceae)], befittingly called bua sawan, “heavenly blossoming bulbaceous plant”, by local people. Forests and jungles have wild orchids and tuffs of splendid flowers in great variety.

Among the species of wild animals surviving in protected areas are such ungulates as barking deer, mouse-deer or chevrotain, hogdeer and sambar deer; other mammals such as boars, langurs, flying lemurs and Indian civets; fresh-water crocodiles; and birds such as green pigeons, including the pin-tailed and the rare pompadour pigeons, the Siamese fireback pheasant, and the green peafowl.


Like elsewhere in Isan, the present population has several roots. As highlighted in the descriptions of distinctive features of its heartland, one of the assets with regard to development is the rich diversity of cultural traditions. It is officially considered as of great significance for local manufacturing industries, particularly for the One Tambon One Product (OTOP) project, and for the promotion of tourism.

The people called Thai Khorat represent the majority of the native inhabitants in Chaiyaphum Province. Their vernacular is also spoken in the provinces of Nakhon Ratchasima and Buri Ram, even in parts of Lop Buri Province. Their origin has yet to be traced. However, the alternative name of Thai Phoeng, in the Isan vernacular, suggests that they form one of the historically eldest groups, the keepers of tradition and customs, etymologically related to poeng in the Isan vernacular.

Cultural traditions are kept alive in many villages whose population is made up of descendants of Lao immigrants. They had been no strangers in that they shared language, religious faith and mode of livelihood with the Thai. The population in Khon Kaen Province is largely of Lao origin, as evident from their identification as Lao Wiang. Their ancestors hailed from areas to the north of the Mekong River, in the hinterland of the city of Vientiane. Nowadays, both the Thai language and the vernacular known as Lao Wiang are spoken. A smaller proportion of the local population descended from Khmer who became assimilated into the mainstream society. This explains why the Lao Wiang vocabulary contains Khmer words.

The people of Ban Phue District in Udon Thani Province refer to themselves as Thai Phuan. Their origin is traced back to areas in present-day Laos such as the town of Chiang Kwang. Their ancestors’ migration occurred over the centuries, until towards the end of the 19th century. The residents of Nong Bua Lam Phu Province are mainly descendants of immigrants known as Lao Wiang.

Members of a little-known, native ethnic group live in Chaiyaphum as well as in the neighbouring Nakhon Ratchasima and Petchabun provinces. As their Thai name, Chao Bon, indicates, their villages are located in the erstwhile remote highland, there in the districts of Thep Sathit, Ban Khwao and Nong Bua Rawe. They call themselves Nyah Kur, which means mountain (kur) people (nyah). The designation “Yakul” is misleading; it refers to the Jacund, native in remote mountain areas of peninsular Malaysia and Thailand. The language of the Nyah Kur belongs to the Mon-Khmer group. While by far most descendants of the Nyah Kur or Chao Bon became assimilated into the mainstream population, they uphold some of their traditional customs and practices. As stated in a document published by the Office of the National Cultural Commission, “all these ethnic groups are fully assimilated and consider themselves Thais.”


Indigenous knowledge, technical know-how and skills, once essential for sustenance, are increasingly recognized as holding potential for local, regional and national development. Further to examples of protecting forests and conserving the built environment, as addressed above, rehabilitation requires local wisdom such as the reforestation of Pa Dong Lan in Phu Pha Man and Chum Phae Districts of Khon Kaen Province. Silk and cotton production, together with downstream manufacturing processes, have gained recognition as significant development ventures under the government’s OTOP Project. From among the village based industries producing fabric some examples are introduced hereunder.

On the auspicious occasion of the Fifth Cycle Anniversary of H. M. the Queen, a branch of the Royal SUPPORT Foundation called Sala Mai Thai was established in Chonabot District of Khon Kaen Province. Its specialty is the weaving of silk fabric in traditional patterns known in Thai as mud mee. This is created by weaving silk yarn whose threads are knotted before they are dyed. This results in an amazing variety of designs such as mee ue, mee kho, mee mak chap, mee dok kaeo or mee phikun. Cotton woven in mud mee design is the fabric for which the villagers of Ban Mueang Phai in Ban Phai District of the same province are praised. There as well, in Mueang, Nong Ruea, Phu Wiang and Chum Phae districts, Woman Skill Development Centres promote the dying of cotton yarn using natural substances such as extracts from tree barks.

The sub-district of Ban Na Kha and the Skill Training Centre named Ban Men, both located in Mueang District of Udon Thani Province, set fine examples of the weaving of the fabric known in Thai as pha khit. It is the product of a process by which the fabric is ornamented with embossed or raised configurations. The patterns created in this manner are distinguished as khit ta kai (symbol), khit dok kaeo (China box-tree blossom), khit khon (human figure), khit chang (elephant), khit ma (horse), khit dao (star), khit kho (felicitation), khit dok tang (orchid blossom) and khit ing mak wai (rattan fruit bunch). The skill training centre, established by a highly respected nun at Wat Sawang Sila in Mueang District of Nong Bua Lam Phu Province, offers training especially for girls. One of the skills is the manufacturing of a paper known as kradat sa in Thai. It is made using the fibre of the inner bark of the mulberry tree. The craft of pottery is kept alive at places such as Ban Khong Sawan in the same district. There, the Pan Mo Training Centre offers training on the skills required to manufacture ceramic ware. The significance of apiculture for agriculture, forestry, nutrition, health care and income generation is demonstrated by a local organization of more than one hundred farms engaged in apiculture. Based at Ban Phueng in Phu Khiao District of Khon Kaen Province, the rearing of bees, production of honey, and marketing of honey as well as by-products has salutary effects on the individual participating farms and the environment.

Of the many and varied development ventures relevant across the four provinces, water resource development is of timeless importance. At local level, surface water retention basins and small reservoirs (ang kep nam in Thai) have remained vital since antiquity. Rehabilitation or construction keep increasing their numbers. Examples are Kut Nang Saeng, Sok Tum and Sok Ruak Ka in Khon Kaen Province; Cho Raka and Ban Phet in Chaiyaphum Province; as well as Huai Sam Phat, Huai Sai and Nam Pham in Udon Thani Province. Larger are lakes created through dam construction such as Ubol Rattana Dam in Khon Kaen Province with Nam Phong extending into neighbouring Nong Bua Lam Phu Province; Chulabhorn Dam with Phrom as well as Huai Kum Dam and Lam Pathao Bon dams in Chaiyaphum Province; and Huai Luang as well as the northern part of Lam Pao in Udon Thani Province. The Mekong Research Institute, a facility established and operated by the multi-national Mekong River Secretariat, is located in Khon Kaen. There, the Regional Development Research Institute was established earlier by the Royal Thai Government. Both organizations are affiliated with Khon Kaen University, the first of Isan, established in the year 1964.

Taken from: Thailand: Traits and Treasures. The National Identity Board, Royal Thai Government 2005.


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