While Pra Wiharn remains inaccessible, Sisaket province is home to several other Angkor-era temples, the best preserved of which are the ruins of Prasad Hin Sa Kampaeng Yai, a temple originally built in the 10th century and dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. I had this place in mind as the setting for a scene in my novel and wanted to visit to see if it would work.
The ruins are accessed through the entrance to the modern-day Buddhist temple of Wat Sa Khampaeng Yai, past the manifestations of the Buddha allocated to different days of the week. The ruins comprise laterite walls, posts and lintels, some with their intricate carvings still visible, which once forms the bases for the temple’s towers. The best preserved sculpted frieze is a rare scene from the Ramayana epic (Ramakien, in Thai) depicting the monkey god Hanuman visiting Sita in captivity on Lanka and showing her Rama’s ring to prove he’s been sent by her husband. The frieze is beautiful and the ruins impressive enough to imagine what the temple must have been like.
On the day of our visit, small boys were playing soccer in the grassy grounds enclosed inside the ruins. They greeted as with cries of ‘falang’ (which we’re getting used to in this part of the world) and ‘buffalo’ (naughty, verging on rude). The place seemed to fire Miss Nine’s imagination as well as my own as we wondered around.
A second attraction of Wat Sa Khampaeng Yai is its small, rundown Hell Garden, a collection of faded concrete statues among the trees that line a terrace alongside the modern temple. Unlike the Hell Garden I visited in Chonburi, where the punishments are meted out by Hell guards, here the damned seemed to torture themselves.
An alcoholic appears to be cutting his own mouth as he sucks on his bottle. A woman gnaws on meat as the bones pile up at her feet. A man’s head appears to have grown too heavy to lift, his eyes popping out of their sockets.
(The latter reminded us of an Australian friend saying she’d been warned by Lao friends not to read too much or her head would explode!).
Another figure is crushed, barely visible, beneath a slab of stone, perhaps succumbing to guilt or shame.
Despite being rundown, or perhaps because of it, the place had an eerie solemnity.
As we left, we crossed paths with a mangy, deformed dog that looked as if it should’ve been part of the Hell Garden display. It was even the same patchy white colour over pink skin.
Speaking of deformed animals, we also visited the Sisaket Zoo, a small, miserable collection of birds, reptiles and mammals housed in the ‘forest park’ of Suan Somdet. In the past, I’ve thought of Asian zoos as guilty pleasures, because you could get closer to the animals than you could at home in Australia. Sure enough, at the Sisaket Zoo, you could buy bread and pellets to feed the fish, bananas to feed the deer, sunbears, hippos (?). Miss Nearly-Ten thought it was great, but I found the whole thing cringe-worthy. If I tell you the small herd of deformed cows with supernumerary limbs dangling from their necks wasn’t the worst of it, you’ll have some sense of how dire it was. Some of the sights — a great knot of pythons, a prickle of battle-scarred porcupines, an Indian vulture stretching its wings as though measuring the dimensions of its cage — seem almost too over-the-top for fiction.
Still, the visit was enormously valuable in terms of my research. I got to travel to Sisaket by train, as one of my characters does, and found a quirky hotel where she could stay. I also found a house where my local character could live in Sisaket town. I got to experience several scenes I’d drafted in my novel, including a visit to the Morning Market, watching the monks doing the morning rounds with their alms bowls, visiting the ruins and Hell Garden at Wat Sa Khamphaeng Yai, and eating at Sisaket’s bustling Evening Market.
(Though I balked at trying the local delicacies of crickets, cicadas, beetles, chrysalis and another insect that looked like a large flying ant, I did try the crickets the following evening in Surin, but that’s another blog post!).
Best of all, I got a feel for the town and its people, described in Janet Brown’s book as among Thailand’s friendliest and ‘very sweet’.