A giant in size and importance

Get to know Prasat Nakhon Luang, with its historical architecture unlike any other in Ayutthaya, and you might find it interesting enough to be the first place to visit once inter-provincial travel restrictions are lifted

Prasat Nakhon Luang is one of the largest examples of historical architecture in Ayutthaya. Its role in the politics of the old Siamese kingdom that the province was named after was as immense as its size.

Built in 1631, not long after King Prasat Thong took to the throne and established a new dynasty, Prasat Nakhon Luang is located near the Pa Sak River, which was the main travel route between Ayutthaya and the highly revered Buddha’s Footprint in Saraburi. It was meant to be a stopover for the king during his visits to the sacred site. According to historical records, King Prasat Thong had Prasat Nakhon Luang built using the grand monuments in the capital of the Khmer kingdom, which at that time was under Ayutthaya’s control, as models. From the plan and remains of the main elements, the general design seemed like a mix of Angkor Wat and Baphuon Temple, which is located in Angkor Thom. Perhaps, or perhaps not, that could have been where the resemblance ended. With much of the original structures on the upper levels crumbled and therefore can no longer be seen, not to mention the decorative details, let’s leave the issue to academics. However, one obvious difference is the main building materials. While those Khmer monuments were constructed with laterite and sandstone, Prasat Nakhon Luang was made with bricks. Many believe that the structure was never completed. Its current version is the result of renovations made during the Rattanakosin Period, in the reigns of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) and King Bhumibol (Rama IX).

Some of you might ask, Prasat what? Don't worry. A lot of people who have been to Ayutthaya many times have never heard of it, either. This period of unofficial lockdown is a good time to learn about this little-known giant monument.

Built in the early years of King Prasat Thong who ruled Ayutthaya from 1629 to 1656. He was the kingdom's 24th monarch and the first of the Prasat Thong Dynasty.

Of course, toppling the previous dynasty and establishing a new one was no easy task, nor was it humane. But keeping the obtained power was even more difficult and killing adversaries is not always the best solution. King Prasat Thong also needed other measures to convince people that he deserved to be a royal ruler.

With no accepted link to the royal family, the new monarch associated himself with a future Buddha and ancient Khmer kings. This is reflected through the artistic styles of architecture and religious images created during his reign. Prasat Nakhon Luang, with strong Khmer influence, was a grand announcement of his special status and rightfulness.

Such claims are definitely hard to buy by today's standards. But back then it worked. King Prasat Thong was in power until he died of illness after 27 years on the throne. The dynasty he established saw three more monarchs. The reign of Somdet Chaofa Chai, his son, lasted nine months, and that of Somdet Phra Si Suthammaracha, his brother and Chaofa Chai's uncle, two months and 20 days. King Narai, another of his sons, won in the fight for power and ruled Ayutthaya for 32 years before the Prasat Thong Dynasty was replaced after his death by Ban Phlu Luang Dynasty.

The more you know about a historical site and the people related to it, the better experience you will enjoy when you visit it. There are several interesting things that you might learn if you do more research on King Prasat Thong such as the legend about the relationship between him, his mother and King Ekathotsarot of the Sukhothai Dynasty; the construction of Wat Chumphon Nikayaram in Bang Pa-in; his co-operation and rivalry with Yamada Nagamasa and the Japanese mercenaries and so forth. The more you learn, the more you may want to find out.

Well, for now, stay safe and prep yourself for your next trip to Ayutthaya once travel restrictions are eased.

Each of the three levels of Prasat Nakhon Luang is surrounded by a long four-sided gallery that used to be lined with Buddha images. Of the few that still remain in good condition on the first two levels, this seated statue in a cross-legged posture seemed to be the most photographed. But more interesting, at least to me, is one of the Buddha sculptures in the pavilion at the top of the pyramid-like structure. Seated with both legs hanging down, it is a Pa Lilai posture which depicts a scene from the story of Lord Buddha when he was presented with honey by an elephant (seen next to the right foot of the sculpture). The style was popular during the reign of King Prasat Thong who wanted to convince people that in his past life he was that legendary elephant which is believed to become one of the future Buddhas.

Even these days, the Pa Sak River continues to serve as a major route for goods transportation, especially the section from the point where it merges with the Chao Phraya near the famous Wat Phanan Choeng all the way to Nakhon Luang district. A few kilometres downstream from this peaceful point where Wat Nakhon Luang is located, in the area closer to Highway 32, you’ll find several godowns and commercial piers where barges come to load and unload commodities such as cattle feed, fertiliser, sand, soil and other construction materials. In the other direction where the camera is facing, the river leads to Phra Ram VI Dam in the adjacent Tha Rua district.

There is no record about Prasat Nakhon Luang after the dynasty that had it built was ousted by the House of Ban Phlu Luang which was the last of the five dynasties that ruled Ayutthaya. In 1809, the year that marks the end of the reign of King Rama I of Bangkok and the beginning of his son’s, a commoner known as Ta Pa Khao Pin converted the site into a temple. He had a Phra Bat Si Roi (a sculpture portraying four superimposed Buddha footprints) built and placed it at the top of the remains of Prasat Nakhon Luang. Almost 70 years later, King Chulalongkorn visited the area and had the humble structure in which the footprints were housed replaced by a pavilion as seen today. The latest major restoration of Prasat Nakhon Luang, a project initiated by HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, was completed in 1995.

Trivia surrounding Prasat Nakhon Luang enhance its uniqueness. Most notably is the round-shaped rock that resembles a Full Moon. The rock, which some think is an unfinished sculpture, features carved images of three Buddhas seated between a pair of stupas. It is housed in a pavilion located between Prasat Nakhon Luang and the Pa Sak River. Archaeological studies found that the pavilion was built on the site where another one dating back to the Ayutthaya period once stood. On Prasat Nakhon Luang itself, you’ll find a pair of animal sculptures guarding the side doors of the Buddha footprints pavilion. Villagers told me they were lion statues but, honestly, from the faces, I think they look more like friendly doggies. Then again, each has a tail that resembles that of a lion more than a canine. The pavilion is surrounded by a roofed gallery. Next to the entrances of the gallery, as you can see in the photo, are some of the hardest sofas in the world.

Almost as soon as I climbed down from Prasat Nakhon Luang I was urged by the locals to go back to the top once again. They told me I missed one thing: the jackfruit trees. They said the trees which grow next to the gallery around the Buddha footprints pavilions are offspring of the original tree planted by King Rama V himself. The fruits of these old trees boast a sweet scent and taste, the kind of jackfruit that used to be common in Thailand decades ago. These days, commercially grown jackfruit is an imported variety that produces more flesh but is tasteless and has no aroma.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej presented his personal fund for the restoration of the Pa Lilai Buddha image in Prasat Nakhon Luang in 1976. This picture of his visit to the site was probably taken in the same year.

Literally, a stone’s throw from Wat Nakhon Luang in whose grounds Prasat Nakhon Luang is located is Wat Mai Chumphol that is worth checking out. Even from outside the temple, you can see an old stupa believed to have been built by King Prasat Thong. Its design resembles the one at Wat Chumphon Nikayaram in Bang Pa-in, another temple the king built in honour of his mother who used to live in the area. Inside the temple, in the old vihan (prayer hall) to be exact, you’ll find mural paintings dating back to the times of King Narai the Great, the last monarch of the Prasat Thong Dynasty.

One of the favourite sites for visitors in Ayutthaya, Wat Chai Watthanaram is another architectural heritage of King Prasat Thong. It was built in 1630, a year before Prasat Nakhon Luang, in memory of the king’s mother who died two years earlier while Prasat Thong served as Okya Kalahom, a top-ranking officer, in the court of the 16-year-old King Chetthathirat, son of King Songtham and grandson of King Ekathotsarot who in turn was the brother and successor to King Naresuan the Great. All of the mentioned monarchs belong to the Sukhothai Dynasty. The funeral of Okya Kalahom’s mother, which was attended by so many courtiers that only a few showed up for work, sparked a great conflict between the powerful officer and the young monarch. To make a long story short, Okya Kalahom toppled Chetthathirat, set the king’s nine-year-old brother as a puppet ruler for 36 days then killed him too, before finally taking the throne himself and founded a new dynasty. To history buffs, Wat Chai Watthanaram is not just another beautiful ancient temple but also a reminder of one of the most severe political clashes in Ayutthaya history.

Over the past few years, thanks to the Bupphesanniwat (Love Destiny) TV series which was on-air from February to April of 2018, a lot of tourists to Ayutthaya, Thais and foreigners alike, love to have their pictures taken while wearing traditional costumes. At Wat Chai Watthanaram and Prasat Nakhon Luang, rental services for such outfits are available. At the latter site, umbrellas are also provided for visitors who wish to borrow them.

TRAVEL INFO

The most convenient way to get to Prasat Nakhon Luang is by private vehicle. From Bangkok, take Highway 32 northwards until you reach Pa Sak River in Nakhon Luang district. Do not drive up the bridge but go beneath it instead to make a U-turn, then shift eastward onto Road 3063. About 6.5km up the road, you'll find an intersection, turn left. Not far from that point, there is another bridge that also crosses the Pa Sak River. Again, do not take the bridge but turn right underneath it. The parking lot for Wat Nakhon Luang is a few minutes' drive down the road. Prasat Nakhon Luang, which is part of the temple, is just a short walk on the other side of the road.