The bounty of Kamphaeng Phet
Not much disturbs the sleepy ways of Kamphaeng Phet, a pleasant old town lounging beside the lazy Ping River, which is the great waterway of northern Thailand. Surrounded by an emerald-green plain of lush rice fields, it slumbers in well-fed contentment.
Except when the banana harvest comes in. So plentiful and prized is this fruit in Kamphaeng Phet province that every September the provincial capital celebrates with the Ngaan Kluai Khai – the Egg Banana Festival – for the variety that thrives here is short and stubby, perhaps so much so in the distant past that it really looked like an egg. Nobody knows. Renowned for growing the best of Thai bananas, Kamphaeng Phet province’s harvest is bountiful, with more than 200 million Baht value of bananas produced annually.
When it’s nearly all in, a parade of horticultural and human beauty glides down Main Street amidst throngs of townspeople, finishing up in front of the Provincial Hall. It’s a contest too, for the most beautiful float and the most glamorous beauty, Miss Egg Banana. Beauty queens sit atop fantastical floats decked with finely-worked pieces from every part of the banana tree applied to a polystyrene base. Most striking of all is a huge buffalo, its hide made of thousands of tucked and pleated banana-leaf pieces – a green-scaled beast with chin grazing the ground. Cutest is a little old tail-wheel aeroplane, a banana by-product Flying Fortress, its four piston engines formed by banana-flower pods, and with it a little control tower made from the brown trunk.
Most dramatic is a mighty norasingh, a mythical lion-like beast with a rampant claw and snarling mouth, its scaly hide formed by close-packed green bananas. Most colourful is a garuda, the mythical bird that is a symbol of the Thai state; it is deep yellow and raspberry red, fashioned from dried banana slices and the carnation-like dok rak flower. And then there’s a great long banana-leaf naga serpent, and elephant’s heads flecked with banana slices, and enormous bright yellow cloth bananas, and bunches and bunches of real bananas, and much much more.
Each of these floats is the dedicated work of a local district or institution, the transformation of humble organic working parts into imaginative displays of beauty. And for each float, a mercenary beauty is hired to be the crowning glory. Perched atop all this splendour, the beauty queens are somewhat outshone, wearing simple dark blue or black ankle-length, figure-hugging suits, Chitrlada style, with farmers’ straw hats (ngawp). They turn on the smile-power to attract attention, but, under the sun’s merciless rays, they tend to wilt faster than the flowers. Relief is manifest when they get the signal to clamber down to earth, as gracefully as possible, and go sit under an awning in front of the judges – ranks of district headmen.
If you weren’t to look too closely, you might think Kamphaeng Phet was only about banana growing, rice fields and provincial folksiness. But in fact here once stood one of the great cities of old Siam, a fortified stronghold of the Sukhothai kingdom which established Thai nationhood in the 13th century. Located just north of the modern town, its laterite ramparts were crenellated in diamond shapes, which gained it the name of Kamphaeng Phet, which means Diamond Walls.
With the ascendency of the Ayuthaya kingdom in the 15th century, the citadel that was Kamphaeng Phet went into decline, and it later suffered from Burmese invasions. Today, only evocative temple ruins and some rampart sections remain, calling out from the past through tall-treed parkland. The whole area is protected as a Historical Park, and consists of two parts: the old city within the ramparts, and the forest monastery area outside the walls.
The ruins are comparable to Sukhothai’s on a smaller scale and have the distinct advantage of being little visited, with most people sticking to the old city area. Here, standing in line, the two largest temples, Wat Phra That (Temple of the Holy Relic) and Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha), present a phalanx of tall laterite stupas, stripped of their stucco. Wat Phra Kaew was the royal temple, like its later namesake in Bangkok, and it once housed Thailand’s most sacred religious image, the Emerald Buddha. The temple boasts a serene trio of restored Buddha images, two sitting and one reclining, coated in stucco, with broad foreheads and square chins in the Kamphaeng Phet style.
Things become wilder in the forested area called Aranyik, outside the old walls to the north. Here upon a low hill amid woodland, some forty former monasteries lie in the arms of nature.
Aranyik’s major ruins have received much care and are cleared of trees. Upon the hilltop, Wat Chang Rop has a bold frieze of 68 elephant heads and forelegs around the base of its collapsed stupa. Lower down, Wat Phra Si Iriyabot is crowned by a sanctuary with four colossal Buddha images facing in the cardinal directions. Only one is complete, a great standing Buddha in the Sukhothai style, whose majestic serenity is the single most impressive sight of Kamphaeng Phet.
These are the main attractions, and they stand close to a wide asphalt road that circles the forest park, used by the occasional tour bus. But turn aside, take a side road, step onto a gravel track, follow a narrow beaten path, and you enter hidden realms, passing through thick forest, coming out into a clearing where ruins lie, entering forest once again, spying remains in the trees.
The pillars of viharns, the bases of stupas, lie speckled by the sunlight passing through the forest canopy. Weathered Buddha images, worn away to their laterite cores, weirdly seem the works of modernist sculptors rather than ancient remains – some rounded and smooth like Henry Moores, others so ravaged that they resemble Giacomettis, spindly and pitted.
When all Aranyik’s monasteries were populated and cared for, in the 15th and 16th centuries, this must have been a powerfully spiritual place. Today that spirituality is muted, after abandonment and the ravages of time, but nevertheless still speaks volumes.
At the end of Buddhist Lent, which coincides with the Banana Festival, a serene religious rite occurs amongst the main temple ruins. Highlighted by the rising sun, a long file of saffron-clad monks treads softly and silently past Wat Phra That and Wat Phra Kaew, making its way towards tak bat offerings presented by provincial dignitaries. In this same park that night, many more monks gather for a great tot kathin ceremony, in which the people of the province present the holy men with new robes.
At the harvest festival in the modern town that spreads southward from the ancient city, religious rites take place at the chief temple of Wat Bang. Its interior is decked with bunches of green bananas and sprigs of red banana flowers and worshippers bring more banana offerings to make merit. Mostly older women, they sit reverently attentive to the abbot’s intoning of the holy scriptures. At intervals, traditional musicians play percussive melodies on metal gongs, wooden xylophones and ox-hide drums.
Kamphaeng Phet – Diamond Walls – may not sport any real diamonds, but it is a gem of Thai tradition and history.
By Keith Mundy