Stories in Stone ~ ISAAN (อีสาน) ~ PART 3

“All objects, all phases of culture are alive. They have voices. They speak of their history and interrelatedness. And they are all talking at once!”
Camille Paglia

Landscape of bare stone and dry grass: Pha Taem NP

The Roof of the World? Pha Taem National Park, Ubon Ratchathani

I grew up in North America where the artefacts of culture are relatively modern. By contrast, Asian cultural objects speak of time… endless time… with it’s ebb and flow of history and change.  I know that this is so, but being able to traverse from prehistoric artefacts, to ancient temples, and then to modern arts and crafts in the space of hours and kilometres, still surprises me.

The fertile Mekong river valley between Ubon and Laos was home to an agrarian people thousands of  years ago.  They left their mark in red paints made of soil, tree gum and fat, on a 200 meter stretch of cliffs at Pha Taem.  These paintings, depicting scenes of rice cultivation, as well as elephants and enormous fish traps, are thought to be between 3000 and 4000 years old.

Landscape with large rock overlooking the Mekong and Laos, Pha Taem NP

Overlooking the Mekong and Laos: Pha Taem National Park, Ubon Ratchathani

Small cairn of rocks, Pha Taem NP

Modern Markers: Cairns under the Cliffs of Pha Taem

Wide angle shot of rocks overhanging a cliff path: Pha Taem NP

Under the Cliffs: Pha Taem National Park, Ubon Ratchathani

Pre-historic paintings of humans and elephants in red on Pha Taem Cliffs

Ancient Rock Art : Pha Taem Cliff Paintings

Composit: Monk looking at Pha Taem paintings, and Monks walking away

Visiting Monks: Pha Taem Cliff Paintings

Close-up: young Thai monk

Composite: Thai man and his stone amulets

Thai Guide and his Protective Stones ~ Amulets and Ruesi, the Hermit Sage

Home, not just to the Mekong, but also two of it’s major tributaries, the Mun and the Chi, this area has been at the crossroads of competing cultures and warring empires for centuries.  As I mentioned last week,  Khmer influence is seen in the local silk designs.  It is also evident in artefacts housed in local museums and the many temple ruins that dot the landscape.

B&W portrait of 11th C Khmer head sculpture

Khmer Head, 11th Century, Surin National Museum

Stone frieze carving of Krishna

Krishna's Battle with the Beasts: Angkor Wat Style, Surin National Museum

Landscape of Prasat Ban Phluang ruins

Hindu Sanctuaries: Prasat Ban Phluang (11th -12th C Baphoun Khmer Art)

Landscape of Bodhi Tree and stone Khmer sculptures, Prasat Ban Phluang

Religious Crossroads: Living Bodhi Tree and Ancient Stone, Prasat Ban Phluang

Garden landscape: Ancient Sandstone Carvings, Prasat Ban Phluang

Ancient Sandstone Carvings, Prasat Ban Phluang

For all their monuments to civilisations past, these are living, breathing communities.  In the out-of-the-way rural village of Ban Chok, we found a woman fashioning ‘Prakueam’, or round metal beads of silver or gold made into jewellery.  The daughter of a man who makes large silver ornaments for public buildings, she uses a centuries-old Khmer tradition to make delicate pieces with a surprisingly modern appeal.

Close-up of turquoise amethyst pieces on a stone work-table

Jewellers Workspace ~ Turquoise Flower

Close-up of silver pendants in Khmer Prakuem style

Finished 'Prakuem' Silver

Close-up of fine silver jewellery on a littered table

Silver Beads ~ Jeweller's Workspace

Close-up of Thai woman beating silver with a small hammer

Jeweller Working on Silver

Thai woman hand-working silver in open-air basement

Fine Work ~ Prakueam Silver

As the ultimate tribute in stone, it is hard to go past Ubon’s 22 meter-high ‘candle’ in an ornamental boat, guarded by a mythical garuda.  The sculpture, which was completed in 2000 to honour the current King, the ninth king of the Chakri dynasty, pays tribute to the giant bees-wax sculptures which are carved in Ubon every year and paraded through the streets during Phansa (Buddhist Lent).

Giant yellow-painted garuda and candle sculpture, Ubon Ratchathani

Tying the Ancient and the Modern: Candles in Stone

Truly symbols of  Thai culture’s ‘history and interrelatedness’!Text: Safe Travels! Ursula

Wishing you safe travels, wherever you are!


  • Signe Westerberg - December 16, 2010 - 11:20 pm

    as always thanks for the share…. and the card, (still doing mine, appalling me thinks ;-( )ReplyCancel

  • Northeast Thailand Events - April 18, 2011 - 7:36 pm

    Cool, a really interesting post!…

    [..] Today I was reading this amazing blog post and I wanted to link to it. [..]…ReplyCancel

    • Ursula - April 18, 2011 - 8:03 pm

      Glad you like the posts, Travel Isaan! 😀ReplyCancel

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