After getting hopelessly lost in Khao Yai National Park, Ryan and I decided to soothe our egos by sightseeing elsewhere the next day. We headed off to Phimai Historical Park. This is an hour north of where we were staying in Nakhon Ratchasima and almost 3 hours north of Khao Yai National Park. Again, it’s best to rent a car or hire a van for a few days while visiting the Khorat region, as attractions are rather far apart in this rural area.
Serial Season 2: on Bowe Bergdahl’s Army Base Desertion (?) in Afghanistan
Ryan and I listened to more of Serial‘s season 2 on Bowe Bergdahl on the drive. Season 2 is not nearly as fascinating or complex, in my opinion, as season 1, which covered Adnan Syed’s conviction for supposedly killing his high school girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Still, Sarah Koenig and NPR uphold their reputation for nuanced reporting with many perspectives. Season 2 is an interesting discussion and investigation of the conflict between military ethics and the often limited power of a soldier in the War in Afghanistan.
Among war’s many complexities lie a certain moral duality that homeschooled Calvinist Bergdahl struggled with. He witnessed an armored truck with American soldiers running over an Afghani child. Roughly 20% of the people who joined the Army when Bergahl did required a waiver for previous convictions. Compared to recruitment demographics from previous years, the standard was lowered during this time. His unit, already undermanned, lacked a lieutenant and thus did not have a clear leader, which undermined morale of the soldiers. Did this merit literally walking off a base in rural West Afghanistan, an area known for its Taliban sympathies? And did this merit a desertion, intended or not, that risked the lives of all his colleagues on base? Did he consciously recognize the danger of his leaving? NPR aims to answer these questions.
Bergdahl’s defense lawyers, and NPR, have pointed out that he was later diagnosed with Schizotypal Personality Disorder that started before his desertion, and now has Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Those with Schizotypal Personality Disorder have constant social anxiety and often incorrectly interpret events. They also do not “generally understand how relationships form or the impact of their behavior of others,” according to the Mayo Clinic.
Bergdahl became a political pawn for the Taliban and the “elephant in the room” regarding American involvement in Afghanistan for the nearly 5 years he was a Prisoner of War. I went back down the Bergdahl media coverage rabbit hole in writing this post. Michael Hastings’ 2012 Rolling Stone article, written before Bergdahl returned home, is epically comprehensive. It looks at the Bergdahl family and the politics surrounding their son in Washington D.C. and Afghanistan. Matthew Beard, an ethics professor in Australia, wrote a briefer column about Bowe Bergdahl through the lens of military psychiatry in 2014. Bergdahl’s court-martial trial, where he faces charges for desertion and misbehavior, should have started May 15 in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. No news of his trial is available online, if it is currently happening.
Phimai Historical Park: An Introduction
As one of the most extensively restored Khmer temple complexes in Thailand, Prasat Hin Phimai is uncannily similar to the famous Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Phimai is a Khmer temple since the Khmer
Empire extended to the town when it was built, at about 1012 AD. Note that there is no clear answer on when Phimai was built. Phimai is Angkor Wat’s direct artistic predecessor and was built about 30 years before the world-famous temple complex. My brochure claimed that Angkor Wat is based on Phimai, but who knows if that’s actually true.
Tourists can now enjoy Phimai’s pristine architecture thanks to a joint project between the Thai and French governments in the mid 1960s (perhaps a propaganda tool for the French after the Indochina War?). The Royal Fine Arts Department of Thailand renovated the compound again decades later, and reopened the park to the public in 1989. From 1936 to 1989, tourists were barred from setting foot on Phimai.
The compound’s remote location makes it remarkably easy for budding photographers to snap pictures- the complex was rather empty. Though Phimai is a temple compound, there is not a dress code. I easily entered in my denim shorts. In honor of King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s recent death, we did not have to pay admission; the free admission ended on January 1, 2017. The entrance fee is now 100 THB ($2.93) for foreigners and 20 BHT ($.58) for locals. The ruins are open daily from 7:30 AM to 6 PM.
An Ancient Thailand-Cambodia Pilgrimage
Phimai faces southeast toward the ancient Khmer empire’s capital of Ankor. This is an unusual orientation. An ancient direct road connects Phimai and Angkor Wat.
This route is the Ancient Khmer Highway, which is so overgrown that it can now only be seen in aerial photographs. However, visitors to Phimai can drive along a portion of the highway that is still drivable. National Geographic briefly wrote about the Ancient Khmer Highway as part of a list on ancient roads, available here. Tourists can try to make a modified pilgrimage from Angkor Wat to Phimai, or the reverse, but the southeast Thailand border/ northwest Cambodia border are hotly contested by both sides. Border agents will surely give non-Thai/non-Cambodian border crossers a tough time if they are driving themselves. It’s safer to go on a bus, as part of a group, or to fly.
Details and History of Phimai
Phimai was first built as a Hindu shrine to Shiva. However, it was restyled as a Mahayana Buddhist temple in the late 12th century. Mahayana Buddhism is one of the 3 major branches of Buddhism, and is the most commonly practiced one today. Scenes from the Indian epic The Ramayana (which has been revived and readapted by nearly all Southeast Asian countries) and Buddhist themes are on Phimai’s façade. Its Buddhist motifs are unique among Khmer temples.
Though Phimai has been extensively restored, there are areas of the compound that are complete ruins. The sign for this part in the picture below speculates that the king used this building to perform religious ceremonies, and his entourage used it to prepare offerings and ceremonial items. My history buff side is certainly glamorizing these ruins, but often my favorite part of visiting ruins is seeing the most destroyed areas. It appears more accessible to me for some reason; my imagination runs wild as I picture what purpose these decaying slabs of rock served. Centuries of abandonment have left the ruins as a blank slate: they could serve a completely new purpose.
In the picture at right, I am in front of the ‘Central Sanctuary.’ This is the building in the exact center of the Phimai compound. If my photo had superb quality, you could zoom in and see a scene from The Ramayana just above my head, on the decoration above the doorway. In this Ramayana depiction, the main character Rama and his monkeys are building a road to Lanka. The demon Ravana lives in his fortress in Lanka; Rama and Ravana’s brother succeed in killing the villain at the end of the story.
To the right of where I stand is the adjoining hall. This is the ‘Mandapa,’ or the hallway of the main entrance. Another Ramayana scene features on the mandapa’s façade, where Rama and his brother Lakshmana are tied up with a ‘naga.’ (A naga is a mythical serpent. Nagas take physical form as bridges to Khmer temples or as perimeter railings. Nagas are sacred, don’t sit on them!) While monkeys below Rama and Lakshmana despair, a ‘garuda’ (mythical half bird, half human creature) and more monkeys come to free them from the naga.