Isaan — the far east of Thailand — is the least-visited region in the country. It’s the one place on your Thailand trip where you can escape hordes of tourists. But that doesn’t mean it’s boring — far from it. It has some of the country’s most important ancient temples, including the fascinating Phimai Historical Park (also known as Prasat Hin Phimai).
The logical base for visiting Phimai Historical Park is Nakhon Ratchisima, the biggest city in Isaan. It’s a short bus ride away but it has a much larger variety of food, accommodation, and onward transport options. In this post, I’ll cover everything you need to know to take a day trip from Nakhon Ratchisima to Phimai to see the temples.
(Apologies in advance for the bad photos in this post. I dropped my camera in a river in Laos and had to use my terrible phone to take photos for the rest of my trip.)
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Thailand has lots of ruins. What’s so great about the Phimai Historical Park?
If you’ve been backpacking in Thailand for awhile, you’ve probably visited a few historical sites. From the temples and Buddhas of Sukhothai to spending a whole week making your way through Central Thailand, it’s easy to get your fill of Thai history. So why bother heading out to a far-less-visited corner of the country just for another ancient temple?
Well, Phimai Historical Park bears little resemblance to the other ruined Thai kingdoms. It actually looks more like it belongs in Cambodia. If you aren’t going to visit Angkor Wat on this trip, it’s a great alternative. And even if you’re also visiting Angkor, Prasat Hin Phimai is far less crowded (think: better photos, fewer kids selling postcards, no massive tour groups to contend with).
Additionally, Phimai is a super-charming, friendly, laid-back Thai town well off the typical tourist trail. While lots of Thai people visit to see the ruins, you’ll probably only see a handful of other foreigners. You won’t find annoying tuk tuk drivers, sarong salespeople, or Singha beer shirts for sale on every street. It’s a refreshing change. If you’re a solo traveler in Thailand looking to make local connections, this town is a great place to do it.
Some quick history of Prasat Hin Phimai
Prasat Hin Phimai’s major claim to fame is it’s believed to be the blueprint for Angkor Wat. It was completed as early as the 11th century and slowly expanded as the Khmer empire grew.
The Phimai temple was constructed as the local people were shifting from Hindu to Buddhist beliefs. Phimai draws strongly from both religious traditions — with a naga bridge, traditional Hindu gopuras, and diverse iconography. It was technically a Buddhist temple, making it unique among Khmer sites from this period.
While the vast majority of Khmer sites in Southeast Asia face east, Prasat Hin Phimai is unique in facing southeast — directly toward Angkor. This further suggests both the importance of the Khmer capital and the important relationship between the two cities.
Beyond its connection to Angkor, very little else is known about Phimai’s history. The Khmer civilization in Thailand declined rapidly as Sukhothai gained prominence. This was largely because the city of Angkor had emphasized construction over agricultural development. They overbuilt in their capital city, but didn’t sufficiently support the further-afield satellite cities. As a result, places like Phimai declined quickly and significantly, leaving little evidence of their inhabitants’ daily lives.
Visiting the Phimai temple
When you arrive at the Phimai Historical Park, you’ll immediately get a great view of the main temple. It’s in an open field with a few small trees and smaller temples and monuments surrounding it.
You’ll first come to the naga bridge that connects the human world with the spiritual world. At the end of it, you’ll reach the main gopura (gate). This gate represents Mount Meru, where the gods reside. The structure is remarkably similar to Angkor Wat — the main gopura (gate) is the exact same height. The gopura contains intricate carvings of deities.
Next, you’ll pass through a long passageway to the inner sanctum. This area is covered with extensive carvings, and contains a replica statue of Khmer ruler Jayavarman VII.
The temple has a number of other gopuras worth seeing for their beautiful carvings. The smaller temples along the sides of the Phimai Historical Park provide further examples of the unique Hindu-Buddhist blend. Be sure to look out for the real vs. fake windows that line the outside — defense mechanisms for the temple’s occupants.
Much of the Phimai temple is remarkably well-preserved after extensive restoration efforts over the last 40 years. You can clearly see the similarities to Angkor and other Khmer sites.
Phimai Historical Park also contains a small museum explaining the history of the temple. This is included in your admission ticket and is worth a quick stop, especially for the comparisons of Prasat Hin Phimai to Angkor Wat.
Allow about two hours to explore Phimai Historical Park, including the museum. Admission is 100 baht. You don’t need a guide — between the museum and signs all over the site, you’ll have enough context.
Other things to do in Phimai
If you’re visiting the Phimai Historical Park on a day trip from Nakhon Ratchisima, you’ll have plenty of time to check out other attractions in the town after you visit the temple.
The top thing to do in Phimai — maybe even more interesting than the temple itself — is the Phimai National Museum. This contains one of the largest collections of objects from all over Isaan, including many of the original artifacts found at Phimai. The emphasis is on sculptures and pottery. Admission is 100 baht.
A few other ruins dot the town center. Most notable is Kuti Rusi, a 13th-century temple. Additionally, the town has gates at each entrance (north, south, east and west) that are worth a look.
Finally, Phimai is home to Thailand’s oldest and largest banyan tree. It takes over pretty much an entire island in the center of the river. It’s worth walking over to if you have some spare time.
Be sure to stop in at Barai Coffee for a caffeine break between visiting the temple and the museum. Nom Neoy Cafe is across the street and has more substantial food, but the cappuccinos aren’t as good.
How to get to Phimai Historical Park from Nakhon Ratchisima
Nakhon Ratchatisma, also known as Khorat, is Thailand’s second-largest city. It’s the capital of the Isaan region and a major transportation hub. Its proximity to numerous Khmer-era monuments makes it an important base for anyone trying to explore the region. Most travelers in Isaan spend at least a couple nights here and do day trips to surrounding areas, as its hotel options and food scene are far better than any of the provincial towns.
Getting to Prasat Hin Phimai from Nakhon Ratchatisma is pretty straightforward. First, go to Bus Station 1 in Nakhon Ratchasima. Ask for a bus (not a minibus) to Phimai. It costs 50 baht and takes about 90 minutes, depending on traffic.
The most convenient stop in Phimai for visiting the historical park is at the clock tower in the center of town. You can pick up a return bus from here or, if you’re visiting the Phimai National Museum after the ruins, you can flag a bus from across the street to avoid walking back to town. Try to avoid ending up at the Phimai Bus Station — it’s well out of town.
You could also spend a night in Phimai if you want to avoid returning to the urban sprawl of Nakhon Ratchatisma. Benya Guesthouse is the best option. Just be aware that you’ll have to backtrack to Nakhon Ratchatisma for onward transport.
Overall, visiting the Phimai Historical Park is one of the best activities you can do in the Isaan region of Thailand. It’s an easy day trip from Nakhon Ratchatisma, the ruins are fascinating, and the museum is excellent. So don’t wait — go beyond the typical tourist trail and plan your trip to Phimai now!
Have you found any off-the-beaten-path gems in Thailand? Share them in the comments!