Si Thep, an ancient town nestled within the Lop Buri-Pasak River Basin in Phetchabun Province, 450 kilometres north of Bangkok, has recently risen to prominence as a UNESCO-designated World Cultural Heritage site. Known as the “Lost Hindu Town” in the annals of the Siamese Royal Court, its revival in 1904 can be credited to the visionary historian Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, who was led to this legendary city by locals in Phetchabun.

Unlike its more illustrious counterparts, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, Si Thep remained in relative obscurity, attracting minimal attention from both Thai and international tourists. It’s an enigma often linked to cultural politics, as Si Thep’s Mon-Khmer heritage, blending Dvaravati art with pre-Angkor Wat influences, differs from the Thai cultural identity strongly associated with Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.

However, Si Thep’s fortune is about to change. With UNESCO’s recognition, the site is poised to attract adventurers and researchers eager to unlock the mysteries of Si Thep or simply revel in its ancient grandeur.

Before embarking on your Si Thep journey, here are some intriguing secrets of this sacred site.

Si Thep emerged as an urban centre from a farming village in the Lopburi-Pa Sak River Valley some 1,500-2,500 years ago. Photo/Fine Arts Department
Ancient beads from the Dvaravati period are found in the ancient town of Si Thep in Phetchabun province, Thailand. Photo/Fine Arts Department

Salt and Iron

Encompassed within Si Thep Historical Park, this town emerged as an urban centre from a prehistoric farming village in the Lopburi-Pa Sak River Valley some 1,500-2,500 years ago. Fueled by intensive salt and iron production and its strategic location bridging the Chao Phraya lowland and the Korat Plateau, Si Thep flourished, becoming a vital hub for trade and cultural exchange. During its zenith, from the 6th to the 11th century, Si Thep played a pivotal role in the Dvaravati culture, leading scholars to speculate that it may have been the seat of Dvaravati itself, predating Uthong or Nakhon Pathom. For nearly 800 years, Si Thep thrived, blending Dvaravati, Hindu, and ancient Khmer arts, until it was abandoned about two centuries prior to the emergence of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.

The Inner Town of Si Thep, with a circular layout, boasts rolling plains hosting 48 ancient Buddhist and Hindu monuments. Photo/Fine Arts Department

Si Thep is not Si Thep

Prince Damrong Rajanubhab’s 1904 expedition in Phetchabun Province led to the rediscovery of the ancient town of Si Thep. With his profound historical knowledge, Prince Damrong inquired about a hidden mystical Hindu town, potentially concealed in Phetchabun’s woodlands. Traveling by boat along the Pasak River, locals guided the historian to Si Thep Village, a community 4 kilometres east of the river, where the expedition encountered stupas and sculptures scattered throughout the vast, forest-shrouded town. In keeping with local legend, Prince Damrong named the site “Si Thep,” and it was officially registered as an archaeological site in 1935. Thai archaeologists unearthed stone inscriptions, religious artwork, and sculptures, yet to this day, the town’s original name remains a mystery.

The Twin Cities

A drone’s-eye view of Si Thep reveals two adjoining ancient towns: The Inner Town and the Outer Town. The Inner Town, with a circular layout, features rolling plains hosting 48 Buddhist and Hindu ancient monuments. Buddhist structures are tied to the Dvaravati culture (7th-11th centuries), while Hindu monuments exhibit a strong influence of ancient Khmer art (11th-13th centuries). Prominent structures include Khao Khlang Nai, Prang Si Thep, and Prang Song Phi Nong, accompanied by over 70 ancient reservoirs of various sizes. The Outer Town, to the east of the inner city, spans 2.83 square kilometres. It has a rectangular shape with rounded corners, housing 64 ancient monuments and structures, along with numerous reservoirs. Here, a massive stone monument, resembling a Maya pyramid at first glance, stands as a grand stupa lacking its dome and spire, according to archaeologists.

The Si Thep Vishnu statue exudes elegance, featuring a slender physique adorned with conical headgear and a graceful, slightly bent posture at the waist and hips. Photo/ Fine Arts Department.

Those hips dont’ lie.

Si Thep’s distinction as Southeast Asia’s premier sculpture haven is often overlooked by many. Professor Jean Boisselier, a respected French archaeologist who collaborated with Thai counterparts during the Si Thep excavation, coined the term “Si Thep School of Art” to celebrate its exceptional and unique artistic essence. Among the treasures uncovered are statues of Vishnu, exemplifying meticulous craftsmanship and lifelike realism. These statues exude elegance, featuring slender physiques adorned with conical headgear and graceful, slightly bent posture at the waist and hips.

Boisselier, known for his restoration work at Angkor Wat, emphasized that the Si Thep School of Art diverges significantly from conventional ancient Khmer sculptural traditions, harmoniously blending influences from Dvaravati, Srivijaya, and pre-Khmer arts. While Vishnu’s visage may evoke hints of pre-Angkor sculptures, a closer examination reveals facial intricacies, particularly the eyes, bearing a striking resemblance to the unique aesthetics of Dvaravati art.

The Buddha’s head was removed by an art looter in 1960 from the ancient town of Si Thep under the orders of art dealers. Photo/Fine Arts Department.

Si Thep Scandal

Located 20 kilometres west of Si Thep, Khao Thamorat serves as a prominent landmark for travellers heading to Si Thep. Its slopes house caves transformed into sacred Mahayana Buddhist sites, showcasing 11 sculptures and carvings depicting Buddha images, sacred animals, deities, and moral teachings, dating back to the 8th century. These extraordinary artworks exhibit diverse artistic styles from the pre-Angkor period, the Dvaravati era, and Srivijaya arts.

In 1960, a group of looters, acting on the orders of art dealers, forcibly removed the Buddha heads and other invaluable artefacts from the Khao Thamorat caves. Subsequently, Si Thep’s Buddha sculptures found their way into the hands of art collectors in Bangkok. In an unexpected twist, Thai authorities discovered a concealed collection of Si Thep artifacts on the property of silk magnate Jim Thompson, which now houses the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre.

Recently, UNESCO recognized Khao Thamorat’s historical significance as an integral part of the Si Thep World Heritage site. To fully immerse in the ancient splendour of the Khao Thamorat Buddhist sanctuary, two trips are recommended: one to the Bangkok National Museum to view the preserved heads and the other to Khao Thamorat mountain itself to explore the remaining parts.

Planning Your Visit

3 hr 18 min (240.0 km)

Si Thep Historical Park is about 240 kilometres north of Bangkok. It’s possible for visitors to make a day trip from Bangkok to the historical park. However, the ancient Town of Si Thep is worth spending a few more days around the ruin and museum. A self-driving is the best optio to visit the ancient town of Si Thep.