Si Thep ancient city, located in central Thailand’s Phetchabun Province, was inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in September of this year – 2023. While it wasn’t, in our humble opinion, the most obvious candidate for listing, to some extent any addition to UNESCO’s prestigious list is a good one in terms of the recognition, funding and protection it provides.
Somewhat remote Phetchabun Province – situated between the Central Plains provinces of Nakhon Sawan and Phitsanulok to the west and the Khorat Plateau region, commonly known as Isan (or Issan) to the east – is largely off the tourist map and such recognition ought to be a boost for the local tourist industry. Quite how much waits to be seen.
Even within Phetchabun, Si Thep ancient city is relatively far-flung with a location in a rural area in the far southern reaches of the province. At present the infrastructure is minimal; little or no public transport and a shortage of accommodation and eateries. We visited shortly after it received its inscription and the site was inundated with local visitors, the vast majority of whom had arrived by car on day trips. (We actually hired a car from nearby Lopburi, 1 hour or so to the south, due to the aforementioned lack of hotels and public transport in the vicinity.) The few foreign visitors in evidence were clearly expats, also with their own transport.
Rural roads were often poorly signposted, the narrow lanes far from ideal for the influx, car parks were either non-existent or overflowing and the scarcity of cafes, restaurants and coffee shops meant we had to rely on mobile vendors or roadside stalls. Local residents were possibly taken by surprise by the sudden upturn in arrivals but we’d imagine some of the government ministries must have seen it coming.
We’d expect some enterprising residents to set up more cafes and perhaps even a bicycle hire shop or two along the lines of Sukhothai or Si Satchanalai, (bicycles would be ideal for visiting the site), but public transport and accommodation is going to going to take longer. Furthermore, while the newly inscribed site was certainly ‘flavour of the month’ when we visited, it’s hard to predict longer-term visitor numbers so more substantial investment, both public and private, is not guaranteed.
The well-known central plains, UNESCO-listed, sites of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya do see substantial numbers of both local and foreign visitors although also listed and picturesque Si Satchanalai far less so. Spectacular historical sites further east such as Phimai and Phanom Rung – both of which remain firmly on the World Heritage tentative list – also see surprisingly low numbers of foreign tourists and we’re far from convinced that Si Thep – even with hotels, public transport and bicycle hire – will ever be a big draw.
The bottom line is that while the site is of undeniable archaeological value, it is ultimately somewhat underwhelming for a casual visitor. The site was an important city during the Mon/Dvaravati period from the 6th century and was subsequently occupied by the Khmers during the Angkorian period from around the 11th to early 13th centuries. While archaeological vestiges litter a wide area of the extensive, former moated settlement the principal standing monuments today consist of 3 Khmer-style sanctuaries, 2 large brick Dvaravati stupas and a series of man-made reservoirs and largely intact city moat.
The Khmer Hindu temples, Prang Si Thep, Prang Song Phi Nong and Prang Ruesi are interesting, albeit small and unspectacular, while to the casual observer, the earlier, Buddhist stupas built by the Mons are simply huge piles of bricks. The largest and most intact of the two, Khao Khlang Nok, has been almost entirely rebuilt from scratch and while the second stupa, Khao Khlang Nai, possesses some interesting reliefs, you have to get up close to discern them.
These are the most important vestiges in Thailand of the little-known yet historically crucial Dvaravati civilisation so their value to world heritage is clear although, as we said, for the casual visitor, Bagan, Angkor or even Sukhothai – this is not . Worthwhile perhaps then for historical buffs but we’re not about to add Si Thep Ancient City to any of our Thailand tour itineraries any time soon.