The Isaan town of Phimai is situated about a forty-five minute drive north of the Provincial capital of Nakhonratchasima. It’s a quiet unassuming little town (mind you – the modern traffic has become particularly fierce) and in terms of landmarks has only two real calls to fame.
The first is the Sai Ngam “Beautiful Banyan” tree on the outskirts of Town. The second and most important landmark is Prasad Hin Phimai, which is an Angkor period monument situated in the middle of the town. Its style of architecture is similar and of the same era as other monuments in the region, namely Phanom Rung Hill in Buriram province and Khao Phra Vihaan on the border with Cambodia.
Although for most of the year Phimai is a fairly quiet rural backwater, it comes to life for five days each November when the “Festival of Phimai” is celebrated. During the five days, the normally busy but in the main quiet town is dominated by thousands of visitors both locals and the others from all across the country.
People gather to eat and drink, shop for handicrafts in the many markets that spring up in the town and in the main just let their hair down. The two centre point events during the festival are the sound and light show of ‘Vimainatthakarn’ at Prasad Hin Phimai and the longtail boat races on the Mun River.
Although I have always felt that Prasad Hin Phimai suffers by its domination by the town (much the same way the Allied War Cemetery is dominated by Kanchanaburi) it is in turn a superb location for the sound and light show. It highlights the restoration of the monument that was carried out about twenty years ago which was I am told initiated by her Royal Highness, Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn.
The sound and life show, which is shown over three consecutive nights, is extremely professional and highlights the Khmer heritage from this part of the Kingdom. A mixture of classical dance, music and of course techno light takes the audience back in time. Again it’s the monument that really makes it work, together with the fact that due to their proximity the audience can intimately take in all the action.
Whilst the sound and light show satisfies the cultural aspect of the Festival, the longtail boat races on the Mun river meets the “fun” side of the five day event. The races are held by local and out of town teams who compete for a prize. Although its in the main a fun event, the boat teams still take the events seriously with many teams praying and lighting incense between races.
The backdrop to the races is a cacophony of sound from hundreds of people supporting their local teams, betting on the outcomes and with loud bands all helped on their way by a ‘Jumbo Jet” sized sound system. All in all a fun day out.
Although it probably sounds like a value judgment to say that the “Festival Of Phimai” doesn’t have the scope or sophistication of say a similar event in Sukkothai, it still highlights the historical importance of Phimai and how Isaan is gradually becoming a serious tourist destination.