Religious art in a scenic setting
Located eight kilometres northwest of downtown Ratchaburi, the Khao Ngu Stone Park, once a stone mill, is made up of scattered caves and small limestone mountains. Not only will you be able to stroll along the scenic reservoir and enjoy the stunning panoramic views from the mountaintop, but a visit to this lesser-known site is also a great opportunity to explore the ancient Buddhist art scattered throughout the caves.
Shadow on the wall
The Tham Ruesi – or the “Hermit Cave” is a good place to start. The cave is named to honour the “Phra Phuttha Chai”— the ancient Buddha relief sculpture that has adorned the stone wall since the Dvaravati Period.
The Hermit Cave, however, is situated on a mountain slope and you have to climb a series of staircases to reach the mouth of the cave. The Buddha relief, sculpted out of the stone wall, has the Buddha sitting with legs hanging down, and the right hand held at chest level with the thumb and index fingers forming a circle – or a “Wheel of Dharma” gesture, while the left hand is placed on the left knee. This Teaching Buddha, it seems, beckons visitors with a waving hand into the cave, just as it welcomed the pilgrims, monks and merchants who passed through the cave in its heyday.
There is no record of when the Phra Phuttha Chai, the Teaching Buddha, was crafted out of the cave wall. However, legend has it that the Lord Buddha entered the cave while travelling to share his words of wisdom after enlightenment. When the Lord Buddha left the cave, the Buddha relief appeared where his shadow had been cast on the wall.
The Pallava script on the wall as well as the distinctive facial details and posture suggest that Phra Phuttha Chai in the Hermit Cave was sculpted around the seventh century – when Buddhism started spreading from Sri Lanka and India to the Dvaravati Kingdom. Today, the cave draws a wide variety of visitors, from weekenders to small-time explorers to pilgrims – who see the cave as a passage to the past.
Inside the cave, there are Ayutthaya Period sandstone Buddha images. If you look closely, you’ll notice a standing Buddha relief carved into the limestone wall. It was sculpted in the same period as Phra Phuttha Chai.
Passage to nirvana
Within 250 metres of the Hermit Cave (and a little less than 200 steps uphill) is the Fa Tho Cave. The hidden grotto is well worth the climb to admire the ancient relief sculpture of the Sal tree and the Reclining Buddha. The date of the Buddha relief is unknown, but it seems what matters is the message in the cave.
The Sal tree, in Buddhism, symbolises a circle of life, relating to the birth and death of the Lord Buddha. The only way to break free from the circle of life, the circle of suffering and cruelty, is enlightenment. Reclining on the cave wall with a calm and content expression, you will be able to observe that the Buddha has reached the state of nirvana.
Within walking distance from the Fa Tho Cave, the Chin and Cham caves will keep visitors and explorers enthralled and intrigued with the country’s oldest reclining Buddha and other Buddhist art engraved on the cave walls.
After exploring the ancient Buddha images and religious art in the caves, the small yet scenic reservoir within the park is a great place to stretch your legs along the boardwalk. If you are not down on your knees from the earlier climbs, there are more staircases to the top of the Khao Ngu Viewpoint. From there, the views of the reservoir and beyond are stunning.
If you go
Ratchaburi province is about 90 minutes’ drive west of Bangkok. With charming heritage, museum and art galleries, the province is perfect for a weekend getaway.