Phra That Phu Phek (พระธาตุภูเพ็ก) should be on your must-see list of places in Sakon Nakhon, especially if you are fit enough to make the journey to the mountaintop to see the ancient Khmer temple ruins, which is believed to have been the cosmological axis of the Northern region of the Khmer empire.
The signage at this sacred archeological site says that there are 491 concrete and stone steps to achieve the summit. However, we counted 487. Either way it is going to feel like a thousand! Several flights of steps are quite steep, but fortunately there are level areas with benches where you can take a break as needed. There are also Buddhist bells that you can ring gently, requesting added strength from the Divine. Be sure to also bring some water.
One of the benefits of the mountain staircase being so daunting is that few tourists decide to make the climb. Often we have climbed up to the ruins and not seen anyone at all. It's lovely to be in such as beautiful sacred place all by yourself. If you are fortunate, you may be greeted at the top step by a peacock. If so, consider it a sign of good fortune.
The Khmer temple ruins at Phra That Phu Phek are thought to have been built between the 16th-17th Buddhist centuries, which means between the 11th and 12th centuries using the Gregorian Christian calendar. Many believe it to have been built around the same time as Phrathat Narai Cheng Weng, the famous Khmer era Stupa in Sakon Nakhon. Like the Stupa it was built on a laterite base, atop which is a "castle" formation carved in sandstone.
Like similar Khmer temples built at this time, Wat Phra That Phu Pek was built with astrology in mind. The castle structure is in alignment with the sunrise and sunset. The ruins also include a rock that is believed to be ancient sun dial, and a tunnel within one of the walls which is aligned with the North star, where sacred water was poured. If you follow a path behind the castle, you can find the area where the sand stones where sourced and cut.
If you decide not to make the journey to the mountaintop, the Buddhist grounds at the base of Phra That Phu Phek are beautiful. There are ornate pagodas with gold Buddhas, sculptures honoring famous monks, forest paths, and more. Of particular interest is the temple structure that honors Phra Nang Soma or Queen Soma (พระนางโสมาสีวิกาเทวะนาคเทวี), who was the first ruler and queen of the Khmer empire.
It is said that Queen Soma was descended from the great 9-Headed Naga protector of the Khmer Empire (who oversaw the construction of all palaces and temples, such as Phra That Phu Phek). Thus she is often seen protected by a 9 headed Naga, much like you'll often see Buddha statues where he is being protected by one.
A photograph illustration of Queen Soma has been placed in front of a statue of her at the Naga temple below Phra That Phu Phek. See our full photo gallery at: Phra That Phu Phek Photos.
So, making a trip to Phra That Phu Phek is still worth it. To find additional hiking grounds that you can walk to from the parking lot, search สร้างกระต่าย (ชื่อตามคนท้องถิ่นเรียก) on Google Maps.
Lastly, while you are in this area, you'll definitely want to check out the nearby mountain temple of Wat Tham Kham, which is only 17.7 km away. You'll only have to to climb a couple flights of steps to reach that temple, and the view over Sakon Nakhon is gorgeous. You might also get a glimpse of one of the temple monkeys. If you need a break to recharge your batteries, stop by the beautiful coffeehouse Nalin Cafe, which is nearby.