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Northeast to Khorat

By S. Stampfli

November 2004

I landed in Bangkok from San Francisco, then two days visiting Lek’s (my Thai girlfriend of several yrs) extended family in Thonburi, across the river from BKK proper and near Wat Intharam. Finally we secure her two daughters at Momma’s house, and are ready to begin our journey east to the Khorat plain- ultimate destination: the 12th century Angkorian restored city of Phanom Rung, and next to find a driver who will take us off the main route, following back roads mirroring the Cambodian border south to Trat, which will put us in position to take the ferry to Ko Chang (Elephant Island).

After a concluding night of dining and drinking on the west bank of Mae Nam Chao Phraya, with forty or so of the extended family, next morning we board a train from downtown Bangkok station. The second class car is only half full as we make the slow trudge through the many stops servicing the suburbs of this vast city of seven million; yet the view from the tracks educates the first time rider of the poverty often gone unseen by someone staying in Siam Square, or even in Banglamphu (Khao San Rd).

Four hours up the rambling trestles we pass scary looking chemical plants and bleak desolate flatlands, before the terrain gives way to rice fields and sparse herds of skinny cattle. Then our train chugs ascending a grade cut through the hills, and we see mining operations and small dusty towns, before leveling over the mountains onto a wide open plateau. From here it is all endless paddies and occasional skinny cows and forlorn water buffalo; soon we head into the populated outskirts of Khorat and the weathered terminal.

Lek and I check into a ten buck a night hotel, and are stoked to find the hot water works, yet the bed has barely a mattress and is hard as concrete, and the white stucco room makes us feel like we are staying in a mental hospital. However that evening we walk a few blocks to the night market and enjoy a yummy Issan meal of kai ping (grilled garlic marinade chicken) and laap muu (fried minced pork with chilies and fresh mint leaves)- including sticky rice and beer, total cost for two around $4 US. Walking back to the hotel we cut through a dark alley and literally run into a smiling little man walking his teenage elephant; we stop and chat and he allows us a photo.

The next morning we negotiate with a guy for a lift to the town of Phimai to the northeast of Khorat. Lek sits in the cab with the driver and I spread out in the bed of the dented pickup with the bags, and off we ramble up the road.

Phimai to Phanom Rung

An hour later the truck dumps us off in front of an ok looking semi-modern hotel in middle of nowhere- off desolate two lane Rte 206. The Phimai Inn turns out to be good digs, with large, clean rooms complete w/ A/C, hot water, satellite tv, fridge, and a comfy queen sized bed ($18 US a night). The view from our second floor nest gazes out over a small garden and mature fruit trees, and beyond endless rice paddies w/ the occasional skinny cow and/or forlorn water buffalo. There is also a large well-maintained pool, and a well-staffed open-air restaurant covered by a wooden roof which is good, since it’s nearly 90-F degrees in the shade; even though it is only the end of November. We’re delighted to find the food very fresh and Issan tasty (spicy), the beer icy cold, and the waitresses extremely friendly. Although reading the menu cracks me up: “curry snake head…flyed frog…curried grass hopper…eel with kiss rice…” but the fair also has the more traditional dishes like laap muu, kai ping, etc- and everything Lek and I order is yummy.

Next morning our prearranged driver picks us up at 9-am and we ramble over country roads leading east, and a bit south. We are headed to Phanom Rung which is considered Thailand’s best restored Khmer monument/ancient city- circa AD 1113-1250. After about 90 minutes the lonely track passes through a small village and we begin to see evidence of historical sites: the remains of timeless stone walls, a well constructed reservoir still holding water behind a dam built in the 12th century, overgrown piles of earthen brick, etc. Then the road rises up the side of an extinct volcano which allows us to gaze over an extended plain leading to Cambodia, and we enter the park; I’m glad we hired a driver with a good vehicle, as he drops it into first gear and we motor up the steep ascent. The jovial wheel man is named Pong and he drops us at the top, explaining he’ll pick us up on the other side of the mountain once we’ve seen our lot.

Lek and I spend the next three hours strolling and examining the excellently restored, impressive, ancient city monument which sprawls over several wooded acres. The deserted hallways, hefty pillars and giant door openings lead one to image gods living in these perfectly symmetrical walls and ritual spaces. The stone blocks are laterite and sandstone, and the carved art work depicting lotus-bud tops, dancing girls, Vishnu, Rama, Krishna, and the rest of the Hindu brethren are stunning. By the time we amble back down to the van we are quite overwhelmed by our walk through time, but then Pong insists on stopping at two other lesser sites on our journey back to Primai; which is only icing on the historical cake.


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