15.12.2012 - 16.12.2012 28 °C
After a nice long breakfast and a chat with Mike, one of our newfound friends from Cleveland who we met on the jungle tour the day before, we left for Phanum Rung. Phanum Rung is an ancient Khmer temple complex East of Nakhon Ratchasima and close to Buriram and Surin.
As soon as we left Pak Chong and the vicinity of Khao Yai heading eastwards Isaan revealed its true nature – endless countryside, only broken up by small dwellings, forests, lakes, rice paddies or sugarcane fields. As mentioned before, we always enjoy taking in the Thai countryside as it is so green and soothing and Isaan is no different. And again, even though we were in one of the poorest and most remote regions of Thailand, the streets are well maintained.
We arrived in Phanum Rung mid afternoon and after a quick lunch on the roadside eating my all-time Thai favorite Phad Khra Pao, we bought our entry tickets and walked into the temple area. Phanum Rung is beautifully located on top of a hill with views over the countryside and surrounded by green shrubs and forest. Since it is in “the middle of nowhere” it has a very quiet and peaceful atmosphere and we saw very few foreign tourists – it’s just not on the main circuit of Thai tourist sites for foreigners. So we just walked around the temple complex, meandered along the long walkway from the east gate to the steps up to the temple.
(Phanum Rung historic park)
Coincidentally, on the day of our visit a Bangkok film crew shot a Thai movie production, apparently one of these historic epic movies, with lots of swords, fighting and the like. We were sitting in the shade of the trees for a while and just watched the painfully slow process of adjusting and re-adjusting the cameras, repositioning some of the poor “extras” mere inches, some of them getting really bored and starting to pick their noses. The obvious “star” of the movie was this 6ft 3 tall, muscular handsome guy with long hair (actually a hair piece as we saw them readjusting it) who tried to look so cool it could have frozen all of Thailand. It was quite fun to watch this unfold and in the breaks some of the scantily clad extras were more than happy to pose with tourists for photos.
(Movie set at Phanum Rung)
(Actors/extras from the movie set)
Besides the fun we had with watching the movie set we really enjoyed Phanum Rung and both decided after our little round trip that it was our favorite temple. The peaceful atmosphere, beautiful temple ruins itself, the layout of the place and grounds and the position on top of the hill will leave a long lasting memory as one of the “temple highlights” of Thailand for us. Once we paused for a while and took in the whole setting and scenery it actually felt like a former spiritual place unlike some other, more commercialized temples we’ve seen across Thailand and Asia.
But it was time to leave Phanum Rung and make our way towards Buriram where we had booked a small hotel for the night. It took about an hour from Phanum Rung to Buriram and driving through the countryside at sunset was almost “magical”, the last rays of the sun turning the rice paddies, little lakes and small villages into a picture perfect backdrop for our adventure through Isaan.
It was already pitch dark when we arrived in Buriram, which is a very typical little town (and province) in the middle of the Isaan region although it is still very close to the Cambodian border. Many people in this region speak several languages or dialects - Thai, the Isaan dialect which is almost a separate language as well as Khamen or Khmer, the language of Cambodia. So, it doesn’t get much more Northeast than this.
Using our GPs and a map we bought before our trip we actually found the street and our hotel relatively quickly and we checked in to our room, which turned out to be the most expensive one during our whole trip through Isaan – we actually paid a whopping US$45 for a nice, large clean room including balcony. The hotel even has a nice pool – the only one in Buriram by the way – and it has a nice restaurant that serves Thai and Italian food, including a large selection of pizzas. The hotel is called “Muang Pizza & Resort Buriram” and many locals just call it the “Pizza Hotel” since it is still the only place in Buriram where you can get a decent Pizza.
(Our room at the "Pizza Hotel" in Buriram)
We got to know the owner a little bit and had a chat with him. He’s a Dutch guy and married a girl form Buriram so they both manage the hotel together. Like so many other stories in Thailand, their story is very similar but also somewhat different, “same, same but different” as many Thaissay: Boy (or often man and in many cases old, ugly man) meets Isaan girl in Bangkok – mostly in a beer or gogo bar - he falls in love (she falls in love with the little money he has), they marry and in many cases it doesn’t last very long for any number of reasons. In their case, however, it seemed to work really well. They were both! attractive and relatively young, they had been living together for a couple of years in Bangkok before they decided to move to Buriram, the hometown of the girl, to build a small business. They started out with a Pizza place after some research and finding out that there’s good demand for Pizza but no “Pizzeria” in Buriram. And they were right, the little business took off and after a couple of years they bought some land and built this very nice small hotel where we were staying. He was managing the hotel and his wife was doing administration, reception and the like…and probably managing most of the staff in the “appropriate Thai style” whenever needed. So it sounded like a really nice success story and we both wished them all the luck for their future.
We were getting pretty hungry after we checked in and we decided to go out and not have Pizza in the hotel restaurant – it just doesn’t feel right to us not to have Thai food in places like this and we wanted to sample some of the local fare. So we just took a little walk and not far from our hotel was a little outside eating place where we stopped. It had a nice outside kitchen, a little bamboo style bar and a large screen showing English Premier league football. Thais are crazy about football and especially the English Premier league. You can get pretty much any PL game on some of the many satellite channels in Thailand and most restaurants and bars have screens or flat screen TVs showing just this. So we felt right at “home” and ordered some of our Thai favorites Phad Khra Pao, som tam thai (spicy papaya salad), tom yam goong and Leo beer, which is my particular favorite. Food was very tasty and the folks at the restaurant were very friendly, only one person speaking some broken English but that, together with our broken Thai (at least we know the names of the food we like), pictures on the menu and many hand signals we were perfectly able to communicate.
Totally satisfied we took a nice long walk in the relatively “cool” air (approx. 25 degrees celsius) and since it was a Saturday night we decided to have a night out in town. Buriram actually does have a little bar and nightclub area in the middle of town but don’t expect it to be anything like Bangkok or Pattaya (or many other larger cities in Thailand for that matter). It’s a string of about 20 small bars and a couple of night/dance clubs and we counted approximately 7-8 foreigners overall. Other than that it was a young Thai crowd going out and having fun. While we were having drinks in one of the bars, we curiously observed a group of 4 young women who were “getting ready” for the night. They all had a small snack but ordered a large bottle of whiskey and soda water. Before changing location to the adjacent nightclub they each must have gulped down 3-5 glasses (by the way regular water not whiskey glasses) of whiskey just watered down with some soda water. Surprisingly, none of them showed any signs of intoxication so we figured that couldn’t have been the first time they were doing this. But ordering a bottle of whiskey for a small group of people, no matter whether men or women, is very, very common in Thailand. You can still get a decent bottle of whiskey for a reasonable price and quite honestly, “it gets you drunk cheaper and quicker” than drinking e.g., wine or beer. Beer is actually priced at a premium rate compared to many of the whiskeys in Thailand. At the low end a cheap bottle of Thai whiskey costs the same as a bottle of beer. So there’s a real economic reason for the high consumption of whiskey in the country and it is indeed one of the biggest markets for many whiskey produces like “Johnny Walker”.
So we really enjoyed our night out and the people – e.g., staff at some of the bars – were all very friendly albeit not able to hold any meaningful conversation in English. When we decided to call it a night just after midnight we had a hard time finding a taxi or tuk tuk as this is not what you’d call a bustling nightlife city but we finally managed to round up a couple of guys with their motorcycle taxis who raced each other to take us back to the “Pizza Hotel”. By the way, taking motorcycle taxis is often very cheap and quick and, although it doesn’t always feel safe, is really good fun. Just tuck your knees in when they navigate through heavy rush hour traffic and don’t worry too much about the fact that the only person wearing any form of protective gear, i.e. helmet, is the driver.
The next day we had a lot of driving to do since we wanted to reach Nongkai, which is almost 500 km from Buriram. So we left Buriram early and a stopped in Phimai, the location of one of the other big Khmer temple complexes in Isaan.
(Phimai Historic Park)
Different from Phanum Rung, the Phimai historical park is in the middle of a small town called Phimai but once inside the temple complex, it is almost as peaceful and quiet as Phanum Rung. If you have been to Siem Reap and the temples of Anchor Wat in Cambodia you will notice the many similarities between the architecture and layout of the temples. But while Anchor Wat, due to its sheer size and the many temples surrounding it, is certainly impressive, we enjoyed Phanum Rung and Phimai as much or more than Anchor Wat. One reason is also the fact that the Khmer temples in Isaan are much less known to at least foreign tourists so you don’t have to deal with the hordes of European and Asian tourists on their photo safaris.
In that context (i.e., hordes of tourists travelling to Anchor Wat) here’s a little fun I’d like to share with you and hopefully it will make you chuckle as much as me. It’s a pictogram found at the airport restrooms in Siem Reap which welcomes many tourists now from countries and regions that are not familiar with the concept of urinals.
Anyway, we really enjoyed the temples in Phimai as well and after a couple of hours wandering the grounds and some sweet and spicy crepes form one of the street vendors we left Phimai and headed towards Nongkai. It was quite a long ride and we passed typical Isaan cities like Khon Khaen and Udon Thani before we reached Nongkai in the dark. We hoped we would find the little hotel we booked on agoda.com as easily as the one in Buriram but this time was much more difficult. We drove around for almost an hour, frequently stopping, looking at our map, checking the GPS and asking a few tuk tuk drivers. We finally found it by way of “eliminating” every little alleyway off the main road where we suspected the hotel to be. The reason it was so hard to find for us was because it was tucked away at the end of a little alley and the sign on the main road was written in Thai only. We checked in and were again pleasantly surprised to find a clean, comfortable room with ensuite bathroom, TV and little balcony for US$ 14. We were also immediately greeted by the two puppies of the owner, dressed in camouflage shirts and named King and Kong; they were just adorable and followed us everywhere we went.
(Baan Tawan Hotel in Nongkai) (Our friends King and Kong)
After the long ride we were quite hungry and walked around for a bit in this sleepy little border town and ended up in the most “popular” place around the corner from our hotel, which was a Chinese & Thai open air restaurant. Again, delicious food was had by all and we ended our day with a very strange encounter that I will tell you more about in our next blog entry “Nongkai – the Visa Run city”.