Exploring Lesser-Traveled Roads in Thailand: Korat and PhiMai

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On Christmas day we had decided we would go to Nakhon Ratchasima (which the Thais call Korat) and see a different part of the country for a few days before making our way back to Bangkok to rendezvous with our friend Tony for New Years Eve. While Christmas is celebrated by those in Thailand as just that, a reason to celebrate, it is not an official public holiday. This meant that getting public transport to the bus station and buying our bus ticket thirty minutes before the bus left the station wasn’t a problem.

This would be our first intercity bus ride of many in Thailand. We would soon learn that unlike so many other parts of the world we had been traveling in, Thailand buses tend to leave earlier than their scheduled time. Today would be the first of many times we experienced this. Fortunately for us we usually give ourselves a huge time cushion when trying to go anywhere and now this was a huge benefit to us. When we boarded our bus at 2pm (with a scheduled departure of 2:20pm) and it left at 2:05pm we were a bit confused. In a mini-panic, Ben did a quick jolt to the front of the bus to double check we were on the right one. The driver reassured us we were, and we settled in to what turned out to be a 5 ½ hour ride (when it should have taken 4 hours). The bus was comfortable so the ride wasn’t too bad. We watched out the windows and kept waiting for the scenic views after leaving the ‘city.’  We were surprised that the development along the roads never seemed to let-up. While some of the countryside became more visible finally after a couple hours on the road the roadside development was consistent. Another realization that would be learned via experience on road journeys throughout the country – most road, especially the main ones, are continuously lined with development, be it food stops, shops, moto repair places, gas stations, 7-11s, a gajillion signs, or something else.

Christmas Dinner with our Local Thai Host — Jay

Part of the reason we had chosen to travel this direction was to meet and CouchSurf with a local, Jay.

Jay was a very nice and overly accommodating CouchSurfing host from the moment we arrived in Korat. He and his friend PK who work together at Seagate kept themselves occupied at the large mall (aptly titled “The Mall”), until we arrived. Once we got there, we packed into PK’s car, and they took us to a Vietnamese place where we had a fantastic Christmas dinner rolling our own spring rolls and enjoying the other dishes they had ordered. And at the end, Jay and his friend PK treated us to the meal. While the middle part of our Christmas day may have been somewhat mundane, the beginning (dancing at The Club) and end (rolling spring rolls with local Thai friends) were both unique treats. It was a Christmas dinner we will remember.

Our non-traditional christmas dinner of Vietnamese spring rolls in Thailand!
Our non-traditional christmas dinner of Vietnamese spring rolls in Thailand!

 

 

Jay's hood- on the edge of the huge Seagate campus.
Jay’s hood- on the edge of the huge Seagate campus.

Exploring Smaller Communities

Jay lives adjacent to the Seagate campus, which is about 15km outside of Korat. Seagate has been in Thailand for 30 years now, and this plant is where the majority of their production is done, employing 13,000 people. Jay is an engineer here, and lives five minutes away from the campus on foot, or two minutes via scooter. His apartment was nice and we all slept in Thai style on comfy pads laid out along the floor in the large one bedroom he had. This would be our cozy sleeping spot for the next few days. The day following our arrival another couchsurfer from Switzerland joined us as well. Because of his location, Jay doesn’t get many couchsurfing inquiries a year. For the entire year of 2013 he had only received five requests to host. This was the first time he had received two requests at once. And being the amazing host he is he welcomed us all into his home.

Being in a small neighborhood outside Korat felt great. The experience of the culture and the way people lived in SE Asia was still so new and fresh for us. Just walking around and seeing the green from the plants people would hang everywhere or the tiny shrines set up frequently along the roads sparked new exciting feelings of exploration in us. It is like being a kid again where there is all this new stuff to see and explore that you have never seen before. It was pretty obvious that not as many ‘farangs‘ (AKA westerners) came to these parts as many people would stare at us or want to talk or ask where we came from and why we were here.

 

 

Jay showed Ben how to properly make an offering to Buddha
Jay showed Ben how to properly make an offering to Buddha

Besides taking in his immediate neighborhood streets, Jay also took us to see Wat Dhammachakra Sema Ram, which is only a few kilometers from where he lives.  Locals also call this site Wat Phra Non which means ‘Sleeping Buddha Temple’. This is the oldest lying buddha in Thailand, dating back to the 7th or 8th century B.C.  What luck for us it was right in Jay’s backyard! Jay drove us to this spot on his lunch break. Unlike the busy lying buddha in Bangkok, we were the only people here aside from the monks and the woman responsible for assisting the visitors. The buddha looks almost as old as it is.  The locals now take good care to protect and preserve it as best possible from the elements.  A wat (temple) and a structure has been built around the buddha without disturbing large statue. The attendant was happy to show us around, and she and Jay showed us how to pray to the buddha. Ben went through the process – making a small donation for flowers and incense for an offering to the buddha.

 

 

A prayer to buddha:  one lays the flowers down for buddha, lights the incense, and kneels before Him and bows in prayer. You are also given a small flake of gold (think gild), which you can then place on the buddha. It was really neat being out in this rarely-visited part of Thailand, and having the area to ourselves, with locals sharing the culture with us in this serene environment.

 

Lying Buddha - Korat

 

The watchdogs for the ruins -- pretty scary!
The watchdogs for the ruins — pretty scary!

 

After visiting this ancient lying buddha, Jay drove us to the nearby Prasat Muang Khaek ruins, which are from the Khmer empire around the 12th century, as with those from Angkor and Phimai. These were spread out over an area that was mostly grass and trees now, and were more ‘ruinous’ than many you see, which have more of the structure intact. Although much of what we saw was the layout of the old temple and some pillars, we were able to get a feel for the sanctity of the space and it was refreshing to get a taste of the holy buildings that were created to worship here in Asia.

While here, Amanda spied some little puppies doing what they do best, being adorable. They were playing on top of their mom just at the edge of the ruins, with a tablecloth beneath them. Amanda went over to meet them and shake their hands (so to speak), and one of the locals that maintains the grounds came out and started talking with Jay. The guy had placed his cute companions at the edge of the ruins so he would see when visitors came, so he could talk with them. He didn’t want any money, but he seemed lonely and genuinely wanted to share about the ruins of the temple. He talked to Jay for over an hour about the legends of the temple, and some of his opinions of what used to happen there. Jay later informed us that much of what he said was not found in the history books, but was interesting and entertaining at the same time. But after it had now been a few hours on a weekday that we had been out exploring Jay’s backyard in Korat, it was time to head back, as Jay would be doing some work from home in the evening to make up for his 3-4 hour lunchbreak with us.

 

 

Ruins near Jay's House - Korat

 

PhiMai, Sai Ngam Banyan Tree Grove, and Korat Cats

After getting a small taste for some of the ancient ruins we were ready to venture out on our own and explore some of the larger, more well known ruins, PhiMai. Jay had prepped us well with a paper that explained how to get to the ruins via bus and then some of the things we could do while we were there. Being the generous guy he is, he took us to the bus stop, talked to someone at the bus stop to make sure we got off at the right stop, got us a breakfast snack of Koa Neiw Ping Choup Kai (sticky rice cooked with egg fried to give it the appearance of a hashbrown, but with more flavor), and sent us on our way. Together with Louis, the other fellow couchsurfer, we boarded bus number one for our day adventure while Jay headed to work.

Amanda entering the PhiMai historical park grounds
Amanda entering the PhiMai historical park grounds

 

A distinct carving found etched in a cornerstone at the PhiMai ruins
A distinct carving found etched in a cornerstone at the PhiMai ruins

The temple in PhiMai is one of the most important Khmer temples in Thailand. The Khmer empire had many temples including the most popular Angkor Wat. The temple in PhiMai marks one end of the ancient Khmer Highway that ran between this location and Angkor. As many other temples of this time, the temple grounds were designed to resemble the universe with the main building in the center being the center. This center is surrounded by large open areas that connect to larger chapels along with mini-chapels within and around those to worship various gods. What remains today is mostly the larger center structure with some of the surrounding foundations. There were also many uniquely carved stones which we enjoyed, even if they weren’t in their proper place of the structure as they may have been hundreds of years before.

Since this was our first ruins in Southeast Asia we spent a good amount of time exploring the area and just relaxing on the grounds and taking in the views. When we finally did depart the ruins we headed toward a famous Banyan tree that Jay had recommended to us as stop number two on our itinerary. The walk was about 1.5km and snaked through some streets in the PhiMai town before passing a manmade resivori looking pond. Eventually we reached the larger lake where the banyan tree was located. We could immediately see why Jay had told us to see this tree.

One of the world’s most distinctive trees, banyans germinate their seeds within crevices on the very tree from which the seeds came, and after a while, no individual trees can be discerned. Instead, an inseparable, interwoven grove of trunks and branches takes shape, making it nearly impossible to decipher which branches belong to which trunks.  This particular banyan tree is known as Sai Ngam and is supposedly the largest of these banyan groves in Thailand, spanning an area of some 1,350 square meters.  From the side of the lake you could walk on path that led under the massive cover of branches. Hopefully the image below can give some slight understanding to what we saw, as explaining he enormity of it in words is quite difficult. We explored the paths under the branches for quite sometime. There were places to sit and picnic, mini temples, and even some vendors inside the banyan grove. It was like a park that was completely covered by a twisting and beautiful canopy of branches that all came from one tree.

Enjoying the biggest tree network we've ever seen!
Enjoying the biggest tree network we’ve ever seen!

Music Learning - Korat


It was hard to pinpoint exactly where the tree trunk was. At this point there were so many branches and had extended downward and acted as supports for the canopy of branches over head. Ben was mesmerized by the enormity, beauty, and uniqueness of this natural structure. Wanting to maximize our time here we grabbed some fruit and steamed buns (for about $0.15 each) and sat in an enclave under the tree taking in the moment. Louis found a nearby musician playing a local instrument, the Sa-lor, and joined him in learning more about how to play. The entire afternoon was relaxing and exactly what we were looking for – a bit of history, feeling more immersed with locals, and seeing some sites that most people overlook.

Our final stop in PhiMai before boarding our bus back to Korat would be to see the ‘famous’ Korat cats from a local breeder Jay had recommended to us. He had given us the phone number of the breeder but when we tried to call him there was a large gap between his English skills and our Thai language skills. With plenty of time to spare we thought perhaps the Tourist Police would know where this well known Korat cat breeder was located. Our visit with the police was an event in itself. We stumbled in on them as they were watching some show on the television and hanging out chatting. Our communication exchange with them was not much better than with our sought our cat farmer. After saying “cat” a few times they repeated, “cat” with confused looks. We did however have the phone number and dialed up the cat breeder on our phone then handing it off to the police officer. Soon we heard the police officer smiling and saying, “ahhh cat, cat, cat”. It seems the communication chain was slowly linking together. In the meantime the other officers were asking if they could get photos taken with Louis and Ben, who accepted and posed awkwardly with the posse. Guess theses tourists police don’t get too many tourist visitors. The whole scene was like hanging out with the Thai version of Super Troopers.

Siamese Cat Breeder - Korat


Our plan worked though and with a small hand drawn map we made our way to the cat breeder. It took some more asking around but we were finally directed to a man down a side street. He had some cages in what was a large empty room with a few chairs and a table. He took a couple of the cats out to show us. We felt silly as we realized that we had for some reason been thinking the cats would be Siamese, but instead they were a soft gray colored fur. Because of the communication barrier we couldn’t do much more than see the cats. We wen’t able to learn much about the history of the cats from the breeder or his personal background. Many of the kitties were ill at the moment as well. After a few strokes we bowed our thanks to the breeder and walked the short distance to the bus stop for our journey back.

Save One Night Market in Korat

When we arrived back to Korat after our day in PhiMai we had some time to kill before meeting up with Jay. He had suggested we check out the popular Save One Night Market. The name comes from the previous shopping center, a place called Sehf Wan, distorted in English into the current “Save One.”  And we aren’t joking about that.  

It was a short songthaew ride from town to the night market, and our first taste of “you can get anything in Thailand.”  It looked like a normal flea market, but much larger, and it didn’t get started until the sun went down. At first we just scanned the perimeter, before preparing to enter. Police armor, a scope for your rifle, brass knuckles, crack pipes and socks were a few of the first things we saw.  Oh man. Then as we made our way into the madness of the market, we found more diversity, with everything from underwear and clothing to home appliances. After an initial stroll we went into the dining area to eat where we had some delicious food for 30 Baht (about $1 a plate). After this, Ben was set to do some shopping. The fake Ray Bans looked good, but there were some nice locally-designed t-shirts that caught his interest, too. Eventually he got what he needed most – a new pair of shoes. Having seen that the Nike, Adidas and New Balance shoes in the mall were all starting over $100 US, we decided to try out the fake ones. Usually bargaining is always part of the buying process, but since we were at a more local market things were pretty much priced as they would be sold. Many places had signs for prices and the couple times we did try to bargain people would just say no. It became apparent they weren’t in the bargaining game, or in the overpricing game either. In many ways we appreciated this, since we hated playing this exhausting game ourselves. In the end, Ben got a pair of ‘New Balance, USA MADE’ shoes for about $12, and we were happy.

Jay’s 2nd Home

A round of free shots being poured for the dinner guests
A round of free shots being poured for the dinner guests

On a Thursday night, Jay took us to his “home away from home,” – the Moondance Bar and Resturant. We went there with another one of his friends in his “rocket ship,” a new Toyota Corolla with deeply tinted windows. We ordered drinks and Jay took the lead on ordering food for all of us, and was in shock to hear that Louie is a vegetarian. This meant that he not only wouldn’t eat cow, but he wouldn’t eat chicken or pork, or even fish. Jay had a bit of a hard time with this, but eventually ordered him a salad and fries. When these arrived, we all wanted to inspect it closer since it was the most interesting salad any of us had ever seen. It was a mix of lettuce, blue jello, some fruits, nuts, tomatoes, and other random non-meat items. Despite the weirdness of it (did we mention the owners were eccentric artists?), the taste was great. We had plenty of food for ourselves as well. Jay ordered us a delicious and spicy soup with chicken, crispy pork, and a tuna salad, with random free shots of booze arriving periodically throughout the meal. The food was just as awesome as the atmosphere of the place.  Moondance is one of those local gems and we were really glad Jay chose to share it with us!

Jay would sporadically get up to help out the owners with something or go talk to people at another table. We had good conversation, and before we knew it, most of the other guests had all left, and the place was officially shut down, and the staff had gone home.  But as Jay had told us, this was his home away from home. So even though they were closed and we had paid our bill, we then joined another two other guys and the owners around one table near a fire. They brought out a bottle of booze, and continued to pour drinks while they barbecued eggs on the fire. One of the owners brought out a guitar, and we sat around singing with him, while intermittently being surprised when an egg would explode behind us after getting too hot. One of the other friends who had closed down the bar (who we nicknamed “Tiger”) was very eager to talk to us, and at some point snuck off to his car and came back with Chinese New Year gifts for us – 20 baht each in red envelopes!

By 12:30am we were wiped. We–in this case–was Ben, Amanda and Louie. Jay, however, still had plenty of energy. We were starting to see Jay had magically tapped into some endless energy pool we needed to discover.  Most nights (this one included) we would be asleep long before he crashed after working or watching youtube videos til 2am.

Breaking out the guitar and barbecuing eggs after with the owners after the bar closed down for the night
Breaking out the guitar and barbecuing eggs after with the owners after the bar closed down for the night

 

Tham Kaeo Saraphat Nuek Cave and Wat Theppitak Punnaram Buddha

Some of the buddhas along the cave journey.
Some of the buddhas along the cave journey.

On Saturday, Jay was excited to have the whole day to show us around. We have always found it nice when we stay with people that don’t host very much on CouchSurfing, because there is usually an eagerness to share their city or region with you. Jay had hosted three other people in the year, but now he coincidentally was hosting the two of us, plus Louie. Additionally he also had a Malaysian friend in town, Andrew, who was working on a project for his PhD in Physics at the local university. Come Saturday, Jay was ready to escape the Seagate campus area and show us some other beautiful parts of the northeastern region. So the five of us set out in his peppy little Suzuki to explore. Our initial plan was to visit Khao Yai National Park, which is a UNESCO heritage site (of course). However plans changed since upon arrival we found out that the entry for farangs (foreigners) is 400 baht, not 200 as Ben had read on wikitravel. $13 per head is a lot of money in Thailand, so we opted not to do it, and instead Jay, always optimistic, helped us create a new itinerary.  After some on-the-fly deliberation in the car, we chose to go the ‘Magic Cave Land‘ monastery.

When we first arrived, it looked like it was closed. We got the constant feeling that the caves might have been a bigger attraction several years ago, but was now like a roadside motel that barely scraped by after a new freeway was built circumventing the town. There were several very sad looking dogs to greet us, and eventually a family emerged, and told us it was open. We made a donation, and then the 10-year old daughter grabbed her ipad for notes and began our tour. She gave the tour in Thai and Jay would translate to us the interesting parts in English. The cave was quite decrepit, but still interesting. There was a main pathway with high cave ceilings, and several spots adorned with both Buddhist and Hindu icons. There was another offshoot that the girl told us we could not all enter, as there is not enough good air for six people to enter. Ben went in on his own, and found another small buddha and altar. At a fork in the path, we also discovered there was a large, auditorium-sized room that was only accessible to monks to pray in.

About 2/3 of the way through the 1km path in the cave, all the lights went out. We didn’t know if they were on a timer or the rickety power system had gone out, but the cave took on a new enchantment (and a bit of eeriness) as we carried on by just a couple cellphone lights. We had to make our way back a little sooner because of this, but it was still neat.

White Buddha - Korat

 

From here, Jay suggested we visit the enormous buddha statue we had seen on a hillside as we came in from Bangkok. After a considerable amount of Saturday traffic (which we learned was largly due to the holidays and people traveling home for New Years Eve, which was just around the corner), we arrived at Wat Theppitak Punnaram. It was also fairly quiet here, but obviously well maintained, and free. The site was rather large at the base of the hill. Up above (approximately 300 steps up) we could see the overbearing white buddha calling us. Before beginning our assent be rung the prayer bells at the bottom. As we went up the steps, on either side of us was jungle-like terrain, and it added to the atmosphere of site.

Once at the top, we first enjoyed the view out over the valley. It was a clear day, and we could see for miles. Then we turned our attention to the 135 foot buddha towering over us. There were a few other people there, all of whom were there to pray. We watched the rituals, took some photos, and then headed back to the base of the hill. At the bottom, we were in for another treat. We were getting a snack from a vendor that was set up at the bottom when the wildlife came out to say hello. Several peacocks were wandering about, as well as chickens, cats, dogs, and rabbits. We managed to capture a bit of the harmony with nature, as a squirrel decided to join the medley of animals at the base of this picturesque site.

After this, we were all happy, hungry and a bit tired. We treated ourselves to what Jay called “Thai fast food,” which is healthier than American fast food. Basically it was made up of pre-cooked curries and other dishes in pots and you can choose which one you want to have over rice. We both decided it would be nice to have more ‘Thai fast food’ available in the States.

This would be our final day together. The following day we would head back to Bangkok, Andrew would be flying home that night, and Louie decided he would hitchhike to Chiang Mai after our fast food dinner. So, with a little help from Jay, he made a sign in Thai, and headed out onto the freeway. We wished him luck, and got his email later that he arrived safely.

 

 

Our First Thailand Train

Our departure was the following morning. Although Jay tried to convience us to take the bus back to Bangkok due to the much shorter travel time and higher comfort we were eager to try out what train travel in Thailand was like. The $3.50 fare was also very appealing. With Jay’s help we managed to get to the train station and get our tickets without any problem. The ride was definitely longer than the bus would have been (about 5 hours) but the scenery was much better than what we had seen on the road ride up. This time we passed through many green fields and tiny communities. And being that it wasn’t an overnight train the ride was fairly comfortable (at least for our standards).

The trip to Korat was worth every moment and exactly what we were looking for. We couldn’t have asked for a better host or first ‘off the travelers track’ experience here in Thailand. The small community feeling mixed with some history and local attractions was perfect. Now we can say we are part of the 1% of tourists in Thailand that visit this northeastern corner of the country.

 Train Thailand - Korat

More photos of our explorations near Korat and PhiMai are available HERE.