Some of the greatest Khmer temples lie not at Cambodia’s crowded Angkor but just up the road in peaceful Isaan. Lara Dunston reveals Thailand’s secret corner
I stood, sweating, at the end of the ancient Khmer highway and looked around. Right now, 225km to my south-east, crowds would be jostling between the ruins at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. But here, at the tumbledown temples of Prasat Hin Phimai in Thailand, there were only a few local kids, kicking idly about, and a lone Buddhist monk, cross-legged on the floor of an interior room, silently meditating in front of a stone Buddha.
In the 11th century these two temple complexes were linked by an important trade road later known as the Cultural Route. But now they seem worlds apart. Where are the visitors, I asked a local guide? Has the heat kept everyone away today?
“No,” he shrugged, “it’s like this all the time.”
Welcome to Isaan: the Thailand that travellers have overlooked. Infrequent public transport, limited accommodation, few English speakers and more road signs in Thai than not keep all but the most intrepid away.
Home to a third of Thailand’s population and covering a third of the country, the rural north-east sees only a tiny fraction of the tourists that destinations such as Chiang Mai and the Thai islands do – and therein lies much of its appeal. If you’re going to take a road trip anywhere in the country then this section, nicely sandwiched between Cambodia and Laos, is the place to do it.
So, having arrived in Nakhon Ratchasima (known as Korat) from Bangkok by bus late the night before, my photographer-husband and I clambered into the car at 4am and set off into the pitch black morning.
The 12th-century Khmer King Jayavarman VII erected resthouses and hospitals for traders and pilgrims along the zigzagging highway between Phimai and Angkor. Today only smatterings of the brickwork remain – sadly underused and long since forgotten.
As we shadowed the historical route east towards Cambodia’s border, we discovered the reason for their existence – the isolated ruins of Prasat Phanom Rung.
Meaning ‘big mountain’ in Khmer, Phanom Rung’s temple sanctuary was built on the summit of an extinct volcano between the tenth and 13th centuries, and is believed by Hindus to be the heavenly home of Shiva. We tackled the journey to this ‘home of the gods’ at an ungodly hour for good reason. The biannual Khao Phanom Rung ‘miracle’ had just occurred: when, as the sun crosses the equator at sunrise, a single beam of light blazes through all of the temple’s 15 cleverly aligned doorways. The illumination over the following days is said to be nearly as magical. And it was.
Mesmerised by the beauty of the place I almost missed the sight I had travelled all this way to see, and only serendipitously caught the sunlight illuminating the interior rooms moments before it passed. Apart from a Thai family ambling about taking photos, we were its only spectators.
Eight kilometres along the highway lies Prasat Muang Tam, or ‘temple of the lower city’. Driving through lush rice paddies, where farmers work buffalo alongside cowboys herding cattle in green paddocks, we arrived at the quiet village. Inscriptions dedicated to the goddesses of water and rice, asking that she protect the crops, indicated it was a place of worship for the local community as well as for far-flung visitors.
Surrounded by shady trees, freshly mown lawns and large moat-like lotus ponds, Muang Tam was captivating. Here again, it was just a few local kids who idled around the ruins. I saw only one tour group of elderly Thai ladies on our entire journey – bliss compared to the tourist stampedes you can find at Cambodia’s temples.
Isaan offers some of the country’s most diverse landscapes; it’s bucolic, once you head off the highway onto the backroads. The palpable silence is remarkable. And there was all sorts of fascinating stuff by the side of the road: from stalls selling fried chicken and Isaan sausage, to extravagantly decorated spirit houses and shrines.
En route across central Isaan we stopped at the silk-weaving village of Chonnabot. Once more we were the only visitors in town, yet staff at Sala Mai Thai, the official centre for silk weaving, told me that weekends are busy with Thai ‘Hi-So’ (high society) ladies from Bangkok, who come to buy silk directly from the makers. Sala Mai Thai is dedicated to the conservation of mudmee (the weaving technique that has made Chonnabot famous) and was a good place to get an introduction to the silk. During the day, weavers were busy ploughing the fields or working their farms. Only at Boonmee Thai Silk did I find two women weaving cloths on traditional wooden looms at the back of the shop; they allowed me to stay and watch for a while.
It was late afternoon by the time we arrived in Khon Kaen, central Isaan’s small university city. It’s a place I quickly took to – a cool little city with few sights but a laidback attitude, upbeat vibe and youthful energy. At the nine-tiered Wat Nongwang Muang Kao pagoda,
I saw ladyboys flirt and novice monks take photos of pretty girls with their mobiles. I ambled around Bueng Kaen Nakhon lake, the city’s focal point; here, locals walk, run, ride bicycles, feed pigeons, rent pedalos, breakdance, twirl hula hoops and browse the evening markets. Young Thai hipsters were selling handmade and second-hand clothes and trading in all kinds of whacky services.
From two laptops on a blanket on the ground, a student sold his IT skills – from software downloads to the setting up of Facebook accounts. At a table young women glued artificial nails on Thai girls’ hands and painted crazy designs. At a pottery stand, canoodling couples decorated ceramics at low lakeside tables, popped them in the kiln, grabbed a bite to eat and picked them up later.
And then there were the fiery Isaan food stalls: vendors frying chicken and pork in sizzling woks; pounding som tam (the region’s famous spicy green papaya salad) with a mortar and pestle; and serving fragrant curries from colossal simmering pots.
Soon after I arrived in Khon Kaen I was trying to find ways to stay longer; as soon as I left I was already plotting my return.
Our last stop was Dan Sai in the Isaan province of Loei, near the Laos border – a valley renowned for its flowers. We drove along quiet backroads covered by tree canopies, through idyllic landscapes of rolling green hills, thick forests, market gardens and flower nurseries.
Each June and July, Dan Sai’s dilapidated wooden houses are overshadowed by the bawdy rainmaking festival Phi Ta Kon. Over three days, locals fire rockets into the air in mayhem and parade through town in colourful patchwork costumes, phallic-shaped accessories and flamboyantly painted masks. The town is famous for these painted masks, so we cruised the empty village lanes looking for a mask-maker.
I discovered Apiwat – nicknamed ‘Wat’ (Thai for temple) – sitting on the floor of his shop, quietly painting a mask made from cornhusks. His teenage daughter worked beside him, sewing a costume. I watched them work diligently in silence for a while, before buying a souvenir – a spirit-man sporting a mask – and then slipping away.
Each year a temple ceremony rounds off the festival as crowds gather to listen to monks recite sermons begging for rain. For us there were just the monks sweeping the leaves in their mandarin-coloured robes. We turned a corner in the shady temple grounds and, once again, we were gloriously alone.
Access city: Bangkok
When to go: Isaan is about as off-the-beaten-track as travel gets in Thailand so there’s no period when you need to avoid the high-season crowds of other regions.
Jun-Oct Rainy season, with heavy downpours for long periods.
Nov-Feb Dry, with cooler temperatures at night.
Apr-May The summer season, with the heat peaking in May (35°C).
Health & safety: No special vaccinations required. Drink bottled/purified water.
The trip: The author took a bus to Korat and drove around the region. Cars can be rented from all cities; driving is easy. If you prefer to hire a car with driver, the author highly recommends Narawat (081 579 0388; email@example.com) who is knowledgeable, flexible and speaks English; he costs 3,500THB (£72) a day, including fuel. English-speaking drivers are rare in the region; drivers organised by hotels can cost twice as much.
Getting there & around: From the UK, Bangkok is served by BA, Thai Airways, Qantas and EVA Air. Flight time is around 11 hours; fares from around £440 return. From Bangkok you can take a bus (£6; four hours) or a slow train (about £1; five hours) to Korat.
Accommodation: Among the best options are the small, locally owned, sustainable properties that form the Isan Boutique Collection (doubles from £38), some of which offer activities, from cooking classes to mask-making, farming techniques and basket-weaving.
What to pack: Take good walking shoes, as well as a hat and high-SPF sun block – the sun can be fierce.
This article has been take from our South-East Asia round-up feature in the current issue of Wanderlust. Rediscover Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, get off the beaten track and explore – pick up a copy in WH Smiths or order your issue online today!