Thailand’s Beautiful Region of Isaan
By Rupert Parker
After the recent demonstrations in Bangkok, everything seems to have returned to normal in Thailand. Both in the city or the countryside, I saw no extra police or soldiers and, apart from Bangkok’s burnt out shopping mall, no evidence of the state of emergency. Isaan, in the North East of the country, is one of the poorer regions but offers village home stays, an abundance of wildlife, Thailand’s first national park and ruins of Khmer temples. It even produces its own wine.
Every time I visit the city the traffic gets worse and it resembles more and more the futuristic nightmare of Blade Runner. That’s not to say it’s not worth spending a few days here – you can avoid the traffic by taking the newly built Skytrain which soon will extend all the way to the airport, or setting sail on one of the numerous ferries which ply up and down the river. Stand out attractions include the Grand Palace, a plethora of Pagodas, or the narrow winding lanes of Chinatown, lined with crumbling buildings from the colonial past. And if you’re into shopping the hundreds of stalls in Suan Lum Night Bazaar will keep you busy until the small hours.
Get away from it all in Isaan and Ban Prasat
Bordered on three sides by Laos and Cambodia, Isaan makes up a third of the country’s land area and houses a third of the population. The southern city of Khorat, around 4 to 5 hours by bus or train from Bangkok, makes a good base and Tricycle rickshaws are a great way to explore. Try the insect snacks at the night market – deep fried beetles, crickets, grasshoppers and worms are all on the menu. Khorat is a bustling place and, if you fancy a spot of peace and quiet, a one hour bus ride will take you to the attractive village of Ban Prasat set beside the Tarn Prasat River. There’s been a settlement here since 1000 BC and well-preserved skeletons and grave artifacts can be seen in a series of recently excavated burial grounds. The real attraction is the home stay programme where you lodge and eat with a family – this gives you the opportunity to explore the many local craft projects including silk weaving, musical instrument manufacture and hand made rush matting.
Phimai, Khymer temples
On the same bus route from Khorat that takes you to Ban Prasat you can carry on to Phimai to visit the restored Khymer temple complex. Originally connected by a direct road to Angkor in Cambodia, it was built around the same time and contains a similar mass of ornate carvings and pointed towers. If you can’t get to Angkor Wat this is a delightful substitute and there’s an excellent museum nearby. Phimai is also home to a huge banyan tree, covering an area half the size of a football pitch and reputedly harbouring animist spirits. I tried my chance with the Buddhist fortune telling sticks and was told that “You’re among hardship, wherever you are poverty and trouble is always with you and you’ll get more and more unhappiness” And that’s just the good news…
Khao Yai National Park
Between Bangkok and Khorat is the Khao Yai National Park, established in 1962 and covering 2000 square kilometers of the thickly forested Phanom Dangkrek mountains. Home to over 300 bird species and 20 large land mammal species, including a herd of around 250 wild Elephants and a few Tigers, it’s best to camp or overnight here. The accommodation is pretty basic but there are plenty of up-market options just outside the park including the PB Valley Khao Yai Winery which, amazingly, produces some of Thailand’s best Shiraz and Chenin Blanc. The easiest way to explore the forest is to take one of the many signed trails, preferably with a guide who can point out the wildlife and keep you out of the way of the crocodiles. One thing he won’t be able to protect you from is the Leeches, and although completely harmless, they do have a nasty habit of worming their way into your shoes and sucking your blood.
Thai Elephant Centre for Conservation
At Pak Chong, a few km from the park, is the Elephant conservation centre, necessary now that the huge beasts are no longer used as working animals. It’s home to rescued elephants from street side shows or injured in the wild, and carries out research projects, as well as educating the locals about the importance of the animals to Thai culture. You can take a trip sitting on their backs and get close to them as they eat. The most extra-ordinary sight was watching a female trying to coerce a male into mating; her wandering trunk kept delving into parts that he wanted kept private and he was having none of it. A good thing really, as I was only standing a few feet away, and would have been in mortal danger if the earth had moved…
Getting There: Thai Airways offers double daily direct flights from London Heathrow to Bangkok from £541 per person, with onward connections to 17 destinations within Thailand.
Khorat: Dusit Princess Khorat Hotel
Ban Prasat: For home stay contact the village headman, Khun Thiam. Tel: 044 367075