slice-of-thai.com Journal 2/22/99: Northeast Thailand

This is an entry from my travel journals about Thailand and Laos.

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2/22/99

Finally escaped Bangkok, taking a 4-hour third class train to Bpaak Choong near Khao Yai national park. Seemed to be in the major boonies on the way but as soon as I pulled into the train depot, two Thai guesthouse advertisers mobbed me. One had a 5-page xerox flier containing customer testimonies as to why the bad Loney Planet review of their guesthouse was untrue. It's really amazing how this book can make or break guesthouses in Thailand.

I went to the other guesthouse, the Khao Yai Garden Lodge, where they have clean rooms, a large garden and aviary, and a swimming pool! (200 baht/night). I went to Khao Yai and saw some amazing Ficus trees and other things in a tropical rainforest (dry season). One Ficus tree was so big we climbed up the side (30 feet maybe) and then climbed back down the inside of the tree (ficus trees surround and kill host trees). I saw some cool waterfalls. The best thing was this really amazing bat cave. We hiked up to the cave and at a precise time, about 2 million bats flooded out! It was like a river of bats gushing out of a hole in a mountain for 25 minutes. At some points, the bats completely covered the sky over where we were standing (watch your eyes and head!). I also saw some caves with nice stalagtites/stalagmites. The cave had been converted to a wat. It occurred to me that in the US we make national parks and/or tourist traps out of interesting natural phenomena. in Thailand, they make them into wats (and then sometimes tourist traps!). I also did a hike and a night safari where we saw some weird mouse deer and other species. On the drive back, the road was completely occupied by some pigtail macaques (monkeys), so we sat and checked them out for 20 minutes until the grandpa monkey saw fit to let us through. There were about 50 monkeys including some very small babies. While in the forest we heard a tree fall—just in case you were wondering if it was possible. We also heard some elephants freak out after the tree fell, but we didn't see any elephants.

2/25/99

Took some buses to Nang Rong near Phanom Rung and Meung Tam, both Khmer ruins. Stayed at the most amazing guesthouse run by a retired English teacher and his wife. They fed us enourmous cheap home-cooked meals and their 150B rooms were like home. One night, our host and his wife wanted to go to her brother's pre-wedding party so they took us along to their house in Khorat. This was very very cool. As before, they stuffed us full of food and played lots of Thai/Khmer music (again, traditional melodies set over moden MIDI synthesized drums and bass). They even got up and started dancing at various points. The dances were pure Thai/Khmer with the women moving their wrists around daintily and the men doing bizarre things with their ankles (ok, hard to describe). They passed around the questionable Thai whisky and were generally having a good time. In the two-story house there were no tables, chairs, or any other furniture—only floor mats and pillows. However, they had a stereo and TV both significantly better than mine! The mother of the house had 7 daughters and 0 sons so all the 7 families live here! The kids crunch in the second floor and the adults sleep on the bottom floor. In this whole area, water is incredibly scarce (cisterns and wells, certainly no running water anywhere) so this house had cisterns out back.

Back at the guesthouse, we played gin rummy all night with the host, overall very cool and relaxed (well, it was hot, but the time was cool). The only sketchy thing about the whole deal was the bathroom, which, though it had a sit toilet, had several large open water cisterns and thus was a breeding ground for mosquitos. It was impossible to use the bin without getting bitten. But compared to some things I have seen and many I will see, this place was luxury heaven.

The ruins were 1000 year old Khmer ruins, in the same style as Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and were most amazingly restored.

Phanom Rung: Central Sanctuary: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Phanom Rung: Central Sanctuary
Click here if image does not load automatically.

The snake heads guarding the entrance and the carvings over the temple doors have an amazing level of detail after 1000 years (I do not think they re-pointed any of the stones, though I am still not totally sure). Every square inch of the temple is covered with detailed, beautiful patterns and sculptures (mostly Hindu for Phanom Rung, all Hindu for Meung Tam).

Phanom Rung Detail: If image does not load automatically, click link below.
Phanom Rung Detail
Click here if image does not load automatically.

At Meung Tam there were some still-not-restored ruins but more interesting were these ponds. Inside the outer temple walls were four L-shaped ponds full of fish, disc-shaped lotus flower leaves with flowers sticking up, fish, bright red dragonflies, and pointy bright orange flowers from the shade trees above. Sitting under one of them you could check out the pond, the reflection of the sky and temple walls, and watch the fish, while traditional Thai music coming from a nearby Buddhist wat echoed around the temple grounds. It was most relaxing and definitely better than work.

But lest this picture be too idealistic I should point out that a guy occasionally spun up his circle saw to build one of many new houses going up right next to the ruins. In Thailand, it seems impossible to find a place with traditional things or only modern things. Both are constantly weaved together.

One other general observation, which Jeff Graves warned me about, is that the 1997 Loney Planet is horribly out of date with respect to telephone numbers and guesthouses and restos which are now closed. Definitely call to confirm any resto you want to go to.

As far as guesthouses, I have found it is generally impossible to call to confirm rooms in advance because:

2/28/99

Went to a pretty amazing (but not terribly humane) aviary with tropical birds from around the world. The things were every color you could ever imagine appearing on a hippie's tie-dye t-shirt. This mini-zoo also had a captive tiger and a small fish park where there were so many goldfish that when you threw in some food, some fish swam above the water on top of the other fish to get the food.

3/1/99

Travelled to Khon Kaen. Learned that the aircon buses are far from uniform—the ones in the northeast have amazingly little legroom (even the Thais had to spread their legs) and that the air conditioning rarely works, so that they are generally hotter than the non-aircon buses (whose windows can open).

Khon Kaen is an odd place indeed. It is this oasis of huge expensive luxury hotels, boutiques, banks, and restaurants in the relatively barren northeast of Thailand. Dusit Princess and Sofitel feature prominently. I think there was an international telephone on every street corner. There is a western-style grocery store (in addition to a bowling alley, movie theater, lasertag and internet place) in the basement of one of the hotels and this is the only place I have ever seen an open freezer cabinet for meat. All other meat markets I have seen in Thailand have been chunks of fly-covered meat and fish sitting unpackaged on open air, unrefrigerated wooden tables.

In Khon Kaen there was also this new "modern" nightclub complex that took tacky to new levels. Walking through the huge, ugly 150-foot tall Vegas-style animated neon entrance you could see resto and pool tables illuminated with every neon color available. There were few if any people there.

Khon Kaen is also a university town, and they had some public movie showings with a twist: they were playing two movies simultaneously, side by side. The soundtracks of the two movies mixed together over the oversize sound system. One movie was a Chinese ninja movie dubbed with Thai voices with English and Chinese subtitles. The other was a gushy American flick dubbed with Thai with English subtitles. Truly a language assault! The projectors, smoking mechanical wonders I have seen before only in museums, were mounted on two pickup trucks which they drove up just for the purpose.

Next to the flick was a Chinese temple where students stopped to make incense offerings. Next to that was a big western hotel and then a similar-smelling Hindu temple complete with big elephant sculptures. Quite surreal.

I was walking around town at night and happened on the wholesale vegetable market, a huge and amazing place. The majority of vendors brought blankets and sleep at the market when it closes (any wood board will do, kids and parents), so the place looked more like a gigantic campground. I guess they go back to the farm in the morning.

3/2/99

I took the 3rd class train (no more crappy aircon buses!) for a very nice journey to Nong Khai on the Lao border. There is so much soot and dust in the air in northeast Thailand (and Chiang Mai, if you could see the sun) that the sunsets are bright red fires in the sky.

Nong Khai is a relatively chilled out (but sooooooooo hot) town on the Mekong river. It is the main crossover point to Lao.

In Nong Khai there is a used English-language bookstore. Walking into this store it is difficult to find the owner. Turns out it's the black American guy from Detroit! After I commented that his Lao lonely planet was overpriced, we got into this extremely extended conversation about the assumptions and expectations that travellers have. After running this bookstore for 8 years, the owner is building a theory of traveller's feelings of cultural and racial superiority which we debated at length! While I was in the store (a while) we did a little survey (which he has been doing for years) where we saw who each new person entering the door went to first. Very interesting. The Wasambe bookshop was definitely an unexpected cultural pocket.

3/3/99

Wandered around Nong Khai some more. Met the folks with whom I went to the Khmer party in Surin. After dinner, we hit the sidewalks for a Thai dessert fest of gargantuan proportions. It's a wonder what you can do with Pandanus leaf: you'd never think that so many different green gooey and/or slimy things can taste so great!

My favorite dessert is still sweet sticky rice with Thai custard. I think most of the fancy european desserts have a hard time beating this very simple recipe.

Support
This Site
More than 1000 hours of work have gone into making this site. Please support my work and ongoing site improvements in one of these ways:
donate now   Donate Now
Use your credit card or PayPal to donate in support of the site.

get the best thai-english phrasebook app
Experience Thailand richly with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Phrasebook app.
get the best thai-english dictionary app
Learn Thai with my Talking Thai-English-Thai Dictionary app for iOS, Android, Windows.
get a cool thai-english paper dictionary
Don't leave home without the Thai-English English-Thai Compact Dictionary I co-authored.
get thailand fever
I co-authored this bilingual cultural guidebook to Thai-Western romantic relationships.
get the best chinese phrasebook app
Visit China easily with my Talking Chinese-English-Chinese Phrasebook app.
get books or almost anything
Pick a Thai learning book from my list or buy anything at all from Amazon.
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