Thailand is in the top 10 most visited countries in the world with 35 million annual visitors currently. Yet its largest region, equating to nearly one-third of Thailands land mass is still ‘off the beaten track’ as far as international tourism is concerned. And if tourists do visit it’s as a through point to neighbouring Laos or to a lesser extent, Cambodia. In a series of blog posts titled ‘Isaan Stories’, we will introduce you to parts of the Isaan region that have particularly captured our attention while travelling through. This post, the first in the Isaan Stories series, focuses on Nakhon Ratchasima or Khorat by its other acceptable name.
Khorat sits at the southwestern edge of the Khorat Plateau, and historically once marked the boundary between the kingdom of Siam with Ayutthaya as it’s capital, Laos to the north, and the Khmer empire to the east. Today’s modern-day city can trace its roots back to the late seventeenth century when King Narai of Ayutthaya ordered the construction of the town to protect the Kingdom’s north and eastern frontiers from Laotian or Khmer attack. The original ‘Old City’ has a walled city centre complete with protective watery moat, much like Chiang Mai, in Thailand’s northwest.
So what do Khorat and this southern region of Isaan offer visitors? Here are some of our most favourite memories.
One of Khorat’s most revered figures is immortalised in an elegant statue adjacent to the southern Chumphon Gate of the old city. ‘Ya Mo’ (grandmother Mo) was the wife of Nakhon Ratchasima’s deputy governor back in 1826. At that time the Vientiane King Anouvong invaded the region seeking complete independence from Siam. Anuvong’s forces seized the city of Nakhon Ratchasima by a ruse when the governor was away. His forces captured all the residents and started marching them to Laos. According to the generally accepted version of the story, when the Lao invaders ordered the women to cook for them, ‘Ya Mo’ requested knives so that food might be prepared. That night, when the invaders were asleep, she gave the blades to the imprisoned men. They surprised the Lao troops, who fled, and the prisoners escaped. ‘Ya Mo’ was a hero and saviour. Her heroism was formally recognised by King Rama III who bestowed on her the title Lady Suranari or “the brave lady”. To this day nearly 200 years later, any Thai visitor to the city makes a special pilgrimage to her statue in the city centre to pay respect, offer prayers, and ask for wishes to be granted from this inspirational women. If in Khorat at the end of March and beginning of April you can join in the annual festival in her honour.
But Khorat is much more than ‘Ya Mo’, and it’s ancient walled city centre.
It’s recreational facilities from quality golf courses to the massive Bung Ta Lua Park just a few kilometres from the city centre were a revelation. The Park offers kilometres of cycling and walking paths, lawns and shaded areas and the lake itself. A gathering place for locals especially early morning and late afternoon, early evening. Three large and modern shopping centres that could have been plucked straight out of central Bangkok will satisfy even the most jaded shopper.
For a more authentic local shopping experience, The city’s Central Market, a covered wet market located in the old city, was exceptional colourful.
Khorat’s food and dining options include all the typical street stalls and small family cafes. And at prices much lower than what we have become used to in our home town of Hua Hin.
One option that particularly caught our interest was the ‘100-years Meang Ya Market’ up near the central train station (and Catholic school). Picture a long wide laneway of old Teak Timber shop houses – each with its own food offering. It’s like a Hawker Centre typically seen in Malaysia or Singapore – but Thai style. The centre of the laneway has row after row of simple tables and chairs. Choose what you want to eat from any of the food stalls, pay, tell them your table number, and they will deliver it to you as soon as it’s cooked. And that’s typically within a matter of moments.
On another evening we ate at an upmarket restaurant offering a Thai Fusion menu and boutique beers from around the world. Excellent food, atmosphere and service. The meal, included several courses of food plus drinks, only came to around 400 THB per person. We put that down as a great evening.
Being the largest of Isaan’s four big cities, it is an administrative, commercial and transport hub with direct road and rail links south to Bangkok, north to Nong Khai on the Thai – Laos border, and east to the Cambodian border. Khorat has several universities bringing that youthful vibe and as well as being a centre for health care for the neighbouring region.
One other discovery was the Korat (or Khorat) Cat which originates from this area. It is known colloquially as the “good luck cat”, and we came across a great sculpture celebrating it in Suan Rak Park, not far from the ‘Ya Mo’ memorial.
Before the 14th century, the area of Nakhon Ratchasima was under Khmer empire rule. Nowadays the region boasts three significant and ‘must visit’ archaeological sites dating back to that time.
Phanom Rung and Muang Tam are within a few kilometres of each other and around 130km east of Khorat. An easy day trip. These Khmer ruins are of the same era and architectural style as Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, and in fact, the Cambodian border is literally 50 km away as the crow flies.
Phanom Rung sits atop an extinct volcano and has fantastic district views from the many vantage points of this well maintained and preserved historical site. Muang Tam lies on the plain beneath the extinct volcano on which Phanom Rung is sited. Phanom Rung was undoubtedly the most prestigious religious site and pilgrimage destination of this area during that period.
While Muang Tam is considered to have been the main urban centre and capital of the region. We encountered a good number of Thai visitors exploring these two sites when we visited, but no other foreigners.
Phimai Historical Park some 65 kilometres north of Khorat is another Khmer ruin. Phimai dates back to the 12th-13th century and was built by the Khmer around the same time as Angkor Wat. However, unlike Angkor Wat or Phanom Rung, this site is in much better condition thanks to the fact it was not attacked, ransacked or destroyed by regional conflicts way back then. The Thai governments Fine Arts department in various projects over the last 80 years has restored this ancient city so we can now educate ourselves about the history and enjoy the magnificence of this early Khmer architecture. And at Phimai we experienced none of the crowds we had when we visited Angkor Wat a few years back, and an entry fee of only 100 THB was very pleasing.
We were told of another ‘must do’ on the way to Phanom Rung. That was a stop at Dan Kwian, a village just 20km east of Khorat noted for unique pottery widely used for interior and outdoor decoration. Its durability, pliability and rusty black bronze colour are all elements of its uniqueness. It seems that in the olden days, local people of the district made different types of pottery from the clay of the nearby Moon River. These products were made in great quantities and bartered for food or necessary materials as well as sold in other regions. Nowadays, Dan Kwian’s earthenware district is a prime place to pick up all sizes of pots, vases, jars as well as garden accessories, often for less than 300 Baht a piece – and we did! Thankfully we had a decent amount of free space in the car!
Another point of interest just 30 km south of Khorat is Pak Thong Chai Village – one of Thailand’s most famous silk-weaving communities. Villagers working in co-operatives, still retain their creative skills in producing beautiful Khorat-texture silk. Additionally, The Thai Silk Company, part of the Jim Thompson corporation, is based here and produces exquisite silk on a commercial level for the world market. Oops, more shopping made its way into our car!
Imagine a forest complex spanning 230 km in length between Ta Phraya National Park on the Cambodian border in the east, running along the bottom of the Khorat Plateau and stretching a further 122 km west to Khao Yai National Park. This vast green corridor encompassing five national parks in total is one of mainland Southeast Asia’s most extensive and best-preserved forests. These connected parks are part of the UNESCO-listed Dong Phaya Yen-Khao Yai Forest Complex. Covering 615,500 hectares, the forest complex is internationally significant for its biodiversity and the conservation of globally threatened and endangered mammal, bird and reptile species.
From Khorat, you can be in the nearest section of the national park in just over an hours drive. As well as checking out the national parks, we would recommend a few days staying in the Wang Nam Khiao district. A green zone immediately adjacent to the national parks with picturesque villages and lush countryside. Take the time to explore its unique temples, wineries, organic farms, boutique guest houses, cafes and the like. The district’s said to have the cleanest air in Thailand.
Khorat and its immediate vicinity have so much to offer visitors. We hope you have enjoyed this first post in our Isaan Stories series and what Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) has in store if you take the time to visit.
An alternate and condensed version of this article was originally published by International Living Australia, a subscription-only magazine devoted to helping expats find their perfect overseas retirement haven. Vivien and I regularly write for International Living magazines and websites and are the authors of both articles.