Darkest Isan (where decent thais fear to tread), Part Three
Thailand’s greatest ancient monument, the 900 year old Khmer temple complex sitting on top of a volcano with a panoramic view stretching to Cambodia’s plains and mountains.
After Buriram where watching paint dry is better than the town’s day life (don’t mention nightlife) tiny Nang Rung with absolutely no redeeming features whatsoever is a step up in the world. If the word ugly could drawn, planned, paid for, a gang of labourers hired to build it and me forced to go there to see it, it would be called Nang Rung, and I’d still be there going thank God I’m here not in Buriram anymore.
Nang Rong will forever have a special place in my heart reserved for it. You may find this hard to believe but it was the place for the very first time (not wearing a crash helmet) I drove my motorcycle the wrong way up an eight lane highway then mounted the pavement zigzagging in and out of pedestrians and parked outside the 7/11 to buy a beer, previously having drunk two, and all this after missing a U-Turn spot. This manoeuvre is of course part of the traffic police’s driving test and, I’m also pretty sure it fulfils section ‘A’ of the Thai citizenship test too.
The only real reason to go to Nang Rong is as a launch pad to the ruins of Phanom Rung, which is bloody difficult to get to, as I’ll explain.
Options for visiting come in several forms, a gruelling day trip from Bangkok, a 5 hour van ride or 6 hour bus ride, each way. Trips from guest houses in Surin, Korat and Buriram sharing the price of car (2700 baht) or van (3,600 baht) hire for the day, 2 hours each way. Independent travel by buses and motocycles taxi from these towns, 3-4 hours each way or the last option which I chose, staying couple of nights in the small town of Nang Rong just 30km from the ruins. Then hiring a motorcycle for the day (250 baht) and driving there myself.
Phanon Rong’s location is either its greatest burden or greatest asset. Outclassing the over touristed Ayudthaya in every respect, it should dwarf it as tourist hotspot but located in the middle of southern Isan far from any tourist route and also far from any convenient large town in that province to use as a launch pad to visit it from, only a dedicated traveller can get there. This has kept Phanom Rung largely unspoilt unlike Ayudthaya which turned it from a pretty 4th rate ruin on a world scale into 1st rate temple to Mammon. On the day I went only a dozen western tourists visited the whole day according to the ticket lady, however there were hundreds of Thais, mostly Isaners, but as it was a Saturday I would guess this would drop off greatly on weekdays.
The temple itself isn’t exactly amazing or too dissimilar to Phimai, I’m not sure what the Ankor complex’s out house looks like, but I’m sure it would not be too different. What makes Panong Rung worth the trek is the location atop a mountain and the ceremonial walkway to the temple. Starting at one end one can pretend one is an ancient barbaric Siamese tribesman on a trip to sack the temple and try and as you walk along the ceremonial parade to imagine how this guy would have felt charging down it 1000 years ago as he gradually drew closer to this beacon of civilisation with its structure looming over him.
Dotted around the mountain top are several view points which are worth visiting as the most direction are obsucred by bushes at Phanom Rung itself. If you came by motorcycle like I did myself, you may wind up thinking Phanom Rung is only the icing on the cake and the 30km journey through small villages and farms was the real sight. If you came from a surrounding town by car or bus (as most do), the visit may seem rather tepid as you are really missing the whole experience.
Sign translates to 20 baht entry fee for Thais. By the way the Thai numbers appear to be stickers hastily stuck on I guess it previously had English numbers printed on it and it was recently decided to cover them up with Thai numbers. I guess the TAT really doesn’t want tourists to know this and feels people reading this may decide not to go to Thailand on their holidays, but China instead where they outlawed double pricing in 1996……… So it would be rather naughty of me to translate it.