Monthly Archives: April 2011

Chaiyaphum in my Tardis

A main road, taken this year, not 15 years ago, honest!

Darkest Isan (where decent thais fear to tread), Part Twelve

I’ve been in Isan a month now and sadly it’s time to leave. My trip had taken a definite downturn, the last three places I visited didn’t over impress me, Nong Khai, Udon and Khon Kaen were everything I came to Isan to get away from, I longed to be back in the lackadaisical Nakhon Panom and ambient Roi-et, the paddy fields of Buriram, even gritty Kalasin.

The place I decided to end my venture perhaps won’t be familiar to many, Chaiyaphum, according to the TAT, the least visited place in Thailand. Thailand is a country where Thai tourists travel around the country in droves so you would imagine the place least visited would have to be very remote. Perhaps Chiang Rai in the distant north, Sanglaburi where the treacherous mountain roads kill many a would be visitor or even rebellious southern Nathiwat with its bombings, but no instead it’s a place just north of Korat, four hours from Bangkok and on a major highway. Thailand’s least visited place then had me wondering what could keep people away from such an accessible place? What skeletons reside in its closet? So I resolved to venture to what could be the most awful place in the whole Thai nation no-matter what torments I would have to endure and hardships suffer.


Last week China banned Time Travel (seriously), but then again China is a country where Buddhist monks must apply for a permit from the Chinese government before they are allowed to reincarnate. I guess if Chaiyaphum was in China going there would now be illegal as getting out the bus felt akin to getting out the Tardis and finding myself in the 70’s.

The bus station if you can call it that was I’m pretty sure on loan from Burma. A gritty field at the back of a baking market with a small hut to buy tickets. Walking through the city centre is like walking through a historical village, main roads made up of either wooden buildings or old concrete ones, whole side roads in the city centre of picturesque teak houses and even the odd banana forest. Apart from the rather aging shopping complex the modern world seems to have driven right past Chaiyaphum on the highway not even stopping for coffee.

Despite this Chaiyaphum is no picture postcard, it’s definitely for people who value interesting more than pretty in a street view. The ruralesque nature of the town make it no laid back paradise, the town centre is crammed, walking along the streets you will be bombarded by the plethora of smells assaulting your nostrils, dust attacking your eyes and traffic numbing your brain. Along with being surrounded by the architecture of yesterdecade, at times I felt I was in Mysore not Thailand. The Chinese architecture of the town with the huge Chinese temple as centrepiece also add to the malaise of styles giving your aesthetic senses no peace. And all to the backdrop of a mountain range overlooking the town.

Prang Ku – Chaiyaphum provinces’s greatest sight

The town can be walked side to side in less than an hour, on the outskirts also lays the Changwat’s greatest historic site, another far flung temple of the Ankhor complex. This one must surely be the furthest away from Ankhor, I’ve been to several closer that all boast they are the farthest, although the Chaiyaphum one makes no such claim. While paling beside the unspectacular Phimai it is at least located next to the gates of a school, so has the good grace to double as a children’s playground.

The main drawback I found with Chaiyaphum was accommodation, having few visitors there’s only a couple of places to stay, the cheapest I found was a huge plush looking outside and semi derelict inside Chinese hotel charging an arm and a leg for a dingy room that had seen better days 40 years ago.

To be honest Chaiyaphum isn’t pretty, there’s not much to do or see, it’s not even tranquil, but it is the realest place in Thailand I’ve visited for years. I even saw a couple of westerners in town. I can honestly advise if you’re a backpacker bored witless with old travellers (like me) bombarding you with tales of Thailand 10 or 20 years ago, the good news is you don’t have to be mates with Doctor Who to go there, just hop on board a bus to Chaiyaphum.

A hell of a journey up province is Chaiyaphum National Park which optimistically boasts the Stonehenge of Thailand, but turns out to be just a few oddly shape natural rocks on a hill. I’m not a national park kind of person, I realise for some people national parks are people’s idea of pretty, ‘oh look at the trees and flowers’ for me they’re just annoying. ‘oh look, a tree……. and another tree…… and a third, yawn’ trees are an annoyance they get in the way and block the view, when I’m in national park all I can think is can’t someone cut them all down? Even better concrete the place over.

Also for the national park fee I could have hired a motorcycle for a day and much better than going treespotting, gone a few hours out of a city in any direction exploring the countryside, filled with farms, villages and people, buying drinks from local shops, stopping for a couple of meals in restaurants and spreading my money to locals not giving it to the Thai government, oh well, maybe next time.

A soi at the city centre. No really! A soi at the city centre.

Ta Klang Elephant Village in Surin

Surin Province, in Northeast Thailand, is probably most famous for the annual Surin Elephant Roundup that takes place in November. This year it is over the weekend of 19-20 November 2011. What I didn’t know before is that Surin is also home to the Elephant Study Center so that you can learn about the elephants year round. This elephant center can be found at Ta Klang Village in Tha Toom District, about 58 kilometers north of Surin.They even have homestays programmes for foreign tourists.

The Ta Klang villagers are descendants of the Kui ethnic group who have a gift of capturing, training and keeping elephants. Unlike in Northern Thailand where elephants are kept for labour, the Kui keep the elephants as one of the family. Even sharing the same house. In 2006, a project was launched in Surin to encourage mahouts roaming around Thailand to bring their elephants back home to Surin where they would be given assistance at the Study Center. It is claimed that already they are the biggest elephant village in the world.

According to the Kui’s tradition, the Pakam Spirit House is where dead ancestors of the Kui people are believed to reside, together with the revered Pakam spirit. Built facing north, the spirit house is used to keep the sacred “Pakam rope” made from buffalo leather, and other elephant controlling tools. Before they can do any kind of activity involving the elephants, they must first pay homage to the house to inform the spirits of their intention and to ask for a blessing.

Near the Pakam Spirit House there is the Elephant Museum which has an exhibition about the Kui people, as well as village life and details on how they are able to capture and train the elephants. There are also preserved elephant skeletons, which you can see here, and elephant controlling tools. The bilingual exhibition is fascinating and goes into a lot of detail about the life and culture of the elephants in this community. There are also many old pictures on display of elephant roundups.

I guess no elephant village would be complete without the inevitable show. They are certainly crowd pleasers for the school kids arriving in coaches and for people who haven’t seen an elephant show before. However, although it seems cute at times, I don’t think it should be seen as entertainment to force elephants to do unnatural things. Sharing their artistic skills (or memory skills) in doing a painting like this is probably clever. But I think it is sad to see them dance to disco music, play football or stand on their hind legs. But, I’ll let you make your own decision.

At the elephant center, there is also an opportunity to take an elephant ride which I am sure is the main reason for many people to come here. This costs 200 baht. From experience, these rides are great the first or second time. But really, anything longer than 15 minutes is very uncomfortable! For people who have a deeper love of elephants, there is an opportunity to live in a homestay at the elephant village. You won’t be trained to be a mahout but will be able to help out with the elephants. The all inclusive cost is 12,000 baht for 6 days and 7 nights. More information at the Surin Project website.

The entrance fee for the Elephant Study Center is 100 baht each for foreign tourists and 50/20 baht for Thai tourists. The elephant ride is 200 baht for foreigners and 100 baht for Thais. The ride lasts about 20 minutes. There are two elephant shows daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Below there is a map showing the location of the elephant village. It should be noted, that during the period of the annual elephant roundup, you probably won’t find many elephants at this village.

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Songkran in Phra Pradaeng

The Mon people of Samut Prakan traditionally celebrate Songkran a week later than the rest of the country. This year it was later than normal as it was held between 22nd and 24th April 2011. The celebrations started with a Miss Songkran Beauty Contest on Friday night. Then each night, along the waterfront, there was a food festival.

During the three days there was also an opportunity to watch a traditional Mon game called Saba. It is difficult to explain the rules other than to say that it is a kind of courtship game. In the past, there wasn’t many opportunities for young men and women to meet and this game was one way that they me could perhaps find a future bride.

For many people, the highlight of the Songkran Festival in Phra Pradaeng was to come out again for a water fight. Which is ideal for people who believe that only having three days between 13 and 15 April is just not enough. This year, if you travelled around Thailand it was possible to join in water fights continuously for 15 days.

For me the highlight was the Songkran Parade that took place on Sunday afternoon. Thousands of local people lined both sides of the road as at least ten colourfully decorated floats and marching bands passed by in the parade which took nearly one hour to go from the District Office on the waterfront to Wat Prodket. This year the parade was broadcast live on television.

The parade ended with the releasing of the fish and birds at Wat Prodket. This is a Mon tradition for making merit that was later adopted by the Thai people. They believe that by releasing these creatures back out into the wild that they are saving lives. In this picture the Samut Prakan Governor led other people, as well as Miss Songkran, who is wearing the yellow dress, in releasing the fish and birds.

The White Temple in Chiang Rai

One of the most beautiful temples in Thailand, done in a modern contemporary style, is undoubtedly Wat Rong Khun. This temple, which is in Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand, is more well-known among foreigners as The White Temple. I recently went back for my second visit and was surprised to see that work was still continuing.

The temple is located in Ban Rong Khun, about 13 kilometres south-west of Chiang Rai city along Phahonyothin Road. It is the brainchild of Thai artist Chaloemchai Khositphiphat who started building it back in 1998.In an interview, he said that “maybe in 60 to 90 years after my death will the projected be completed”.

Chaloemchai Khositphiphat, in his lifetime has become a great Contemporary Thai artist that is admired by many people. He has not only revitalized an interest in the ancient Thai murals found in temples, but he has at the same time produce his only unique style. Most obvious is the choice of white for the temple while others are golden. He said that he believes that gold is only suitable for people who lust for evil deeds.

The attention to detail in the temple is remarkable and you do need to spend some time here studying the beautiful artwork. To reach the temple you have to cross a bridge over a pit of hell. Down below there are sculptures of people who are presumably trying to escape from hell. Inside the temple is a beautiful coloured mural of the Buddha. If you take a close look at the devil you will see small portraits of Bin Laden and George Bush in the Devil’s eyes. Also on the murals I spotted the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center and also the creature from Alien.

One of the new buildings since my last visit is this Golden Toilet which is probably the most beautiful rest room in Thailand. Surprisingly it is also free, the same as for entry to the White Temple. Though obviously donations are welcome as up-keep of all the buildings is never-ending. You can buy reproductions of Chaloemchai’s impressive artwork in the souvenir shop. The White Temple is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Map showing location of Wat Rong Khun (The White Temple):

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Building Sand Pagodas During Songkran

I spent most of my Songkran holidays enjoying the more traditional side of this new year festival. Yesterday I visited my local temple to take some pictures of two Songkran activities. The first one was Song Nam Phra where people poured water on the hands of monks. I told you about this one yesterday. The second event was Chedi Sai, the building of Sand Pagodas.

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These two events happen at most temples around Thailand during Songkran. The date does vary. Last year my local temple held it during the middle of the Songkran water fights. It was like an oasis in the middle of a war zone. In the surrounding area, roaming pickup trucks, packed with people armed to the teeth, were patrolling the streets looking for people to squirt with their guns. However, in the temple grounds, families were taking part in a more traditional part of Songkran.

This tradition apparently started as a way for local people to make merit. It was reckoned that over the course of a year, a lot of sand would accidently be taken away from the temple on the bottom of people’s shoes. So, once a year, local lay people would be invited to bring back some sand and build a stupa. Well, these days things are a bit more organized. When I visited this temple the other day a truck was just delivering the sand and the monks were busy making large piles for each team.

There was a good atmosphere at the temple yesterday. There was a lot of other things going on as well and plenty of food stalls to keep people fed.  There were a lot of families there. Each family was working on their own stupa. The shape and sizes did vary quite a bit and also the decorations put on them. But most of them had little flags and sticks with money attached to them