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.
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.