Category Archives: Travel Blogs

Around Phanom Rung

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

Once upon a time people came to Thailand because it was off the beaten track, later people came because it was on the beaten track, nowadays it’s so easy to travel Thailand makes the beaten track look in dire need of remodernisation just to keep up. Travelling Thailand is now easier than travelling Europe, your average Lonely Planet wielding student from the UK is going to have a less challenging time getting around than their parents on a two week package holiday in Spain. Even the remotest places are a walk in the park to get to, good roads, English signs, friendly and helpful locals, roadside restaurants every few kilometres, motorcycles for hire for under £5 per day and crime and dangers almost non existent (outside the south).

So this makes me wonder why so few bother to travel around Thailand. On the whole two types of tourists come to Thailand, package tourists and backpackers both seemingly content to be herded around the same few overpriced and under delivering sights, sleeping, eating and travelling as they’re told. I’ve always found seeing Thailand in this way akin to sucking sweets with the wrapper still on.

One thing I do in most Thai places I visit is hire a motorcycle, pick a direction and head out of town, often as much as 50-60 km, exploring all the turn offs, venturing along the dirt roads heading towards anything interesting in the distance, stumbling upon small villages and stunning views, chatting to locals in small shops or restaurants. If this sounds a bit bold and adventurous it’s a good thing to remember in Thailand, it’s not.

If your still a bit doubtful about a heading a random direction out of tourist free Chaiyaphum mapless, a good sheltered way to make your first off guide excursion is around Phanom Rung, apart from having stunningly beautiful scenery, safe roads, a good English map is available from the motorcycle hire shops and there are plenty of sights marked on the map to head for. It is quite common for tourists to do this trip so the locals will be used to coming to lost tourists aid.

For me driving around the countryside, looking at the scenery and visiting the minor ruins was the far better experience than Phanom Rung itself. It’s often said there is no beautiful scenery left in Thailand, this is very definitely not true, it’s just a little harder to find these days and the ruins in the middle of untended fields, surrounded by palm trees and farm houses not local parks, the rice farms and small villages, explore-able temples, hills and trails make this one of these places.

Buriram to Nang Rong and Phanom Rung

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.

Khorat to Phimai

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

An 800 year old Khmer ruin, the most ferocious mosquitoes in Thailand, the friendliest of provincial towns, crazy coffee and drinking Lao Khao with Rickshaw Drivers till way past 10 o’clock bedtime. If this has you wetting your pants, Phimai is the place for you.

After passing through hilly Khao Yai and some of the prettiest scenery in Thailand, venturing onto the plains of southern Isan, drought, subsistence farmers, water buffalo, Morlam, Rot Tumada, Khao Niaw and all, then surviving the sprawling Lao speaking Metropolis of Korat partied out and verging on dipso, some R&R in the sleepy town of Phimai offers some more than welcome respite. A sort of Betty Ford for travellers.

The town is a surprisingly mis-touristy touristy town. Boasting the Phimai ruins (a small outlaying Cambodian Ankor temple), actually inside the town, travelling out of town to see stuff is for plebs, someone obviously thought this place would be a tourist Mecca, but who this someone is still not identified and he has most likely gone into hiding from the locals. The prima estate row of shop facing the ruin aren’t tourist shops at all and sell no souvenirs and look exactly like any Thai road, drug stores, food for monks, soft drinks at regular prices, except the shops selling coffee which have tripled their prices to 40 baht……… not only in the touristy bit of town but the whole town, and the outskirts of a town where a buffalo is more likely to wander by than a tourist and even in the country road way out of town. Why do you build and overpriced coffee shop on a road with no other buildings, in the middle of nowhere surrounded by rice fields. Do the farmhands pop in to spend their entire daily wage on a Mochachino and a blueberry muffin?

Phimai temple is nice and sedate, nice in a way sipping tea on a patio on a summer’s day is nice, if it was a boy it would be the kind of boy you would want your teenage daughter to date, it’s an unchallenging hedgerowed trimmed park, a smilingly polite visitors centre, Mormonly demure admission staff and Scandinavianly healthy tourists, it’s sooooo nice……. you just want to get an automatic rifle and run up and down between the bushes blowing away every muvva with a simperingly nice grin you see.

Maybe having been to Ankor Wat has jaded me. This small temple does pale beside it in my mind or maybe it’s just if your going to have a evocative ruin, it has to be clinging to the side of a mountain or buried deep in a jungle, somehow putting it in the local park doesn’t work. As I wondered between the walls I found myself wondering where the swings, roundabouts and the duck pond were. It’s like holding a barekuckle boxing match in a mother’s and toddler’s picnic area, location, location, location, it just doesn’t work. It was the reason why I hated Sukhothai.

The entry fee has recently gone up from 30 baht to 100 baht. With the Thai economy in a worse state than an England World Cup campaign and Newsweek Magazine saying there is more chance of Barack Obama fulfilling an election promise than it getting better in the foreseeable future, what solution does the Thai government have to solve this self inflicted economic suicide of a nation, more than triple tourist prices………………….

……….Then again, what’s the average IQ of tourists who visit Thailand? Perhaps they have a point, I tend to think if they raised the price to 300 baht there would still be a row of Gunthers and Gertrudes running around with their plastic Minoltas like they own the place and, their two anorexic impersonating unisex blond beast brats in dayglo orange t-shirts and asinine grins getting in the way of my every shot and making me think can’t we just neuter the entire population of Denmark and end the race.

If Saturday night is anything to go by, I wouldn’t give up your trip to the Full Moon Party to come here. There aren’t many nightlife options in town, depending upon really how you define the word ‘night’ that is. If you are of the school that considers night to be the time from 8pm to around 10pm then there is a plethora of exciting activities for you, including the opportunity to sit alone or among the odd tourist in the town’s tourist bar, eating fruit from the late night fruit stand or you could buy a bottle of Lao Khao (Rice Whiskey) from the 7/11 and venture round the corner and sit in the road with the night rickshaw drivers, the conversation can be surprisingly stimulating….. Incidentally from the fruitful evening I gleaned the wisdom that rickshaws in Thailand are called ‘Samlors’, (sam = 3, lor = wheels) because if you can count three wheels on your rickshaw you still haven’t drunk enough Lao Khao and shouldn’t be driving the thing. Just like their motorised counterparts pedal samlors require distilled fluid as fuel, only with pedal samlors you put the distilled fuel in the man not the machine. On the other hand if you are someone who regards nightlife something that occurs after 10pm sadly is this is somewhat of an alien concept in Phimai where the townsfolk as a rule race the cockerel to see who can wake up who first, the all night water stalls strangely dotted around town are your best option for that wild Ibiza time.

Templed out in Khorat (Nakhon Ratchasima)

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

Wat Prayup

The gateway to Isan, already I’m scared to enter. This urban malaise of noise, sweat and dirt seems to be trying its hardest to impersonate Bangkok, three colours of pollution on every street corner. Fortunately someone told me the rest of Isan is nothing like this. Having lived in Khon Kaen for a month, a decade ago, I really don’t believe this someone who told me this.

Isan is the one part of Thailand I’ve never really travelled. I passed through it on a number of occasions on the way to Lao, (Ubon, Mukdahan and Nong Khai) but never stayed there apart from my hated month in Khon Kaen.So I decided to take the plunge and circumnavigate the region for a month, eating all the sticky rice, drinking all the Lao Khao and wearing all the red shirts I could muster.

Isan is the northeast region of Thailand, the most populous part of Thailand, a hotch potch of Lao, Khmer, and Vietnamese speakers, the poorest part of the country, home to the recent political unrest and looked down upon from such a height by middle class Bangkokers that they must surely be suffering vertigo.

Basically Isaners are Lao people who found themselves part of the expanding Thai empire a couple of centuries ago and have suffered for it ever since. Thanks to having superior labidos than their Thai cousins they now make up the single most populous region of the country, and poorest. They also have the reputation of being more outgoing and far less anal than the rest of the country…..

The first sense you get when you enter Isan, and one that stays with you the whole time is that the place isn’t exactly built for tourists. 15 years ago Chang Mai had the same feeling, the tourists inhabiting a small enclave and the rest of the city doing non-tourist business. Nowadays in Chiang Mai it’s hard to find single business in the whole city not tourist orientated. Korat may not be a beauty spot but it’s a spot that’s prospering on its own merits and not off my visit, and in Thailand that’s a kind of beautiful thing these days.

Tao Suranaree Monument

Tao Suranaree, maybe a myth or maybe she did actually exist. Yo Ma as known locally according to Thai (Ahem!) history books lead the defence of the city against the invading Lao army in 1826 by sneakily getting the Lao army too drunk to fight. Obviously she’s never been to an English pub on a Saturday night, as I don’t quite think alcohol has that effect on men.

The statue in the middle of town provides a great way to see the animist religion as not only locals but pilgrims from all over Thailand come to pay respect to her spirit. It’s also the best spot in town not to cross the road as the driver of any vehicle that drives past may alarmingly take his hands off the wheel mid traffic to bow to the statue as he goes by.

Wat Prayup Cave

Just down the road from the monument is Wat Prayap a very unusual looking stone temple, surrounded by large boulders placed all around the temple, the architect going for that Stonehenge chic. Beside the temple is a quite impressive man made cave full of genuine stalagmites and stalactites and even a rock pool. All the rock for the temple came from a cement quarry and the stalagmites and stalactites would have been dynamited if the temple hadn’t of saved them. The cave is a geologist’s wet dream full of all kinds of amazing rock and crystals saved from becoming part of the city’s latest concrete monstrosity. I never even knew rock was an endangered species, I guess I better get in touch with Greenpeace. The Buddha image is an Indian Gupta style also made of quarried stone.

Tiger Temple, Kanchanaburi. On the Beaten Track, Part 3

I first heard of the Tiger Temple over 10 years ago on a TV documentary but it’s taken me this long to get around to going there. The documentary showed the temple in a good light, a few conservationists argued against it, but their argument was that tigers should be kept naturally not as pets, nothing about cruelty. The abbot of the temple countered by saying what was important was Tiger happiness and saving tigers, and with tigers virtually extinct I found his pragmatism pretty sensible so I had no qualms about visitng.

Persuading a friend to go we set off on a day trip from Bangkok picking up an early bus at Sai Tai Mai (Bangkok’s southern bus Terminal) and arrived at Kanchanaburi bus station a few hours later. Next it was on the local bus which ran past the temple which is quite a way towards Sanglaburi. Before we boarded I asked the conductor to drop us off at Wat Pa Luang Ta Bua to see the tigers and was quite surprised neither her nor the driver had heard of it, neither had the driver of the neighbouring bus but fortunately the conductor of that bus had and gave the instructions to stop nearthe temple opposite which they had heard of. Apparently the Tiger Temple’s world fame stops short of Kanchanaburi bus stations. I have since asked a couple of Thai friends about the temple and they are equally unaware of its existence.

We jumped off the bus outside the temple and trekked up the rather long dirt road to the entrance, paid our entrance fees, weaved round the tourist shop and headed in. We had got there pretty early so I was surprised to see such a large crowd in there, most seemed to be from buses out of either Kanchanaburi or Bangkok.

The tigers were still in their cages when we arrived but due out in a little while. The cages looked a bit grim a row of bland concrete cells without any kind of stimulus or toys inside. Strangely too the mothers had been separated from their cubs who were in a separate cage outside being stroked by tourists. There was also a leopard in there which was apparently wild so I guess never saw the light of day.

After wandering around for a while we noticed a crowd was gathering and apparently the tigers were going to be walked to some kind of outdoor canyon. We joined the thronging masses and sure enough one by one some of the tigers were lead out of their cages by handlers, with crowds lining either side of the path, a kind of royal parade without the tigers stopping and shaking hands as they strolled by.

I wondered to myself if the tigers that were left in their cages were always left in their cages or was there a daily rota. When the last few tigers were lead down the crowds were invited to follow them and rather surreally place their hands on the tiger’s rear as they walked along, being photographed doing it by the handler. A few people were warned not to walk beside of, or in front of the tigers as it was dangerous, but behind they couldn’t see you and didn’t seem to mind the bottom groping. Really living in Thailand I shouldn’t be too surprised that there’s people in the world who would fly to another country specifically to grope a tiger’s bum.

We arrived at the “canyon” which was a concrete area radiated down upon by a sweltering midday sun. The tigers where chained to the ground on a short chain and quickly fell asleep. The large crowd queued to get into the enclosure, about 12-15 people were allowed in at one go and lead by a handlers from tiger to tiger, they were invited to lay hands on each tiger and have their photo taken. Being in amongst 10 sleeping tigers is quite an experience, whether cynic or not and I have to admit at that point I threw myself in with all the tourist zeal and wasn’t the only one.

You could think the experience of being amongst so many tigers was a spiritual one, but it quickly emerged the crowd were there for only one reason and that was to walk away with that snap of them to amaze people with back home. The atmosphere was more like a sale in a supermarket as people vied for the best photo opportunities. Despite being among the tiger for fifteen minutes I don’t think I have come out any more knowledgeable about tigers, other than what one’s fur feels like to touch, which is maybe not how one should leave something that calls itself a conservation project. I was also quite surprised to see parents letting some quite young children hold the tigers.

Going around and touching the tigers was free after you had paid your admission to get into the temple but there was one additional VIP perk. For an additional 1000 baht you could have your photo taken with the tiger’s head in your lap. I did wonder what the sleepy tiger felt about having his head shoved in a row of punter laps in succession but it seemed to just sleep through it.

Paying the 1000 baht was a ritual in itself as a sign requesting donations was placed beside the pay point. Several podgy middle-aged European men with hugely expensive plastic Minolta cameras they clearly didn’t now how to use tried to as visibly as possible overpay the 1000 baht waving a second 1000 baht note around their heads for drawn out seconds before landing them at the front of the table screaming inside their heads “look at me everyone, I’m paying double”.

After the canyon experience some of the buses began to leave and we thought maybe the place would be quieter but we soon realised there was a second shift when another load of tourist arrived and the tigers would have to go through it again.

Around 4 in the afternoon we took the long trek back to the main road to wait for a bus back to Kanchanaburi, it took an hour and half to arrive and it was standing room only.

Before visiting the Tiger Temple I had been under the impression it was an, if unusual, conservation project and at least the monks were treating the tigers well. After my visit I wasn’t too sure that was what I had seen and began researching the temple a bit. There are quite a few write ups out there by people who have visited the temple on forums both positive and negative. Among the negative claims were those of ill-treatment, the monks taking donations for a safari park like area that still hasn’t appeared, some tigers never leaving the barren cages, the tigers being drugged, tigers removed from parents for domestication and animal trafficking.

Some of the claims I had possibly witnessedon my visit, wild tigers never leaving the rather poor cages, cubs separated from mother and no canyon despite there website’s last updated a couple of years ago keeping tally of substantial donations for it. As for the drugs claims, the cats were certainly sleepy, but they were also nocturnal creatures in direct sunlight, in a bake house and cats tend to get sleepy in this environment.

I had a small experience of slight brutality when the tigers were being walked from their cages to the canyon and a tiger that decided to take a diversion was dragged back in line by a couple of handlers, it was shouted at by the handler and struck firmly but not excessively violently by a handler a few times with his hand. Another handler had a thick bamboo cane in his hand as but I did not see it used.

One forum post by a former volunteer which was particularly critical struck me, arguing he had seen a lot of brutality while there and tigers hit with these sticks when the tourists were not around. A quick surf also found an expose website which claims not only cruelty but trafficking and backs it up with reports from wildlife groups. It claims, unlike as the temple’s publicity says, many of the tigers are not animal rescues but illegally trafficked animals and that the temple is breeding animals for sale.

On the other hand there are lots of western volunteers there and probably several dozen over the year, many of these with a real interest in conservation, I would imagine any really outlandish treatment of the animals would have been exposed by now. Many years ago I visited the Crocodile Farm and there were tigers there, I think they are gone now, but these animals lived in truly atrocious conditions, the temple tigers do have a better life than these.

Not being a expert on the subject I find it hard to make an authoritative judgement and call one side right or wrong, but from my own experience I did not exactly find it the tiger temple the heaven it’s billed as for tigers. With tiger experiences equalling big bucks these days and the recent opening of several tiger zoos and parks in the land I don’t think this kind of business is going to disappear.

I hope a place in Thailand opens up that offers a much more well informed and better treatment of the animals, but Sri Racha Tiger Zoo seems beset by the same criticisms as the temple. I haven’t been to Safari World Night Tiger Safari so it would be worth trying to find out if this is a better option. If I was a tourist planning to visit the temple I would at least research the place and try and make an informed opinion before deciding to go. Erm………. Unlike me.

Thanks to my fellow traveller Miles Trethewey for supplying 4 of the pics