Our family of six was sitting on flimsy plastic stools and eating ba mee moo daeng (egg noodles with barbecued pork) from a Chai See cart parked in front of a 7-11 located beside a large wet market. We were somewhere in rural Buriram Province – all flat fields and big skies. Apart from us, the scene was pure, provincial Thailand. It put a smile on my face. Bangkok is amazing, but I love the “upcountry” – and we were going to be seeing a lot of it.
We have lived and traveled extensively in Asia for the past 20 years. But before we moved to Thailand, we had never heard of Khao Sok National Park and its incredible jungle-fjords. Nor were we aware of the incredible temple complexes of Phi Mai or Phanom Rung along the “Khmer Road” to Angkor Wat. Of course we knew about the Songkran water-splashing festival, but how is it possible that we had never read a story about Dan Sai’s “Phi Tha Kon” ghost mask festival or Yasothon’s homemade rockets?
Thailand welcomed 35 million international tourists in 2017. But most visitors went to the same five places: Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Koh Samui, Pattaya and Phuket. This means that tourism-related revenues are concentrated in just a few provinces. In order to handle the increasing number of visitors and to better distribute the economic benefits of tourism, it’s critical that other destinations are developed and promoted.
Our mission was ambitious: to visit all twelve of the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s “Hidden Gem” provinces in five weeks. Each of these provinces has something special to offer: undeveloped coastlines, mist-draped mountains, unknown islands, cultural festivals and local delicacies. But they are all virtually unknown outside the country. We wanted to help change that. Thanks to friends at Asap Car Rental, we had our transport sorted. We dubbed our journey “The Great Thailand Road Trip”. And our first destination was Buriram Province.
Ever since my first visit to Buriram in 2015, I’d been wanting to return with my family. Despite being a flat, densely-populated agricultural province, Buriram has a surprising number of attractions. The first is ancient: a collection of impressive Khmer ruins, most notably Phanom Rung. The second is modern: a championship football team and a new speedway. And the third is cultural: roughly half of Buriram’s population speaks either northern Khmer or Lao. Plus, it’s only a five-hour drive from Bangkok. It seemed like the perfect “starter” province for our roadtrip.
The extent of ancient empires rarely corresponds to modern political borders. Human laziness combined with national propaganda means that the country with the largest or most famous site becomes synonymous with the old empire. Want to see Mayan ruins? Go to Guatemala. Inca ruins? Go to Peru. Khmer ruins? Go to Cambodia.
In fact, you can visit Mayan ruins in four other Central American countries. And the Inca controlled a huge swath of territory that is today in five other South American countries. Similarly, while Angkor Wat is undeniably glorious – it was the heart of the Khmer Empire, after all – many people are surprised to learn that Thailand boasts dozens of Khmer sites. And unlike Angkor, which swarms with tourists daily, Thailand’s Khmer ruins are underappreciated.
I’ve been fortunate to see many of them: from the monkey-infested temples of Lopburi in central Thailand to the incredible and empty Phi Mai in Nakhon Ratchasima Province. But to my mind, the most majestic (and most tenderly-restored) Khmer ruins in Thailand are in Buriram Province. When I posted photos of my first visit to Phanom Rung, everybody assumed that I was in Cambodia – so recognizably Angkorian was the architecture.
Phanom Rung climbs the upper ridge of a long-extinct volcano. As the only elevation of note in an otherwise flat landscape, it’s no surprise that the Angkorians chose this location for their symbolization of Shiva’s home on Mount Kailash. Even today, Phanom Rung’s long, ceremonial walkways; steep stairs and naga ‘bridges’ create a powerful feeling of ascension. The boys felt it too.
“Get up here, Dad! You won’t believe this!” Tai called from the top.
I had been here before, and still that slow revelation of the temple’s central tower (prang) as I climbed the final staircase was dramatic. You can’t help but feel closer to God – whichever God. Those ancient architects really knew what they were doing.
I could write that my boys solemnly considered the intricate carvings on the lintels or that they listened attentively as I read descriptions of the various structures from the guidebook. But young boys aren’t like that. Or at least mine aren’t. Instead, they played frisbee in the courtyard and executed 360s off the platforms. Predictably, I generated the most interest from discussions of the five-headed naga guardians (scary) and the stone penis (funny) standing erect inside the main tower. And they became experts at distinguishing the sandstone building blocks from the laterite ones.
A few kilometers away on the plains below sit the ruins of Prasat Muang Tam, a poorly-Anglicized name for the “Castle of the Lower City”. While much smaller than Phanom Rung, Prasat Muang Tam was just as beautiful. Inside the outer walls were a series of L-shaped ponds bracketing the compact inner sanctum. The green water didn’t look very salubrious, as evidenced by all the dead fish, but the water lilies loved it. A trio of local boys were marching along the steps that ringed the ponds. What a great playground to have in your backyard!!
“This is just like Indiana Jones!” Logan yelled, setting off a chase and mock gunfight that turned this future UNESCO World Heritage site into a film backdrop.
“If you build it, they will come!” – Field of Dreams
Buriram was starting to generate domestic interest thanks to infrastructure investments led by its native son, Khun Newin Chidchob. Its beloved soccer squad – Buriram United – now had a gleaming new stadium. Just behind it, an international racing circuit had been built. New hotels and restaurants were popping up everywhere. Fans were driving in from all over Thailand to watch the soccer matches. Suddenly, Khun Newin’s quixotic ambition to turn Buriram into Thailand’s “Sports City” didn’t seem so crazy.
And it wasn’t just about sporting venues. As we drove around Buriram, we couldn’t help noticing how organized and clean it seemed compared to chaotic, filthy Bangkok. The waterways were clear of trash and there were often jogging tracks paralleling them. You could actually walk on the sidewalks. The city roads seemed wider; the highways looked newer. It was no Singapore, but as provincial capitals went, Buriram really stood out.
We had picked the perfect weekend to visit Buriram. There was a football match on Sunday and a three-day MotoGP event at the International Racing Circuit. After driving the 50 kilometers from Nang Rong to Buriram City, we went straight to the racetrack. As we approached the circuit, the ear-splitting whine of a superbike cause the boys to scream “WHOA!” in unison. When we stopped to take a photo of the “Destination of Speed” sign, a group of friendly motorcyclists let the boys pose on their rides.
There was a very large crowd both outside at the motorbike show and inside the stands. I saw a lot of out-of-province license plates in the parking lot. But it was incredibly hot (I call it “Isaan Hot”), and it was only a practice session, so we didn’t stay too long. Just long enough for the boys to appreciate the speed and the sound as the bikes zoomed past. After unloading our bags at the hotel, we headed straight out for dinner.
The city’s Seroew “walking street” evening market isn’t Thailand’s biggest. But we think it’s one of the nation’s best for the variety, taste and cleanliness of the food. We soon had a half-dozen takeaway bags hanging off our arms: grilled pork skewers (moo bing), Northeastern sausages (saikrok isaan), pandan-based desserts, fresh-squeezed juices, gyoza etc. Even the boys got into it: pointing and shouting when they saw something they wanted to try – usually sweets.
The Thai premier football league has some excellent mascots: the Suphanburi Elephants, the Korat Swat Cats, the Trang Dugongs and the Chiang Rai Rhinoceros Beetles. But the mascot of the winningest team, Buriram United, is a 900 year-old “castle”: Phanom Rung. It’s on the jerseys worn by just about everyone in Buriram. A replica of the Angkor-era temple had been built behind the football stadium. And Buriram’s “city pillar” (usually a clock tower in the middle a traffic circle) looked liked Phanom Rung’s prang. In Buriram, ancient and modern really were united.
Our tickets cost 200 Baht (US$7) each and we were four rows back from the field! We could almost feel the contact of an aggressive tackle. We could definitely hear Buriram United’s star Italian player, Diogo, swearing at the Italian assistant coach of the opposing team. Unfortunately, there were no goals in the first half. The boys’ interest was waning, but I knew that I could cheer them up with some greasy, fried food and a Fanta during the intermission.
Or maybe I couldn’t. The pitiful concession area had no food at all and the drinks couldn’t be brought back to our seats. What? The boys had really been looking forward to a hot dog while watching the game. And I had been hoping to snack on some spicy larb moo tot nuggets washed down with a few Changs. After a few muttered expletives and some sober reflection, I realized that if people spilled Coke and dropped food on the stands, the ants and rats would be all over it.
The second half was more fun, with a lot more shots on goal and a fantastic individual effort from Diogo that led to the game’s only score. 1-0. Not the result I needed.
“Would you guys like to go see other matches in the countries we’ll be visiting?” I asked.
Drake and Kiva moaned and Logan looked away. “I think we can probably just watch it on TV,” Tai replied. “That way we can eat what we want.” I knew it! The damned concessions.
As we walked out of the stadium, I glanced back at its castellated facade. It was a modern interpretation of an ancient building, yes. But it was also an invocation of past greatness and a prayer for the future. I really want Buriram to win. I hope Khun Nevin’s “Sports City” strategy pays off and Buriram gets the respect it deserves. As a boy from a less-than-famous, timber-and-potatoes state, I loved seeing the locals’ pride in their championship team and their empire-building forebears.
There were three major takeaways from the trip. First, we had massively overpacked. I knew that, but Nori was in denial. There was no room to move in the car; bags were wedged everywhere; nothing could be located easily; loading and unloading was a chore. Second, we needed a foot odor strategy: five pairs of sweaty boy shoes soon filled the interior of the vehicle with a durian/buttered popcorn funk. Third, I needed to prepare for severe back pain. Thai mattresses are about as soft as a marble countertop.
Located just 400km northeast of Bangkok, Buriram is easily accessed by plane (1 round-trip flight per day from both Nok Air and Thai AirAsia), road (4-5 hours) and train (6-8 hours). The fastest driving route from Bangkok is via Saraburi and Pak Chong. On the way back, we took the slower route via Sa Kaeo Province.