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Matthew Loved Isaan
Finally, I had a good reason to tour Isaan. I live here (Bangkok for five years now), so travel within The Kingdom gets scheduled as circumstances arise. In this case, I was giving guest lectures on International Food Law at Suranaree University of Technology (Korat, Nakhon Ratchasima), but had a five-day gap in the schedule. Rather than return to Bangkok, I decided to explore Southern Isaan. Now I know: five days were not long enough, and I should not have waited.
Purple Dragon created a private tour that took into account my personal interests. Wats, prasats, ruins, history, and museums; forests, waterfalls, gardens, countryside vistas; and lots of local food . . . but no shopping.
I already knew that I liked the private tour aspects that is Purple Dragon's hallmark. Guide Mickey is from the region, so he was able to adjust the schedule when heavy rains curtailed some of our plans. Ultimately, weather delays (it has been an abnormally wet Hot Season this year) were minimal. The trip spanned Isaan's most southern provinces: Nakhon Ratchasima, Buri Ram, Surin, Sisasket, and Ubon Ratchathani. From Korat all the way to the Laos Border, skimming just north of the Cambodia Border on the return trip.
Highlights in Nakhon Ratchasima and Buriram included Prasat Phimai (largest Khmer temples of Thailand), Sai Ngam Banyan Tree labyrinth, Prasat Phnom Rung (ancient temple atop an extinct volcano; volcano rock provided excellent building materials), Prasat Muang Tam (ancient pools with water lilies still surround the ruins), and several smaller ruins.
In Surin, the mahouts from the local village care for their companions at the Surin Elephant Camp. The camp provides income to keep everyone fed. Mahout and elephant generally are raised together, live together and work together, from age 10 onward. The biggest artist in Surin and her mahout were both age 25. The villagers are ancient members of the indigenous Sway/Kway people, who maintain their own language. Thus, the villagers speak Isaan, Sway, Thai, and Khmer for normal commercial or social interactions, and many involved in the tourism industry also speak English. To my eye, they are some of the most stunningly handsome/beautiful people I have ever met.
Another highlight was Wat Sirindhorn Wararam in Ubon Ratchatani Province. This modern temple (originally constructed in the early 20th Century, the temple fell into disrepair, but extensive fabulously gaudy renovations were completed in 2013) sits high on a bluff that permit impressive 360 views across the river into Laos as well as back into the Thai countryside. The architecture and statuary seem to have been influenced by Salvador Dali. The temple itself and its ponds of light glow at night (hence its name, Flourescence Beauty).
Hotels booked throughout the trip were excellent. Again, Mickey and the guys know me well. I specifically mention the Toh Sang Khonjiam Resort with the highest possible recommendation. The gardens, grounds, pool, rooms, restaurant, bar, and staff all merit recognition. But, the resort's greatest attribute is its perch along the Mekong with sweeping views up and down the River, and with Laos a few meters across the water. Sunset, cocktails and Isaan dinner on the terrace. The Resort is on my list of best life-time stays.
Special bonus was Guide Mickey's intimate knowledge of the region. Driver, Guide Mickey, and I had lunch one day on a pier that extended far out into the Lam Dom Noi River. The Sirindhorn Dam (interestingly, a field of solar energy collectors sits in shallow water at the head of the dam) had widened the river into a large reservoir lake, where local Thai families and teenagers swam, jet skied, picnicked, partied, and generally romped. Yet more Isaan food was provided by the land vendors or selected from the occasional boat vendors.
On the trip back towards Korat, in Sisasket we traveled just north of the Cambodia border and stopped at the Khao Phra Wihan National Park. Again, the views! The park's trail along the plummeting cliffs took us through a quiet military encampment, which gently keeps watch over the 11th Century Preah Vihear Temple, situated tiptop point of the park, and still a sore subject due to the Cambodia-Thai dispute over title. In the park, we climbed down to view the ancient Mor Daeng carvings on the cliffs that form the Thai-Cambodia border and walked into the forest a short way to look at Twin 11th Century stupas (giant lingas).
Mickey's school chums in Kantralak District, Sisasket own a large fruit farm, so I reverted to my farm roots and had a great time learning about planting and harvesting Thai durian (two varieties; it's the golden durians grown in Sisasket that fetch a premium price domestically and internationally). The farm also grows mangosteens, papaya, rambutans . . . across the dirt road is their 10 rai plantation of rubber trees. Lunch was at the family's local restaurant, freshness measured in minutes.
Now, I am eager to get the Purple Dragon guys to plot my next tours into Isaan, extending into the Central and Northern regions.
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