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Nakhon Ratchasima
Your gateway to Isaan

"A trip to Khorat will open up doors you didn't know existed.  Look at me.  I stayed at a hotel in Khorat, and had I not gone, I would not have known about that hotel or the doors within it that I could open up."  Doug Knell, Doug's Republic

Khorat is the shortened form of the capital of the province of Thailand's largest province, NaKHOn RATchasima.  I hadn't heard of that name.  As of October 2005, I never heard of Khorat either, let alone the region of Isaan.  During my first visit to Thailand in 1994, I visited all the places everyone else typically visits.  You know what I'm talking about.  Chiang Mai.  Koh Samui.   Bangkok.  This is like going to the United States and visiting only New York City and Los Angeles and then boasting to the pals that you did the USA.

And it wasn't supremely likely I was going to be heading to Isaan either in October 2005 since I didn't know where it was . . . or care.  I went to Ayuthaya by accident and on the way to the train station, shared a tuk tuk with a 27-yr old Briton named Dicky.  Dicky had an interesting past.  His mother, an Australian, had married a man over thirty years her senior.  Dicky's papa had been over 75 years of age, his mother over 40, when Dicky was born.  The old man in this particular instance was really old and died before Dicky turned 18.


Doug trying to unearth how Khorat monks tick

Dicky and I, by coincidence, were both on our way to Lopburi to see some monkeys.  I didn't have any clear plans after Lopburi, but Dicky did.  He wanted to visit Khorat.  I'm not sure if Dicky knew Khorat was in the Isaan region, which wouldn't have mattered to me, too, since Isaan was also an unfamiliar term. 

Dicky and I struck up a friendship during that one night in Lopburi, and so I tagged along with him on the bus ride to Khorat.  We found pleasant and economical rooms for USD 12.50 each and went about exploring the friendly town.

Back in October 2005, we saw few foreigners.  There was a very local feel about the town.  We explored the markets, the moat, the local shopping mall.   We found a non-tourist restaurant that prepared more than acceptable Thai dishes.
 Life was being lived, and each moment felt precious.  How's that for sounding deep?

Khorat As The Base

Dicky could not stand still.  He suffered from a mental disorder which prevented him hanging out or chilling out.  His face was always buried in the guidebook and he pushed us to explore some new place with every passing minute.  In retrospect, I respect the intensity of his desire to see it all, but were I to do it over again, I'd have gone fewer places and spent more time in each.  Dicky's travels are about quantity.  

One problem was that Dicky didn't know how to drive.  He couldn't drive a car, a motorbike, or even ride a bicycle.  I had to shuttle him the hundreds of kilometers we drove.  We did an overnighter in Pak Thong Chai so we could explore Khao Yai National Park.  This is Thailand's second largest national park and deserved more than an afternoon following Thai tourist groups to the most popular spots.  We didn't rent a very powerful motorbike, and I had trouble biking up the steep hills with another grown man gripping my waist from the back.  Dicky had to walk some of the way, and I waited for him to catch up.  Dicky ended up hitching a ride back to Khorat, but left his helmet behind.  I carried it in the bike's basket, but when I hit a pothole, the helmet popped out and as I slowed down to pull the bike over to retrieve it, I hit another pot hole and was thrown off my bike, breaking a toe. 


Khao Yai Phimai  Khorat street
CKeeping busy in Nakhon Ratchasima (l to r):  Posing at Thailand's second largest national park, Khao Yai;  at the ruins of Phimai; a typical street scene in Khorat

Don't misunderstand.  I had a great time with Dicky.  Besides Khao Yai, we visited the ruins of Phimai and Padomrung in the neighboring province.  I may not have bothered to do these without Dicky breathing down my neck.  We stayed in touch for several years afterwards.  At the time we met, I was on my way to Australia, and Dicky, who also held Australian citizenship via his mother, had been there many times and questioned why I was even going.  After I returned to Thailand from Australia, Dicky passed back through Thailand almost two years later on his way to Korea for a wedding, and I had him over to our house for a Korean dinner.

I owe Dicky a lot, a lot more than he could ever comprehend.  Not only did we have a great 10 days together during that magical time for me, just weeks out of the USA, the travel choices I made with Dicky influenced my later travels in Thailand in 2007 which, in turn, led me into the events, good and bad, which brought about my eventual decision to relocate to Thailand. 

Brief Revisit 6 Years Later

KhoratIn February 2011, I passed through Khorat again on the way to Nong Khai to do my final visa run to Laos. 

It was shocking to think that over half a decade had passed since I'd last walked these streets when I could remember quite clearly the adventures Dicky and I had shared.  They didn't seem so long ago.  The town looked more or less the same.  Within 10 minutes of getting dropped off, I was able to re-orientate myself and find the very street I'd stayed on in 2005.  The same hotel was still in business, with rates 20% cheaper, in baht terms, than 2005.  Deflation in light of greater competition.

The town had definitely become more foreign-tourist friendly.  Largely because of free wifi, I selected a different hotel this time around located only minutes from my previous one.  In less than an hour, just at his hotel, I saw more foreigners than I had in 10 days in Khorat in 2005.  My memory served me correctly, and I had no trouble relocating the same dining spot Dicky and I had frequented so many times before in 2005. The food was just as good and in light of having spent the last several years in Hua Hin, quite cheap.

In March 2007, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) launched a campaign to turn foreign expats married to Isaan women into spokesmen for the local tourist attractions.  TAT was to "wow" the expats on a sublime tour to get the expats talking about Isaan.  "In the future, we hope the foreigners, who are sons-in-law of Isaan people, will volunteer themselves as spokesmen for our tourism campaign," said Nuan Sarnsorn, the director of TAT's Northeastern Office Region 3.  Nice try, especially when the TAT charged each couple for the tour and then expected the foreigner part of the couple to volunteer to be spokespeople, despite Thailand's strict laws about not being able to work here, even as a volunteer.  These contradictions are actually quite consistent when you've lived in Thailand long enough.

I didn't require a TAT tour or to be married to an Isaan gal to see Khorat more through the eyes of a foreigner living in Thailand rather than as a tourist in Thailand.  Khorat was no more or less appealing in 2011 than it had been in 2005.  It was just that more foreigners had realized its innate appeal of being a cosmopolitan town, by Isaan standards, near to Bangkok and to plenty of natural attractions without being blighted by overdevelopment.  Khorat, never a bad choice, was now even better.

Are you coming? 


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