countin' the days

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Real Deal

Suffered through my first overnight train trip getting from Suratthani to Bangkok, and surprisingly there wasn't much suffering involved. The second class cabin was a little cramped to say the least, and the fans provided didn't do much to keep the air cool, but I made it through the night OK and woke up to find myself squinting at the morning sun in the middle of Bangkok. Fortunately, I stayed in Bangkok for exactly 15 minutes and caught yet another train straight out of there. That ride involved quite a bit more suffering. It was brutally hot in the third class cabin, and the ride seemed neverending as the train police shuffled us around to different seats (in the same cabin...?) and some senile old Thai man puked out of a nearby window.

The destination, Khorat, turned out to be a surprisingly fresh breath of air. Quite unexpectedly, Thailand's second largest city has turned out to be a very likeable town. It's full of plenty to see and do, and overflowing with charming Thai people and delicious Thai food. But it's also the kind of place where tourists don't matter so much and aren't catered to; it's all about the Thais here. Hardly anyone speaks English, which has been great for both practicing my disasterous Thai phrases and providing the locals with some comedy. There are permanent markets set up in sidewalks with Thai ladies sitting at makeshift wooden tables selling every conceivable fruit, veggie, and animal flesh I could dream of. Dozens of sewing machines are set up in a row on the other side of the street every other day to mend and create clothing. The night markets are completely free of tourist souvenirs and are instead full of T-shirts with ripped-off and/or nonsensical English slogans on them, the kind of clothes Thais seem to love most. Oh, if I only had a Baht for every time I've seen a shirt that either made no sense at all or, unbeknownst to its owner, was shockingly inappropriate...

Obviously, most of my time has been spent eating, eating, and eating some more. It's significantly more challenging to be a vegetarian here, as the local dishes all contain a whole lot of duck tail, chicken feet, pig ears, cow liver, and other frightening animal body parts I would rather not be able to recognize. But, markets abound, full of vegetables I could never dream of, as do food stands hawking nearly flammable renditions of papaya salad (som tum).

Aside from stuffing my face and chuckling with Thai ladies at my perfectly shitty Thai language abilities (hey - I can count to 99!), I've taken day trips to two different sites nearby. In general, I've been pretty burned out on the whole sightseeing thing lately, but these places were just begging to be explored. Each are temple and shrine complexes originally built by the Angkor Empire in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries and later converted by the Thais into Buddhist temples. My first outing was to Prasat Phanom Rung, which has been extremely well-restored and sits atop an extinct volcano with superb views of the countryside all around. It took a long bus ride and some serious negotiating with a motorbike driver to get there, but it was worth it. The restoration has really cleaned up and brought out the elaborate designs carved into sandstone walls, pillars, and blocks. Some of it is even hilariously risque; as a new friend from Bangkok said of this photo: "not so nice! ha ha ha!" There also happened to be some kind of celebration going on, with guys playing out-of-tune trumpets, ringing bells, tying white strings across buildings, and lovely Thai ladies dressing up... though I couldn't tell if it was Buddhist, Hindu, or some mixture of both.

Today I hit up the other nearby attraction, another Angkor temple complex in the town of Phimai. This one was way easier to get to, and despite what I'd read, a lot more interesting. Phimai is in ruins, ie no one has paid for the restoration yet, but it is a much larger complex and has a much more impressive 28 meter-tall shrine tower. Tourists are free to roam all over the ruins, which can get pretty tricky as the sandstone and laterite they used to build these things has endured some serious weathering. But around every corner are gems to be discovered: smiling Buddhas, intricate carvings, gravity-defying arrangements of sandstone blocks, strangely Roman-esque pillars, and guardian spirits. In fact, today I learned that Singha is not just the name of my least-favorite Thai beer, but is also an ancient guardian protector that symbolizes heaven. So there, Chang!

All in all, the last five days have been the most "real" Thailand I've ever experienced. It's been blissful wandering around the less-trodden paths out here in Northeast Thailand, far away from the obnoxious farangs (that's us white folk) and the Tourist Trail that claims so much of this country. I've even had the pleasure of seeing the Thais themselves play tourist at the temple ruins. We make new Thai friends everywhere, and get pretty stoked when random Thais of all ages stop to say hello or wave at us from passing buses. Whether it's been cramming into 3rd class trains and buses, walking down city streets, checking in at the hotel, eating at food stalls, bargaining at the night bazaar, gaping at the obscene cell phone displays in the mall, or chatting with American-loving tuk-tuk drivers named Mr Cookie, it's been nothing but huge giant Thai smiles and great Thai vibes.

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