GETTING THERE IS HALF THE FUN?
Not if you are flying, or on a 12 hour bus. But if you are hitching or motorcycling around Isaan in search of Khmer temples, yep! The towns are pretty easy going, the roads flat and empty. Villagers are never in a hurry, and town folks have time for a laugh. I once found I’d hitched a ride with the local police. At my turn-off, they stopped a truck and told the driver to take me the rest of the way. It’s a friendly part of the world.
The lower parts of Isaan, towards Cambodia rather than Laos, are yet another of my favourite parts of Thailand.
Largely rural, less developed than the northern parts of Isaan, it is often flat, hot and dry, although large tracts of forest like Khao Yai National Park are found here, too.
Farming is the backbone of the economy.
With one or two exceptions, cities and towns are generally pretty small and easy to negotiate,
Night market, like this one in Nang Rong, abound in Isaan.
Isaan food is hot. Sour soups are another feature. Sticky rice, rather than steamed rice, is normal.
And try some insects while you're around.
Much of my time spent out this way is down country backroads searching for the stone monuments of the Khmer kings whose empire stretched from Angkor deep into modern day Thailand.
In the days before Google Everything, tracking down minor temples from an empire 800 years gone didn't always work out.
Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew wasn't my destination- or perhaps it was? The "million bottle temple" certainly was a change. Near the magnificent Khao Praeh Vihar temple, this modern masterpiece was built in the mid 80s.
Tired of the litter and waste, monks collected green Heineken and brown Chang bottles, as well as small Lipovatin bottles for the cross patterns.
From memory, this is the family that helped me get there, even though it wasn't my goal. I guess she thought that was where I was headed, rather than some long forgotten Khmer temple. (Even I have forgotten where I was headed.)
Rural life is pretty simple (but precarious) out here, a seasonal rhythm familiar to the farmers, whether Siamese, Khmer, or Mon.
Nang Rong is a forgettable if not unpleasant town, convenient to the famous 11th century Phanom Rung hilltop temple, as well as a dozen or so minor and not so minor monuments.
There was some kind of festival taking place, with women dressed in their traditional, elegant outfits.
All manner of good food was on offer- grilled meats, seasonal fruits, sweets.
Something was taking place in the town hall, women getting dolled up.
While I don't know what the occasion was, it was , literally, on for young and old.
In the dry heat found in these parts, tropical mangosteen is one of the most refreshing options.
I was eating at our usual restaurant in Phnom Penh many years ago, when the manager walked through with an AK-47. The waiters laughed at him. He'd mis-heard them ask for the "longan", which is what these fruit are.
A modern Thai temple with a lotus pond sits in the ancient city of Phimai, where another fine Khmer temple has drawn me twice.
Another typical Thai village road, where another Khmer monument waited.
A girl rides her bike in the shadow of Kuti Reusi/Prasat Nong Bua Rai, a hospital-temple which has graced her village for 800 years.
Give or take an X-box, life in the time of the Khmer rule would not be so different for this farmer's child.
Farm folk in the countryside amuse a farang with a camera.
Farmer's shed in the dry season.
These days, of course, village folks have far greater mobility, and kids graduate from bicycle to motorscooter around 12 years old.
Farmers work their fields quicker, their kids go to school, and they get more goods to markets further afield.
Several market stalls can fit into the back of a pick-up.
With a long wheel base and fitted with a Toyota engine, Aranyaprathet's tuk-tuks are unique.
Cambodian refugees swelled the border town in the 80s and 90s, and the big engined machine hauled both aid and smuggled goods.
Enormous and sprawling, the Rong Kleua market is a legacy of that era. Surprise filled stalls run 1.5km along the porous border.
Day labourers cross from Cambodia in hope of work, as porters or on building sites. Thais cross the other way for casinos.
I have spent many hours kicking around this playground, usually coming home with more Hawaiian shirts than I need.
Amongst the trash and treasure, the army surplus and pirate watches, old, storied faces and young hustlers mingle.
Most foreigners don't even see inside, too busy getting onto the next bus.
While there is usually plenty of choice, if you are stuck for a place to stay, you may find a discreet "curtain hotel". Like a Japanese love hotel, by the hour is normal, but nightly is OK too. Goodnight!