Road trip across Northeast Thailand
offers wild and mild encounters,
Sean Drakes savors the variety
In the land of fragrant orchids and happy Buddhas, Bangkok is a city of stark contrasts: Humble shacks with sheet metal roofs bookmark concrete-and-glass towers. It is the industrial hub and capital of Thailand, which explains the population of 8 million that’s comprised largely of migratory workers who support the manufacturing of furniture, textiles, electronics and processed foods.
My visit to Bangkok is brief because my goal is to journey off the popular path. The Siam@Siam Design Hotel delivers design swag with straw sculptures, mahogany furniture and varnished concrete, and it’s the launchpad for my road trip across northeast Thailand. It is convenient to public transport, after dark attractions and the Grand Palace–a must-do tour. To align mind, muscles and joints for the adventures ahead I book a 60-minute treatment at S Medical Spa.
Nakhon Ratchasima (or Khorat), the mountainous gateway to the northeast region, is 163 miles from Bangkok and my first destination. Half the fun of a road trip occurs on detours and pit stops. On this first leg, curiosity steers me to taste test strange fruit at Klang Dong, a roadside market with a bounty of durian, betel nut and dragon fruit. Nearby is another intriguing site: Wat Thep Phithak Punnaram. As we approach a snow-white spot on the plush mountainside grows, it’s Luang Pho Yai Buddha, it spans 150-feet by 90-feet and is the largest Buddha in this region.
By lunchtime I’m near Khao Yai National Park and sitting before a plate of stir-fried fillet of ostrich at PB Valley Vineyard. This vineyard embodies Thailand’s vision to produce world-class wine–Japan consumes 25% of its export. At the first rest camp my senses uncoil then whisper ‘Ooh-la-la’. Kirimaya is a high-end nature resort that specializes in guiltless pampering with affordable luxury. The open-air layout is outfitted with the sort of contemporary Thai design imported by chic lounges in New York and Paris. Attentive staff and majestic surroundings, including a Jack Nicklaus golf course and National Park, assure a heavenly stay.
Seeking a thrill, I drive to The Jungle House and shell-out U$6 to be strapped atop an elephant for a fear-inducing trek through a muddy forest trail and murky river. Half of Thailand’s 7,000 elephants work, the others are wild, according to my guide Yui. Government frowns on locals who bring elephants to urban streets to entertain tourists. To complete an exhilarating day I scour a lively night market for vendors selling flash fried crickets, grasshoppers and beetles. The crunchy critters are not bad if you avoid smearing their gooey guts across your tongue.
Back on the road, I roll toward Surin, a province famed for its annual elephant roundup and nearby Ban Tha Sawang silk-weaving village, where I tour the weaving process and buy original souvenirs. A driver and car for a road trip costs 2,500 baht per day (U$50)—not including gas.
My final detour lets me explore the Phimai sanctuary—a Hindu temple conceived in the 16h Buddhist century. Visitors tour its dark chambers and probe sculptures and carvings, and marvel at what this monumental remnant from an early civilization has endured. Ubon Ratchathani, the easternmost Isan province borders Cambodia and is where my extraordinary road trip ends. The Tohsang Khongjiam Resort is set along the serene Mekong River, which churns a gentle serenade at breakfast.
All week I yearned to get face-to-face with those gentle men in saffron-colored robes. My only sightings were when they scrolled pass my window. On my visit to the Koo-Har-Sa-Wan temple, curiosity drew me to a cliff with a tiled staircase. A gong sounded and lured me down the steps into a spacious room overlooking a valley. On the linoleum-lined floor were eight monks-in-training kneeling before huge, golden statues, as a small group of villagers shared breakfast. They invited me in to join their meal. The road less traveled offers wild and mild encounters, don’t delay to chart your Thai adventure.
© SEAN DRAKES
[ 404.654.0859 | SEANDRAKESPHOTO@gmail.com ]