One of the biggest cities in the Kingdom, Nakhon Ratchasima, better known as Khorat, serves as the gateway to the Isan region. Attracting relatively little traveller attention, many view this city as an unfortunate stopover as they make their way further north or east.
On first glance this city does seem impenetrable -- virtually no English is spoken and tourists remain an anomaly -- but with a little patience and guidance, Khorat sneaks up on you as a destination in its own right. While its attractions may not merit a week's stay, you may just find yourself lingering that long as you eat your way through town and soak up the local culture.
Khorat is an amazing mix of old and new -- of tradition and innovation. In stark contrast to Bangkok's booming metropolis, Khorat is today much of what it was 50 years ago.
This slower paced city provides a glimpse into the architecture of authentic Thai life -- something lost elsewhere in the country as Thailand yields to the unending surge of tourist dollars.
While Khorat doesn't see many of those dollars, it certainly has reason to attract them.
Just three hours from Bangkok, Khorat is home to beautiful shrines, colourful markets, amazing food, and more recently, a broad range of lodging and dining options that cater to both Thai and western tastes while encompassing everything in between.
Alongside sparkling Buddhist temples and sidewalk restaurants with makeshift kitchens, hip eateries and boutique hotels are popping up. Where Khorat was once void of such choices, it's now possible to enjoy its cultural offerings without sacrificing comfort.
The best way to approach Khorat is by simply allowing yourself to get lost in the narrow old streets and see what you might discover. Though tightly packed, the city isn't huge, and you can walk from one side to the other in a half-day.
While a dirt cheap yet remarkable hole-in-the-wall restaurant was never difficult to find, don't be surprised if a trendy air-conditioned cafe reminds you that this ancient city is gradually catching up with the times. Other subtle highlights include makeshift street markets, pad mee Khorat noodles, a temple with cave walls and a memorial to Khorat's courageous savior, Kunying Mo, where a constant stream of locals offer flower garlands and incense every day.
Further afield, enormous Nakhon Ratchasima province boasts one of Thailand's largest pottery villages at Dan Kwian, the haunting Khmer ruins at Phimai, the vineyards and farms of Pak Chong, and the untamed jungles of Khao Yai.
While far off the tourist track, Khorat has a lot to offer the traveller hoping to experience the real Thailand. A mix of tradition and westernisation, Khorat is teeming with the energies of both... and it works.
Khorat's vibrant city centre revolves around the lovely Lady Mo -- also known as the Suranaree Monument. She is situated atop a bustling plaza that serves as a thoroughfare spanning busy Chumphon and Ratchadamnoen Rds.
Songtheaws circulate the square frequently and travel to the outer reaches of the city. Mittraphap Rd is the busy eight-lane road on the north side of the city. Buses to and from all destinations likely manoeuvre this street and many frequented landmarks like The Mall and TAT offices are on it. North of the centre of Nakhon Ratchasima, and reached by songtheaw #6 and a walk, you'll find the neighbourhood of Joho -- it's almost a suburb, with lots of new housing developments, and is popular with families.
The bus stations are west of the monument with Bus Terminal 2 -- the more useful of the pair -- north of Mittraphap. The train station is further southwest. Tuk tuks congregate at all embarking points -- remember to agree on a fare before setting off.
Banks are everywhere and all major establishments have a branch or two in Khorat. Kasikorn, Bangkok and Siam Commercial have full service outposts in The Mall and the two major supermarkets, Tesco Lotus and Big C also house branches. Otherwise, they are amply dotted throughout the city.
Similarly, internet is readily available. Many guesthouses and hotels now offer computer use in their lobbies. Those who don't are often a few steps away from one of the many internet cafes throughout the city. Expect a rambunctious crowd of gaming teenage boys, comfy chairs, and LCD monitors. The prevalence of shops keeps prices low at a bargain 15 B/hour. Most places are open from 9:00 to 24:00.
There are three easily accessible post office branches. The main one is east of the plaza on Assadang Rd. West of the plaza, on Chom Surang Yat Rd is the Chomsurang branch that along with the usual, also provides Western Union services and houses the Sima Philatelic Museum, if stamps are your thing. The other in Tesco-Lotus has more limited services, but has the advantage of being open every day until 20:30, just in case you have some late-night mailing to do. A fourth branch is close to the TAT offices.
For any health concerns, the elegant (no really, it is) Bangkok Hospital is reputedly the best, but there are plenty of other good choices in town.
Should you need assistance, the Tourist Police offices are located just across from Bus Terminal 2 and a small police box is situated next to the monument.
Though TAT offices are a ways from the centre of town on Mittraphap Rd, they are able to provide a wealth of information about Khorat and the surrounding area.
Big C and Tesco-Lotus are the major grocery stores in town but Home Fresh Mart in The Mall is also a good choice with more products you miss from home alongside Thai favourites.
Although The Mall may not be the "Kingdom of Pleasure" it purports itself to be, it is packed with diversions and products to soothe the weary traveller. The movie theatre on the top floor sometimes shows films in English, a bowling alley provides further entertainment, and the pool and adjoining water park can be used for 80 B. It's the biggest of its kind in the region and has many western fast food chains along with a more traditional Thai food court where you can sample Pad Mi Khorat for less than 40 B.
Motorbikes can be rented at Euro Khan Chang (look for the huge "Suzuki" sign) for 300 baht per day. Directly across the street, the smaller store Surachai, matches their rate. Both are open daily and have an English-speaking staff member.
Finally, for a relaxing massage in a tranquil environment, Le Beau Spa and Beauty has a skilled and professional staff and good prices. Traditional Thai massage will set you back about 250 B, but prices are considerably higher for a western-style massage. Promotions are the norm here, so be on the lookout for signs.
Bangkok Bank: 49 Assadang Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima. T: (044) 267 0504.
Kasikorn Bank: 55 Chom Surang Yat Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima. T: (044) 256 215.
Bank of Ayudhya: 672 Mittraphap Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima. T: (044) 256 899.
Siam Commercial Bank: 47/1 Chom Phon Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima.T: (044) 269 255.
Post & Telecom
Central: Assadang Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima. between Manak and Prachak T: (044) 247 537. Mon-Fri 8:30-16:30; Sat 9:00-12:00.
Chomsurang: 48 Chom Surang Yat Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima. T: (044) 256 670. Mon-Fri 8:30-16:30; Sat 9:00-12:00.
Tesco-Lotus: 719/5 Mittraphap Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima. T: (044) 341 654 Open daily 9:00-22:30.
Cattelcom: Chom Surang Yat Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima. next to the Chomsurang post office T: (044) 259 707. Mon-Fri 8:30-16:30.
Bangkok Hospital: 1308/9 Mittraphap Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima. T: (044) 262 000.
Big C: 118 Mittraphap-Nongkhai Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima. T: (044) 295 050. Open daily 9:00-23:00.
Euro Khan Chang: 241 Suranaree Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima. T: (044) 267 115.
Home Fresh Mart: The Mall, 1242/2 Mittraphap Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima. Open daily 10:00-21:00.
Le Beau Spa and Beauty: Suranaree Rd at Soi Lamparu, Nakhon Ratchasima. T: (044) 274 440.
Mod's Hair: 22 Chom Phon Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima. T: (044) 254 269. Open daily 10:00-18:00.
Surachai: 120 Suranaree Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima. T: 081 878 7367.
TAT (Tourist Authority of Thailand): 2102-2104 Mittraphap Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima. T: (044) 213 666. Open daily, 8:30-16:30.
Tesco-Lotus: 719/5 Mittraphap Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima. T: (044) 341 654. Open daily 9:00-23:00.
Tourist Police: Mittraphap-Nongkhai Rd, across from Bus Terminal 2, Nakhon Ratchasima. T: (044) 341 777.
The Mall: 1242/2 Mittraphap Rd, Nakhon Ratchasima. Open daily 10:00-21:00.
By David Luekens.