Tag - development

Chaiyaphum, Thailand

 

Barely heard of and even less touristed Chaiyaphum makes the ideal base for nearby stunning national parks.
Barely heard of and even less touristed Chaiyaphum makes the ideal base for nearby stunning national parks.
Barely heard of and even less touristed Chaiyaphum makes the ideal base for nearby stunning national parks.

Though not as rich in attractions as its neighbouring provinces, barely heard of and even less touristed Chaiyaphum makes the ideal base for nearby stunning national parks, and has a few worthy spots of its own too. CHRIS WOTTON gets under the skin of this undiscovered slice of Isaan.
 
Never heard of Chaiyaphum? That’s little surprise, as few people have. Tucked up in Thailand’s north-eastern Isaan region and bordered by Khorat and Khon Kaen, this largely untouristed province barely registers a foreign face. Still very Thai in appearance and character, the main industries here are rice and sugar production, while the province is also renowned as a silk centre. The capital city of an otherwise largely rural province shows the signs of some limited urban development, but venture here and you will still discover somewhere pleasingly quiet and low-key, the perfect antidote to the Bangkok lifestyle.

The primary attractions here, the Jao Pho Praya Lae monument and Prang Ku, are largely unimpressive and at most worth a passing glance. In fact, you will probably pass the former several times before even realising what it is. Jao Pho Phraya Lae was the eighteenth century Lao ruler of Chaiyaphum, and this statue in his name is the centrepiece of a roundabout in the centre of town on Bannakan Road. He switched sides to fight with Bangkok when Vientiane declared war on Siam at the start of the 1800s.

Jao Pho Phraya Lae lost his life in the ensuing battles, but was kept in high esteem in Chaiyaphum and today has two annual festivals celebrated in his name in January and May.

The Khmer Prang Ku further along Bannakan Road past the entrance to Siam River Resort, meanwhile, is really equally disappointing as a sight. Poorly preserved and not much to look at at all, in its heyday it was a temple on the route that connected Angkor Wat with the (far more impressive and better restored) Prasat Muang Singh just outside of Kanchanaburi.
Today, if nothing else it serves as a reminder of just how small Chaiyaphum proper really is – particularly at night, by the time you’ve walked just a short way east to this site, you feel like you’re well out of the city and into Isaan village life.

Tat Ton National Park makes for far more of a reason to visit Chaiyaphum. Twenty-three kilometres away and easily reached by 30 baht public songthaew share taxi from a stand at the north end of the city on Non Muang Road, it boasts amongst other sights an impressive waterfall that stretches to 50m wide in the rainy season – take care as it is easy to sip by the water’s edge. Group tours aside, you are likely to be almost alone in the park, and pretty much certainly the only foreigner. The 100 baht entrance fee gets you access to the whole park, which also includes the smaller Tat Fah waterfall.

The park as a whole is the perfect spot for a dose of back-to-nature relaxation sure to enliven the senses, and if you want to drag it out a little longer there are bungalows to rent too. The return journey to Chaiyaphum is a bit more of a pain than getting there, since songthaews don’t take this route after the morning – but you can hitch a ride back to Chaiyaphum quite easily. If all else fails, walk some way along the road you came down, make yourself look tired and wait for a few women to start shouting, asking if you need a lift back to Chaiyaphum (for a price). They came to our rescue, so they’re bound to for you as well.

Back in Chaiyaphum proper, picnics are the order of the day at a secluded, peaceful spot at the side of a small lake in the streets behind the Tesco Lotus supermarket on Sanambin Road. Roll up on a bike or on foot, having stopped at food stalls on the lanes nearby for giant Isaan-sized grilled chicken skewers and fresh pineapple with dried chilli and sugar, and soak up the goodness of some fresh Chaiyaphum air from the shade of the many trees lining the lake. As is the beauty with so much in this city, aside from the odd local fisherman you will likely have the place to yourself.

GET THERE: Buses run by at least three different companies connect Chaiyaphum with Bangkok’s northern Morchit bus terminal in about six hours. On the return leg, the three companies unhelpfully all have their own departure terminals dotted around town, but there are also local bus connections to Khon Kaen and Khorat, both linked to Bangkok by trains and planes.

WHERE TO STAY: Most western tourists stay at the five-star Siam River Resort, towards the far end of Bannakan Road, where 990 Baht will bag you a plush room with balcony and breakfast, and access to the pool. There’s free wi-fi and bike hire and staff are excellent. The Deeprom Hotel is also worth a look, with its pleasing pastel exterior, though staff speak little English. Expect to pay 800 Baht for a double air-con room.

MOVING ON: Khon Kaen is two and a half hours away by local bus – great for foodies, it also boasts the Bueng Kaen Nakhon lake which makes for a great walking spot. Buses to Khorat take two hours.

CHRIS WOTTON is a twenty-something crazy about Thailand. After a first visit in 2008, he fell in love with the country and has since travelled its length and breadth, searching out local life – and local food! – while writing and researching for SE Asia travel guides and magazines. When not discovering and writing about Thailand, Chris studies French and German in his native UK, and runs an online shop selling authentic Japanese and Thai cooking ingredients.

Isaan Life – Graduation

issan_graduation_1
Isaan Life Graduation
Isaan Life Graduation
Isaan Life Graduation
Isaan Life Graduation
Isaan Life Graduation
issan_graduation_8
Isaan Life Graduation

Graduation is a time when family and friends come together collectively to celebrate individual achievement and the passage from one phase of life to the next. Graduations are a time to reflect on the past, to smile, relax, enjoy the moment and feel optimistic about the future. A week ago a dear friend Jaruwan Supolrai received her diploma from Ubon Ratchathani University, a college with about 5,000 students some 15 kilometers south of the city. It was indeed a celebration but hardly a spontaneous or stress-free one!

This graduation was an explosion of color. Reds bled to crimson, baby blue and shimmering golden hues! Nervous, smiling students dressed in their most fancy uniforms, shirts and skirts for the young women and tight white suits for the boys. Each graduate wore a lacy, baby-blue gown. The graduates carried multi-colored flowers carefully cradled in the arms of teddy bears.

This colorful scene was hardly serene. The crowd was noisy and boisterous. Thai people love to take pictures and there was a constant whirring and clicking coming from every direction. Proud parents, happy students, smiling brothers and sisters, confused babies masked the underlying tension the graduates felt. Jaruwan explained that the preparation that went into the event was “exhausting and formal.” Rehearsals were rigorous, lasting for hours for two days before the actual ceremony. Also Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn was there to hand out the diplomas. This was nerve wracking; there is no room for error in the face of royalty. Jaruwan explained, everything had to be perfect. The princess is a scholar having earned a doctorate in Development Education from Srinakharinwirot University in Bangkok in 1987.

Next there was time pressure. Some 1,140 students had to collect their diplomas in around 1 minute meaning that 35 students had to march to the front and receive their diplomas each and every minute. The graduates worked on their timing in practice, even counting the number of steps they had to take every second!

The day of the ceremony was so stressful that Jaruwan said there was “no time for sleep.” Wake-up time on graduation day was promptly at 3 a.m. for a pre-dawn hair and make up call. The scene was hysterical. Imagine a queue of half-awake girls standing in the glow of a dimly lit convenience store dressed only in their nightgowns waiting to get into a nearby salon just outside the University gates. Soon there was a second line, the same girls parading out of the salon, still in their nightgowns, but with made-up faces aglow and freshly coifed hair carefully arranged into swirls atop their heads.

Jaruwan dressed for the day at 4 a.m., a quick and simple task; first slip into the neatly ironed shirt and dress, then the gown. Next a quick breakfast; there would be no time for more food until much later that afternoon. Exhausted and not yet dawn, Jaruwan headed out to meet her classmates. Soon she would parade formally into the gymnasium where the Princess waited.

The gymnasium was graduates and students only. The processional and the ceremony were worth the frenetic middle-of-the-night effort. The graduates, identified by their flowing blue gowns, marched in first. First and second year students stood on either side solemnly singing the school song. Jaruwan said she was, “nervous because everything was so formal.” Later she said that when the 52-year-old Princess entered the gymnasium and the Royal Song played she “got goose bumps all down” her arms.

An hour later the ceremony complete the students emerged clearly relieved the formalities were over. “I did it!” was a common exclamation. Now, the celebration, the graduation party could begin! First year students honored graduates from different faculties surrounding them singing or dancing to show respect. There were flowers everywhere. Thousands, every color of the rainbow, purchased from street vendors that morning were showered upon the graduates. I felt like a beast of burden carrying more bouquets than I could handle; so many had been given to Jaruwan.

The formal party began to wind down. Families that have traveled far distances get back in their cars or vans and headed go home. The graduates headed out for food and a moment of relaxation. Everyone was exhausted but there was one more celebration, one final party. The graduates headed out to the bars for a last college bash before taking that next step into the “real world.”

About the author:
Eli Sherman is a graduate of Montpelier High School in Montpelier, the capital of the state of Vermont, USA, and a “young blood writer” living in Ubon Ratchathani, Isaan – Northeastern Thailand. He’s been to Isaan four times in his short life. Once on a cross cultural exchange with Montpelier to Thailand Project; once coming for five months as an exchange student at Benchama Maharat school in Ubon; and again coming as a guide for Montpelier to Thailand Project. He now works as a volunteer at the Institute of Nutrition Research Field Station, Mahidol University in Ubon Ratchathani and is writing to present Isaan Life to the world, and especially KhaoSanRoad.com visitors.

Taking it Easy in Luang Prabang

Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos
Luang Prabang, Laos

Tourists arriving off a 2-day slowboat bustle around the town, eager to stretch their stiff legs. Trekking enthusiasts use the town as a base point for their ventures north into the dense jungles and tribal villages. Buddhists and curious scholars flock to Phou Si, a sacred hilltop site where Buddha’s footprint is still pressed into the side of the mountain. Luang Prabang may be a mere stopover point on your trip through Laos, but this town merits a few days for exploring. Veteran travellers praise it as a place they’d visit again and again, UNESCO named it a heritage site, and KhaoSanRoad.com applauds it as one of Southeast Asia’s most charming sites.

The remnants of French colonization are still visible on Luang Prabang’s main streets, where colonial architecture coexists with the gilded or teak points of traditional Laotian buildings. Old churches stand beside older wats, and the result is a picturesque mix of architectural styles. While the city is in rapid development thanks to tourist exposure and foreign business, it still maintains a picturesque, European feeling. On a clear day, the city’s winding streets and pretty rivers make it a photographer’s dream.
 
For accommodation, Luang Prabang has a competitive guesthouse market, and touts will greet you no matter where your arrival point may be. The Merry Guesthouses (1 and 2), on the northern end of the downtown, are fantastically clean, spacious and quiet, with kind and helpful staff. Those looking for a view of the Mekong should try Vong Champa Guesthouse, which is clean, cosy, and impressively cheap.
 
By day, the Phou Si mountain offers beautiful views of the surrounding landscape, as well as ornate Buddha statues, a Buddha footprint, and a solemn cave shrine. Near the main street, the former royal palace of Haw Kham is the stuff of postcards; opulent shrines, murals and furnishings, showing many different traditional styles of Laotian art and decoration.
 
For a bit of downtime, L’Etranger is a two-storey gem with a used bookshop/book exchange on the bottom floor and a comfortable teahouse on the top, which plays smart artsy films on weeknights at 7pm. Located on the north side of Phou Si mountain, the great selection of books, teas and snacks make it well worth a visit.
 
Those looking to get out of the city should book a taxi or rent bikes to get to Kuang Si Falls, 30km outside the city. These perfectly blue, multi-layered falls are set amidst lush jungle, and tourists may find themselves lounging all day in these pools. At the entrance, by the odd yet heartwarming bear zoo, stalls of food and drinks ensure that visitors will not go hungry.
 
Come nightfall, restaurants illuminate their patios, inviting travellers to eat and drink while people watching on Xiang Thong, the main street which hosts a vibrant night market. Here, tourists stock up on anything from handmade quilts to ubiquitous Beerlao T-shirts. Foodwise, baguette is a local specialty, and many restaurants go the mile in western offerings by boasting full French menus, with wine and cheeses among its fare. While the food is indulgently delicious, cheaper and fresher fare is available at the many night markets in alleys branching off Xiang Thong. Here, a vegetarian buffet of fresh produce from the Laotian countryside will cost a mere 5000 kip. These markets host a more local nightlife, where Laotian families gather to eat at tiny plastic tables.
 
Though the city is relatively quiet at night, there are still a handful of good bars. Young and thirsty tourists flock to the funky Hive Bar, beside L’Etranger, or the breezier Laos Beer Garden. When the bars close at midnight, tuk-tuk drivers are ever-available to take tourists to Vietnam Bar, an after-hours speakeasy of sorts with good music, plenty of seating, and the liveliest crowd in town.
 
Though Luang Prabang serves as a stopover point for many, its languid pace and compact downtown make it an easy spot to relax. In the midst of the eco-tourism that makes Laos so famous, this city is a great place to spend a few days sipping good coffee, exploring old buildings, and feeling immediately at home in Laos’ most welcoming town.

Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.