Korat’s hidden gems include historic remains and groovy 70s temples
Let’s face it… Korat is not what travellers would call a historical jewel. The city is like many large urban areas in Thailand—there are a few old temples, but the town is mainly dominated by rather architecturally insignificant concrete buildings, mostly dating back to the 1970s and 80s. Like many cities in the centre of Thailand, Korat (also known by its full name, Nakhon Ratchasima) had been the target of bombs during World War II. The few interesting historical buildings, mostly made of wood, burned and were later replaced by quick-built structures. But does down this broken link to architectural history mean that Korat is not worth a visit? Far from it!
Korat is, geographically, the closest Isaan city to Bangkok, however its relaxed old-fashioned style—where food and temples seem to determine the life of locals—is the antithesis of the chaotic capital (making it a great chillax destination). There is, in this city, a kind of pride about the past; about a glorious history which stretches as far back as the Khmer Empire and Ayutthaya Kingdom. In fact, the city used to be an important border post on the outskirts of the Ayutthaya Kingdom. The various gates and parts of the ancient wall, which still runs along the traditional moats in the city centre, are a reminder of this historically strategic position.
Visitors should take a day to stroll at leisure around the town, starting with the Thao Suranee Monument, located in the heart of the city. The centerpiece is a statue, finished in 1934, which is the work of Italian sculptor and painter Corrado Feroci (aka: Silpa Bhirasri). But did this female figure, the wife of the deputy governor of the town, really exist? Thais believe she was a real character, but Laotians—who fought in the early 19th century against Siam annexation—think she is only a legend. Either way, she is credited with having fought against Laotian armies, and is fervently admired by locals. Korat inhabitants come to pray day and night in front of her statue, while small sala pavilions nearby feature traditional local song performances called Pleng Korat. In the evenings, the marble area around the statue has become a favourite hangout for skateboarders.
Around the monument is the city’s old wall, built by French engineers in the 17th century, and while the Chumpon Gate is the only original structure remaining of the wall, the rebuilt Yao Mo Gate is by far the most impressive bit, with its sophisticated and elegant wooden watchtower (two other gates were rebuilt north and south of the old town).
Few traditional wooden Thai houses survived the wartime bombing, but a couple of nice buildings are still visible in the city’s Chinatown (Mahathai, Chakri, and Chumphon roads), where a small night market exists. However, two temples reconstructed in the 1970s are definitely worth a look. Located near to Yao Mo Gate, the Wat Phayat temple compound has a massive grey marble temple which reinterprets, in a contemporary style, a Thai traditional wat. Opposite the main ubosot is an artificial grotto with Buddha figures surrounded by stalactites. By contrast, Wat Sala Loi is a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, and won an award from the Siam Architects Society for its avant-garde design. Constructed in 1973, it’s shaped like a Chinese Junk boat with triangle windows and stylized, minimalist gable-end finials on the temple roof. Around the temple a garden offers a sharp contrast to the minimalist wat, complete with life-size cartoon figures (including Spiderman and Captain America), kitchy statues, and brightly coloured real—and plastic—flowers.
An ‘Angkor’ Passage : Road Trip Through The Ruins
Travel from Korat to Buriram while stopping along the highway at some of Thailand’s most spectacular ancient Khmer temples
Some 60 km north of Korat, one of the most important ancient roads exists, beginning at the site of the former city of Viyamapura, the western outpost of the Khmer empire. The complex here known as Prasat Phimai can be considered Thailand’s largest, and best preserved, Khmer temple. The structure was built at the end of the 11th century—a century before the masterpiece of Angkor Wat in Cambodia—and was inventoried in 1901 by Thai and French archeologists and scientists. The temple complex is part of the Phimai Historical Park and has been superbly restored. Most spectactular is the central sanctuary with its delicately sculpted façade bearing a giant Garuda on its western face (late afternoon is the perfect time to visit, when the temple is bathed in golden light). Meanwhile, a visit to the Phimai Museum reveals an outstanding collection of sculpture, jewellery, and statues coming from Southeast Isaan.
Phimai is located on an ancient 400 km long highway which linked all important Khmer cities to the centre of the empire in Angkor. Heading east from Korat, the next large temple complex along the route is Phnom Rung, probably the most spectacular Khmer temple in Thailand.
Located 135 km southeast of Phimai, this temple is a majestic introduction to Buriram province, and benefits from a stunning location. Perched on a small hill, at a height of 400 metres, the pinkish sand stone temple is a peaceful place to visit. The construction period stretched from the early 10th to the late 12th century, and the result is a magnificent structure with decoration and iconography that pays respect to the local ruler’s family, the Mahidharapura dynasty. A paved causeway leads to a stairway, flanked on either side by snakelike naga sculptures, which provides a pictorial access to the central sanctuary and its delicate carvings. Early morning is the best time to see the sun rising on the temple, as it turns from a dark pinky orange to a lovely pale pink. Too bad so few visitors witness this spectacle.