Although the town is tiny, Roi Et is home to some titanic temples
Whether for a long weekend, or a brief contemplative retreat, Roi Et—a sleepy little city in the dead centre of Isaan—is rural Thailand at its best. Cheap accommodation, a number of good, reasonably priced restaurants, a selection of silk-weaving enterprises, and enough titanic temples and ancient temple ruins to interest the spiritually minded and armchair archaeologist alike.
Previously known as Saket Nakhon, the settlement was established around the end of the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767) when a Laotian prince from Champasak settled in the area known today as Suwannaphum. He eventually succumbed to King Boromrachathirat XI of Ayutthaya, and then during the Thon Buri period (1767-82) the city was moved to its current location by King Taksin. Roi Et is named after its eleven ancient city gates, built for the eleven vassal states it encompassed when it was still known as Saket. Confusingly, however, the term roi et properly translates to “one hundred and one”, but in those days of yore the number “eleven” was written in Thai script as 1-0-1, and thus the city has been incorrectly called Roi Et ever since. As a result, “101” references are still found all over the city—for obvious reasons—and, understandably, the publishers of this magazine have a definite soft spot for the place.
Roi Et’s culture is, to this day, heavily influenced by its Laotian roots, as shown in its cuisine, dress, temple architecture, festivals, and arts. The National Museum on Phloen Chit Road showcases local historical artifacts over three floors. Isaan is a centre for the production of Thai silk—the best-known type being mut-mee, which is tie-dyed to produce geometric patterns on the thread—and the entire 3rd floor of the museum is given over to the story of this important local tradition that continues to play an integral role in everyday life.
Another notable city landmark is Bueng Phalan Chai, the picturesque lake in the middle of town which covers an area of 200,000 sq.m, and is home to the locally revered city pillar shrine. The island in the middle of the lake is accessed by a pedestrian bridge, and includes a large walking Buddha image, a pedestal in the form of a long-legged bowl which contains a constitution book and floral clock, and a flower garden from which one can watch the daily water fountain and light shows. It’s an attractive and popular focal point for activities and events, and one that the locals are justifiably proud of.
For merit makers, one local Buddhist landmark to visit in town is Wat Buraphaphiram, east of Phadung Phanich Road. It’s home to Thailand’s tallest standing Buddha—an almost 60-metre high gleaming golden Buddha image in the blessing pose known as Phra Phuttha Ratana Mongkhon Maha Muni. Visitors are able to walk around the statue’s huge, over-sized feet, as the top of the base pedestal is easily accessible via a short flight of steep steps. Here one gains a whole new appreciation for the enormity of the entire construction. Meanwhile, an ancient hollowed out tree in an area opposite the statue houses hundreds of religious artifacts, and shows all the signs of being a hermit’s retreat in bygone days.
For an eye-popping temple day trip, make your way to Phra Maha Chedi Chai Mongkol, located a little over 80 km northeast of Roi Et city. Spectacular in size, it’s visible from miles away as it sits in all its over-the-top extravagant splendour atop a large hill, serenely surveying the surrounding countryside. Occupying a plot of 101 rai, the highlight of the temple complex is the dazzling white and gold central chedi (facing page), which is 101 metres high and surrounded by eight smaller pagodas. The finial at the chedi’s top is made of 60 kg of pure gold, and it is estimated that when finished the cost of the entire temple will be a staggering 83,000 million baht!
The chedi is comprised of five floors in total, the first three of which attempt to outdo each other in the opulence stakes (above right), while the fourth offers a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. The large spiral staircase leading to the tiny uppermost floor—where the Buddha relics reside—is quite narrow and steep, and ascending it is no stroll in the park. But elderly Thais make the effort to climb all the way up, so you may find yourself embarrassed if you don’t attempt to follow in their footsteps.
The grounds that surround the main temple, home to the aforementioned eight pagodas, are also a study in profusion and abundance, as fountains, flowerbeds, and topiary combine to dazzling effect. An interesting if slightly incongruous feature is the Great Wall of China replica, which allows visitors a 3 km perimeter walk and a view of the nearby village and school.
The sheer magnitude of this opulent temple and its grandiose grounds will leave you reaching for superlatives to describe it. However, it may also lead you to search out more humble and ancient examples of Buddhist beliefs, such as Wat Ku Ka Sing, a wonderful example of Khmer style architecture said to date from 1017-1087. It’s believed to be a shrine dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva, and is worth the drive of 70 km due south from Roi Et city. It’s a typical example of some of the more ancient, yet under-advertised temple ruins that more than reward the effort it takes to find them.
Where to Eat
ENJOY RESTAURANT: This modern-looking restaurant, with plenty of indoor and outdoor seating, is helmed by Joy Chaiyasing, the welcoming and knowledgeable English-speaking owner with a passion for her profession. Her large menu features Thai delicacies such as a green chicken curry, chicken satay, deep-fried fish, and a delicious duck laab (spicy minced salad). In addition, a nice selection of wines—including a Rucahue Cabernet Sauvignon from Chile—and some imported European beers by the bottle, make a lovely added bonus. Tel: 043 515 044
JORKOR FARM: This large restaurant, which doubles as aconvention centre, offers indoor dining as well as an array of outdoor seating options that include regular wooden tables and chairs on the terrace, or Thai-style thatch roof huts on raised platforms where diners sit cross-legged around low tables. The specialty here is farmed prawns—the size of small lobsters—which are best served flame-grilled. Other menu highlights include red curry shrimp served in a coconut, deep-fried tuptim fish (Tilapia, also farmed), and a selection of amazing ice creams for dessert. Tel: 04 352 7774
Words by Gary Anthony Rutland Photos by Bruce Scott