Historic remains and controversial sculptures—even some cartoon superheroes—exploring Korat might unveil a few interesting surprises
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 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 anthesis of the chaotic capital. There is a kind of pride about the past here; about a glorious history which stretches as far back as the Khmer Empire and Ayu haya Kingdom. In fact, the city used to be an important border post on the outskirts of the Ayu haya 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 centrepiece 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. The temple 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.
Words and photos by Luc Citrinot