Khon Kaen: the land that time forgot… for now
Do you like time travel? Of course you do. Well, you’re in luck, as just a short plane ride from Bangkok is all it takes to journey back in time—yet still enjoy all the delights and comforts of the present day.
The destination in question is Khon Kaen, the largest and wealthiest city in Isaan. It boasts a highly respected university and is considered by many to be the regions most sophisticated urban centre. And despite the recent addition of a trio of dull grey, cookie-cutter skyscrapers, it’s still mostly refreshingly free from the blight of 21st century “urban renewal”, bestowing it with a latter-day rustic air that is increasingly difficult to find as bulldozers race to erase anything remotely aesthetically pleasing in Thailand’s cities and towns.
King Cobra Village: For a more carnivalesque attraction, travel about 50 km Northeast to Ban Knok Sa-Nga, or ‘King Cobra Village’ as it’s more commonly known. One certainly takes a trip back in time when visiting this isolated, rural community. There’s a link here with mankind’s primeval past that seems to conjure up spirits both animal and human. Watching septuagenarian men “boxing” venomous cobras provides visitors with a sufficiently surreal spectacle, and on the afternoon I visited a crowd of mostly young schoolchildren were there as well, ghoulishly lapping it all up. At the end of the 20-minute performance more slithery reptiles—non-venomous pythons this time—were carted out by their handlers and offered to audience members for the de-riguer photo-ops so important to attractions of this kind. Among the performers was a tiny toddler (probably three years old at most) who came onstage draped in a python roughly the same size as himself. It provided yet another moment of head-shaking bemusement, something you’ll probably experience more than once when visiting this most singular, but fascinating, attraction.
Silk Weaving Village: Another example of the local desire to retain, and promote, old practices can be found when visiting the Baan Huafai Mudmee Silk Weaving Group headquarters in Hua Fai Village (46, Moo 2, Pordang, Chonnabot, which is about 2 hours south of Khon Kaen City). Over 200 households here are involved in some way with the production of traditional mudmee silk. The group is led by the charming, English speaking Nidda Phlaenkee, and you will receive a typically warm Isaan welcome when you visit, along with a fascinating introduction to the ages old silk-weaving practices that have made the silk produced here famous throughout Thailand. After observing a pair of local women practicing a new form of painting on silk—which adds to the existing tradition of creating patterns and colours—Nidda brought out a woven basket filled with real live silkworms and I got to touch one of these intriguing insects (quite strange in a non-eventful fashion). Anyone visiting this village will get a truly “authentic” Isaan experience, and homestays are available for those wanting to learn more (and although plain the accommodations look like an excellent value at B200 per night). For more info call 083 656 5644, or email email@example.com.
Phu Wian Dinosaur Museum: In 1976 the geologist Sudham Yaemniyom discovered a piece of dinosaur bone in the bed of a stream, and his discovery subsequently added a whole new chapter to Thai history. Since that time four new species of dinosaur have been discovered and catalogued in and around Phu Wiang mountain—among them the wonderfully named Siamosaurus, a seven-meter-long water dwelling fish eater. Today, reptile buffs can visit the Phu Wiang Dinosaur Museum (Tel: 043 438 2046), which is located near to the site of the first discovery. This excellent modern museum is well worth the drive, and once you’ve finished the informative, interactive tour—complete with a collection of elaborately detailed, scale-model animatronic prehistoric beasts—you can visit the nearby recreational area known as Sri Wiang Dinosaur Park. Here you can take a few fun photos as you walk and play outdoors among an array of life-size replica dinosaur statues.
Nam Phong National Park: This 197 sq.km park, situated in and around the Ubolratana Dam, is a must for nature lovers. Follow the 2146 Highway (off Highway 12) which is a long and winding narrow forest road that leads to one of three entrances to the Nam Phong National Park. From there it’s a short stroll along an easy to follow path—past a handful of humungous weird and wonderfully shaped rocks—that ultimately delivers you to a breathtaking covered viewpoint overlooking a massive reservoir to the west, and Khon Kaen to the east. The gargantuan rocks, which seem to have been scattered here by the hands of giants, were used in the past by wild elephants for “flank-scratching”, and many bear traces of their prehistoric past as well. Several of these building-sized boulders are fitted with handrails so they can be ascended, providing further spectacular views.
During our visit we were informed by a typically friendly group of underpaid, danger-dodging Park Rangers that they will soon erect a new 3-storey viewpoint, and improve the existing ones as well. Later, as we followed the rangers along a spectacular forest path close to a cliff edge, we saw a lone eagle—one of Thailand’s largest eagle species—effortlessly gliding on thermals, and lazily looking for supper hundreds of feet above the still water below. The sighting capped an unforgettable nature experience that had me reluctant to leave, and desperate to come back for a much longer visit. Home to wild boar, barking deer and wolf, the thought of spending a night camping in the interior still has appeal although I suspect one would have to be accompanied by rangers as the park is still completely wild and untamed in many places. It’s worth noting that rangers in parks all over Thailand have an exceedingly difficult task, but most are in it for the love of the job (and the environment). They often run the risk of being attacked by poachers, but an even bigger risk here is sunburn and dehydration. So don’t forget your sunscreen and bring plenty of water if you visit. Isaan is brutally hot throughout most of the year, and the nearest 7-11 to these scenic surroundings is a long, long way away.
Where to Eat: Khon Kaen’s predominantly Lao-influenced cuisine is well represented by a plethora of cheap eateries that offer famous Isaan specialties—from palate scorching Som Tam, to lime-infused Laab—at ridiculously reasonable prices in settings redolent of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. You’ll also find a surprising amount of fish and seafood on offer, as the area is blessed with numerous fish farms helping to satiate the locals borderline obsessive love for aquatic feasts of every stripe. Bamboo-steamed Snakehead fish seemed to be particularly popular, and this appropriately named water creature is served in dramatic fashion at Beer Woon Restaurant (Tel: 04 333 2719), where the waiter arrives with a steaming bamboo pipe that is then emptied onto the plate to reveal a perfectly cooked fishy main course. And if that’s not culinary adventure enough for you, why not try some ant larvae? Available in a variety of entrees—including omelette and soup form—these wee white worms have a slightly crunchy texture (similar to that of raw garlic) and sort of burst when chewed, but the best news is… they don’t wiggle! You can try them at Praprai Restaurant (Tel: 081 544 6628), which is located close to the airport.
Nightlife: Once the sun goes down the Ton Tann Green Market lights up the night. This new night market—located in the heart of Khon Kaen City off Mittraphap Rd—
is somewhat similar in design and feel to Bangkok’s W District. It’s an ambitious project aimed at promoting the arts, and creative culture in general, to the town’s inhabitants. Home to five “performance stages”, an open air cinema, a free art gallery, and countless shops, drink spots and restaurants, Ton Tann is a great place to spend a pleasant afternoon and/or evening—whether watching elephant and crocodile shows with the kids, or having a drink with a date.
Where to Stay: Located in the city centre, just a short drive from the airport, the Pullman Khon Kaen Raja Orchid is one of the city’s premiere luxury upscale hotels, designed for business travelers and holiday makers alike. The spacious rooms are well-designed, and there are six restaurants and four bars to choose from. The property also offers a fitness centre, an outdoor pool, a day spa, and it’s also close to the noisy nightlife action on Pracha Samran Rd. www.pullmanhotels.com
For more information about travel in and around this area of Isaan, visit www.tourismthailand.org/khonkaen.
Khon Kaen City derives its name from Prathat Kham Kaen, a Laotian-style Chedi built in the 1700s. It’s situated about 20 km northeast of the city, on a site made sacred by the vast tamarind tree which can be seen flourishing in the immaculately kept grounds. The tree is the source of the legend behind the temple’s origin, and the Buddha relics contained within.
Northwest of the city, at Ban Sawathi, you can find Wat Chai Si, a tiny but fascinating Sim or Ubosot (ordination hall) covered inside and out with dilapidated murals that are some of the few examples remaining of early 20th century rural Buddhist folk art. Crudely drawn, and often horrifically graphic in nature, they depict—in their own unique fashion—the usual Buddhist scripture stories, and are of particular note for their inclusion of a variety of local customs. This temple has been a designated National Ancient Monument since 2001, and there’s also a folk museum close by to visit with rare Northeastern folk equipment and utensils.
Within the confines of the city itself the most striking landmark is the Nine Storey Stupa (pictured), which can be found at Wat Nong Waeng, a royal temple on Klang Mueang Rd, on the edge of Kaen Nakhon Lake. The view from the 9th floor is breathtaking—as is the walk up all those stairs—and the carvings on door and window panels are strikingly ornate. This stunning monument was built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the revered late King Bhumibol’s accession to the throne, as well as Khon Kaen’s 200th civic anniversary, and at night the temple’s 80 metre spire is illuminated, providing a pleasant addition to the evening skyline. On the morning I visited, a pair of elderly musicians were playing hypnotic soothing molam music on traditional instruments—a phin (a lute-like cross between a violin and guitar), and a ranat-ek (Thailand’s percussive version of a xylophone). The delicate sound added to the wonderfully natural and timeless atmosphere.
Words by Gary Anthony Rutland | Photos by Bruce Scott