Featured image: At the Nakhon Ratchasima train station on the Northeastern line. Pix by Juana Jaafar.
This year’s trip to Thailand came about when I decided to visit an old friend in Bangkok and to heal myself from the bruises of 2010. Like my father, I love trains. So when I decided to make this trip I immediately looked up the railway map of Thailand.
I came across a province called Buriram, about 410 kilometres northeast of Bangkok. I discovered it is also known by its epithet, “City of Peace”. It was almost an omen. I knew I had to go there, alone.
Friday, on the Northeastern railway line
I’m on a train heading eastward from Bangkok. We just passed a quarry with a gigantic golden Buddha statue on a hill. I wish I had whipped out my camera but I’m too spaced out. I stayed up waiting for news on Mubarak’s fall, but he didn’t. Oh look, we just passed a sprawling landfill.
… I have no idea where we are right now, mostly because I’d been asleep since the train took off from Bangkok a couple of hours ago. I woke up because my t-shirt got soaked. Yuck. The airconditioning got screwed and it’s only just working now.
It’s really humid outside. I just went out the back of the carriage and hung out with three Thai soldiers. I found the next carriage to be full of soldiers, some of them carrying sacks of rice.
The landscape is extremely uninteresting though not as bad as the drive south to Johor Bahru on the PLUS highway. We must be passing through the Borieang province. Ahahaha! Borieang! I totally made that up! Holy shi*t, I just saw a giant fern cow grazing in the middle of the Borieang-middle-of-nowhere! It’s huge!
So why am I heading east, in the general direction of nowhere? One reason, and one reason only: Dar As-Salam. Holy sh*t, we just passed an entire farm of giant fern cows! And wild bougainvilleas. I’d never seen bougainvilleas in the wild. Deep hot pink flowers and crazily wrapping around chunky tree trunks. My Ma would’ve loved it.
We’re now chugging by what looks like a wide river. I’m making a mental note to check on the name of this river. But I know I won’t. Cause I’m afraid it might not be a river at all, rather a huge mine pool. Or worse, a dam.
Saturday, around town
A visiting monk at Pra Suphattarabophit. Pix by Juana Jaafar.
Damn that Mubarak, I swear to God. I meant to visit some ancient temple this morning but woke up at lunch because I was up all night celebrating his fall from power.
A blessing in disguise, perhaps. Had I gone to the temple about 70km from town I wouldn’t have thought of going to Kradong Hill and I wouldn’t have met Sakchai. He’s a motorbike taxi driver who had a helmet for himself, but none for me. But it’s okay, I had my sunnies.
He’s a tricky fellow, I found out later. He dropped me off at the foot of Kradong Hill1 so I could climb the kajillion steps up to Buddha like any devout Buddhist would. Half way up I simply had to stop and rest. And then suddenly I found him standing behind me laughing. As it turned out there was another route up for motor vehicles. My thighs hurt now.
On Kradong Hill is Pra Suphattarabophit, home to a giant golden Buddha. It’s a nice hilltop for chilling out. On this Hill I got to know Sakchai better. We hung out and talked bout—stuff. He doesn’t speak English. So him and I, we spoke in Thai (him) and Malay (me) and used my notebook as visual aid.
He is a former army Major from Pattani. A Muslim with a diesel pickup truck which I will be on tomorrow morning as we head to Prasat Hin Phanom Rung. He said something about the United Nations, Mongolia, “Paki” and India but I have no idea what that was about.
At some point he may have called me a daft donkey when I told him I wanted to see some paddy fields. Apparently it’s winter and only a few places have paddy growing right now. I’ll have to wait till May it seems. But I’d be long gone by then.
Sunday, at the “City of Peace”
A view of Prasat Hin Phanom Rung compound. Pix by Juana Jaafar.
And I found it, the “City of Peace”2. It sits on another extinct volcano in Buriram, on the hills of Phanom Rung. Sakchai picked me up from the motel at 7am and we headed south of the province to find peace. I must say he’s right about winter, there aren’t any paddy growing.
The drive was pleasant in Sakchai’s green Isuzu pickup truck. We had the windows down and it was cool. Buriram is all yellow and brown in February. Though some might find the sight of winter’s non-vegetation slightly depressing, I quite loved it.
Buriram is full of paddy fields and I’m quite sure it looks beautiful in spring when they are lush and green. We drove for a bit more than an hour before reaching Phanom Rung. And when we got there, I was blown away.
The entrance to the temple grounds reminded me somewhat of Borobudur in Central Java, only prettier. There is a huge garden of tall trees with bright yellow, white and pink flowers. It was quiet when we arrived and we could hear the birds calling out to each other.
Sakchai was kind enough to minimize his conversation with me during our walk. And for the most part I was on my own snooping around and parking myself at various shady corners of the temple complex enjoying the peace. The sky was clear and there was a slight breeze.
Do you recognise the sound of Nowhere? It’s that gentle silence between Heaven and Hell. Well anyway … I’m glad I made this trip and stayed an extra day to visit Phanom Rung. Sometimes I guess the soul is irrational and will follow its own way.
After a few hours we headed to Muang Tam, about 4 kilometres from Phanom Rung. This complex reminded me of Gua Sunyaragi in Cirebon, West Java, except the Muang Tam story isn’t quite as ridiculously cool as that of Gua Sunyaragi.
I was hungry but Sakchai refused to take me to an eatery anywhere in the village. If I understood his Thai correctly (and I don’t speak Thai), he didn’t want me to eat food prepared using bare hands. Or something like that. But he did stop by a small grocer so I could buy some pre-packed biscuits. So much for lunch. I ended up having instant noodles when I got back to the motel.
Time to pack. My train leaves in an hour. I’m heading to Sukhothai, 427 kilometres north of Bangkok. Why? Because that city is known as the “Dawn of Happiness”.
1. Kradong Hill is in the Khao Kradong Forest Park, about 7 kilometres from Buriram town. The Hill is 265 metres high and is said to be an extinct volcano. ↩
2. Prasat Hin Phanom Rung was built in the 10th to 13th centuries. About 70 kilometres from Buriram town, the temple is a Khmer shrine for the Hindu Lord Shiva which symbolises his heavenly dwelling. There is a carving of Lord Vishnu, the god of Preservation and also one of the Hindu Trinity gods, reclining on the Ananta serpent floating in the Ocean of Milk. It is believed that he will recline and rest on Ananta at the end of the cosmic era, and wait for Brahma to recreate the cosmos. ↩
Read about the second leg of the journey.