Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport isn’t an inherently bad place. It’s by no means a highlight of anyone’s visit to Thailand, but neither does it conceal some dark force of evil. It is, however, a place that I will generally try to spend as little of my life as possible for if it is one thing for sure, it is boring. And so we found ourselves sitting in – rather bizarrely – and Egyptian themed bar in Laos’ capital city of Vientiane, eating Hummus and flat bread. We were due to meet a friend in Yangon in around 10 days’ time and were trying to find the best way to get over there. Pretty much every flight we could find for a reasonable price required a lengthy layover at Don Mueang– something you may have realised we were keen to avoid. Another option that was open to us was a quick hop over the border and an overnight sleeper to Bangkok and onward flight to Yangon. That was out, too, as we’d already spent a considerable amount of time in Bangkok and didn’t fancy killing another week there now. Looking at the expanse of North Eastern Thailand that lay just across the Mekong, it dawned on us that this was the one region of Thailand we were yet to really explore. It was our final Thai frontier: Isaan.
A quick bit of online research soon revealed that as-well as the plush overnight express trains, we could reach Bangkok using the much cheaper, albeit much slower, local third diesel trains that plied the tracks between Nong Khai and Bangkok. This is a part of Thailand that is often overlooked by both the tourist and backpacking crowds as it has none of the fine sandy beaches for which Thailand is famed. What it does have, however, is an incredible cultural diversity, some fine Khmer ruins (Cambodia & Laos are just a hop away!) and food that is considered both delicious and spicy – even by Thai standards! The spherical Isaan Sausages are renowned throughout Thailand and available practically everywhere – not one to miss!
A quick and hassle-free trip to the border using Vientiane’s local bus network soon saw us boarding a shuttle coach across the bridge leading over the mighty Mekong, and into the Thai city of Nong Khai. We had seen a flyer for a guest house here a few weeks ago and had, fortunately, had the good sense to note down the details, and it was just a couple of hours after leaving the bustle of Loas that our TuKTuk driver was delivering us to the oasis that is Mut Mee Garden guest house. Owned and managed by long term British expat Julian and his Thai family, Mut Mee was the escape we so badly needed after a few months of rather basic accommodation. Luscious riverside gardens, soft beds and immaculate rooms were served at prices that even the most budget conscious traveller couldn’t refuse. Julian’s hospitality, it would seem, is somewhat legendary locally, and we ended up spending almost a week in and around Nong Khai. Whilst the city itself is perhaps unexceptional, the weekly regular street food markets, excellent cycling network and relaxed, riverside vibe makes it a great place to spend a slow week. A cycle out to the Sala Keoku sculpture park with its gargantuan concrete statues is a surreal experience and an absolute must whilst in town.
We had decided to break the 600+ kilometre trip to Bangkok down into smaller sections, spending a night or two in towns along the way. Local Thai trains are utterly brilliant. Not in the sense that they are in any way luxurious or modern, but in the sense that they connect you to local life in a way that no other mode of transport can. The rusty diesel cars that were to be our chariot for the next week offered only third-class seating, which had certainly seen better days. Trundling south, however, on our first leg towards Khon Kaen, we knew we had made the right choice in travelling this way. The seats may have been hard but with the windows wide open we were able to truly appreciate the staggering beauty of this land, so untouched by tourism. Mile upon mile of farmland rolled by, punctuated by rural villages and the occasional larger town.
Life on board was just as vibrant as that trundling by our window. Food vendors boarded at most stations, offering cooled drinks and various snacks which were both as delicious and as spicy as we had been warned to expect. Towards the front of each train is an area of seating reserved exclusively for the use of Monks who may happen to be travelling. This can be a great place to sit as we found that many of the Monks who boarded spoke remarkably good English and were keen to engage us in conversation and share their knowledge of the area.
Despite their slow speed and regular stops, our train trundled into Khon Kaen pretty much dead on time, and we had a wonderful evening exploring the local night market, before enjoying an exceptionally good value meal in the food court just a few hundred metres from the station. We had been warned that the cities of Isaan’s cities didn’t offer much in the way of sightseeing, and had decided to spend just a night or two in each of our stops. This worked perfectly for us as we were mainly looking to experience the region rather than go off and hunt down specific sights.
Next stop on our journey was the provincial capital of Nakhon Ratchasima, locally known as Korat – remember that when looking at train timetables as both or either names may be used! On this particular leg, our train was much busier than previous journeys. The conductor, seeing us jump on board with our bags was keen to practice his English for a few minutes, before ‘miraculously’ reserving 2 seats for us by the window, with space for our bags!
Despite its size, Korat retained it charming, small town feeling. A large central square, interesting selection of temples and buzzing night market cemented the charm factor, whilst the city Zoo – one of Thailand’s largest – makes a great day trip. Shopaholics will also be delighted by the great range of wares available in town, both in the street-side markets and large, modern malls that can be found on the city’s edge. For those with a little more time, the hour-or-so journey to Wat Non Kum will reward you with idyllic views over a grand Thai temple, with none of the tourist crowds!
From Korat, both Bangkok and the ancient capital city of Ayutthaya are in easy striking distance by train. If time is of the essence, regular express trains make the journey into Bangkok’s Huamlamphong station in around three hours, although we decided to stick to our guns and complete the journey on our trusted slow trains! Whilst this may sound a rather romantic waste of time, one of the most truly remarkable aspects of this style of travelling is the cost – or lack of. Our entire journey from Nong Khai on the Laos border, to Bangkok some 630 km away had set us back a mere 120 Thai Baht. That’s less than $4, for several days of stunning views, great conversation and unobstructed photography. Who needs windows when you can have the wind in your hair?