Nang Rong: "Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung"
Nang Rong, Buriram
November 30, 2004
Dear Family and Friends,
When I mention to Thai people that I plan to visit Isaan, they all smile. Now the Thai smile can have many meanings: Genuine friendship, well-mannered politeness, slightly restrained affection, short-lived tolerance, and perhaps, "I smile because I know what you don't know." Take your pick.
My own conclusion was that in this case, the Thai smile meant that they know that I was about to visit a very special place. The "real" Thailand. Not a slightly polluted, skyscraper-studded Bangkok, or a backpacker beach resort, but the breadbasket, the "rice bowl" of the country, a huge plateau, the large agricultural area that feeds the country.
Isaan is a Sanskrit word which means the Northeast of the country. Think of Isaan as you would New England of the United States, or Provence of France, or The Midlands of England, a region with many political entities. Provinces, counties, small cities, towns, villages. Multi-lane highways, good roads, and country lanes.
As I made my way east and south from Khorat by bus, my destination was the Honey Inn in the small city of Nang Rong (pop. 20,000), in Buriram Province. My guidebook lists two worthy ancient Khmer temples nearby. I discovered more than the past in Nang Rong. I found a warm, tranquil, attractive, pleasing, delicious present and, a potential future. "Hey, you never know."
Rita and Bruno and I hired a driver for the day to take us to the ruins. Rita and Bruno are documentary film makers from Portugal and they lugged along cameras and tripods and the like. When the driver arrived, I had to do a "retake." Jong is a short, middle aged Asian man with a little mustache and a cabbie type cap. He was Mr. Myagi in the flesh.
The Honey Inn brochure says. "Phanom Rung Historical Park in Buriram Province is Thailand's most beautiful and important Angkor-style ruin, located atop a scenic bluff overlooking Cambodia. Ascend past an ancient pavilion to your first glimpse of the shrine to Shiva, built between the 12th and 18th centuries. Five-headed Naga snakes guard the path past lily ponds and an imposing sanctum wall with arched entrances and cruciform corners. Finally you reach the 23m tall main prang, with exquisite Khmer architecture, sacred Hindu icons and unforgettable carved lintels."
Yes, ascend one must. It was a long slow climb to the top but definitely worth the view to the fertile, green valley below.
The nearby Meung Tam temple is on a flat parkland with four large lily ponds - one at each point of the compass. A temple for relaxation, contemplation. And lunch.
The Honey Inn brochure also says, "Enjoy a home-cooked meal and stay overnight in a quiet neighborhood of Nang Rong." When I first arrived I was greeted by Harrald and Giap who live at the Inn. Harald, a former German footballer and advertising executive is about to marry Giap, a high school math teacher. They can marry just as soon as all documents are translated from Thai to German and from German to Thai.
Here at the Inn are Phanna, the owner; Moon, her cousin who does the cooking and who also owns a dressmaking shop; and Tae, Moon's young cousin who goes to beauty school in the city of Buriram. And of course the assorted travelers from assorted countries around the world. I have met folks from Denmark, Czech Republic, Wales, Russia, Slovakia, Portugal, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Sweden. Giacomo from Italy just completed his PhD in Art History. He is a specialist in medieval Italian church frescoes. Matt and his sister Anna, farmers from the middle of England. Craig, a plasterer from the south of England.
Craig works for a few months, saves his money and then takes off for a few months. When his money runs out he goes home and back to work, and saves again. He is a very young man and I learned a lot from him. He's also a vegetarian. "Hey, you never know." Then there is Gunther, an architect from Austria. Next, a well-traveled and professional couple from Germany. They have been to the United States several times. Once they came to New York simply to attend a series of Bruce Springsteen concerts. And finally, Laurence, a French woman who lives in Quebec. She abandoned her management career and is now an "Energy Therapist." She says she can "feel the energy" as she approaches the 1000 year old temples. Maybe I should sign up for a session or two. I could have used a bit more "energy" climbing the steps of Phanom Rung.
Most of my new friends are in their 20's and 30's. All are experienced, energetic, and enthusiastic. We trade stories and suggestions. All of us want to see the world and each of us, in our own way and in our own time, finds the way to do it.
My original plan was to travel first to Nang Rong and then proceed east to Ubon Ratchathani on The Mekong River and the Laos border and then north and then west to other cities and ending up back in Khorat for a bus or a plane ride to Bangkok. Basically a "circumnavigation" of Isaan.
All of that changed at The Honey Inn, and Nang Rong. Slowly this is becoming "my second home." And, I am not alone. Other travelers made the same decision. They altered their plans to stay and relax here for a while. This simple little place in the countryside is just so appealing. Roosters are the morning "wake up call." Truly bounteous home cooked meals, boarding house style. Walks in the lanes and cow paths of villages nearby. Ducks in the ponds, chickens in the yards, hands of tiny green bananas hanging from the trees. A fifteen minute stroll to the local marketplace where you can buy live fish, truly red meats, and row after row of the freshest and sweetest fruits and vegetables. Chat with the locals or other foreigners who live here. Have a noodle soup or papaya salad for lunch. Have a coffee. Have a beer. Just be. So, I am just hanging out. I am mastering the art of doing nothing.
OK. OK. I did do something productive. One evening we all went to the local "Loy Krathong-Full Moon Festival" at the lakeside. Candles and flowers are floated on the water. Very large floral arrangements of intricate designs made from chrysanthemums. Lots of music and food specialties. I ate my first deep fried crunchy grasshopper. Or was it a cricket? A locust? Got a leg caught between my teeth. Thai style beauty pageant with elegant young women dressed in slim, colorful floor length silk dresses. Their long black hair decorated with crowns and flowers.*
I also attended an outdoor rock concert. Perhaps the most famous Thai singer-songwriter performed with his band as everyone sang along. We sat at a little table and had some snacks and "adult beverages." A couple of "happy" guys at the next table kept feeding me glasses of rice whiskey over ice. I never say "no." Dancing in the aisles. In the Thai tradition, I walked up to the stage and had my sweatshirt autographed by the star of the show.
I am having a grand time here. And yet, I am getting a little "antsy." Or maybe I am just feeling guilty. So, I will take a trip east with Giacomo to Kantharalak to see a very special Khmer Temple across the border in Cambodia. Then return to The Honey Inn for a few days before heading back to Bangkok, the dentist, and a date with two Thai girls I met on the Internet.
Maybe it's my charming telephone voice or chat room manner. Maybe it's the two year old photo I sent them. Whatever. Sight unseen, they invited me to join them for a three day trip to The River Kwai, and sight unseen, I accepted. Hey, life is choices, and in my philosophy, life is risks. But one thing is certain. I will return to The Honey Inn. Very soon.
Sawdee Pi Mai. Happy New Year!
PS My new book, "Essays on Thailand" offers the following explanation of Loy Kratong:
The festival is of Brahmin origin which people offer thanks to the Goddess of the water. Thus, by moonlight, people light the candles and joss-sticks, make a wish and launch their Krathongs on canals, rivers or even small ponds. It is believed that the Krathongs carry away sins and bad luck, and the wishes that have been made for the new year to start. Indeed, it is a time to be joyful and happy as the sufferings are floated away.