Lost in Buriram, Northeast Thailand
Barreling down a four-lane Thai highway on the back of a motorcycle, sans helmet, I wondered what on earth I was doing. Riding pillion was a risk I would never have taken back home in Jakarta – and yet there was no denying the thrill of feeling the wind on my face as we breezed past warehouses and low-slung cafés toward a monumental bronze likeness of King Rama I, presiding over Buriram’s main roundabout from atop a war elephant.
The whole episode had begun roughly 10 minutes earlier as I stood in the gravel parking lot of the hotel, pondering my next move. Should I head out to photograph the municipal market, or settle down for an early lunch? It was just past 11 a.m. and the scattered tufts of cloud did nothing to diminish the heat of the midday sun. Suddenly a voice interrupted my train of thought.
“Khun James! Khun James! Where you want to go?”
I turned around to see one of the ladies at reception standing cheerfully at the door. She had addressed me with the honorific “Khun” – a respectful way to address almost everyone, regardless of gender – and was inviting me inside.
“Um, the market… I want to take pictures at the market.”
I stepped into the cool, air-conditioned space where she had gathered with several of her colleagues. After some discussion between them, the front desk staff suggested I go by motorbike.
“Is it far?” I asked, thinking about Thailand’s less-than-stellar reputation for road safety. “I can walk.”
“No, no,” one insisted. “Too hot.”
I politely declined, explaining that I couldn’t drive a motorcycle and didn’t mind walking.
“One of us, we take you.”
I was flabbergasted. Surely they had bigger worries and other guests to look after? The spokesperson, whose name I later learned was Daeng Mo (that’s Thai for “watermelon”, her coworker told me), was silent for a moment before a flash of inspiration crossed her face. Though the idea was a mistaken one, she believed she understood why I was so reluctant to go on two wheels.
“No need for payment.” Daeng Mo made a sign with two hands above her chest in a universally known gesture. “From heart.”
Who wouldn’t accept such an offer? I was defeated, and knew it would be rude to turn them down. So, with a round of giggling and teasing (“Khun James is single, yes? How old?”), they roped in the youngest staff member for the task. We sped through the roundabout below the statue of King Rama I, made a U-turn at the next avenue and parked outside a camera store. It was only when I saw a wall full of picture frames through the plate glass window that I realized the front desk staff had misunderstood. I quickly signaled to my driver that I wanted to go somewhere else; she whipped out her phone to look up Google Translate. I punched in the words “handicrafts” and “municipal market”, watched as they automatically converted into a series of lines and accented squiggles I could not read, and handed it back to the good Samaritan. We returned to the motorbike and she dropped me off at the correct destination several minutes later.
But the municipal market was completely empty. Stools had been piled on counters; at this time of the day there were no handicrafts to photograph. I crossed the street to see fresh produce being sold beneath a canopy of red tarpaulin, and walked on past an ancient brick-lined moat, Klong La Lom, into the heart of the old town.
Buriram, literally the “City of Happiness”, is less a city than a fairly nondescript town of just 27,000 in Isan – the name given to Thailand’s vast northeastern region (which is roughly the size of Germany). To say that Buriram remains off the beaten track would be to state the obvious. The lion’s share of foreign visitors to Thailand gravitate to Bangkok, Chiang Mai, the beachside cities of Pattaya and Hua Hin, and islands like Phuket and Koh Samui, but this part of the country sees just a tiny trickle of those numbers. In fact, Buriram doesn’t even have a tourism office; all related affairs are handled from Surin, the province next door.
And yet the signs of change are already here, thanks to local politician Newin Chidchob who has spearheaded efforts to transform this once-forgotten backwater into the sporting capital of the country. Its gleaming blue stadium is the stomping ground of Buriram United, one of Thailand’s top football (or soccer) teams. Locals have given the 32,000-seat venue the nickname “Thunder Castle” – a reference to the wealth of ancient Khmer ruins (“stone castles”) dotting Buriram province and the roar of the home audience on match days. Just down a purpose-built access road is the Chang International Circuit, created by German engineer and F1 circuit designer Hermann Tilke. The racetrack was the reason (despite my complete lack of interest in motorsports) I’d been sent on assignment to Buriram: my trip took place several months before a MotoGP event in October, which marked the first time the prestigious motorcycle racing championship had come to Thailand.
That ambitious investment in sporting infrastructure has pushed up the numbers of domestic visitors and created thousands of jobs in the service industry. Still, it is perhaps a boon that so few foreign tourists have yet to descend on Buriram. I did not once encounter a farang price or an aggressive tout; at every turn I was met with Thai hospitality at its purest and most sincere form. Soon after I left the grandstand at Chang International Circuit, a passing truck driver on his way to pick up some lunch deliveries stopped to give me a lift; the alternative would have been an almost two-kilometer walk down an unshaded asphalt road in the sweltering heat.
My destination was Buriram Castle, an open-air community mall oriented toward a replica of the central tower at Phanom Rung, an ancient hilltop Khmer temple roughly an hour’s drive away. No normal Southeast Asian town with just 30,000 residents could dream of having a mall of this caliber with such a smart, contemporary design. Any die-hard Buriram United fan could buy all sorts of official merchandise at the glass-fronted “megastore” and then sip on iced lattes inside two airy coffee shops, one in a glorified greenhouse and the other with its own mini-library. There was a store for adventure gear; another specializing in the latest Korean cosmetics, a place that sold Japanese homewares and hygiene products; a tattoo parlor; a spa; even an atelier filled to the brim with watercolor paintings, figurines, and embroidered purses by local artists. But I was most interested in the tented pop-up stalls that offered everything from pottery and intricately woven textiles to a dizzying array of street food. It was at Buriram Castle that I had my first taste of freshly grilled sai krok Isan, garlicky fermented pork sausage – an Isan specialty – on a skewer.
Speaking of good food, I didn’t have to go very far to have my fill. The hotel did a mean Thai breakfast, and the year-old shophouses right next door were home to the intimate Noodle Café, where young chef-owner Victor Puwish served up a generous bowl of moo toon: aromatic pork noodle soup infused with star anise, black pepper, goji berries, and knotted pandan leaf. I washed it down with an earthy herbal tea, which took its unique taste and natural purple hue from the butterfly pea flower, known in Thai as anchan. A 15-minute walk in the opposite direction led to Baan Chay Nam, a semi-outdoor restaurant festooned with lanterns and display cabinets containing a well-kept collection of vintage bric-a-brac.
There was no paper menu at Baan Chay Nam. Instead, a waitress handed me an iPad to scroll through a collage of photos depicting each dish, with their names written out in red using Thai script. By sheer luck I had flipped through a local magazine at the hotel reception just that morning; near the front, Baan Chay Nam had taken out a double-page advertisement in both English and Thai, describing four of its most popular specialties with matching photos. Somehow, I had the foresight to take pictures with my phone, and so I ordered my meal by zooming into the clearest shot and pointing at the two dishes I most wanted to try. These were gungjom songkreung – a tart mixture of fermented shrimp fried with pork chop and chili, eaten with a colorful assortment of fresh vegetables – alongside a peach-hued curry called kang kua hoykhom, comprising shelled freshwater snails and spinach in coconut milk and a complex blend of spices.
It wasn’t just the inability to read signs and menus that left me feeling more than a little lost in this corner of Thailand. Verbal communication was also difficult, with most people speaking to me in Thai by default. I began to wonder if it was partially because I could pass for a Thai Chinese the way taxi drivers and restaurant servers in Jakarta assumed I was Chinese Indonesian. “Yes,” A Bangkok-born hotelier would tell me several months later. “You look Thai, and your personality is like that of a Thai person. That’s why you get along so well with us.”
Shortly before my arrival in Buriram, a work contact in Bangkok had found a local driver to take me on a half-day excursion to the major Khmer temples and the village of Baan Charoen Suk. My reason for visiting the latter was to see Phu Akanee Cotton, a women’s cooperative of local artisans who made textiles dyed with natural ingredients like the rust-red volcanic soil, padauk bark, and cultivated marigolds. The matriarch was waiting to greet me when I stepped down from the minivan. “You must be Khun Samruay,” I said as we shook hands. “Do you speak English?”
“No,” Khun Samruay replied, smiling. Then she launched into rapid-fire Thai. “Na na na na na Thailand!” Momentarily taken aback, I assumed she was asking if I was living and working in the country. “Uh, Indonesia,” I said. The conversation from then on consisted mostly of smiles and hand gestures. Khun Samruay soon plied me with khanom tan, or small toddy palm cakes, and butterfly pea flower tea. Eventually the cotton-dyeing and weaving demonstration took place with detailed Thai commentary, but the artisans managed to volunteer a visiting husband and wife from Bangkok to translate the basics into English.
As the couple made their exit, the wife explained that Khun Samruay was inviting me to stay for lunch. She pointed toward a long table in the shade where a group of Thai travelers had gathered over a feast of home-cooked Isan fare. It turned out that the cotton workshop had an adjoining homestay and my lunchmates were staying there; a cheerful young man with a shaved head, perhaps in his late twenties, explained that they were from Chiang Mai. The older tour guide sitting directly opposite me had lived in Taiwan for 11 years and spoke reasonable Mandarin, a language I learned at school. “Do you know how to eat this?” He gestured to a small woven basket of sticky rice to my left. This had been placed next to a delicious and very spicy som tam – the first young papaya salad (an Isan specialty) I’d tried that was not toned down for foreigners’ palettes. I enthusiastically said “yes” and proceeded to dig my spoon into the rice. It was unyielding and firm. Without missing a beat, the guide demonstrated the correct way: he took a clump of sticky rice with his right hand, shaped it into a ball, and dipped it into the som tam’s fiery sauce before lifting it to his mouth. I followed suit, marveling at the riot of flavors on the tongue. How could I not have known that sticky rice and spicy papaya salad could be such a perfect match?
We also tucked into a plethora of other dishes: bamboo shoots in a tangy green broth, a light chicken curry, stir-fried stalks of a mystery vegetable resembling water spinach, omelet, and fried chicken drumsticks. My favorite though was the larb, a kind of mixed salad common to Isan and Laos, this time made with chopped wild mushrooms foraged from the nearby hills.
“Aloy?” Khun Samruay asked me if the food was delicious from the far end of the table.
Remembering the words of a pad thai vendor outside Bangkok’s Royal Palace, I replied in kind. “Aloy mak mak!”
Suddenly all the difficulties I had in communicating and getting around Buriram seemed to pale into insignificance. I took another mouthful of mushroom larb with sticky rice, grateful for this unadulterated Isan food, the kindness of strangers, and the sincere, unscripted hospitality that was being shown to me in this quiet corner of Thailand. ◊