Bicycling In Surin
For those of you resident in Thailand, just visiting often, and who are looking for something to do outside of the bar scene, I suggest bicycling. It's a great way to get around without the hassles of hiring taxis, tuk-tuks, sawngteos, buses, vans, et cetera. There's never a parking problem and it's a good deal faster and cooler getting around than walking. These are the benefits of this mode of transportation in Bangkok.
Outside of Bangkok bicycling opens the country to you in a way few other travel options will. Speaking a bit of Thai is a bit of a necessity when travelling up country as the number of people readily conversant in English is scant. A good set of maps for the larger cities are available, but when one gets off the beaten path you had better be able to converse with the locals. I have yet to find a decent bicycling guide for Thailand, so we can assume that cycling upcountry is a bit of a rarity.
Getting to where you're going is relatively easy by either plane or train. Packing your bike in a box specifically designed for the purpose is preferable, but the local bike shops will box one for you in a cardboard shipping box for a nominal fee. The latter are the boxes their bikes for sale arrived in and can be used multiple times. When flying out of Don Muang you will often be asked to pay an additional 200-300 baht for the additional weight allowance, but this is generally waived outside of Bangkok. (By the way, on international flights from the States, there are no additional fees for transporting a bicycle as a second piece of luggage.) Travelling by train is easy and inexpensive. Booking an overnight express second-class, air-conditioned, sleeping passage gets you to your destination usually in the early morning and provides a comfortable night's sleep.
While I have visited many of the historic wats and ruins in Thailand, I find the Khmer sites to be the most interesting. A wonderful compilation of sites is River Books Guides' "Khmer Temples in Thailand in Laos" by Michael Freeman. The work supplies details about almost every Khmer site in Thailand. Though the maps are designed for drivers and are often a bit rough, they do provide accurate directions. The architectural and historical notes are very good and offer incentives for riding that extra few kilometers to the site few else have visited. For myself, getting to your destination, overcoming what may is the thing.
For my trip to Surin, I planned to visit three Khmer ruins within what I believed to be sixty to seventy K rides to and from. Thai friends all warned me to be very careful while in Surin province as few farangs visit there, especially outside of the city proper. What I wasn't really made aware of, but was soon to find out, was how multifarious the language situation is there. From one baan to the next the locals converse in either Thai, Lao or Khmer, though an Isaan Thai seems the lingua franca. The general extent of English outside the city is comprised of "Hello, What's your name?" and "How are you?" Your English answers to these questions will be unintelligible to most of those asking.
I left Hua Lampong station at nine o'clock after a good Thai friend unexpectedly met me at the station and dropped off a care package of a couple of iced cold Singha beer and an enormous package of pla sa leet (dried fish, very salty and one of my favorites, particularly as a replacement for salt pills) for my trip. One can also purchase very passable Thai food on the train for very cheap. You can tell it's aroi lae tuk as most Thais travelling always buy, and often to take home.
The brews toasted me off to a pleasant sleep in air-conditioned comfort. At 5AM we rolled into Surin station and I hired a sawngteo to take me to the Thong Tarin hotel, one of two nice hotels in the city. Checking in, I found a very nice room for 800 baht. An hour later, after a shower and bike assembly I was on the road.
My first trip was to be a short one, a mere thirty-five K or so I thought, to Prasat Kikkhoraphum. My map indicated the temple lay a couple of K south of the main highway between Surin and the town of Sri Khora Phum. Riding down the highway showed me that as much as people complain of the roads in Thailand they are certainly as good as the rural roadways I bike in the States. Up and down all the major roads I traveled in Surin were small salas every couple of K provided for people waiting to take the sawngteos which provide the local bus service here and throughout Thailand. They make a great resting place as shade in Isaan a bit rare.
As it was planting season, there were crews of people out performing the backbreaking work growing Thailand's staple crop. Wherever I stopped, almost invariably people would take a break and come to chat with the crazy farang on a bicycle of all things. The friendliness and curiosity of these country people is what makes Thailand one of the most charming destinations in the world. No, no one tried to hook me up with their daughter, sister, or cousin, though it was obvious from the occasional beautiful new Thai house, placed among the rustic rural abodes that many families had profited from someone. At each place I stopped I asked how much further and where the Khmer temple was located. It became obvious that my map was inaccurate, if I was understanding the Isaan Thai I was hearing. I finally stopped at a highway patrol station and asked there and was clearly told at what K marker to turn and how far to go. By the way, I have always found the Thai police to be very helpful.
As it turned out, the prasat lay some 15 K further than I had believed and within the town of Sri Khora Phum. Arriving there after asking directions again wandering through town, I came upon a well-preserved prasat with a busload of school children receiving a lecture on the diverse history of the region. The kids all had to try out their two to three phrases of English, and though they couldn't understand my English responses, they took a fair amount of joy in eliciting them. Their teacher came over and discovering I was an saahtsdratjahn prawateesaat proceeded to ask me to address her students. I had to decline, respectfully, as my Thai wouldn't stand the test. She used the occasion to further impress upon her charges the importance of their historical antecedents and their interest to others. As a teacher myself, I took great pleasure in the children's rapt attention and obvious satisfaction that someone from so afar also appreciated their famous heritage.
Arriving back in Surin toward nightfall, the courteous staff of the Thong Tarin asked if I had been successful in my quest and suggested how I might relax after the long ride. As is the case with many such hotels in upcountry Thailand, there was entertainment located within the hotel and a district in the soi next door. I dropped in at the outdoor beer garden for a delicious meal of the local favorite Laap Moo and listened to a fine Thai combo. Being the only farang there I initially felt a bit out of place, but after sending a request for the Carabou songs Duan Paen and Waan Thong, I was approached by a wonderful Thai couple who asked me to join their table of companions. Conversing in Thai-english, that mixture of Thai and English so cosmopolitan upcountry supplied great humor for the party and we parted with invitations that I unfortunately could not keep, for time was short and full day rides were the order of the day.
The next morning at 7:30AM I set out for Prasat Tha Priang Thia somewhere west of Lamduan, a city or town according to my maps. Thirty-five K away I came upon the baan of Lamduan and was informed that the prasat was not west but about 20K to the southeast. Being a farang and trusting the printed word or map such as the case was, I dubiously biked off in the direction indicated stopping along the way to ask further directions thinking I must have misunderstood. The previous days' example of my map's inaccuracy meant I had to question where the Hell I was and where was I heading. A farmer told me of a short cut through the rice fields and numerous small baans where I was immediately aware that many of the people there spoke little Thai.
Believing I was searching for a temple I expected the prasat to have a tower that I would be able to discern over the trees as I got closer. Riding further and further out into the rice fields I became progressively more worried as nothing of this kind appeared on the horizon. Finally, I came upon a Thai wat where the helpful monks explained that what I was looking for was the ruins of a traveler's hostel located in a Thai wat of the same name. On I went and at last my quest was complete, a beautiful wat adorned with distinctively Khymer scenes and apsaras capping the naga style balustrades. The Khymer ruins themselves were only a small pile five meters high and marked merely a sanctuary for travelers of the that time long past.
The monks after a lengthy discussion directed me to a main road back to the highway. By this time, about 4PM, I realized I would not get back to Surin by nightfall and was seriously worried about traveling the dark country roads with no lights. The monks true to their well-known hospitality offered to put me up, but I decided to try the 50K ride back. Now totally off roads indicated on my maps I found myself on a paved road with guard posts every few kilometers. These were of a type, small one man posts with a drop rail. Wondering what they were I thought perhaps a means of slowing down the motorcycles in the evening as they were all unoccupied as yet. Arriving in Surin some three hours later and turning over my map I found the explanation. I had ridden within 10K of the Cambodian border, one of the last refuges of the Khymer Rouge.
Back in Surin, after showering I again ventured out for a meal. Coming upon my friends from the previous night, we again ate as much food as the table would hold with copious amounts of beer as libation. They suggested Kareoke and off we went. Another very enjoyable time.
In the four days I spent in Surin, I have to say the people were wonderful, the food great and the rides beautiful. For those of you into the naughty nightlife as the Stick calls it, yes there is some in Surin, though you'd be a fool to make it a destination for such. But if you're up for an enjoyable ride it's a great place to try.
A few pieces of advice: speak some Thai, carry dictionaries both Thai and Khymer, use a mountain bike and carry a lot of fluids. The food is great, but you'd need a histology course to identify what all types of organs are included in your Laap, and yes, it's Isaan spicy. Country-style food is a bit different than what you'll find in the cities, but delicious and you'll invariably find good company if you respect the culture.
I have cycled through a good deal of Thailand and find it a great way to travel as you can stop where and when you like and you're much more in contact with the people that make this such a wonderful country to visit. As to the heat, humidity and exertion, take it easy and stop often to chat, drink and eat, it's the Thai way. While, I'm well on to fifty, I find these trips to be the some of the most rewarding times I have had here in the several years I've been spending in the LOS. Get a bike and get going!
Sounds like you had a fantastic time. Anyone travelling in that part of the country with the right attitude will be rewarded just as you describe.