Natchan Ratchaburi: My first trip to Thai-land

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December, 2009

The second largest city in Thailand behind ever-booming Bangkok, Natchan Ratchaburi is not only a working-class city of nearly 2 million people, but is one of the most curious and strangest places I have ever been.

Oddly surrounded by a thin moat, the city center is underwhelming and business-minded. The streets are moderately empty, and for a  city of 2 million people, hardly any of them seem to be anywhere in sight. For some reason, the city is known to everyone simply as Khorat, and it occupies the metropolis leading into Thailand’s rural and rustic Northeastern Isan region, home of Thai cowboys and a counter-intuitive landscape where palm trees spring up from the center of cornfields. Set only four hours northeast of the neon lights and English speaking tourist agents of Bangkok and four hours northwest of the Arunya prathet border crossing into Cambodia and Angkor Wat, Natchan Ratchaburi is far from your usual tourist destination. As I strolled the quiet streets, I felt as if I had crossed borders into an entirely different country.  In contemplating the phenomena as I walked a dimly lit alleyway in search of some dinner, I realized that in fact I was no longer in the Thailand I had come to know, but rather, I had entered into the largest city in Thai-land. Thailand and Thai-land? What’s the difference?

Thailand is an exotic tropical Kingdom that is a haven for Scandinavian winter escapes and a sea of backpack toting twenty-somethings. It is brochures of dramatic limestone cliffs, elephant rides through verdant rainforests, and host to morally questionable sex tourism and pirated retail goods. This is the Thailand as the world seems to know it. Thai-land, on the other hand, is exactly that: a land full of Thais. Gone are the tourist informational booths and street vendors hawking goods in perfect English. Gone are the expat scuba insTHAILAND2 761tructors and buckets of whiskey and coke that dominate so many Thai islands. Gone are the backpack toting Western drones all on the same general itinerary. All of that is instead replaced by everyday Thai people just trying to live their life. All signs and menus are in Thai, all the passengers on the bus are Thai, western restaurants are replaced by Thai restaurants, and not one person speaks a word of English, as they all speak—you guessed it, Thai. Life in Thai-land is refreshing for the jaded Southeast Asian traveler, and Natchan Ratchaburi (Khorat) is at its core.

As stated, this notion first hit me when I was walking around at 8:30pm in search if food, and every single restaurant and store was firmly locked up for the night. That’s because there’s no need for them to be open—as there are no tourists here, all the local Thai are home with their families. Walking around town, there are no tourist attractions to be found whatsoever, as what is the point in having attractions if there are no tourists to want to attract? The people of Thai-land need their hardware stores, grocery markets, banks, and retail dealers, which you will find in abundance here. The sole site that may classify as an attraction is the statue of Thao Suranaree at the heart of the city center, which serves as an outdoor shrine where many Thais give offerings and pray. The handful of wats (temples) scattered about town could technically be considered attractions, but they are there for people to pray in, not for pictures to be taken. For the first time in Thailand I encountered an impenetrable language barrier, and I loved every minute of it.

So on your next trip to Thailand, take a bus or a slow train out into the northeastern countryside of Thai-land. Just be sure you bring a Thai dictionary.

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