Last Update: March 2020
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In the know destinations – Thailand
I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I’ve visited Thailand. Some visits were just short beach holidays or passing through on my way to other destinations. Several, longer visits involved extensive travel for months on my way to nowhere, just exploring this wonderful country.
Although the list of highlights in Thailand seems endless, there are still many places like Phimai that are not yet overrun by tourists, but certainly worth discovering. Interesting cities oozing with local culture. Small laid-back riverine towns and spectacular nature reserves. Not exactly hidden gems, but without the usual crowds, only visited by the few travelers in the know.
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One of the most pleasant surprises when exploring Central Thailand was the discovery of small town Phimai. What a friendly place this is, with a Historical Park right smack in the middle of town. Apparently the temple site sits at the end of an ancient 225 km Khmer pathway that connects it directly with Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Phimai is about 60 km North East from big city Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) and can easily be visited from there on a day trip. However, I do recommend to stay over in Phimai for at least one night.
Off the beaten trail
A growing number of travelers are now finding Phimai as a short stop destination. In contrast, I remember well that on our previous visit 10 years ago we didn’t come across a single Western tourist during our 3-day stay. Most probably there were some, but in extremely low numbers.
I also remember the schoolchildren gazing at us with big eyes until finally one of them mustered up the courage to shout ‘hello, I love you!’ Our response ‘I love you too!’ resulted in all of them running away in a mad dash, screaming as if they were afraid we would turn out to be aliens. Mind you, this is Thailand.
One restaurant owner panicked when we sat down at one of his tables, fearing that a bunch of Westerners would not appreciate his Isan food. He was wrong of course, but it demonstrates how pristine Phimai was only 10 years ago.
Reasons (not) to visit Phimai
Reasons to visit Phimai
Off the beaten path
The temple site is in town, no need for further transport
One of the best restored ancient temples in Thailand
Rural countryside outside of town is breathtaking
Reasons not to visit Phimai
Not exactly on the Thailand highlights route
Apart from the temple and countryside there are no real tourist attractions
Tourist infrastructure is minimal
No direct public transport, always travel via Korat
How to get to Phimai
You probably won’t travel here straight from Bangkok, but if you do you’ll have to travel to Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) first. From Bangkok in the South: Minivan 3h, bus 4h, train 4h25m. From Nong Khai in the North: Train 6h10m, (transfer at Udon Thani).
For bus/ferry/train schedules and tickets within Thailand I always use the transport planning tool below from 12Go.asia to book online. Especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s). The tool is incredibly easy to use, just fill out your place of departure, your destination and travel date. It will show the complete schedule and ticket price of all related transport. Make your choice and book instantly.
Once in Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) transfer to a local bus at Bus Station 2 to get to Phimai (1h30m). If you’re coming from Khon Kaen, find the Khon Kaen bus terminal in the North of town to travel to Nakhon Ratchasima (3h) as well.
To get out of Phimai, have a tuktuk bring you to the Talat Khae junction on National Road 2 approximately 10km Northwest of town. Hail any bus going either South to Nakhon Ratchasima and Bangkok or North to Khon Kaen and Nong Khai.
Phimai is very walkable, as distances within the town are short, However, do yourself a big favor and rent a bicycle to venture out into the rural countryside. You won’t regret it.
Things to see/do in Phimai
Phimai Historical Park
Thailand’s largest Khmer temple site is now protected as the Phimai Historical park. Measuring almost 600.000 sqm and dating from the 11th century, it was completely renovated in the 1960s. The park is built around the impressive Khmer temple Prasat Hin Phimai which resembles a small Angkor Wat. Opening hours are from 8am to 6pm. Admission is THB100.
Banyan Tree Forest
Just outside Phimai and easy to reach by bicycle is the Sai Ngam Banyan tree grove. 1350 square meters of intertwined and entangled sacred banyan trees form a spooky roofed forest. Inside the small forest are several pathways, ponds, bridges, a shrine and the inevitable souvenir shop.
More things to see/do
Besides the historical park there is also a really good National Museum with a large number of artifacts from the lower region of Northeastern Thailand on display. The museum opens from 9am to 4pm and the entrance fee is THB30.
A bit further out, but still within cycling distance (18km) is a 3000 year old archeological burial site at Ban Prasat village. Because of circumstances we had to skip the site, but fellow travelers we met in town where raving about the authenticity of the area.
Talk about cycling! The surroundings of Phimai are a joy to cycle. Never ending greener than green rice paddies. Friendly people in the villages all waving and smiling. A must do activity when in Phimai!
No, no, no, do not skip this chapter even if you think that travel insurance is boring! Remember, you are a million miles away from reliable healthcare, just saying.
Always make sure to travel with the right travel insurance. One that also covers your medical care abroad and includes evacuation and repatriation. I use World Nomads, because they also cover a range of adventure sports and activities, as well as your rented motor bike adventures (if you follow the rules). You can buy cover online, even if you’re already in the middle of your trip.
Where to stay in Phimai
Benya Guest House
Dirt Cheap = up to THB500
Value for money guesthouse just a few minutes walk from the historical park. Wonderful staff and the central location ensures multiple food options around the corner. Despite the hostel like atmosphere, the guesthouse has 6 private rooms with aircon and private bathroom. Rooms are small, but hey, for this price I would say we were pretty well off. Especially with all the free travel advise from the owner and the free to use bicycles.
Phimai Paradise Hotel
Budget = from THB500 to THB1000
For me this is a done deal. Fantastic, modern, clean hotel with a swimming pool and a rooftop. Just a short walk from the temple site, the night market and the day market. Room price including aircon starts at THB500 and for a bit more they throw in a balcony. The pool was really welcoming and refreshing after a hot sweltering day at the temple grounds.
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Where to eat in Phimai
It’s kind of obvious that the Phimai food scene is not (yet) really catering to tourists or visitors. There are a few eateries that serve the usual tourist fare (which is not a bad thing necessarily), but for the most part the restaurants are targeting the locals. Be happy about it, because now we can indulge in some real rural Isan food.
The thing is however, that many of the local eateries only open from morning to late afternoon. Local dining habits seem to be either to take away from the food stalls or head for the night market. Whenever they do eat out in the evening, they prefer the BBQ and hotpot restaurants. You should try it, it’s tasty and fun.
My Restaurant Recommendations
Fat Granny Phimai Roast Duck (corner of Romsai road and the alley leading to the Northern city gate). Not really a restaurant, more like a shack for some excellent take away bbq roasted duck. Only opens from early morning until 1pm, or sooner when they run out of ducks.
Noi Papaya Salad (Chomsa road) This restaurant is a legend among the locals. Papaya salad is originally an Isan invention and here they have perfected the dish. The menu has many variations of papaya and other Thai salads.
ร้านอาหาร ระเบียงไม้ (Off Tha Songkran Road) Sorry, I don’t know the English name for this restaurant. It’s very popular with locals, but they really try to make foreign visitors feel at ease as well. This restaurant will appeal to many, because of the beer garden atmosphere, sometimes with live music entertainment. The (Thai) food is delicious and oh so fresh.
One Dee Dee Steak (300m East of the Historical Park). What’s in a name? But it’s not just steak on offer. There’s also roasted duck, chicken and pork, as well as schnitzel, all with french fries.
Phimai Mee Pad (Ananthachinda Road, at the car park of the historical park). Everyday around dusk a cluster of food stalls sets up camp here to serve the local noodle dish Phimai Mee Pad. Wok-fried rice noodles with pork, morning glory and lot’s of egg.
Ananthachinda Road (around the clock tower). Aah, the Phimai night market, my favorite. This is a real local food market catering to Thai. So many food stands presenting all kinds of regional produce, food and snacks. There’s stuff here you won’t find in Bangkok. I could go here every evening for a week and still find new delicacies to try.