Nakhon Ratchasima, better known as Khorat, is a dynamic gateway to Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region. Some travelers view the provincial capital as nothing but an unfortunate stopover on the way to someplace else. Pack an open mind along with patience and a phrasebook, and you might find that Khorat sneaks up on you as a destination in its own right.
Covering 20,494 square kilometers and bridging Central Thailand to Isaan, Nakhon Ratchasima province edges out Chiang Mai as the largest in Thailand. The pull of wealthy Bangkok is easy to sense when exploring the province’s far southern reaches, around Khao Yai National Park, while the northern Phimai area is endowed with the countryside charm, sweeping rice paddies and Lao dialect that are typical of Isaan.
At the center of these geographical and cultural forces sprawls the provincial capital city, home to more than 500,000 people who possess a strong sense of regional identity. Many locals differentiate themselves culturally from the rest of Isaan while not quite throwing their hats into the ring of Bangkok. The mix is evident in som tam Khorat, in which Lao/Isaan-style fermented fish is dashed into an otherwise Central Thai version of this ubiquitous green papaya salad.
Since around the 16th century, Khorat has been an important administrative center for Thai kingdoms, a role that continues today. Previously the area was part of the Khmer empire, as evidenced by the impressive 1,000-year-old ruins of Prasat Hin Phanom Wan. While neighboring Buriram province retains much of its Khmer heritage, Isaan- and Chinese-Thais now make up most of Khorat’s demographic. Quite a few Sikh Indian-Thais and Japanese expats also call the city home.
Today Khorat rolls into the future at the speed of a sturdy old pick-up rather than a racecar. For decades it changed very little and was notably tough for foreign travelers to crack, but you’ll now find sleek cafes, cushy hotels, and malls that could have been plucked straight out of Bangkok. The old ways of Khorat endure as well, making for an intriguing balance between tradition and innovation.
Samlors still ply the streets of an old quarter stretching between ancient moats and fragments of the original city wall. Open-fronted shops display Buddha images at a few of the heritage houses that shine through stacks of drab concrete. In the markets, silk from nearby Pak Thong Chai and ceramics from Dan Kwian are sold alongside the locally produced rice noodles used in pad mii Khorat, a provincial relative of pad Thai.
On first glance, the city can seem impenetrable for foreign travelers. Few locals speak English; most signs and menus are posted only in Thai, and inner-city public transport comes by way of a baffling number of songthaew routes. You may be forced to embrace the idea that travel should sometimes take you beyond your comfort zone. If that doesn’t sound too scary, hop off the bus and give Khorat ago.
And when you’re ready to move on, Khorat’s seething web of transport options can take you just about anywhere in the kingdom. We reckon that one of the two bus stations is larger than any in Thailand outside of Bangkok, while a pair of train stations makes it possible to strike west towards Khao Yai and Ayutthaya or further east and north into Isaan by rail.