While visiting the 12th century Khmer ruins in Phimai, Thailand, I happened upon six women dressed in resplendent yellow dresses. “Tam mai suai?” – Why pretty? – I asked. The friendly ladies said that they were headed to a festival with lots of dancing and people and that I should go. They give me directions, I took their photo, and I explored the ruins before heading off to the festival.
I went looking for the festival but quickly got lost. I approached a group of three men drinking beer under a tree, showed them the photo of the women in the dresses and asked, “Yuu tee nai,” – Where is this?
The men began speaking to each other in rapid-fire Thai before one of them said in English, “He can drive you, he isn’t drunk.” One of the guys hopped on his bike and dramatically slapped the seat, indicating for me to hop on. He drove me to the municipal building where I arrived just in time to see 300 women with perfect hair, full-on makeup, and matching dresses, perform an intricate yet graceful Thai dance. It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and I found it purely by chance.
Many places in Thailand are so overrun with tourists that it is a challenge to meet locals, but Phimai is an unusual place – a perfect tourist destination without the tourists. As a result, I met many friendly locals, experienced authentic Thai culture, and got invited to a festival.
The town of Phimai is centered around an 800-year-old Khmer temple. The spectacular ruins predate Angkor Wat, and although small in scale compared to their southern neighbor, the grounds are a great way to see ruins without the hordes.
Throughout the city are vestiges of Phimai’s glorious past. Sections of the old city wall stand incongruously next to modern houses, and reservoirs, forests, and canals built hundreds of years ago, still provide a quiet respite. Phimai is bordered on the north by the meandering Moon River, on the south and west by a large canal, and on the east by the eerily beautiful banyan tree forest.
Phimai doesn’t have the party scene or nightlife of Bangkok or the beach towns, but there are several hip cafes and traditional Isan restaurants. Plus, the lively night market is a great place to do some shopping, eat street food, and hang out with Thai people.
In this world of Instagram and travel blogs where so many famous places are overrun with tourists, I am not worried about Phimai becoming overcrowded anytime soon. The city has the infrastructure in place to host a steady stream of travelers, but will likely never compete with the major sites of Southeast Asia. It is a destination for travelers seeking a more off-the-beaten-path experience, and that is okay by me because when I return, I’ll get invited to festivals and parties by the amiable locals.
Phimai Photo Gallery
If you go to Phimai:
- Eat: Amphoe Cafe – great coffee, excellent Japanese food and outdoor seating with a view of the lake
- Stay: Moon River Resort. – A quiet and beautiful location just outside of town. You can swim in the Moon River to cool off
- Do: Phimai Boat Festival – Annual festival held every November
What are your favorite off the beaten path destinations that you are willing to tell us about?
Fantastic find! You speak Thai, that’s quite a feat itself.
I speak nit noy Thai but I’m learning.
Great photos – look like a good place to visit!
It is a very cool place. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Great pictures again! We went to Phimai, but there wasn’t a party like you had! Lucky you!
I got lucky to see that. I want to go back in November during the boat races (and when it isn’t so hot!).
Great find and the post. Never heard about this place. But I was lucky to visit Ayutthaya on my last visit. So for that has been the highlight of my Thailand! 🙏
Ayutthaya is great. Even though it gets a lot more visitors, many come on a day trip so it isn’t too crowded in the evening and morning.
Yes I visited on day trip too, but I felt that I should have stayed overnight. With the night lights Ayutthaya would be different world for sure! 😍
Phimai seems to be my kind of place — not too crowded, people are friendly, with an ancient site just around the corner. You were so lucky to have stumbled upon that traditional dance performance. What an interesting trip this must have been!
You’d like Phimai. There are many Khmer ruins in eastern Thailand and a lot of shared history in that area. For me, it was nice to be away from the noise and chaos of Bangkok. You’d probably like it too for the same reason.
A lucky find indeed. The photos of this festival are beautiful. I love finding interesting places that have not yet been Instagramed to death. Thanks for sharing this little gem.
You are welcome. It seems like you’ve visited a lot of places in Portugal lately that are similar.
You’ve found so much color and culture all in one place! Thanks for sharing.
I am continually surprised at the color and festivities I see in Thailand. Thanks for reading.
I’d have been too shy to ask for the photos and too chicken to get on the motorcycle!
I get braver when I really want something. I knew something special must be going on for those women all to be dressed alike.
Their outfits are beautiful! And the ruins look spectacular.
It is a really cool place. I enjoyed the festival more because it was a unique and random experience.
This sounds so cool Jeff, just the kind of place I’d like, especially finding a festival. Your photos are excellent of course. How wonderful to get to see the women dance. I love that kind of serendipity. Now that you’re living there you’re really getting to know the nooks and crannies of Thailand.
Serendipity is the reason I keep traveling. It is those unexpected moments that make it fun and exciting. Thailand has a lot to offer, and I really enjoy going to these off the beaten path places. I’m hoping to go to more festivals in the future for sure!
Spectacular luck! I love finding tourist worthy places that have yet to be discovered.
It is getting harder and harder in this information age, but they still exist. Have you found any places in Wisconsin yet?
We’ve found a couple nice spots, but nothing like what you lucked into.
300 women, dressed to the nines, dancing in sync. That must have been something to see in real time. Serendipity reigns.
It was really cool to see. I was lucky to see it for sure.
I think your efforts with the Thai language are paying off. I love how you went with the flow, hopping onto the non-drunk guy’s bike. So many dancers dressed in those beautiful outfits…what a sight that must have been. I’m glad these type of places still exist.
In Thailand, I have found that it is best to accept the random offers of kindness that come along and go with it. I haven’t been let down yet.
Love the serendipitous moments that Thailand has on offer for those willing to venture off the beaten track. How lucky you were to score an invite to this one. I never made it to Phimai or happened across any Khmer runs in Thailand so I’m delighted to be taken here now through your lens. Gorgeous portrait and framing of the dancers.
The Khmer ruins in Thailand are almost completely overlooked by tourists. Even though they don’t compare to those of Angkor Wat, you can enjoy them in peace, which is great. Thanks for the comments about the photos – I appreciate it!
You’re right, Jeff – I’ve never heard of Phimai – and I’ve spent a lot of time in Thailand. Thanks for the beautiful introduction. Being a lover of Angkor Wat, I’m fascinated by sites that predate it. You stumbled upon a real gem. And as always, your photos are stunning.
So are you and Kristi based in Thailand full time now? All the best, Terri
Phimai, of course, doesn’t compare to Angkor Wat, but neither do the crowds! You can enjoy it in total peace. There are a lot of Khmer ruins in the northeast part of Thailand. Some like Phimai and Phanom Rung are quite impressive.
Yes, we are based in Thailand full time. We just spent June in Japan and July in America, but are back here for the next 10 months. When I get over my jet lag I’ll start blogging again :). Thanks for commenting!
Beautiful photos, Jeff. Great write up of your experience in Phimai too. I’ve never heard of it. Angkor Wat probably overshadows it and is the destination for those wanting to visit Thailand – and these days there is a limit to the number of visitors at a certain time of the day. Unless you like crowds, overcrowding tends to put a damper on visiting a place. Personally I will try my best to avoid crowds during travels for safety reasons.
The locals seemed very helpful when you asked for directions, and glad that ride took you to where you were before. A very lucky ride and not a conman taking you on a joy ride 😛
Phimai and nearby Phanom Rung are two impressive Khmer Ruins that have almost no tourists. Although they don’t compare to Angkor Wat, I prefer visiting them because you can enjoy it in peace, the prices are cheap, and the locals are genuinely friendly. Having said that, I’m glad I went to Angkor Wat about 15 years ago before it got super popular.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
This looks like my kind of place Jeff. I admit that I felt rather overwhelmed in SE Asia by the crush of tourism. Going to a place such as this where one could mingle with the locals sounds perfect to me. I also like that you include tips on where to stay and eat.
The tourism numbers have exploded in SE Asia, but everyone is funneling to the same places. You’d really enjoy Phimai and the area – many great places to ride a bike, no tourists and lots of great food!
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