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?