Nakhon Ratchasima (AKA Korat) is the gateway city to the Isaan region of Thailand. Depending on which list you read, Korat is either the biggest city in Thailand after greater Bangkok, or in the top 5. Either way, it’s about the same size as Chiang Mai.
Seeing Korat on the map I couldn’t help but make the comparison, as both cities have a moated old-city area. The big difference is that there are few international visitors in Korat. I saw one English pub on my wanders, and I could count on one hand the times I saw a western tourist/expat. The geographic location of Korat doesn’t help its cause, but that may soon change when the high speed train from Bangkok is completed.
As part of my project to map Southeast Asia railways I have been visiting cities that will feature prominently in future railway developments, and Korat is one of them. I suspect that Korat will boom once the railway is finished, so I wanted to see the city before the new railway.
Wandering around Korat
Keeping with the rail theme I got the train from Ubon Ratchathani, which could also use an upgrade in speed. Upon arrival into the city by train I noticed a giant air traffic control tower that dominates the city skyline. The tower is at the Terminal 21 shopping mall.
Terminal 21 is a popular mall in Bangkok, so I was curious to see what this one looked like. The entrance resembles the Bangkok version, with an express escalator in the main foyer. It was weird to see this mall that was like similar to the one in Bangkok with fewer people inside.
And like Bangkok there is also a Central Plaza mall (which wasn’t very central so I didn’t go), and the more central Klang Plaza, by the western moat.
I wasn’t here to go mall shopping so I stuck to walking around the old city.
There are city gates to moated area which gives the feeling you are entering another area. Otherwise just looks like a canal.
Most of the area inside is new and not distinguishable from the urban area outside the moat. There are some remnants of old Korat, such as these old wooden shophouses which look like they will soon crumble into the ground.
There are some impressive wats (buddhist temples) throughout the city, which you would expect from a large city in Thailand.
I was more surprised with how many Chinese temples there are, which seemed to number as many as the wats. It was the week before the Lunar New Year, so the temples and surrounding streets were adorned with red lanterns.
In cities like Korat where there is not much to do, I usually mark out some cafes as a walking target, which then sets my general walking path. I enjoyed Class Cafe, which had a couple branches around the city.
Part of the joy of wandering around Thailand is eating, so when I find something especially enticing I will stop there or make a note to return. For example I found this spicy seafood soup which I had not had before.
It helps when a restaurant specialises in one thing, so no need to try and explain what you want. It was also packed at lunch time, which is a good sign to stop and eat there.
Korat has a lot of concrete buildings using a modernist style that is unique to Thailand.
I’ve always thought these buildings would look great if they were brightly painted and taken better care of. This cafe on the western moat entrance is a good example of such a building.
The Bangkok – Nakhon Ratchasima high-speed train development
Nakhon Ratchasima is about 260KM from Bangkok, making it too close to be a viable flight option (apart from Newgen, which offer flights from Bangkok). Despite the short distance it takes over 3.5 hours on a bus and 5-6 hours on a train.
Korat is too close Bangkok for domestic flights but too far to be a commuter city. This is set to change with the arrival of the high speed train from Bangkok. When this project is completed trains from Bangkok will take just 77 minutes. The train will also stop at Don Muang airport on the way, making it a viable airport alternative.
At the moment the train runs on a single-line meter-gauge railway. Trains are timed at irregular hours throughout the day to allow opposing trains to pass.
For such a big city pair you should able to just turn up at the train station and expect another train in an hour. The new train will be a standard gauge railway with dual tracks. It will be built separately from the current line, with tunnels and elevated tracks. With two tracks you can then run trains hourly without having to wait for the opposing train to pass.
The high speed train has been in planning for years, but it appears to have finally moved ahead with some pressure from China, who are building a fast train via Laos. The train from China is part of the Singapore-Kunming Rail Link project that will travel through Laos, Thailand, and Malaysia. That will run on a standard gauge (which Thailand and Malaysia don’t use), thus the need for a new line.
Work has begun on a 3.5KM stretch between Ayuttaya and Nakhon Ratchasima. I caught a glimpse of the land clearance on the train back to Bangkok, and work has indeed begun.
There is also land being cleared by the railway after Korat station, which appears to be part of the project. This will be the second phase that connects Korat to the Thai-Laos border, meeting the new railway being built by China.
With Bangkok then being a short train ride away, Korat could then become revitalised with working commuters and people who have been priced out of Bangkok (or just sick of the traffic). Perhaps Korat will fill up with hipster cafes and more international restaurants, as has been the case in Chiang Mai.
The rail project is expected to take five years, though Thailand has been saying that for years. With the China-Laos railway on target to be finished in five years, there will be pressure for Thailand to keep up so maybe it will actually happen. I will come back again when the train line is completed and check out the new station on the way to Laos.