It’s a hot, sultry evening in the northeast of Thailand, and a storm is brewing at Thunder Castle. I’m mingling with fans outside the home of Buriram United FC – officially titled the Chang Arena – ahead of a Thai Premier League clash with rivals Chonburi.
The game is a vital fixture for the hosts. The Thai equivalent of Real Madrid or Manchester United, Buriram has been an all-conquering force in the South East Asian kingdom, winning the Thai League 1 – the nation’s top club competition – six times in the last decade.
Nervous chatter fills the air as we sup pre-match beers and fill up on spicy delicacies such as som tam (papaya salad) and gai yang (grilled chicken). ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this’, says supporter Nalika Pananon, clinging tightly to a giant orange club flag as we take our place in the 30,000-seater stadium.
The tension remains as the game kicks off. Chonburi boss the opening phases, and their supporters are spurred to choral heights by energetic drummers. But home jitters are quickly eased. Within five minutes, tyro Supachok Sarachat breaks the deadlock for Buriram. Twenty minutes later he completes a first-half double to send his side on its way to a comfortable 4-0 victory. As the referee blows for full-time, the victorious players take a bow – the supporters rising in appreciation for their heroes.
Buriram locals have become accustomed in recent times to saluting such successes. Once a poor, forgotten rice-farming fiefdom, best known for its Khmer relics and native crafts such as silk-weaving, the province has forged a fresh identity as a Camelot for elite sport in the Kingdom.
Much of the credit can be attributed to colourful local politician (and Buriram FC president) Newin Chidchob. With his deep pockets, fanatical sense of civic pride and formidable connections driving investment, Buriram – not Bangkok – is leading the field in the race to be known as Thailand’s premier sporting city.
‘The success of the football team definitely helped put Buriram on the map,’ says Olivier Branens, manager and co-owner of the Parisan, a French bistro and desserts cafe.
Next door to the football stadium lies the Chang International Circuit, Thailand’s first Formula One-certified track. It became an official leg of the prestigious MotoGP in 2018, with the likes of Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi speeding round the circuit to a live international audience of millions.
‘The MotoGP has taken the place to another level’ says Branens. Sitting at the outdoor terrace at Oli’s, eating merguez sausage and a plate of stinky French cheese, I can easily visualise a piazza filled with a cosmopolitan international crowd.
In truth, Buriram city and the wider province remains more a sleepy backwater than a global village: its unassuming charms imbued with a distinctly local flavour.
This is not the Thailand of tourist brochure renown: there are no paradise beaches, gold spired royal palaces or trek-worthy mountains. Indeed, the landscape is largely featureless and flat.
Even so, I’m struck by the bleak beauty of the countryside as I chart a path south along what was once the ancient Khmer Highway towards the Cambodian border. Now long-vanished, the artery once linked Buriram and other parts of Isan – the collective name for the provinces of northeastern Thailand – with Angkor, the power base of the once-mighty Khmer empire.
Monks clad in saffron robes patrol the sides of the highway, passing from village to village to collect alms. On the banks of the Huai Talat reservoir, migrating birds shelter from the harsh sun in the long grasses that surround the water.
After about an hour on the road, the scenery starts to shift. I veer away from the rice paddies and steer up the thickly forested slopes of an extinct volcano towards Phanom Rung. Regarded by many as the most spectacular Angkor-style monument in Thailand, the temple complex was built as a Hindu monument to the god Shiva between the 10th and 13th centuries, and is the symbol of the province.
It’s an awe-inspiring place. Close-up, lintels, and pediments above the doorways reveal sculptures of the deities Shiva and Vaishnava. Other highlights include a Natraja (Dancing Shiva) and the Narai Bandhomsindhu lintel, which represent the destruction and rebirth of the universe respectively. Meanwhile, the sanctuary’s main tower has been adorned with the club badge of Buriram FC – a link between past and modern glories.
What’s equally magical is the lack of crowds. A visit to the temples at Angkor can be akin to attending a major rock concert, with visitors jostling for elbow room at all the major sites. At Phanom Rung, it’s significantly less frenetic. There’s not a soul in sight as I stand on a naga bridge on the processional walkway and survey the temple complex in its full majesty.
Splendid isolation can be found at other Khmer relics in the province. At Muang Tum, located next to Phanom Rung at the foot of the hill, I’m hypnotised by the temple spires reflected in the lily-covered waters of its surrounding ponds. Later, at Wat Khao Angkhan, I meditate under the beatific gaze of the temple’s 29-metre-long golden reclining Buddha.
Spiritually replenished, I spend my last day in the province perusing the rest of the sights in Buriram city. My first stop is the Lower Northeastern Cultural Centre, the city’s main museum. It is, by turns, interesting and amusing. Old city plans, maps, Buddhist statues, and a giant elephant skeleton offer clues to the area’s anthropology and natural history, while the presence of Doraemon keychains alongside cultural nick-knacks lend a surreal edge to the souvenir shop.
A fuller sense of satisfaction is gleaned from a walk along Khlong La Lom. This 1,800-year-old moat now only encircles half of the city centre, but its tree-shrouded banks provide a focal point for joggers, lovebirds and wandering dreamers alike. I end my stroll at Gaiyang Sida, where deliciously smoky gai yang, fresh from a giant charcoal broiler, is served up alongside other Isan staples such as larb (spicy meat salad) and khao niew (sticky rice).
I take a last look at the city from the summit of Khao Kradong Forest Park. With the light draining from the day, people congregate around the golden Suphatthara Bophit Buddha that crowns the hill to chat, eat snacks and strum on acoustic guitars.
In the distance, the flat landscape stretches far into the distance – with the Thunder Castle and the international circuit visible in the foreground. Both are silent now, but it won’t be long until another tempest blows in, the howls of supporters reverberating around the towering stands.
Face-off: Buriram’s Modern vs Ancient Heroes
Claim to fame
Star player profiles
Star market values
Buriram United FC
First to win all three Thai football trophies
Thunder the elephant
Supachok Sarachat, attacking midfield
Chang Arena aka Thunder Castle
2021 AFC Champions League Final – 27 November 2021; expect plenty of street food, beer, and modern local half time entertainment
4 Must-Visit Places While in Buriram
Surin Nature Park
Head east to Surin province to get up close and personal with Thailand’s majestic national beast. The Surin Nature Park in Ban Ta Klang Elephant Village is a sanctuary for these gentle giants, with volunteering projects that let visitors feed, bathe and get to know both elephants and their mahouts. Each November there is also a special festival called the Surin Elephant Round-up, with colourful parades, an elephant buffet, tug-of-war battles and games.
Silk Weaving Centres
Silk production is an important livelihood for villages in the northeast of Thailand, which produce what is regarded as the finest silk in the Kingdom. Visit villages such as Baan Sanuan Nok and Amphoe Na Pho to enjoy tours of the whole process: the mulberry trees that feed the silk worms; the silk threads being extracted from cocoons; silk being spun on traditional looms (you might have a go yourself); and of course, the finished fabrics, a beautiful handcrafted souvenir to take home. You can even have a nibble on silkworm larvae ‘delicacies’ – should you feel so inclined!
The vibrant Thai silks we are familiar with today are largely chemically dyed, but traditional dyeing methods relied on natural resources. One of Thailand’s most famous fabrics, known as Phu Akkanee, is created from the unique volcanic-rich soil surrounding Charoensook Village a few hours north of Buriram. Here villagers continue to wield the ancient craft to produce muted, earthy-coloured silks that continue to be widely used.
Lower Northeastern Cultural Centre
For a comprehensive introduction to the blend of Khmer heritage in northern Thailand, head to the Lower Northeastern Cultural Centre in Buriram province. From folk traditions to indigenous crafts, numerous displays help visitors glean a greater knowledge of the region’s cultural identity.
Buriram is 390 kilometres north of Bangkok – a five-to-six-hour drive, or a one-hour flight from Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport to Buriram Airport. There are also daily trains that take between six to eight hours.