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Buriram a sporting city


BURIRAM, 14 August 2018: Northeast Thailand’s Buriram added a few more words to its official motto in recent times.

It used to read “the city of sandstone sanctuaries, land of volcanoes, beautiful silk, rich culture.”

But in recognition of its fine football team and an international race circuit that will host a race in the MotoGP international series this October the city fathers tagged on “best city of sport” for good measure.

During the monsoon season, there might be frequent thunderstorms over the plains of northeast Thailand, but nothing comes close to the thunderous roar of football fans, as they fill up the 32,000-seat stadium appropriately named “Thunder Castle”.

Home to Buriram FC, Thailand’s most trophied soccer team, ‘Chang Arena’ epitomizes the city’s capacity to chill out and enjoy a sporting event. Whenever the stadium floodlights turn on the town adopts serious party mode.

This October, the city’s equally impressive Chang International Circuit joins the MotoGP 2018 series as the 15th venue in a race calendar that covers 19 international venues.

Thailand is contracted to host the MotoGP for three years in Buriram joining Malaysia and Japan as the only three Asian venues.

Buriram happily delivers an entertaining balance between Isaan history steeped in ancient stupas and the sensation of spectator sport.

So before exploring the ancient edifices of Phnom Rung Historical Park head off to the Chang Arena to capture a glimpse of Buriram’s lifestyle late afternoon.

It fits the flight that lands at the town’s airport midday, which allows you to transfer the 32 km from airport to city centre by an AirAsia minibus (around THB200 one-way) and check in at your hotel early afternoon. An alternative is to hire a car at the airport.

AirAsia serves the domestic route from Don Mueang Airport in Bangkok to Buriram twice daily with fares of around THB600 for the early morning flight and THB1,200 for the midday service.

Flight time is one hour and five minutes and the transfer to Buriram town takes around 35 minutes.

Credited with being the biggest club football stadium in the land, the tour of Chang Arena, or “Thunder Castle, is impressive and if you are lucky you might catch a home game. Tickets get you a comfortable seat for THB120 to THB150.

Set in extensive parkland and gardens the stadium attracts residents most evenings, who nibble on northeast snacks and tipple a few chilled beers at the park’s food market. It’s a scene for casual picnics where you can mingle with residents and snack on Isaan food.

The football club’s crest displays a graphic of Buriam’s historical heritage, the famous Prasat Hin Phanom Rung. The Hindu Khmer temple complex stands on the rim of an extinct volcano at an elevation of 402 metres. An official symbol of Buriram province, the Khmer structure dates back to the ninth to 12th century.

It took more than 17 years to restore the ruins using sandstone and laterite bricks retrieved from the hill. However, the return of a decorative lintel that was illegally removed from the ruins of the eastern entrance during the Vietnam War was successful completed by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1988. The home-coming marked the completion of the temple’s restoration, an event that is remembered through annual festivities.

Close by Khao Kradong Forest Park, also standing on the rim of a former volcano crater, is worth a visit. Set back from Highway 2255, just 6 km from the town centre, the Suphatthara Bophit Buddha stands atop of a stairway 265 meters above sea level. Revered by Buriram residents the Buddha image is considered a cultural symbol of the province. Although it is a popular tourist attraction the park also has a role in conserving nature and forest environment.

Prasat Muang Tam rounds off the day’s heritage. This Khmer temple stands at the foot of Phnom Rung hill, next to a reservoir.  Built in the 10th to 11th century, it was abandoned for around 400 years. Surrounded by high walls and four gates, the main entrance faces the rising sun. While Muang Tam might not be as impressive as Phnom Rung that stands on the crest of a higher hill, it is still worth a visit.

The Chang International Circuit beckons for an afternoon break from heritage and history if only to see budding stars of motor sports hone their skins in practice laps around the 4.5 km circuit.

This October it will host the super stars of the MotoGP and offer Buriram residents and thousands of motorbike enthusiasts an opportunity to enjoy an internationally acclaimed sporting event.

Like Chang Arena there are restaurants, street food stalls and a food market to entertain visitors close to the race circuit.

Yes, red ant sales are on display at some of the stalls but a trip to Buriram would not be complete without ordering the town’s ‘som tam’ salad.

Northeast dishes pair perfectly with a glass of chilled ale, or even something stronger like a tot of the local rice whiskey.

The minced port salad, known as ‘larb moo’ is a dish you will find across Thailand and neighbouring Laos. Medium to high on the “hot and spicy” scale, it washes down well with beer, but make sure you are ordering the cooked version, not one marinated with raw uncooked meat – larb nua dib (sok lek).

From Buriram you have the opportunity to strike out to explore routes less travelled to Cambodia’s Siem Reap and the famous Angkor Wat World Heritage site that has cultural links to the Khmer ancient structures in northeast Thailand.

It is just a one-hour and 30-minute taxi transfer from Buriram to the border checkpoint with Cambodia in neighbouring Surin province. The Chong Chom/Osmach checkpoint is open daily and for USD20 you pick up a visa to enter Cambodia. It takes less around 30 minutes to negotiate the immigration checkpoints.  Once over the border you transfer by car to Siem Reap.  Chartering the car costs from THB1,600 to THB2,500, a fare that covers up to four travellers for the two-hour and 30-minute drive to Siem Reap. There is something special about a trip that starts in northeast Thailand, by exploring Khmer temples and then journeys south to the fabled World Heritage site of Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia. It retraces a route that for generations was closed to travellers. Now with the door is wide open to encourage a discovery of shared heritage beyond borders.

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