Siam in-between: Phimai entered the Eighties

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Our hometown in Thailand is a village called Phimai, about a 40 minute drive from the city of Korat. Because of its strategic location, Korat is called the Gateway to Isan. Highways and railways to the North-Eastern region pass through the city. With Phimai just outside of the big city it has always felt to me like the border between urban and rural life. I’ve repeatedly described the standard of living as the sixties with internet and smartphones, which I mean as a compliment. In a way it is how I think society should be. But a recent development just might catapult Phimai to the Eighties. Somewhere in-between the start of mass consumerism and the potential backlash thereof.

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About 6 years ago I met my fiancée traveling through Phimai, coming from Chiang Mai by bus. The town’s main touristic attraction is the Phimai Historical Park, an ancient site from the Khmer period. It does attract tourists, but not by the bus load. As a result there are some facilities for foreigners, but not a lot. It has three hotels. Phimai Inn has a lovely pool and restaurant, but is quite tired. Phimai Paradise, which does not have any appeal for foreigners. Amatara is about two years old and the best choice, but does not have a pool.

Over the last years I have been spending more and more time in Phimai and have come to know and love the town in a entirely different way. This implied a very steep learning curve, as (from a Western perspective) there did not seem to be a lot of interest. When the effort to look was taken, it turns out that almost anything has been there all along.

A nightly food market every day, next to the clock tower. The friendly salapao vendor next to the Tesco Lotus Express. The blue waffle stand next to 7Eleven. Term Suk Bakery & coffee house, that has always reminded my of Central Perk in Friends. The big box supermarket warehouse in Chinese style that is hidden in the back streets. The amazing bar with live acoustic music across from the Phimai Paradise hotel. The many noodle shops all over town. The restaurant in our street that came to know the Steven-special (double portion of meat, extra fries and no apples in my salad). Manatsanan thai massage which took me weeks to find. Phimai fitness by Mr. Wind and Ms. Kai. The small movie house with the colorful posters (but sadly not one subtitled movie) It took me a while, but I came to love my months in the improved Sixties every year.

About once or twice a week we would drive to the Big City, have a farang (foreign) meal, catch an English spoken movie and shop for the few things we could not purchase in Phimai: a bottle of red wine, beef, cheese and croissants. It made me appreciate these items even more.

On my return this year, the town was noticeably excited. There was a large Tesco Lotus supermarket, small mall and movie theater coming! Building 3 (three!) extremely large-scale mall projects in Korat, corporate money had clearly spotted that untapped potential in nearby Phimai. The building had been erected in less than a year.

The Tesco Lotus center opened two days ago and has been crowded from the very first second. Queue’s in the supermarket, at the food court, in the restaurants, at the fast food outlets. Virtually anything can be bought there. It is a weapon of mass consumerism. Shiny counters, enticing signs, and new tastes stand in contrast to the stores of the city center. You can smell the urge to spend money in the air. But won’t there be a dark side? Any scarcely available income that is spent there, does not go to local shops.

Will Phimai remain the same? I do hope so, but I’m not convinced. Bye bye lovely Sixties, the Eighties have arrived.

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