Si Racha is a peaceful town about ninety minutes south of Bangkok. Twenty years ago, it was a place that always meant so much to me because I was usually on my way from Bangkok to Pattaya and when the bus got to Si Racha, it meant you didn't have much of the journey left to cover. You could almost smell that fresh, clean Pattaya air (oh, what am I like?)
And that's all Si Racha was to many folks - a marker on the highway to the kingdom's favourite seaside resort. Well, it was a favourite seaside resort back then, in the days before jet-ski scams, pushy Russians and foreigners getting roughed up after dark by big, butch ladyboys on the beach road.
Bangkok to Pattaya buses generally never stopped in Si Racha, however I do remember getting off the bus there once (I think the driver had to change a dodgy tyre or something) and thirty or so passengers, seizing an opportunity to stretch their legs, meandered down to a rickety wooden pier but were driven straight back onto the bus by the stink of fish sauce (for which Si Racha is famous I might add)
But times have changed. Thanks to a large influx of Japanese expats working for companies on the nearby industrial estates, Si Racha has spruced itself up and made valiant attempts to put itself on the tourist trail. It was time to pay a visit - a proper visit this time.
Several factors combined to make Si Racha an ideal choice for a long weekend getaway. Firstly, the Thai government, not satisfied with closing down the country and giving everyone five days off for Songkran, decided to repeat the exercise two weeks later and give the population another five days off over the Mayday weekend. Why Thailand doesn't just shut down completely in April and May I'll never understand but we'll save that discussion for another time.
Secondly, with my wife at the wheel, we could do Samut Prakarn to Si Racha in less than two hours - which for me is about as long as I care to gaze at the passing scenery on Thailand's often dispiriting grey and concrete highways.
Finally, the Japanese company my wife works for puts many of its Japanese management staff in the rather nice Balcony Seaside Apartments, located about a mile from Si Racha's town center.
It's a newly-built complex catering mainly for the long-stay Japanese market. There's a Japanese fusion restaurant, a gym, a swimming pool, a tuck shop, an artificial beach, an extensive library of Japanese cartoon books and a brilliant free coffee machine in the reception. Plus the apartments are bloody enormous. What more could you want? Oh, and my wife got a very special room rate. Two thumbs way up!
Thailand's best park?
Frankly speaking, there isn't an awful lot to do in Si Racha. And not wishing to do the Tiger Zoo - which features heavily in every Si Racha tourist guide you pick up - severely limits your options.
Neither the wife nor I really minded though. We had gone down there with a plan to do nothing during the daytime and in the evenings we planned on doing even more nothing.
So what did we see in Si Racha? Well for starters the town has an amazing public park. And I mean truly amazing. The Lonely Planet website describes it as 'one of the best-kept municipal parks in Thailand' and I wouldn't argue with that description.
We ventured there on our very first afternoon in town.
As we strolled around the park in the late afternoon sun, I couldn't have been more impressed. There were children's play areas, open-air gyms, a large space given over to free aerobics classes - there was even a game of boules going on. The locals all seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. I've never seen Thai townsfolk look so happy.
What pleased me no end was seeing that local Thai authorities really do know how to get something right if they put their minds to it. We walked a complete circuit of that park and I didn't see a single scrap of litter or a single wobbly dog's egg. The locals clearly took a real pride in their community.
After a pleasant hour or so in the park, we made the short walk across the causeway to Loy Island, another of Si Racha's main tourist attractions. Being a public holiday, there was no shortage of people nibbling on snacks from the wide range of food vendors, enjoying a ride at the kiddies fun-fair or just hanging around at the impressive temple and taking selfies. Again, I was struck by how blissfully happy everyone looked and all of them enjoying activities that cost little or no money.
As darkness fell, we decided to hit Si Racha's commercial center, which is dominated by the Pacific Park Shopping Mall. I'm guessing that a trip to the mall might be the highlight of a local person's week but for a couple of streetwise Bangkokians, there was nothing except an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, not helped by the fact it took us almost an hour to find a parking space.
An hour at the mall was more than enough. There were queues outside Sizzler. It was nigh on impossible to find a table for two in Swensens - and the staff in the tired-looking Robinsons Department Store clearly enjoyed fiddling around with their smartphones far more than taking care of customers. We had seen it all before.
Call us gluttons for punishment but we paid a second visit to Pacific Park on day three of our long weekend, but this time during the daylight hours. I wouldn't have thought it possible but we disliked the place even more.
An altogether more agreeable shopping mall experience was J-Park, a mock Japanese style shopping complex complete with Japanese ornamental gardens, fake plastic cherry blossom and cutesy gurgling fountains.
Located about seven clicks out of town, J-Park is aimed at all those carefree Japanese folk who have settled in the area and have big expat salaries burning a hole in their pocket. We wandered into a Japanese ice-cream shop, had a quick glance at the prices on the menu and wandered straight back out again.
It was fascinating to stand there and do some people-watching because you had two distinct groups - the Thais and the Japanese. The Japanese were filling up shopping bags and keeping the cash registers ringing. The Thais were just there to take photos. And then there was the odd farang, like me, who just stood there looking bemused by it all.
After an expensive cup of coffee and a look in at the Japanese supermarket to see how much the Japanese are willing to pay for things, we opted for another walk around Si Racha's fine public park, however, in the blistering midday heat, the park was virtually empty and looked nowhere near as inviting as it had done the previous day.
An angry shopkeeper
Just then - in a row of shop-houses - a small sports shop caught my eye. I had never seen such a fine collection of Thai football shirts and I was eager to take a closer look. Ever since my trainer at the gym bought me a Suphanburi F.C replica shirt, I've developed an interest for Thai football kit with advertising and company logos plastered over almost every square inch of the fabric.
And this shop-owner had a hell of a collection! I couldn't work out at first whether it was a shop or a museum because some of the shirts hanging up and on display were clearly extremely old.
It was then that I made the fatal mistake of touching the merchandise. Perhaps it was a museum of sorts after all but the owner emerged from the back of the shop in his grubby singlet and went totally bananas. The only reason he didn't chase me out of the shop with a broom was because there wasn't a broom handy.
I so wanted to engage the owner in conversation, to practice my Thai and ask him about the origins of some of the shirts and whose signatures had been scribbled across them. Which shirt was the most valuable? Which one did he treasure the most? Unfortunately my questions were to go unanswered for one simple reason - because I know a fucking nutcase when I see one.
So we spent a total of four days in Si Racha. Over the course of those days, I downgraded my opinion from ‘Wow! what a place' to a more modest ‘yes, this is a nice little town'. It had a very slow-paced, small-town feel to it and I guess you either like that or you don't. I just couldn't personally imagine living there. Love the park though!
One thing I did notice was the impressive number of language institutes around. For a relatively small community, Si Racha seemed to have a lot of schools and language centers, ranging from the huge Assumption situated on the edge of town and set in its own grounds, down to the single shop-house language schools with banners hanging out front advertising for ‘English teachers - urgently wanted'.
I did see a number of Westerners walking around Si Racha. I'm not sure whether or not they were English teachers but I can't imagine any English teacher being short of work in this town.