Maha Sarakham (มหาสารคาม, also spelt Mahasarakham) is a city and province in Isaan.
Maha Sarakham means "city of great education" and is aptly named considering it hosts seven institutions of higher learning, among them, Maha Sarakham University, Maha Sarakham Vocational College, and Maha Sarakham Technical College. Hence, it is called the "Takasila of Isaan" ("Takasila" was an Indian centre of learning in ancient times). Maha Sarakham is the Buddhist centre of Isaan, as many Buddhist archaeological artefacts are found here, which include a relic of Lord Buddha in Na Dun district. Such evidence leads to the theory that this place once was the location of an ancient kingdom dating back to 1,500 years ago. A pagoda is built on that spot to mark the glory days of Buddhism and to serve as a venue for important Buddhist rites.
Because the city is primarily a college and university town, costs for food and housing are quite low. A large part of the resident population are teachers and staff of the many schools in the city. As expected, the population waxes and wanes in tune with the annual academic calendar cycles of semesters and summer breaks as students flow into and out of the city and its environs. Maha Sarakham University alone boasts nearly 50,000 students, recently surpassing the student population of Khon Kaen, a nearby much larger city with Khon Kaen University.
Maha Sarakham's central location is a convenient base from which to explore Thailand's nearby neighbours, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Directly east is Friendship Bridge Two, spanning the Mekong River at Mukdahan, where one can cross a narrow section of Laos and be in Hue, Vietnam by the end of the day. One can also travel south to Si Saket where it is now easy to cross over into Cambodia, relatively close to Siem Reap and the famed Angkor Archaeological Park. Four hours north, at Nong Khai, one can cross the original Friendship Bridge into Laos, from which point it's just 22 km to the capital city of Vientiane.
Maha Sarakham is also at the very geographic centre of Isaan, making it a convenient base from which to explore all of Isaan. Most sightseeing destinations in Isaan are no more than a three or four hour bus ride in nearly every direction from the city. This includes the Mekong River communities to the north and east (Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom, etc.) and the famous ancient Isaan temple ruins to the south and southeast (Phanom Rung, Khao Phra Vihan, etc.). Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat), three hours to the southwest, is the gateway to Khao Yai National Park which showcases Southeast Asian flora and fauna, where elephants and tigers roam free.
First class/VIP bus service is available to/from Bangkok direct to Maha Sarakham. There are about 8 buses daily. Overnight buses to Bangkok leave Maha Sarakham between 20:30 and 22:00. The fare is about 400 baht.
In Bangkok, buses leave from Mo Chit Northeastern Bus Terminal and in Maha Sarakham, about one block south of the SermThai Shopping Plaza.
Regular bus service from several nearby cities is also available daily. Banner signs at the bus station are printed in Thai and English. You may either purchase a ticket before you get on the bus, or just pay after you get on the bus.
The last bus out of town is often at 18:00 or 19:00, so inquire before you stay too long.
Public transportation in the city is limited to songthaews, motorcycle taxis, and tuk-tuks. The dark blue songthaews leave from the central bus station and travel north on Hwy 213 to Thakhongyang and Maha Sarakham University, about eight km west and north of downtown. The drivers will stop anywhere along the way when the passengers signal with a buzzer. Cost is about 10 baht. Pay on exiting the songthaew.
- Maha Sarakham University (N of town about 8 km on Hwy 213). The university has an outdoor museum built in traditional Isaan-style as well as a small zoo. The university's older campus near downtown has a Museum of Northeastern Culture.
- Prathat Na Dune (About 90 min S of Maha Sarakham). A quite large chedi housing a relic of Buddha. The surrounding large park is a great place for a picnic in the shade of the many trees which are part of the grounds. A nearby replica of an ancient Isaan village gives you a feel for the cultural roots of the area. You will see exhibits which show the silk-making process as well as ancient farm implements.
- Wang Ma Cha (Fish Sanctuary) (5km NE of downtown). A beautiful park. A great place to relax at the many gazebos on the lake, feed the huge catfish, and wander through the little zoo. It is suggested you have a tuk-tuk driver who knows the park take you there, and then pay him waiting time for the duration of your stay at the park to ensure return transportation.
- Cinema (SermThai Plaza and Center Point Mall).
- Bowling (Center Point Mall).
- Computer Gaming (Throughout the city but mostly concentrated in the Rahjahbaht University area and Thakhonyang village, near Mahasarakham University, Kamriang Campus).
- Karaoke (SermThai and Best Buddy in Thakhonyang).
- Maha Sarakham University. Faculties include humanities, accounting, engineering, biological sciences, public health, pharmacy, political science and governance. The university maintains two campuses: one downtown, and a newer one about 8 km north of the city. The university is especially known for its strong English department which has spawned several national student champions in speech competition in recent years. Nearly 30 instructors are from abroad and the school is host to several hundred international students, mostly from China.
There is a modern shopping centre ("SermThai") on the main street between the bus station and the Takasila Hotel. Here you will find the obligatory KFC restaurant, Swensons, a four-plex cinema (almost always Thai only, no English subtitles, even for Western movies, several banks as well as excellent street food vendors.
An even newer shopping centre can be found about 5 km north of town on Hwy 213. It is a Big C department store surrounded by many smaller shops and restaurants.
- Pottery Village (About 5 km SE of town towards Roi Et).
- Silk Village (About 10 km SW of town towards Borabue).
- The Living Room (About 3 km N of downtown on Hwy 213. It is in the Takasila 2 apartment complex (not to be confused with Takasila Hotel downtown)), ☏ . A lunch and dinner, air-conditioned restaurant with authentic Thai, American and Italian food. The American BBQ ribs and Italian pizzas are authentic and delicious. Prices are reasonable and the atmosphere is definitively Western.
- Yummy Restaurant. They have weekly specials twice a week with various dishes of both Thai and Western food. They do a mean all-you-can-eat hot dogs. Very cozy little place with a really nice atmosphere. Run by James (UK) and Elle.
- New Pattana Hotel (Behind the Takasila Hotel). 650 baht.
- Taksila Hotel. Nice, but not spectacular, accommodation. The hotel has a good massage service, and there is a nearby fully-equipped fitness centre across the parking lot from the hotel. 850 baht.
- Vasu Hotel (About 4 blocks W of the bus station on the same street that parallels the canal). 550 baht.