Published on July 18, 2007
On Nakhon Ratchasima's southeastern edge, not far from where the elephants, monkeys and gibbons entertain kids at Korat Zoo, the new Petrified Wood Museum is offering time travel - 16 million years back, if you'd like to see Siam the way it was in Miocene times.
Local geography researcher Pratueng Jintasakul spent a decade exploring the province's prehistory, and uncovered not just wood turned to stone but sabre-tooth tigers, mammoths and, yes, dinosaurs too.
"The museum is competing with the best of its kind in Asia," says Pratueng, a lecturer at Nakhon Ratchasima Rajabhat University. "Besides the fossilised wood, we have specimens from various types of mammoths, the ancestors of elephants."
Doubling as a research centre, the museum has three spacious exhibition halls where the fossils get an injection of hi-tech life through simulations and multimedia.
Visitors take seats in a small theatre for a virtual journey to the very beginnings of time. The Big Bang is explained, and the terrestrial volcanic activity that follows shakes their chairs.
"The stimulation seats are fascinating for young visitors," says a museum staff member, "but we've found that the adults love them too."
The many examples of petrified wood are admirably displayed in their original landscape context. The process of trees becoming rock takes aeons, of course - the youngest "opalised wood" can be 800,000 years old, the oldest petrified timber 16 million years.
"When a tree falls and is buried in mineral-rich water, the organic cells are replaced by minerals like cobalt, copper, manganese and iron oxides," a guide explains. Yet the wood - whether from the trunk, bark or root - retains its appearance in every detail. Even the tree rings can still be seen.
The museum has more than 100 plant fossils that have been identified, many of them unearthed from the sandy banks of the Mool River.
During the Miocene Period, which lasted from 16 million to five million years ago, the province sported ever-expanding grasslands, teeming with huge herbivores, where there is now a mix of rainforest, cornfields and the occasional vineyard.
"The more we look at the sand banks, the more fossils we find," says the guide. "There are remains of creatures such as sabre-toothed cats, three-hoofed horses, mammoths and short-necked giraffes."
These fantastic beasts appear in the museum's second exhibition building, linked to the first by a man-made cave whose walls are adorned with specimens of ancient hyenas, crocodiles and other long-gone local wildlife.
The highlights in the second hall are the artificial skeleton and life-size sculpture of a four-tusked mammoth. But serious zoology buffs will be riveted to a showcase containing the actual remains of the ancient elephant. They appear alongside the skull of a modern elephant - albeit one that's 700,000 years old.
Dinosaurs lurk in the final exhibit hall. Here children of all ages will be excited to see the giant reptiles come to virtual life.
And finally, the grown-ups can look on with envy as youngsters get to play palaeo-prospector at an artificial fossil dig. They're given small brushes to dust away the earth and see what they can discover.