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Get Your Feet Wet

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Dare to visit one of Thailand’s lease toured regions to discover Ban Chiang UNESCO Archaeological site, a surreal sculpture garden, and the best of Isaan food at Udon Thani.

by Dave Stamboulis

Udon Thani often gets little more than a passing glance, and it is usually from travelers en route to extend or renew their visas over the border in Laos. Udon—as it is called by locals—is just a train stop or bus transfer point on the way to crossing the Mekong. However, Udon is actually a modern bustling city, the fifth largest in Thailand, with a population of 140,000. Besides being the best spot in the area to take advantage of all the amenities offered by a big city, it is also a great base for visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ban Chiang, along with touring scenic Nong Khai and the Mekong River.

Why Go
Udon is, after Khorat, the largest city in Isaan. Like other provincial capitals, it’s also a great base for getting one’s feet wet in one of Thailand’s least toured regions. Here locals still go out of their way to smile and invite travelers for a drink, prices are far lower than elsewhere, and good old-fashioned hospitality with a capital H is the norm. While the city itself has only a handful of “sights” (Boeng Kak Lake being pleasant enough to have a meal on the water, and the night market well worth a stopover), it isn’t too far out to reach Ban Chiang, which is a fascinating journey into archaeology. The spicy Isaan food is also a big draw for any visitor going to Udon.
What to See
udon-thani-2In 1996, an American anthropologist living in the area tripped over a tree root and came face to face with painted red shards of pottery that looked to have come from another era. Further research revealed the shards to be from the Bronze Age and suggested that a thriving civilization far ahead of its time lived there in 2,000 to 3,000 BC. This place is Ban Chiang (●043 208 340, Tuesday to Sunday 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., admission THB 150), a top tourist sight in northern Isaan where a well put-together and informative museum displays skeletal remains, pottery jars, and plenty of re-creations of what the Bronze Age society might have looked like. Despite being a UNESCO site, Ban Chiang does not see too many visitors, and if you go there during the week, you may have the place to yourself. Take a Sakhon Nakhon bus from Udon, 50 kilometers east, and then grab a tuk tuk from the junction to the site (6 kilometers away); alternatively, hire a car and driver in Udon for about THB 800 return.

udon-thani-3Sala Kaew Ku (●081 369 5744), also known as Wat Khaek, is in Nong Khai, just under an hour from Udon. And it’s one of the northeast’s most bizarre attractions: a surreal sculpture garden with enough symbolism and imagery to baffle any theologian, and weird enough to provide entertainment to even the most jaded traveler. This odd concrete art project was created by Boon Leua Surirat, a Laotian priest who had a vision about Buddhism and the underworld, and who fled the communist authorities in Laos to create his images across the border, in Thailand. Sala Kaew Ku contains hundreds of concrete statues and figures, some of them over 30 meters high, representing images from every major Eastern religion. Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Ganesh, and all the Hindu deities, as well as Buddha, human–animal hybrids, and Naga serpents are all portrayed in various representations and styles.

What to Do
udon-thani-4While in Udon Thani, one should definitely visit the night market, which is one of the best in all the provinces and a great place to sample Isaan’s best food. Som tam (papaya salad) and grilled fish and meats rule the roost here, along with extremely spicy larb meat salads that are eaten with fingerfuls of khao niaow (sticky rice), the staple of the Isaan diet. Food is cheap, vendors are extremely helpful, and with a large population of retired expats in Udon, English explanations shouldn’t be too hard to come by. The night market is just down the road from the train station and gets going by 6 p.m. daily until late.
The Udon Thani Sunshine Orchid Farm (●Soi Kamol Watthana, Udon-Nong Samrong Road, 042 242 475, admission THB 20) is worth a look. Home to the first hybrid orchid and giving off a heavy perfume, the nursery is more noted for its “dancing” orchids, another hybrid plant whose leaves start swaying when you play music or sing to it! It’s best to go early morning or late afternoon if you want to see the plants dance.
Eating and Drinking
Although the best overall selection of local food is in the aforementioned night market, Rabiang Phatchanee (●53/1 Bannon Rd, 042 241 515)—set on the lake in Nong Prajak Park—is a longstanding favorite among tourists and locals that serves an authentic gaeng som pla chon tawt (snakehead fish sour soup) as you can get in Isaan. For after-dinner drinking, head over to Steve’s Bar (●254/26 Prajak Rd, 042 244 523, www.udonmap.com/stevesbar), a long-running and happening expat-run bar located downtown.
Sleeping
The Pannarai (●042 345 111,
www.thepannaraihotel.com) is Udon’s most luxurious boutique lodging, with comfortable rooms and an outdoor pool; the hotel is just minutes from downtown. The Green Gecko (●081 9180 500,
www.thaivillarent.com) is located 30 minutes out of town, in the rice fields, and is arguably the area’s most interesting accommodation, with its exclusive and private traditional Thai teak pool villa that can be rented out for getting away from it all. The villa comes complete with a personal chef and complete pampering.
Other hotels are Napalai Hotel (●572  Pracharaksa Road, 042 347 444), www.napalaihoteludon.com) and Centara Hotel & Convention Centre Udon Thani (●277/1 Prajaksillapakhom Road, 042 343 555, www.centarahotelsresorts.com/centara/cud).
How to Get There
Thai Airways (●www.thaiairways.com), Nok Air (●www.nokair.com), and Air Asia (●www.airasia.com) all have several daily departures to Udon Thani. Overnight sleeper trains also run from Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong station, with some of them now continuing across the border into Laos. Udon’s bustling bus station has departures to just about everywhere in the country, including a regular service to Bangkok, which takes about 9 to 10 hours.