The tourism sector gears up for the Asean Economic Community with a package that takes in attractions on both sides of the Mekong
Ask any tourist who has spent time in Thailand’s Northeast and he or she will without doubt speak fondly of Udon Thani.
One of the four major cities in the region, Udon Thani isn’t merely famous for the archaeological site of Ban Chiang – always a hit with visitors – but also for one of the world’s strangest lakes, Nong Harn.
Located about 45 kilometres from the city, Nong Harn has won praise from travel websites around the world and indeed this year was ranked the world’s second strangest lake after Jellyfish Lake in Palau by Travel + Leisure magazine.
Known locally as Talay Bua Daeng, literally “the sea of red lotuses”, the yearly sprouting of thousands of red flowers covers the entire 22,500-rai of the lake from October to March. It’s even pretty without the blossoms, with boats taking tourists to admire the gorgeous scenery all year round.
Now the lake is being promoted in a new package that also takes in Nong Khai and Vientiane.
“This new Thailand-Laos package is a real bargain as it draws on the competence of several hotels and a guaranteed tour agency, thus ensuring convenience and safety,” says Tanakorn Weerachatyanukul, president of the Udon Thani Tourist Business Association.
“Most Thai tourists travel to Udon Thani to make merit. Now, we are encouraging them to do more than spend time at the temples and also experience the forest, the scenery along the Mekong River and the laid-back lifestyle of the Lao capital.
“We know from a survey conducted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand that more than 200,000 Vietnamese come to this region every year. They travel by car through Laos then visit Nakhon Phanom, Sakon Nakhon and Udon Thani. They are not really temple-goers – to them Buddhism in more in the mind – but they love Ban Chiang and Ban Lung Ho as well as the region’s superb restaurants and nightlife,” Tanakorn explains.
“The Laotians are here all the time; I think they consider Udon Thani province as the outskirts of their own country! The distances are nothing. It is just 40km from Udon to Nong Bua Lamphu, 70km to Sakon Nakhon’s Sawang Daen Din district and 75km to Vientiane.
“A visit can be educational too. The Ricefields Hotel just outside Ban Chiang is currently hosting a group of American students who are here to learn about rice cultivation and farming,” he concludes.
A popular meditation venue, Wat Pa Phu Kon is once of the first stops on the package tour. Completed in 2013, the blue-roofed temple sits on top of a hill amid unspoilt forest and is home to Phra Phuttha Saiyat Lokkanat Satsada Maha Muni, which at 20-metres-long, is the biggest marble reclining Buddha in the world.
From there, it’s just a short car trip to the river. There, a boat awaits to take visitors along the Mekong to important sites in Thailand and Laos. The first stop is Phon Phisai, right on the border between the two countries. It will serve as a permanent checkpoint when the Asean Economic Community (AEC) gets underway next year.
Located in Nong Khai province, Phon Phisai was originally known as Pak Huay Luang and is home to several important temples. Wat Luang Phisai Jitiyaram, which was built in 1915, boasts a standing Buddha while Wat Rai Nong Plong has a 40-metre-long reclining Buddha. The Naga structure at Wat Thai is said to mark the entrance to the serpent deity’s underwater cave and is several stories high.
Another interesting spot is the Phu Foi Lom Ecotourism Project, where visitors are invited to learn about the environment. There’s also a chance to do hiking and bicycling.
Phu Foi Lom is named after the lichen that once carpeted the dense forest but has become scarce with the deterioration in the forest’s fertility. The forest is also home to a prehistoric park displaying life-size sculptures of the dinosaurs that once roamed the region.
Another must-see in Udon Thani is Kham Chanod. Located at Wat Sirisuttho in Wang Thong district, it sits on the banks of a lake is said to be another home of the great Naga.
The area is also supposedly haunted by Phi Jang Nang, the ghost associated with outdoor cinemas. Legend has it that the spirit entered the area while outdoor cinema company Jamjan was screening a comedy and reduced the audience to absolute silence. When the screening was over, the site became a cemetery.
While Vietnamese visitors might prefer to give the temples a miss, they flock in the hundreds to Thai Puan Ethnic House in Ban Chiang for Isaan food and performances of folk music and dance.
Once known as Thai Puan, the Ban Chiang community prides itself on its ancestry and is happy to dress in the traditional costumes associated with this group.
The last day of the package tour is spent in Vientiane with brief stops at Wat Si Muang, the golden stupa of Pha That Luang and the Patuxai war monument.
See the sights
_ The three-day, two-night package of Udon Thani, Nong Khai and Vientiane is priced at Bt4,990, excluding airfare to Udon Thani. It’s available at tour agencies.