Udon Thani, our nearest city and the fourth largest in Thailand, isn’t the centre of tourist heaven as far as outstanding attractions go but there are a few worthwhile day trips available if you find yourself based there for a few days. Nong Khai and the Mekong River HERE, Wat Pa Phu Kon HERE, Phu Phrabat Historical Park HERE and Ban Chiang World Heritage site HERE are all worth seeing and will fill in a day for you.

Wat Pa Phu Kon

Wat Pa Phu Kon

The stunning white Italian marble reclining Buddha. You can see Peng, my step daughter in green, at the back to give you an idea of size.

The stunning white Italian marble reclining Buddha. You can see Peng, my step daughter in green, at the back left to give you an idea of size.

Here’s another one to add to the list – the Red Lotus Sea. I would recommend going here in the morning and then across to Ban Chiang for the afternoon, if that attraction rocks your pot.

Plenty of replica pots available here.

Plenty of replica pots available here.

I had heard of the Red Lotus Sea from the internet but as it is a four hour drive there and back I hadn’t made it a priority to get there. However recently we had an invitation to spend the night for a party with a blog reader and his Thai wife in a small town called Non Sa-At on Highway 2. In order to get there we had to pass the turn to the Red Lotus Sea so it was a no-brainer for a looksee on the way back, despite being slightly hung over! I had no idea how successful the visit would be because it is recommended you see the flowers in December/January but we gave it a go.

Signage in Thailand is a funny mix and a lot of it is mostly unhelpful (this sidetrack on signage does fit into the story eventually). You will have a range of challenges under the following broad categories:

  • Signs telling you to turn that are placed at any distance from the required turning point. Sometimes they are situated immediately before or after the turn and at other times several turns away from the one they really meant you to take. Not to worry. You get to see lots of roads and sights you hadn’t planned on seeing that trip.
  • Signs that show a destination but have no indication how far it is away. There’s one on Highway 210 outside Udon heading to Nong Bua Lamphu that just says “Wat Erawan Cave (Wat Tham Erawan)”, which by the way is a great spot to visit if you’re reasonably fit and it’s not too hot that I wrote about HERE. No distance is shown on the sign. Now if you were new to Thailand you’d be keeping an eye out for further signage shortly after to point you to the cave, which obviously would be in the local area. Well it is actually 80 km down the road by which time you’d have given up!

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No idea of distance given but at least you know you're on the right road.

No idea of distance given but at least you know you’re on the right road.

  • The last category are the signs, which are sort of trying to be helpful but aren’t. They give you both destination name and distance and then abandon you after that. No further mention will be made of that attraction. Do your research before you head out is my advice. You may get lucky but often not.
A map showing the relationship between Udon and the Lotus Sea and Ban Chiang.

A map showing the relationship between Udon and the Lotus Sea and Ban Chiang. Allow an hour’s drive to get to either. From the Red Lotus Sea you could cut across country and have a look at Ban Chiang – in that order – read on to find out why.

In the case of The Red Lotus Sea you are in luck if coming South from Udon but not so fortunate if you are driving North from Khon Kaen. The Udon route on highway 2 is cluttered with signs closer to the turn, which is on your left. Although in Thai they have photos of red lotuses so you sort of get the idea. There is even a big sign at the turn itself. Funnily there is only one sign if you are travelling North, all in Thai and no arrow. I know because that’s the way we were coming from Non Sa-At and I missed the turn by expecting the same degree of assistance as coming the other way. Now my theory is that this attraction is based in Udon Thani province and therefore most visitors will be coming from Udon itself. Khon Kaen is another province so Udon bureaucracy decided bugger them they can find their own way! Queensland does the same thing to New South Wales visitors in an Australian context 🙂

Once you get on the small road (the yellow line off highway 2 in the map above) then you are overwhelmed by signs. It has obviously been designed for drivers with alzheimer’s. Forgot where you’re going – no worries 100 metres further on you’ll come across another reminder. There must have been a special on Red Lotus Sea signs that week. ten for 1,000 baht or one hundred for 2,000! Good news for us tourists. As well as these more casual signs (a big red arrow and a photo of the lotus) you will see these more formal ones:

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Yes you are on the right road. In Thai “Thale” = sea, “Bua” = Lotus and you guessed it “Daeng” = red! It even has an arrow and distance. These blue and white signs throughout the whole of Thailand are for tourist attractions.

The road to the lake is a pleasant one winding through small moo bans (villages) and rural scenery and is a nice drive in itself. You arrive at a large dusty, treeless carpark with no redeeming features. Remember that this part of Thailand gets almost NO rain for six months or more. If you are expecting picture postcard Thailand don’t come this time of year. We paid a 10 THB parking fee to an extremely smiley old bloke. I felt like giving him more just for the welcome.

WARNING: I will get this in now before I forget. The lotus flowers don’t like the sun so by midday they are all closed. Good news if you enjoy closed lotus flower photos but a bit disappointing otherwise. Make sure you get there early to mid morning. By 11:00 am the flowers were closing and it was a overcast (smoke) day when we were there. That’s why I suggest you come to this attraction first and then drive to Ban Chiang World Heritage site if that’s in your day’s plan. Also check out the internet for flowering conditions. I believe that the cool season in Dec/Jan are the best times but there may be periods when there is very little happening.

My first impressions of the Red Lotus Lake weren’t very good. You can’t even see if there is a lake from the carpark. The reason is that this was originally more of a swamp area, filling in the wet season and drying out in the long dry. More recently a low earth wall has been built across the end so that the water is retained for longer and the carpark is located behind that wall (on the dry side!).

The dam wall.

The dam wall.

Not too scenic so far.

Not too scenic so far. A water truck to keep the dust down. Who would have thought in Thailand?

Once you get on the wall turn to your right and you’ll see these buildings shown in the photo above. This is where you get your boat to take you to the lotuses. There is nothing to be seen from the shore at this point so it isn’t a stop, walk, take photos and back in the car sort of option.

Not all bad news because the ice cream man was set up. 10 THB will get you a cone coconut and peanut version. Very tasty too.

Not all bad news because the ice cream man was set up. 10 THB (A$0.40) will get you a coconut and peanut cone. Very tasty too. Try the bigger version in a white bread roll if you haven’t before.

In order to properly see the lotus flowers you need to hire a boat and you are in luck because they have one or two on standby just in case someone like you pops in.

Larger boats, which you can hire as a group or smaller ones for two people at a per person rate.

Larger boats, which you can hire as a group or smaller ones for two people (far left) at a per person rate.

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Per boat rate at the top (one hour or one and a half hour trips) and the single person rate below.

We chose a small boat for one hour and for me that time is all that’s required for the trip. 200 THB (A$8.00) for the two of us. Walking down to the boat you will have your photo taken for a framed version which will be available to be bought by the time you get back. We didn’t bother but up to you!

The small boats are a low, narrow affair but clean and with the seat of an office chair attached to a raised platform under a canopy. Toss a coin for who gets that and the other gets a more basic wooden plank with cushion. One of the other boaties offered to take our photo as we settled in, which I thought was a nice gesture:

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I got the office chair as I am ancient but there’s room for two under the shade, which is needed.

We had the same style of boat as this one.

We had the same style of boat as this one.

The boathouse for the water.

The boathouse from the water.

The lotus beds are further out in the lake but only a ten minute ride away. The boats pull into the mass of flowers for better photos, which is after all the main purpose of the trip. It is an ideal situation to capture your partner looking their best so I apologise for the more personal nature of a few of these moments. It was hard to separate photos of lotus flowers from the author and his wife 🙂 but I have tried my best:

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My wife Gaun.

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We were the only farang I saw. It was mostly Thais and their families enjoying a day out (it was Makha Bucha, a Buddhist holy day and public holiday. You can read more HERE)

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A frog’s viewpoint.

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Although still very colourful I suspect that there may be a more dense flower display Dec/Jan. Also this year’s cool season never happened so many plants are a bit confused. The boat guy is obviously used to offering to take photos for couples. He lowered the canopy to get the angle right.

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A smoke haze as you look to the trees in the far distance. Something you will need to allow for this time of year especially in the North of Thailand. Sugar crop burning in our part of Isaan combined with forest fires.

I have read that Valentine’s Day is a popular time for Thais to come here and have wedding photos taken. Some Australian friends of ours recently visited the Lotus Sea and we lucky enough to capture a wedding photo shoot happening, even though it wasn’t Valentine’s Day:

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My thanks to Andrew and Pippa.

Now once you’ve seen the lotus flowers and taken a few photos that’s about it really. The boat guy took us to several locations but really it was more of the same. Beautiful and well worth the trip but it isn’t the sort of thing you’d spend a long time doing. We ended up being lucky with our guide because he and Gaun got chatting and he offered to take us to see a different variety of larger lotus away from the main boat area. The following photo were taken in the middle of these huge lotus plants.

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The boatman got us to test out the amazing waterproofing of these large leaves. I don’t know what they are coated with but if you could put it in a bottle it would be a best seller.

We were also lucky to come across this small herd of water buffalo living up to their name and feeding on floating vegetation. We turned into the lotus fields so I could take some closer photos.

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This greenery is actually just a floating mass of grass. It isn't a small island but was solid enough to allow the buffalo to get up on top with difficulty.

This greenery is actually just a floating mass of vegetation. It isn’t a small island but was solid enough for the buffalo to get up on top with difficulty.

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Phew. Safe!

This photo was taken about 11.30 am and the flowers are closing.

This photo was taken about 11.30 am and the flowers are closing.

Our one hour boat ride ended up being more like one and a half hours thanks to the generosity of our guide and seeing the large lotuses and the buffalo added an extra layer to the outing. I guess if you asked to see the large lotus plants your guide will take you there but we were the only boat I saw in that part of the lake so it doesn’t seem to be part of the normal route.

Our boatman. Another great Thai smile. Mind you this is at the end and I had just tipped him.

Our boatman. Another great Thai smile. I tipped him 100 THB for the extra time and sights he took us to. Tipping isn’t always part of the expectation here but if you do get special service then why not?

On the way in and out you will find a few food and specialised stalls selling various things including coloured rice and herbal objects (no idea what they were):

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Herbal (?) roots/bark (?) on the left and small ornaments and trinkets on the right. Probably lots of endangered species involved. Stall owner (Lao not Thai) and child under the table to keep cool!

There’s a small wat (temple) at the back of the carpark. I took a couple of photos because it is unusual to see an existing wat being refurbished. Normally they leave one to fall into disrepair and just build a new one. The temple is standard Thai and nothing special but if you are new to the country then it’s worth having a quick look.

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Bamboo scaffolding going up to allow for repainting.

Bamboo scaffolding going up to allow for repainting.

Leaving the Red Lotus Sea behind we drove back towards Udon and called into a couple of interesting wats, which I will cover in the next post so keep an eye out for that.

Thanks for reading.