This post is the long awaited follow-on from Part 1, which was published way back on 22 June 2015 HERE. There have been so many events to report on that this story has taken a backseat to other happenings. I’ve had the occasional writer’s block periods too, which hasn’t helped. This post has ended up being so long that I have split it into two parts. Visiting Isaan – Part 3 can be found HERE.
The post covers a variety of topics including Udon Thani, UD Town and Tawan Daeng nightclub, Nong Khai, Mut Mee Guesthouse, the broadwalk, lunch on the Mekong, Wat Po Chai, Sala Kaew Ku, Wat Pern Panau, the Nong Khai aquarium and Isaan Rum Distillery
For those who haven’t read part 1 or have forgotten the purpose of these posts I thought I would refresh your memories by extracting the introduction I previously used to give you a little background:
Many people coming to Thailand never make it to Isaan, the North East region of the country, even if they have heard of it. The obvious holiday attractions of places like Phuket, the other islands, Pattaya and the Northern cities of Chiang Mai and Rai are often at the top of traveller’s list well before anything to do with Isaan.
I have been lucky to host a steady stream of visitors the last six weeks; friends and family from Australia, who want to keep in contact and share the enjoyment I reflect in my blog about the new house, our garden and the local area where we live. Eight separate couples are making their way here between May and Christmas, some staying for a few days and others a little longer.
My brother and sister-in-law were the first (not pictured above) and it prompted me to sit down and make a list of all the sightseeing options I knew of to give them a taste of living here and share the places of interest around Si Bun Ruang, our home town. These split into two categories – the local small everyday sights and then the more “tourist” orientated ones.
Because not a lot is written about Isaan by farang it is easy to think that there’s nothing to do here. Certainly we can’t compare with the Southern beaches and the temples of Chiang Mai but to dismiss the whole region is to miss out in some ways on a more genuine side of Thai life. Often not as spectacular as the big names but in the absence of busloads of tourists, much more intimate and real.
I hope this post gives you an idea of what a visit to see us might look like.
My brother and sister-in-law’s visit coincided not only with Gaun’s birthday but also Richard’s, my brother. We decided to combine the two events in the one celebration and head for the bright lights of Udon Thani, our nearest large city with an urban population of over 400,000 (finding recent stats is a bit of a challenge) and the fourth largest city in Thailand.
We booked to stay overnight at the Jamjuree Home guesthouse, the Booking.com details of which you can find HERE. Rated as “Exceptional” it was a pleasant base although I wouldn’t rate it as highly as others. The breakfast in particular was woeful as the Thais have a funny idea about what we farang eat in the mornings. This is a general comment on the booking sites across many accommodation places that do offer breakfast so nothing unusual here. You would be better off picking up a nice BBQ’ed chicken, sauce and sticky rice from a roadside stall for 100 THB and act like a local!
Our destination for the evening was a restaurant called The Wine Society Pub and Restaurant situated in the UD Town, a more upmarket shopping area I highly recommend. I have included a Google map of its location, not so much to be helpful but to share with you one of the rare occasions that Mr Google has a destination correctly positioned!
The best time to go to UD (Udon) Town is late afternoon or early evening when all the street market stalls have set themselves up. The area itself is set between the road and the railway line and is free of traffic so you can wander around more comfortably than say the Chiang Mai evening markets set on Chang Klan Road.
The place is a mix of permanent small boutique type shops (warning – these are closed in the morning and don’t get going until early afternoon) and the typical market stalls set up for the evening. The thing that sets these markets apart from others is that the range of products is a little different from the usual and in my opinion of better quality. There are some decent indoors eating places including KFC and McDonalds (only joking when applying “decent” to their food) as well as a couple of large food halls where you can choose food from the surrounding stalls and eat at the tables provided. Food scattered elsewhere as you’d expect in any gathering of Thais.
One the “decent” restaurants is the Wine Club – reviews HERE. It is upstairs in one of the central plazas, which are nicely established as you can see below. It is very unusual to find a haven of greenery in the centre of a Thai developed area so UD Town is worth a visit for this feature if nothing else.
The restaurant is modern, has had a lot of money spent on it and I suspect is pretty unique to this part of the world. The prices reflect the location but for food aren’t over the top by farang standards. Wine prices are expensive with nothing under A$40.00. A huge range of options from all over the world if your pockets are deep enough. Stick to the cocktails! A live jazz band was playing and it was all a very pleasant change from the more pub type options for eating, which tends to be the farang alternative. Do try their scallops – yummy. I didn’t take my camera so the following photo is courtesy of a Trip Advisor contributor:
We ended up the evening at a Thai nightclub called Tawan Daeng opposite Central Plaza shown on the map below:
Now I suspect that I may be wasting my time sharing the joys of Thai nightclubbing with you but I will carry on anyway as it is one of the options available as a visitor to Isaan even though you may not tick that box. You can read a more extensive list of the exciting nightlife of Udon HERE thanks to the Udon News.
You do have to get used to the fact that Thailand is nothing to look at on the whole. It is one of the most disappointing aspects of living here. Tawan Daeng is a very good example:
As with all nightclubs inside is a lot better because the lighting is low, you are focussed on the stage and after a couple of drinks who cares! If you enjoy Isaan dance music, and I do, then you will have a fun time here. A young crowd of Thais so we fitted right in :-). Entry is free but drinks are expensive to pay for the live entertainment. A beer, which would cost you 70/80 THB in a bar outside will set you back 160 THB here (from memory).
I have kindly provided you with a sample of what you will hear, which will ensure you never turn up at my place looking for a guided tour of Isaan.
If you have recovered from that then you can try the YouTube video HERE. The format of oddly dressed young women dancing with a usually badly coordinated support group, probably all relatives, is a common one on the Thai music scene. An exception can be found HERE, where the rather nice looking lead lady can actually dance and the group have had a couple of lessons. This latter song is huge in Thailand and you will hear it everywhere. If you have discovered a love of Thai music then go straight to my definitive post on the subject (not), which you can find HERE.
It is only an hour’s drive on highway 2 from Udon to Nong Khai, gateway to Laos and its capital Vientiane, situated on the Mekong River so definitely worth a visit.
I enjoy staying at the Mut Mee guesthouse while in Nong Khai a peaceful and quiet haven right on the banks of the river. Details HERE. The rooms are small but adequate and the location excellent. It is the sort of place where you can easily spend a lot of time within the grounds of Mut Mee and not have to go out at all. They have their own kitchen serving a mix of Thai and farang food, drinks are on a help yourself basis (record what you drink/eat in a book and pay at the end), there is an on-site massage service, a bookshop and of course free wifi. Some more information HERE.
Nong Khai is the usual Thai town although the government has obviously been spending money on the area probably as a PR exercise for ASEAN (link HERE).
Make sure you visit the markets which line the Mekong. Drive into town turn left and you’ll find them.
You will also find a boardwalk that runs alongside the river. The bit of it that I have seen is a pretty barren sort of area mostly devoid of people. I believe it gets going in the evenings. Maybe try further into town as shown on the hand drawn map further down this post where it says “popular pavement restaurants all along the river at night”.
There are eating places here on land but the best option is to choose one of the floating restaurants just so you can say that you have eaten while on the Mekong.
Wat Po/Pho Chai
Visitors to Thailand who haven’t been here before will want to sample a few wats or temples and Nong Khai can supply a good variety of them. The first one is close to the centre of town as shown on this map kindly provided by www.chiang-mai.org:
The Lonely Planet describes the temple and its gold Buddha statue as follows
Luang Po Phra Sai, a large Lan Xang–era Buddha image awash with gold, bronze and precious stones, sits at the hub of Nong Khai’s holiest temple. The head of the image is pure gold, the body is bronze and the ùt·sà·nít (flame-shaped head ornament) is set with rubies. Due to a great number of dubious miracles people attribute to it, this royal temple is a mandatory stop for most visiting Thais.
Luang Po Phra Sai was one of three similar statues made for each of the daughters of Lao King Setthathirat, and they were taken as bounty after King Rama I sacked Vientiane in 1778. The awesome murals in the bòht depict their travels from the interior of Laos to the banks of the Mekong, where they were put on rafts. A storm sent one of the statues to the bottom of the river where it remains today. It was never recovered because, according to one monk at the temple, the naga like having it. The third statue, Phra Soem, is at Wat Patum Wanaram next to Siam Paragon in Bangkok. Phra Sai was supposed to accompany it, but, as the murals show you, the cart carrying it broke down here, and so this was taken as a sign that it wished to remain in Nong Khai.
I have also extracted these few words form a Thai visitor who submitted a comment on Trip Advisor, from a more Thai perspective of course:
Wat Pho Chai in Nong Khai is considered a top rank (Royal Temple) in the province. The attraction to foreign tourists is based on the architecture of the buildings and the cultural activities on the ground. However, the attraction for Thai visitors are very deep. One must come to the temple to pay a visit to the “Prasai Buddha” which is considered the “Buddha” of the province. This place is a must visit for Thai. Thai often said, “If you get to Nong Khai and have not been to pay respect to the “Prasai Buddha” means you really have not been there.
Sala Kaew Ku
Any trip to Nong Khai must include this sculpture park. I have written about it in detail HERE so I won’t repeat the post but just add a few updated photos. If going in the hot season (well most times actually) I recommend taking an umbrella as there is limited shade inside.
Wat Pern Panau
On the way back from Sala Kaew Ku or Keoku Park marked in red on Google maps below make sure you drop into Wat Pern Panau that I have pinned in yellow. You will see the sign for it on the left just before the intersection shown on the map. Unfortunately there is almost nothing on the internet that I can find to provide any useful details about this particular wat, which is a shame as it is a pretty impressive.
Trip Advisor doesn’t even have it listed which is wonderful as you can visit the temple and not meet too many people like you there! The only reference I can find is not really very helpful but here it is anyway.
“Wat Nern Panau is the leading meditation temple in Nong Khai. By providing accommodation in the form of small bungalows, it is a place where those who need to retreat may stay for awhile. One is expected to stay confined and to meditate in order to break with ones past problems, so that a clear fresh start to life can be made.
The architecture is spectacular with long beautiful cloisters, a very vertical chapel and shrine with extensive use of gold stenciling. Set in some natural forest, the whole atmosphere is somewhat mysterious, though its imposing buildings are rather sombre”.
I preferred this temple to Wat Pho Chai but each to their own.
The Nong Khai Aquarium
A definite one to add to your list in my opinion especially if looking for some relief from the heat. The aquarium is off Highway 2 outside Nong Khai as shown on the follows maps:
There is an entry fee but it’s only 100 THB. The exhibitions are a mixture of individual displays in smaller tanks and a huge central tank which you access via an underwater walkway. The emphasis is on the fish of the Mekong some of which will have you staying out of the water, not that anyone would be attracted to swimming in the river.
The Isaan Rum Distillery
I had read about this place on Trip Advisor HERE and as it was off Highway 2 after the aquarium driving back to Udon we decided to pop in. Trip Advisor don’t provide a map of where it is, and even if it did it would probably be wrong! Unfortunately there is no information on the web to help you locate the place. Maybe they aren’t too fussed on drop-ins. The owner, a Frenchman, gave us these directions and that’s the best I can do:
“After Caltex Oil station take the second road on the left ( you can see promote at the crossway) and follow the road 2 km, you arrive at Isaan Rum.”
The “promote at the crossway”, which I presume means a sign wasn’t immediately obvious unless it was in Thai. Make the effort to get there as we did because this is a small boutique operation that is having a go and that’s got to be worth supporting.
David’s Thai wife Lek was very welcoming in David’s absence and we were able to sample the product while relaxing in a comfortable sala area with couches where one could watch the sample being put together.
I know almost nothing about spirits and can only comment that the flavour is different from a Bacardi rum, which considering the variation in location and supply isn’t surprising I guess. However Isaan Rum won a silver medal in the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition in 2014, their first entry to this event, so a big congratulations to David and the team.
I will finish the post at this point and continue it in Visiting Isaan – Part 3 HERE.
Thanks for reading.