There’s an area in northeast Thailand that doesn’t get as many tourists as it deserves. Near the city of Udon Thani we found incredible natural landscapes and fascinating historical sites, but hardly any tourists.
The drive from Chiang Rai to Udon Thani, travels close to the Laos border for much of the 14-hour bus ride. This area used to be the main supplier of the world’s opium. Today drugs still enter Thailand through Laos. During the drive, our bus went though at least 15 police checkpoints where they searched the bus for drugs. It made the long bus ride even longer. Thankfully we were about to discover that it was worth it.
Red Lotus Sea
From November until the end of February Nong Han Lake blooms with millions of red (actually pink) lotuses. The lake is massive at 8 km long and 3 km wide, but is very shallow which is perfect for lotus plants. The flowers don’t bloom close the parking lot, so from shore we couldn’t see much and wondered if we made a mistake by coming here.
We decided to take a long-boat ride across the lake to get a closer look. As we crossed the lake the flowers became more and more dense. By the time we reached the middle of the lake everything was pink for as far as we could see. It’s an incredibly beautiful sight; nature at its finest.
The lake is also teeming with fish. We saw many waterbirds soaring above the water searching for their dinner. Competing with the birds were fishermen. We watched them cast fishing nets from their long-boats as we slowly motored by.
After the pink lotus season, it’s time for the white lotus to bloom. We found one confused white lotus blooming among the field of pink.
Tips for visting Red Lotus Sea – Plan to arrive in the morning as the flowers close when the hot sun is high in the sky. Between 6 – 10 am is best. The lake is one hour southwest of Udon Thani and there are no public buses going to the lake. To get there you can either rent a car, join a tour group or do as we did and hire a private guide in Udon Thani. There is a parking lot near the docks where there are plenty of long-boats for hire in different sizes depending on the group size.
Phu Phrabat Historical Park
One hour east of Udon Thani, is a very interesting historical park. A receding glacier scoured the earth leaving behind huge sandstone rocks. Erosion from glaciers, wind and rain shaped these rocks into interesting formations.
Around 1,000 B.C., prehistoric man began carving shelters into these rocks. Experts don’t know a lot about these people, but believe that they were most likely hunters looking for protection from the sun and rain. In many rocks these prehistoric hunters carved out the base leaving just enough left to balance a large stone roof. In others they carved out large caves. Today most of these shelters are still standing and make incredible looking structures.
In one local legend a king imprisoned his daughter in a cave that was located high up on the rock. The legend says he was trying to keep her away from an unworthy suitor.
There is no water source in the area, so researchers don’t believe the caves were used as long-term housing, but rather for hunters to stay for a few days or weeks. To collect rain water, deep wells were carved into the stone. The tools they would have used were made from bronze and later from iron. Imagine carving huge rooms and wells into hard rocks with a spoon.
We saw many cave paintings that are believed to be from 2,000 – 3,000 years ago. Some paintings are in quite good condition as they were painted in sheltered areas away from the sun, wind and rain.
Some caves were used as temples. Experts believe they were temples because of the stone pillars surrounding them.
It was so incredible to imagine prehistoric man hunting in these woods and making shelters in these caves or worshipping in the temples.
Much later, Buddhist monks would stop in this area when travelling. The first came during the Dvaravati Period and later monks from the Khmer Empire were here (600 – 1100 AD). These travellers added Buddha statues and carvings to the caves.
Tips for visting Phu Phrabat Historical Park – There are no public buses going to the park. To get there you can either rent a car or do as we did and hire a private guide in Udon Thani. Entrance fees include a Thai speaking Park guide who can provide detailed information on the formations. Our guide could then translate for us. There is not much shelter and it can be very hot so try to avoid mid-day.
On the east side of Udon Thani is another important prehistoric site. In Ban Chiang they discovered 5,000 year old clay pottery. Many of the pots were found at burial sites where they were purposely broken and laid over the bodies of the deceased. Some pots however, were found in one piece. The biggest significance of this sight was the discovery of this early use of iron tools. Archaeologists used to believe iron was brought to Asia much later. This UNESCO World Heritage site showed an earlier advancement in tools than was previously believed.
To get to many of the sites in Thailand we often took public transit. All of the road signs are in Thai script and in rural areas not many people speak English. We often had to use gestures to communicate. To get to Ban Chiang we had to get off the bus at a non-descript spot outside of town. Twice we thought we were at the correct stop and tried to get off the bus. The first time 2 ladies figured out where we were going and stopped us from getting off. The second time, the whole bus got involved telling us it wasn’t our stop. When we finally arrived at the right place everyone on the bus made sure we got off and found a tuk-tuk so we wouldn’t get lost. They were awesome!
We went to Udon Thani because it’s close to these interesting sites, but it’s also a tourist destination for other reasons. It has the undesirable distinction of being one of the biggest centers for sex-tourism in Thailand. During our 3 days in Udon Thani we saw numerous Caucasian men with Thai ‘girlfriends’, and we only saw 3 other Caucasian women. There is one street in town that is full of strip clubs and pick-up bars, but it is very different than the one in Bangkok. In Udon Thani it is just for sex tourism, whereas in Bangkok, Patpong is a fun display with more tourists than customers. This part of Udon Thani was very depressing.
Getting to Udon Thani
Bus – Public buses are available from many cities including; Chiang Rai, Khorat and Nakhon Phanom
Fly – Flights are available to/from Bangkok or Chiang Mai
Train – Trains travel though Udon Thani to/from Bangkok and Khorat
Coming Next – Ski touring on the Wapta Glacier
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