Thailand’s tourist-neglected northeastern region known as Isarn, is like a country all its own. Most travelers merely pass through it on their way to Laos, but those who stop off along the way will find a version of Thailand that is rarely seen these days among the more popular tourist haunts. It may be the poorest and driest region of the country but it’s the real heartland, and full of character.
Although there are several large cities in Isaan, it is Udon Thani that receives the most visitors. Located at the very northern edge of this vast region, Udon Thani is the main border crossing and gateway into Laos. Many travelers are obliged to spend a night in Udon or neighboring Nong Khai before heading over the border, and those that linger a few days will find a quiet glimpse at Isarn life and its people.
Udon Thani has always been a major transportation hub for the agriculture-based economy of the region. During the Vietnam War Udon boomed with the arrival of American military men as the United States built many air bases around the city. These have long since closed, and the town has reverted back to its sleepy natural state.
Although smaller Nong Khai is better equipped for tourists, Udon Thani does what it can with what few attractions it has. Although it has a rather large lake within its city limits, there are no temples of note, no museums and little in the way of exciting lodging options. But in a way, it’s this distinct lack of tourist attractions which gives visitors a chance to see a Thai city which exists purely on its own merits. For the handful of visitors who want to see beneath the veil of tourism, Udon Thani is worth a day or two of exploration.
It’s somewhat fitting that this unremarkable city’s main highlight is a plant nursery, albeit an intriguing one. The Udorn Sunshine Nursery is famous for breeding a rare orchid that actually appears to dance when music is played. This is no sleight of hand, and simply has to be seen to be believed. The nursery was also the first in the world to create an orchid specifically for making its fragrance into perfume. The English-speaking owner welcomes visitors and does have an impressive collection of rare orchids and other flowering plants.
Among Udon Thani’s other sites worth seeing is the Lak Meuang, a fascinating Buddhist shrine dedicated to the city’s resident deity. Surrounded by burning incense, flowers and gold leaf overlays, this small Buddhist stele really packs a lot of ambiance into such a modest shrine.
If the congestion of Udon’s downtown gets to be too much, head to the northwest corner of town where the leafy Nong Prajak lake and park will provide you with a cool oasis. After dark, check out the traditional Isaan singing and dancing at Udon Park, a beer garden and cultural venue in the heart of the city.
Within an hour of Udon Thani are a number of interesting sites worth exploring, especially if you rent a motorbike to get around. Phu Phrabat Historical Park, 42kms from the city, is one of the region’s major highlights with its bizarre rock formations, ancient cave paintings and mythical legends.
The archeological site of Ban Chiang is another excellent day trip. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was once the home of a great civilization which excelled in clay pottery and bronze metalworks some 7,500 years ago. The Ban Chiang National Museum provides a thorough insight into this important precursor to Thai culture.
There are also a couple of traditional cotton weaving villages within a few kilometers of Udon. Ban Thon and Ban Na Kha are both famous for their diamond-shaped khit pattern on their cloth. Visitors can watch the artisans at work and buy some fabric as a souvenir. If silk is more your thing, Ban Nong Aw Tai produces some of the finest quality silk in Isarn.
For something a bit more remote, check out Tham Erawan, a massive cave shrine high up on a limestone plateau which contains an equally huge seated Buddha. Visitors who can climb the 700 steps to the cave will be rewarded with stunning views that stretch out endlessly over the flat Issan plains.
Udon Thani doesn’t have a particularly well established tourist infrastructure and is mostly visited by travelers on their way to Laos who need a place to sleep. Although Nong Khai has a much better lodging scene, Udon boasts a couple of guesthouses worth staying at. Eating and drinking is a slightly better prospect thanks to the legacy of thousands of American GIs and their nightlife habits.
Getting to Udon Thani
By air: Udon does have it’s own airport, receiving six flights a day from Bangkok and one from Chiang Mai (one hour). Upon leaving the small air terminal you will invariably be confronted by several taxi drivers for the journey into the city, it’s not far so remember to bargain hard. If you’d prefer to drive yourself there are also car hire options available at the airport.
By bus: the bus routes from here to Bangkok have been well worn by millions of migrant workers over the years. VIP air-conditioned buses leave Mor Chit Northern Bus Terminal almost hourly between 06:00 and 22:00 taking roughly eight hours and costing about 500 baht. They follow a route that includes Khorat and Khon Kaen.
By train: the train is equally popular with locals and often used by tourists for the novelty factor; a handy way to witness the stark Isarn countryside. These depart at 08:20 and take 10-12 hours to reach Udon. There’s also a service from Nakhon Ratchasima at 15:00.
Local transport: getting around is done by songteaw minibuses that ply all the city routes, or flagging down a tuk tuk for a private ride. Some of the guesthouses/hotels rent out motorbikes, although don’t expect to find them as easily as you would at the usual tourist places in Thailand.