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Isan Idyll: Parts 1 & 2.
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    Isan Idyll: Parts 1 & 2.

    ISAN IDYLL

    The first of a two-part, on-the-road series about the natural - and a few man-made - attractions of the much under-visited Northeast

    By: KARNJANA KARNJANATAWE
    Bangkok Post

    During the all-too-short cool season, my partner and I often flee Bangkok and head to the far North. But this year, just for a change, we decided to explore a section of the Northeast (aka Isan) that lies along the banks of the mighty Mekong.


    Wildflowers near Soi Sawan Waterfall in Pha Taem National Park.

    Our journey started in Ubon Ratchathani, 630km northeast of Bangkok. This province is home to the country's largest collection of prehistoric rock paintings which are thought to be 3,000 to 4,000 years old. Every year they attract scores of curious tourists to the cliffs of Pha Taem, part of a national park of the same name in Khong Chiam district, 95km from the provincial capital. There are more than 300 paintings here in all, grouped in four main locations.
    Most visitors can manage the one-kilometre walk from the first group to the second, which is by far the largest concentration. Here are images of an elephant, storage jars, fish of all sizes, and human handprints. In the third group, 865m farther on, are lots more handprints plus geometric designs and paintings of farming activities. The highlight of the fourth group is a stylised representation of a woman with long arms and legs wearing a triangular skirt. Her long face is shown in profile and looks rather like the silhouette of an alien from some sci-fi film. To complete the loop one needs to do a circa-4km hike but, as a park official explained, the fourth group is not so popular since it is only accessible via a rather slippery trial. Which is rather fortunate, he observed, since it means that at least one of the sites remains relatively untouched.

    A rock resembling a mushroom in Mukdahan National Park

    Despite the cool weather, a plethora of wildflowers were in full bloom here, carpeting some 40 rai of meadowland around Soi Sawan Waterfall with their lively hues. After parking at the waterfall (points of interest in the park are far from one another, so some form of private transport will be needed), we walked a couple of hundred metres to the beginning of a signposted trail. Don't be tempted to try and find a quick way to climb down to the falls, though; just follow the breathtakingly beautiful path which snakes through the forest and the meadows dotted with masses of little blooms, the names of which are indicated on signs written in both Thai and Latin.
    This is one of favourite places of HRH the Queen. She visits often at this time of year and has given names to some of the flowering plants here, including the purple-petaled dusita (Utricularia delphinioides), the yellow soi suwanna (Utricularia bifida), the white manee theva (Eriocaulon smitinandii), tip kasorn (Utricularia minutissima) with its mauve-and-white petals plus sarat chanthorn (Burmannia coelestris), also a shade of purple.


    A fisherman on his long-tail boat plies the Mekong; Khong Chiam can be seen in the background.

    After a couple of hours exulting in this floral wonderland and taking plenty of photos, we decided we'd better make tracks before dusk and find somewhere to spend the night. There are lots of resorts and cheaper accommodation options in and around Khong Chiam but we were fortunate to find a little gem of a guesthouse called Ban Pak Mon built right next to where the Mekong and one of its tributaries, the Mon, meet.
    Back in Khong Chiam you can hire a long-tail boat (300 baht a trip) to take you to the confluence of the two rivers, where one can distinguish the Mekong by the colour of its waters - a reddish, earth tone. This boat will also take you to Singsamphan, a village on the Laotian side of the Mekong across from Khong Chiam. In this tranquil settlement of wooden houses surrounded by bamboo fences is a small market selling consumer goods imported from China such as wristwatches, bags and liquor. The entrance fee to the village is 10 baht and the boat will wait for you at the pier until you've finished your shopping.

    Cantaloupe—a real bargain at 100 baht for three kilogrammes!

    The next morning, we drove back to Ubon Ratchathani and took Highway 212, reaching Mukdahan about two hours later. This is linked to Sawannakhet in Laos by the second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge (the original one being in Nong Khai) and if you want a aerial view of the town, head for Hor Kaew. This observation tower on Highway 2034 is about the height of a seven-storey building and offers panoramic views of Mukdahan and its environs.
    You take the same highway to get to Mukdahan National Park (formerly known as Phu Pha Thoeb). It's a mere 17km to the southwest heading towards Don Tan. Included by the TAT in its "Unseen Thailand" campaign a couple of years ago, this protected area features some peculiar rock formations, located only 20m or so from the tourist information centre. A park official told us that the outcrops are thought to date back 120 million years and were submerged for aeons before geological activity raised them to their current elevation. Weathered by the elements, they have assumed some weird and wonderful shapes and with the exercise of a little imagination you can make out a satellite dish, an airplane, a crocodile, camel and what could be a crown.


    A garlic-and-shallot vendor at the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge in Mukdahan.

    Wildflowers were much in evidence when we visited in early December and in fact the provincial authorities promote the park at this time of year as a place to view the aforementioned dusita in bloom. There are waterfalls and caves here, too, but they are best seen at the height of the rainy season.
    Back in Mukdahan we made a stop to explore the Indochina Market which stays opens well after dark. The stalls and shops there sell a plethora of goods from China, Vietnam, Thailand and Laos including dried fruit, unusual snacks, chocolates, dresses, other garments plus heaps of household items.
    Leaving town again we took a minor country road which follows the course of the Mekong. We were heading for Nakhon Phanom but decided to make a diversion to check out Kaeng Krabao, an islet in the river. But it transpired that there was nothing much to see or do there, apart from hang out with the locals and enjoy the peace and quiet.

    A trishaw driver waits for passengers outside the Indochina Market in Mukdahan town.

    Back on the main road again, we proceeded to Phra That Phanom, the most revered Buddhist temple in the province due to its antiquity. The main chedi, which is said to contain a relic of the Lord Buddha, is 57m high and the four-metre-tall spire atop it is made of gold. Believed to have been erected some time in the 12th century, and now only 500m from the bank of the Mekong, this pagoda collapsed in 1975 after many days of torrential rainfall. The Fine Arts Department rebuilt it, following the original design and using money donated by local people.
    From there we took Highway 223 to Sakhon Nakhon, then followed Highway 22 to Udon Thani. Along the way we encountered many roadside stands, some selling sweet, wonderfully refreshing cantaloupe for ridiculously low prices.
    After so many hours behind the wheel we were more than happy to kick back, relax and stay overnight at Udon Thai, one of the major commercial centres of the Northeast and the 11th biggest province in that region.
    Next week, join us as we take Highway 22 onwards to Nong Khai and Loei.


    Phra That Phanom, the most revered temple in Nakhon Phanom.



    ‘Dusita’.


    ‘Tip kasorn’.



    ‘Soi suwanna’.


    ‘Ya namkang’.



    ‘Manee theva’.


    ‘Jok bo way’.

  2. #2
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    Re: Isan Idyll

    Glad this post has proved popular, I am hoping to post part 2 on or around 8 Jan. please advise if the pics disappear from part 1-"Bangkok Post" archives all its travel articles and you have to pay to see/read -I have the pics saved for replacement in the article.
    Thanks.

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    Re: Isan Idyll

    Oh, this writer beat me to it! She or he can call their's "Isaan Idyll". I'll call mine Isaan "Road Trip".
    Last edited by Khun Don; 03-01-09 at 11:57 PM. Reason: Link to your Road Trip post

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    Re: Isan Idyll

    PLAY IT COOL

    Chasing the majestic Mekong by road as it threads its way around Nong Khai and Loei

    By: Story and photos KARNJANA KARNJANATAWE

    Travelling northeastern Thailand during the cool season is pleasant, especially when driving along the banks of the mighty Mekong River that demarcates Thailand and Laos.


    Sun sets over the mighty Mekong as the river snakes past Chiang Khan in Loei.

    Last week we introduced places along the river starting in Ubon Ratchathani to Mukdahan, Nakhon Phanom and ended in Udon Thani. This week, we take you to Nong Khai and Loei via Highway 211.
    Before leaving Udon Thani town, we did a short tour of Phu Foilom Ecotourism Project in Nongsaen district of the province. It used to be a forest park, turned into an eco tourism project in 2002 to stimulate the local economy.

    For its part, the government allocated a budget to build public accommodations, toilets and meeting rooms. The facility was adorned with a garden and decorative plants, life-size imitations of dinosaurs and wildlife that once roamed the region, together with an account of evolution of the human race from apes until the present day.
    Today Phu Foilom is a popular camping site attracting students, boy and girl scouts on study trips, although the same can't be said of adults who are easily distracted by its poor maintenance.


    Easily accessible, Than Thong is a bubbly waterfall only a short walk from Highway 211.

    Travelling from Phu Foilom to Nong Khai we stopped at Ban Nakha, a community of peasants 16 kilometres north of the provincial town where on sale in a lane next to Wat Nakha Thawee were cotton and silk scarves, dresses and clothes for home decoration at prices attractive and bargainable. The trademark product of this community is called pha khid, a type of cloth that requires a special technique of weaving to create designs, used in making women dresses, three-sided pillows, bags and shawl.

    Proceeding to Nong Khai, our first stop was the first Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge across the Mekong built in 1994. The bridge links the town of Nong Khai on Thai side with Vientiane in Laos. Here you can taste delectable grilled pork balls eaten with rice-flour sheets, raw vegetables, fruits and a special dip - a Vietnamese specialty - at Daeng Naem Neung (http://www.dn-nongkhai.con.nu), a restaurant more than 40 years old located close to the Indochina Market.

    We then moved onto Highway 211 that connects Loei. The two-lane road proved a very pleasant ride as it clings to the scenic Mekong from Nong Khai all the way to Chiang Khan district, a distance of almost 200 kilometres. It is in good condition and flanked by towering trees.
    Driving at a leisurely pace we spotted plenty of activities along the route: locals fishing by the banks or tilling the land for corn and vegetables. They start planting corn this time of the year as water in the Mekong has receded, exposing its fertile banks.


    A museum dedicated to Luang Poo Thes at Wat Hin Mak Peng in Nong Khai.

    Most of them are contract farmers, selling their produce to the company providing them the seeds. Each year the farming window lasts some six months starting now until the monsoon rains arrive. In between, if the weather holds, they can reap two crops a year. Come April the Mekong shoreline is a pacthwork of sand dunes, and when the rainy season is upon them all they can do to make a living is go fishing.

    We drove further to Si Chiang Mai town, the closest point between Thailand and Laos that used to be a hub where boats both sides of the river called to trade goods before the Friendship Bridge was built. Now it's deserted, like a ghost town, with very few vessels or tourists calling.
    Further up the 211 sits Wat Hin Mak Pen (http://www.hinmarkpeng.org), a temple held in high esteem by Nong Khai residents for it's the seat of abbot Luang Poo Thes, noted for his teachings on dhamma and meditation.
    It also has a museum. As visitors pass the museum's entrance, sensors automatically activate a recording of his teachings that keeps going until they've exited the museum, which also bears a life-size statue of the abbot, his belongings and life's works.


    Rustic ambience awaits tourists visiting the fresh food market in Chiang Khan.

    Driving on, eight and a half kilometres to the right from the temple is Than Thong, a waterfall that seemed a shadow of itself - for it is at its raging best July to October - but it still drew a healthy number of locals who had converged there to picnic.

    Every morning Chiang Khan residents line up to offer alms—sticky rice—to monks who themselves stand in a queue.

    Crossing into Loei we stopped at Kaeng Khut Khu, a quiet picnic spot a decade ago but now boasting stores selling cotton shirts, pants and sweet coconut, or maprao kaew, made from coconut meat stir-fired with sugar and a dash of salt, which like banana chips is a popular snack among tourists in this part of the country. Here, you can break for meals and enjoy majestic views of the Mekong, or hire boats (400 baht) for a cruise on the river.


    Biking along this embankment is a popular tourist activity in Chiang Khan.

    We hit Chiang Khan, a peaceful town, late afternoon but it was still cold. Actually the weather here is chilly most time of the year, but it can get quite cold in winter. The town is famous for thick cotton blankets it residents make to shield themselves from the cold. These blankets make the list of Otop products made in Chiang Khan.
    Most shops and buildings are two storied, with those doubling as guesthouses located near the river. Separating them is an embankment built to prevent soil erosion and a barrier against seasonal flooding.


    Farmers plant corn this time of the year when water in the Mekong has receded to a sufficient level, exposing fertile soil.

    Despite the cold, Chiang Khan residents are early risers. The blacksmith or food vendor begin their daily chores before dawn. The same is true of locals who queue in the streets to offer alms to monks, and like Luang Prabang in Laos, all they have to offer is sticky rice, although later in the day they may show up at temples to provide monks with more food.
    We walked to the only fresh food market in town one early morning and found it already busy. On sale were fresh vegetable, meat, hot meals and snacks. But if you want to break fast like a local, go to Soi 14 and look for the only khao pun (a bowl of rice noodles) shop located in the middle of the soi (lane).

    The dish is cooked in Vientiane style, explained Thanayot, a local patron. The bowl contained clear soup with several pieces of pork meat and innards. Laid out on the table were a basket of fresh vegetable, lemon and shrimp paste for extra seasoning, but we didn't need any because it already tasted good.



    "We locals eat the dish with sticky rice that we bring from home," he said, and offered to share his sticky rice with us. We only had one bowl each, that was enough.
    When in Chiang Khan time passes slowly. Tourists can tour the town on foot or rent a bicycle, relax over a meal chatting with locals, or enjoy sunset over the Mekong and look forward to a good night's rest.

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