While Khon Kaen may be the heart of Isaan, we reckon the province of Ubon Ratchathani is the very underrated soul of Isaan. Isaan's second largest province (after Nakhon Ratchasima), Ubon Ratchathani is bordered to the south by Cambodia and to the east by Laos, making it part of the so-called Emerald Triangle -- the forested and well-mined meeting point of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. Ubon, as it is commonly known, is home to an eclectic mix of ethnicities, including Khmer, Laotians, Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese and Thais, who above all else have created an excellent food scene.
The capital, Ubon Ratchathani (Royal City of the Lotus), sits towards the western side of the same-named province. Once a centre for Dvaravati and Khmer cultures, today this lively city is the trading and communications hub of eastern Isaan. To the casual visitor, it may appear to be nothing more than a scaled down version of Bangkok -- rush hour traffic included -- but get off the main drag, away from the fast food joints and mobile phone stores and you'll find a well-preserved Isaan community offering much to teach about the traditional region.
Ever since the Chong Mek/Vang Tao border crossing to Laos opened, there has been a steadily increasing trickle of tourists and independent travellers passing through Ubon. Before this border with southern Laos opened, Ubon Ratchathani was best known among those looking to practise their meditation, with a few very well regarded forest wats in the province. Today, despite the fact that the province has a lot to offer for independent travellers, the vast majority see Ubon Ratchathani as nothing more than an overnight stop en route to southern Laos.
The city has a well-established reputation as a religious teaching centre; aside from several highly revered forest wats, there are numerous typical (and not-so-typical) Thai wats in the centre of town as well as an educational museum, all of which are easily accessible. City sights aside, indulging your taste buds and senses in Ubon's excellent food and drink scene is an activity in itself and it makes a great base for exploring the reasonable range of attractions around the province.
Aside from the bustling provincial capital, a range of national parks, including the impressive Pha Taem National Park stretch across the province and there is an ample supply of pleasant riverside options to lose a day or two. Best explored with a hired motorcycle or driver, some of the main attractions can still be reached by public transport. While Si Saket is closer, it is possible to visit the spectacular Khmer ruins of Prasat Khao Phra Viharn from Ubon Ratchathani.
Although the paddy scenery by road can be monotonously flat -- lush green when irrigated and straw yellow when not -- hills to the east leading to the Mekong and to the south, where the watershed forms the border with Cambodia, makes for some spectacular views.
Every July or August, Ubon Ratchathani hosts the Candle Festival to celebrate the beginning of Buddhist Lent with a parade of huge, finely-carved wax sculptures. While the event is most popular with Thais, it is still well worth a peek if you're interested in experiencing a traditional Thai festival.
There are plenty of international access ATMs throughout the centre of town.
The TAT Office is at 264/1 Khuan Thani Road and while it is unfortunate that English-speaking assistance is very difficult to come by, they do have a good map worth picking up along with a bunch of pamphlets. Open daily 08:30-16:30. T: (045) 243 770 F: (045) 243 771
You won't have to wander far before you stumble upon one of the many internet cafes in central Ubon, but if you want a point of direction check out Socute Net Cafe or Cyber Zone, both located on Nakhonban Rd between Sapphasit and Phichitrangsan Rd. The internet cafes range in price from 15 to 30 baht an hour. Socute Net Cafe is open 24/7.
Should you need any English speaking assistance to report a theft or crime, the Tourist Police are located on Suriyat Road or reachable by telephone at either 1155 or T: (045) 245 505.
While Sappasit Prasong Government Hospital across from Wat Pa Yai on Sappasit Rd (T: 045 240 074) is cheap and central, good luck finding English help until you navigate your way to the doctor. The private hospitals have less waiting time and more English help: Rajavej Ubolratchathani Hospital at 999 Chayangkul Rd (T: (045) 280 040) or we had positive experiences at the newer Ubonrak Thonburi Hospital on Burapanai Rd (T: (045) 260- 285).
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Text and/or map last updated on 30th October, 2013.