A Lao-speaking granny rises before dawn to prepare food for ochre-robed monks on alms round. In a hut overlooking their paddies, farmers break for a midday meal of sticky rice with chilli paste. Young people lounge beside the Moon River after dark, discussing possibilities that their grandparents could never have imagined. In Ubon Ratchathani, the soul of Isaan keeps one foot in the past, as the other steps into the future.
Before Lao immigrants founded Ubon Ratchathani (“Royal Lotus City”) in the 1700s, Dvaravati Mon and later Khmer people had ruled the area as far back as the fifth century CE. While minor Khmer ruins can be seen today at Prasat Ban Ben in southern Ubon province, nearby Sisaket and Surin provinces have much larger communities of ethnic Khmers. As with much of Isaan, or Northeast Thailand, a Lao dialect is widely spoken in Ubon.
Underrated as a travel destination, Ubon -- both the city and the same-named province -- attracts a trickle of independent travellers looking to wander far off the usual tourist tracks. Locals temper the language barrier by going out of their way to help travellers, who are still viewed as guests rather than opportunities for a profit. Ubon’s huge tourism potential remains largely untapped, with many travellers viewing it as nothing but a stop on the way to/from Southern Laos.
Modern Ubon city feels like a small town in many places thanks to the laid-back outlook of its roughly 200,000 residents. Mostly Lao/Isaan-Thai but also with significant numbers of Chinese- and Vietnamese-Thai, the folks in Ubon are, generally, among the most warm-hearted in Thailand. Their gentleness ends in the kitchen, however, where they churn out Isaan food so spicy that it induces tears and helplessly runny noses. Warning: it’s addictive.
In addition to being an important administrative, commercial and transport hub, Ubon has two large universities that perpetuate a lively and youthful energy, especially on weekend evenings around Thung Si Muang Park. Trendy cafes and boutiques now punctuate the city’s several historic temples and rows of shophouses where you can buy folk instruments, Buddha images and gorgeous wears sewn from cotton and silk. While most of the buildings are made of drab cement, many venerable wooden houses have survived.
With two-dozen temples in the city alone, Ubon has a well-established reputation as a centre of Buddhist learning. In the 1960s and ‘70s, several Westerners ordained under the late Thai Forest Tradition monk, Ajahn Chah, and some have lived as monks ever since. Others penned books and founded meditation centres that were instrumental in popularising insight meditation, or vipassana, in the West. The only monastery in Thailand where English is the main language, Wat Pah Nanachat keeps this legacy alive just outside of Ubon city.
As a handful of American monks meditated in the forest during the ‘60s and ‘70s, the American military launched bombing raids into Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia from Ubon. What’s now the city’s main airport was constructed by the US, explaining why it occupies such a large chunk of land so close to the centre of town. The fighter jets that now boom over Ubon are piloted by the Royal Thai Air Force, which retains a base in part of the airport.
Ubon province boasts three national parks, including the captivating Pha Taem near the scenic riverside town of Khong Chiam, and Phu Chong Na Yoi in the remote southeast. Thanks to the border crossing at Chong Mek / Vang Tao, you can easily head into Laos to check out Pakse and the haunting Khmer ruins at Wat Phu. Ubon city is also just over 100 kilometres from the Khmer ruins at Khao Phra Wihan (Preah Vihear), though at time of writing it’s not possible to get closer than 500 metres away from the Thai side, due to an ongoing border dispute.
Every July or August, Ubon city hosts Hae Thian, the “Candle Festival,” to celebrate the beginning of Khao Pansa (Buddhist lent) with a parade of wax sculptures carved to exquisite detail by local artists. The main festivities last for only two days, but you can watch the artists at work during the six weeks leading up to the festival at practically every temple in Ubon city. Book your room in advance if planning to stay during Hae Thian -- and expect inflated rates.
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Text and/or map last updated on 17th July, 2015.