Photo: Fisherman returning to Ko Tarutao.

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Luang Prabang-Friendship Bridge-Nong Khai and driving in Isaan

Posted by murwill16 on 25/4/2007 at 11:13

3 March 07 we flew Luang Prabang to Vientianne after once again a very pleasant stay in Luang Prabang. The rate of construction of new buildings as, and conversion of old buildings to, guest houses or hotels had certainly increased in the 2 years since last we were in Luang Prabang.

This time our priority was Isaan in Thailand so we paid the airport taxi control for a taxi direct to the friendship bridge, I think about 10USD. On the way we sounded the cab driver out about taking us all the way to Nong Khai, he wanted 1500 Baht so we declined his generous offer. At Lao PDR Immigration we swapped a few of our remaining kip that we had been saving for our grandchildren for 1USD, an American couple had been caught short by the 2500 Kip exit tax and preferred to give us 1USD for 5000Kip rather than pay the exorbitant fee in USD proposed by the immigration officer. The shuttle bus at 15 baht a head was very efficient and at the Thai end we passed through immigration without any difficulty although the immigration officer did count the number of visa exemption stamps in our passports. We then caught a tuk tuk, shared with 2 others, to Mut Mee GH. Fortunately we had a booking, confirmed that morning by phone.

Sunday, we caught a minivan from a local travel agent direct to Udon Thani airport to pick up our Budget rental car. We had been advised that the Budget office was in the terminal; however after passing through security we quickly found out that the Budget office was outside the airport perimeter but relatively close. As I was trying to ring the Budget office the Budget representative turned up looking for us, he did not have a flight arrival time for us (as there wasn’t one) and we were about 1 hour later that the scheduled pickup time. Full marks to him for chasing around trying to find us.

At this stage I was wondering whether I should have opted for a larger more robust vehicle, however found that in general I had no difficulties driving as we also drive on the left hand side of the road at home, and traffic was not heavy until we reached Khorat. Sometimes we got stuck behind a slow moving truck or tractor, but, with some damage to my wife’s confidence in my driving judgement, I quickly picked up Thai style overtaking skills tempered by my natural conservatism.

The car, a Honda Civic, although fairly new had suffered a bit, so after signing for it we confirmed Budget’s record of the dents and scratches by taking a series of photographs. We had been told by Mut Mee staff that a festival started the following day and would include Isaan traditional dancing, and, as we wanted to visit the Sisters of the Good Shepherd Village Training Workshop between Udon Thani and Nong Khai, we decided to extend our stay in Nong Khai by one day and shorten the time available to tour Isaan. Therefore our planned visit to Prasat Phra Wihan was dropped and we would limit ourselves to non strenuous days.

On Monday we visited the Sisters of the Good Shepherd’s training complex and were impressed with the skills of everyone and the standard of the products. At this workshop local villagers are taught and practice various skills associated with spinning, dying, weaving, pottery and mushroom farming, although the fabric production process was similar to what we had seen in a number of other SEA countries. The teaching of skills to local villagers is a project worthy of support. . There are also 2 outlets for the products in Nong Khai, and importantly, near one is a book store at which we bought a detailed map of Thailand in both Thai and English.

That night we visited the festival, in effect an outsized night market similar to the “festival” that had coincided with our recent visit to Ayuthaya. This time we witnessed the end of a beauty contest and poked our heads into the stadium entrance but quickly concluded that the loud doof doof music playing was not traditional Isaan music and the dust bowl of the stadium was not likely to suit our concert going style.

Tuesday we got away from Nong Khai about 0930 and headed for the Ban Chiang Bronze Age site. While travelling on a six lane highway between Nong Khai and Udon Thani we had to stop and give way to a young elephant crossing the road, I thought it better to stop as an elephant would do even more damage to a car than a kangaroo or wombat. Route 2 from Nong Khai to Udon Thani then route 22 to Ban Chiang were well signposted in Thai and English. This was so for the majority of our trip except for one period noted below.

Found Ban Chiang a bit disappointing, probably because our expectations had been raised by the descriptions in LP and various Thai tourist publications. The local village we understand was resettled about 200 years ago by Lao people and while many shops displayed replica artefacts, it was difficult to find a bottle of refrigerated cold water.
From Ban Chiang we headed for the dinosaur site at Phu Kum Khao and then to overnight at Kalasin, initially East on route 22 then turning onto route 227. From Song Sam (shortly after turning off route 22) to about the silk village of Ban Phon we could not find the usual route and destination signs in English, so we stopped once or twice and asked the way using our Thai/English map..

Once the road signs returned we confirmed that we were headed in the right direction and easily found our way by mid afternoon to Phu Kum Khoa, unfortunately to find that the museum etc close at 1630. In the time available we managed to visit the museum, including the massive dinosaur models in a main exhibition room, the large dig site with bones exposed in the ground that has been enclosed in a separate museum building (unfortunately most of the explanations were in Thai) and to have a quick drive around the mountain site. This site is worth a much longer visit. We hit Kalasin at about 1740 to find another festival in progress. We had booked a room at the Rim Pao Hotel but had not bothered to copy the map from its website; the LP does not even mention Kalasin let alone include a map. The following night we had exactly the same problem in Surin. The hotel is relatively new but isolated from other facilities, such as 7/11 stores. That night we ate dinner at the hotel and were entertained by the eternal Karaoke.

Wednesday we set off from the hotel at 0930 and had an uneventful drive to Surin via route 214 to Roi Et, 216 to Suwannaphum and then 214 again to Surin. We arrived in Surin at about 1500. Along the way we diverted briefly to the elephant village of Ban Tha Klang and later visited the silver and silk weaving villages of Ban Khwao Sinarin and Ban Chok not far before Surin. We did not purchase anything as the range of silver and silk appeared very limited.
For whatever reason we had experienced difficulty reserving by telephone accommodation in Khorat for the following night, so we stayed 2 nights at the Thong Tarin Hotel in Surin.

Thursday we visited Prasat Meuang Tam and Phanom Rung, travelling South through Prasat to Ban Hin Khoon where we turned West onto route 2121 to Ban Talat Phonom then we turned north onto route 2075 to Ban Kruat and then followed the signposts to Prasat Meuang Tam. This last road was a very secondary road, badly potholed and in need of repair. From Prasat Meuang Tam we travelled on a well signposted and good road to Phanom Rung. For the return journey to Surin we followed route 2117 (a good road) to route 24 where we turned East to Prasat and then North to Surin.

Friday we set off for Khorat via Primai following route 226 West through Buri Ram to its junction with route 2163 and then followed the sign posts to Primai. After Primai we then went on to Ban Prasat and the Largest Banyan tree Sai Ngam before completing our journey to Khorat which we reached at about 1400. We later returned the car to Budget, and the representative offered, and we accepted, a lift back to our hotel. Only issue that arose was whether we had been issued with an atlas style road map of Thailand rather than the Budget road map which was Budget in name as well as content. Our denial was accepted.

#1 murwill16 has been a member since 2/1/2005. Posts: 19
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Posted by somtam2000 on 26/4/2007 at 08:43 admin

hi Murwill16,

Many thanks for the trip report - makes for interesting reading -- not many get out to Kalasin! Just curious what it cost to hire a car for a trip like that -- I'd never though of exploring isan that way as the roads are good and the buses pretty regular and fast, but I guess you get a lot more flexibility.

Thanks again.

#2 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 7,931
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Posted by murwill16 on 27/4/2007 at 12:06

We considered buses for this part of the trip but rejected the option as in the time available a car gave us comfort, flexibility, windows without the curtains pulled closed and we controlled the timings. We would not have achieved what we did if we had used buses. We used buses, a minivan and air for the Bangkok-Kanchanaburi-Ayuthaya-Sukothai-Chiang Mai leg of our trip and by comparison the car provided an easy and accessable form of transport. As always there is too much to do and see in too little time, 6.5 weeks including an island break at the end was not really long enough for it all. The car was one way without a one way fee and cost about 56USD/day which is comparable to here in Sydney, I booked it through Diethelm as we had used them before for booking individual items when all else had failed, and they were cheaper than Budget direct as it imposed a one way fee amongst other things. Budget was the only one way provider I could find.

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