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.
Thailand’s fifth largest province by area, Ubon Ratchathani stretches south to the watershed that forms the Cambodia border, and east to the Mekong River and Laos, making it part of the so-called “Emerald Triangle”. Covered mostly in rice paddy that appears lush green during the rainy season and straw yellow for the rest of the year, the province’s wide-open spaces are best explored by hired car or motorbike, though you can do a lot by public transport as well.
The provincial capital, Amphoe Muang Ubon Ratchathani, to use the official name, sprawls to the north of the wide Moon River towards the western side of the province. Ubon’s sister city, Warin Chamrap, is located on the south side of a series of oxbows and riverine islands that are crossed by a couple of bridges. Apart from the train station and a huge fresh market, Warin has little of interest to travellers.
Ubon city is very spread out, with the so-called “old town” centrally located near the river, though there’s little to decipher it from the rest of town. Thung Si Muang Park is located roughly in the centre and can be useful as a reference point while exploring the city streets, which tend to all look the same to first-timers. On weekend nights, a huge street market begins on the east side of Thung Si Muang and runs for the length of Srinarong and Nakhonban roads.
Chayangkun Road (or Highway 24; the stretch that runs through the centre of town is also known as Upparat Road) is the city’s main north-to-south running thoroughfare, linking to the main bridge to Warin. A host of smaller roads run west to east, including Uppalisan just south of the airport, Phichitrangsan a bit further south, and Khuan Thani closer to the river. Many travellers base themselves on or near Ratchabut Road, which cuts south from Thung Si Muang, passing the night market and several backpacker-range places to stay on the way to the riverfront, where you’ll find an unkempt but scenic walkway to go with a handful of bars.
Within walking distance of Ratchabut Rd to the east, Hat Wat Tai is a small beach along the Moon River where teenagers and families come to unwind on weekends. Further northeast, Huai Wang Nong is a long and fairly narrow reservoir with a strip of breezy restaurants.
Northwest of the airport, which oddly covers a huge central area of the city, you’ll find a more modern commercial scene at Sunee City Mall and other enterprises along Chaeng Sanit Road (Highway 23), which keeps going to Yasothon province, and Chayangkun, which becomes Highway 212 on its way to Amnat Charoen province. In Ubon city’s far western end is Central Plaza, another mall where you can take in an English-language movie.
The Tourist Police are located on Suriyat Rd, just west of Thepyothi Rd and a bit south of the airport. They’re reachable by phone at either 1155 or (045) 245 505. Ubon’s main police station is a stone’s throw south of the Tourist Police on Sappasit Road.
While Sappasit Prasong Government Hospital across from Wat Pa Yai on Sappasit Rd [T: (045) 240 074] is cheap and central, the staff speaks minimal English. The private hospitals have less waiting time and more English help: try Rajavej Ubolratchathani Hospital at 999 Chayangkun Rd (T: (045) 280 040) or the newer Ubonrak Thonburi Hospital on Buraphanai Rd (T: (045) 260 285).
Offering good maps and pamphlets covering the province’s many attractions, the TAT Office is open daily from 08:30 to 16:30 at 264/1 Khuan Thani Road, just east of The Ratchathani Hotel. ATMs and bank branches are found all over town; if you’re coming from Laos or Cambodia, keep in mind that those currencies are worthless in Thailand. Internet shops are scattered around town and most of the countless coffee shops and hotels offer WiFi.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 9th October, 2016.