As a province, Udon Thani has a lot going for it. Phu Phra Bat Historical Park and the Ban Chiang archaeological site, in particular, are two of the Isaan region’s most interesting attractions. On the other hand, the not-so-charming provincial capital hosts a hefty community of expats, mostly Western men, and a small section can feel like a scaled-down version of Pattaya. Steer clear of the seediness and you’ll find a booming commercial hub with a plethora of markets.
Some travellers will no-doubt prefer nearby Khon Kaen for its modern feel, or Nong Khai with its relaxing riverfront, but neither of these are as lively or as comfortable as Udon city. The expat presence means that good-value accommodation, Western food and conveniences like motorbike rental and English-speaking tuk tuk drivers are always at the ready.
Excavations at nearby Ban Chiang proved that people have lived in the area for thousands of years, but the city itself is not so old. After the French wrestled control of Laos from Siam in 1893, the Thai prince/general Prajak moved his military stronghold south from Nong Khai to a small settlement, establishing a town that grew to become Udon Thani, or the “Northern City.” Now home to around 200,000 people, it’s grown into one of Thailand’s largest.
Rooted in Lao/Isaan culture, Udon is also home to many Chinese-Thais and the kingdom’s largest group of Vietnamese. Many of the downtown shops selling gold, incense and coffins look like they could have been plucked straight out of Bangkok’s Chinatown. During the American War, US servicemen stationed at what was then one of the largest air bases in Southeast Asia added to the city’s eclectic atmosphere while boosting the local economy tremendously.
Udon is one of the better market cities in Thailand: tightly packed clusters of vendors seem to appear down every side lane as you explore the gritty streets. Several of the largest markets include a vast network of food and clothing stalls around the train station, though we recommend venturing into some of the more hidden markets elsewhere in town. You’ll also find modern air-con shopping malls to go with a couple of large public parks.
In the outlying province, you can peruse 5,000 year-old ceramics at Ban Chiang, then head to Kumpawapi Reservior for a boat ride in the “Red Lotus Sea” (dry season only). Peruse Udon’s own orchid species at Sunshine Orchid Farm on the way to Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, where ancient cave art, odd rock formations and Dvaravati ruins steeped in legend make for a memorable day. The spiritually inclined should also head to the vast forest temple, Wat Pa Baan Taad, to practice meditation while experiencing the legacy of the late Ajahn Maha Bua, one of the most highly respected monks in modern Thai history.
Udon city is a major transport hub for the upper Isaan region, with a relatively large airport, train station and buses and vans departing from at least four different places. If coming from Bangkok, a cheap flight to Udon and then immediate minibus to the Lao border will get you to Vientiane in time for a sunset beer beside the Mekong.
The eponymous provincial capital of Udon Thani province is one of the Isaan region’s four largest cities (along with Khon Kaen, Khorat and Ubon Ratchathani). It’s located in upper Northeast Thailand, 550 kilometres northeast of Bangkok and 75 kilometres south of the Lao capital of Vientiane. The city is a sprawling affair with mainly drab concrete buildings and over a dozen markets.
Most foreigners end up in an area towards the east of town, near the train station, the old bus station, Central Plaza shopping mall and UD Town, a huge outdoor shopping complex that extends to the south of the train station. On the north and northwest sides of the train station, two more massive markets can feel like a younger sibling of Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market.
Just east of Central Plaza and west of the train station, Soi Sampantamit (or Soi Farang) shoots north off Prajak Road and is the centre of expat life in Udon. Expect to see clusters of seedy beer bars, “massage” shops, Western restaurants and motorbike rental here.
Shooting west from the train station, Prajak Road runs for a few kilometres before bumping into Thung Si Muang, a central expanse of concrete where you’ll find the city pillar shrine. Just west of that is Nong Prajak Park, a large green space surrounded by a human-made lake. Hosting the provincial museum and Wat Phothisompom, the leafy area just south of the park is about as atmospheric as Udon gets. If you need advice on what to do in the area, a large TAT office is located on Tasa Road (pronounced tay-sa), immediately east of the park.
Cutting straight through town from west to east, Posri Road is the city’s main commercial drag. Along with several markets and shophouse businesses, it runs past the immigration office, which is centrally located just east of Naresuan Road and a 10-minute walk east of Thung Si Muang. The central police station is located just south of immigration at the corner of Naresuan and Srisuk roads, with the tourist police another stone’s throw south from there.
Udon has several hospitals. The best (and priciest) is probably the private Bangkok Hospital, located just north of the train station on Thong Yai Road. Others include Aek Udon International Hospital off Posri towards the east side of town, and the public Udon Thani Hospital on Poaniyom Road, just southwest of Nong Prajak Park.
For travel elsewhere in the province and beyond, Highway 22 runs east to Ban Chiang, Kumpawapi Reservoir and onto Sakhon Nakhon; Highway 2 shoots south towards Wat Pa Baan Taad and Khon Kaen, and also runs north up to Nong Khai, with Highway 2021 diverging west from 2 and running to Phu Phra Bat Historical Park.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 9th October, 2016.