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Topic Summary

Posted by: thaiga
« on: April 11, 2016, 12:32:13 PM »

Isan's arid bounty

In the dry season, the region reveals wonders unavailable the rest of the year

At Ban Sing Tha in downtown Yasothon, there are a number of centuries-old buildings that remind you of the Sino-Portuguese architecture in Phuket's old town. These beautiful structures of Western influence belonged to Chinese merchants who hired labourers and foremen from Vietnam (then a French colony) to build them. Apart from the Western-style buildings, there are old shophouses, many of them built with blocks of earth mixed with straw and tree sap, as well as traditional wooden houses. But Ban Sing Tha itself dates back to long before these buildings, to the early Rattanakosin Period or even earlier. According to historical records, during the reign of King Rama I, Ban Sing Tha's former residents Chao Kham Phong and his brother Chao Fai Na were appointed by the monarch as rulers of Ubon Ratchathani and Champasak in what is now southern Laos PDR

Yasothon and Amnat Charoen were separated from Ubon Ratchathani in 1972 and 1993, respectively. A couple of weeks ago, these three Isan provinces reunited.

Nope, that didn't happen on the political map, just on the itinerary of a press trip I attended.

Visiting Isan, long notorious as a drought-stricken region, in this hottest period of the year may not sound like a good idea to many, but I didn't hesitate to join the trip because I knew that such a notion is not necessarily true. As a matter of fact, this is the best time to visit such areas in this part of the Kingdom.

Of course, with an airport, Ubon Ratchathani -- or Ubon for short -- serves as the gateway to this group of Isan provinces. It's a big province with many attractions. On this trip, sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), our targets in Ubon were just those that are best in the dry season, and we kept them for last. Soon after our plane landed, we set off north-westward to Yasothon. During the next two days we headed east to Amnat Charoen and continued to Khemmarat, Ubon's northernmost town on the bank of the Mekong.

Yasothon has long been known for the annual Bun Bang Fai celebration, during which locals from different villages compete to see whose huge handmade rockets go the highest into the sky. But the province has much more to offer than the rocket festival. The provincial town is home to important Buddhist temples and charming old neighbourhoods where residents, especially women, dress in beautiful costumes to offer alms to monks in the morning. Outside of town, there are places such as the country's largest wooden Catholic church and a village that's the production hub of traditional khit pillows.

Amnat Charoen is also blessed with hidden gems, such as a mat-making village, temples and an archaeological site. But unlike the attractions in Yasothon, they may need some polishing before convincing outsiders that a visit would be worthwhile.

The border area along the Mekong, from Amnat Charoen's Chanuman district to Ubon's Khemmarat, Na Tan and Pho Sai are rich with rapids, sand dunes and rocky formations fully exposed only in the dry season, when the river's water level is very low. The famous Sam Phan Bok is just one such site along this section of the river marking the border between Thailand and Laos.

It's expected that during the upcoming Songkran holiday, several attractions in these three Isan provinces will be full of people, many of them locals returning home to meet up with friends and family. If you wish to see for yourself the splendour and thrill of Yasothon's Rocket Festival, you should schedule your trip to cover May 14-15, when the event will take place. If you wish to stay completely away from the crowd, avoid the festive seasons and plan your visit for off-holiday periods instead.

No matter what your preference, if you wish to witness the geological wonders of the Mekong River, make sure to get there before the rainy season does.

Travel info

Nok Air, AirAsia, Thai Lion Air and Thai Smile operate daily flights between Bangkok and Ubon Ratchathani. While the first three airlines are based at Don Mueang, the last flies from Suvarnabhumi. Those who live in Chiang Mai can also fly to Ubon Ratchathani. Kan Air provides the service daily except Tuesday. Check the airlines' websites for flight schedules.

Exploring this part of the Kingdom is more convenient when done with a private vehicle. Several rental car companies have booths at Ubon Ratchathani airport. For those who do not like driving, hiring a van with a driver is a good option. Call Tun, a van driver and owner, at 081-564-8911.

Photos of the so-called Grand Canyon Ubon took the internet by storm last week in Thailand. Located in Ban Nong Lai, a short drive from downtown Ubon Ratchathani on Highway 23 (Ubon-Yasothon), this site of former-quarries-turned-tourist-attraction has drawn throngs of visitors each day since its online revelation. The number is expected to be several times higher during the Songkran holidays. However, local authorities have cautioned that the pits and the bluish water, which is slightly acidic, can be very deep and dangerous. Besides, the thin earthen walls separating the pits and used by visitors as walkways may not be strong enough to withstand the weight of large crowds. They tend to become even weaker, not to mention slippery, if washed by rain.

Khemmarat was once an important town in this part of Isan. These days its political status has been reduced, but its former glory can still be seen from the old-town area, teeming with old houses. On the second and fourth Saturday of each month, Wisit Si Road is turned into a pedestrian street where locals come to perform traditional dance as well as to sell food, souvenirs and other goods.

Looking on Google Earth, you may see that the section of the Mekong River running from Chanuman of Amnat Charoen down to Pho Sai of Ubon Ratchathani has several narrow portions flanked by either rock formations or sand dunes and beaches. Most of these geological features are submerged when the river is high, but become visible during the dry season (except on days when China releases huge amounts of water from its dams farther upstream). Many sites along this part of the Mekong have been promoted as tourist attractions. Some, such as Kaeng Khan Sung, are in Amnat Charoen, while others, including Hat Sai Sung, Hat Chom Dao, Hat Hong and Sam Phan Bok, are in Ubon.

more info & pics: Bangkokpost