■ Tucked into the corner of Thailand, close to the borders it shares with Laos and Cambodia in an area called ‘The Emerald Triangle’, the far eastern province of Ubon Ratchathani is remote, rarely visited and largely unknown to most Thais who invariably query why anyone would want to visit this distant region of ‘Isan’.
It’s also generally overlooked by foreigners who show much more interest in this country’s northern mountains and southern beaches. Some maps don’t even mention Ubon.
But that’s what makes Ubon an absolute must for any traveler hoping that Thailand still has some beautiful secrets – friendly people and uncrowded places that have yet to feel the impact of mass tourism. There aren’t many left, so it’s very advisable to visit a precious gem like Ubon soon before the hordes get there.
It’s not as if Ubon is off the beaten track. It has regular bus and train services from Bangkok, some 650 kms away, as well as flights into its “international” airport. The main highway from the capital is rapidly improving, easing notorious congestion spots in central Thailand. And yet the entire region, including the provincial capital of Ubon itself, does not boast a single ‘name’ or international chain hotel.
Other surprises include such basic but important factors as Ubon’s impressive highways that head out of town in every direction; they’re wide, well-built, excellently maintained, happily free of billboards – and, for now at least, see little heavy traffic. Indeed, they put the rest of the country’s roads and highways to shame. Instead of an endless succession of hoardings seen elsewhere in Thailand, Ubon’s major highways are mostly lined by towering trees and deep woodlands, flush in green from recent rains, providing yet another surprise for those who cling to the myth that Isan is an indelibly dry and dusty part of the country.
Driving here is thus a joy denied to Bangkok’s traffic-congested city dwellers, which is great since hiring a car is necessary to visit the region’s numerous attractions. With access to so many high quality roads, it’s probably no coincidence that just about every major car manufacturer has opened opulent showrooms throughout the province. Someone is clearly expecting a boom in car sales, which, if it happens, will overturn another long-held myth among Bangkokians – that Isan is a dirt-poor part of the kingdom.
A recent study has revealed that that the number of people living below the poverty line in the Northeast has declined substantially. The new affluence is evident in a myriad ways, though most obviously in a plethora of plush new private homes and pricey ‘housing estates that are popping up everywhere. Locals attribute this wealth to a surge in local government projects offering good salaries, as well as recent opening of giant supermarkets like Tesco, Big C and Home Pro, and major Bangkok companies supplying popular food and beverages (Ubon has more signs promoting Chang beer than just about any other product).
The province is well known for its strong Buddhist traditions, underlined by the high number of temples to be found in the city of Ubon and also in the surrounding countryside which abounds in forest monasteries that welcome all nationalities. These same forests are also seeing a wave of small eco-resorts offering genuine peace and tranquility as they are so isolated.
One of the most popular day trips is Wat Sirindhorn Wanaram Phu Prao, otherwise known as ‘The Glowing Temple’ because of the phosphor stone murals and a fantastic illuminated ‘Tree of Life’ on the back of the building that absorb light during the day and release a mesmerizing glow at night. This magical daily show is at its best between 6-8pm, when the temple is often packed with the selfie crowd.
Located some 70 kms from the city of Ubon, the temple is located on a hilltop with wonderful views of nearby Laos and the massive lake created by the Sirindhorn dam. It is truly an architectural classic worth visiting during daylight hours too.
Not to be missed either is Khong Chiam, the most easterly district of Thailand, marking the border with Laos. Sparsely populated and well forested, this beautiful area offers dramatic views of the Mekhong River at one of its widest points. It is here that the Mekhong converges with the Mun River to create the so-called two-colored current – reddish-brown and blue waters respectively. Enjoy this amazing scene and its wonderful tranquility from a floating restaurant or venture into town to visit traditional craft shops.
The strange landscape of Sam Phan Bok, literally translated as three thousand holes, is another popular attraction. Eroded by water for millennia, this vast sandstone reef is filled with holes of all shapes and sizes from shallow pits to gaping hollows over an area of more than five kilometers along the Thai and Lao borders.
The province boasts numerous waterfalls which are at their best, of course, during or shortly after the rainy season.
Located on the banks of the Mun River, Ubon Ratchathani has an interesting and little known history dating back to 1780 when King Taksin the Great appointed the region’s first ruler and awarded the city its name. The city was attacked by French forces during the 1940 Franco-Thai War, and was later used by the Japanese occupation army for locating prisoners of war who had survived the Burma railway project.
In the city's central Thung Si Meuang Park is a little known monument erected by British prisoners of war in gratitude to the people of Ubon for assisting them. During the Vietnam War, the US built an air base here to station its fighter aircraft along with several thousand servicemen. Their presence raised the local tempo massively, only for it slip back into its former slumberous ways when the US closed the military facility in 1975.
Today, Ubon is a lively centre of activity with an abundance of impressive temples, including the towering Wat Nong Bua, a gilded chedi, and the 200-year-old Wat Thung Si Muang made of wood. The city boasts lots of modern supermarkets, hotels, restaurants serving Thai Western and Vietnamese dishes, and even an Irish pub. Check out the excellent YUU Hotel as well as the Seven Seas Bar & Restaurant. Some of the best eateries are located on the banks of the River Mun.
At sunset, drop by Matcha Park near the airport for one of the city’s most impressive public amenities. Originally a reservoir, this area has been given a superb makeover by the local authorities, turning a scruffy area into a fantastic community resource, with lighted walkways and jogging tracks enjoyed by people of all ages, including many of the estimated 1,500 expats now residing in Ubon.
There’s no doubt that Ubon will soon become a major tourist attraction, rivalling the likes of Chiang Rai and the other great cities of Isan. For now, however, it is a hidden gem – and an outstanding place to call home. No wonder those foreigners who’ve settled here want to keep Ubon a secret.