My last blog described our wonderful Songkran experience in the Isan area of Thailand. Now I need to fill you in on the other amazing places and activities that Ubon, Bill’s friend, managed to cram comfortably into our long weekend adventure.
While Bill gave his seminar, I was able to tour the incredibly large Khon Kaen University campus (about 3.5 square miles) with the lovely wife of one of Ubon’s students. We rode on the campus bus to the Natural Science Museum, where I felt right at home! It was fun learning about some of the plants, animals, and seashells of the Khon Kaen region, although I could have passed on the liver fluke exhibit (ew!). I also received an initial education about the history of dinosaurs in this region.
In the afternoon, two students chauffeured us around the city, making stops at an 11-tiered temple (Wat Nong Wang), a textiles shop featuring the intricate local weaving patterns, and a central area of Khon Kaen that would soon be blocked off and inundated with Songkran festival goers. (We found out later that over 135,000 people showed up to take part in a record-breaking human wave! There’s even a YouTube!). Fortunately, we were there a couple of days before the big event so were able to enjoy the temple and the newly created sand sculpture without the crowds. We did try to limit our time outside of the air-conditioned car, however, as the heat was brutal, with temperatures reaching just over 100°!
In the evening, Ubon and Champu, one of her PhD students, walked us through a local market, where we began to realize some differences between the Isan and Bangkokian diets. It was quite easy to recognize that folks from Isan love their bugs – from inch-long queen ants and their larvae to beetles and crickets, nothing was spared from the dinner plate! And, yes, we tried them all! I want my finicky eating friends (a few folks come to mind, wink, wink!) to know that I was thinking of you as I bit into the juicy and quite zesty abdomen of a brightly colored ant! For me, the tadpoles were more difficult to swallow (literally) than the crispy critters from the insect world. Even when wrapped up in banana leaves with local greens, garlic, onion, and peppers, I just didn’t find the soon-to-be-frogs (or not) all that tasty! We did eat a nice ‘normal’ and more filling dinner after our market munch.
The next day, after the department’s Songkran festivities, Bill decided to get a massage (his back was sore from all the sitting he did while watching the beauty contest, poor thing). I opted for a visit to the KKU Agricultural Co-op, where they sold lots of things produced locally, even right there on campus. I had read about cricket crackers, but there were none to be had (they would have been the perfect Isan gift!). So, off to Central Plaza, Khon Kaen’s main shopping mall, for a Thai tea and an air-conditioned stroll. The huge malls are so neat and tidy, and each floor is dedicated to either clothes, electronics and banks, pharmacies, housewares, etc. If you’re looking for a specific item, you only need to shop in the stores on one particular floor! Genius, in my opinion! And there was a Dancing Zone with a long mirrored wall where teenagers were working on their cool dance steps, mostly to Korean Pop music. What a great idea! Who knew malls could be so much fun?!
Later, we enjoyed entertaining conversation with some faculty members over a very nice dinner (no creepy crawlies). These folks charmed us with their stories of travel and we found ourselves reminiscing as well. I certainly hope we have the chance to meet again. Then we turned in for a good night’s rest.
At this point, I must say that Ubon was an exceptionally knowledgeable Isan guide with an innate ability to educate, fascinate, and exhilarate anyone around her! Her easygoing style led to lots of spontaneous decisions, all of which turned out to be wonderful, so although we never really knew where we were headed or when we would get there, we had complete faith in her. Our four days were jampacked with so many fun activities, some of which were planned, some a bit spontaneous, and of course others that focused on the religious as well as the water-dousing aspects of Songkran (as per the previous blog). I will hit the highlights here, so as not to make you too envious! I should also mention that Champu joined our travel troupe to make sure we stayed hydrated and kept our heads covered, and Sombot was a gem of a driver, never complaining when asked to pull off the road at the last minute or drive down some unmarked back road on a whim. Around 8 am, we were ready to go!
Our first stop right outside of Khon Kaen was at Buddha Monton Isan, where there is a beautiful crematorium for a most famous Thai monk, Luang Phor Koon Parisuttho, who passed away in 2015. Tens of thousands of mourners came here (and still do) to pay their respect to this special monk. All of the statues as well as the crematorium are painted in white, giving the place a true sense of purity and cleanliness. In addition, a really tall and serene Buddha statue stands in the distance overlooking the beautifully landscaped grounds.
We then made a quick stop at a manmade lake where scores of local families loaded with inner tubes, towels, and umbrellas were claiming a spot on the beach. This lake was created by a dam that pretty much helps this whole region stay green throughout the year. Other places are not as lucky, and we traveled through some very dry and dusty landscapes. Rather than making another stop along the way, we figured we may as well grab some lunch. The grilled fish and chicken smelled irresistible, and several women were pounding away with mortars and pestles making their local variety of papaya salad. After finally picking just the right restaurant (they all looked pretty much the same to me), we sat down to a very yummy food feast.
Next stop, a dinosaur museum in Kalasin, the area famous for the discovery of lots of dino bones. Although there were some big beasts that we were familiar with, the museum also sported one named after a Thai princess and another named for the city of Khon Kaen – the khonkaenensis. Although small, the museum had some interesting exhibits, cool holographic displays, and lots of information in English. There were also some ongoing digs, but it was way too hot to make the necessary climb. Even the featured T-Rex was all decked out for Songkran!
Then we had a lengthy drive up and over a mountain on a very curvy road toward Sakon Nakhon. We passed through very lush fields that turned into thick jungle, home to some monkeys that appeared every now and then on the roadside. Sombot was making good time until Ubon decided we needed to check out several stalls lining the highway. He cheerfully pulled off the road to take a break. New market sightings included honeycombs hanging in bags, edible flowers, local salt wrapped in leaves, and eggs steaming over pots of boiling water. There were also dried fish fashioned into nice flat disks – really neat looking! And, of course, there were bugs! I have to say that the cicadas stir fried with kaffir lime leaves were delish…can’t wait for Bill to experiment at home (just kidding).
Onward to the city, where we met Su, one of Ubon’s previous advisees. Over dinner, she asked if we’d be interested in learning the local technique of indigo dyeing. The indigo plant, or khram, grows in this area, and when mixed with ash creates a beautiful and long-lasting blue dye. Lots of dyed cotton clothes and woven indigo textiles can be found in shop after shop in Sakon Nakhon. To get the chance to dye our own shirts was a no-brainer! (Su is actually working on a contract to produce indigo-dyed underwear and socks for military personnel!) So the next morning, Ubon, Champu, and I learned the process while dyeing t-shirts. It is just like tie dying, but we used plastic strips to bind the rolled up shirts and create the designs. Then we dipped them in dye, squeezed them out, and dipped again. Next came the rinsing and re-rinsing, followed by the unveiling and drying. We were quite pleased with our results!
Naturally, we had to re-energize after working so hard, so we grabbed a bite to eat. I am excited to report that we had a wonderful, although brief, rain and thunderstorm during lunch. It was the first good rain Bill and I had seen (and heard) since our arrival in December. I had to stand out it in just to be sure it was happening! I was dry within minutes thanks to the return of the baking sun, and the five of us (Su decided to join us!) were ready to continue our journey east to Nakhon Phanom.
Upon arrival at the River Hotel (right on the Mekong River), we unloaded our gear and headed to the River Walk where craft, food, and other assorted stands were being set up for a Songkran street party. Just on the other side of the river was Laos, which could be reached by the nearby Friendship Bridge, but we were having too much fun in Isan! Another yummy dinner and the purchase of some crazy big hats, all the while listening to a variety of music, made for another special evening.
On Saturday morning, we visited Ho Chi Minh’s “safe house” (who knew?). The granddaughter of the woman who allowed Ho Chi Minh to live in a small house on her property served as the curator and was happy to talk about the late 1920s. Some of Ho Chi Minh’s belongings are on a desk, and lots of photographs and articles hang on the walls. There is also a sort of Ho Chi Minh shrine in one corner of the room. The most impressive part to me, though, were the surrounding gardens, with beautiful flowers, coffee plants, and really tall coconut palms, not to mention an awesome and very busy ant nest! A very nice setting for someone planning a revolution!
One last stop before dropping Su off – a beautiful museum honoring another well-known monk. Some of his meager belongings, such as his robes, a couple of bowls, and a toothbrush were displayed there, and the building itself was unique and quite artistic. I’m afraid the photos don’t do it justice. We poured scented water over several Buddha and monk statues before departing.
At this point, the plan was to head west to Udon Thani for a nice Vietnamese dinner (to sort of fit in with our Ho Chi Minh visit!) and then head back to Khon Kaen for one last night before Bill and I returned to Bangkok on Sunday evening. Ubon, however, wanted to fulfill one of Bill’s wishes – to visit Ban Chiang, a small town northeast of Udon Thani. Bill had recently researched information about the ruins that had been discovered there in the 1960s. Lots of beautiful red-painted pottery jugs as well as bronze jewelry and tools have been excavated there. Based on the dating of the bronze artifacts, this area may have existed before or simultaneously with the area of Mesopotamia, which has always been considered the cradle of civilization. Bill, being Bill, was intrigued by this idea and wanted to see it for himself. We arrived a bit late, however, so Ubon suggested we take part in the ongoing Songkran festivities and book a room at a Homestay, which is exactly what we did. The next morning, we visited an excavation/museum, so that Bill could learn more about this deviation from everything he had learned in school!
After our new history lesson, we went in search of a giant lotus temple in the middle of a lake, and THEN headed to Udon Thani, where we enjoyed a delicious and filling lunch at a very popular Vietnamese restaurant.
The final stop on our adventure was at a forest temple just out side of Khon Kaen. The grounds were huge and the Buddhas rather eclectic. In addition, there were statues of Disney characters, of all things, and little ceramic animals attached to trees. Individually, some of the Buddhas were stunning, but as a whole, we found this temple to be more of a park or nice respite from the city. It was just very, very different from the temples we had visited throughout the weekend, but we did have a nice walk through the pathways to stretch our legs before going to the airport for our flight back to Bangkok.
As you can see, we had quite the adventure as we toured around a very small portion of Isan. And even with the crazy hot temperatures, it was nice to visit some rural areas of Thailand. Not surprisingly, we found good folks, good food, and good fun wherever we went. Ubon, Champu, and Sombot (and for awhile, Su) were the ideal traveling companions, and we are happy to call them friends after such a short time together. We are already discussing what to do for next year’s Songkran holiday!!