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ALUN RHYS GRIFFITHS

Attractions for the Tourist in North Eastern Thailand

INTRODUCTION

Ask non-Thais what they know of Thailand, and most will be aware of Bangkok, the capital city, and they may be familiar with the exotic islands and beaches of the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, and a few will know of the city of Chang Mai and the hill tribe cultures of North West Thailand. But not so many will know of North Eastern Thailand, the region bordered to the west by the Petchabun Mountain Range and to the north and east by the nation of Laos, a country far closer to the localities described on this page, than is Bangkok. Indeed the entire area of the North East in some respects has more in common with Laos than with the rest of Thailand, with a distinctive culture, lifestyle, and dialect.

Relatively few package tourists will travel to this part of Thailand, and consequently they miss out on the varied attractions to be seen or experienced here. This short page is an introduction to some of the places of interest in North Eastern Thailand, based on several short visits to the region made in the years 2009 and 2010.

All photos on this page were taken by the author in Udon Thani Province, Nong Khai Province, and Bueng Kan Province.

One of the extraordinary glacial boulders in Phu Phrabat Historical Park in Udon Thani Province. Perhaps no others are perched quite so precariously on a natural pedestal as this!

One of the giant statues in Salakeoku Park, Nong Khai Province

'The Waterfall of Seven Colours' is a favourite local attraction in the third of the provinces visited in this article - Bueng Kan

This article is a brief introduction to attractions in the three provinces of Udon Thani, Nong Khai and Bueng Kan, to give the reader a taster of things to see in this region of Thailand. Unfortunately at the time of writing I cannot upload an interactive map to satisfactorily display all sites described. In due course, I hope to remedy this, and I also hope to add several more attractions to the page. Some of the sites mentioned such as Phu Phrabat and Salakeoku will later be the subject of more detailed descriptions in other articles. The town of Chiang Khan in Loei - another neighbouring province - is already the subject of two in-depth articles describing the famous 'Walking Street' and the surrounding countryside.

THE ANCIENT ARCHAEOLOGY OF BAN CHIANG

Civilisation in North Eastern Thailand is now known to date back at least to the early Bronze Age of c 2000 BC, but the key evidence for this was only uncovered by accident in relatively recent times. In 1966 in the village of Ban Chiang in Udon Thani Province, an American anthropology student called Steve Young, was carrying out interviews for a thesis he was writing. One day, he was walking along a village path when he stumbled and fell over a tree root. Almost unbelievably, he found himself lying face to face with broken bits of half buried pigment decorated pottery. He immediately recognised the primitive nature of the pottery, and he also appreciated the uniqueness of the designs.

Excavations at the site began during the following year, and in addition to much more pottery, some human remains were found. Bronze artifacts were also uncovered (although the absence of bronze work from the very deepest, oldest excavations suggests that the civilisation here spanned the boundary between earlier Neolithic non-metal working culture and Bronze Age cultures).

A skeleton found with a pottery vase (bottom right) at Ban Chiang (I believe this is a plaster cast of the real skeleton) Many other exhibits in the museum are authentic relics

Today, it is believed this region was actually first settled many thousands of years before the Bronze Age, but that the Ban Chiang discoveries represent the most significant finds of their age in South-East Asia. At the site there is a museum displaying the finds (with English labels), as well as the original archaeological dig with discoveries in situ and souvenirs to buy.

Pots found at the village of Ban Chiang in Udon Thani Province, about 30 miles (50 km) east of the City of Udon Thani, and now on display in the attractive Ban Chiang Museum

Several phases of pottery design have been uncovered at Ban Chiang. Most distinctive and characteristic is this red-lined design, from a period between c1000 and 500 BC

QUEEN SIRIKIT'S 60th BIRTHDAY ARBORETUM

Just a few miles south of the City of Udon Thani, capital of the province of the same name, there is a very different experience which visitors can enjoy. This is Queen Sirikit's 60th Birthday Anniversary Arboretum at Nong Saeng. These gardens were named in honour of the Queen's birthday in 1992, and they are one of four such parks in Thailand. And in a country noted for its high heat and humidity, places such as these are a real haven for any tourists, and hence the inclusion of this park on this page.

The gardens are free to enter and the landscaping is really attractively laid out, featuring both exotic tropical species, but also colourful bedding plants more family to visitors from Europe or North America. Sadly (or perhaps gladly) the gardens seem to be so little known that they are often bereft of visitors and one can stroll around and enjoy the plants in peace and tranquility.

The landscaped gardens of Queen Sirikit's 60th Birthday Arboretum

Flower beds in the gardens

Trees and shrubs in the garden

UDON THANI MUSEUM

Whilst in Udon Thani, it is worthwhile paying a brief visit to the city museum, which affords a useful way to gather together thoughts and experiences of time spent in North Eastern Thailand. The museum holds many exhibits which relate to the history, the culture and the natural sciences of this part of Thailand, and notably the prehistoric relics of the Ban Chiang era. Exhibits are labelled in English as well as the native language. The museum was built in 1920 as a school hall and is not only laid out attractively on the inside, but the exterior is also extremely attractive to look at.

Udon Thani Museum. This attractive building became the provincial museum in 1998

Kou Nang U-Sa - a particularly evocative structure at Phu Phrabat Park, surrounded by standing stones

PHU PHRABAT PARK

To the north west of Udon Thani on the western edge of the Phu Phan mountains there is a sandstone ridge standing about 1000 feet (300m) high. Atop this hill is perhaps the most remarkable of all the attractions of North East Thailand - a site of curious rock formations, prehistoric human culture and Buddhist religious shrines.

The rock formations are dramatic, bizarre and seemingly gravity defying. But they are all the work of nature. Millions of years ago, great ice sheets covered this area and the force of nature driven through glaciers, broke up huge rock boulders and slowly transported them here. When the temperatures rose and the ice finally receded, the boulders were just left, dumped haphazardly, abandoned where they lay. And here they have lain ever since.

Nature had played its part in creating this scenic wonder, but now human intervention would add to the mix. As prehistoric peoples arrived in the area, they found these stones - some of which were perched precariously on top of others - to be natural shelters. And here they created rock art which survives to this day. More than 40 of the boulder sites have evidence of human dwelling, or of red pigmented drawings of people or local animals which they hunted, such as buffalo.

At some sites the inhabitants of this region gouged small holes in the rocks above and the ground below and wedged in sticks to form a cage like barrier to keep out wild animals. Today modern canes are placed here to demonstrate the technique.

Whether Stone Age peoples also saw religious symbolism in these strange standing stones is not known, but certainly for subsequent generations, the stones acquired a sacred appeal which led to Buddhist monks making sanctuaries under - or indeed inside - the rocks, and they also carved some Buddha iconography in the area. And legends then grew up around the rock formations in an attempt to make some sense of them.

Phoeng Hin Nokkata, also known as 'the Partridge-Shaped Rock Shelter', is believed to have been used in religious rituals at Phu Phrabat between the 9th and 18th centuries AD

Hoh Nang Usa is central to a local legend about a beautiful princess - Nang Usa - who was forced to live in the rock room at the top

Kork Mah Tao Baros is another rock formation used by humans. This was probably a Buddhist monk's residence, or a religious ritual site, about 1000 years ago. Although the mushroom-like central stone is natural, he outer ridge was man-made, probably to keep rainwater out from the sheltered area

One such story relates to Hoh Nang Usa - the most sculptured of all the boulder edifices. Here a giant slab of rock perching on an upright mound, is central to a local legend about a beautiful princess - Nang Usa - who was forced to live in the rock room near the top by her over-protective father. In reality the room had been carved many centuries before by a monk who lived here.

Phu Phrabat is a remarkable place on many levels around which one can wander for several hours, and it is a great site of natural and human history.

Canes illustrate how prehistoric people used barriers to keep unwelcome animals out

Tham Khon - the 'Human Cave'. Rock art believed to date from 3000 to 2000 years BC

SALAKEOKU STATUE PARK

A quick drive to the north east of Phu Phrabat, but in a different province of Thailand altogether, is the site of one of the most extraordinary 'theme parks' you will find anywhere in the world. In the Province of Nong Khai a short distance from the Laos border, there stand more than one hundred great stone statues, which look for all the world like they could be ancient and venerable religious icons. Not quite. In fact they were all created less than 50 years ago, albeit with a strong spiritual motivation in mind.

This is Salakeoku. Unorthodox mystic and shaman Luangpu Bunluea Surirat was a Laotian who fled his country during the Communist takeover of Laos in the 1970s. He chose to settle in North Eastern Thailand where he decided to put into concrete his belief that the teachings of all religions could be united together in greater harmony. He began the construction of a park full of statues which were inspired by the many faiths of the world, including various Hindu Gods, Christian icons, assorted demons and miscellaneous characters from mythology, as well as a host of Buddha figures. Indisputably eccentric, his creation of Salakeoku includes many devotional statues, the surreal and fantastic, and not a little humour (note the photo of a loving couple of skeletons - the strings tied to their wrists jokingly symbolise the Thai custom which expresses a wish for good health and fortune!)

Unfortunately I have not yet been able to understand the significance of each and every statue (if indeed they all have a recognised significance). Any help would be appreciated.

This extraordinary park is well worth a visit if travelling through this region, as it is a bizarre and quirky museum and exhibition. It is not treated as a sacred place, so there is a lack of formality attached to these statues. Rather, it is just a tourist attraction with refreshments, ornamental fish ponds and souvenir shops.

 

Incidentally for anybody who wishes to learn more about this place, and searches for it on the Internet, it has been translated into English under many different spellings, including 'Sala Keow Ku', 'Sala Keo Koo' and 'Salakaewkoo.'

A multitude of statues in the Sanctury Park

A statue of a seven-headed naga (snake) protecting a meditating Buddha

This impressive 80 foot high giant Buddha statue greets visitors to Salakeoku, also known as 'Sanctury Park'

Some statues are less wholesome - A particularly attractive and romantic couple !!!

One of the many weird and wonderful yet grotesque statues to be seen in the park

PHU THOK

Further east is Bueng Kan Province and a mere 12 miles from the Laos border is a sandstone hill known as Phu Thok. At the base of the hill in landscaped grounds is a Buddhist pagoda called Chetiya Khiri Wihan which was built in 1968. The pagoda is just one part of a temple complex which stretches up the side of the hill. Climbing to the top of Phu Thok to places of meditation was symbolic of a path to virtue for the monks who lived here. And soon after the opening of the temple, a steep pathway and steps were constructed for the monks to enable them to make this climb.

Today tourists can use this path to climb the hill and visit the temple shrines, but also for great panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. As can be seen in the image which accompanies this section, the wooden planked footpath / bridge to the top of the 600 ft (200 m) high Phu Thok is not for the faint-hearted, held in place as it is by timber struts over a vertical drop. But it's been there for about 40 years so I guess it's safe. The walk is not too tiring if you take it slowly, and there are rest stops along the way.

Part of the Phu Thok temple complex which is home to about 50 monks who live in huts in the surrounding hills and countryside

The pleasant setting of Chetiya Khiri Wihan

The reason for climbing Phu Thok is for the panoramic view of the countryside of Bueng Kan Province in North Eastern Thailand

A snake on the sandstone cliff face. I got to about 3 ft away to take this photo. The snake is harmless - leastways, I think it probably is

Apart from snakes, climbing the hill is just a little hair-raising for those with a touch of vertigo This rickety wooden bridge is the route to the top

NAMTOK CHET SI - THE WATERFALL OF SEVEN COLOURS

Waterfalls are a common sight in a land where the upland regions provide the necessary hilly landscapes for numerous cascades, and the rainy season brings torrential downpours. Many throughout the country are popular attractions for Thai nationals, but Bueng Kan Province is the setting for what surely must be one of the most romantically and beautifully named waterfalls to be found anywhere in the world - it is called Namtok Chet Si, but in English it is called 'The Waterfall of Seven Colours', christened for the seven rainbow colours in the spray when seen against the sunlight.

During the dry season this waterfall can be greatly reduced in power, but when rain is plentiful and the flow is forceful, day trippers will flock to the site, and bathe in the spray right at the very base of the falls. There are also numerous pools and minor rapids here, and for the most part it is safe even for little children provided they are supervised. It should be pointed out that there have been fatalities here - one in the year when I visited - and the rocks can be very slippery. But with sense and care, the falls can be great fun.

The waterfall is a very popular attraction for local Thais who enjoy bathing here when the day is hot (and there's a lot of hot days in Thailand). But it should also be on the agenda for any foreign tourists visiting the region. Located very close to the Phu Thok hill (just 14 km by road), and a short distance along a walkway through the forest undergrowth, the Waterfall of Seven Colours makes a great place to relax and cool off after climbing that hill, described in the previous section !

Children enjoying a natural water chute

The Waterfall of Seven Colours

Visitors in the midst of the (mild) rapids

Enjoying bathing at the base of the falls

BUDDHIST TEMPLES .....

Brief mention must also be made of some other important buildings and sites which are not exclusive to North Eastern Thailand, but which may be found in the cities, towns and villages and the countryside across the nation. These are the temples and religious iconography of Buddhism. Many of the villages in Thailand have their own little temples, and many of these are attractive, bright and ornate, and well worth a visit. Usually there is free and uninhibited access to most of the buildings and photography is usually not a problem. That is good, because they make great photographic subjects, both in the whole and in the detail, as I hope is apparent in the images here.

The temple shown in the photographs here is just one of those to be found in North Eastern Thailand. It is in the sub-district of Na Sai in the district of Phibunrak. It happens to be the nearest temple to the village of Nanokhong in Udon Thani Province where I lived for several weeks as the guest of a Thai family, and that is the reason why it is featured here. (See A Westerner in a Thai Village)

Buddhist Temple in Udon Thani Province

One of the temple buildings at Na Sai

Detail from the temple building

Vivid colours are a characteristic of temple artwork. If anyone can give details about this green figure, please do so in the comments. Many thanks

..... AND BUDDHIST STATUES

In complete contrast to Islam where iconography of any kind is frowned upon, Buddhism positively embraces the founder of the faith, and the statues of Buddha are to be found in a multitude of postures, each of which bears a significance to the life of the Buddha.

 

Statues of Buddha are, as one would expect in a predominantly Buddhist country, to be found in temples and religious sites across Thailand. But they are also to be found on hilltops, presumably as a source of inspiration or comfort which can be seen for miles and miles around. The large seated statue pictured here can easily be visited as a winding road leads to the top of the hill where it stands. Up close, it is an imposing sight.

Sadly, I am not certain of the exact location of this particular statue, which I came across whilst driving through Udon Thani Province (I was guided by my girlfriend passenger and didn't have a clue where I was at the time!) and I've not been able to find images to identify it further, but there are many similar statues to be seen across Thailand.

A giant Buddha statue on a hill-top

RECOMMENDATIONS

The reason for writing this article has hopefully been made clear. North Eastern Thailand is a region of the country comparatively little known to most Westerners. Indeed some of the attractions shown on this page are even difficult to locate on the Internet as little has been written about them. However, I hope I have shown on this page that for anybody passing through this part of the world, there is a diverse range of places to visit and experiences to enjoy, from the aesthetic appeals of the Queen's Arboretum and the hill at Phu Thok, to the ancient and intriguing sites of Ban Chiang and Phu Phrabat. The religious splendour of Buddhist temples and statues, the extraordinarily ancient-looking, yet modern statues of Salakeoku and the natural delights of the Waterfall of Seven Colours, are just a few of the many sites and sights of North Eastern Thailand which deserve to be better known.

The three provinces of Udon Thani, Nong Khan and Bueng Kan

The Conurbation of Bangkok

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I’d Love to Hear Your Comments Thanks, Alun