Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Ubon Ratchathani - Sleepless & Hectic in Thailand (Travel Log 111811)


Without inconsequential circumstance, I arrived north east of Thailand, in a border region of Southern Isaan; in its capital city called Ubon Ratchathani. Locals simply call it Ubon. It has a colorful historical past. Ubon straddles what is called the Emerald Triangle (a landlocked region where east Thailand, southwest Laos and north Cambodia meet). Ubon, for the backpacking populace, is mostly a transit city en route to south Laos, but I had moderately ambitious plans of acquainting myself with Ubon.

Ubon Ratchathani Airport, a relatively small and no-frills airport, is unintimidating. I gathered my baggage and headed to the lobby. There were small counters to my left, just before the exit. Two of them, mentioned in my references, were for luxury taxies that take you to town. But if the word “luxury” blusters, in reality, they’re not analogous to the limousine taxis in Bangkok, Indonesia or elsewhere. These are the pre-paid public taxis with a fixed rate – 100B to the city.

To be honest, I half expected someone to pick me up from my booked hotel. There was no confirmation, but some reviews mentioned an airport pick-up. I ventured outside to check out the fa├žade. No one obviously expected me so I headed back in and went to one of the luxury taxi counters and paid my 100B.


Ubon Ratchathani Airport (above) and the luxury taxi booths (below)





SLEEPLESS IN THAILAND

Some books mentioned that it is possible to walk from the airport (situated at the northern edge of the city) to the center, but this option seemed silly. In my state of sleepiness (after a sleepless night in Suvarnabhumi), my senses were fully cognizant that a walk to the center is nothing but a desperate plan. Haggling with tuktuks outside the airport will most probably get you worse rates too. These pre-paid cabs are the best options.

Twenty minutes later, I arrived in front of Krungtung Hotel on Srinarong Road. Was I really in the city center? It didn't seem so. At 9AM when the sun's up, the road looked deserted. I recognized the building of my hotel, looking like it had seen better days. I presented my Agoda voucher, and I was warmly whisked away to my fourth floor room (#406). I was grateful that despite my early arrival, I was briskly accommodated (check-in time is 12 noon). It’s been a rough 12 hours, having not had a wink at the airport.

I unpacked and charged what needed charging, then drifted off to sleep. I needed the shut eye if I were to gallivant later in the day. There was a long list in my itinerary and it didn’t look like I had enough time to execute my plan. I was also pleased with my room: comfortable beds (a twin), spotless tiled floor, big dry bathroom, AC and cable TV (showing Thai-only shows). And I had a decent view facing the street.

PANIC

By the time I woke up, I was half panicking. It was 11AM; the past 2 hours slipped like spilled milk. After a refreshing, invigorating shower that worked like caffeine, I headed downstairs. I tried to ask some questions at the lobby but the people hardly spoke English. A meal wasn’t possible too since their dining hall looked empty and non-operational. So I went out. Srinarong Road has restaurants nearby.


Krungtung Hotel (above) and Room 406 (below)




Just a block away, I unexpectedly found Wat Thung Si Muang along Luang Road (which intersects with Srinarong Road). I wasn’t initially sure because all signs were in Thai. There’s hardly a soul in the compound. The main temple is Ayutthaya-inspired, narrow halls with high ceiling, guarded by gray monk statues and small dragon-like creatures in chipping-off yellow paint. The walls surrounding the altar are covered with colorful paintings.

ANCIENT LIBRARY ON STILTS

This monastery was built in the reign of King Rama III sometime in the 1920s. Beside this temple was the Hor Trai, the Buddhist Scripture Library. Others call it Tripitaka Library, notable because it’s a scripture hall made of wood, and it rises on stilts; a pond full of pink lotus surrounds it. If truth be told, there’s nothing much to see inside this library. I didn’t have to remove my shoes, thank heavens. Copies of ancient Khmer and Thainoi scripts and palm-leaf manuscripts are found inside.

But the place had my hair stand on end. I didn’t know if it was the solitude, the dank atmosphere, the deafening silence or the suggestive, albeit gentle creaking noises as I carefully navigated around the empty halls. Then I saw the replica of a monk, with tendrils of hair still growing from his scalp. I was petrified; I had to rush out. It’s also supposed to house a replica of Buddha’s footprint; something that didn’t seem to have a proof of existence to me – during this visit.


Wat Thung Si Muang (above and below)





Tripitaka Library



Petrifying replica at the Tripitaka Library



There were several other temples visible during my walk around Luang Road, and though I’ve studied the small map provided by my brochure, I didn’t plan a specific itinerary mostly because I wasn’t sure how to get around. I was going to walk around and find places. Those that I couldn’t find, I’d get in a taxi for. That was the reckless plan.

Thung Si Muang” is an important term to remember because it’s a temple’s name and the name of the touristy park that has a gigantic candle statue. I just call it “Candle Park” (1st and 18th photo) whenever I forget the words.

I saw another temple near Wat Thung Si Muang where young children were playing around – Wat Suthatsanaram. I didn't get the name until I checked the tourist brochure later in the day. With a scorching sun bearing down the land, I eventually found my way to the park grounds - Thung Si Muang Park - which had several points of interest on my checklist!


Wat Suthatsanaram





SHRINE AND MUSEUM

The City Pillar Shrine is a small temple guarded by elephant statues of varying sizes and colors – blue, white, black. A local said it’s called Wat Salak Mangan. At the back of this shrine is the Ubon Ratchathani National Museum. Though skeptical at first, I decided to check it out – for 100B, no photos! The geology of the Khorat Plateau is documented here: samples of siltstones, tantalites, walframites, quartz, etc. Potteries from 1,500 years ago; boundary stones from temples of the 9th century; door columns of the Prei Kmeng Styles from the 7th century A.D., Baphum-style Singhas – there were enough items to distract a visitor. There were even howdas (elephant seats) and drainage pipelines that looked like thin sailboats.

SPECTACULAR SYMBOL OF UBON

But one of Ubon’s most spectacular sites is rightfully situated at the heart of the park – the Candle Sculpture. It stands 22 meters tall in eye-popping yellow (even gold)! Completed in 2000, this Isaan art style is dedicated to the king; its beauty fascinates so that it has become the symbol of the city. The candle sculpture has the shape of a ship with a garuda eagle in front, a naga serpent around it, a fish, faces of people literally devoured by the dragon, etc. A phallic-structure stands at the center, and more Buddha statues surround it. You do wonder what happens if someone accidentally drops a match? Opps! There goes the symbol of the city. J


City Pillar Shrine and its elephant statues inside (below)





Ubon Ratchathani National Museum - 100B and no photos


A peculiar "fountain" near the City Pillar Shrine where children are found bathing


Thung Si Muang Park and its Candle Sculpture (below), the symbol of the city





FOUNDER AND PRISONERS

Standing nearby is the statue of Phra Pathum Voraratsuriyawang, the founder of the city. He escaped the Khmer reign and forged alliance with Thai royalties, thus allowing him to build his city. Not far from here is a sparsely decorated Monument of Merit, a gift from former World War II prisoners of war. They were mostly British soldiers who arrived on a train from Kanchanaburi. This was a symbol of their gratitude for the kindness of the people. It isn’t really much to see, but the sentiment it keeps makes it a worthy site.


Phra Pathum Voraratsuriyawang - founder of the city


Monument of Merit from grateful prisoners of war





TOPAZ BUDDHA

From there, I ventured on finding Wat Si Ubon Rattanaram, a temple with a Buddha made of topaz. Despite the help of several people, I was misled to wrong directions that eventually took a toll on me physically. I stopped beside a side street where a cart was peddling buko, i.e. “coconut juice”. For 20B, I had the sweetest in a long time. This energized me to walk further, turned into a street where another unsigned structure stood – it turned out to be the Municipal Hall. Ubon needs to use the alphabet to make this city more tourist-friendly. After a 10-minute rest in a waiting shed, I resumed walking until finally I saw a huge temple along Uparat Road in a compound filled with vegetation: Wat Si Ubon Rattanaram aka Wat Si Tong.

Wat Si Ubon Rattanaram was built in 1855 and houses “Phra Kaew Butsarakham”, a sacred Buddha image , “in the attitude of subduing Mara” (whatever that means). As earlier mentioned, this Buddha is carved - Chiang Saen style - from topaz. This Buddha originated from Vientiane (Laos), and it has become the city’s sacred icon. Every April 13, this Buddha is taken around the city. This temple is found west of Thung Si Muang Park. My mistake was taking the northern gate out of the park and walking counterclockwise, a considerable distance if one’s in a hurry.


Sweetest coconut juice at 20B



Municipal Hall

Wat Si Ubon Rattanaram

TWO IN MIND

There were two places I wanted to see before calling it a day – Wat Pa Nanachat and Wat Phrathat Nong Bua. I was grimly mulling on the fact that there were 8 temples in the city center and I’ve only visited two from this list. If this were an examination on temple coverage, I’d have failed miserably. There was nothing much I can do, but make the best of my remaining time.

VILLAGE HOPPING

By 2 PM, I threw caution to the wind and hopped on a songthaew that’s bound for Warin Chamrab, a district at the fringes of Ubon. How big is it? Let’s consider that it has 15 sub-districts (tambon) and 185 villages (muban). I was setting my sights on Bung Mai (brochures call it Bung Wai), the village where Wat Pa Nana Chat is! My songthaew crossed the bridge over the Moon River until we reached Warin Market, an important landmark. I bought persimmon (Sharon fruit) at 10B a piece and a blackish purple fruit called somwang, also 10B a pack. It tasted like peanuts, but has the consistency of an apple, though a bit firmer in the mouth.


Warin Market


Somwang

LAIDBACK COMMUTER

After a 5-minute market sojourn, I found a red songthaew (10B) in front of the market. The driver was a lady. I asked her twice: “Wat Pa Nana Chat?” She had an earnest grin and nodded. I joined several daily commuters: mothers picking up their children from school, laborers from some factory, merchants getting supplies from the market. But this particular ride seemed to have destinations other than Ban Bung Wai. We took the sinewy road and drove uphill. Then we stopped in front of a school. The driver was likewise picking up her child. The funny thing was, no one seemed to be in a hurry. Other commuters got off the truck and bought drinks that were emptied in cellophanes. I was envious. I haven’t had a proper meal since my Air Asia flight. So I dug inside my backpack and started munching on my persimmon – and people began looking my way. I guess it’s not exactly street food. Haha

After the detours, we were riding along a highway (Highway 226) that seemed much farther away than 14 kilometer, the distance of the temple from Ubon. I heaved a sigh of relief when after another stop, the lady driver signaled to me to get off the songthaew. What’s even sweeter, she commissioned a local (who couldn’t speak English) to lead me. I was particularly grateful. Ban Bung Wai is in the middle of nowhere. There were sparse housing. I followed a dirt road beside barren parcel of land and a rice field. I could see the forest some 15 minutes away. I was walking alone, dry air wafting against my face.

Blue songthaew to Wat Pa Nana Chat (10B) - the lady driver stands to check on her passengers.


CULTISH TEMPLE IN A FOREST

Wat Pa Nana Chat is a forest monastery where some 20 foreign/western monks take residence. The road to the monastery was deserted. I found an open gate and turned into a lush forest. There were signs that said photography was prohibited, as well as making noise. Darn! It was a big letdown to get there and not have anything to show for it.

I walked a sinewy road until I saw Caucasian monks sweeping the grounds. It was cleaning time for everyone, and i felt like an intruder. These monks were not in saffron robes so this somehow felt “cultish”. They were all wearing a white shirt. These foreign monks practice Vipassana meditation here. A few of them looked up and greeted me as I bashfully made my way to a temple that’s more austere than expected. With tall trees embracing the limited compound, it was obvious that this was the perfect place for meditation. I took my shoes off and stepped inside the main temple. I gazed at the simple altar. The rest of the temple was mostly empty space. And I felt peaceful. I didn't know why I prayed, but I did.

ANXIETY

There really wasn’t much to see or do so I left and took a different path towards Highway 226. There were vehicles plying this road, but none for commuters like me. It was worrisome. I was starting to devise ways to hail private motorcycle commuters willing to take me back to the city. It was a bit eerie. After close to 45 minutes of anticipation, I hailed a vehicle that – miraculously! – stopped. I profusely thanked the driver and said “Talat Warin” (Warin Market). Equanimity befell, and I lazily gazed at the scenery passing before me. I also offered 30B to the driver who sported a wide grin. I was just grateful.

HOSPITABLE

At the market, I hailed a blue songthaew heading back towards central Ubon. On my seat, I was reading my “songthaew guide” (destinations are color and number coded) printed from the net when a couple of the commuters began a conversation. They were quite pleased to know I traveled alone. They told me where my stop was - near the Post Office which is across my hotel. The hospitality of these strangers just bowled me over. I kept thanking them though I knew exactly where I was. The hard part of the day was behind me. I made it back!

Dirt road to Wat Pa Nana Chat


Wat Pa Nana Chat: a forest monastery - a stolen shot!


My unexpected ride back to Warin Chamrab


BUS STATION

That night, I took a taxi to the bus station to book or buy a ticket for my border crossing to Laos the next day, only to be told that they don’t sell pre-booked tickets. I was to buy one at 8:30AM tomorrow for the 9:30AM departure. It was disappointing to have to go all the way to the station for nothing, but at least I got acquainted with the station in a leisurely manner. The town's main bus station is located northwest of the city, on the Ring Road (Highway 231), 500m west of its intersection with Thanon Chayangkun (Highway 212) outskirts of the city.

Chayangkun is a busy thoroughfare, like Edsa, along which rise upmarket hotels, malls and cinema houses, universities, the Big C, everything that a city folk requires. My hotel, compared to this area, felt like the backroads. Unfortunately, establishments in Chayangkun cater to the well heeled and younger party set. It is noisy and lacks the laidback charm of a riverside Ubon.

Maybe I can check it out upon my return from Laos? That’s a plan.

A yet unnamed temple along Srinarong Road, a block from Krungtung Hotel.

FAILED ATTEMPT


After the failed bus ticket attempt, I went to an internet cafe to check my mails. There were 2 internet shops just beside my hotel (10B per hour, 9AM to 10PM). After that, I crossed Srinarong and walked to the other side of the block where the busier, more commercial road (Krumtanee) was. I realized how Krungtong Hotel was perfectly located: the park is within walking distance; there’s a post office, the TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) office, a 7-11, an ATM, even a Fire Department, and a couple of internet cafes. All the essentials were there.

From the same street, I found Leang Hud Heng Restaurant (255/1 Krumtanee Road). I was going to have a congratulatory dinner for finding Wat Pa Nana Chat, and for making it back. I ordered “kad phad prew when” – sweet and sour chicken with rice. This Chinese restaurant was elegantly decorated. Though I was its lone customer, by the time I consumed my meal, half a dozen new arrivals have caught up with me.

I was humming “Perfect”: “Crossroads and bridges, we come through a lot of trying stages…” How appropriate indeed.

This is the Eye in the Sky!


Sweet and Sour Chicken (60B) with rice (15B) at Leang Hud Heng Restaurant (below)



8 comments:

Ola said...

I would like to visit Thailand one day but not the part for European and American tourists with drugs and prostitution but the colorful land that you showed!
ps. walking from an aiport with a heavy bagage is a silly idea, I agree:)

eye in the sky said...

@ Ola:

You will love Thailand, I'm sure. Drugs and prostitution shouldn't be part of the tourist ring because other tourists only encounter them when they seek them.

It is a colorful country and the people are hospitable. I guess since Ubon is too far away from the big city of Bangkok, people are less jaded from the whims of other tourists. Thus, they're friendlier and more helpful. :)

flutietootie said...

Sounds like a great vacation. Thanks for all the photographs.

eye in the sky said...

@ flutietootie:

Loved it! My pleasure! :)

NRIGirl said...

Hello! First time here; and loved to read about your Thailand visit. Actually to be honest I had the time to only look at the pictures; will be back to read more soon.

- NRIGirl

eye in the sky said...

@ NRIGirl:

Thanks for the nice words. :)

The travelogue is a bit wordy because I just want to document my trip so I don't forget the details. It's an on-going "project" to get it done. I loved posting the chosen pics as they take me back to the places. :)

R.Ramakrishnan said...

Interesting post on Ubon Ratchathani.The Krungtung Hotel seems neat & meeting your basic requirements. The architecture of the Buddhist temples is typical to this region. The candle sculpture looks richly embellished in gold. Lady driver on the Songthaew, very unique ! She couldn't speak English? Looks like you have started on an interesting & exciting journey.

eye in the sky said...

@ R. Ramakrishnan:

I think I did more than I was supposed too. But diligent planning - and a lot of stamina helped! :)