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Unknown Ubon

Now that Chiang Mai has grown into a proper big city, more and more direct flights to quieter, lesser visited cities are opening up, many of which are heading eastward into areas previously hard to access from our northern home — Isaan.

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If you haven’t made it yet, you will be surprised to know that the northeast has a number of growing, and upcoming cities including three which are comparable in size to Chiang Mai. One of these destinations is Ubon Rachathani, a special city with a lot more to offer than people think. The lack of any significant tourism has kept the city quiet and its treasures secret for many years. Needless to say, Ubon is neither metropolitan nor particularly exciting, unless you know where to head…

Currently, the only direct flight from Chiang Mai is with Kan Air, which leaves every morning at 6.20am. Those morning flights are not to everybody’s liking, but with an early start, you can really make the most of you time there. Despite being a quiet city, Ubon is populated with a large number of ‘Bangkok-style’ metered taxis, which offer incredibly low rates and 10 baht songtaews that drive specific routes throughout the day. Ubon’s many attractions are far out of town, so it’s best to either rent a car at the airport and take control of your own travel arrangements, or collect a few taxi contacts just in case you end up stranded somewhere.

Image00005Ubon’s slightly dated hotel options are limited, with some leaving much to be desired – but given the small number of tourists in the city, expect bargain prices. It is recommended you stay near the Big C or the city’s famous park Thung Sri Muang where every July the country’s biggest candle festival parade takes place. There are also loads of community activates most evenings throughout the year, from basketball to football, ballroom dancing to aerobics, all of which are free and open to anyone who wants to join in, as long as you are brave enough to say hi.

Wherever you decide to stay, make sure you get up early and head out before the sun gets too bright as the northeast can be incredibly hot, and most of their attractions are outside with very little shade.

Image00008The recently promoted alien landscape of Sam Pan Bok has been around for a millennia and is no doubt the most amazing destination in all of the province. The rocky landscape feels like another world, with smooth eroded holes often filled with water from the Mekong River like mini plunge pools. The views are spectacular, and often you will find a group of Ubonites chilling in one of the pools with a few beers and a radio playing some country tunes. The best time to visit is during the summer months when water levels are lower and you can see all 3000 of the holes, as during the rainy season, most of the landscape is underwater.

Head back to the city and stop by Had Ku Dua for lunch, a sandy ‘beachfront’ on a wide meander of the city’s Moon River populated with floating bamboo restaurants and vendors selling all sorts of deep friend insects and fruits on ancient wooden market boats.

After a slow hot day enjoying nature, head back into the quiet city and check out the afternoon clothing market. As big as two or three football fields, the rails of clothes seem to be never ending. Expect to see real Thai prices as well, with shirts, tops and even trousers starting as low as 5 baht a piece.

Once you’ve found some new glad-rags at the market, head back into town and pop into Smooth’s Barber shop on Suriyat Road (084 8282181) for a quick undercut or vintage trim that takes just 10-15 minutes with the owner Iz’s incredibly fine-tuned battalion skills before getting ready for a fun night out on the town.

Image00006Although there are several clubs still open, most are quite run down and in need of refurbishment and there is no specific night life area you can go to first and then decide where you perch, so your best bet is to plan ahead.

For the true country experience, head to the still very popular Tawandeng (tawandangnaubon.com) for a night with some old Thai cowboys or, for a younger scene, check out the newly built complex opposite the Big C, with a range of bars and restaurants in an almost Spanish style plaza setting. And for those visiting as couple, why not jump into a taxi and go down to the river side, and sip a few cocktails at the American diner style Yes Sky Moon Bar & Bistro (085 4184147) while watching the old junks plod along the still waters While enjoying the melancholy voice of their resident singers.