There is no doubt that some of us, at one time or another, have had to make that arduous journey to Laos to renew a visa or do a border run. For those who have been lucky enough to avoid such hassles, maybe Udon Thani and the nearby Vientiane, Laos’ capital, have been mostly off the radar. We can probably all agree that if you are visiting from Chiang Mai, a boat to Luang Prabang is a lot more exciting than a flight to Udon then a bus ride half a day north, but if you don’t have two days to kill on a rickety old boat just to get to your destination, then AirAsia’s new Chiang Mai — Udon Thani route may just the ticket.
Apart from the border of Laos being just 50 kilometres north of Udon Thani, which we will touch on later in this article, the province itself has a lot to offer. Whether you are in a hurry to get back home after a visa run or just aching to cross into our neighbouring communist state, take a day or two to really explore the Thai side too.
A Mix of Cultures
With a leisurely departure of 2pm from Chiang Mai International Airport, the new AirAsia direct CNX — UTH flight takes just one hour 20 minutes, but usually arrives a good 15 minutes before in good wind. Check into a local hotel — we recommend the Brown House hotel with its infinity pool looking over one of the city’s many natural reservoirs — and get stuck into the Isan lifestyle. Either jump on a push bike (free at the hotel) or hail a local Isan style tuk-tuk and explore the city.
As the sun starts to drop, stop by the Nong Prajak Public Park and take in the atmosphere. At dusk, expect to see lots of cyclists and couples taking a stroll. Snack on some roadside meat sticks and take a selfie with the big yellow rubber duck floating on the pond. As darkness draws in, pop into the Sanjao Phuya Chinese Temple and make some merit the Chinese way before taking a look around the museum that showcases some local relics and explains the history of Chinese settlement in the area. The culture in both Udon Thani and Laos next door are both heavily influenced by the Chinese settlers over the last two or three centuries. With a doorway to Indochina and Southeast Asia along the Laotian border to the north, it is no surprise that in both local Thai dialects and Lao language there are stronger influences from Chinese language and culture than anywhere else in Thailand. Another neighbour to the area is Vietnam, located just a small jaunt over Laos to the East, who also influenced both the culture and cuisine of the area, which is why Isan is so in love with kuay jub noodles — a Vietnamese specialty.
Sanjao Phuya Chinese Temple
Talking about Vietnamese noodles, it is almost tradition that you sample some of the local Thai-Lao-Vietnam fusion cuisine when in Udon. Although there are numerous roadside restaurants and stalls selling all sorts of local food — which many will argue is better than any fancy establishment — we still recommend VT Namnueng, the largest and most impressive Vietnamese restaurant in all of Udon, and quite possibly Thailand. And yes, before you comment, we know there is a branch here in Chiang Mai, but the Udon branch is their flagship and is massive. In addition to the restaurant, which is very clean, delicious and fresh, they also have a small museum gallery to learn about the local cuisine traditions and a souvenir supermarket where you can pick up all sorts of decorations, flags, army hats and ready eat, pre-packaged VT Namnueng classics.
Early Morning Necessity
Although holidays are all about rest and being able to let your hair down, there is one attraction you should most certainly wake up early for — the stunning natural wonder of Udon Thani known as Red Lotus Lake. This incredible six hundred acre body of water is packed to the brim with naturally occurring lotus flowers, and could be described as otherworldly. Arrive at the crack of dawn for the best experience, as you set off on a small narrow boat or wider six-seater pontoon and head out towards centre of the lake. Mist hides the horizon, leaving you lost and enchanted in the middle of an eerie lake where millions of red and pink lotus flowers stretch across the water in every direction. Bright green leaves and lake grasses intercept the sea of pink, and as the sun begins to turn yellow, flocks of birds swoop down and catch their morning meal. If you are lucky, you will spot some white cranes waiting to snap up a fish too. The best time to visit is between December and February, where the red lotuses are in full bloom. When the temperatures rise with the midday sun, the flowers retreat and close up until the next morn, so make sure to get there early. If you visit any other time of the year, you will not be disappointed, as they flower all year round, but expect more whites than reds on your visit. Once you return to dry land, stop in the local cafe next door and feast on a hearty breakfast of eggs in a pan or Vietnamese rolls.
Red Lotus Lake
Another early morning requirement is Laos, regardless of if you are staying for a few days or just venturing out on a day trip. Once over the friendship bridge, pass through immigration (don’t forget it costs 1,500 baht or $30 for foreigners, free for Thais) and head into town.
Make sure to visit Patuxai, an imposing French-Laos style 1960s war memorial with great views and located in the heart of the government district. The number of communist flags are quite overwhelming, displayed much like the royal flags of Thailand are displayed — on every billboard, over every archway and hanging at the front of shops and restaurants. If you want to learn more about the history and why they are a communist state, then pay a visit to the Lao National History Museum and the Lao People’s Army Museum for some great insight. If you want to get some religion in, we recommend the Pha That Luang, a historical gold stupa that has just been redeveloped, or Sisaket Temple, inspired by central Thai architecture. For something a little more quirky, the Buddha Park, or Xieng Khuan, is a popular attraction featuring a strange collection of Buddhist, Animist and Hindu statues, alongside monkeys riding motorbikes and a garden that is devoted to hell. There is also a smaller version on the Thai side in Nong Khai for anyone who can’t make it across to Laos.
Patuxai, Laos PDR
For many, a visit to Laos must include a trip to Vang Vieng, a small riverside town made popular by its stunning mountains, limestone cliffs and blue water lagoons. The city has, on the most part, improved from five years ago after they banned the infamous tubing that brought often worse-for-wear backpackers to the area in droves. Another must visit is Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site packed with stunning natural vistas, former royal palaces, French colonial architecture and dozens of ancient temples. Conveniently, AirAsia also fly direct to both Vientiane and Luang Prabang from Bangkok or you could get the boat back to Chiang Mai from there pretty easily.
When you leave Laos, make sure to pick up a souvenir communist flag and some buffalo skins that you can take home and grill — perfect with a duty free Lao Beer. Before heading back to Udon, make a detour to the Wat Pha Tak Suea temple in Nong Khai and look out over the stunning views of the Mekong river winding its way through a valley. The temple even has a ‘skywalk’ which is…somewhat unimpressive.
Pha That Luang, Laos PDR
The moral of the story is, if you are heading to Laos, for whatever reason, make sure to spend some time in Udon Thani. The city has an eclectic mix of people, culture, cuisines and religions, often ignored by the passing traveller. Take a day or two to get to know Thailand’s most North-eastern city, and you may surprise yourself with what you find.
Flights to Udon Thani from Chiang Mai are now running daily with AirAsia.
UTH – CNX departs 2pm arrives 3.20pm
CNX – UTH departs 3.50pm arrives 5.10pm