Ubon Ratchathani, A Review of a city in Isaan
I stayed in Ubon Ratchathani for over a year. It was my first stop after having stayed in Patong Beach for a couple months. I arrived in Ubon and was there for a few days before the Tsunami of 2004 hit Patong Beach in Phuket. I called my friend to see if he survived and he had slept through it. The house he stayed in was up the hill a little ways on the north side of the beach and the water didn’t come up as high as he was, though it was close.
I came to Ubon Ratchathani because it was a link on the way to Warin Chamrap which was my real destination. I wanted to see “Wat Pa Nanachat”, the Buddhist temple for English speaking foreigners that a monk had told me about in the states.
I took a tuk-tuk from Ubon all the way to Wat Pa Nanachat and I’m sure I lost 3 octaves of sensitivity in my hearing that day. You probably should take a bus or motorbike taxi like everyone else and not follow my example. I think I paid 170 baht (less than $5 usd) to take the tuk-tuk, which is a good price considering it’s about 15 kilometers away from the Ubon bus terminal. Maybe more.
I found what I was looking for at the temple. The Australian monk told me what I’d waiting about 9 years to hear… I had reached states of Jhana during meditation that, apparently is quite on the way to Nirvana or whatever you believe happens after that. The abbot invited me to stay, but I wasn’t really too excited about staying there and becoming enlightened. I still don’t really see the point of it right now but it’s probably something I’d want to do before I die. I think. :)
Ubon has anywhere from 100,000 to a million people if you believe the census or what people will give you for estimates – myself included. I don’t really have the slightest idea how to estimate the population for a city. I grew up in a town of about 3500. I don’t really have a good reference point for anything between that, and Honolulu, New York City, or Tampa where I spent the majority of time “living life”.
There is a bus terminal that can get you anywhere in the country, both VIP air-conditioned buses and local red/pink fan-equipped buses can be found here. Buses leave at night to reach Bangkok by early morning. The train station is in Warin Chamrap and is about 5 kilometers away from the bus terminal. One needs to cross a bridge over the Moon (Mun) river to reach Warin Chamrap. The airport found following a main road off Chayangkun Road near Robinsons. The airport can get you to Bangkok and there are 2 flights arriving from there and departing for the capital daily.
Ubon has Big C and Tesco shopping centers as well as a Robinsons and a mall called “SK Mall”. There is a Major Cineplex movie theater in SK Mall as well as MK Sukiyaki, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Mr. Donuts, Dairy Queen (the dummed down version of course), and a coffee shop on the ground level and the 3rd level where the Cineplex is. There is a very fast, comfortable and expensive (35 baht per hour) internet service operated by TOT on the 2nd level and hidden behind some small clothing shops and a bakery/eatery that is actually quite good named “Fern Hut”. They have a good pork hamburger with ketchup, mustard and french fries on the side.
Both Tesco and Big C have decent bakery sections, though if it’s Italian / French bread and sandwich meat you crave you’ll want to head to Tesco and pick up a 22 baht loaf. It’s rather good as they put salt in their bread and it seems nearly none of the other Tesco’s in the country do so. There is a good assortment of sliced meats too: Salami, pepperoni, Bologna, ham, and some other things I don’t eat so I didn’t pay much attention to. There is a salad bar section where one can get cut onions, tomatoes and other vegetables that is all put into the same bag and weighed at the deli counter for a price to stick on the bag for when you check out. They can’t weigh it at the main checkout. Tesco also has Haagen Dazs ice-cream in small and larger sizes and it’s quite expensive but they have “coffee” flavor which I sometimes can’t resist.
There are some really good tasting restaurants in Ubon, though the ambiance is not classy and clean. It’s more “Thai and traditional”. That being said, there is one place with a nice atmosphere that I ate at more than once… Indochine Vietnamese / Thai restaurant on Sapphasit Road which is the road the main public hospital, Sapphasit Hospital, is on.
If you get a chance there are three restaurants you should try. One is Italian and is named, “Risottos”. It is on the road that parallels Sapphasit Road and is one block south of the hospital. You can find it just by walking one block south. It is on the corner and is an orange-walled restaurant with lots of large glass windows and white curtains inside. The pizza, spaghetti and pork chop with mashed potatos and spinach are all very good. The lasagna is frozen and isn’t ordered much so it’s perhaps wise to stay away from that one. They do have an assortment of wines and it’s air-conditioned. The staff is just lovely.
Another restaurant is where all the Thais’ go for their seafood, it’s called, “Gok Kham”. It’s a large assortment of tents all put together to form this large place to eat. Their food is great and very reasonably priced. Gok Kham is located on the road which surrounds Ubon Ratchathani, called appropriately, “Ring Road”.
The final restaurant to tell you about, though you should spend some time visiting as many as you can, is further down Ring road going toward Warin from Ubon. You will come to a bridge and on the right side down the river is a sign for “Had Ku Dua”. You’ll need to turn down that dirt road and go about a kilometer before you come to a group of restaurants on the water. One in particular that is especially good is called, “Jo-Jo” – but everything is written in Thai language. If you ask someone you might get it. Bringing along a Thai speaker that can find it for you, is a much better suggestion.
This place has a nice ambiance because you eat sitting down on a bamboo and thatch hut that is floating on the river. They give you pillows and some mats to sit on. As your food is ready they will bring it out to you – sometimes balancing on the half-sinking bamboo walkway to reach you! There is a light at each floating hut for nighttime and the mosquitos are harsh, but bearable. Sometimes the ants are NOT bearable though, best to bring some bug lotion.
Not a restaurant, but a great coffee place is “Laos Coffee” which is in a hidden place. To find it you will need to start at Tung C. Muang Park. From there go North on Chayangkun road and make a left before the Montana Hotel which is on the left side of Chayangkun Road. Travel west until you see a 7-11 on the right hand corner. Make a left turn at that intersection and the Laos coffee shop will be on your left side after 100 meters or so. It has fresh-ground Laos coffee to die for… yen (cold) or lon (hot).
If you are into golf there is a driving range near the airport, and another near Benjamahara School. You can rent some clubs and hit balls for some ridiculously cheap rate. There is a golf course in Ubon too!
Ubon is not close to very much. It’s isolated pretty well. Sisaket is 60 km to the west. Chong Mek border crossing with Laos is to the east 100 km. Mukdahan is about 80 km north. Yasothon is about 100 km northwest. Pha-Taem National park is 100+ km away and towards Chong Mek. It’s a very nice park, though like a desert in the Summer (March – September). There are a few scattered waterfalls out in that same area though they are dry if it’s not the rainy season.
Ubon has two major city parks. One is located at the town center and named, “Tung C. Muang”. It has basketball, takgraw, volleyball, football (soccer) areas, aerobics at night starting from about 5:30pm and a large walking path that encircles the entire park and which is about .8 kilometers for one lap. There are hundreds of people in the park every evening, regardless of temperatures. The park is safe until about 8pm when there are few people. Late at night it is rumored to be a haunt for ladyboys and others looking to find company for the night.
Nong Bua park is in the north part of the city up around Big C and very close to Nong Bua temple that you can probably find on your map of Ubon. This park is nicely landscaped around a lake in the middle. It too is maybe .8 kilometers around the walking path. There are two groups of aerobics going on every evening. One group is moving around quite quickly, the other group seems to me more stretching and calisthenics based. There is basketball, volleyball, football, and takgraw played by the high school students until after dark. If you have a radio-controlled boat with you this is a great place to do it.
Ubon is a quiet place. There is not a lot to do for tourists except tour the Buddhist temples and do a little shopping. A trip to a village on the outskirts of the city is eye-opening. They live meagerly and yet seem to be very happy. You’ll hear “farang” (usually pronounced “falang”) from people that see you (assuming you’re a westerner like myself). “Farang” is the word they use for visitor or foreigner and should not be taken as derogatory… unless of course they are chasing you with a weapon.
The best reason to visit Ubon Ratchathani or anywhere in the northeast of Thailand is that the people are very friendly and helpful. They love to see foreigners and it’s not uncommon to have complete strangers smiling at you, and trying to touch the hair on your arm or just touch you for good luck. They are very superstitious and they love to sell something to a “farang” from their store as they take it as good luck. Many things are seen as good luck and bad luck, and luckily for us we’re seen as good luck.
Ubon Ratchathani is not for everyone, but if you’re looking to see a bit of how Thailand REALLY is, or how the rest of Thailand really should be… you should stay there for a few days. If you go by train there is a man named, “Pichet” that has a white truck and is there at the train station as the trains arrive from Bangkok every morning. He’ll try to persuade you to accompany him back to his home. You should GO! He has a very nice, new home surrounded by dormitories for students at Rajabhat University and he is a very friendly and helpful guy. He speaks English well enough that you can eventually communicate everything you need to with him.
Ubon Ratchathani is one of my favorite cities in Thailand, go visit!