Darkest Isan (where decent thais fear to tread), Part Eleven
For some people a holiday means laying on white sand beaches, sipping umbrellared cocktails and ogling bronze flesh. For others it means being bounced to death in a suspension-less bus/sauna breathing three completely new varieties of pollution and sitting with your knees tucked under your chin watching the netted sacks of crickets by your feet writhe around the floor like some sort of mutant blob from planet X. However as the saying goes, in travel sometimes the journey is better than arriving, and certainly on some parts of the next leg of my journey, it was to prove true…………….
My circumnavigation of Isan continued and I was Udon and Ban Chieng bound. To get there from Nong Khai was pretty simple as I was in major highway territory now, a bus to Khon Kaen, then change to one to Udom. Khon Kaen was the one place in Isan I knew having lived there 10 years before, back then Isan’s second city was already more developed than any place I had visited on this trip, bar Korat. Arriving at Khon Kaen bus station I bought my next ticket for the onward journey for three hours later giving me time to explore my old home town.
In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the Earth is demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass, similar has occurred in Khon Kaen , the city has truly become the temple to the great God Toyota and all buildings tremble and fall before its new super highway cutting sway through the city. I saw a book once called, The Cars That Ate Bangkok, Khon Kaen seems to have become dessert. To tell the truth I never really expected the small ugly city I had loathed and left to still be there and was half hoping it was gone. Instead the carbuncle has just become a 4by4buncle.
I did manage to find the single railway track and that led to my old home nestled in deep tundra and wilderness, surprisingly I found it little changed and learnt Khon Kaen is rather like Bangkok of the 90’s where the old still lives next to the new, being gradually shaken to death by the new development.
Udon is Isan’s third most developed city and pretty similar to Khon Kaen 10 years ago. With a distinct Chinese flavour, huge street markets, both day and night and most of its architecture being that claustrophobic 30 year old tenement style, it has retained that choking, stifling, ugly, polluted, dirty, frantic, ill-planned, noisy, smelly, sweating, humid charm every city in Thailand once had, it’s wonderful.
There is quite a big expat scene in the city and one area is packed with foreign owned bars restaurants. The Chinese in the city also must be very prosperous as they seem to be attempting to build some of the largest and most overblown Chinese temples I’ve seen anywhere. The one by the railway is a definite must visit.
Udon Dancing Orchids
I’d heard legends of the Udon dancing orchids, yes flowers that dance, and have to confess they were even a reason for me being here, so I headed out to the Orchid farm. Not really a tourist site but a business, its on the outskirts of the city, the farm is allegedly the only place in the world to have worked out how to turn orchids into perfume and closely guards the secret of its breed, so don’t expect to be left alone on your visit. They speak no English there and when you come presume you have come to buy perfume and look at the rows of regular orchids growing, so it may be a good idea to plan how you’re going to convey to them it’s the dancing orchids you’ve come to visit. The employees are really friendly and throw in an excellent guided tour of the place explaining about the project and don’t pressure you to buy anything at the end, the perfume starts at about B300 a bottle.
Next day I headed to Ban Chiang, Thailand’s most famous archaeological site, occupied at least 5,000 years ago. Songtheaws apparently run to the site from the main road. Where on the main road this is is a guessing game as the dozens of Songtheaws on different routes that pass seem to stop at different places. I read the sign on the front of every one for an hour but none on the Ban Chiang route came along so I got decrepit local bus from the bus station along with several sacks of crickets that were also heading that way and was dropped off at a nearby Tuk Tuk stand that took me the last few kilometres. Great fun. So it’s not exactly on the backpackers trail yet, I guess most tourists go on organised tours or by taxi, though saying that I was the only tourist there.
A prehistoric archaeological site is never going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but then again I’m not everyone, having studied prehistoric field archaeology, been on many digs and visited many sites and museums worldwide I’m their ideal punter. Or perhaps their worst nightmare as I have some experience of judging how good an attraction like this is.
It’s a world heritage site, but this lofty status doesn’t always reflect how grandiose or visually stunning a site is, just how significant is, and that can be quite underwhelming to the average punter. The rather modest pottery finds have been put in a shining new museum to give them P’zazz and the centrepiece of the exhibition is, well dirt. I understand making an archaeology exhibit interesting is difficult but places like Hindaeng and the Plain of Jars across the border in Lao are naturally awe inspiring, trying to generate interesting where it doesn’t exist just doesn’t work.
The fee to get in is B150 for foreigners and B30 for Thais, someone obviously having the grandiose idea, we’ve got a hole in the ground and some lumps of broken pottery, I know lets tart it up and charge tourists B150 to go in and laugh all the way to the Cayman Islands bank account. If this site was in the UK most likely it would never be turned into an exhibition and if it was it would be free. However to be fair Thailand doesn’t have archaeological sites of the quality of the UK, or even neighbouring SE Asian countries, so this is the best you can get and if it were B30 I would say give it a go, but it’s five times more expensive, so I have five times the expectations when visiting there and I must be five times as harsh in my review.
Funnily enough after I left the museum after half and hour having planned half a day, it was the unscheduled walk around the surrounding villages that proved to be the highlight of the trip. Wandering between the paddies to some of the most beautifully preserved traditional villages I have seen.