Author Archives: Paul Wilding

Sam Pan Bok

Billed as Thailand’s Grand Canyon by those honest people at the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT), if you go with this in mind you most likely will be disappointed, however you just want to go to a dried river bed to visit an unusual rock set in some spectacular scenery this could be a highlight of your visit.

Literally meaning 3000 holes, Sam Pan Bok is a lunar landscape covered by the a river for three quarters of the year, but in the sweltering heat of the hot season the H20 will retreat to cooler climbs leaving the river bed exposed. When exactly that is the local TAT office in Ubon gets regular water level reports and are happy to inform.

I’d been meaning to visit this place for a long time and after a few cancellations due to this year’s flooding keeping the water levels unusually high found time to go in February. I arrived at the place around one o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and felt I was not exactly in a tourist Mecca, stalls selling cold drinks, Mama and Som Tum fought for custom with ones selling Sam Pan Bok T-shirts and sun hats. Apart from traders there were less than 40 tourists there, all Thai and mostly locals, though most likely it would get busier later, Thais won’t usually venture out to places like this till after 4pm for fear of darkening their skin. I guess if I’d come midweek I’d have had the place to myself.

The entrance gives a stunning panorama of the riverbed and the sign written in Thai only tells of the height the water reached during the recent flooding, an absolutely jaw dropping difference in water level. The rock itself, Sam Pan Bok, lays a few hundred metres walk along the riverbed to the right and lives up to its reputation as it gives you the feel you’re walking on an alien planet. The thousands of holes range from centimetres to metres in size, many filled with water and even having fish. The largest hole is a popular smimming spot if you carry a costume with you. There are also several boats tied up along what remains of the river who will do everything from ferrying you to the other bank to giving you a guided river trip.

Sam Pan Bok is located in the far east of Thailand in a small tributary to the Mekong River on the Lao border. Getting there is easy with your own transport, but a little more difficult without.

By Car or Bike from Ubon: Sam Pan Bok is 130km from Muang Ubon and a relatively easy ride along major highways. From the Ubon ring road follow route 2050 almost to Kemmerat then hang a right down route 2337 to the village of Song Kon and finally turn right at the T junction along route 2112 to Sam Pan Bok.

By Bus from Ubon: I went to the TAT in Ubon before I left to ask about buses and was told to get a bus from Ubon bus station to Song Khon village and walk the last 2km. Fortunately I decided to drive and when I got there discovered it was 7km from Song Khon not 2km. I went back to the TAT after I returned to double check the information I was given first time and was told there was no bus to Song Khon from Ubon only to Pho Sai about 30km away, but there was a bus to San Pan Bok from Kemmerat, which would mean to get there you need to take a bus from Ubon bus station to Kemmerat then change at Kemmerat to San Pan Bok. Check if the bus goes to San Pan Bok itself or drops you off outside the entrance on the highway, it’s a 4km walk from the entrance to the attraction.

Overnight: There are several paces between Ubon and Sam Pan Bok but all too small to likely have accommodation, so Kemmerat around 50-60k away is the only real option.

Making an Ubon Ratchatani Candle

Imprinted Candles at Candle Parade

In remote Ubon, Thailand’s eastern most province, tourists are usually rarer than a vote for the Democrat Party and the laid back locals seems to like it this way. The wilderness province even boasts Thailand’s most spectacular natural site yet is happy not to tell anyone about it. However once a year this changes as the rains comes down.

Ubon’s main claim to fame is its traditional Candle Festival. Called Ubon Ratchatani Candle Festival the Tourist Authority of Thailand seems to be trying to rename it the Thai Candle Festival, as at first other cities in Isaan, Korat, Roi Et so on started to have one, and now they can be found from Supanburi to Chiang Mai. A Thai language forum has a post entitled, The Origin of the Thai Candle Festival, to which commenter’s quickly identify as “tourist money”.

Ubon’s tradition then may have been raped and pillaged for filthy luger, but at the moment the Ubon festival still is by far an utterly unmatched month long spectacle compared to the paltry one day phoney traditions in other cities.

The origin of the festival comes from the Buddhist Retreat, held for 90 days during the Wet Season. Traditionally rice planting was done in the wet season and the flooded paddy fields seeded. The crops were highly vulnerable and villagers asked Buddhist monks not to leave their temples each morning collecting alms, walking through the fields destroying the young crops. The monks duly agreed to stay in their temples for the period studying and meditating and in appreciation of this local farmers presented the monks with a sufficient supply of candles to light their monasteries for the 3 months.

Last year I covered the festival in Roi Et and it left me wondering how the amazing candles were made, so this year I ventured to Ubon, not just to see the festival but investigated the whole manufacture process.

The candles are made at workshops in several temples, which have been selected to be candle manifacturing centres, these are located all over Ubon province. There are two methods of making candles, by imprinting or by carving, each temple specialises in one method or the other. I visited one temple workshop specialising in each

Candle being Carved

Carving a candle
Candles usually represent a scene from Buddhist mythology, often with fanciful monsters and demons, and usually telling a story. The theme of a candle for the year is agreed upon by the village/temple/association ect and an initial plan drawn up. The manufacture process usually begins about a month before the main parade.

Initially the plan of the candle is sawn into shape out of plywood, onto this coconut husks are used to fill out the 2 dimensional shapes to 3 dimensions and this is covered in plaster of paris forming the rough shape. The secret ingredient is then added, a thin coating of a zinc based mixture, to make the wax grip the plaster of paris. Next the wax is added, it is formed into plates up to 6cm thick plates of varying size, the still warm and pliable wax plates are folded and shaped around the plaster. It is then ready for carving.

The carving is is done by a mixture of artisans and apprentices, it takes a decade or more to become a master candle carver. In lei of this some temples field two candles not one at the festival, the second smaller candle being an apprentice’s candle.

Carved candles at the festival

The Imprint Method.
One of the drawbacks of carving a candle is it’s an expert job, some villages, or organisations such as universities that participate either lack the money or expertise to commission a carved candle or wish people to participate in the manufacture itself, so it feels a local group effort.

The imprint method mirrors the carving method up to the point where the wax is added to the candle then it becomes a very different method. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of thin paper like pieces of about 5mm thick wax are made and each is imprinted with a patterned shape with a hot stamp. The pattern is carefully cut out and using drops of wax it is stuck to the zinc surface. These thin patterned leaves are built up in layers of scales to create the shape. This job requires dozens of people to work for weeks, making the wax sheeting, imprinting, cutting out and sticking the individual leaves

The finished candles methods then compete in separate categories in the festival. Competition is hot between the rival makers to outdo each other each year and novelties are common, such as fielding a uniquely coloured candles or spectacular monsters. The candles are paraded in Ubon several times over the 2 parade days, both day and light show night parades, and then left in the streets around Tong See Muang Park for week for public viewing. For the last few years the National Wax Sculpture Exibition has been held there too by top modern scultures from around the world, so the best of the ancient art and the modern art it spawned can be viewed side by side.

Imprint candle being made
top left: sheets of wax added to candle, top right: wax stuck to zinc exterior, mid left: imprinted wax cut out, mid right: plywood, coconut shell and plaster stages, bottom left: imprinted leaves ready to attach, bottom right: anyone can help

Guide Book to Darkest ……. erm!….. Isan?… Issan? ….. Isarn, Isaan, Esan, Esarn, Eesarn? ….. whatever!

When I set out to explore Isan I looked for a guide book, but found none. The few mainstream ones had a remarkably short section on the place, missing out half the provinces and barely covering the others. It was as if they were acknowledging that it wasn’t a place for tourists. After a month here I’m convinced of that too, it’s a place for people that want to visit Thailand.

Part 1 – Templed out in Khorat (Nakhon Ratchasima)
Part 2 – Khorat to Phimai
Part 3 – Buriram to Nang Rong and Phanom Rung
Part 4 – Around Phanom Rung
Part 5 – Kalasin to Roi Et
Part 6 – Mukdahan
Part 7 – The Ban Song Khan Catholic Massacre Monument
Part 8 – Nakhon Phanom (City of Mountains)
Part 9 – Ho Chi Mihn’s House in Thailand
Part 10 – Buddha Park and Nong Khai
Part 11 – Nong Khai to Udon Thani & Ban Chiang
Part 12 – Chaiyaphum in my Tardis

I called my travels Darkest Isan, where decent Thai’s fear to tread, rather jokingly for the Thai stereotype of this Lao speaking region is as a rundown backwater populated by peasants completely unThai. In reality the traditional Thailand these stereotypers are talking about no-longer exists and hasn’t for a decade. After a month in Lao the previous year, my favourite place on earth, where I travelled to the unspoilt east, I embarked on my trip the Isan half hoping the stereotype was true and I would recapture the Lao experience. What I discovered should have disappointed but didn’t, Isan is like in the stereotype not unThai backwater but rather the lost old Thailand instead. Isan has become not so much what Thailand used to be, but what it could have become if it had gone another direction. What would Chiang Mai or Phuket could be like had not one tourist set foot there, and not an undeveloped backwater, but a place that has retained its identity and is designed for locals.

Never having really taken to the north and south of Thailand, I’ve always been an east, centre and west sort of person. What my Isan trip did was make me an Isan or Nakhon Nowhere as many ex-pats like to call it, sort of person. In fact in April 2011 I moved here. I’m not sure whether anyone has used the term before but from now on when I talk of the people and place it’s, we Isanites.

Chaiyaphum in my Tardis

A main road, taken this year, not 15 years ago, honest!

Darkest Isan (where decent thais fear to tread), Part Twelve

I’ve been in Isan a month now and sadly it’s time to leave. My trip had taken a definite downturn, the last three places I visited didn’t over impress me, Nong Khai, Udon and Khon Kaen were everything I came to Isan to get away from, I longed to be back in the lackadaisical Nakhon Panom and ambient Roi-et, the paddy fields of Buriram, even gritty Kalasin.

The place I decided to end my venture perhaps won’t be familiar to many, Chaiyaphum, according to the TAT, the least visited place in Thailand. Thailand is a country where Thai tourists travel around the country in droves so you would imagine the place least visited would have to be very remote. Perhaps Chiang Rai in the distant north, Sanglaburi where the treacherous mountain roads kill many a would be visitor or even rebellious southern Nathiwat with its bombings, but no instead it’s a place just north of Korat, four hours from Bangkok and on a major highway. Thailand’s least visited place then had me wondering what could keep people away from such an accessible place? What skeletons reside in its closet? So I resolved to venture to what could be the most awful place in the whole Thai nation no-matter what torments I would have to endure and hardships suffer.


Last week China banned Time Travel (seriously), but then again China is a country where Buddhist monks must apply for a permit from the Chinese government before they are allowed to reincarnate. I guess if Chaiyaphum was in China going there would now be illegal as getting out the bus felt akin to getting out the Tardis and finding myself in the 70’s.

The bus station if you can call it that was I’m pretty sure on loan from Burma. A gritty field at the back of a baking market with a small hut to buy tickets. Walking through the city centre is like walking through a historical village, main roads made up of either wooden buildings or old concrete ones, whole side roads in the city centre of picturesque teak houses and even the odd banana forest. Apart from the rather aging shopping complex the modern world seems to have driven right past Chaiyaphum on the highway not even stopping for coffee.

Despite this Chaiyaphum is no picture postcard, it’s definitely for people who value interesting more than pretty in a street view. The ruralesque nature of the town make it no laid back paradise, the town centre is crammed, walking along the streets you will be bombarded by the plethora of smells assaulting your nostrils, dust attacking your eyes and traffic numbing your brain. Along with being surrounded by the architecture of yesterdecade, at times I felt I was in Mysore not Thailand. The Chinese architecture of the town with the huge Chinese temple as centrepiece also add to the malaise of styles giving your aesthetic senses no peace. And all to the backdrop of a mountain range overlooking the town.

Prang Ku – Chaiyaphum provinces’s greatest sight

The town can be walked side to side in less than an hour, on the outskirts also lays the Changwat’s greatest historic site, another far flung temple of the Ankhor complex. This one must surely be the furthest away from Ankhor, I’ve been to several closer that all boast they are the farthest, although the Chaiyaphum one makes no such claim. While paling beside the unspectacular Phimai it is at least located next to the gates of a school, so has the good grace to double as a children’s playground.

The main drawback I found with Chaiyaphum was accommodation, having few visitors there’s only a couple of places to stay, the cheapest I found was a huge plush looking outside and semi derelict inside Chinese hotel charging an arm and a leg for a dingy room that had seen better days 40 years ago.

To be honest Chaiyaphum isn’t pretty, there’s not much to do or see, it’s not even tranquil, but it is the realest place in Thailand I’ve visited for years. I even saw a couple of westerners in town. I can honestly advise if you’re a backpacker bored witless with old travellers (like me) bombarding you with tales of Thailand 10 or 20 years ago, the good news is you don’t have to be mates with Doctor Who to go there, just hop on board a bus to Chaiyaphum.

A hell of a journey up province is Chaiyaphum National Park which optimistically boasts the Stonehenge of Thailand, but turns out to be just a few oddly shape natural rocks on a hill. I’m not a national park kind of person, I realise for some people national parks are people’s idea of pretty, ‘oh look at the trees and flowers’ for me they’re just annoying. ‘oh look, a tree……. and another tree…… and a third, yawn’ trees are an annoyance they get in the way and block the view, when I’m in national park all I can think is can’t someone cut them all down? Even better concrete the place over.

Also for the national park fee I could have hired a motorcycle for a day and much better than going treespotting, gone a few hours out of a city in any direction exploring the countryside, filled with farms, villages and people, buying drinks from local shops, stopping for a couple of meals in restaurants and spreading my money to locals not giving it to the Thai government, oh well, maybe next time.

A soi at the city centre. No really! A soi at the city centre.

Nong Khai to Udon Thani & Ban Chiang

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.

Khon Kaen

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 Thani

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.

Udom Dancing Orchids Video watch Here

Ban Chiang

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.