Category Archives: Travel Blogs

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.

5 Floating Markets around Bangkok

There are many floating markets and riverside markets around Bangkok. Some of these are new and others have been revitalized. This is part one of my comprehensive list of Thai floating markets that you can easily do as a day trip from Bangkok.

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

Damnoen Saduak Floating Market

The most famous floating market for foreign tourists is Damnoen Saduak Floating Market in Ratchaburi Province. If you want that picture perfect postcard shot I recommend this place. However, if you don’t want any foreigners in the picture that you must go there early. By 9 a.m. there is a traffic jam of tourist boats. Most people go here from Bangkok on tours that include the Rose Garden [MORE].

Taling Chan Floating Market

A famous market that is actually in Bangkok is Taling Chan Floating Market. However, don’t go there expecting a canal full of boats with vendors selling fruit and other produce. This is more a riverside market that has a number of boats tied up alongside the pier. However, it is still a good place to go and soak up the atmosphere. The last time that I visited I also joined a boat tour from here [MORE].

Tha Kha Floating Market

I think probably the best market I have been to is Tha Kha Floating Market in Samut Songkhram. Of all the so-called floating markets out there, this one has mant boat vendors selling to local people. It is much like Damnoen Saduak but there are hardly any foreign tourists here. This is because it is not so easy to get to and is not on many tour routes. I also joined a very cheap boat tour from here that was really enjoyable [MORE].

Don Wai Market

One of my favourite markets for food is Don Wai Floating Market in Nakhon Pathom. Although they label it this way, I would much prefer to translate it as Riverside Market. You don’t have the boat vendors like what we imagine floating markets in Thailand should have. However, this doesn’t worry the Thai people. After all, it is too hot in the sun if there aren’t any shelters. From here you can also join a boat tour of the local river [MORE].

Amphawa Floating Market

I think the Thai favourite for a market is Amphawa Floating Market in Samut Songkram. I first went here about five years ago. It was popular and crowded back then, but mainly with Thai tourists. Hardly any foreigners. But that, of course has changed as word has spread on the Internet. I like the place. There is a mixture of riverside market and floating market like you can see in this picture. It is also a good place for a homestay. There are boat tours too [MORE].

I have more floating markets near Bangkok to add to this list. Feel free to add your own favourites in the comments below.

Visit Part Two >>>