Category Archives: Travelling in Thailand

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.

Ho Chi Mihn’s House in Thailand

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

For the Americans reading is this blog, Ho Chi Minh is that damn pinko “grrr!” who as TV and Hollywood have proven on celluloid really didn’t kick the arse of the US army after all. For people in the rest of the world he was leader who fought to free his country from French, Japanese and US oppression. For we Londoners he’s a local boy done good. It’s not often a snow sweeper from Ealing goes on to found a country. This man lead a remarkable life , between 1923 and 1933 living in Hong Kong, Milan, Switzerland, Boston, New York, London, France, Russia and China, working as a cook’s assistant, waiter, pastry chef, co-founding the French Communist Party and writing for French magazines.

Ban Na Jok or the Thai Vietnam Friendship Village lies west of Meung Nakhon Phanong along the Sakhon Nakhon highway and was the residence of Ho Chi Mihn, or as the locals call him, Uncle Ho. Located a 30 minute bicycle ride from town centre, it’s an unmissable attraction, Uncle Ho himself walked from there to Sakhon Nakhon and then onto Udon Thani, so the so no excuses for not doing the short bike ride.

The Vietnamese and now Thai speaking as well village is a beautiful throwback into times of old, a devolved mixture of farmhouses, small freeholds and old wooden villas in their own grounds sprawling across erratic paddy fields, so different in style to Thai farmland you get a real sense of being in another country. Founded over 110 years ago with  most of the resident’s still today being Vietnamese,  it was an obvious place for Vietnamese migrants to settle in and Uncle Ho did for a time as he was building his movement to free Vietnam from colonialism back in ………. Well, there’s the first stumbling block. Exactly when Ho Chi Mihn lived in there is problematic, the high quality glossy brochure I got from the Ho Chi Mihn Museum tells us that Uncle Ho arrived at the house in 1923 and stayed for 7 years. However all biographies of Ho Chi Mihn I found say he only lived in the village between 1928 and 1929.

Whatever the real timing the house where Ho Chi Minh lived during the twenties gathering support for his campaign to free Vietnam is owned today by Mr Tiew and his energetic daughter Miss Kornkanok who speaks four languages and does her upmost to make you feel welcome, she lives in the house next to Uncle Ho’s and if your lucky may invite you in to chat to for ages.

While living in the house, Lung Ho(Thai) or Jin (Vietnamese) learnt Thai and supported himself by teaching  fishing to the locals, he also had a hand at forming the land around the village being a prolific gardener planting several coconut and areca tress that are still there today

The house has been changed little from when Uncle Ho lived there. I’ve seen a lot of old houses in Thailand preserved but they have been mansions and a lot of old peasant wooden houses not preserved, this is the first peasant house I’ve seen kept as it was in the early 20thcentury and apart from a collection of photos and memorabilia decorating the walls it gives a better experience at what a peasant’s life may have been like back then than anywhere else I have been in Thailand and is worth a visit for this alone. Also at the heart of the village is a new modern museum built with Vietnamese money celebrating the life of their former president. In the Communist spirit both Uncle Ho’s house and the museum are free to enter, donations appreciated.

The Ban Song Khan Catholic Massacre Monument

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

If I had a baht for every time, back home and in the far east, I’ve been told or read how Buddhism is different, it’s a religion of tolerance and enlightenment, I’d almost have the daily wage of a red shirt by now. The Shrine of the Seven Martyrs show that at times Buddhism is more than capable of lining up alongside its Abrahamic counterparts in the prejudice, fanaticism and murder department.

The small village of Ban Song Khan lies in the far north of Mukdahan Province near the Nakhon Phanom Border, better described as the middle of bloody nowhere, look Ray Mears would think twice about going there.  Deep in rice growing territory surrounded kilometres of paddy fields and scatterings small wooden villages, what made this tiny un-outstanding village different was at sometime in its history it had been visited by French missionaries from just across the river in Lao and many people in the area were Catholics.


In 1932 Thailand had a coup de tate and absolute monarchy ended. The coupers however fell out on how to run the country, and ultimately  the army seized control under a Mussolini admiring dictator. Thailand was a very devolved country of many cultures and languages with little sense of being a single people. The fascist government began to address this and using techniques that had worked for Mussolini in Italy, a program a centralisation and nationalism was initiated along with anti foreign propaganda. Though aimed mostly at Japanese and Chinese, all foreign ideas came under suspicion and one of these were the Catholic residents of  Ban Song Khan.

Xenophobia of foreign influences reached a height in 1940 as the imminent threat of Japanese invasion emerged and the government concerned with stamping out everything foreign tasked the police with the job of dealing with Ban Song Khan. The demand was simple; to show their loyalty the whole village was to convert from Catholicism to Buddhism immediately. To enforce this order police in September 1940  fell upon the village knocking on each door and firing their guns in the air and running the catholic priest out of town. Believing this shock to the system would be enough they departed. Anyone who had the misfortune of attending Catholic school such as I did will know just how dumb that last part is. Catholics just don’t see intimidation (they also don’t see reason, common sense or the other person’s point of view either, as a matter of fact) as a reason to back down.

Leaderless and frightened the villagers turned to a Philip Siphong who took on the role of headman and encouraged the villages to resist the demand. On the 16th of September he became the first of the Martyrs after receiving a letter inviting him to visit the local sheriff, as he was travelling through the forest; he was ambushed and murdered by the police.

Village leadership now fell on two nuns who ran the village convent Agnes Phila and Lucia Khambang. Police made more visits to the village firing guns in the air, but the villages would still not capitulate. On December the 25th Police Chief Lue of Songram visited the village personally meeting the nuns in the local church, where he quite categorically ordered them to convert to Buddhism or they would be killed. The nuns apparently refused on the spot and the next day he returned with a number of policemen. The police ordered the nuns and several children to the convent cemetery and lined them up in front of the gathered villagers. The line consisted of 3 nuns and 5 children, the father of one of the children interveined and was able to carry his daughter away despite protests. The rest were given a final offer by police Chief Lue at gunpoint to convert or die which they refused and the police opened fire. The 3 nuns and 3 of the children were killed, however a fourth child Sorn apparently covered in blood but not hit crawled out from under the bodies when the police had gone. She lived to the 1990’s  and retold the story frequently.

Eventually an investigation was called and Police Chief Lue found responsible and received transfer to another station as punishment.

Shrine of the Seven Martyrs

Done with typical Catholic hyperbole, the monument resides on the site of the now vanished Ban Song Khan or swamps it more like. I guess when the Catholic Church budgeted for it, they didn’t quite realise how cheap building is in this country, expecting a reasonable size statue they got a mini Mecca. Also the Catholic church doesn’t seem to understand the notion of overkill, as every inch of the postmodern glass church at the heart of the monument is filled by images, references, mock tombs and stories of the martyrs. It’s surrounded by a complex which then tells the story in stone murual. Beside the monument is the massive convent and school site again knee deep in statues, monuments graves and references to the martyrs.

I guess the moral of the story is if you’re a dictator of a backward third world country with low labour and building material costs, try to avoid massacres at small insignificant catholic convents, otherwise the Catholic Church will go completely mental and build a humungous monument on a pyramidic scale to embarrass you about to for centuries to come. But if this doesn’t discourage you from doing it, make sure you do it in the middle of bloody nowhere where even catholic overkill of this proportion can go unnoticed.

The place is well worth a visit. Not only for the stunning scenary around but just for the shock of finding something on this scale built in such an out the way place and the fact you know if this happened in the UK  it would simply get a plaque on the wall.

The monument got me thinking, if you build something on this scale for just 7 people who were murdered for their Catholic beliefs by the police. How big must the monument for many who were murdered by the police for their Communist beliefs? I guess Isan better start saving.


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

I first hit Mukdahan 12 years ago, arrived at the bus station, took a tuk tuk through the town along Mekong road past the Indo-Chinese market, thought this looks interesting I must really visit this place someday, arrived at the ferry port and got on a boat to Savannaket in Lao. I’m sure on some planets in the cosmos 12 years counts as soon, so I’m back as promised.

Barely large enough to warrant the title town, this ragged little hamlet is best described as feeling like a seaside resort in the winter, the riverside markets and shops outnumbering the customers. Mukdahan is culturally and ethnically unique from the rest of Thailand and feels like a bordertown, which in my experience is very rare amongst bordertowns.  Unlike many small Thai towns Mukdahan still has a lot of character and has not yet succumbed to the grid of concrete building formula, especially near the banks of the Mekong where a lot the original wooden buildings survive.

The town is on a hub of trade a trade route between Lao, Thailand and Vietnam. Traditionally ferry boats from the town centre sedately shipped people back and forth across the Mekong, now they speed across the newly built Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge 2, 6 km upstream. which seems as if anything to make trade pass the town by, rather than help it, many traders complaining the place is nowadays is quieter if anything. since the bridge.

The town’s main draw is the Indochina market on the banks of the Mekong attracting legions of Thai bargain hunters to buy an amazing variety of goods at prices that would make a Chatuchak shopper cry. In fact you could buy here and resell on your stall at JJ and make a damn good profit, as I guess many are. Also if you listen carefully you can hear Thai, Lao, Vietnamese and several ancient dialects of Thai spoken as you wander through the Indochina Market.

For the non-shopper the town offers a host of act ivies, after pigging out in one of the town’s numerous Vietnamese restaurants, the only restaurants in town which don’t seem to a have a six page long insect section in their menu, the Mekongside road offers a rare experience. The road leaves the town to the north and just goes on for hundreds of kilometres, hugging the banks all the way. The road is old narrow and in poor repair and a brand new highways runs the same route nearby, so the old road is devoid of cars, offering an opportunity for tranquil cycling. Hiring a bicycle or motorcycle and taking a day trip up the road will offer the tourist about as good a trip into real Thailand as it is possible to get, as the road passes through farms, villages and spectacular scenery.

Ho Kaeo Mukdahan

Whoever thought of combining a viewing tower and ethnological museum obviously wasn’t thought a little weird by the people who let him build it and we should be grateful he wasn’t. Laying just a kilometre outside Muang Mukdahan, Ho Kaeo Mukdahan turned out to be something of a revelation and worth every moment of the lengthy time I spent there.

The tower is split into four levels. The ball at the top a shrine housing many Buddha images. Below a viewing tower offers a panarithic view of the lanscape around. To the to the east quite the best view of the Mekong there is anywhere in Thailand, to the north the town of Mukdahan, looking south the forestsand mountains of the national park and looking west the working paddyfields. Around the tower are comprehensive photomaps in English explaining every site you see as you look in that direction in detail

The first two floors are an ethnological museum of the unique people who make up the population of Mukdahan, who are Thai tribal rather than hill tribal. The museum houses tradional objects and displays of the tribes national costumes. A large wall display tells the history of the region, the unique local customs of the 8 Thai tribal groups and gives fascinating insights into the unique versions of Thai they each speak. A huge collection of original photos dating back from over century show just how unique Mukdahan is culturally from other Thais as they were still living a tribal lifestyle akin to what other Thai would have lived in the distant past. However most amazing of all the Museum houses all the original official documents from Mukdahan’s history which the visitor is free to handle and examine.

It took me 12 years to get back to Mukdahan, but it was really worth the wait.

Thai Visa Border Run (Burma)

(Victoria Point)

Well, since the area is full of foreigners getting stamps back into the Land of Noodle Soup & Nose-jobs, Aranya Prathet and it’s neighboring cross-border town of Cambodia’s Poipet happily secured most of the first of this two part blog. Now, if Cambodia’s sombrero carrying urchin beggars (or actually cheap holey brolleys), Macau style casinos and one of the sleaziest border towns to the east of Tijuana, isn’t your cup-of-tea, then head somewhere else instead; take your choice: Burma, Laos or Malaysia. Contemplating where you are actually are at the time of deciding on your border destination however, will hopefully comes up in yer decision making too! Let’s do Burma this time around.

Ranong / Victoria Point (Kawthaung)

Coming from Phuket (especially) or even Krabi or even Surat Thani or even Bangkok, this border-crossing can be ideal for spending an extra stint actually hanging around the place before getting back. Getting stamped outta Thailand at the border (short songthaew ride from Ranong Town) you’ll have to take a long-tail boat to Victoria Point on the Burmese side. Be warned, if the sun is out, then by the time you get back your face could resemble an extremely fresh home-grown beetroot. Ask your boatsman for a parasol or splash on the sunblock. The journey there and back isn’t that much of an epic journey, but it’s long enough.

Don’t get suckered (unless ya wanna flash that is) on chartering your own boat. Sod that and adamantly explain to the touts or actual boatsmen at the pier that you had been robbed by some dodgy ladyboy the night before on Patong Beach and you are left with only a couple of hundred baht to share a boat with other passengers. In fact, two hundred baht return is still paying a bit more than the locals.

Arriving at the Burmese crossing, you will have to fork over 500 baht for the privilege of helping to finance the leading Junta’s golfing vacation fund before getting a stamp in. Actually, the real charge is $10 but if the US note has even the slightest fold or wrinkle, your smiling official will explain that shoddy looking banknotes are not accepted by the glorious National Bank of Burma. Walking out of the office just five foot away, there is a decent enough chance that you may be accosted by a bunch of delinquent looking lads wanting to sell you the likes of Viagra, ganja, dirty movies, bootleg cigarettes and perhaps even a rubber sex doll.

Most visa-runners (including everyone who comes with visa-run tours from Phuket) sadly miss out on Victoria Point as it is a lovely place to hang around for a short while. Instead, they just get their stamps and do a complete u-turn. Do what’s best (since you come all that way anyway) and spend a short time in Victoria Point. The small town isn’t that great but it does have that Burmese feel too it. Then, for those who fancy some cheap booze and cigs it’s all there in the market (buy yourself and not from some shabby hawk).

Some beautiful views of the surrounding Andaman Sea can be had from at least a couple of restaurants (left to the pier). So, what better can be had than having a drink, sitting back and enjoying the hills of Thailand over the Andaman in the background? Well worth a short visit for the afternoon. And don’t forget Ranong province itself which is renowned for some lush unspoiled off-the-beaten-track islands (not forgetting, Ranong town is worth spending a night in too)
Ranong Town is a 5 hours bus trip from Phuket or if you are coming from Bangkok, 9 hour over-night buses can be found in the evening leaving from the Southern Bus Terminal (Sai Tai Mai)

(Get over that bridge into Burma)

Mae Sot / Myawadi (Burma)

If you are in the lower northern region of the country and in search of a new visa stamp, Mae Sot in Tak province could certainly be your best option. This may also be your favored destination if you are hoping to enjoy a wee bit of mother nature. Not too far from Mae Sot is undoubtedly Thailand’s most beautiful and famed waterfall, Tilosoo.

To get to the border, instead of taking the pricey advice of a tuk-tuk or motorbike-taxi geezer in town, simply pop on a songthaew in Mae Sot’s market area. So full of Burmese folk, you could imagine that you’d already arrived in Burma. After getting a stamp out of Thailand, you’ll have to walk over the seemingly never-ending border bridge before getting to the Burmese town of Myawadi. Take my word for it, it is a bit of a hike; up and over. Like at the Ranong/Burmese border point, the very much hassle free officers will much appreciate an old 500baht note to a crisp-fresh 10 US dollar one.

Myawadi isn’t too exciting but it’s worth having a nosey around. Under the actual bridge are a couple of nice restaurants where, again like in Victoria Point, you can enjoy a dish of Burmese curry or/and a glass of Myannmar Special Brew. In fact, you’ll probably be crying out for one of the latter after you think of the long stint back. Ok..ok… I suppose it isn’t that long; just that living in Thailand so long your legs get as lazy as a locals.

Mae Sot, like its Burmese counterpart, maybe not be a riveting place but its certainly worth staying the night. You may not get much of the opportunity to experience the eye-boggling sight of too many scadly-dressed Coyote singers in a local disco, but you may instead be enjoying the company of local acoustic music. There is some great Burmese munchies in town too, so don’t miss out on the opportunity. The DK (Duangkamol) Hotel probably offers, without a doubt, the best budget lodgings in town. If you were recognizing the name Duangkamol or DK, then yes, it’s the same family which runs DK Books, Thailand’s original English language book publishers. There is a nice lobby and a branch of DK Books downstairs.

Oh yes, just across from the entrance of DK Hotel is the lovely Café Corner run by Dan a journalist specializing on Burma and the plight of the Karen people there. Not just coffee of course, Dan and his wife dish out pizzas, lasagna, pate and even relishes and chutney. The last time I was there I had the homemade Burmese curry which went down real well with the statutory beer. Dan’s just the person to catch up with if you need any info on travelling around the area, and even into Burma.

Buses to Mae Sot leave from Bangkok in the evening from the Northern Bus Station (Morchid) and arrive in Mae Sot in the early hours. From Nakhorn Sawan, the Gateway to the North, there are buses going via Tak provincial town (Chiang Mai bus); the first one leaves extremely in the morning. Ask at the station in advance. From Tak bus station there are rusty old passenger vans which do the trip to Mae Sot in about an hour.

Mai Sai / Tachilek

Poor old Mae Sai, when I was first there 18 years ago the place was packed out with backpackers. It was in those days that just to get over the border into Burma on your one day visa there, was like ‘Wow… I’m in Burma!’ Nowadays, however, since the country has more than open to foreigners, very few folk actually bother staying in Mae Sai anymore – sad sight seeing decrepit guesthouses which have been left to rot. In fact, there are hardly any places left for backpackers to stay anymore, but you will find a couple of cost-effective places – just to the left under the bridge and along that road. As for nightlife, Mae Sot is virtually dead.

This border run though, is absolutely the quickest. Stamped out of Thailand, it’s then a two minute walk over the bridge to the Burmese check-point. Again, they too will be preferring a 500baht note to a ten buck one. Tachilek is one huge market knocking out a plethora of counterfeit Chinese goods. If that takes yer fancy, then go for it, otherwise after a quick look around you’ll be wanting to get back into Thailand.

This border-crossing is ideal however, for those in the north-north of Thailand. From Chiang Mai it’s about 5 hours by bus; there are also agents specializing in a passenger van visa run service; there and back in half a day. From Bangkok, buses leave in the early evening from the Northern Bus Terminal and take around 13-14 hours; yes, Mae Sai is quite a distance from the capital.

Happy visa run!

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