Udon Thani (19 – 20 December 2015)
I was a little worried when the lady at the check in counter told me that they could not check me in all the way to Udon Thani. That meant that I would have to clear customs and collect my bag in Bangkok and then check in again for my flight to Udon Thani. Would I ever make it there?
It was hard not to be worried, being the highly insecure worry wart that I am. To me anything that could go wrong would go tremendously wrong.
But I was so wrong this time. I wasted at least fifteen minutes brisk walking (like I was trying to win an Olympics medal) to the transfer area, got confirmation at the information counter that I indeed had to clear customs and collect my bag and then check in again, spent only at most ten minutes clearing customs and collecting my bag, then went upstairs to the check in counter and spent no more than another ten minutes checking in. And I had so much time left before my next flight I got terribly bored! I have to give credit to the international airport in Bangkok for being so efficient.
I met my guide at the little airport in Udon Thani. N was both surprised and glad at the same time to see me. She had expected a stuffy old Caucasian historian based on my itinerary and she had been quite stressed out about it. I think she was also glad that I was not only not an academic but young and Asian.
As it was getting late, we headed straight to the village of Ban Chiang from the airport. I had wanted to come here to see the remains of an ancient people from some 5,000 years ago. This was perhaps the earliest known civilisation in Southeast Asia and I thought that I should take a look at its remains. But of course having visited the place I now know that this was mostly of academic interest. No wonder N had presumed that I was an old stuffy historian.
Ban Chiang is probably best known, if it is known at all, for its many jars with swirling patterns. And countless of these seem to have been unearthed in the area. Many were on display in the nice little museum in the village along with some other finds.
The finds from Ban Chiang include the remains of people of that ancient civilisation. These were so well preserved that scientists today could tell a lot about the general health conditions of those people and their probable diet.
One of the actual excavated sites is preserved and open for visits. This was actually an ancient burial site and several well-preserved sets of skeletons were left there together with the ubiquitous jars with swirling patterns. The dead were apparently buried with not only jewellery but also these jars which were placed on the bodies before burial.
Most significant for me about Ban Chiang was that it outright trashed the old notion among academics that Southeast Asia was a late bloomer on the cultural and technological front. It was previously believed that bronze technology was established in the Middle East around 3,000 BC and then spread to Southeast Asia 2,500 years later. I learnt at the Ban Chiang museum that archaeologists had discovered in this region the existence of bronze technology dating back to between 3,000 and 2,000 BC.
Except for one Caucasian man and his local wife and daughter, I do not remember seeing any other foreign visitor at Ban Chiang that day. In fact N confirmed that the Isaan region was not a traditional tourist area. The few foreigners who visited were according to her almost all Caucasian men with their Isaan wives.
To think that I was somewhat an oddity in the area. That made me so proud!
The next day we drove up north towards the border with Laos. We stopped at the village of Ban Na Kha which is a centre of cotton and silk trading. Under Thailand’s OTOP programme, OTOP being short for “One Tambon One Product”, the promoted product of the tambon, or sub-district which Ban Na Kha is a part of, is silk products. According to N, Ban Na Kha’s silk products beat other products manufactured in the tambon in a competition to become that tambon’s OTOP product.
Under the OTOP programme, one superior product from each tambon is selected to receive branding and promotion. This is a programme meant to stimulate entrepreneurship and was started by the country’s former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
We reached Nong Khai before long and headed straight for Sala Kaew Ku. This is a park featuring huge fantasy like concrete sculptures with Buddhist and Hindu themes and they were created by the same person who had created the statues in the Buddha Park just across the Mekong in Laos.
The creator of the statues, long dead, is now enshrined on the third floor of this building in the park. N was uncomfortable being in that building but despite herself took me up to see the shrine. Well, I was not that comfortable being up there too, for some inexplicable reason, and if she had told me about her own discomfort I would have definitely agreed not to go up.
Unfortunately, Sala Kaew Ku was not done playing with N. She spotted a snake in the grass near one of the statues and she was so frightened by it that she had to leave the park immediately.
Nong Khai sits on the banks of the Mekong and just across the river is Laos. The Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge that connects the two countries has one end in the city.
The area is famous for the balls of light that appear out of the river and float into the sky every year on the full moon night of the 11th month of the Thai lunar calendar. This day usually occurs around the end of October and marks the end of the three-month long Vassa, or the Buddhist Lent to put things crudely. The locals say that these balls of light are the breath of nagas living in the river and released into the sky as tribute to Buddha.
The weather in the area was perfect, just as I had remembered it during my trip to Vientiane almost ten years ago. We strolled along the river looking across to Laos and I later realised that I must have travelled along the road on the Lao side to reach the Buddha Park further east and had looked across the river to see Thailand.
The local bazaar was nothing really exciting but N did draw my attention to some hairy looking strips of meat sold at many stalls. For some reason she thought that I would be shocked by them and she kept telling me to smile before looking. They were buffalo skin and used in soups.
The skins barely shocked me. I think I had seen much worse things. But they hardly looked appetising to me too what with all the hair still on them.
With the sight of the buffalo skins still fresh on my mind, N took me to a local restaurant by the river for lunch. She ordered for us a large fish freshly grilled over charcoal. This was eaten with many varieties of vegetables. The fish was really fresh and good.
I think N was really glad that I was her client this time round and not the usual European groups. Apparently her European clients only wanted really clean restaurants and were always ordering the same boring dishes, e.g. chicken with cashew nut. With me she could get a little more creative with the food.
N ordered a papaya salad Isaan-style for herself. In fact she had eventually two of those because she loved it so much. I tried some and could not handle the spicy heat. And I think that I am more capable than most people at home at handling spicy food. I have heard about how crazy Thai people can get with spicy food but I cannot imagine how their stomachs are able to handle so much spice and heat so often.
After a meal that took too long to finish, with N telling me all about her favourite Thai pop idols, we finally left the Mekong and headed south towards the Phu Phra Bat Historical Park. This is a unique place with curious rock formations littered around an area that was previously beneath and shaped by an ancient sea from millions of years ago. If one looked closely at the stony ground in the area it was still possible to see wavy patterns.
The park reminded me a little of the Smurf village.
The rock formations were used by people in the past as religious shrines. Today it is possible to see evidence of this use from the sema stones that still surround some of these shrines. Sema stones are still used in Indochina to demarcate holy ground. There are also carvings and statues of Buddhist and Hindu origins from different historical periods on and among some of the rocks.
At the same time, the rock formations are the setting for a local legend. According to this legend, a king forced his daughter to live in the formation now called Hor Nang Usa (the poor girl’s name was Nang Usa) to keep her away from her suitor whom he did not approve of. Fortunately, the princess managed to sneak a message to her lover and they ended up happily ever after.
The rock formation where the princess was forced to live in is called Hor Nang Usa and seems to be the unofficial symbol of the park.
Looking at Hor Nang Usa, I have no idea why the princess could not have jumped out and escaped. It was not exactly a skyscraper. It was barely even a storey high. Come to think of it, she could perhaps have simply climbed down the silly rock. If she could have managed to sneak a message to her lover maybe she could have been resourceful enough to leave her alleged rocky prison on her own. Or maybe climbing and jumping was too unladylike for her? But alright, it was just a story, a fairy tale.
Some of the rock formations shelter prehistoric paintings. Most of them are so faded by now that it took me quite a bit of effort to spot them. A very helpful man (who happened to have Teochew ancestry) working at the park had to use a long stick to point out a painting of an elephant to me before I finally saw it, even though it was right in front of my face the whole time.
The park was really wild and, other than the rock formations and dirt paths, covered in vegetation. To my excitement, and N’s horror, I spotted a snake on one of the rock formations. I ran to it to get a closer look and hopefully take a picture of the young snake. N was aghast and kept squealing at me about how it might jump onto me. I was disappointed however that the snake seemed so afraid of me and slithered off between the rocks in a flash before I could snap a proper picture. Was it my eagerness that scared it away?
On hindsight, I suppose I should have taken N’s advice and stayed away from the snake. A friend of mine in Singapore heard the story and scolded me for scaring the snake. But on the other hand, how often do I get to see a snake in the wild especially in Singapore?
Anyway, snake or no snake, I must say that Isaan had been pretty amazing for me. The Phu Phra Bat Historical Park earned high marks from me for being really unique and yet historical at the same time. Now why would this part of Thailand not get even a tiny portion of the visitors that go to Bangkok? For some strange reason the Thai government did not seem enthusiastic at all about promoting this region as a tourist destination. Is there any wonder then that N had thought that I was some old Caucasian academic researching the history of that region?