Thailand Pages; Attractions for the Tourist in North Eastern Thailand
Ask non-Thais what they know of the nation of Thailand, and most will be aware of Bangkok, the capital city, and they may be familiar with the exotic islands and beaches of the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, and a few will know of the city of Chang Mai and the hill tribe cultures of North West Thailand. But not so many will know of North Eastern Thailand, the region bordered to the west by the Petchabun Mountain Range and to the north and east by the nation of Laos. Indeed, the entire area in some respects has more in common with Laos than with the rest of Thailand, with a distinctive culture, lifestyle, and dialect.
Relatively few package tourists will travel to this part of Thailand, and consequently they miss out on the varied attractions to be seen or experienced here. This short page is an introduction to some of the places of interest in North Eastern Thailand, based on several short visits to the region made in the years 2009 and 2010.
All photos on this page were taken by the author in Udon Thani Province, Nong Khai Province, and Bueng Kan Province.
The Ancient Archaeology of Ban Chiang
Civilisation in North Eastern Thailand is now known to date back at least to the early Bronze Age of c 2000 BC, but the key evidence for this was only uncovered by accident in relatively recent times. In 1966 in the village of Ban Chiang in Udon Thani Province, an American anthropology student called Steve Young, was carrying out interviews for a thesis he was writing. One day, he was walking along a village path when he stumbled and fell over a tree root. Almost unbelievably, he found himself lying face to face with broken bits of half buried pigment decorated pottery. He immediately recognised the primitive nature of the pottery, and he also appreciated the uniqueness of the designs.
Excavations at the site began during the following year, and in addition to much more pottery, some human remains were found. Bronze artifacts were also uncovered (although the absence of bronze work from the very deepest, oldest excavations suggests that the civilisation here spanned the boundary between earlier Neolithic non-metal working culture and Bronze Age cultures).
Today, it is believed this region was actually first settled many thousands of years before the Bronze Age, but that the Ban Chiang discoveries represent the most significant finds of their age in South-East Asia. At the site there is a museum displaying the finds (with English labels), as well as the original archaeological dig with discoveries in situ and souvenirs to buy.
Queen Sirikit's 60th Birthday Arboretum
Just a few miles south of the City of Udon Thani there is a very different experience which visitors can enjoy. This is Queen Sirikit's 60th Birthday Anniversary Arboretum at Nong Saeng. These gardens were named in honour of the Queen's birthday in 1992, and they are one of four such parks in Thailand.
The gardens are free to enter and the landscaping is really attractively laid out. Sadly (or perhaps gladly) the gardens seem to be so little known that they are often bereft of visitors and one can stroll around and enjoy the plants in peace and tranquility.
Udon Thani Museum
Whilst in Udon Thani, it is worthwhile paying a brief visit to the city museum, which affords a useful way to gather together thoughts and experiences of time spent in North Eastern Thailand. The museum holds many exhibits which relate to the history, the culture and the natural sciences of this part of Thailand, and notably the prehistoric relics of the Ban Chiang era. Exhibits are labelled in English as well as the native language. The museum was built in 1920 as a school hall and is not only laid out attractively on the inside, but the exterior is also extremely attractive to look at.
Phu Phrabat Park
To the north west of Udon Thani on the western edge of the Phu Phan mountains there is a sandstone ridge standing about 1000 feet (300m) high. Atop this hill is perhaps the most remarkable of all the attractions of North East Thailand - a site of curious rock formations, prehistoric human culture and Buddhist religious shrines.
The rock formations are dramatic, bizarre and seemingly gravity defying. But they are all the work of nature. Millions of years ago, great ice sheets covered this area and the force of nature driven through glaciers, broke up huge rock boulders and slowly transported them here. When the temperatures rose and the ice finally receded, the boulders were just left, dumped haphazardly, abandoned where they lay. And here they have lain ever since.
Nature had played its part in creating this scenic wonder, but now human intervention would add to the mix. As prehistoric peoples arrived in the area, they found these stones - some of which were perched precariously on top of others - to be natural shelters. And here they created rock art which survives to this day. More than 40 of the boulder sites have evidence of human dwelling, or of red pigmented drawings of people or local animals which they hunted, such as buffalo.
At some sites the inhabitants of this region gouged small holes in the rocks above and the ground below and wedged in sticks to form a cage like barrier to keep out wild animals. Today modern canes are placed here to demonstrate the technique.
Whether Stone Age peoples also saw religious symbolism in these strange standing stones is not known, but certainly for subsequent generations, the stones acquired a sacred appeal which led to Buddhist monks making sanctuaries under - or indeed inside - the rocks, and they also carved some Buddha iconography in the area. And legends then grew up around the rock formations in an attempt to make some sense of them.
One such story relates to Hoh Nang Usa - the most sculptured of all the boulder edifices. Here a giant slab of rock perching on an upright mound, is central to a local legend about a beautiful princess - Nang Usa - who was forced to live in the rock room near the top by her over-protective father. In reality the room had been carved many centuries before by a monk who lived here.
Phu Phrabat is a remarkable place on many levels around which one can wander for several hours, and it is a great site of natural and human history.
Salakeoku Statue Park
A quick drive to the north east of Phu Phrabat, but in a different province of Thailand altogether, is the site of one of the most extraordinary 'theme parks' you will find anywhere in the world. In the Province of Nong Khai a short distance from the Laos border, there stand more than one hundred great stone statues, which look for all the world like they could be ancient and venerable religious icons. Not quite. In fact they were all created less than 50 years ago, albeit with a strong spiritual motivation in mind.
This is Salakeoku. Unorthodox mystic and shaman Luangpu Bunluea Surirat was a Laotian who fled his country during the Communist takeover of Laos in the 1970s. He chose to settle in North Eastern Thailand where he decided to put into concrete his belief that the teachings of all religions could be united together in greater harmony. He began the construction of a park full of statues which were inspired by the many faiths of the world, including various Hindu Gods, Christian icons, assorted demons and miscellaneous characters from mythology, as well as a host of Buddha figures. Indisputably eccentric, his creation of Salakeoku includes many devotional statues, the surreal and fantastic, and not a little humour (note the photo of a loving couple of skeletons - the strings tied to their wrists jokingly symbolise the Thai custom which expresses a wish for good health and fortune!)
Unfortunately I have not yet been able to understand the significance of each and every statue (if indeed they all have a recognised significance). Any help would be appreciated.
This extraordinary park is well worth a visit if travelling through this region, as it is a bizarre and quirky museum and exhibition. It is not treated as a sacred place, so there is a lack of formality attached to these statues. Rather, it is a tourist attraction with refreshments, ornamental fish ponds and souvenir shops. Incidentally for anybody who wishes to learn more about this place, and searches for it on the Internet, it has been translated into English under many different spellings, including 'Sala Keow Ku', 'Sala Keo Koo' and 'Salakaewkoo.'
Further east in Bueng Kan Province and a mere 12 miles from the Laos border is a sandstone hill known as Phu Thok. At the base of the hill in landscaped grounds is a Buddhist pagoda called Chetiya Khiri Wihan which was built in 1968. The pagoda is just one part of a temple complex which stretches up the side of the hill. Climbing to the top of Phu Thok to places of meditation was symbolic of a path to virtue for the monks who lived here. And soon after the opening of the temple, a steep pathway and steps were constructed for the monks to enable them to make this climb.
Today tourists can use this path to climb the hill and visit the temple shrines, but also for great panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. As can be seen in the image which accompanies this section, the wooden planked footpath / bridge to the top of the 600 ft (200 m) high Phu Thok is not for the faint-hearted, held in place as it is by timber struts over a vertical drop. But it's been there for about 40 years so I guess it's safe. The walk is not too tiring if you take it slowly, and there are rest stops along the way.
The Waterfall of Seven Colours
Waterfalls are a common sight in a land where the upland regions provide the necessary hilly landscapes for numerous cascades, and the rainy season brings torrential downpours. Bueng Kan Province is the setting for what surely must be one of the most romantically and beautifully named waterfalls to be found anywhere in the world - it is called Namtok Chet Si, but in English it is called 'The Waterfall of Seven Colours', christened for the seven rainbow colours in the spray when seen against the sunlight.
During the dry season this waterfall can be greatly reduced in power, but when rain is plentiful and the flow is forceful, day trippers will flock to the site, and bathe in the spray right at the very base of the falls. There are also numerous pools and minor rapids here, and for the most part it is safe even for little children provided they are supervised. There have been fatalities here - one in the year when I visited - and the rocks can be very slippery. But with sense and care, the falls can be great fun.
The waterfall is a popular attraction for local Thais who enjoy bathing here when the day is hot (and there's a lot of hot days in Thailand). But it should also be on the agenda for any foreign tourists visiting the region. Located very close to Phu Thok, the Waterfall of Seven Colours makes a great place to relax and cool off after climbing that hill !
Brief mention must also be made of some other important buildings and sites which are not exclusive to North Eastern Thailand, but which may be found in the cities, towns and villages and the countryside across the nation. These are the temples and religious iconography of Buddhism. Many of the villages in Thailand have their own little temples, and many of these are attractive, bright and ornate, and well worth a visit. They also make great photographic subjects, both in the whole and in the detail.
The temple shown in the photographs here is just one of those to be found in North Eastern Thailand. It happened to be the nearest temple to the village of Nanokhong in Udon Thani Province where I lived for several weeks as the guest of a Thai family, and that is the reason why it is featured here. (See A Westerner in a Thai Village)
Statues of Buddha are, as one would expect in a predominantly Buddhist country, to be found in temples and religious sites across Thailand. But they are also to be found on hilltops, presumably as a source of inspiration or comfort which can be seen for miles and miles around. This large statue could easily be visited as a winding road leads to the top of the hill where it stands. Up close, it is an imposing sight.
Sadly, I am not certain of the exact location of this statue, which I came across whilst driving through the land, and I've not been able to find images of this particular Buddha to identify it further, but there are many similar statues to be seen across Thailand.
Conclusions and Recommendations
North Eastern Thailand is a region of the country comparatively little known to most Westerners. Indeed some of the attractions shown on this page are even difficult to locate on the Internet as little has been written about them. However, I hope I have shown on this page that for anybody passing through this part of the world, there is a diverse range of places to visit and experiences to enjoy, from the aesthetic appeals of the Queen's Arboretum and the hill at Phu Thok, to the ancient and intriguing sites of Ban Chiang and Phu Phrabat. The religious splendour of Buddhist temples and statues, the extraordinarily ancient-looking, yet modern statues of Salakeoku and the natural delights of the Waterfall of Seven Colours, are just a few of the many sites and sights of North Eastern Thailand which deserve to be better known.
Map of North East Thailand and Southern Laos
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