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April 23, 2017, Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand

Beauty cast in stone in east Thailand

Besides a Grand Canyon-like islet, Ubon Ratchathani also has Thai pop and artisan cafes

Tan Hui Yee

This is as far east as you can go in Thailand.

Ubon Ratchathani, one of the biggest provinces of the north- eastern Isan region, is transforming from a backwater stopover to an attraction in its own right.

New malls, artisan eateries and boutique hotels are sprouting up to complement its traditional festivals and stunning scenery.

But rickshaw riders still ply the roads and the sound of traditional mouth organs fills its street markets, giving Ubon Ratchathani a laid-back charm that is drawing both local and foreign travellers.

SATURDAY

1. PREHISTORIC ART

The sharp morning air jolts me awake as I reach the rocky hill station atop Pha Taem National Park. In the distance is Laos, separated from Thailand by the gleaming Mekong River.

 

Following the signs, I descend into the forest, spot the first cluster of prehistoric artwork: giant fish, human forms and fish traps - carefully etched onto the cliffside and exuding a pinkish hue about 3,000 to 4,000 years after they were drawn.

Shards of light piercing through the forest cast dramatic shadows on the wall, creating a second dimension to these early forms of craftsmanship.

There are several more paintings that entice me along the undulating 3.8km trail, which hugs the underside of the cliff. This probably explains why they were discovered only in 1981.

Where: Pha Taem National Park, Huai Phai sub-district, Khong Chiam district, Ubon Ratchathani 34220

Admission: 400 baht (S$16.30) a person

Info: Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation office, e-mail phataem_np@hotmail.com or call +66-4525-2581

2. WATERFALL AND FLOWERS

You know you have reached a waterfall when you hear the distant roar of falling water mixed with laughter. But a sign in front of me says there is a "flower field" ahead. Intrigued, I trudge through a narrow path and am rewarded by a sea of purple and yellow petals bobbing in the breeze. The wildflowers are nursed by a stream that flows downwards into Soi Sawan waterfall.

Info: As above

3. MINI GRAND CANYON

"Look," one excited local tourist says to another. "This is the part that looks like the Grand Canyon."

I squint at the direction she is looking, where the stream wends its way around mounds of weathered rock.

While it does bear a passing resemblance to the Arizona landmark, Sam Phan Bok, or "three thousand basins" in the local Isan language, is distinctive in its own right.

The rocky islet that is submerged in rainy season emerges during the dry months, revealing improbably circular ponds of water and oddly shaped rocks that stretch as far as the eye can see.

In this vast moonscape, I hop, from one rock to another, losing my sense of time.

Where: Ban Pong Pao, Lao Ngam sub-district, Pho Sai district, Ubon Ratchathani 34340

 

Info: Tourism Authority of Thailand, Ubon Ratchathani, call +66-4524-3770 or +66-4525-0714

4. FRIED FROGS AND SWEATERS

A sudden gust of wind brings the chills and I realise my thin cotton shirts will not last me through the night. Shivering, I head to Ratchabut night market in downtown Ubon Ratchathani.

The vendors are ready with 200-baht sweaters and 100-baht beanies. Handicrafts, antiques and everyday wares can be found at this weekend market, but it is the food that steals the show.

It is a feast for all senses: balls of deep-fried sticky rice and fermented sausage piled up high, waiting to be crumbled into a piquant salad; steaming vats of spicy bamboo soup; glistening sago dumplings filled with peanut paste.

Deep-fried frogs are heaped on banana leaves next to chicken. Buttery columns of grilled bread are served on skewers like ice cream.

One vendor lovingly dips a disc of grilled sticky rice into a bowl of beaten egg mixture, before sticking it back on her charcoal grill to perfect a crispy coat. Nearby, an elderly busker warbles to the recorded music of the Isan mouth organ called the khaen.

Where: Ratchabut Road, Nai Mueang sub-district, Mueang district, Ubon Ratchathani 34000

5. MUSCLE BOYS WITH MUSIC

Someone I know in Bangkok scoffed when we talked about the nightlife in Ubon Ratchathani. I wish I could see her face now, as I enter 99 Bar & Restaurant, escorted by impossibly pretty muscle boys in tank tops and jeans.

But it is the live music that draws me here - simple acoustic fare with one guitar and matching vocals. The trio on stage entertain diners with sugary Thai pop interspaced with song requests such as Lucky by Jason Mraz and Colbie Caillat.

For some variation, I walk down the street in this emerging entertainment and retail cluster called Ubon Square.

In the neon- infused darkness of Relax pub, a bespectacled lead singer growls into the microphone, paced by the quivering notes of electric guitars.

Where: 99 Bar & Restaurant 411/1 Chayangkul Road, Mueang district, Ubon Ratchathani, 34000

Info: Call +66-8964-96555

SUNDAY

6. QUIRKY BREAKFAST

Samchai Coffee is one of those coffee shops where diners are seated so fast and food served so swiftly that you actually feel bad lingering. Except that, on the morning I turn up, the Bee Gees' I Started A Joke is playing softly on its speakers, while another voice is giving instructions to waitresses over the same sound system.

That is the voice of proprietor Samchai Lerttichai, 45, who is pouring coffee into cups while speaking into a mini microphone.

"Today is the 18th of December," he announces. "If you are born on 18th December, you get to eat for free. And after your breakfast, please come to collect 300 baht from me."

One diner looks up from her bowl of pork soup, just one of the items on Samchai's exhaustive list of breakfast treats, which include the popular fried eggs with Vietnamese sausage. "I wish I was born today," she says with a sigh.

Five minutes later, a beaming man appears, waving his identity card to claim his freebies.

"I want to see people smile in the morning," Mr Samchai tells me. "I don't want to see grumpy faces."

Where: Samchai Coffee, 56-58 Phadaeng Road, Mueang district, Ubon Ratchathani 34000

Info: Call +66-4524-0241

7. 3D FANTASTIC

I never thought this place would be so much fun. Located in a four-storey building called Country of Arts 3D Gallery are pop-out scenes painted on the walls, floors and ceilings, each with a helpful spot marked out for the photographer to create the most realistic-looking pictures.

The elderly Thai women who arrived before me giggle as they insert themselves into an Indiana Jones-style scene with a cowboy on horseback pursued by a train.

Venturing deeper into the gallery, I am struck by the images of bomb blasts from the 2008 Hollywood movie, The Hurt Locker, and martial arts icon Bruce Lee kicking out of a picture frame.

The humdrum section on famous icons of the world is eclipsed by fantastical scenes involving Jurassic sea creatures swallowing sharks and the artists' own take on the perspective-distorting lithograph Waterfall by Dutch artist M.C. Escher.

I cannot resist having my own picture taken - talking to a giant frog in the middle of a snow-rimmed pond.

Where: Country of Arts 3D Gallery, 416 Thepyothi Road, Nai Mueang sub-district, Mueang district, Ubon Ratchathani 34000

Admission: 180 baht a person

Info: www.country3dubon.com

8. DESIGNER CAFFEINE

Ubon Ratchathani's college-going crowd can be found in the numerous artisan cafes that have sprouted up in the town's Pichitrangsan Road. Some are stripped-down cool, while others look like movie sets.

Then there is Nam Sai Art & Decor, which looks like a mix of an antique shop, cafe and ice-cream parlour.

One cabinet lining its wall is filled with vintage tableware and another with antique dolls. The tastefully curated furniture makes this a cosy place to while away an afternoon. The coffee is pleasantly robust.

Where: Nam Sai Art & Decor, 136 Ratchabut Road, Mueang district, Ubon Ratchathani 34000

Info: Call +61-8400-17018

 

9. BOOKS ACTUALLY

An affectionate black cat sidles up the minute my car pulls up beside the Mediterranean-style house that is Philadelphia bookstore.

It turns out there are five of them, roaming the sun-kissed garden and mini outdoor amphitheatre that used to host socio-political discussions before Thailand's military government outlawed all political gatherings.

"All my cats are called 'cat'," says bookstore-cafe owner Witayakon Sowat, who introduces himself as "Jeab" - "the sound chicks make".

His independent bookstore has fiction and non-fiction from Thai authors and translated versions of classics such as Anna Karenina. Upstairs, there are more books, two guestrooms - available for rent - and sketches by Thai artists. Coffee, tea and soda are available.

Where: Philadelphia bookstore, 397 Moo 3, Muang Srikai district, Warin Chamrap district, Ubon Ratchathani 34190

Info: Call +66-8745-81358

10. GO VIETNAMESE

The singer in the wood-panelled Indochine restaurant greets the old-timers individually, as it is to be expected in one of the oldest Vietnamese restaurants in Ubon Ratchathani. The first Vietnamese migrants arrived in the 19th century after fleeing French imperialists. Many now adopt Thai names and customs, but the culinary imprint has been lasting.

Kuay chap yuan - thin rice noodles in a broth served with Vietnamese sausage - and slivery pork dumplings called pak mor are standard fare and served with relish here.

Where: Indochine, 170 Sappasit Road, Nai Mueang sub-district, Mueang district, Ubon Ratchathani 34000

Info: Call +66-4524-5584

GETTING THERE

Several flights run every day from Bangkok to Ubon Ratchathani. Thai Airways has flights from Suvarnabhumi Airport, while Thai AirAsia, Nok Air and Thai Lion Air fly to Ubon Ratchathani from Don Muang airport.

Attractions in Ubon Ratchathani tend to be spread out, so it is best to hire a car for travels. Cars can be rented from Ubon Ratchathani airport.

WHERE TO STAY

• De Lit hotel (www.facebook.com/DelitUbon, call +66-8190-07287). Rates start at 850 baht (S$35) a night. This is a quaint boutique hotel owned by a local architect who lives next door with his family.

• Nartsiri Residence (www.naartsirihotel.com, call +66-8236-93252). Rates start at 850 baht a night. It is a neat, value-for-money hotel in the heart of town.

TRAVEL TIPS

• One of the best times to visit Ubon Ratchathani is in July, when the annual candle festival and procession is held to mark the Buddhist lent. Artisans from Thailand and abroad convene to carve wax sculptures.

• English is less commonly spoken in Ubon Ratchathani compared with Bangkok, so learn some Thai phrases beforehand. The locals are very friendly and helpful.

• It can get chilly at the year's end, so bring a coat

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