Thursday, December 13, 2012

NAKHON PHANOM - THAILAND

The city of the mountains, is what Nakhon Phanom means. Now, there is no mountains here in the provincial capital of the province with the same name, but they are clearly visible on the other side of the Mekong River in Laos. 



Phra That Phanom Pagoda
Though it is so far away from Bangkok or any other large city, Nakhon Phanom has a rich history back in time of the Lan Xang Kingdom and in recent history during the Vietnam War. 








We love to drive up the roads next to the Mekong River and have done it several times. I personally love spending an important day, like a birthday, in this area. Sitting in an open air restaurant along the river and eating fresh fish and following the Thai concept of "sabai sabai" or relaxing and enjoying in English is one way to experience this area. 



The other way is of course to visit the many interesting and ancient temples with it's many important Buddha statues. Though we found that due to break-ins and theft many of the historic statues are now locked up, either permanently and no longer visible, or behind thick glass and bars. Often, our request to pay respect to the Buddha images was met with a more than sceptical expression and the comments and stories about people "ordering" images to be stolen. Hence we promised not to publish any of the rare images we were allowed to take from such Buddha statues. 
Temple of Phra That Phanom

The Mekong River is pretty wide here and mostly flows quietly down it's path, with the occasional fishing boat crossing. 

The pagoda of Phra That Phanom is the most significant temple of the area, going back to B.C. times when it was still a pagoda in Khmer style. Local people pointed us to several smaller temples with awesome mural paintings and also interesting temple structures. So bringing some extra time for further exploration up here is always a good idea, besides relaxing next to the river and enjoying the atmosphere of rural Isan. 







Tuesday, November 6, 2012

THA UTHEN - THAILAND

Wat Phra That Tha Uthen temple


 
Mekong with view into Laos
Tha Uthen was probably our most northeastern part of the Kingdom of Thailand we ever travelled to. It is part of the province of Nakhon Phanom which borders the Laotian province of Khammouan. 

Its a very beautiful location located right next to the river Mekong and offers nice views over to the mountainous terrain of Laos. The drive along the river from Nong Khai to Tha Uthen will reward the traveller with some of the most remote areas of Thailand, though we decided to travel here on a separate trip, working our way up from the province of Mukdahan. 

Gates of Tha Uthen temple
Besides the many beautiful spots along the river Mekong, our main reason for driving up here was the temple and pagoda of Wat Phra That Tha Uthen, located right along the mighty river. Hence it is also getting it's fair share of floods during the rainy season. 

The pagoda of Wat Phra That Tha Uthen is a very quiet spot. No tourists were here when we visited and thus allowing us to spend a lot of value time here, talking to the monks and enjoying all the detailed decorations of the temple buildings. 



Wat Traiphum temple
Driving further along the Mekong we also visited the historic temple Wat Traiphum, also written Triphum in some documents. We were told many different dates and stories about the founding of this area with people from present-day Laos, but our main interest was to see a standing Buddha image, called Phra Bang. It was cast in the ancient Lan Chang-style in A.D. 1465 and was brought across the river. 

Phra Bang Buddha image

Tha Uthen has an interesting and active history and is a great spot to visit in order to dive deeper into the real Isan (northeast) culture.     







Mekong river along Tha Uthen district




Tuesday, September 11, 2012

NONG KHAI - THAILAND

One of my favourite spots in Thailand is the provincial capital of the province of Nong Khai with the same name.  With the location of the town along the Mekong River, Nong Khai is the northern-most outpost of the so-called Isan, the North-East of the Kingdom. 

Wat Pho Chai
Bangkok is over 600 km away, while the distance to the capital of Laos, Vientiane, is just over 20 km. In the past this area up here has had a lively and war-ridden history of conflicts between the old kingdoms of Lan Xang, Lanna and Siam. This multi-cultural influence was also the reason why we made several trip up here, since the area contains some of the most important temples and Buddha images. 

The town itself is rather quiet and laid back. Hotels and restaurants along the river are great and we always enjoyed sitting right next to the huge river and enjoying fresh fish. The Naga festival in the fall will turn this small town upside down and bring thousands of visitors. 

Wat Phra Buddhabat Bua Bok
Wat Phrabat Nong Khai
On one of our first trips we came up here from the nearby Phu Phrabat Historical Park and the temple Wat Phra Buddhabat Bua Bok. While the Historical Park is great for hiking through nature and offers great views over the lowlands to the north as well as historical sites, offers the temple an ancient pagoda and a footprint of the Buddha. Both sites are still located in the province of Udon Thani but it is just a short drive on a round tour we did to Nong Khai. 

In the city of Nong Khai we visited Wat Pho Chai twice to see the Lan Xang-era Buddha image called Luang Phor Phra Sai, which is one of my favourite Buddha images. The temple itself is actually run like a business and it is very crowded on holidays. Every tour bus stops here as well, but enjoying the temple is still exciting. 

There are many temples in the city along the Mekong, which are all important and all contain important Buddha images. We even tried all our negotiation skills to visit the temples and were turned back on several of them. Reason was the fact that they contain some of the oldest and most valuable Buddha images which are in danger to be stolen. Hence I did promise several abbots not to publish the photos I was allowed to take in some of them. 

Picturesque is the pagoda Phrathat Nong Khai to the east of the town. It offered a great view onto the river and Laos on the other side. The whole site is quiet and almost meditative when one sits on the stairs of the temple overlooking the Mekong. 

Another one of my favourite temples is Wat Sri Khun Muang, which unfortunately is more a parking lot than a temple ground, but many temples here are using their space as parking lots. The nearby market on the river is famous, so most tour groups and almost every private party comes here and is looking for parking. 

Along highway 211
The nearby Wat Sri Muang which is the starting point of the market was one reason for us to drive all the way up to Nong Khai on another trip. It was always locked up and we really wanted to visit the inside of the temple, so we got lucky one year and got permission to see it. 

Wat Phra Bat Nong Khai
To the west of the town we followed the small highway 211 along the Mekong and visited a few lonely temples with very friendly monks to get to one of the most sacred sites in Isan! It features on old Indian-style stupa, many highly respected Buddha images and a 16th century A.D. Lao-style chedi, called Phra That Bang Puan. This is a very quiet place, which allows one to stroll around and enjoy the temple structures. Many of the old structures have signs posted, explaining Buddhism and the importance of the structure. 

Wat Phra That Bang Puan
 Nong Khai is a special place to visit along the Mekong river and truly enjoyable. Unfortunately we did not yet make it across the Thai-Lao friendship bridge to visit Vientiane. Another good reason to come back here in the future.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

THA BO DISTRICT IN NONG KHAI - THAILAND


Side arm of the Mekong River
Our long journey along the Mekong River in North-Eastern Thailand's province of Nong Khai finally brought us closer to bigger towns. Tha Bo was where we were heading, always driving along the Mekong and the border of Laos. 

Luang Phor Ong Tue Buddha
Here the river turns sharply south, then turns east again before heading north towards Laos and finally continues to flow east when passing the city of Nong Khai. Tha Bo lies at the confluence of several smaller rivers, canals and the the point where the river makes it's first turn to the east. 


Wat Sri Chomphu Ong Tue Temple
Our main reason for driving around up here were several important temples.  Wat Sri Chomphu Ong Tue was one of them. It is also called Wat Nam Mong, this is an old Lao-style temple, which houses the largest principal Buddha image in the province of Nong Khai, Luang Phor Ong Tue. It is believed that the image was cast in 1562 and is a mix of Lanna and Lan Chang styles. The handsome statue of Luang Phor Ong Tue is one of my favourite Buddha statues and we visited this far away place twice now.  The temple is located along a quiet side arm of the river, while the Mekong itself passes a bit to the east from here. 
Wat Tha Kok Ruea temple

The mix of rural North-East Thailand with it's rich cultural background makes a trip up here worthwhile. While this trip took us along the Mekong River, we had one trip over land and through the province of Udon Thani's back country to visit Phu Phrabat Historical Park before heading to Wat Ong Tue. Going cross country when everything is green right after the rainy season is very rewarding.

Wat Tha Kok Ruea temple
We also looked for restaurants along the river, so we drove into the district town of Tha Bo, circled around a few times until we found a good restaurant which offered fresh fish from the Mekong. We finally found one directly along the river banks and next to the small Wat Tha Kok Ruea temple. It is a very quiet place but good food and nice views onto the river made us stop here for quite a while before continuing into Nong Khai town.

 



Friday, July 13, 2012

Along the Mekong in Si Chiang Mai

Wat Hin Mak Peng pagoda
Following the mighty Mekong river along the border with Laos, we came to the district of Si Chiang Mai. 

Coming up here is worth it just for the scenery. 

High cliffs along the Mekong
We visited a few monasteries up here in Nong Khai province and our first top brought us to Wat Hin Mak Peng, a beautiful thudong temple where forest monks live a more ascetic life then those monks who reside in the big city temples. 

Wat Hin Mak Peng temple
Besides the picturesque setting of temple structures on high cliffs along the Mekong river, there are several pagodas on the huge temple compound, which contain the remains of very important monks like Luang Poo Tet Tet Lang Sii.  

Mondop with footprint of Buddha
Another place we stopped by up here was Wat Phra Buddha Bat Wern Gum, where we went to visit the Mondop building, which contains a footprint of Buddha. 

Pagoda overlooking the Mekong

As we drove along the winding road at the river, we could see another pagoda from far. Up on the hill overlooking the Mekong and Laos on other other side was Wat Aranya Banphot. The impressive and huge pagoda here contains remains of several highly respected monks.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Remote place along the Mekong - Pak Chom

Highway 2108 in Loei
After spending a good time in the province of Loei and seeing the wonderful mountains, forests, rice fields and remote caves, we continued our journey through the North-East of Thailand and chose several remote roads back up to the Mekong river. 

Highway 2108 lead us through some very remote stretches of rural Loei with almost no traffic and some very picturesque rice farming country with mountains in the distance. 

Huge rocks dot the Mekong river
We met up with the Mekong in the small town of Pak Chom, after the river rejoins with Thailand's border and winds along the district of Chiang Khan. Pak Chom would be our last and northern-most district of the province of Loei. 

Passenger boat on the river
The Mekong has become a pretty wide stream here which is covered with huge rocks and rapids. In the distance we made out small boats, which when they came closer turned into decent size ships with lots of passengers moving upstream. 

Passenger boat moving upstream
Only through my 300 mm lens was I able to make out the passengers on the boat and it put the size of the river into perspective, as the boat managed it's way through the river rapids and rocks. 

The road to the province of Nong Khai winds along the river here and invites the traveller to many stops along the way. Nothing specific to see here, other than a beautiful river and nice landscape. 

Ghost houses along the Mekong

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Chiang Khan - Most scenic route along the Mekong

The province of Loei in Thailand is hiding some of the most spectacular landscapes of the Kingdom of Thailand and provides an adventurous traveller with some of the most scenic routes along the Mekong River. 

And adventurous we were! Driving along some of the smallest back roads of the province through rural North-East Thailand, also called Isan. 

As always we were on the way to remote temples and unique Buddha images. Coming up from the province of Phitsanulok and crossing the Phu Ruea mountains we made it into the most remote corners of Loei and to the district of Tha Li. 

A very very bad road led us along a small subsidiary river of the Mekong and always along the border between Laos and Thailand until we came to Chiang Khan. I think my driver hated me for those 100+ kilometers we drove on probably the worst road of Thailand shredding his tires into pieces, but it was an awesome experience and highly picturesque. 

The Mekong is coming from the North here after passing through the mountains of Laos and it was our first glimpse of it after we had crossed it in Luang Prabang

The Mekong adjoins the Kingdom of Thailand in the town of Chiang Khan where it already became a huge river with tiny fishing boats sitting in the middle of it. Rocky islands and sandy beaches were visible everywhere along the way. 

Our main reason to come up here was to visit the famous temple Wat Si Khun Muang, which is a mix of Lanna and Lan Xang styles. Lanna being the former Kingdom in the northern region and Lan Xang being the old name of the Lao Kingdom in the North. 

The small village of Chiang Khan is mostly made up of wooden houses. Almost no traffic and very vey few tourists, though there were hotels and restaurants along the river. We did have lunch close to the temple in a very scenic setting of a restaurant overlooking the mighty Mekong. A place we did not want to leave after finishing our lunch!!!

We did drive along the river for a few miles, visiting other temples and enjoying multiple views of the Mekong as well as picturesque valleys and mountains a bit more inland. 

Definitely one of the most remote places we had been to in Thailand, yet on the other hand one of the most natural spots on earth.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Chom Phet side of Luang Prabang

Steep climb up the main road in Xieng Mene village
Taking the boat across the Mekong as you have seen on the video is an experience by itself. Of course it would have helped if I had read my book completely, since it actually pointed me to the much larger ferry boat. Instead I was sitting with a bunch of locals and their chicken in a small wooden boat, which barely stood out of the water. 

Landing on the other side of Luang Prabang, in the village of Xieng Mene, I met some Dutch tourists who told me about the ferry they had taken with their bicycles. We all climbed up the steep hill passing small wooden houses and other locals who made their way back to their villages. 

Local house in Xieng Mene
What a difference this side of the river was! No beautiful UNESCO protected structures, fancy restaurants and souvenir shops, but the real Laos! No restaurants at all, when I visited. No shops either and no souvenir stalls. Just people living and following their daily tasks. There was also no real street once I passed the short paved way along the river. 

Local transportation of goods
From this side of the river one gets the best view of Luang Prabang, with the river in the front and the mountains in the background. In the morning it was still a bit foggy and they say in the books the best view is really in the afternoon. My reason to visit though were the local temples and I timed my visit, so I have the sunlight on the temples rather then on the opposite side of the river.

Sandbanks along the Mekong
I visited a total of 5 temples, when walking along the river. In the last temple I met a bunch of young girls who where all excited to learn that I can speak some Thai language. With the girls talking in Thai to me they explained some parts of the temple, we took photos of each other in front of the Buddha statue and then they offered to show me more temples "down that way". As always in Asia, distances or time it takes to get somewhere, does not really mean a lot (except in Singapore). So I followed them through the dense forest, thinking the temple would come soon but it actually was quite a walk. 


Different housing style from Luang Prabang
The temple they brought me to was really nice, specially in the forest setting it was located in. The girls also brought me back to their parents house along the river and I enjoyed some fresh fruit before heading back down the steep hill to the boats which brought me back across the Mekong river. 


There is a price tag attached to all of the above though. People here support their living with some income from tourists. It is not expensive in our value system, but it helps them a lot. 

Bamboo bridges
When I visited Luang Prabang the water level was already starting to get lower, so there are bamboo bridges crossing some of the sandbanks and rocks which sit in the river. Crossing those will cost as well and the time for the boat to leave depends on your appetite for a fresh beer or soft drink, which will be happily provided by the same people who own the boat! :-)


Luang Prabang in the morning mist



The Mekong at its best