Tag Archives: Thailand travel

Ratchathani Asoke Buddhist Community, Ubon

A trip which would be worth making from Ubon is to the Buddha Sathan Ratchathani Asoke village, at about km 5 on the road from Warin Chamrap to Phibun Mangsahan (217). However, you should not visit unless you have a genuine interest in learning about their beliefs, their philosophy and their way of life. ‘Buddha Sathan’ translates as ‘Buddhist place’ and ‘Asoke’ means ‘no suffering’. It is a branch of the Santi Asoke movement founded in Bangkok by a controversial monk who is, at the very least, frowned on by the monastic authorities and is regarded as a heretic by many, not least because Santi Asoke ordains women. The website at www.asoke.info puts their side of the story.

Briefly, the community is strictly vegetarian, grows organic vegetables and other foodstuff, and integrates the three parts of their community, the ordained monks and nuns, the lay followers and the school for children. They hold that this is the traditional form of Thai and Thai-Lao society and that it is sustainable in modern times

.The site is very much still under construction although the village was founded here more than ten years ago. Currently the community consists of about 400 people. As well as houses such as you see in any village, there are wooden meeting halls and a large central 4-storey building which serves as a meeting and education centre, library, museum, administration offices and dormitory accommodation for students attending residential courses. You may also notice several large wooden boats, improbably balanced on mounds of mud, and more boats on the creek between the village and the nearby Mun River. Every year in the rainy season the area floods up to a depth of 3m, so houses have to be evacuated and the inhabitants move into accommodation on the boats. There are about 100 boats so local people sometimes refer to the community as Boat Town.

Boat Town

At New Year a three-day market is held here, at which foodstuff and other products are sold by Asoke followers from all over Thailand. Prices are very low, below factory price in the case of things bought in, as a key tenet of the movement is ‘Our loss is our gain’, so not surprisingly this market is very popular and they expect about 80,000 visitors during the course of the three days. At any time of year surplus products are sold, and Ratchathani Asoke most often sells organic tomatoes and potatoes. However, they also specialize in organic soy sauce and fermented soy beans (the black bean sauce so often mentioned in Chinese recipes and menus).

A large sign on the Warin – Phibun road marks the turning to the village. Follow the straight tarmac road for 800m to a school. Turn left and then right to go around the school, then follow the dirt road and signs for almost 3km. If you do not have your own transport, it would cost about 400 Baht to hire a tuk-tuk from Warin to bring you here, wait, and then return you. However, please remember that this is a working community that does not particularly seek visitors, but will welcome you should you arrive and be interested in their way of life. They also neither solicit nor accept donations, although it might be worth gently offering one in order to hear their reason for not accepting it!

Direction sign on Warin-Phibun Road

Direction Sign on the dirt road

The community also operates a vegetarian restaurant in Ubon in a beautiful, wooden, open-sided sala building at the corner of Srinarong Road and Thepyothi Road. It is open for breakfast and lunch and is self-service. Food is cheap, organic, and delicious . A small shop on the same premisies sells vegetarian foodstuffs in small packages as well as various herbal pills and remedies.

Vegetarian Restaurant, Ubon

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Forest Monasteries, Ubon Ratchathani

Wat Nong Pa Pong is a forest monastery and meditation centre in Amphur Warin Chamrap on Highway 2178 about 6 km from Ubon. The ordination hall is an all white building. Inside is a wax image of Phra Acharn Luang Por Chah, a famous meditation monk born in Ubon Province. The late Phra Acharn Chah founded this temple and he is revered throughout Thailand. Monasteries founded by him can be found throughout North-East Thailand and there are also branch monseries founded by his followers in several countries throughout the world.

This Chedi surmounted by a That is in the temple compound at Wat Nong Pa Pong. The Chedi contains relics of Phra Acharn Chah.  Another building within the temple grounds is a mueum containing the few posessions that the Acharn had during his life.

Many of the branch monasteries founded by Phra Acharn Chah are in Ubon Ratchathani Province. Monks are not always  in residence because many of the branches are used for meditation retreats which are of a limited duration. One example is Branch 25 which is located on Highway 212 between Ubon and Muang Samsip.

At the entrance to the monastery here, set well back fom the main road but clearly visible down a long drive, is this That , a typically Isan form of Chedi or Stupa. This one is very similar to the famous Phra That Phanom, but smaller. Relics of Phra Acharn Chah are housed within the that.

Branch #85 is a forest monastery found on the outskirts of the small village of Ban Tham Yae in Amphur Phana, Amnat Charoen Province. Here is the sign on Highway 2134 that by-passes Phana.

This monastery does have monks in permanent residence.

Wat Pa Nanachat is another forest monastery and meditation centre founded by Phra Acharn Chah. Th monks here are not Thai and if you are interested in the Acharn’s teaching this is a better place to visit. An English-speaking monk wll always be happy to talk with you. However, you should not expect  to be able to stay here unless you are willing to conform to their very strict rules. This monastery is in Tambon Bung Wai, Amphur WariChamrap, about 12 km from Ubon. Travel along Highway 24, turn left to Amphur Kanthararom, Si Sa Ket Province (Highway 226). There will b a sign pointing the way to the monastery, which is about 1 km off the highway along a dirt road.

Daytime Rail Travel between Bangkok and Ubon

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Ubon Ratchathani Railway Station, a pleasant place to arrive

Ubon Ratchanthani Railway Station is a little unusual in that it is not located in the Provincial City. Instead it is found south of the River Mun in Warin Chamrap,  a District Town (amphur/อำเภอ) in Ubon Ratchathani Province. White bus (songthaew) #2 serves the Ubon railway station , running along Chayangkul Road and Upparat Road and then crossing the Ratanakosin Bridge over the River Mun , so it is convenient for all the hotels except perhaps the Laitong and the Tohsang, which are further off the main streets. It is a pleasant place to arrive or to depart from if you have to head towards Bangkok.

British-built steam engine formerly used on the Bangkok - Ubon line

Ubon Ratchathani Railway Station

Ticket counter Ubon Railway Station

The railway station itself has a range of useful facilities and there are plenty of helpful signboards in English. On the platform there is a range of refreshment available, mostly noodles but also grilled chicken on sticks and sticky rice as well as small bags of sharp, sweet, sticky tamarind, fruit, ice creams, bottled water, soft drinks, beer and Thai whisky. There are more food stalls outside, across the road and to the right as you leave.

Waiting in the shade at Ubon Railway Station

Also on the platform is a magazine stall which usually has copies of the Bangkok Post plus cigarettes and toiletries. In the main entrance lobby there is an ATM.

Leave the main building and turn right and you will find the toilet block which is fairly basic but kept clean by the attendant who collects 3 Baht for use of a toilet and 10 Baht for a shower. She also sells toilet paper at 10 Baht a roll, and toiletries. Close to the toilet block is a room with the sign ‘Leave Baggage’ which is open from 06.00 to 19.00 daily, charging 10 Baht for each piece of baggage left there. There are coin-operated telephone call boxes close by and another line of them on the other side of the main entrance, but none of them seem to be set up for international calls.

As well as the songtaew, there are tuk-tuks waiting at the station and unmarked taxis. Usually the men offering you ‘taxi’ will in fact mean a tuk-tuk.

Iconic imge of Ubon outside the railway station

Sleeping by train to and from Ubon Ratchathani

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Ubon Ratchathani National Museum

The Ubon Ratchathani National Museum is located on the corner of Khuanthani Road and Upparat Road, adjacent to the Tung Sri Muang park. The building itself was built in 1918 and was originally used as the offices of the Governor of the province. A new Sala Klang (Provincial Hall) was built in 1968 and in 1983 the then Governor presented the original building to the Fine Arts Department for restoration and use as a museum. HRH Princess Sirindhorn presided over the inauguration ceremony on 30th June 1989.

Ubon Ratchathani National Museum

The building itself is most attractive. A series of rooms surrounds a large central hall containing Buddha images, which is used on occasion as a lecture hall. Either side of this hall are two rectangular garden areas. An internal verandah separates the rooms from the central hall and gardens. This layout results in a shady, cool, quiet ambience that suits very well the new purpose of the building, and the polished teak and fretwork designs that decorate the top of door-frames and pillars are themselves significant cultural artefacts.

Wooden bell in internal garden area

Outside the main building is an open-sided sala housing three large sema stones dating from the 8th—9th centuries AD, a long dugout boat, and a huge iron ‘road-scraper’ from the late 19th century.

Everyone will have their own idea as to the highlights of the main exhibition, but there are some particularly important exhibits, all of which were found in Ubon Ratchathani Province (although some were found in what are now Amnat Charoen and Yasothon — provinces which were created at a later date).

Sandstone Buddha Image with gilt lacquer

Amongst the most important items on view here are a bronze kettle drum that is more than 2,000 years old, pottery found in Amphur Phana that is more than 1,500 years old, sema stones from the 8th and 9th centuries, an image of Shiva mixed with his consort Uma (9th century AD), a sandstone Ganesa image from the 10th century AD, delicate Buddha images in the Lao style from the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as  photographs from the end of the 19th century.

Ganesa (Ganesh), sandstone image

 

The museum is open on Wednesdays through Sundays, but closed on Mondays, Tuesdays and national holidays. Opening hours are from 9am to 4pm. The admission fee is 30 Baht.

Photography is not allowed inside the museum, but if you  wish to take photographs you can apply to the Director by asking at the ticket counter. Permission will be allowed or refused  immediately and involves a certain amount of form-filling.

Sadly, the National Museum here is not as well patronised as it deserves to be, but the upside of that is that it is a quiet, restful place where you will find it easy to spend time looking at the nicely varied exhibition.

Introducing Isan

Weaver and grandson at a village co-operative

What is it that makes Isan so ‘authentic’ in the eyes of so many tourists and resident foreigners when in respect of language and culture it is more Lao than Thai? Well, for one thing, there is little or nothing in the region that is designed or calculated to attract foreign tourists. There are no sea-side beaches, though there are some river-side ones. There is nothing like Khao San Road, Pattaya, or the islands of the south. There are no exotically-dressed hill-tribes people and no mountains to trek in.

Mun River at the confluence with the Mekhong

So what is there here to interest a tourist? Well, there is the ‘real Thailand’ where people are busy going about their daily lives: they work in the fields at certain times of the year; they work in the urban areas of Korat, Khon Khaen,Ubon and Udonthani; they fish on the Mun River and the Mekong River, in lakes and ponds. They live in towns and villages that are increasingly aware of the modern world and involved with it. In Ubon Province, they live in a landscape that defies the stereotyped image of Isan as an arid, waterless region: it is well-watered by many rivers including the Chi and Mun, and bordered by the great Mekong. In Si Sa Ket , Surin and Buriram the countryside is dotted with ruins of the ancient Khmer civilisation but these provinces also have a wealth of flourishing Buddhist monasteries. Although their provincial cities are of relatively recent foundation there is evidence of human habitation stretching back thousands of years. For the people of Isan religion (predominantly Buddhism but others are found here, too) is a central part of their lives.

Isan ceremonial trays

Many also pay tribute in their rituals to animism and spirit cults as well as displaying echoes of an ancient adherence to Hinduism. Ubon is proud of its connection through birth or residence with many famous Buddhist monks such as Phra Ubali, Phra Acharn Man who was ordained in Ubon and Phra Acharn Chah, one of his followers, who founded a forest monastery at Warin Chamrab and an international monastery nearby which now has branch monasteries throughout the world. Throughout Isan there are temples in cties, towns, villages, forests and on mountains.

Isan Guest Houses

For the visitor there are hotels, guest-houses, resorts, National Park bungalows and even many temples where you can lay yourself down after a day exploring what Isan has to offer. There is the local food,  much of it probably familiar because it is popular outside Isan. There are rock paintings 3-4,000 years old at Pha Taem, in Ubon Ratchathani Province. In Udonthani Province there is Ban Chiang, a small village which is considered the most important prehistoric settlement so far discovered in South-East Asia. It marks an important stage in human cultural, social and technological evolution. The site presents the earliest evidence of farming in the region and of the manufacture and use of metals. Dinosaur remains have been found in the provinces of Khon Khaen and Kalasin. And there are mountains (though they are not very high), waterfalls, and in the north and east of Isan the great Mekong River is the boundary with neighbouring Laos. And Isan is a natural jumping-off point for Laos, with crossings at Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahan and Chong Mek in Ubon Ratchathani Province. Cambodia, too, can be approached by road from Si Sa Ket Province.

Take a look at the images below to get some idea of the colour and variety that awaits you in Isan, a little-visited region that has a distinctive culture and pace of life that ensures you will always receive a warm welcome there!

Rice harvesting

Market Stall

Floating Restaurants on the Mekong River

Sundown in Isan

Basketware shop

Monkey picnic in Isan