Buriram, Ubon, Mukdahan: the New Paradigm

Ubon Ratchatani

Thailand

August 20 - September 2, 2006

Dear Family and Friends,

A. THE NEW PARADIGM

First, The Old Paradigm: I decide on a general itinerary; pack lightly (easier said than done); show up at the first stop and look for modest accommodations; wander around; use public transportation to sights in the area; eat wherever it looks good; decide on the next destination; repeat process above.

The New Paradigm: Decide on a specific destination and use one spot as a hub; book transportation in advance; book mid-range hotel in advance; use local taxi to wander around; hire car and driver to visit outlying sights; eat in comfortable restaurants or at hotel dining room (room service on occasion).

This New Paradigm is the product of my physical reality, financial optimism, and, mostly, wisdom. And as additional encouragement to treat myself properly, my friend Mark in Nang Rong tells me, "Jan, you deserve it!"

With this in mind, I plan my "Return to Isan" to visit friends and "family" and to see new sights. ( See 2004 Thailand, Nang Rong, "Home Away from Home" for my very first trip to Isan. )

B. RETURN TO NANG RONG AND BURIRAM

Taxi from apartment in Bangkok to bus station. First Class A/C bus to Nang Rong. Visit my "family" at Honey Inn: Phanna and her newly married son Kheo, my "brother," and his adorable wife Tee; my English mate, Mark and his wife, Mai; Chai and his wife Deng and their cute daughter; other ex-pat "characters" in town.

Of course the delightful and enthusiastic girls at Top Charoen Optical who are always excited to see me: Mem, the manager; Tu, 26, totally gorgeous; and exotic Mas, 30. I think Mas likes me a little bit. "Hello Papa Jan. Orange juice? Glasses cleaning?" Mostly I am happy to hang around here in Nang Rong. I even met some new members of my "family" . . . Phanna's niece Orasa, and her two teenage daughters Angie and Maria . . . They live in Washington, D.C.

Nang Rong to Buriram by bus to visit my "sister" Rose, Phanna's youngest sister. (There are seven sisters in all). Rose is playing Cupid with her friend Jiaw, 36, tall, charming, attractive and interested. But for the moment, Rose's arrows are not piercing the protective armor of "Jan the Reluctant."

One afternoon, Jiaw took me to see the Big Buddha on the mountaintop outside Buriram. The mountain shows signs of past pyroclastic activity, but Jan stays cool.

C. ON TO UBON

East by express train from Buriram to Ubon Ratchatani. Tuk-tuk to "Top End" Lai Thaong Hotel. (1200 Thai Baht net, $33.00 US, including buffet breakfast, large room with large bathtub, swimming pool, Internet available, Star Movies and ESPN. ( Does Tiger have to win every tournament? Yanks beat A's in the ninth. )

I wrap up my knees and wander around. (Old Paradigm) Several colorful temples and municipal buildings. A huge park in the middle of town. A huge gold-cement replica of a huge votive candle and candle float. Ubon has the most dramatic Candle Festival in Thailand, although many other cities including Nang Rong have their own festive versions.

Late in the day, everyone is exercising in the park. Dozens of women at aerobics, other woman at Tai Chi, many men at the weight-lifting station, joggers around a circuit, groups of boys playing football everywhere, young kids in sandboxes, and young girls clustered about in small groups, giggling at me. What is so fascinating is that this entire exercising public, young and old alike are totally slim and fit!

The next day I hire a tuk-tuk. We make stops at Wat Thung Si Meuang, Wat Phra That Nong Bua, and the Ubon National Museum.

Wat Thung Si Meuang "rests on tall, angled stilts in the middle of a small pond, surrounded by water to protect its precious scriptures from termites."

Wat Phra That Nong Bua is based almost exactly on the Mahabodhi stupa in Bodhagaya, India.

The Ubon National Museum is housed in a former palace. The exhibits have bilingual labels:

"Flanking the main entrance are a large Buddhist ordination-precinct stone from the Dvaravati period and some Pallava-inscribed pillars from the Khmer era. A prehistory room displays stone and bronze implements, burial urns and 1500-3000 year old pottery. Another gallery contains many of the real treasures of mainland Southeast Asian art, including Hindu-Khmer sculpture, Lao Buddhas, Ubon textiles, local musical instruments and folk utensils. Among the museum's most prized possessions are a rare standing Dvaravati Buddha image and a Dong Son bronze drum."

My driver brings me to a restaurant on the outskirts of town. The restaurant is actually a group of large, covered wooden platforms that jut out on to a small lily-pad- covered lake. I order the two local specialties: Tom Fak and Laap Pet. Tom Fak is squash soup - a broth with large chunks of squash and pieces of boiled duck. Laap Pet is a spicy salad of strips of roast duck in a sauce of basil and oil. The side dishes are a platter of fresh greens - cucumber, string beans and lettuce, pickled garlic cloves, and dried, crunchy noodles for a topping over the duck salad. The meal is unique and the setting, perfect.

D. ANCIENT ART

Under the New Paradigm, I hire Nuay and his comfortable, air conditioned Toyota for two day trips.

The first day we drive east along Route 217 and Route 2222 to Khong Chiam on the Mekong River across from Laos.

On the way we stop at an ornate red temple with a multi-tiered roof. The base of the temple is slightly curved, giving the impression of a very large boat floating on the hill. On the interior walls are ten colorful carved murals, each one depicting a major temple elsewhere in Thailand. I've seen a few of them!

At Khong Chiam we pause at a Chinese temple, a small park and fishpond, and a good view of the broad Mekong River. We head north on Route 2112, following the Mekong to Pha Taem National Park.

Pha Taem has two extraordinary sights. First is Sae Chailing, "an area of unusual stone formations." The plaque reads as follows: "Sae Chaling is one of sculptures of natural. It came from 2 things. They are from "Kretachias" period which look like mushroom on the top, aged about 130 million years old, and sandstone "Dinosaur" period aged about 180 million years is the tunk in the bottom. It was break down by weather, rain, and wind for is easily to rot. The process against the nature, from the sun and the stone. Plus gravitation force rains made it maintain until today. Sao Chaliang comes from "Sa Liang" that means "Stone Pillar."

"The centerpiece of the park is a tall stone cliff that features 300 prehistoric color paintings, 3000 - 4000 years old (even older than my cousin Stanley T.). "Mural subjects include fish traps, giant Mekong catfish, turtles, elephants, human hands and a few geometric designs - all very reminiscent of prehistoric rock art found at widely separated sites around the world."

We descend the 500m trail from the cliff edge to the platforms to view the paintings. To me, what is remarkable is not the drawings/paintings themselves, but, that exposed to the elements as they are, they have lasted here for forty centuries!

North again along Route 2368 to Soei Sawan and Song Chan waterfalls.

Soei Sawan is a watery family recreation area - Isan's own water park. The rushing rainy-season rains fall from high above into pools carved by the ages. Everyone is dousing themselves and flopping about on the water-covered rocks. The far hillside is an ancient carved vertical cliff. Naturally the boys and girls, mostly boys, climb on the cliff, and into the crevices, and then come flying down into the deep pool below.

At Sang Chan (moon) Waterfall, the water rushes through a large round hole (full moon) at the top of the cliff and down into a small "swimming pool" -- another cool spot for the family. Finally, I take off my shoes, roll up my trousers, and tickle my toes in the water.

Back now to Khong Chiam and "Two Color River" - the confluence of the yellow-brown Mekong from the north and the blue-grey Mae Nam Mun, Thailand?s second largest river, from the west. Did I really see the two colors join forces to flow south together to Cambodia and Vietnam? Anyway, we stop for a two-color coffee along the grassy bank of the Mekong before a detour and a quick visit to Tohsand Khongjiam Resort.

The four-color brochure reads: "Tohsang Khongjiam Resort is located by Mekong River, the river of dreams. Our exclusive location offers a complete natural beauty on the river, where morning brings picturesque sunrises. With spectacular views and luxuriously-appointed bouthique villas, the Resort is a true haven of relaxation. There is a lavish blend of tradition Thai, Khmere, and Balinese heritages. It is an ideal place to relax with family and friends, take a complete retreat in nature, feel the cool breeze from the river while watching the water freely flowing by."

I think I'll book a "bouthique viila" one day soon. Maybe I'll even bring a girl.

E. OVERWHELMED AND UNDERWHELMED

On Day Two of my Travels with Nuay, we motor north along route 212 from Ubon to Mukdahan (167 kilometers - three hours). About half-way, just north of Amnat Charoen, we stop at a big Buddha. Set back from the road and surrounded by flowers and gardens and sculpted green shrubbery, the enormous golden Buddha sits impassively in the meditative position, facing the sunrise. Just behind is a small shrine with some very ancient looking statuary. We pay our respects: we light candles and incense sticks and paste gold foil on one of the smaller images.

Finally, Mukdahan. We spot the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge (under construction) and the ferries currently in use. We stay in Thailand. We stroll through this border town market - whatever you may need. We visit yet another temple - this one with glass walls and a large golden Buddha sitting in the "have no fear" position. Other yellow-green temples on the grounds. Lunch: noodle soup with bits of beef. We are off to Phu Pha Thoep Mukdahan National Park and the highlight of my "return to Isan."

Thailand is blessed with the most unusual displays of natural rock formations. Last year I visited Phu Phrabath, up north, just west of Udon Thani (see "Boulders Bizarre"). Yesterday it was Sae Chaliang. Sae Chaliang is just an appetizer, a tease, a prologue to what I saw at Phu Pha Thoep.

"The unique sandstone formations reveal the effects of 95 to 120 million years of weathering including rain, wind, and sunlight." This enormous display evokes images of "royal crowns, camels, crocodiles," and as the brochure puts it, "satellite dishes!" Whatever you can imagine. I am astonished, again and again as I wander around and under these giants of the earth.

Nuay thought that some modern day artists had assembled these strange sculptures. He even tried to lift one of the horizontal slabs away from its base! I do believe he was surprised to learn that nature is wholly responsible for such an exhibition.

We hike upward, under the sun, along the tilted, flat, barren, sandstone plateau, past the sculptures, to the edge of the jungle. We decide to "give it a go" and hit the trail. According to our unembellished map, somewhere, somewhere, somewhere out there in the jungle, somewhere there are two waterfalls, out there . . . somewhere.

Let me just say this, "Thank goodness for my Merrell Continuum light-weight walking shoes with deep treaded Vibram soles, my BNN 'clothes you can move in' feather-weight 100% cotton trousers, my red U-Best Classic cotton polo shirt, my Leki Super Micro hiking stick, my black Walgreens special folding umbrella (for the sun), my black baseball cap embroidered with "City College of New York." (I inadvertently dropped it and retrieved it later along the trail), my plastic water bottle, and my Polite brand 100% cotton boxer-briefs. (I urge all my male traveling friends to stock up. I can testify they perform both functions admirably well.)

The trek in the jungle? What a bitch!

Up and down, mostly up along the rocky, root-encrusted trail beneath the still, green canopy. For stability in the shallow topsoil, jungle trees have evolved buttressed trunks at their base. Fat, gnarled roots shoot out horizontally across the rock-laden soil. These ever-obstructing barriers are treacherous and tortuous for this silly son of The Bronx.

Scattered about are clumps of thin bamboo, reaching for the sunlight. The bamboo and other taller trees provide some shade. But there is no protection from the misty, water-logged humidity. I slowly nurse my water supply that is now about as hot as my blood.

We stop for a moment. I am thinking, "I am in the middle of the Thai jungle. Have I ever been to a spot in the world where there is absolutely no sound whatsoever of human endeavor?" Not one airplane droning, no truck down shifting, no bus belching, car beeping, motorbike grinding. Not a leaf blower or weed whacker. No cell phones chiming Happy Birthday or Fur Elise, or Oh, Capinequas. No one selling lottery tickets or socks. Only a bird or cicada now and then. The crash of cascades in the distance.

We climb up and up and up to the base of the two waterfalls. My pulse rate is 120! My clothes are already soaked. I rinse a bit in the water at my feet.

And the two small waterfalls? May I politely say of the larger waterfall, "You and a few of your friends, with full bladders, could easily match this pathetic spray." And the smaller one? My own urinary track would be sufficient. On the way back, along the lonely trail, I stop for a moment to prove my point. Sorry, no photos of that particular event.

This was Nuay's first trip to these waterfalls. And his last. He say, if other traveler ask, "Can go to waterfall?" He say, "No can go!"

We head back, and up the final "staircase" to the upper edge of the tilted sandstone plateau.

Down we go, across the wide stone "floor." The stone is rippled, as if uplifted from the bed of an ancient sea. Thin rivulets of water seep along the undulating rock. I can imagine that in another 120 million years, this modest flow will carve new sandstone megaliths, as the current "satellite dishes" slowly disintegrate under the penetrating, punishing, scouring tropical winds and rains, and the scorching, searing sun.

Once more, we pass the awesome monuments: fascinating, humbling, encouraging, motivating.

F. GET REAL

And, indeed, while I may be motivated to continue with my impulsive, strenuous, pulse-pounding peregrinations, as Nuay say, "Maybe cannot go."

This latest jungle stroll contributed mightily to my slowly disintegrating and eroding meniscus. (Both of them.) So diagnosed my orthopod doc, who prescribed Arcoxia ( Etoricoxib) and Viartril (Glucosamine) and a realistic lifestyle for a man of my years. MRI and arthroscopic surgery in my future?

Yet I am optimistic. With just two knee replacements (hey, they replace hips, don?t they?) and one of them new Segway Human Transporter contraptions thingamajigs, I can still go anywhere. India, next?

For the moment, I am back at my air-conditioned apartment in the asphalt jungle of Bangkok, taking short walks for breakfast, lunch, dinner, Internet and massage. Maybe shopping for a new pair of sturdy city walking shoes. For this I am pessimistic. Thailand may be the Land of Big Smiles, but it is also the Land of Small Feet. I never see anything over 43cm. I am 45cm, 12 in the USA. I will just have to take more taxis. ( Very New Paradigm. )

Cheers from your drugged-up, ancient megalith of a friend,

(Don't call me Tarzan) Jan

PS My totally ancient friend, Stanley M., (older by a couple of months) recently asked, "Jan, how do you have the wherewithal to travel as you do?" He may have meant financial wherewithal, but I believe he really meant physical wherewithal. So Stanley, you have an answer now. Year by year, the answer changes with the condition of my joints. But my one goal remains immutable. I am determined to see as much as I can for as long as I can. Stanley! Come on over!

PPS As a reward for my jungle trek, that very evening I treated myself to a special dinner at the Lai Thaong Hotel Restaurant in Ubon. I ordered a pickled vegetable salad and chicken with cashew nuts, one of my favorite dishes. The version here was outstanding: tender chicken and tasty nuts, spring onion, green pepper, onions, crunchy water chestnuts, carrots and red chili peppers. The salad had an assortment of green vegetables and red onion drenched in sweet and sour pickling and sprinkled with red hot chilies. I cooled this all down with two, count 'em, two bottles of Singha. So Stanley, if you don't come for the treks, at least come for the food.

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