Pearls and Lotuses: Mukdahan to Ubon Ratchatani

Isaan, Thailand’s northeast, is known for its heat, its food, and its friendly people.  It seemed like the perfect place to get in touch with the ‘real Thailand.’  We decided to explore both a small and a large city to round out our experience there.  After a week in the idyllic isolation of Ban Kham Pia, the sleepy Mekong border town of Mukdahan felt like a bustling metropolis.  “Muk”means ‘pearl’ in Thai, named as such from a lucky omen that appeared while the town was being built.

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Known mainly as a border crossing for Laos, the city is also heavily influenced by Vietnamese culture.  Located at a point where Vietnam is only 240 km away, it is no surprise to see Vietnamese style temples, products, and food.  We spent a couple lazy days lounging on the Mekong esplanade, walking through the Indochina and Night markets, and finding all kinds of tasty snacks at street stalls.

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Our next stop was Ubon Ratchatani, or the Royal City of the Lotus Blossom.  I fell in love at first sight with it.  First of all, as we got off the bus, no one tried to hurry us into a tuktuk or taxi, but just pointed us to the songtheaw (truck bus), which has a flat rate of 10baht to ride anywhere in town (about 35 cents).  As we rode into town, enjoying the honesty and straightforwardness of this pricing, we saw monks marching in procession.  As we disembarked in the north end of the “old town,” it felt somehow familiar.  The quiet cafes, the understated artsy-ness, the warmth of the people…it reminded me strongly of the Minneapolis neighborhood where I hung out as a high schooler (Uptown).  Except, transplanted into a tropical setting!

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We spent our first afternoon exploring the old town area, from its Moon River waterfront to the profusion of pretty temples in the backstreets.  As we were making our way back to our hotel, we also found the central city park, which is famous for hosting a candle festival every July.  On the north side of the park is the large golden Candle Statue, which is built to look like one of the intricately carved candles that are brought to the festival every year.  In the blue evening light of the impending rain, it looked particularly stunning.  At the south side of the park, we also found the Night Market…I think most of our dinners in Thailand have been eaten from night market stalls and we love it!

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The next day, we took a couple songtheaws out to Wat Pha Nanachat, which is a famous forest meditation retreat, where both local Thai monks and monks from other countries (including quite a few Westerners) study and live together.  Sadly, photography was not allowed on the premises, but I still memorized my favorite sign, which was hung from a tree over a path of smooth stones.  It said, “If it is not good, let it die; if it does not die, make it good.”  The next day, we found Booniyum, a restaurant that serves vegan food, but is also part of a political group that were some of the first to get involved in the ongoing protests against corruption in Bangkok.  We finally found the Art and Culture Center, a free museum tucked away on the campus of Rajabhat University.  That night, we stayed with Jaa (pronounced ‘Jah-Ay’), a journalism professor at the university and fellow free-spirited traveler.  We spent a very pleasant evening going to market and sharing a meal with her and two German girls who were also staying at her home.

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From there, we headed to the border town of Aranya Prathet, and crossed into Cambodia to continue our adventure.

It has been two months since we started traveling, and here are some fun facts from our journey so far:
Number of places we have slept: 26
Longest train ride: Tunxi to Kunming, 33 hours
Longest bus ride: Ubon Ratchatani to Aranya Prathet, combined 13 hours
Items lost: One pair of pink socks (Marion) and one pair of underwear (Sangbyeong)
Number of countries: 4–China 30 days, Laos 4 days, Myanmar/Burma 1 day, Thailand 28 days
Times renting a motorbike: 4 times–2 in Laos and 2 in Thailand
Earliest wake up call: 5:45am for sunrise in Yuanyang Rice Terraces

Last of all, a little explanation…or clarification…of my purpose in writing Lotus in a Bottle.  This is not a how-to blog.  This is not a blow-by-blow travel account.  I read a lot of travel blogs as I was preparing to write this one, and I was surprised by the amount of whining.  And it’s true.  Travel, especially long-term travel, is rough.  I could write about things like getting sick from a stomach virus in China, or the stink of the communal trough toilets in southern Yunnan, or getting bitten by red ants all day in the Thai village, or how the water and electricity had frequent cuts, or the acid burns Sangbyeong got from the stink bugs there, or the fights we have when confusion and stress take us by surprise, or all the hustlers that bother us…
But.  I don’t want to write that kind of blog…I don’t feel like this is the place for me to talk about those things.  Nor is this travel advice.  If you are interested in going to any of the places we have been, please contact me (marionehawkinson@gmail.com) with questions about the pros and cons of a destination and any recommendations you might want.
So what IS Lotus in a Bottle then?  It is a record of our experience…the little charms and grand adventures that make this ”learning honeymoon” special for us.  I want to inspire other adventurers to journeys that challenge and fulfill them.  Comfort zones are secure and safe and necessary for those reasons….but it is only when we step outside them that we can also experience enchantment.  It is where the magic happens.
Lotus in a Bottle is a record of our magic.

 

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