Gentle winter breezes welcome early risers as a row of motorboats navigate through a spiral course of waterways on the 25,500 rai Nong Han Lake, which is shrouded in a sea of mist. When the sky becomes orange and the Sun shines brightly, a magnificent scene of buoyant pink water lilies that spread as far as the eye can see takes our breath away.
Commonly known as Thale Bua Daeng (Sea of Red Lotus), this marsh has long been a favourite destination for tourists who wish to take in the natural splendour of Udon Thani. Nestled in Kumphawapi district, the Community Enterprise of Fishing Boat and Tourist Boat Owners at Thale Bua Daeng offers a programme of 90-minute cruises by a fleet of 120 tour boats in two sizes.
From 6am to 5pm, the big boats can accommodate up to seven passengers and the smaller ones are ideal for two. The price ranges between 300 and 500 baht. Depending on the weather, the sea of pink water lilies is in full bloom between November and February, and this year due to the growth of water lettuce, they are covering more than 5,000 rai of the lake's surface.
It's a paradise for photographers who want to capture beautiful landscapes during a relaxing 6km jaunt, while tourists can observe local life and learn about the wetland ecosystem, where villagers fish for carp and snake-head fish while a big flock of purple swamphens look for food.
Upon returning to the riverbank, villagers serve up a variety of local breakfast options, including grilled sticky rice dipped in egg, and grilled chicken offal and boiled corn, with prices starting at 5 baht. Also available is a collection of unique clothing, accessories and other handicrafts in Isan style.
Situated in the heart of town, Udon Thani Museum delves further into the prehistoric period when this land was engulfed beneath an ocean through a multimedia exhibition that promotes interaction and sharing of experiences between young and old generations in honour of the rich history and multiracial traditions along the Mekong River.
Occupying 11 rai, the century-old colonial-style building was constructed as Rachinuthit School during the reign of King Rama VI and the Fine Arts Department placed it on the list of ancient monuments in 1998 before Udon Thani Municipal transformed it into a museum in 2004 to celebrate the province's 111th anniversary.
With a budget of 206 million baht, it underwent a makeover in 2014 to upgrade the landscape and facilities, while the exhibition incorporated cutting-edge technology and lighting designs to create fresh learning experiences.
The two-storey yellow building has 26 rooms with different themes allowing visitors to start investigating by noting how a team of experts strengthened the structure and maintained the original design to represent the influence of French colonial architecture that expanded to Indochina.
The sea of pink water lilies at Nong Han Lake are in full bloom from November to February. (Photos © Khobjai Thailand)
The Ancient World, Isan in the Marine Life zone is designed to resemble a soil horizon and its white walls are dotted with a number of monitors to illustrate computer graphics of trilobites that inhabited this area some 250 million years ago.
Through stunning 3D computer visuals of the wandering Siamtyrannus isanensis, the Tectonic Evolution of Isan Area room with a huge screen serves as a time machine to bring visitors back to the Jurassic era. Before forming the Sakon Nakhon and Korat basins as a result of volcanic eruption and soil collapse, this terrain was originally covered by the sea. It was connected to rivers and low plains, making it one of the most abundant and biologically diverse regions.
In the Empire of Salt zone, indigenous knowledge that has been passed down through the generations is used to describe the lengthy history of the rock salt business in northeastern Thailand. Tonnes of salt have been utilised in ceremonial funerals and sold to Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia for food preservation.
At the Hands that Built the City room, visitors can discover how the administration worked with the populace to establish Udon Thani during the reign of King Rama V and how Siam modernised by constructing a network of railways to connect major commercial routes.
The following room mimics an entertainment venue as a tribute to the GI (Government Issue) -- The American Recruits, who established a military base in Udon Thani during the Vietnam War and transformed the city into an important economic hub on the banks of the Mekong River.
The 5-star Charoen hotel, nightclubs, indoor and outdoor theatres, beauty salons, swimming pools, bowling alleys, massage parlours, photo studios, commercial banks and vehicle distributors are just a few examples of new leisure businesses created by local entrepreneurs, who embraced Western culture.
Just a 10-minute drive from the museum, pilgrims can learn more about Theravada Buddhism at the Museum of the Relics of Holy Thai Monks. For over a decade, collector Koranee Sangmanee accumulated a series of 400 relics from revered Buddhist monks around the country.
She spent one year building her own museum before launching it last year with the goal of fostering community among followers and paying tribute to Buddhism. The relics include the ashes and hair of illustrious monks, who were all disciples of the venerable late monk Phra Ajarn Mun Bhuridatta Mahathera, commonly known as Luang Pu Mun, who established the Thai Forest tradition in 1900.
Some ashes, hair, relics and blood of the late Luangta Maha Bua Yannasampanno and Luang Poh In Tawai Satusko are highlighted when they've changed into what seem to be coloured precious stones. Visitors can also pray for what are said to be Lord Buddha's relics from a private collection of Thongdee Hatkhunarom, who established the Royal Relics Foundation.
The following day, we travelled to Bank's Benjamas Flower Garden and Cafe, which is 25km from downtown Udon Thani. Set against a backdrop of lush rice fields, this 60 rai flower garden was launched three years ago by young farmer Jakkapan Wangkiree, who graduated in agricultural extension and communications from Maejo University.
Udon Thani Museum has a multimedia exhibition to explore the rich history of the northern region. (Photos © Udon Thani Museum)
"My family has been growing flowers for 30 years. We began with marigolds, globe amaranth and jasmine before the government encouraged farmers to grow winter blossoms in the midst of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. We planted chrysanthemums and shipped them to Laos, Myanmar, Bangkok and other southern provinces. But the price dropped a few years ago, so we chose to turn our farm into a tourist attraction, which right away won over tourists in the northeast region," Jakkapan said.
It's now covered in a sea of vibrant winter blossoms such as chrysanthemum, cosmos, marguerite daisies, verbena, celosia plumosa and sunflowers, which will rotate between October and April. Then, marigolds and vegetables such as coriander, green brinjal and spring onion will take over during the green season.
If you're tired of taking photos in the heat, a nearby cafe offers a wide selection of refreshing smoothies, speciality coffee blends, artisan pastries as well as Thai and Western cuisine to boost your energy.
My journey came to an end at the Ban Non Kok Ancient Weaving community in tambon Nong Na Kham, where village chief Apichat Poolbuakai and local weavers have managed to preserve their textile traditions for future generations.
The Museum of the Relics of Holy Thai Monks showcases 400 artefacts from illustrious Buddhist monks throughout the country.
"I started a weaving club in 2013 with just one member, and now there are 220. We have reintroduced our distinctive designs while preserving our conventional methods. I established a textile weaving learning centre in 2015 and participated in the Otop Nawatwithi Community Tourism Project to promote sustainable tourism," Apichat said.
Visitors can see how local weavers have woven silk and cotton textiles in different motifs including the sai tan nak chiang ruang design, which was inspired by the Chiang Ruang stream and naga. They have used local flowers to dye fabric such as gardenia jasmine for yellow, red lotus for pink, lotus fibre for light grey, and the flame of the forest for orange. They're crafted to order and prices range from 800-140,000 baht.
Those looking for some souvenirs can check out the newest collection of ready-to-wear apparel, phasin, vintage-style handbags and other accessories. Alternatively, you can rest at a café where you can savour healthy beverages, snacks, and Isan food while admiring stunning views of rice fields.
Bank's Benjamas Flower Garden and Cafe is covered with a sea of vibrant winter blooms from October to April.
- Udon Thani Museum is on Phosri Road, Muang Udon Thani district. It's open Tuesday to Sunday from 8.30am to 4.30pm. Admission is free. Call 042-245-976.
- Bank's Benjamas Flower Garden and Cafe is in Muang Udon Thani district. It's open daily from 8am to 6pm. Admission is free for children and 50 baht for adults. For further details, call 088-508-4071 or visit the Bank's Benjamas Flower Garden and Cafe page (in Thai) on Facebook.
- The Museum of the Relics of Holy Thai Monks is at 175, Soi 5 Tula 1, Muang Udon Thani district. It's open daily from 8.30am to 4.30pm. Admission is free. Call 081-048-0505 or visit facebook.com/MuseumRelicsHolyThaiMonks.
- The Ban Non Kok Ancient Weaving Club is at 63, Tambon Nong Na Kham. For more details, call 061-942-8808 or visit The Ban Non Kok Ancient Weaving Club Udon (in Thai) page on Facebook.
The Ban Non Kok Ancient Weaving community has been recognised for its distinctive natural dyeing techniques that use local flowers like the red lotus.