New Kid on the block

Thailand's newest province by the Mekong River has many beautiful natural attractions and diverse cultures to offer visitors

Nestled 715km northeast of Bangkok is Bung Kan _ Thailand's newest province. It was part of Nong Khai before being carved out and declared the country's 77th province on March 22, 2011. Covering around 4,300km2, this province comprising of eight districts is full of mountains and waterways and rich in Thai and Lao cultures since Bolikhamxay, a Laotian province nearest it, is just across the Mekong River.

Although it borders Nakhon Phanom, Sakon Nakhon and Nong Khai provinces, Bung Kan is quieter due to its location and the climate is more humid like in south Thailand. According to Governor Pornsak Jearanai, Bung Kan has the most rubber trees in the Northeast due to adequate rainfall. The official figure is 680,000 rai, but the actual should exceed 800,000 rai. Rubber generates 804-1,000 million baht per month for the province, its leading source of income.

''Rubber here is as good as in the South. The first rubber trees in the Northeast were planted here in So Phisai district in 1960 by a monk who made a pilgrimage to the South and brought back rubber seeds to plant here. Only five trees survived and only one of the original is still standing today. It is big, about 340cm in diameter,'' the governor noted.

According to him, the province's three main sources of incomes are rubber, cross border trade, and tourism. To promote trade, the province is proposing construction of a fifth Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge linking Bung Kan to Laos's Bolikhamxay and Vietnam's Vinh town and then China via an existing highway.

The governor who was successful in promoting Chiang Khan district as a popular tourist destination when he was Loei governor sees Bung Kan's potential in terms of tourism.

Wat Samakkhi Uppatham, or Wat Phu Kratae, in Muang Bung Kan district is famous as a forest monastery and meditation practice centre. Its abbot Luang Phor Thongpoon Sirikamo was among the first batch of monks who studied meditation under the highly revered Phra Ajarn Mun Phurithatto. This devout and kind monk is highly respected by people and focuses on teaching meditation to monks, novices and Buddhists. The temple has 31 quarters for meditation practitioners arriving to study there. In the temple’s multi-purpose pavilion is the statue of Phra Sangkajai with three eyes believed to fulfill worshippers’ wishes, especially for success in business and happiness.

''Several attractions here are better than some in Loei. For example, Bung Khong Long is a freshwater lake and one of the world's important wetlands. It has beaches and visitors can see Wat Phu Langka from one of its sightseeing areas. And there is Phu Thok, a natural wonder, while Wat Ahong boasts interesting bizarre-shaped rocks.''

However, he wants to see more facilities to ensure convenience and access to tourist attractions. Another selling point is the way Bung Kan can be a gateway for visiting three neighbouring countries in one day.

According to the governor, Bung Kan is home to two wetlands _ 26,000-rai Nong Kud Thing and 11,000-rai Bung Khong Long. They are famous as bird watching spots. Apart from beautiful nature, this newest province has numerous cultural attractions.

Every Tuesday and Friday morning, tourists should stroll and shop for local goods at the Thai-Lao Market. Price bargaining with vendors is the fun of shopping here. They should also try local food, including Vietnamese-style noodles and desserts and French-influenced baguettes with fillings.

Those wanting to experience retro atmosphere can visit a nearby old market where half-century-old wooden shop houses still serve as grocery stores and other shops. Nearby is the Chao Mae Song Nang Shrine where people come to worship the statues of two Laotian princesses and make a wish for thriving business and safe journey.

In the heart of the city is a huge natural swamp called Bung Kan from which the province's name is derived. In Muang Bung Kan alone, there are at least six major Buddhist temples for tourists to visit. The first and most important is Wat Photharam whose chairing Buddha statue Luang Phor Phra Yai is famous for fulfilling people's wish for prosperity and good fortune. Here, worshippers whose wishes have come true return to fire nine small skyrockets across the Mekong River, according to the chief of the province's cultural office, Prayad Thila.

The five others are Wat Sammakkhi Uppathum, Wat Sri Sophon Thammathan (Wat Tai), Wat Pa Ban Phan Lam, Wat Ahong Silawas and Wat Bupparatsamosorn (Wat Klang). Besides their sacred Buddha statues, some of these temples, such as Wat Ahong Silawas, Wat Pa Ban Phan Lam and Wat Klang, are places for visitors to enjoy stunning views of the Mekong River and neighbouring Laos.

Another must-see of Bung Kan is Phu Thok, a twin sandstone mountain, in Si Wilai district. Phu Thok Noi is where Wat Jetiya Khiri Viharn (Wat Phu Thok) is nestled. Walking up the steep mountain, visitors will enjoy panoramic views. On Phu Thok Noi are many trees, rock fields, caves, cliffs, wooden bridges and monks' living quarters.

If tourists come to Bung Kan in winter and have time to spare, they should not miss the opportunity to cherish the serene beauty of countless red and white lotus flowers which blossom in Nong Han, a huge swamp in Udon Thani's Kumphawapi district, from late October until February.

Here, they should also try local food and desserts, such as somtam rak bua (spicy lotus root salad), grilled fish and khao jee (grilled sweetened sticky rice). Not far away are two others temples _ Wat Phra That Thep Chinda and Wat Phra That Don Kaew. Another natural attraction in Udon Thani is Phu Foi Lom Botanical Gardens in Nong Saeng district. It provides camping sites and arranges eco-tourism and nature friendly activities for visitors and students, and boasts a dinosaur fossil museum. Every winter, it hosts a tulip blossoms festival.

All said, travelling to Bung Kan may bring peace of mind to visitors through untainted nature and pilgrimage to temples, as well as pleasure from experiencing colourful local festivals, down-to-earth shopping and delicious food.

Getting there

BY CAR

From Bangkok, take Highway No.1 to Sara Buri and then Highway 2 to Nakhon Ratchasima, Khon Kaen, Udon Thani and Nong Khai. After that, take Highway 212 via Phon Phisai district to Bung Kan.

BY BUS

Buses leave at regular intervals from Mor Chit 2 Terminal. Go for ones that the Bangkok-Kumphawapi-Bung Kan or Bangkok-Bung Kan-Bung Khla routes.

BY PLANE

Fly Bangkok-Udon Thani and then travel to Bung Kan by car or bus.

Call the Tourism Authority of Thailand's Udon Thani office on 042-325-406/7, the TAT Call Centre at 1672, or email tatudon@tat.or.th.

A Phu Thok is a northeastern word meaning lone mountain. It is actually a twin sandstone mountain—Phu Thok Yai and Phu Thok Noi —in Ban Kham Khaen of Si Wilai district. In the past, this area was an abundant forest and habitat of many wild animals. Its quiet atmosphere drew revered monk Phra Ajarn Juan Kullachettho to establish a dharma centre, which is now Wat Jetiya Khiri Viharn (Wat Phu Thok) on Phu Thok Noi. To get to the peak of Phu Thok Noi, visitors must take a wooden bridge swirling around the steep mountain. Built by Buddhist monks, novices and local villagers during 1969- 1974, the bridge is comparable to the path of dharma leading good persons to nirvana through strong will and efforts. The fifth tier is home to a lot of pavilions and monks’ living quarters. While walking to the sixth tier, visitors will see several caves. To the north stands a natural stone bridge leading to vihara (chapel) enshrining the Lord Buddha’s relics. This forest monastery welcome only worshippers who observe silence, dress and behave properly, and refrain from bringing food and drinks from morning until 5pm daily, except April 10-16. From Muang Bung Kan district, turn right to Highway 222 and drive until you reach Si Wilai district, then turn left and drive for another 30km to Phu Thok.

Wat Photharam in Ban Tha Khrai, Muang Bung Kan, is home to Luang Phor Phra Yai, a sacred Buddha statue in the posture of conquering the Mara from the Lan Chang period (14th-16th centuries). His lap is 1.6-metre wide. According to legend, he was found in a nearby forest centuries ago. Worshippers will experience prosperity, career advancement, good fortune and safety. People usually fire rockets for Luang Phor Phra Yai if their wish is fulfilled. Only men are allowed to enter the main chapel (ubosot) where Luang Phor Phra Yai is enshrined, since under the floor are ancient Buddha images. Women can pay respect at the entrance only. Two big religious ceremonies are held annually. In the third lunar month, local villagers perform a ceremony called boon khao jee and boon phawes in which they present beeswax castles to Luang Phor Phra Yai. The second ceremony is set for the week after Songkran Festival when locals arrive with their families and sprinkle scented water on Luang Phor Phra Yai.

At the heart of the city is a huge natural swamp called Bung Kan, which gives the province its name. The governor of Bung Kan plans to develop the area into a hub of activities for locals, as well as tourists and promote environmental conservation.

Bung Khong Long straddles 11,000 rai (22km2) of land in Bung Kan’s Seka and Bung Khong Long districts. One of the province’s two wetlands, it is also a major bird watching spot. In 1977, HM the King asked the Irrigation Department to develop a water retention project here. In 1982, the area was declared a no-hunting zone. In 2001, Bung Khong Long was registered as the world’s 1,098th Wetland of International Importance. The wetland next to the Mekong is crescent-shaped. Surrounded by forests, it is abundant in aquatic life and birds. Surveys over the past decade found almost 160 kinds of birds in this area. Among them are yellow-legged button quail, red jungle fowl, Asian barbets, green-billed Malkoha, shikra, oriole, Dicruridae, flycatcher, thrush, Chinese blackbirds, herons, common kestrel, Baer’s Pochard, Ferruguinous Pochard and bittern. To hire tour boats and tents, contact the park on 081-954-8990. The area is well-known for good atmosphere where many people like to picnic and relax. Banana boat service is available, the cost is 50 baht per head per trip.

Wat Ahong Silawas in tambon Khaisi of Muang Bung Kan, and adjacent to Ahong Creek, is believed to be the deepest part of the Mekong River — about 196 metres — measured using rope attached to a stone. According to legend, the river’s deepest point is opposite this temple where there is an underwater cave leading to Laos, and which is inhabited by giant Mekong catfish. This is where the nagas gather at the end of lent period to worship the Lord Buddha, symbolised by the firing of rockets. The temple is home to a bronze Buddha statue named Phra Buddha Khuwanan Sassada that resembles that of Phra Buddha Shinnarat in Phitsanulok province. Its main chapel (ubosot) also enshrines two gold Buddha images highly respected for bringing popularity and fortune to worshippers. This temple compound is full of trees and surrounded by big bizarre-shaped sandstones. There is a statue of a Mekong River angel believed to bring love and good fortune if worshippers make an offer of two incenses, flowers, garlands, lipsticks, perfume and women’s accessories.

Wat Tai, or Wat Srisophon Thammathan, has Phra Sook, the chairing gold bronze Buddha statue in the posture of conquering the Mara. His traits are similar to those of Luang Phor Phra Sai in Nong Khai province. People come to worship Phra Sook, three other Buddha statues from the Lanchang period and the statue of former abbot Luang Phor Mek and wish for happiness, successful careers and good fortune. If their wishes come true, they must purify their body, senses, memories, thoughts and souls. Wat Tai also has an award-winning traditional boat racing team.

Wat Pa Ban Phan Lam in tambon Wisit of Muang Bung Kan is a temple of the Mahanikaya sect of Buddhism. Located by the Mekong River, it is a dharma practice centre with a dharma radio station. Its annual dharma week runs from March 9-15 every year. Its Luang Phor Sila, a stone Buddha statue in a posture of blessing, is highly revered by local people for bringing good luck and safety.

Chao Mae Song Nang Shrine at the circle in front of Bung Kan Hospital is built in honour of two sister princesses. According to legend, they were daughters of a Laotian king. They died in a boat accident and became nagas and have protected people living by the Mekong River. Many people come to the shrine to worship the princesses and ask for thriving business and safe journey, especially by water, by offering flowers, candles, incenses, garlands, young coconut fruit and red-coloured drinks.

Wat Klang, or Wat Bupparatsamosorn, in tambon Bung Kan was Nong Khai’s tenth dharma centre. Located alongside the Mekong, this temple is home to Luang Phor Wat Klang, a Buddha statue made of bricks in Lan Chang style in 1917. People often come here to make a wish for career advancement, good grades and safety. In front of Wat Klang is a section of the bank where tomatoes called makhuathes rim khong are grown.

Bung Kan’s municipal market is where fresh food and groceries are sold. Also available are local delicacies and desserts such as Vietnamesestyle noodles, baguettes with fillings and thua paeb thanyaphuet (whole grain desserts). Local farmers and fishermen bring fresh vegetables and dried fish to sell by the roadside. These local taxis called ‘sky labs’ are a common sight here.

In Udon Thani’s Kumphawapi district, only 34km from the provincial heart, there is a large freshwater swamp spanning over 28,000 rai called Nong Han. Full of red lotus flowers in winter (late Oct-Feb), it has become a major tourist spot since 2005. It all started in Oct 2004 after a school director, Rakkiat Silawong, enchanted by its beauty, decided to introduce it to a wider audience. Small fairs were held from 2005-2008 which by 2010 turned big. Last year, a landscape improvement project was launched with support from the provincial administration organisation, while the operation of tour boats was brought to order. There are 40 tour boats capable of operating 600 trips per day from dawn till 11am. A 45-minute ride costs 300 baht and a 90-minute ride 500 baht. The area has 29 facilities providing homestay service. Each can accommodate 5-10 persons. The price is 200 baht per night per head and inclusive of breakfast. Call the TAT’s Udon Thani office on 042-325-406/7. For boat tours and homestay, call 089-395-0871 and 042-143-070 respectively.

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