Situated in northeastern Thailand, the regional hub of Udon Thani – or Udon for short – was once a sleepy, far-flung provincial town until it became a major USAF airbase during the Vietnam War. It has since grown into a multiculturally-diverse base you see today, home to one of the largest expat populations in Thailand.
Some of Udon’s best attractions lie just beyond the city, ranging from ruins of ancient civilisations and caves to the otherworldly red lotus lake.
Udon is home to one of the world’s earliest bronze-age civilisations, at Ban Chiang. Here you’ll see archaeological evidence of prehistoric settlements that existed between 2100BC and 200AD. This UNESCO site contains burial remains of more than 300 skeletons, earthenware pottery and bronze fragments. Nearby is Wat Pho Sri Nai, an open-air museum featuring archaeological excavation pits where you’ll see skeletons and pottery as they once were buried thousands of years ago.
At Phu Phra Baht Historical Park in Ban Phue, there are sandstone caves, caverns, Bronze-age cave paintings, as well as dinosaur footprints and Buddhist structures. The park has a nature trail roughly 2km long, where you can explore all of its attractions. This historical park dates back more than three thousand years, and it’s particularly known for its mysterious rock formations – which include rocks balanced precariously on top of each other – around which religious shrines have been constructed. The most significant shrine is the Wat Phra Putthabaht Bua Bok, where a Lao-style chedi enshrines Buddha’s footprint. There is a temple fair and celebration to pay homage to the shrine every March.
There are also prehistoric rock paintings, some dating back 6,000 years, that can be found in natural shelters – at Tham Wua you can find paintings of oxen, while at Tham Kho you can see human figures.
Erawan Cave is situated in an imposing limestone outcrop where a winding scenic climb (over 600 concrete steps) takes you to a giant Buddha statue and the entrance to the temple cave. As it’s a sacred site, the cave’s stalagmite and stalactite formations are decorated with temple artefacts. There are more stairs within the cave, taking you through the entire length of the cave. At the deepest point of the cave, more stairs lead to a large opening on the outer wall where a wooden platform offers a spectacular view of the surrounding nature.
In Kumphawapi, an hour from Udon Thani, lies the spectacular Talay Bua Daeng, or Red Lotus Sea, a lake that is home to millions of floating hot pink lotus flowers. While it may not look like much from the lake’s edge, a boat ride (45-90 mins) can take you through this flowery highway to the centre of the lake where you’ll find yourself surrounded by an unending sea of pink flowers.
The blooms are seasonal and best observed between the beginning of December to the end of February, and the best time to observe them is in the morning when it is cooler (the flowers close when the sun is hottest). The lake is also dotted with a few small islands, which are home to Buddha statues, shrines, and pagodas.
Udon Thani has regular flights to and from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hat Yai, and Phuket; it’s also accessible by train from the capital.