Bell Makers and Giant Mushrooms: Exploring the Unexpected

There’s something intrinsically satisfying about riding the train to the end of the line. Some thirteen hours out of Bangkok, Ubon Ratchathani  province is nearly at the Thai-Laos boarder. The city of same name to a working town with none of the picturesque colonial stylings, enduring cultural practices, sunny beaches or ancient wats that define Thailand’s tourist scene.  It’s interesting precisely because of that. Ubon Ratchathani offers the opportunity to see a living culture unchanged by tourism.  Gongs and drums awaken the city at five, by mid-afternoon, the town apparently closes its doors. From the fruit customized ukuleles in ukulele shop to the neon plastic flowers at the religious paraphernalia shops, there’s no shortage of unconventional gifts for friends back home.  The park comes to life at dusk, with the town’s inhabitants playing games of football or the traditional sepak takraw, joining aerobics classes to pounding techno, cycling, running, skateboarding, using the outdoor gyms. If you’ve brought your trainers, join in! Or if the sun and a day’s walking have you tired out, sugar cane and coconut venders are happy to satisfy a thirsty wanderer.   Both the morning and the night market are bustling affairs. Come with an empty belly and a willingness to try something new!

Outside of Ubon Ratchathani are some real treasures. Be warned it’s a challenge to rent a motorbike so leave plenty of time to source one.  The airport is generally recommended as a reliable source, but be aware there’s a hefty deposit required.  Ban Pao Ao has been mercifully ignored by Lonely Planet and Google. As a result, the craftsmen at this ancient bell makers’ town are pleasantly amused by the sight of travellers.  The craftsmen here have been making the brass bells using the lost wax technique for centuries. It’s a community affair, with the men working the forge and the casting the larger bells and the women working on the tiny bells and carvings. If you are lucky, you may be offered the opportunity to try a hand at bell making or see the bells coming out of their clay casts. Much of the work goes to temples, but some of the work is on sale at the site. It’s the perfect opportunity to ensure the money you spend goes directly to the community! In the village, there’s also a women’ weaving co-operative that creates breath-taking works of silks beside the gentle rustling of the silkworms.

Further afield is the Pha Taem National Park. There’s well maintained camping and accommodation in the national park. The large ‘mushroom rocks’ are the park’s most recognizable feature. Worn by erosion, the mushroom-shaped rocks are awkwardly endearing. All around, previous travellers have built small cairns. Carefully gathering rocks and balancing your own makes you feel like a child again. The park also features a dramatic landscape of stark vistas, sheer cliffs, and volcanic rocks. There’s walk to a series of ancient cave paintings, as well as several to the numerous waterfalls that dot the park. Having your own transport in the park is crucial: it’s upwards of 15km between the various sites.  As the waterfalls are often dry during the winter, it’s worth checking at the visitor centre before embarking on any walks to them.

Exploring Ubon Ratchathani district is a  delightfully curious escapade.  The refreshing lack of tourist infrastructure is all part of the charm, albeit a time-consuming one. In a previous article, I observed it’s impossible to ‘do’ a place and Ubon Ratchathani proves that observation correct. Whether you come in the wet season for the waterfalls, lunchtime for a ghost town, or the outskirts for some Thai tunes and dancing girls, it’s ever changing and surprising. Ubon Ratchathani is an adventure worth every second of those thirteen hours from Bangkok.