Isaan Road Trip during Songkran 2019


April in Thailand is Songkran, the water festival – the beginning of the New Year. It is hot, very hot. High 30s with the occasional 40 thrown in to remind you that it is hot! And humid.

Songkran Day is 13 April, however, the festivities extend for the best part of a week. Traffic is horrendous as millions return to their home village for the holiday. In 2019, 46 people died on the first day of the holiday break – or, as it becoming to be known, ‘Seven Days of Danger’.

Rural Isaan

Khamcha-I, where I stayed, is a village in the Khamcha-I District, Mukdahan Province. Asian Highway 16 (Mukdahan to Khon Kaen) runs through the village. It is a very busy, though still very rural, Isaan focal point.

Nam Phong National Park

Nam Phong National Park, 35 km north-west of Khon Kaen. Cliff top viewpoints, a short walk from the carpark at the summit, offer great views over the huge Ubol Ratana Dam reservoir.

The drive to the summit is even better than Phu Ruea National Park. Some motorcyclists arrived while we there. They didn’t even bother to take in the views. They just enthused about the ride up the mountain, jumped on their bikes and headed down the hill for another thrill ride.

There are series of 20 or so Interesting rocks 200-500 metres north-east of the carpark.

The park is named for the Nam Phong River, impounded by the dam.

South towards Korat then Aranyaprathet

We forewent Khon Kaen’s Songkran celebrations in lieu of an early start for our adventure in the south.

As we headed south out of Khon Kaen towards Korat there was a solid two lanes of traffic headed the opposite direction as we drove the 180 kilometres to Korat – and the north-bound  traffic most likely extended further south of Korat. All heading home for Songkran.

We turned off the highway before Korat, heading to Sa Kaeo. Tassy noticed to directional signs for Lam Chae Dam so we diverted from the highway. As is so often the case in Thailand, after the first bit of signage, the rest is guesswork. It was no different this time but we eventually found our way to the dam.

I intended to go through the Thap Lan National Park to Sa Kaeo. It was many kilometres shorter and, I reasoned, it would be a much more interesting drive.

The Ranger at the Pay Station told us that the road did not go through to Sa Kaeo. Execute Plan B. I chose to go east around the National Park through backcountry Thailand. This is a cassava growing area.

Cassava is extensively cultivated as an annual crop in Thailand (and throughout tropical and subtropical regions worldwide). It has an edible starchy, tuberous root that is a major source of carbohydrates. It is one of the most drought-tolerant crops, capable of growing on marginal soils. Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of cassava starch, although not the largest producer (Nigeria is). Cassava starch, called tapioca is used for food, animal feed and industrial purposes.

Temple at Thap Rat

We worked our way south through farming country and after two false starts found the Thap Rap temple. It is undergoing restoration.

Another very hot day. We decided to ‘reset’ at Aranyaprathet. The Indo-China Hotel has a pool.

We noticed a few Farangs at the hotel but saw none while out visiting the various attractions. Isaan covers the north-east of Thailand, bordering Laos is the north and Cambodia to the south. It extends to the Petchabun mountains to the west where we explored earlier. And while Isaan covers 30% of the country with a similar share of the population it is very much off the tourist trail. Which makes it attractive for tourists wanting to avoid crowds and see the ‘real’ Thailand.

Sadok Kok Thom

As we got closer to Sadok Kok Thom Historical Park next morning the Army’s presence was very noticeable. Nearby Khok Sung is  a border crossing with Cambodia.

Sadok Kok Thom temple was built midway through the 11th century by the Khmer Empire that ruled much of South East Asia from the end of the 9th century to the 15th century.

The layout and design of Sadok Kok Thom shares many characteristics with other Khmer monuments and temples. Like most Khmer temples, it is oriented towards the East. Sadok Kok Thom is among the smaller of the Khmer temples in Isaan. The processional walkway, flanked by pillars leading to the main building, is impressive. Various sculptures around the temple depict the Naga (mythical serpent).

Originally dedicated to the Hindu God Shiva, it was later converted to a Buddhist temple.

Sadok Kok Thom has been extensively restored to the way it is believed to have looked. Original material was used as much as possible but wherever it was not available newly made blocks were used. The colour difference between old and new is quite obvious.

The Khmer Empire extended into modern day Thailand to Phimai, Buri Ram and Sadok and the remains of that hegeomony provide appealing alternatives for a visitor to avoid the hordes of tourists at the more famous Angkor Wat at Siem Riep, Cambodia.

Lalu Sand Pinnacles

I was once at Nambung National Park with an American geophysicist who was commenting ecstatically about Western Australia’s iconic Pinnacles, and the processes that formed therm. I suppose he would be mildly impressed by Lalu, too.

Petch Pho Thong Tham (Cave)

We worked our way south to Petch Pho Thong Tham. Along the way we ran into a local thunderstorm. It was still raining when we arrived.

Access to the cave required a 600m walk along a bitumen road and then a 200m walk along a bush track. The entrance to the cave is uncertain and poorly marked but once inside it is magical – just enough lighting to show the way and highlight features.

We left the cave heading north on Highway 317. Google Maps highlighted a 35 minute delay ahead. I took to the backroads, confident that Hema moving map technology would get us around the issue. Tassy, not so much. We were driving on backcountry dirt roads for 30 minutes or more to avoid the congestion.The sight of a policeman directing traffic at a gravel road, backwater intersection confirmed the wisdom of our ‘rat run’ decision.

We discovered a nice place for an overnight stay in Sa Kaeo – Golden House.

Wat Tham Khao Chakan Cave

We passed this ‘must see’ place yesterday while on our ‘rat run’. It was necessary to back track from Sa Kaeo 15 km on Highway 317 to see what the attraction was.

We headed north back to Khon Kaen and the traffic congestion we saw at the beginning of our trip was repeated – but in the opposite direction. A 200 kilometre long, slow moving, double lane of cars heading back to Bangkok.

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