This month’s Ban Chiang World Heritage Festival in Udon Thani Province is a time to reflect on the area’s wealth of grassroots cultures, age-old history and fantastic food.
The discovery of Southeast Asia’s most significant Bronze Age archaeological site came about by both comical accident and careful design, when Steve Young, a Harvard College student and Thai speaker, was staying in the village of Ban Chiang to follow up on theories that the area was a cradle of civilisation.
One day, when walking in the forest, he tripped over some tree roots and, much to his astonishment, discovered fragments of pottery sticking out of the ground.
The discovery led to more digs around the village and that part of northeast Thailand, more finds, more research papers, more visitors and the area’s eventual inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1992.
The annual Ban Chiang World Heritage Festival, held this year on 7-9 February, commemorates these ground-breaking discoveries in concert with celebrations of local culture. The three-day festival is an all-in-one getaway. Visitors can feast their eyes on performances of gentle dances and rhythmic music. Gorge on northeastern delicacies. Get a shot of adrenaline at the Muay Thai matches.
None of these events are quaint or outdated relics intended solely for tourist consumption, but living embodiments of the region’s collision of cultures – Thai, Lao, Khmer and Tai Puan – that remain both vibrant and relevant.
Many events are held around the Ban Chiang Historical Site and National Museum. The museum is a primer on the golden days of this Bronze Age with displays of pottery, metal-making tools, household goods and weapons for hunting. Some of the relics are thousands of years old.
If you ever wondered what it would be like to work as an archaeologist and chance upon such a discovery, the exhibits reveal many trade secrets, as well as maps and photos from more than a hundred other digs across the region.
The museum also shines a spotlight on the Tai Puan, Buddhist people of Thai-Lao extraction that have lived in the area for several centuries. Threads of their culture are woven through both the museum exhibits, along with the music, dances and light-and-sound show held during the festival.
Less than a kilometre from the museum is the temple of Wat Pho Si Nai, another significant site, where archaeologists discovered dozens of graves. During funeral rites, villagers buried pots along with their loved ones out of respect and in a touching attempt to provide for them in the hereafter.
EXPLORING THE REGION
Many travellers use the festival as a launching pad to explore this fascinating yet under-visited region. If you’re coming to the village from the provincial capital in Udon Thani, consider an early morning stop at what’s referred to prosaically as the Nong Han Kumpawapi Lake, but more poetically acclaimed as the “Red Lotus Sea.”
Whoever came up with that nickname used a little poetic license, because the flowers are pink water lilies, but did not exaggerate the lake’s magnificence. Early in the morning, as the sun rises and thousands of floating flowers open their petals to drink in the sunshine, boatmen ferry awestruck passengers around the lake, which has little channels to steer between the floating flowers that stretch for thousands of metres in every direction.
For lovers of beauty and worshippers of nature, the Red Lotus Sea has become a place of pilgrimage. Although it’s garnered plenty of publicity and routinely turns up on travel lists of the world’s strangest lakes, it’s never too teeming with other voyagers.
When planning a visit to the lake, it’s advisable to rent a vehicle or a car and driver from the capital of Udon Thani, home to the province’s airport, to make the hour-long drive early in the morning. Boat trips are arranged in the main car park in the Chiang Haeo Sub-district. Normally, the price is around 500 baht per boat, whether it’s a little wooden vessel for couples and honeymooners or a bigger boat for small tour groups.
The area’s other main draw is equal parts natural phenomena and otherworldly landscape with deep historical roots.
At Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, which sits atop a small mountain range some 70 kilometres northwest of the city of Udon Thani, our distant forebears etched paintings on the rocky walls that date back some 6,000 years. One of them depicts oxen. The other shows human-like figures with elongated limbs. For many visitors, however, the real lure is the surreal rock formations. Sculpted by the wind and rain into a castle-like shape, Ho Nang Usa is the most famous and widely photographed rock.
Some thousand years ago the area was a religious site during the Davarati period. In testament to the area’s elevated status as a place of worship, shrines with Buddhist and Hindu motifs proliferate across the historical park.
PROVINCE OF PLENTY
Food is high on the list of northeastern Thailand (or Isaan)’s best attractions, and roving diners will not be starved for choice in the provincial capital.
One of the oldest restaurants in Udon Thani, Maeya specialises in Thai and Chinese dishes, with three floors of seating options and air-conditioning. For a lakeside setting, try Bueng Mai Hom, which has tables outside that also make great sunset-gazing spot.
In the city, Khoa Soi Thai Yai serves up northern Thai specialties, while VT Nam Neung has Vietnamese food with vegetarian options.
Maybe the best place for people-watching is the outdoor deck at the Irish Clock, which combines pub grub with Thai snacks and a convenient location near the nightlife venues on Soi Sampan.
Circling back to Ban Chiang, the annual heritage festival this month features an abundance of culinary choices in a village atmosphere that emphasises all the most positive attributes of travelling in Isaan: the friendly people and easy-going vibe, as well as the ancient history and fabled folk cultures, where the grand traditions of yesteryear still thrive today.