January 26, 2008

In and around Ubon Ratchathani

On Thursday our driver came to pick up our party (Mark, Opp, Peng and me) at 9am from our nice little guest house in Warin Chamrap. My Thai sister, Joob Jang, joined us too. We got some takeaway fried rice to eat on the bus and then we were off to pick Luangpor and Tahn Manapo from Wat Pah Nanachat. Our destination for the day, Khao Phra Wiharn, is a Khymer temple on the top of a mountain on the border between Thailand and Cambodia. The mountain belongs to Cambodia, since the World Court deemed it so in 1962, but it is not directly accessible from Cambodia. The only access is from Thailand because of the 600m shear rock face that connects the mountain with the rest of Cambodia. The isolation means that you do not need a passport or visa to visit – although you do need to pay of course! At the border crossing the Cambodians are keen to make you aware of your location. There are Cambodian flags everywhere, almost as many as there are landmine signs!

You know you are in Cambodia anyway as this place has a very different feel about it. There are sellers hassling to take photos or offering postcards of Pol Pot, children as young as five out begging for money, and girls following you around trying to be guides. Even the monks were subjected to locals trying to sell them cigerettes! Despite this, the temple ruins on the long up the mountain are extremely impressive. There are three levels, and from from the first it was clear who would reach the top first. By the time we had begun the first few steps, Luangpor was already reaching the top of the first level, and soon he had disappeared out of sight. We took our time, snapping some shots of the ruins on the way. At one of the levels there is an old machine gun which is cunningly aimed at Thailand. The Cambodians must be fairly proud of this place given that according to the geology of the area it would make more sense to be part of Thailand.

At the top of the mountain there are some large rocks after which there is just a shear drop. There are no barriers or fences, you can peer over at Cambodia depending on how brave you are. It would be nice to jump down into Cambodia and see what it is like – I suspect that it might make Isahn look rich and prosperous by comparison.

After our trip out with the monks we went to have a big dinner as we were starving from going without food since breakfast. (You have to be quite imaginative to find eating opportunities when out with monks!) Then we went back to the Spa for another massage to end our exciting day.

Friday started the same as the previous day, eating breakfast in our rented minibus (with driver!) on the way to pick up the monks. The four of us were all wearing football shirts that we had bought for just over £1 – we looked a right bunch of hippies! Luangpor decided we should visit Wat Keuan, a temple he stayed at 35 years ago. The temple is in a large piece of forest on a peninsular that sticks out into Sirintorn Dam in the province of Ubon Ratchathani. When Luangpor was a resident monk there was no road up to the temple, and every morning he walked a couple of hours on almsround to collect his one meal of the day. Nowadays there is a road up to the temple gate, and we were even able to drive a fair way into the temple grounds before we continued on foot. Luangpor told us that the temple is run-down compared to his day, many of the kutis look abandoned and the once beautiful wooden sala building is completely neglected. We walked along a path covered with leaves until it disappeared and then it was up to Luangpor to forge a path through the forest until we came to an opening. It was the place we were looking for, the end of the peninsular where many large overhanging rocks suggested a wealth of photographic opportunities. I climbed on all the rocks and then paddled in the water to get to a further rock sticking out of the water.

We stayed in this idyllic corner of the temple for quite a while before we once again forged a way through the trees to get back to the path. It was a magical place – one of the many unique experiences I have been lucky enough to enjoy during this trip. I think I am unlikely to find this place again – a very remote and ‘unseen’ part of Thailand.

In the evening we sent Opp and Peng to the airport to catch a plane back to Bangkok, so they could do some intense shopping before Peng left for China the following day. This meant that on Saturday there was only Mark and I to accompany the monks on another trip. We roughed it in the back of a pick-up smelling of fish to get to Wat Pah Nanachat. The driver took us on a very long and convoluted route to the temple, which after saying hello to several of his friends in different shops and villages, I realised was probably to show off that he had a couple of farang with him. At the temple we met Peter who would take us all to visit Luangpor’s friend Ajahn Dang. I have heard many stories about Ajahn Dang from Luangpor, so it was good to meet him at last.

Afterwards we went back to Peter’s house where we were served proper English tea in the best fine bone china. Not the sort of thing you expect in a small village in one of the remotest parts of Thailand. In the evening I managed to persuade Joob Jang to let me have a go at riding her motorcycle. I soon got the hang of speeding through the city later at night with no helmet or license. Mark found it quite amusing that Joob’s helmet was kept in the front basket unused, but the next day I realised that you actually need your helmet when the sun comes out to stop your face from getting too tanned!

On Sunday morning I set off with Joob at 7am to visit her family’s house about 40km outside the city. This was quite a distance to travel by motorcycle, but by the time we got there I was much more confident at driving! We had a great breakfast with the family and then we all set to work on digging the ground around the house to prepare for possible flooding during the rainy season. This was hard work in the heat, even if it was only 10am in the morning. What a great contrast in living between Bangkok and Ubon! I hope all those lucky city dwellers get to experience the diversity in their own country as I have done.

After the digging we rode around the village on a motorcycle with some of the children following behind on bicycles. We went to the temple to pay our respects at each of the Buddha images, then it was back to the house for lunch before the long motorcycle journey back to the city where I met a relieved Mark (who had survived getting to the temple and back on his own) at the airport ready to return to Bangkok.


- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Antony Harfield

    Today I noticed that Khao Phra Wiharn is the focus of a BBC news article:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/7352333.stm

    22 May 2008, 07:24


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