Ubon Ratchathani is one of the provinces in Isaan, the name given to the northeastern region of Thailand. In fact, Ubon is the easternmost province in Thailand and borders both Laos and Cambodia. Isaan is considered to be the heart of Thailand because of the traditional agricultural lifestyles of most of its inhabitants and its removal from the tourist hotspots of Bangkok and southern Thailand. The food is spicy, the weather is hot and the people are extremely friendly.
Although Ubon is not a popular tourist destination, there are still plenty of attractions worth seeing. The province is home to three national parks, a number of beautiful waterfalls, some prehistoric rock paintings, spectacular cliffs, a tiger zoo and of course the mighty Mekong river, the lifeblood of Southeast Asia. There are also dozens of temples including the world famous Wat Bannanachat Forest Temple, home to western monks from all around the world, which was founded by Ajaan Chah.
The language, music and food of Isaan are all very different from those of the rest of Thailand. Most people speak Isaan, a language closely related to Lao, as well as the national language of Thai. Maw Lam, the traditional Isaan music is loud and raucous and the parties are famous throughout Thailand.
While traditional Isaan food offers many unusual dishes such as Kai Mut Daeng (Red Ant Eggs), Sok Lek (Spicy Raw Beef in Blood) and Geng Normai (Bamboo Curry), there are also dishes for those with more conservative taste, like Somtam, Gai Yaang, Kao Niaow (Sticky Rice with Grilled Chicken and Papaya Salad).
Although the city of Ubon is the biggest in the region, it still feels like a provincial town rather than a city. The general pace of life is slow. There are few traffic problems, a distinct lack of high-rise buildings, welcoming inquisitive locals and not a McDonalds in sight. Despite this, there are many things to do and see here.
Ubon boasts a couple of shopping malls, two cinemas, an old Chinatown area, numerous temples, a fitness centre, a number of public swimming pools, hundreds of restaurants and plenty of music bars, nightclubs and discotheques. There are three universities in town so the bars and nightclubs are always busy.
The Isaan region is renowned for producing hard-working, hard-drinking labourers and champion Muay Thai fighters. Buakaw Por. Pramuk, Thailand’s most famous international star and two-time K-1 world champion, was born and started his career in Isaan. So too did Sangshai Sor Kingstar, one of the world’s best pound for pound Muay Thai fighters, who has won three Lumpini titles at different weights.
Ubon itself has been the birthplace of many of the sports legends, including Orono Por Muang Ubon, who won the Lumpini stadium belt on three separate occasions.
With a great Muay Thai history rooted in a traditional Thai way-of-life, splendid natural surroundings, unusual cuisine and unique culture, Ubon is a great place to catch a glimpse of a Thailand very different from the one marketed in the glossy brochures.