Udon is my second home and I love it dearly. Nowhere makes me feel more welcome but I have been lucky enough to have travelled to and learned so much about Thailand that I am able to reap the rewards of rural life. For me Udon Thani presents a slice of Issan that which ever way it is cut shows a facet of life so simple that I yearn to be a part of it. Sadly that will never be a reality because I am what I am and I will always be an outsider looking in, but that doesn't spoil my appreciation of a lifestyle and a region that is so special and yet so poverty stricken that for some, hunger is never more than one day away. Udon Thani is a wonderful city with so much to offer but if you are planning your first trip to Thailand as a tourist there are more exciting places to go than here. Then again, if you are passing by, it is well worth a look round..
One summers day we were walking along the ring-road to the west of the city that leads to the airport. We were walking back to the car we left in the petrol station, goodness knows why, probably walked back along the dual-carriageway to buy something from the roadside, when I heard an American accent ask "excuse me do you speak English". I had absolute admiration for the young man who had walked from the bus station about two miles away in 96°F of shimmering sunshine. He needed a hotel so he could spend a couple of days in Udon before moving on to Laos. He was in the right place that's for sure but he hadn't done his homework. We were stood next to a sign that read Rohng Raaem in Thai and Udon has a habit of catching you out like this. There are English or phonetic signs but when you need it there is only Thai, or people who only speak Thai.
The young lad had gone to Udon for all the right reasons of experiencing Thailand and its neighbours and Udon is progressively creating and building new attractions for the ever increasing number of falang, myself included, that have chosen this district to retire to. And these people, generally men, I don't know of any women who have done this, are also in the right place for the right reasons. But I have come across tourists who really do look like the proverbial fish out of water who have inadvertently chosen Udon Thani because it looked nice. What they find when they get there is no one speaks to them and there isn't anything to do. Nothing could be further from the truth but for the tourist it is a holiday disaster so if you are travelling to Udon, please, be one of those who are going for the right reasons.
The best place to find information about Udon is udonmap and if you join the forum there is plenty of members who reside in Udon that can answer most questions and they produce a local magazine of current affairs.
The city is very welcoming of foreigners but if you venture out into rural Udon remember at all times that you are in the countryside and it can be a bit unruly in the villages. If you frequent the beer bars where Thais hang out on a Saturday night it stands a good chance you will witness a fight or some public disorder. Whatever you do; "Do not get involved". A friend separated two Thai men once and they set about him in unison apparently reunited in their friendship. This happened because he is a falang and Thais are notoriously patriotic giving them the sudden desire to be protective of each other. My missus and I were driving back from Kok Vichai to Udon at 11.30pm and just outside Kut Chap is a popular bar with young Thai men and their Lao Khao. It was chucking it down with rain with poor visibility but I could see something flapping in the road. I slowed to a standstill and watched a drunken lad get up with a big grin and soaked through with all his mates on the bar veranda laughing. This is a favourite trick for street robbery so do not get out of your vehicle late at night. Tourists fall for the false sense of security you get because you are on holiday and rural Thailand is not a safe place if you are foolhardy.
Getting to Udon is currently on a day to day basis because of several improvements being made. Don Muang airport is now officially closed but you might be asked to connect from Suvarnabuhmi to catch your flight. If you are using an agent ask them for precise details of airline and which airport. Air Asia is stopping all their services to Udon - WOOHOO - let's hope post recession they do not take up their right as a national airline to re-establish this route. I have had to use AA twice and they are a very poor service at a very high price. There are train and bus services to Udon which you can get info from Udon Map but in reality it is too far to not fly with either Nok or Thai Airways both of whom now fly out of Suvarnabuhmi International. The flight is 50 minutes and rarely fails to depart on time.
At Udon Thani airport is a choice of three car hire the best of which I reckon is Mali Thai - see the Links page. Songthao wait in a bay outside the airport gates which is a bit of a walk across the car parks when you have just arrived with baggage and tired and want a shower. Not much you can do about it because there is no taxi meter inside the airport.
In the city are buses that for 10 or 15 pence will get you to all the major towns and places of interest. There are tuk tuks that can be as scrupulous as any holiday destination so make sure you know the price before you get in. I'm playing it down more than Udon merits but if you really want to explore the area hire a vehicle.
There are plenty to choose from and though none of them will blow you away you're unlikely to get a bad one either. Some that I have stayed in include the Centara or what used to be known as Charoensri next to the Shopping complex in Prajak Road and the Charoen Hotel in Phrosi Road both of which failed to make an impact which is very unfair considering how good both these hotels are. I travel in my day job as well as abroad and every time I walk into the foyer I know instantly whether I am going to like it or not. Both of the Charoens are a not and I don't know why. I stayed at both when they were low on guests and maybe the size of the hotel kills any homely feeling. They have a clinical feel to them which is a shame because they both have bell hops and spacious rooms and good food and they are very reasonably priced. But I still didn't really like them or feel comfortable.
We have also stayed at both the Napalai, only because it is in Pracha Raksa Road and the Karin which we only booked into because it was late, dark, tired and a very audible nagging because I had taken the wrong turn. In a fit of childishness I said 'right, I'm booking us into the next hotel we see'. That's often how you find the best places anyway. Napalai is ok in my opinion but they do suffer a lot of criticism on trip advisor etc. and Karin might not be particularly good but at 560 baht including an excellent brekfaat it quickly goes up the ranks as a place to stay.
I have yet to stay at the Lotus Condotel but it does look worth checking out. I will report back on that later..
If you are on a holiday then you want a bit more comfort and that pushes you at the Ban Chiang which is good, but expensive. Udon can be a rather frustrating experience but at least it is never a bad one.
Is where Udon should excel on every occasion. Udonthanians love their food and one thing's for certain, men, women and children in Udon can all cook so eating in or out you shouldn't be able to go wrong. Unfortunately that's not the case and the ethnicity of local cooking is somewhat different to falang expectations to such extremes that we really are unable to appreciate the unique qualities of Udonesian gastronomy. Or to put it simply, it's mostly crap! This is a personal opinion and the people who live here are divided into groups of 'patriots' (yes the food's good) and 'realists' (no its bloody awful) so if you are travelling to Udon for the first time then take a list of eating establishments with you because you are going to need it.
There are some little gems tucked away here and there that can ease the anxiety attack of an undesirable inevitable regurgitation if you try the foil baked frog or fish head soup. The favourite humour subject matter of dogs is a sudden reality when you discover as did I that someone has stolen your family pet to top up their larder. A common sight in village life is the Vietnamese dog catcher honking his horn which sets every dog in the village off when they hear it which suggests to me they may have an inkling of what happens to its captives. Dog lovers of the west will now be up in arms. Let me explain, it is an animal, a source of nutrition, it is no different to a cow. The cow being an animal that Buddhists consider sacred, actually they don't but the myth is that they do. But this demonstrates it works both ways doesn't it? No - ok, I guess you won't be going to Thailand then.. The Vietnamese get cheap meat and the streets are clear of strays but they didn't take my dog.
He disappeared in the middle of the night. Thieving bastards.
American - Harry's Bar & Restaurant on Banliam bypass (western ring-road opposite the boat beer garden).
Chinese - Chiants (but the sign outside is Chinese and Thai) next to the Ayutthaya Bank in Prajak Road, a Dim Sum restaurant.
English - Kinnaree in Soi Don Udom (close to the airport) provides English and Thai food.
Fish - Nongsai Fishing Park in Ban Nongsai or Ban Hoolee Restaurant (which tickles my other half because hoolee is a very rude word). You will need local help to locate these places and to be honest they are only average.
French - The Factory in Adunyadet Road. Can't say any more, I don't like french food, but others say it is good.
Fusion - Good Everything in Phoniyom Road next to Nong Prajak Park. Mind blowingly good food.
Irish - Irish Clock in Sampantamitr Road behind Lum Udom night market.
Thai & English - Greenleaf Restaurant opposite the train station in Prajak Sillapakom gets rave reviews.
Thai (evening restaurant) - Kalasin Goong Pao, Ban Khao (Route 2021) just outside Udon.
There is a Moo Yang in Kut Chap which is pretty good but again you will need help to find it.
There is also the usual array of street food but it tends to be in or around the markets both in Udon and in the surrounding towns. You will not find anything at all in the villages.
courtesy of www.udonmap.com
Not the key reason for visiting Udon but apart from the obvious Central Plaza and Central Shopping Complexes both also known as Compaq Centre and Charoensri, respectively, the main shopping street is Phosi Rd and does offer a lot of local manufacture shops and jewelery and clothes shops and lots of other stuff that my missus is always too busy for us to have time to stop and browse.
My GF hadn't been home for two years and we chose May to go!! Moment of madness I guess and it was way to hot having just left mild springtime Britain. We parked the family pickup on the ropey rough carpark opposite the Big C and get out to the forgotten sizzling heat. I took my life in my own hands and almost ran across the pretend dual carriageway with cars honking and security guards calling me something that ended with falang to the shopping centre to escape into the air conditioned mall. The GF asked 'what you want' and I thought an ice cream would be nice. Up to the KFC (yes that is where the ice cream stall is in Big C) and ask "Khor..." was as far as she got as she turned to me and said "Oh, I forged how to arsk for ih-creem".
Phosi also holds a fond memory as this was holiday time and we stopped at the very useless Bank of Ayudhya to get some notes out of the ATM which was empty. Inside were staff but it was closed. Even Thailand has bank holidays and new year is a definite. I just wish it was one day like the UK and not an intangible and what sometimes feels like indeterminable length. 'Not to worry love' I yelled as we jumped back in the Isuzu and set off along the parade, 'there's a bank of Bangkok just along here'. There was also a Police road block catching all the underage (whatever constitutes underage) boys on motorbikes to which I was also roped in for not wearing a seatbelt. 200 baht lighter, which the GF had to pay because I was still trying to find a bloody ATM, and which would provide her with several hours of bollocking material most of which consisted of 'Why you not wear your seatbelt?' we drove the 50 yards to the bank and got some cash. But at least I have the seatbelt fixed penalty notice as a souvenir.
There are two night markets in Tong Yai Road just before the train station which are well worth a visit. Apart from those I prefer to go out during the day to towns like Kut Chap where they have a real Thai market with glorious street food and everyone is so friendly. Or there is a little row of shops selling traditional Thai silk suert and wedding suits and gowns just after Ban That on Mittraphap, the Nong Khai road (highway 2), that though you may not buy anything it really is worth a half day out to have a look. If you have a car and a map you can go to any town surrounding Udon and there will be something interesting to see or buy.
Golf is popular in Udon and there are several courses a list of which can be found at thaigolfer.com There are also golfing days for falang and you can get more info' from Malcom Mackenzie on +6642 300192 the chairman of the ex-pats golf society.
Phu Phoilom National Park is beautiful even if it does have unrealistic statues of prehistoric animals - Pictures here - head out on route 2313 to Nong Saeng and then fork left away from Thap Kung. This is a difficult place to find but is sign posted.
The Day & Night centre in Soi Sampan Thamit, opposite the main entrance to the newly constructed Central Plaza, and nicknamed the cowshed but should probably be called 'yeah we're open but nobody bothers till night time' is a good place for refreshments and nightlife. Also the Nutty Park which has a good few bars and farangs.
If you are looking for the company of girls there is the Grasshopper Bar off Prajak Road just after Soi Sampan Thamit. I think the staff leave a bit to be desired and not in the romantic sense and my other half reckons they're prone to not bothering with condoms. If you find yourself with a girl who doesn't bother then neither should you!! I shouldn't say it but kick her out, don't pay her and go and look for another. Further up Prajak Road toward Charoensri Shopping Centre is Mojo's which looks a better place and has the friendliest girls according to his advertisement. Pity the same can't be said of their good looks. Or you could try the Enter The Dragon Bar that used to be in soi falang but I believe it is now in the cowshed. I will report back later if that is correct and if my wife hasn't killed me. A good blog is thaisabai.org who is amusing and portrayal and if you are serious about visiting Udon is a must read. Also print off the map of city centre above, then you will at least not starve and can find the bars.
Udon is the nearest city to my home. We don't visit often but I have tried little cafe's in the square where the food was remarkable. Shopped for gold in the Royal Ring (I don't think the local Amphur realise how that translates). And I have tried a few beers on a relaxing evening all of which could be described as congenial. It's a very nice city to stop off for a few days en-route to Laos.