East of Si Saket, the sprawling provincial capital of UBON RATCHATHANI (almost always referred to simply as Ubon – not to be confused with Udon, aka Udon Thani, to the north) holds little in the way of attractions beyond a couple of wats and a decent museum. Still, it’s more sedate than many northeastern cities, with plenty of opportunities for getting to grips with Isaan culture. The best bet is to visit at festival time, but Ubon also makes a handy base for trips east to Khong Chiam beside the Mekong River and the Lao border market at Chong Mek, or southwest to the Khmer ruins of Khao Phra Viharn, astride the Cambodian border, when they are open.
If you’re near Ubon in early July, you should definitely consider coming into town for the local Asanha Puja festivities, an auspicious Buddhist holiday celebrated all over Thailand to mark the beginning of Khao Pansa, the annual three-month Buddhist retreat. Ubon’s version is the most spectacular in the country, famous for the majestic orange beeswax sculptures created by each of its temples, which are mounted on floats around enormous candles and paraded through the town – hence the tourist name for the celebrations, the Ubon Candle Festival. The sculptures are judged and then returned to the temple, where the candle is usually kept burning throughout the retreat period. The end of the retreat, Awk Pansa (early to mid-Oct), is also exuberantly celebrated with a procession of illuminated boats, each representing one of the city’s temples, along the Mun River between Wat Suphat and the night market, as well as beauty contests, parades and lots of fireworks throughout the city, and likay theatre shows in Thung Si Muang Park. Traditional longboat races are staged on the river in the days following Awk Pansa.
If you find yourself in Ubon for more than a few days, and want to learn some Thai, check out English Center Ubon, where teacher Ooh offers a range of useful one-to-one courses.