Udon Thani: The future and now

UDON THANI, 17 September 2018: Fast forward to the year 2025, a high-speed train pulls in to Udon Thani station, on its way to Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos.

Travellers peer through the steamed up windows at the brand new platform and beyond to the hustle and bustle of this northeast gateway town prospering with its own mass transport rail connecting shopping malls, hotels and even convention and exhibition centre in the heart of one of Northeast Thailand’s four largest cities.

They will probably conclude this is lively spot buzzing with great outdoor markets food courts and street food. In other words, a town that is worthy of more than a gaze through a train window. 

From Bangkok the high-speed train will have covered 570 km in around three hours and 28 minutes.  From Udon Thani the sleek new train will have another 400 km to cover to Luang Prabang the top holiday destination in North Laos. It will complete that sector in around two hours and 20 minutes on its way to China.

Rewind to 2018, today the train journey takes 10 hours to Udon Thani,  an overnight trip booked in sleeping berths where you tosh and turn to carriage creaks and the monotonous mantra of the rolling stock. Never in a hurry, the train trundles along the track through northeast Thailand to its final destination, a station just 1 km short of Nong Khai’s Friendship Bridge that spans the Mekong River and connects with the highway to Vientiane the Lao PDR capital.

But before that vast river barrier, just 60 km down track, the train judders to a halt in Udon Thani’s station sounding its horn to welcome the dawn and alert food vendors on the streets outside. It’s good place to end the train trip, for an early breakfast of piping hot boiled rice, egg and salted fish before exploring this busy gateway town.

Ultimately, you are here to embark on a tour of upper northeast Thailand bordering the Mekong River, or you might venture to Laos and Luang Prabang. But stay a night and explore the street food and food courts and if it’s a weekend enjoy a soccer match beamed on massive screens in the open-air food squares.

Like most cities in Thailand, Udon Thani’s station stands in the heart of the city with its clusters of bustling commercial enterprises sharing a maze of adjacent streets around the station crammed with shop-house restaurants. In the evenings street-food vendors take over competing with mega food courts.Established in the 1890s, this relatively new city is recognised as major commercial and tourism hub served by a north-south highway and a rail line that link the Thai capital to the Northeast and Nong Khai a riverside town on the border with Laos.

It’s a busy airport, the nearest to the border with Laos, served by 23 flights daily, mainly from Bangkok. There is even a weekly flight from Hong Kong that supports the airport’s inclusion of “international” in its title.

With an eye on the future, news report confirm the town’s fast paced commercial development has prompted discussions on a proposed mass transit system.  Residents were invited last month to attend a public hearing, or feedback seminar, on what would constitute the town’s best mass transport system options.

For the seventh largest city in Thailand, the popular options on the table include a light rail system, a monorail or even modern trams and mass rapid transit using buses. They would link the downtown commercial district to shopping malls, a convention centre, government complex, markets, schools, hospitals, bus and rail stations and the airport.

By 2025, Udon Thani will probably be unrecognisable to today’s visitors, just as the fast paced commercial development over the last seven years dramatically changed the city’s landscape from what it was when the first tourists travelled here in the 1960s.

Today this thriving city is home to shopping malls, more hotels and the first convention and exhibition centre. Rapid expansion, has prompted research institutes, that plot where Thailand’s cites are heading, to flag Udon Thani and Nong Khai, 60 km away, as places to watch for tourism, real estate and smart industry growth over the next decade.

But heritage and culture sometimes gets an airing in Udon Thani’s talk of the town. Most recently it was news focusing on the city’s links to ancient civilisation.

Just 47 km east of town, visitors can explore the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ban Chiang. This amazing archaeological site uncovered in 1966 confirmed the existence of a 4000-year prehistoric civilisation possibly the oldest site worldwide.

In a recent update, Thailand’s Ministry of Culture reported an American collector returned dozens of priceless artefacts that were taken from the dig decades earlier. They will be exhibited at Bang Chiang World Heritage site to further enhance the value of the historical attraction for visitors.

It’s not the first time. In 2014, a joint US and Thai effort recovered 554 ancient artefacts, mostly pottery, that had been taken from Ban Chiang and have since been returned.

Another historical nugget harks back to the Vietnam War in the 1960s. It highlights the town’s Ramasun Camp’s historical museum that was recently added to the attractions promoted in the Thailand Tour Directory, a media project curated by the Ministry of Tourism and Sports.

Once a radar base of the United States Army during the Second Indochina War the camp was built by the US in 1964 and closed in 1976. It should not be confused with town’s current Thai Air Force base located 14 km away.

Initially, the base was identified as the US Army’s 7th Radio Research Field Station and according to its official history it served as a sophisticated listening post to spy on communist forces and control US military plane movements until 1976. It’s now an official tourist attraction.

The museum features a radar building, a 300-metre long tunnel and other structures linked to its radar installation. The reopening of the museum is part of a much wider Thai army project to allow visits to certain bases for education and tourism purposes.

The former listening post was later renamed, Phaya Sunthon Dhamma Camp following the hand-over from US military personnel. It was officially opened as a tourist attraction on 28 August

Thoughts turn to food, or to be precise Isan nosh, so at dusk we return to explore street food in downtown Tongyai Road just a few steps northwest of the town’s train station

Observing other diners we quickly catch on to the Isan dining code.  Isan food is enjoyed with ample servings of sticky rice (Khao Neow) and always eaten with your fingers.

You dunk the sticky rice into sauces and curries or chase down a slice of barbecued chicken or pork dripping in chilli sauce with a wad of sticky rice.

‘Som Tam’ is served from street food carts parked on the sidewalks. This spicy papaya salad is not a delicate mix; more a merging of a wide variety of ingredients pounded in hot chilli. The cook throws and stirs shredded green papaya, green beans, tomatoes, peanuts, lime, dried shrimp then pounds them with a mortar and pestle adding garlic, chilli peppers with a heavy dose of fish sauce.

Larb and Nam Tok are classic favourites of Isan food. You just can’t go wrong with Larb and the street food variety in Udon Thani is a classic.

The spicy dish is made from ground meat, usually pork, while Nam Tok, is the sliced grilled meat version. However, the rest are common ingredients to both dishes; sauce: lime juice, fish sauce, herbs and spices, mixed with rice slightly roasted.

Then the ‘Gai Yang’ or grilled chicken arrives done to a turn on a charcoal roadside grill. This dish relies on a generous loading of  chilli paste, or sauce, that hits the taste buds and is usually accompanied by sticky rice.

From our street-side vantage point we watch a guy smothered in a cloud of charcoal smoke selling ‘Moo Ping’ or barbecued pork on skewers marinated and soaked with garlic. He smiles as he turns the skewers one more time and packs the snack ready for delivery to our roadside table.

The trick to enjoying Isan street food is to quaff copious quantities of ice-cold beer to balance the chilli sauces and tang of Isan nosh. It guarantees jovial conversation well into the evening, while the empty bottles create a respectable pyramid next to the table a witness to a great night out on the town. Relish the refreshing repast. You might not recognise this place in 2025 when the brand new high-speed train halts at the platform.