From the 10th century, Ubon Ratchathani province, often simply known as Ubon, was part of the Khmer Empire. It later fell under the control of the Ayutthaya Kingdom (see pp64–5). The provincial capital, the city of Ubon Ratchathani was founded by Lao immigrants on the northern bank of the Mun River at the end of the 18th century, and Lao influence can still be seen in the architectural features of some of the city’s religious buildings. Following the rapid growth of Ubon during the Vietnam War, when it played host to a nearby American air base, the city is, today, one of the largest in Thailand. At first sight, Ubon appears to be a great concrete sprawl, but the Ubon National Museum is one of the best in the Northeast, and some fascinating temples are dotted around the city. The museum is housed in the former country residence of King Vajiravudh (1910–25) and contains displays of Khmer, Hindu, and Lao Buddhist iconography, as well as traditional tools, utensils, and handicrafts. One of the rarest and most impressive exhibits is a giant bronze drum, dating back as far as the 4th century AD, that was used originally for ceremonial purposes.
The most interesting of Ubon’s temples is Wat Thung Si Muang on account of its teakwood library. Founded by King Rama III (1824–51) the wat houses 150-year-old murals showing some of the jatakas (see pp34–5). The complex also includes a mondop with a Buddha Footprint. In 1853 King Mongkut (1851– 68) gave his support to the construction of Wat Supattanaram Worawihan as the first temple in the Northeast dedicated to the Thammayut sect – a strict branch of Theravada Buddhism – of which the king was also a member. It consists of a highly eclectic blend of architectural styles, having been built by Vietnamese craftsmen who were under instruction to incorporate an unusual mixture of Khmer, Thai, and European architectural influences. The more modern Wat Phra That Nong Bua was built in 1957 to commemorate the 2,500th anniversary of the death of the Lord Buddha. Its two foursided, white-washed towers are decorated with standing Buddha images in niches and reliefs of tales of the Buddha in his previous lives. Ubon also has several other interesting temples: Wat Cheng, with its elegant Lao-style wooden carvings; Wat Si Ubon Rattanaram, built in 1855 and housing a topaz Buddha image, originating from Chiang Saen; and the main temple, Wat Maha Wanaram, in which local people worship.
Ubon becomes a place of pilgrimage at the beginning of Buddhist Lent, when, during the Ubon Candle Festival (see p53), large, sculpted candles are carried through the streets