Published in Fa Thai (Bangkok Airways’ inflight magazine), January 2014.
Rather hacked back by the editors. Here’s the original text. Photos are here.
This is a spooky place. For a start there are no birds. Not one. Instead, the only natural sounds are the “chak-chak-chak” of Asian brown squirrels and the chittering of thousands of unseen bats.
It’s gloomy, too. Outside, bright sunshine falls on rice fields. Here, the forest soars overhead, filtering out the sunlight, turning everything into early dusk.
Welcome to Kham Chanode, a strange island swirling with myth and mystery.
They say that this is the only place you where the Tarn Tanode palm trees grow, soaring 15 or 20 metres into the sky before topping out with a delicate crown of leaves. Some say the fruit of the palm is poisonous.
They say, too, that Kham Chanode floats – think the closing stages of Life of Pi – that its foundation is a raft composed of the roots of the palms.
The water beneath is deep. No one seems to know how deep, and no one is about to find out, for this island is one of the portals the mythical Naga, many-headed snake god and protector of The Buddha, uses to travel between Muang Badan, its underwater world, and ours.
The island is also a portal to the underworld, allowing ghosts and spirits to reach our world.
This is not a place for the rationalists and scientists to start meddling with faith, so “they say” is the closest one is likely to get to the truth.
Faith in the mystical properties of Kham Chanode has been reinforced by Wat Sirisuttho, built just outside the island. From the wat, a naga bridge leads past a dolorous prayer gong into the interior, to shrines and to the Naga Pool, black and scummy with bat excrement, and unfathomably deep.
All are linked with concrete walkways but off the path the forest floor is thick with ferns and creeping plants that climb the trunks of the trees, battling to get to the light. The ground looks damp, dangerous. One knows that an unwary person would get sucked down.
On any day there are plenty of visitors, but the tones are hushed, awed. People pose for photographs with serious expressions, no giggles or cute V-signs.
Offerings of flowers and incense are made by most at the shrine and the more materialistic head for a couple of giant banyan trees on the southside of the island. There, they rub talc into the roots, trying to divine numbers for the lottery win that will see them on Easy St for the rest of their lives.
The squirrels are everywhere, ignoring the visitors but feasting on sweetcorn left out for them. They are probably the reason there are no birds here; squirrels like a nice bird’s egg for breakfast. They are sleek and fat.
Tales of strange happenings surround Kham Chanode. A decade ago a travelling cinema was engaged to erect its screen in Baan Dung. They arrived on the appointed day and their hirer took the crew a little further, into a forest (you guessed it – Kham Chanode) where they set up.
They never saw the audience arrive but suddenly the clearing was full of silent people. They played four movies to this totally silence audience until, just before 4am, everyone disappeared. The crew hurriedly cleaned up and left. Afterwards they could not find the place again. They had played the movies, they realised, to an audience of ghosts.
Khan Chanode caused another stir in the late 1990s when the magazine Arthit was persuaded by a supposed holy man that, for a large donation, he could call forth ghosts for them to photograph.
They succeeded in getting blurry shots of a ghost known as a Pret – tall, naked and emaciated with a tiny mouth. This is the fate of corrupt politicians and officials after death; to become a Pret.
It was revealed later as an elaborate con, and the “holy man” was jailed.
But Arthit, though admitting it had been fooled, stoutly maintained that Kham Chanode was nevertheless full of ghosts.
Most Thais would agree.
Kham Chanode is on the eastern edge of Udon Thani province, northeast of the provincial capital. Tours by bus or taxi are available from Udon, or one can rent a car to drive the two hours or so from Udon.
Take Route 22 (to Nakhon Phanom) for about 40 km and then turn left onto Route 2096. After about 40 kilometres you’ll pass through Baan Dung and then skirt around the top of Tha Manao Lake.
Look out for signs to Kham Chanode, down a rural road to the right. The island is another 10 kilometres or so further on. There is plenty of parking space at Wat Srisuttho.
Bangkok Airways flies daily nonstop to Udon Thani from Bangkok.