I squinted in the pre-dawn grayness, searching for signs of the tropical pink water lilies that carpet the surface of Nong Han Lake every winter. A few minutes earlier, my friend Anne and I had gingerly climbed into a tippy flat-bottomed wooden boat for our ride to the center of the lake. There, the lily blooms are the most extravagant, earning this small inland body of water the nickname Red Lotus Lake.
Soon the hot pink blossoms began to appear. In the dim light, most were still closed; their petals spread wide each morning when kissed by the sun’s first rays. When the sun finally crested a distant bank of clouds, everything was awash in pure golden light for a few breathtaking moments. The placid surface of the water turned bronze and reflected the giant orange orb as it rose in the sky. On queue, the lilies slowly opened to the sun’s warmth and life-giving energy.
Nong Han Lake is more of a marsh than a lake. It is about four miles long but only two to three feet deep on average. Much of the swampy shoreline is lined with tall grasses, thus the lily patches can’t be seen from shore. The ever clever Thais have capitalized on this magnificent phenomenon. Using small boats that accommodate two passengers and a slightly larger canopy-covered boat that can accommodate up to seven, they offer 90-minute tours to witness the most vibrant blooms. The boats operate from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., every day of the week, and cost 300 baht (about $9 USD) for the small boat and 500 baht (about $15 USD) for the larger boat.
Our captain was most obliging. When we asked him about distant birds that appeared to be walking on water, he immediately motored into an area where the surface of the lake was covered by spongy green vegetation. We were astonished to see these large grey, orange, and purple birds, which we later determined to be grey-headed swamphens, walking across the top of floating water lettuce. The birds were completely unafraid and let us drift toward them until we were just feet away.
Of course, the most stunning spectacle was the unbroken sea of pink lilies stretching as far as we could see. It did not escape me that the lake’s nickname is Talay Bua Daeng, which translates as Red Lotus Sea. The flowers are pink rather than red. They are actually a variety of lily rather than a Lotus, and the inland lake is hardly a sea. But…Thai’s rarely let facts get in the way of a good nickname. And those amusing discrepancies certainly didn’t diminish the jaw-dropping sight of millions of blossoms carpeting the surface of the lake.
How to get to Udon Thani
Nong Han Lake is located in northeast Thailand, in Udon Thani province, approximately 25 miles southeast of the provincial capital city of Udon Thani. The best way to get to Udon Thani is to fly. Our flight from Chiang Mai on Nok Air was less than $100 round trip and was only an hour and 10 minutes long. Upon arrival at the airport, visitors can hire a shuttle to take them to their accommodations. Better yet, use the Grab app to order a Grab Taxi, which is a much cheaper option than the shuttle.
Getting to Nong Han Lake and the Red Lotus Sea
Any hotel or guest house in Udon Thani can arrange for a day tour to the lake, however we opted to hire a private driver, as we wanted to arrive before dawn. The lilies begin to close again around 11 a.m., when temperatures rise, so it’s best to be there early. Having a car and driver at our disposal also allowed us to include other destinations in our itinerary. In addition to a couple of interesting wats (temples), we visited a home-based textile shop, where we learned about the region’s unique hand-loomed designs that are based on ancient pottery found throughout the region. We also fit in a stop at Ban Chiang National Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that displays graves and artifacts from what some believe is the oldest Bronze Age settlement in the world.
I found our driver, Ong, through a retired expat who lives in Udon Thani. He had glowing things to say about her, so I decided to make contact. For the next couple of days we chatted back and forth and talked on the phone. She quoted us 2,000 baht (less than $60 USD) for the day, plus gasoline, which maybe added anther $25 USD. She spoke great English, was unendingly cheerful, and even arranged for us to eat at places where I could get vegetarian food. I highly recommend Ong for your travels in Udon Thani and the surrounding area. For more information, visit Ong’s website, or call her at +66 (0)81 054 8055.