Over the Lao-Thai border is the province of Udon Thani. Its gigantuous shopping malls and supermarkets are hugely popular with Laotians and falang alike, clamouring to buy everything from fresh seafood and stationery to shoes and lawnmowers. After all, just about everything you buy in Vientiane comes via Thailand anyway, only with a 30% markup.
Look beyond the commercialism however and you can find a few interesting places that showcase the Thai culture, as well as its natural beauty.
Like the Red Lotus Lake.
The Red Lotus Lake is about an hour south of Udon Thani city in Kumpawapi Reserve. You'll need to get up early to get out there as the flowers only bloom until about noon (and only in the dry season).
Drive along the main highway, then follow the signs (which get progressively larger) down a series of back lanes and windy roads before arriving at a very large, dusty car park. The lake is a natural wonder though a visit is like a well-oiled machine; nicely packaged for the tourists.
Tickets for our family of 4 cost 500B (about $A20), after which we joined the queue at the shore, side stepping an eager photographer. It was quite busy being a weekend. We got a little impatient in a meandering line that people seemed to frequently ignore, before realising that there was order among the madness. By the time we climbed aboard our little boat (with mandatory life jackets), the sun was shining brightly and we were glad we'd brought hats and sunscreen.
After the rainy season ends around October, millions of lotuses (or pink water lillies) grow with wild abandon across the reservoir. They are best seen in December-January but will last until March. It really is quite spectacular. Out in the middle of the lake, the murky shore water recedes until it's quite clear and shallow.
To get out among the millions, though, we puttered along after the conga line on a well navigated route. It reminded me of our visit to another big inland waterway, Inle Lake in Myanmar.
About 15 minutes later, we arrived at the zenith of the lake surrounded by lotus flowers and lily pads. Neighbouring boats lined up and their passengers leaned precariously out over the water, selfie sticks at the ready.
Before we could wonder how many photos we could take of the same thing, it was time to complete our loop of the lake and head for shore.
The Red Lotus Lake is certainly very beautiful. It's a positive example of nature tourism; the area is well kept and clean and it was lovely to see a lot of birds too.
The kids also loved it and even managed to snag a flower or two without falling overboard.
Then we stepped off the boat and onto the shore, to be instantly greeted by our very own souvenirs in all their gilt-framed glory.
Alongside photos of ourselves inside pink lotus flowers, there's also the Red Lotus love heart for happy snaps. And don't forget to stop by the strawberry farm on the way home too.
The Red Lotus Lake is in Kumphawadpi Reserve in the southern part of Udon Thani province near the border with Laos.