A photographic journey through Isaan: Part 1

Northeast Thailand, or Isaan, isn’t a big tourist draw. It’s the Kingdom’s largest region in both land mass and population — and also the poorest. Though many Isaan people now work in Bangkok, many more continue to farm the vast plains, or fish in the Mekong River and its tributaries. The Isaan dialect is more similar to Lao than “Bangkok Thai,” and the intense Isaan food is, in our opinion, among the most irresistible in the world.

This is a region of wide open spaces; generous hearts; bountiful foodstuffs; crafts handed down through generations; and ancient animist beliefs that blend with Buddhism. Many of Thailand’s most revered meditation monks began as sons of poor farming families in Isaan. It’s also a truly beautiful region, filled with verdant rice fields, enchanting villages, underrated national parks and sunrises that must be among the world’s finest.

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My partner, Chin Chongtong of Chili Paste Tour, hails from this region, and it’s still her favorite place to rejuvenate and explore. She recently took three trips in a row — that qualifies as a journey — spanning several weeks and stopping in various parts of Loei, Nong Khai, Khon Kaen, Nakhon Ratchasima, Yasothon, Roi Et, Mukdahan and Ubon Ratchathani, her home province.

I joined Chin on the first of these trips (fresh Loei coverage is already up on Travelfish), and two friends accompanied her on the second: Anne of Anne’s Kitchen, and Chow of Bangkok Glutton, who wrote an excellent article about her part of the trip. Using pictures taken during these travels, Chin and I have collaborated on a two-part photo post that we hope portrays Isaan as the special place that it is. Around 80% of this material was shot by Chin, who’s soon to launch a guided travel program to her home province.

To start, how about a chili paste vendor in Loei town’s very friendly night market?

Next, a bag of bones next to a basket of mushrooms.

In western Loei province, we stumbled on what might be the most relaxing place on earth: Huai Khrating Reservoir:

Surrounded by teak trees and glass-like water, we had lunch in a floating bamboo hut with a thatched roof and grass mats to sit on. We went for som tam buu pla raa (green papaya salad with pickled fish sauce and river crab), tam tuea (spicy long bean salad), kueng nawn (“sleeping” shrimp salad; you’ll find out why they’re called sleepers later) and a whole grilled fish that was plucked live from a netted off area of the lake. Many other ingredients are grown on site as well — a theme that holds true for much of Isaan.

Another fantastic discovery was Suan Pha Hin Ngam, also known as “Loei’s Kunming” thanks to how the limestone karst landscape resembles the Southern Chinese region. It’s absolutely gorgeous and nowhere near as popular as Loei’s bigger national parks, which aren’t all that popular among foreigners to begin with.

On a 100-baht guided tour, we saw a Buddhist cave shrine marked by old buffalo horns placed on scales (apparently a fertility thing); a green tree snake; a bunch of rock formations that actually look like dinosaurs, turtles and penguins; a 1,000 year-old palm tree and all sorts of flowers and bugs that our guide enthusiastically pointed out. Chin tried to scale a 50-meter-high stone wall using natural rope-like roots.

We also found a little waterfall in this area, but were more interested in a noodle shop where the owner taught us how to make khanom jeen (fermented sticky rice noodles) by hand.

Next it was up to the little town of Chiang Khan, known for its riverside scenery and attractive old wooden houses. The town has become fairly crowded in recent years, thanks mainly to domestic tourism, but it’s still a pretty relaxing spot. The river is two kilometers wide, making it feel more like a lake with a current.

The town remains a fun spot to wander around, even if it rained for most of the time we were there (late September — rainy season).

The food in Chiang Khan was just okay, though to be fair, we had limited time to explore. We had a decent bowl of jom nuea, a noodle soup with a purple broth made from fermented tofu, but the highlight was a Vietnamese khanom bueang (rice flour crepe, banh xeo in Vietnamese) stuffed with muu yor (peppered pork sausage) made in the area. Lots of ethnic Vietnamese live all over Isaan and the food is very popular.

Leaving Chiang Khan, we cruised further west into a mountainous patch of Loei province. It poured for most of our time at Phu Ruea National Park, but the clouds did break for long enough to snap a few shots of the surrounding hills embraced by fog. The following photo was taken from over 1,300 meters high — it was chilly up there!

We continued all the way to the far western corner of Isaan to check out the museum and historic temples in the village of Dan Sai, home to Phi Ta Khon. This extremely colorful festival blends Buddhist tradition with animist beliefs by way of bamboo rockets, giant phallic symbols, drunken debauchery and some wildly imaginative costumes. We arrived to find a quiet town with a good morning market and hints of what takes place during the festival, held annually in June or July, depending on what the local spirit medium says.

The Phi Ta Khon Museum is inside Wat Phon Chai, a temple with one of the more sinister-looking Buddha images we’ve come across.

At this point, Chin continued on with Anne and Chow to the pungent Kim Heng Market in Nakhon Ratchasima province. Stinky curries dished over khanom jeen and stinkier pla raa were a couple of the orders of the day.

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They made it all the way up to Nong Khai province the next day, stopping in the village of Si Chiang Mai, the rice paper wrapper capital of the world! The thin, transparent wrappers can be seen drying in the sun all over town — perhaps more quaint than dramatic.

The ladies took turns steering the tractor at a nearby pineapple farm, apparently not getting too far.

When traveling with Chin, be ready for her to veer off the road at any given moment to spontaneously jump out and take photos of, for example, an obscure flower that no normal human eye could catch at 60 km/hour. She often wanders into agricultural fields for a friendly chat with the farmers, as was the case in rural Nong Khai. Clearly, the rice farmers were pleasantly stupefied to have a few city folks treating them like superstars for a few minutes.

I guess buying them ice cream didn’t hurt either. This little lady didn’t seem to mind:

From here on out, Chin and the gang more or less followed the path of the mighty Mekong River, which forms the border with Laos throughout most of Isaan. But alas, that part of the adventure will be saved for the second part of this series. Here’s a little taste, taken from a hill overlooking the town of Sangkhom, with Laos sprawling from the right bank.

Join us next Sunday to follow Chin on the rest of her journey through Isaan.

2 Comments

  • beautiful photos and narrative.
    I am a 68 yr old canadain man coming to Thailand at the end of nov. for the first time.
    I am interested in spending a few days floating or motoring the mekhong river….would you know anyone that is doing this
    that I could join.
    Bob

    Reply
    • Hi Bob,
      I’m not sure about multi-day boat trips on the Mekong that can be arranged within Isaan. I imagine there’s someone out there with a boat who would do that, but it’s not something I’ve ever heard of being offered in Isaan. I have however seen shorter boat trips (day tours, sunset cruises, etc.) offered in many places, including Nong Khai town and Chiang Khan. There are also passenger boats that run from the far north of Thailand (Chiang Khong border crossing) all the way down to Luang Prabang in Laos. I also know that several tour companies offer extended boat trips in the 10,000 islands area of Southern Laos and into Cambodia. You’ve also got the Mekong Delta boat trips down in Vietnam. Hope that helps.

      Reply

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