Last week, we shared the first half of Chin and company’s journey through Isaan, Thailand’s enchanting yet often overlooked Northeastern region. Now the gang uncovers the best of Ubon Ratchathani. Spread over a large but remote corner of the Kingdom along the Mekong River, Chin’s home province is defined by a slow-paced lifestyle of fishing, agriculture and creativity that doesn’t draw attention to itself.
Also home to several protected forests, including one with cave drawings dating from thousands of years ago, Ubon boasts some truly majestic scenery. In September and October, wildflowers blanket the vast grasslands of Tad Tone National Park.
Ubon is also home to several waterfalls, including Thung Na Mueang, where Chow took a moment to relax:
The province’s best known waterfall is Sang Chan in Pha Tame National Park, also aptly known as Namtok Long Ru, or “Waterfall Through a Hole.”
The ladies slowly made their way towards the Mekong River and Laos, following back roads and stopping often to check out the local products. Roadside stalls are ubiquitous throughout Isaan, but only here will you find so many selling live malaeng tap, a thumb-size beetle that glows an opaque green or indigo, depending on the angle that you view them from. Also known as jewel beetles, their shells have long been used to craft jewellery and other ornaments for festive occasions.
Another stall sold hed puung, a bright red-and-yellow mushroom that’s popular in Isaan cooking. The seller had woken that morning before dawn and hiked five kilometers into the hills to forage for them. After purchasing a bag of these sought-after mushrooms, Chin asked a nearby roadside kitchen to prepare a bowl of gaeng hed (mushroom curry) that also included pak tiew, a sour-tasting veggie that also grows wild during the rainy season.
Stomachs full of wild mushroom curry, the group pulled up to the village of Khong Chiam for a taste rural life along the Mekong. This steadily flowing river has supplied a bounty of fish and other edibles for countless people since time immemorial. Sadly, upstream dams now threaten this lifestyle, from Northern Laos to the Southern Vietnam delta and everything in between.
For now, the fishermen appear to be doing okay, here displaying a morning’s catch of snakehead fish.
Educational opportunities for the region’s poor remain minimal, but that doesn’t stop the kids from having plenty of fun, and perhaps dreaming about someday reaching new heights.
Unlike many Thai nationalists in Bangkok, the locals here don’t carry any animosity towards their Cambodian neighbors — at least if this man’s hat is anything to go by. Culturally speaking, Isaan has more in common with Laos than Central Thailand, and Vietnam has exerted a significant influence over the region as well.
Exploring the local food scene is always at the top of Chin’s agenda no matter where she goes; here that translated into an early wake up to experience Khong Chiam’s morning market in all its laid-back glory.
Along with the piles of fresh produce, mounds of hand-made chili pastes and grilled Isaan chickens (always a bit spindly thanks to their free-range growth), the market is a great place to score tiny freshwater shrimps, the stars of kuung ten, or “dancing shrimp.” This standard Isaan salad blends chilies, garlic, lime, toasted rice and tiny, live shrimp that hop around (or “dance”) on the plate. Every bite keeps on dancing right until until it pops with a smack of saltiness.
Another locally loved treat is wasp larva grilled over charcoal in banana leaf wrappers, as seen here near the Thai-Laos border crossing in Chong Mek:
This lovely woman crafted sticky rice steamers out of bamboo while chewing on betel leaves stored in her fake Gucci bag:
There’s something about the sour taste and squishy texture of Isaan sausages that make them a perfect morning munch, especially when accompanied by fresh slices of ginger and tear-inducing bird’s eye chilies. Followed by a steaming bowl of kuay chab yuan, a Vietnamese-inspired pork noodle soup, many of the days were greeted Ubon style.
Along with the food, scenery and friendly locals, the many traveling monks lend color and personality to Isaan. Home to one of the most famous forest meditation masters in recent Thai history, the late Ajahn Chah, Ubon province is studded with tranquil forest temples where the monks stay true to the historical Buddha’s ways of wandering often and sleeping in forests and caves while generally living as simply as possible.
Before heading back to Bangkok, Chin and Anne found time to stop by a pair of villages where the locals craft brass ornaments and silk wears by hand. Some “craft villages” have become somewhat tacky tourist attractions in other parts of Thailand, but here the locals go quietly about arts that have been handed down through generations.
Using molds made by hand from a mix of clay, manure, wax and rice husk, raw liquid brass is heated before being cooled to form everything from bells to key-chains. Similar methods are employed to cast Buddha images for local temples.
At the silk workshop, little white silk worms fill up on mulberry leaves before wrapping themselves in cocoons made of tiny silk fibers.
When the cocoons finally look puffy enough, they’re tossed into a pot of boiling water that forces each worm to relinquish silk from its cocoon. The craftspeople then harvest the fiber, thanking the worms for their service by throwing them in a pan and serving them as a late-morning snack.
After the fiber has been spun into threads, an old-fashioned wooden loom is used to create the exquisite scarves and other products that Ubon (and much of Isaan and Laos) is famous for.
Fied silk worms were only one of several dishes presented to Chin as she hung around the village. Weaker stomachs might have preferred this simple fish dish with local herbs (then again, maybe not):
So ended a journey that lasted several weeks, covered hundreds of kilometers and introducing Chin’s travel companions to the many sights, sounds and tastes of the Isaan region. Oh wait a minute, there’s a butterfly perched on that flower … Just one more photo then we’ll go …