Thailand is usually regarded by travellers as the land of tropical beaches and swaying palms – but parts of Thailand are very different. Issan Province, in the Northeast of Thailand, is an inland agricultural area, bordered by Cambodia and Laos with the Mekong River comprising one border.
Not only is it completely different from the usual picture of Thailand, it is also rooted in a variety of cultures which still hold sway. The people of Issan generally speak a dialect of Lao, while in the Southeastern part of the province one finds a smattering of Khmer, the language of Cambodia.
Issan is the most affluent region of Thailand. Although it is agricultural, much of the agriculture is subsistence farming done on very poor soil.
The primary product of the area is “sticky rice”, which contributes the majority of the nutrition available. Due to the paucity of other resources, the daily diet can include, in addition to fruit and vegetables, grasshoppers, crickets and other insects, in addition to chicken and pork. While a variety of insects were first eaten out of necessity, they have come to be considered delicacies in the region.
The Mekong River flows along the Northeast border, common to Laos. Along the river (the twelfth longest in the world) are some small cities, and many spots to see the real South East Asian life. You can cross into Laos to Vientiane, from Nong Khai, but reports have it that Nong Khai is a much more authentic and interesting place. Many of the small cities are points of interest, usually because of features like temples, parks and markets.
The city of Nakhon Ratchasima, which acts as a sort of the gateway to the rest of the province (if you’re coming from Bangkok) is locally known as Korat. From this bustling, somewhat chaotic town of around 500,000, you can find the highways and roads leading to destinations presenting diverse and generally tranquil locales.
Something you will find in almost every town in Issan is a central Buddhist temple. The temples are not only the place where people go to pray, they also normally serve the purposes of town hall, theatre, and general meeting place for the population. It is not uncommon to find the majority of the residents gathered at the temple for a concert or a dance show.
Overall, Issan has a few things which may capture the attention of the tourist-trap-weary traveler. The people are very friendly according to all reports, and truly excited and fascinated to meet foreigners.
The adventurous will enjoy the challenge of the language barrier, which can be overcome with a smattering of Thai phrases, or better, the local dialect. Prices are very reasonable, even in the cities, and of course, Thai food is always an adventure in and of itself. Mostly, the non-touristy, laid-back feel of this area, along with some surprising sights, can make for a pleasantly memorable trip. Just remember, don’t expect everyone to act and think like you do – go with the flow and enjoy.
Isaan’s prime destinations are its Khmer ruins and Khao Yai National Park. Five huge northeastern festivals also draw massive crowds: in May, Yasothon is the focus for the bawdy rocket festival; the end of June or beginning of July sees the equally raucous rainmaking festival of Phi Ta Kon in Dan Sai near Loei; in July, Ubon Ratchathani hosts the extravagant candle festival; in October, strange, pink fireballs float out of the Mekong near Nong Khai; while the flamboyant, though inevitably touristy, “elephant round-up” is staged in Surin in November.
It’s rural life that really defines Isaan though, and you can learn a lot about the local residents by staying at one of the family-run guesthouses and homestays in the southern part of the region. If you make it this far you should endeavour to see at least one set of Isaan’s Khmer ruins: those atPhimai are the most accessible, but it’s well worth making the effort to visit either Phanom Rungor Khao Phra Viharn as well, both of which occupy spectacular hilltop locations, though the latter was closed at the time of writing. Relics of an even earlier age, prehistoric cliff-paintings also draw a few tourists eastwards to the little town of Khong Chiam, which is prettily set between the Mekong and Mun rivers.
Isaan’s only mountain range of any significance divides the uninspiring town of Loei from the central plains and offers some stiff walking, awesome scenery and the possibility of spotting unusual birds and flowers in the national parks that spread across its heights. Due north of Loei atChiang Khan, the Mekong River begins its leisurely course around Isaan with a lush stretch
where a sprinkling of guesthouses has opened up the river countryside to travellers. The powerful waterway acts as a natural boundary between Thailand and Laos, but it’s no longer the forbidding barrier it once was; with Laos opening further border crossings to visitors, the river is becoming an increasingly important transport link.
At the eastern end of this upper stretch, the border town of Nong Khai is surrounded by wonderfully ornate temples, some of which are used by the significant population of Chinese and Vietnamese migrants. The grandest and most important religious site in the northeast, however, is at Wat Phra That Phanom, way downstream beyond Nakhon Phanom, a town that affords some of the finest Isaan vistas.