Thailand without the tourists
Holidays to Thailand tend to be all about lazing on the beach for most people. But there’s stacks more to this fascinating country than sun, sea and sand. Joe Bond heads to the Isaan region, home of spicy Som Tam salad, mountains, ancient ruins and traditional culture.
The region known as ‘Isaan’ is the largest, poorest, and least travelled in Thailand. Bigger than England and Wales combined, it has undergone considerable change in the past decades. Swathes of forest have made way for fields and factories in recent years, drastically altering the landscape and creating the beginnings of patchwork agriculture. But there are still plenty of mango and papaya trees and wildlife around.
Tourists that make it this far from the beaches tend to skip through on their overland trips to Laos. But they’re missing out on some fantastic scenery – the national parks such as Kao Yai or Phu Kradueng and the flat-top mountains of Loei are where the real treasures lie.
Heavily influenced by Lao culture, Isaan also boasts its own distinctive dialect, cuisine and traditions. It’s the home of authentic Tom Yam soup, and Som Tam – a fresh papaya salad so spicy even the accustomed Thais huff and puff over it. Don’t be surprised to see the papayas shaken down straight from the tree to make it. Many of the dishes started life here as a result of poverty – the minimum wage is currently being brought up to 300 baht/day (about £6) – but they have evolved into delicacies.
I enjoyed spicy tree ants (Kanom) as a bar snack, whilst delicious crickets stir-fried with lemongrass can be found at weekly village markets alongside sweet fruits, barbecued meats and a host of other foods. Kai Nock – eggs from quail-like birds, are highly recommended. The main meat is pork, but the noodle soups can also include duck, and are the tastiest in the country.
The Songkran festival
I was lucky enough to be visiting family during Songkran in the summer season, where temperatures regularly push towards 40 Celsius, and the water festival is most welcome. The unassuming typical village of Baan-Mai is 55 kilometres from Korat, the third biggest city in Isaan, itself a 3 hour bus journey from Mo Chit in Bangkok. A fine way to see the countryside was in my father’s 1958 Morris Minor Convertible, but mopeds are faster and what everybody else uses. Either way, it wasn’t the vehicle that attracted the attention, but the fair-skinned driver… driving slowly into a ditch.
Baan Mai, where electricity was installed as late as 1976, and houses are numbered in the order in which they were built, was as good a place as any to enjoy Songkran. After being drenched with water for two days, Thais puzzle out loud as to why the kitchen taps are unresponsive.
Expect to be drenched by locals with buckets and hoses, and have chalk dabbed on your face. Learn a phrase like “Suk san wan Songkran;” it’s a great way to meet local villagers, and is much more polite than the touching up and wet t-shirt style celebrations in the crowded areas of Bangkok. Thai culture places great value on politeness, and this is a time of year when respect for elders is emphasised – rural Thailand at its best.
Nevertheless, prepare to be wowed by Thai drinking, dancing and partying. Whether they’re celebrating the graduation of a monk with sexy dancers and loudspeakers piled higher than the tallest local building, or kneeling in front of a monk to be blessed one moment and drinking local homebrew and dancing dripping wet in the temple grounds for Songkran – the humour, hospitality and outlandishness of Thai culture never ceases to surprise and endear me.
Note: all images are courtesy of Joe Bond.