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.

Exploring Isaan

Image courtesy of Joe Bond

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.

Som Tam – image courtesy of Joe Bond

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.

Getting wet at the Songkran festival – image courtesy of Joe Bond

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.

9 Responses

  • I retired to Thailand in 2010 after having been stationed in Bangkok from 1973-1974 and visiting numerous times for military exercise Cobra Gold and holidays 3 or4 times per years. Now, I live in Isaan, Khon Kaen to be exact and wouldn’t live anywhere else.

  • Joe, if you ever return to the northeast of Thailand, try to some in the cool season (December through March) to experience life here at that time, and especially to visit what CNN have called “the second strangest lake in the world” near our villa here in rural Udon Thani, the Red Lotus Lake.

    We do hope you enjoyed the food here – yes, we like it extra spicy, but visitors should know that most locals will not expect overseas visitors to share our love of chili, and will be happy to make milder versions for you!

  • Glad to hear that you enjoyed your trip to Isaan – only a very small percentage of overseas visitors to Thailand venture here, but that, in turn, means that experiences here remain authentic.
    With budget airlines in Thailand now serving all of the main cities in the region, Isaan is now only around 45 minutes from Bangkok by air. Our tip though would be to ensure that you get out of these cities and into the villages and countryside – as Joe did – which is where you will discover the true spirit of the place.

  • Nice read about Isaan, dying to make it up there! sounds so different, and the food from what I’ve tried so far is great.

  • I have to agree that there is really something more to offer in a certain place aside from sun, sand and sea. It was nice that you visited a place which is less traveled or visited. At least, you get the chance to see about Thailand than the usual things that travelers do and visit.

  • Hello Tom,
    Thank you very much for the correction. Isaan is indeed not a province but rather a region. I guess the info in this post would not be new to you considering you write about (and live in?) the region. Happy to introduce Isaan to my readers though.


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