Isaan, Isan, or Esan: The land that captured my soul.
Whether through luck, chance or fate, I have been a vagabond to Isaan.
For many years now, I’ve traveled to this flat, parched, often remote area of Thailand on both business and adventure. Business because Isaan is where the Thai pillows are made for my export business. Adventure because Isaan is where you find Angkor temple ruins, the finest Thai silk, and the spiciest delicacies of Thai cuisine.
Isaan is the name Thai people have given the northeast area of their country. It can be variously spelled as Isaan, Isan or even Esan.
Isaan is a land of distant horizons, blazing sunsets, the spiciest som tom (green papaya salad) and the poorest Thais. Isaan and Bangkok are complete opposites.
I like Bangkok, but I love Isaan.
A Vast Countryside
This land stretches from it’s southern realm of Surin, Buriram and the great Angkor ruins of Phanon Rung, up through Ubon Ratchatani, to the smaller towns of Si Sa Ket, Yasoton, Roi Et, to its mid section of Kalasin, Chonobot, Mukadahan, Mahasarakham and Kon Gan, to its northern frontier of Nakhon Phanom, Udon Thani, Nong Khai and the Laos border.
To the north and east, this vast region is girded by the great Mekong River that separates Thailand from Laos and Cambodia. In some parts, the Mekong River is so wide that the faint lights on the other side twinkle as faint stars.
To the south of Isaan lies the Cambodian border and its cultural anchor of Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom and their ancient civilization. Isaan comprises almost one-third of Thailand.
Ancient Khmer Blood Runs Deep
Ancient Khmer blood runs deep among the present day inhabitants of Isaan.
In most of Thailand, the culture flowed from India and Myanmar into Northern Thailand and down through the central plains to Bangkok. But in Isaan, much of the culture flowed from the Ancient Khmer civilization of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom to the east.
The ancient Khmer ruins that are scattered all across Isaan, some big and some small, are testament to who first laid claim to this barren country.
And like their Khmer cousins in Cambodia, Isaan folk are for the most part dark skinned and poor. It is the poorest region in Thailand. That’s why the sex industry towns of Pattaya, Patong Beach and the sex enclaves of Bangkok are well populated with young women from Isaan, who earn amounts of money that would be impossible in their rural hometowns.
My First Road Trip To Isaan
I first came to Isaan via a 14-hour road trip across Thailand from Chiang Mai.
I was interested in importing Thai pillows to the United States and found out that they were made in Isaan. “Where?” I remember saying. “In Isaan.” My wife replied with more emphasis as if I didn’t hear. “Where’s that?” I asked thinking it was a foreign country.
And so, one very early morning years ago, My wife and I, along with a friend, started driving from Chiang Mai to Isaan. Our plan was to make Roi Et by early evening. Road trip! It was a long drive and all of it on only two-lane roads. I stared out the car window and was fascinated to watch rural Thai life go by.
We first drove from Chiang Mai to Lamphun to Lampang to Phitsanulok on old Highway 11. After five hours on the road we stopped for lunch just outside of Pitsanulok. From here on, the highway narrowed and started snaking into the first of two mountain ranges we would cross before arriving in Isaan country.
Our old car chugged up the old highway as we slowly climbed into the mountains. Traffic thinned out to nothing and the forest quickly hemmed in the roadway. I remember road signs warning of wild elephants.
As the two-lane road went deeper into the mountains, it became more and more winding. We’d pass small hamlets of just a few houses with half-naked children playing out front. I’d wave, but the kids just stared back as if I were a Martian.
I was relieved that we were traversing the mountains during the day. This twisting, narrow mountain road becomes far more dangerous after the sun sets.
By early evening, the road began to straighten as we came out of the mountains near Lom Sak and Khon San and back down to flat land. Large trucks hauling sugar cane started to crowd the road. There were tamarind vendors everywhere. They had large baskets of fresh tamarind and we’re happy if you took a piece and tried it.
“Are we in Isaan yet?”, I asked my wife after eight hours on the road.
“Yes, you’re in Isaan”, she replied. “But we’re still far from Roi Et.”
Welcome to Isaan. Let’s Eat!
Although I was now officially in Isaan we still had many hours of driving left before getting to Roi Et. The land was now flat as a pancake and the horizons far off.
As we passed through village after village, I could see traditional farm homes displaying the red lanterns of Chinese New Year. (This first trip took place in February.) Their fields grew rice, tapioca, sugar cane, some tobacco, jute, peanuts, sesame and mung beans. It was here in Isaan where farmers also grew mulberry-the food of the silkworm.
“So why is Isaan different?” I asked my wife.
“Because in Isaan the rice fields have trees in them.” She laughed. This is an old Thai joke that is heard often in describing Isaan.
By sunset we had arrived in Kon Gan starving for dinner after crossing the mountains. Kon Gan is one of the largest cities in Isaan.
My wife and friend ordered the food and, like a child, I pretty much just ate what was placed before me. The table was soon spread with Isaan sausage, crab som tom, corn som tom, fruit som tom, roast chicken with tamarind chile sauce and of course sticky rice. All Isaan food. (Som tam is a shredded, green papaya salad.)
The restaurant was nothing more than a couple tables along a side street with some wooden stools. Our waitress was a young girl and the cook an old woman working away over a simple kitchen. Before long, every table and stool was taken by locals coming for dinner. A young boy stood in front of our table and stared at me until his mother came and shooed him away. It was probably the first time he’d ever seen a farang up close.
We ate quickly as we still had hours to drive and paid the $150 baht bill for dinner-$5 for dinner for three.
During my first trip to Isaan during the winter, the rice fields lay fallow and the farmers were engaged in the slash and burning of their fields to prepare them for the spring rice planting.
As we drove through the countryside, you could see fires everywhere, sometimes right up to the road. I couldn’t help but think that this was 3rd World agriculture. The next day I would see fields still being tilled with a single plow harnessed to a water buffalo.
About an hour from our destination of Roi Et, along a pitch black stretch of road, we ran into a mass of flying bugs that actually made driving difficult. The bugs-bigger than mosquitos but smaller than crickets-began pelting our windshield to the point of having to turn on the wipers. Yuk! The swarm of bugs just kept coming. We put our wipers on full blast as the bugs smashing off the windshield were making it very difficult to see. We had to slow down as if we were driving through a heavy rain storm.
We eventually made it through the bug storm and pulled into a gas station on the outskirts of Roi Et. I had to clean the windshield with one of those squeegee wipers of the bug debris that coated the entire front of the car.
It was about 9 p.m. when we finally arrived in Roi Et. The end of a 14 hour road trip.
As we drove through town to our hotel, the streets were deserted and all the businesses closed. I would learn later from my pillow makers, that in Isaan people go to bed early and get up earlier. Quite the opposite of Bangkok.
Isaan Is Home To Thai Pillows
Thai pillows are what first brought me to Isaan and the reason I have returned so many times over the years. (You can read my tutorial here-“Thai Pillows: A Buyer’s Info Resource” or another post “Confessions of an International Thai Pillow Dealer“.)
For those who don’t know, Thai Pillows are a unique form of pillowry that can be triangular, square, rectangular, round, tubular and about any shape you can image. And Thai pillows can be huge-the size of furniture. My Isaan pillowmakers once made me a folding pillow that was so big it took four people to lift it.
In Thailand, especially rural Isaan, all business is personal. So I knew I had to establish a personal relationship with my pillow makers if I wanted them to supply me with good quality pillows year after year. Therefore, my wife and I have spent a lot of time in Isaan with our pillow makers building relationships. We know their children and have watched them grow up.
Humble But Proud-The Isaan Character
Isaan folk are hard working, very Buddhist, simple, mostly poor and proud, yet sensitive about what people think of them. They respect you and expect the same in return. They are aware that many Thais from Bangkok look down on them as country bumpkins. Of course that makes them resent very much people from Bangkok.
I have always gotten along wonderfully with Isaan folk, even though I’m a White person from Los Angeles. I eat their food; I visit their homes; we pray at their wats together; we talk about rice and politics.
Isaan is certainly the poorest region of Thailand, but you will not find 3rd World poverty there. You can find grinding, sickening poverty just across the border in Cambodia, but not in Isaan. Even the poorest will have a house with plumbing and electricity. Everyone has access to a doctor. Food is very cheap and plentiful. School is mandatory for children.
Some time ago, I received an unintentionally condescending email from a woman who was thinking about buying one of our Thai pillows. Before buying, she wanted to know if child labor was used for making the pillows, and if the children ever went to school. I showed her email to the pillow makers and their reaction was all the same-anger! “Of course we don’t make our kids work and of course our children go to good schools!” they all said with indignation. “How dare this woman think such things about us.”
This farang woman had unknowingly insulted the Isaan folk. I knew that as soon as I read her email. I wrote her back saying that if she spoke Thai, I’d give her the cell phone numbers to some of the pillow makers so she could call them up to ask these questions herself. My customer never responded back to me, but did buy some of our Thai pillows.
Not a lot of tourists in Isaan. Good!
Isaan has, for good or bad, been left out of the tourist frenzy that has dominated other parts of Thailand such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai and the southern beach resort towns.
The few tourists that do come will mostly go to the major Angkor ruins of Phanon Rung and Bi Mai. Some will go to Udon Thani to cross over to Vientianne, Laos. There are also a few farangs that either come here on business or have wives from the local villages.
Less than 1% of all visitors to Thailand ever come to Isaan. That’s a significant stat!
Isaan Gold Is Thai Silk
When tourists do come, it’s often for Thai silk, especially mudmee Thai silk. Isaan produces both the finest raw silk and Thai silk fabric in The Kingdom.
Thai silk can be found across the Isaan region. I have mostly been a vagabond to Isaan because of my “silk safaris”. In isolated villages scattered across the region, the finest silk in the world is handwoven on old village looms.
Not only is fine silk handwoven in Isaan, but the very silk thread itself is produced here through village sericulture. Mulberry, the food of the silkworm, grows well in this soil.
Rice Is Life
Rice rules the Isaan countryside. Jasmine rice of course. But Isaan rice fields are mostly watered by rainfall, not irrigation, and so the farmers are at the mercy of fickle Mother Nature.
Mother Nature is very harsh in this hard scrabble country. As of this writing, Thailand is in a prolonged drought that has all but eliminated the last rice harvest. Their wells, used mostly for household use, are drying up. I know this from first hand experience. The pillow makers, are also rice farmers and I’m in their village often. We talk about their lives, kids, the future, the drought, the heat, the rice harvest.
Tending to their fields, especially rice, is what regulates the lives of Isaan farmers and their families. Poor, yes. But they own their land and houses, and if the year’s crop doesn’t fail, they can make ends meet with additional income brought in with Thai pillow making or silk weaving.
Isaan Culture is NOT Bangkok Culture
Isaan folk are the opposite of Bangkok folk.
In Bangkok, the past is represented by a twenty year-old building. In Isaan, the past is represented by an eight-hundred year old temple ruin. In Bangkok, people love to eat som tom and sticky rice. In Isaan, they were eating som tam and sticky rice before Bangkok even existed. In Bangkok, people will brush against you and keep walking. In Isaan, people will brush against you and say ‘excuse me’ and smile.
Get the difference?
Should You Vagabond To Isaan?
If you enjoy getting off the beaten tourist trail, then you too should be a vagabond to Isaan.
If you want to see traditional Thailand, go to Isaan. If you want to find a treasure of Thai silk, go to Isaan. If you want to explore 800 year-old temple ruins, go to Isaan. If you want to go to a place where the Thai smile is still sincere, go to Isaan.