A Vagabond to Isaan

Sunrise in Esaan, Thailand
Sunrise in Isaan. This area is the poorest and least visited in Thailand. Its traditions also run the deepest.

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. 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.

isaan-map
Isaan (also spelled Esaan) is the largest cultural region in Thailand. The red marker traces my first of many roadtrips to this enchanted land.

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.

Khmer ruins in Isaan, Thailand
Ancient Khmer ruins lie scattered across the plains of Isaan. Above Photo: Phimai Ruins in central Isaan. These ruins are the remnants of the great civilization of Angkor Wat in neighboring Cambodia.

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 bar girls from Isaan, making amounts of money that would be impossible in their rural hometowns.

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, Roi Et to be more exact. 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 drove from Chiang Mai to Lamphun to Lampang to Phitsanulok where after five hours on the road we stopped for lunch. Just outside of Pitsanulok, the highway narrowed and started snaking into the first of two mountain ranges we would cross before arriving in Isaan country. I remember the road signs warning of wild elephants and the small villages we passed through as we wound through the mountains.

By late afternoon, 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. (Why does pad Thai taste so horrible outside of Thailand? Because they don’t use fresh tamarind paste!)

“Are we in Isaan yet?”, I asked my wife after eight hours on the road.
“Yes, you’re in Isaan”, she replied.

isaan-2w
In rural Isaan, life is simple.

Although I was now officially in Isaan, I still had no idea why Thai people seemed to refer this part of their country as if it were an enchanted region. As we passed through village after village, I could see traditional farm homes displaying the red lanterns of Chinese New Year. 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 silk worm.

“So why is Isaan different?” I asked my wife.
“Because in Isaan the rice fields have trees in them.” She responded. This is an old Thai joke that is heard often in describing Isaan.

By sunset, we had arrived in Kon Gan, one of the biggest cities in Isaan, and found a place to eat. My wife and friend ordered the food and I, like a child, pretty much just ate what was placed before me. The table was soon spread with Isaan sausage, crab som tam, corn som tam, fruit som tam, roast chicken with tamarind chile sauce and of course sticky rice. All Isaan food. (Som tam is a shredded, green papaya salad.)

Isaan-Food-1

This was the first time I had ever taken sticky rice and dipped it into Isaan tamarind chile sauce. It was love at first taste. The restaurant was nothing more than a couple tables along a side street with a 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.

During this 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 summer rice planting. As we drove through the countryside, you could see fires burning 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 being tilled with a single plough 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 (I have no idea what they were. Bigger than mosquitos, but smaller than crickets.) began pelting our windshield to the point of having to turn on the wipers. 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. 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.

Thai pillows are what first brought me to Isaan and the reason I have returned so many times over the years. 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.

isaan-food-1
Isaan food. When I visit our pillow makers, they always have lunch prepared for me. It’s a special occasion. The above photo is my lunch. Salt fish, som tom, sticky rice, sausage, deep fried pork, spicy shrimp and vegetables, roast chicken and more. Typical Isaan fare.

In Thailand, especially rural Isaan, all business is personal. 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. We know their children and have watched them grow up.

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.

042-copy
A small Isaan village just outside Si-sa-ket. This is Thai silk country. In their humble homes with antique wooden looms, Isaan women produce the finest silk..

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 email from a customer who was thinking about buying one of our Thai pillows. Before buying, she wanted to know if children were used as workers for the pillows and if the children ever went to school. I showed her email to my 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.”

My farang customer 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 telephone numbers of some of the pillow makers so she could call them up on their cell phones to ask these questions herself. My customer never responded back to me, but did buy some of our Thai pillows.

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. There are a few farang 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.

But when tourists do come, it’s for Thai silk, which is the finest anywhere 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 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 sericulture. Mulberry is grown and fed to silk larvae. Silk caterpillar cocoons are harvested and an organic silk thread is recovered. (In my article “Thai Fabrics Part 3: Thai Silk” I write extensively about Thai silk and going on a silk safari to Isaan.)

Rice rules the Isaan countryside. Jasmine rice of course. But Isaan rice fields are only watered by rainfall, not irrigation, and so the farmers are at the mercy of Mother Nature. And 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. My 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

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 tam 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?

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.

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