A Vagabond to Isaan

Vagabond to Isaan
The Isaan Countryside in winter.

Isaan, Isan, or Esaan: 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 Thai pillows are made for my export business. Adventure because Isaan is where you find Angkor temple ruins, the finest Thai silk, and a regional cuisine that includes sticky rice, somtom1and drumstick soup.

Isaan is the name Thai people have given the northeast area of their country. It can be variously spelled as Isaan, Isan or even Esaan-none better than the other.

Isaan is tradition, where old ways still hold sway. The rice cycle. Clacking teak looms. Dusty unpaved roads. Lonely farmsteads. Sugar cane. Few tourists. Even fewer farangs. Hardscrabble lives. Mulberry and silk worms. Far-off horizons. Noodle soup for 20 baht a bowl. Humble attitudes covering a fierce pride.

A Vast Countryside

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

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 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

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. Their land was once part of the Khmer Empire of a thousand years ago. In every Isaan girl an apsara lives.2

In most of Thailand,  inhabitants from southern China, the Tai, migrated into northern Thailand and down through the central plains eventually to Bangkok. But in Isaan the inhabitants are mostly Khmer and trace their roots to present day Cambodia. The ancient Khmer ruins that are scattered across Isaan, some big and some small, are testament to who first laid claim to this sunbaked plain.

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 enclaves of Pattaya, Patong Beach, and Bangkok’s Soi Cowboy are well populated with young, coconut brown women from Isaan who can earn more hustling themselves as bargirls than their family earns from rice farming.

A Road Trip To Isaan

I first came to Isaan many years ago via a 14-hour road trip from Chiang Mai in search of Thai pillows.

I was interested in importing Thai pillows to the United States and found out that they were made in Isaan. “Where?” I remember asking my Thai wife who’s from northern Thailand. “In Yasoton. It’s in Isaan”, she replied with more emphasis as if I didn’t hear. “Where’s that?” I asked thinking it was a foreign country.

And so, one early morning, my wife and I, along with her good friend, started driving, cutting a diagonal swath across the heart of Siam.3 Road trip! Our plan was to make Roi Et by early evening. The entire drive was on twisting two-lane roads, much of it through low slung mountains, jungle scrub and isolated villages. I stared out the car window and watched 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, one of the oldest towns in the Kingdom. From here on, the highway narrowed, traffic thinned and we started snaking into the first of two mountain ranges we would cross before arriving in Isaan country.

The forest quickly hemmed in the roadway. A yellow road sign warned: “Beware Of Wild Elephants”. I narrowed my eyes into the jungle scrub, hoping beyond hope to see one. Never did. Never have. But I keep looking.

As the two-lane road penetrated 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 pitch black after sun down and the villages that cling to the roadside are far and few apart. In later years, I would at times traverse these mountains at night and was always relieved to arrive at my destination safe.

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. Rice and Sugar Cane fields stretched to the horizon. 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 sampled some.

“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!

Thai Food in Isan
The Isaan table.

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. Hardscrabble land. And people’s faces sun burnt with the old ones deeply creased with wrinkles.

As we passed through village after village, I could see traditional farm homes displaying the red lanterns of Chinese New Year.4 Their fields grew rice, tapioca, sugar cane, tobacco, jute, peanuts, sesame and mung beans.

It is here in Isaan where farmers also grew mulberry-the only food a silkworm eats. No where else in Thailand will the mulberry tree grow which is why the tradition of Thai silk has its origins here. Throughout this vast plain are scattered silk weaving villages that raise their own native silk worms and weave the finest silk fabrics.

“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. But it’s true. The rice fields in Isaan do have trees in the middle of the rice paddies, unlike the vast fields of the central lowlands.

Som Tom is Isaan cuisine
Som Tom. An Isaan classic made with green papaya, tomatoes, peanuts, carrots and lime juice. Spicy!!!

By sunset we had arrived in Khon Gan starving for dinner after crossing the mountains. Khon Gan is one of the largest cities in Isaan and is a center for silk weaving. As the sun set, a growing breeze came up, which put a slight chill in the air. Around these parts, anything under 70 degrees is considered jacket and hat weather. In winter, a chill wind often blows at sunset across the plain.

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 somtom, corn somtom, fruit somtom, roast chicken with tamarind chile sauce and of course sticky rice. Isaan cuisine.

The restaurant was nothing more than 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. Few White people visit this region. And fewer still eat at restaurants that cater to working class Thais.

We ate slowly, as Thais do, eventhough we still had hours to drive. The dinner bill-$150 baht.

An Isaan Kitchen.
An Isaan kitchen. Spicy food, cheap prices and sincere people. Can’t beat that.

This first trip to Isaan was during the winter and the rice fields were dry and fallow. Visit in summer and you’ll see an endless carpet of psychedelic green. But in winter it’s just brown fields of dried up paddies.

In winter, the Isaan rice farmers engage in the slash and burning of their fields to prepare them for the spring planting.  Swidden agriculture. Slash and burn. That type of farming has been going on for centuries if not a thousand years. The Thai government has tried to stop it because of the smoke and air pollution, but changing cultural habits is nigh impossible for people with distinct historical roots.

As we drove through the countryside, you could see fires everywhere, sometimes right up to the road. I couldn’t help but think that we were in the 3rd world. 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. 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. Fourteen hours on the road. 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 Isaan people go to bed early and get up earlier. Quite the opposite of Bangkok. Everything here was the opposite of Bangkok.

Destination Ahead! The Pillow Making Village

Thai pillow worker making triangle pillows
An Isaan pillow maker putting rice straw into a triangle pillow.

After a night’s sleep, we were up early again for a two hour drive to Yasoton Province and the Pillow Making Village. My wife’s friend had relatives in Roi Et and her sister-in-law joined us. Travelling with a local is the best, especially when heading into the boonies. She’s also a connoisseur of Thai silk and had shown me her extensive collection the previous night.

Down more country roads. Past more tamarind and tapioca fields. Stopping briefly to drink cool, fresh coconut water. The smoked coconuts are best. Onward. Ever onward. Down roads that got skinnier and pavement turned to gravel. We stopped on a street full of houses, sheds, barns, chickens, rooster, and cows. Dogs barking everywhere.

I knew we were in the Pillow Making Village as soon as I exited the car. On the porch of every ramshackled, village house were Thai pillows. Some only half made. I could see into the barns, sheds and out-buildings-they were crammed full of all kinds of Thai pillows. Several houses on the street had garages that were used to sell Thai pillows.

We wandered into one of these garages and started looking around. Triangle, square, round, rectangle pillows. Folding mattresses. Roll-up mattresses. Papaya and star fruit pillows. Bone pillows. Temple pillows for chanting. Tube pillows. Giant body pillows. Folding pillows large and small. I was in pillow Nirvana. And then a young woman appeared.

Muoi, barely 20 years old, had just taken over her family’s pillow making business. Her mother, father, aunts, uncles were all pillow makers. Her grandparents too. Before that she wasn’t sure. She didn’t know when or really why her family had started making Thai pillows. Muoi brought us cool water-a traditional gesture of good will practiced all over Thailand.

Little did I realize then, that my wife and I would become good friends with Muoi and her family. We watched her children grow up. We talked Thai politics. We prayed at the local wats together. We saw her fear when drought came to Isaan and the rice harvest failed.

Muoi would often spread a huge lunch before me of Isaan cuisine, and her family would watch and giggle as I ate their traditional food. It was Muoi and her husband who drove me to the far flung silk weaving villages scattered across the Isaan plain. She made sure I paid the local price.

Back to Muoi’s garage stuffed with pillows. Soon we were all kicking back on Thai pillows discussing with Muoi prices and logistics-how to get the pillows back to Chiang Mai. My wife told me to start choosing the pillows I wanted to buy. And I did. A lot. So many that Muoi had to arrange rail freight to Chiang Mai for so many pillows.

Thai pillows are what brought me to Isaan on this first trip, and the reason I have returned so many times over the years. 5 Thai pillows proved to be my key to unlocking the door to Isaan culture. I wasn’t so much a tourist as I was a trader.

Isaan People

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A small Isaan village just outside Si-sa-ket.

I have always gotten along wonderfully with Isaan folk, even though I’m a White person from Los Angeles. My world and their world are polar opposites. But 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. There are no homeless in Isaan.

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 school. Good schools!” they all said with indignation.

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.

Rice rules the lives of Isaan. Jasmine rice of course. And glutinous rice for sticky rice. And riceberry, a dark red rice with lots of fiber. 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. Climate change has come. As of this writing, Isaan is in a prolonged drought that has all but eliminated the last rice harvest. Their wells, used mostly for household use, are drying up. The reservoirs are drying up. And when the rains do return, the storms will be brutal and violent causing flooding and tearing off roofs. One extreme to another. Isaan life.

Tending to their fields, especially rice, is what regulates the lives of Isaan farmers and their families. The Rice Cycle, like the Cycle of Life, gives order to what would be chaos. Yes, Isaan farmers are poor, but they own their land and houses. Food is cheap. They can and do scrape by with little one year, hoping for better the next.

Isaan Is Thai Silk

A Display of Mudmee silk in Surin Province
A display of mudmee silk at a silk shop in Ban Ta-Sa-Wang in the Esaan region.

Thai silk is Isaan culture. True on one-hand, but a historical misnomer on the other. Before the country of Thailand or Siam existed, silk was being woven in this region. It was Khmer silk as Isaan was part of the ancient Khmer Empire. Eventually Khmer silk was traded throughout the Siamese Kingdom. It was high quality silk and the weavers of the Khmer Empire were highly regarded by the weavers of Siam.

The earliest evidence we have of silk weaving in Thailand is in Isaan near Udon Thani close to the Laotian border. An ancient village was discovered and excavated, and silk thread was found along with pottery that had silkworms painted on it. It was determined to be about 3,000 years old, or dated to about 1,000 B.C. Silk has been part of Isaan’s culture far longer than recorded history.

Today Isaan produces some of the finest Thai silk woven. Mudmee silk is the forte of Isaan silk weavers. Patience is the key to good silk weaving, especially mudmee. It can take a month to weave a two meter bolt of fine silk. A hardscrabble land and life breed patience.

People write me often from Thailand asking where to find Thai silk. I tell them go on a silk safari to Isaan, even though I know they won’t. Isaan is far away, difficult to get there. The silk villages are often isolated and hard to find. Nobody speaks English in rural Isaan. The silk weaving villages lie far off the beaten tourist trail.

There are fabulous silk shops in the Isaan cities of Surin, Buriram, Khon Gan and Udon Thani. But if you go to the rural silk villages, you can sit next to a village weaver and understand the culture of Isaan silk. The clacking loom under a house on stilts. Empty village streets under a blazing sun. Raw silk hanging in the shed. The faint chanting of Buddhist monks in a nearby temple. Snot-nosed children playing in the dirt. The concentration of a village weaver and her insistence on going slow to get it right. The culture of Isaan silk.

I am a lucky vagabond. I come to Isaan with my northern Thai wife and Thai friends who know Thai silk. Often we come to the silk villages with Muoi and her husband. I have cars and local knowledge at my disposal. I am guided by my refined love of Thai silk and Muoi’s knowledge of this countryside.

In fact we have a routine. I buy lots of silk. When I see a bolt I like, I wink to Muoi or my wife’s friends and seriptitiously point it out. Then Muoi or my Thai friends negotiate a price. They fear that as a farang, I’ll be taken advantage of. They insist on doing it this way even though I tell them I don’t care if I pay more.

Final Thoughts

Since that first road trip, I have come to Isaan more times than I can remember. And I always stay at the Green Hotel in Yasoton. It’s the only hotel in Yasoton. Big clean rooms and the hardest beds in The Kingdom. Expensive at $800 baht/night. But it does have a big swimming pool.

Muoi and her husband Aut pick up my wife and I in the morning at the Green and we drive 20 minutes to the Pillow Making Village for a day’s work. If Interpol or the Mob is ever hunting me, don’t tell them that I’m either hiding out at the Green or Muoi’s house.

Somewhere in the future my death bed awaits me. Yours too. I can only hope that at the end, I’m still lucid enough to remember my days as a vagabond to Isaan.

Footnotes

  1. Somtom is a green papaya salad with tomatoes, carrots, peanuts and lots of fish sauce. Isaan has at least 25 different types of somtom-all spicy.
  2. Apsara are beautiful young women dancers that are found chiseled in relief on the stone walls of Khmer Temple ruins.
  3. Siam was the original name for Thailand. The country’s name became Thailand in 1939
  4. This 1st trip took place in February when Chinese New Year is celebrated throughout Thailand.
  5. Please see my blog posts: Thai Pillows: A Buyers Info Resource and Confessions of an International Thai Pillow Dealer.

4 comments

  1. Thank you. I married a sakon nakong woman here in southern calif. We will move to her village later this year. Your eloquence has sharpened my curiousity. I enjoy her nature, my wife’s. I hope to feel the age of the region. Dr. Henry

    • Thanks for writing. Sakon Nakhon is maybe the most least visited province of all Thailand. I was there years ago. If you love peace & quiet and Esaan cuisine, you’ll love it there. Best of luck.

      -Jeff

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