If you spend much time in Thailand you will inevitably hear Thais and expats alike mention the name of this faraway northeastern province. Likely you won’t get any more explanation than, for example, “This is Isaan food”, or “That person is from Isaan” or even “He speaks Isaan”. Many will nod their head in understanding, but to the farang (foreigner) who hears these phrases for the first time with no further context, it can be absolutely baffling. To put it simply, Isaan is a province of Thailand which carries with it, often just by the utterance of its name, a certain quality of language, cuisine, lifestyle, and culture in general that is distinct from the rest of Thailand. We’ll take a look at some of those unique qualities today and also explore a few of the best places to visit if you find yourself in Isaan.
We start our journey in Isaan from one of the province’s largest cities, Udon Thani. Since Isaan is quite far from Bangkok and Chiang Mai, chances are you’ll be flying into Udon Thani if you come to visit, and it’s a good place to spend a few days at the start of your journey. With a population of 150,000, it certainly won’t feel like a big city, but it’s perhaps the most urban location you’ll encounter here. The Ban Chiang Archaeological Site is one of the city’s greatest attractions, and with only a 150 baht entrance fee, you don’t have much reason not to visit it. Additionally, there are numerous parks, lakes, and green spaces around if you would like to relax, and Ban Nak Ha, a village known for its quality silk at affordable prices, is 15km north of the Udon Thani, easily reached by motorbike, taxi, or songthaew.
But don’t spend your whole time in the city! You came to Isaan to get out into the country and see Isaan culture. And there’s plenty of it. Wherever you go you’ll be sure to encounter “Isaan food”, the distinctive dishes and flavours that this area is known for. But beware if you dislike spice. Chilli peppers form a central and often essential taste in Isaan recipes. Very commonly you’ll find marinated and grilled pork, sticky rice, sausages, grilled fish, and hot pot on the menu in local restaurants. Be sure to try them all! After some time you will be able to see and taste the differences between traditional Thai cuisine from Bangkok and the unique blend of flavours that makes Isaan food so special to these people.
The countryside offers many fantastic opportunities to see the beauty of Thailand – too many to list here. But if you’re interested in seeing the province from up high, be sure to check out the Phu Phan Mountains, a range of mountains that divides eastern Isaan into two basins and from which you can look out to the East toward Laos, or to the West, back into Thailand. The views are gorgeous and the temperature is a welcome escape from the boiling heat of ground-level Thailand.
Khon Kaen province in western Isaan includes several national parks, including Phu Wiang (which includes a dinosaur park), Phu Kao – Phu Phan, Nam Phong. Come here to walk in nature, relax by the serene waters of placid lakes, and spend the night surrounded by nature.
Isaan is a very large province with many interesting cities, cultural sites, and natural wonders. Next week we will go a bit deeper and look at several more interesting spots in the countryside and a couple of the other large cities.