Padi fields touching the horizon line, water buffalos knee deep in muddy waters, khmer temples in the middle of nowhere, an amazing wilderness, and the feeling that time has stopped… Welcome to the Far East of Thailand!
As big as one third of what used to be the Siam Kingdom, bordered with Laos and Cambodia, the Thai north east—Isaan—stays away from the usual tourist path. Made of 20 different districts, Isaan is home to the one of the largest cities in Thailand, Nakhon Ratchasina (Korat), and hosts absolute marvels. Prehistoric vestiges, UNESCO classified sites, marvels of the Khmer architecture, an amazingly diversified fauna and flora, and the Mekong, which borders Isaan for more than 600km.
The Thai north east has a very strong identity resulting from a long history with influences from Laos, especially in terms of language, and Khmers. Completely opposite of bustling Bangkok, Isaan illustrates a certain kind of Thailand where time is suspended, where people are very proud of their traditions. An area where authenticity is the main word, where life is dedicated to agriculture.
But Isaan is also the poorest region in Thailand. Rural exodus and the attractiveness of Bangkok empty the area as many seek a better way of life. If you go to Bangkok or Phuket and hop on a tuk tuk, chances are your driver will be from Korat or Ubon Ratchathani.
But thanks to this diaspora, Isaan has exported all over Thailand a lot of its traditions, like the use of silk and its traditional music, morlam. One of the most famous traditions is the ever so popular papaya salad, Som Tam. Last but not least, Isaan is where the Red Shirt movement takes its roots from.
From the IX to XIII century, Isaan belonged to the Khmer kingdom. Today in the south of Isaan bordering Cambodia, many temples built during the XI and XII centuries are witnesses of the Angkorian era, the golden age of Far East architecture. Located in the districts of Ratchasima and Buriram, these jewels are far from any city, and if you wish to get there you will have to rent a car, or a songthaew (a sort of collective taxi).
About 50km north east of Nakhon Ratchasima lies Prasat Hin Phinai temple. Often dubbed as a mini Angkor Wat, it was built before the famous Cambodian city, and it is even said that it was the inspiration behind the worldwide famous complex. A masterpiece of a renovation conducted by a Franco-Thai team and away from the crowd, Phimai is in a better state than the admiral vessel of Angkor. Its sculpture's flabbergasting finesse and the majesty of the main prang, 28m high, will take you through the cult of Mahayana Buddhism.
In the neighboring district of Buriram, next to the Cambodian border, Prasat Phanom Rung—built on a dormant volcano—and Muang Tham temples are worth a detour to enjoy their architecture and ornaments.
Another khmer chef d’oeuvre is the Prasat Khao Phra Viharn (or Preah Vihear). A sanctuary made of yellow stoneware dominating the Cambodian valley, it was given back to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice. This decision, still contested by Thailand, is the roots of tense relationships between the two countries.
Thai version of Jurassic Park
Even more astonishing, Isaan is packed with numerous prehistoric sites, confirming the presence of an important civilization dating back to the Bronze Age. Human presence in Isaan goes back as far as 6,000 years.
In the area of Udon Thani, Ban Chiang site is the largest one in South East Asia, and again, is part of the UNESCO. This necropolis is famous for its ocher potteries with spiraling red paintings. A smaller site called Ban Prasat (north east of Khorat), located right in the heart of a typical village, has skeletons and potteries that are 3000 years old.
Another very important prehistoric site is the Pha Taem national park, located in the extreme east of Isaan. It is home to magnificent 2 to 3000 year old mural paintings.
If you haven’t had enough of history, you can head to Phu Wiang National Park, where the “star” of Isaan lies. In 1993, the fossil of a Siamotyrannus was discovered. This is a 110 million year old dinosaur, who could be considered the ancestor of the famous T-Rex. Last but not least, in the area of Nakhon Ratchasima, the Khorat Fossil Museum is home to amazing dinosaurs and elephants fossils as well as a great collection of petrified woods.
In the jungle of Khao Yai
Khao Yai, or tall mountain, is in the south west of Isaan, and is one of the most fascinating areas of Thailand. Classified in the UNESCO World Heritage, this green lung is 2166 km², and covers about four districts. Two thousand different vegetal species, 800 different animals, 73 types of mammals, different kind of forests (mixed, primary…), valleys, mountains as high as 1300m, and wonderful waterfalls (one of them, Haew Suwat Fall was used to shoot the film The Beach starring Leonardo DiCaprio).
In this natural paradise away from everything, it is not rare to cross the path of wild elephants, deers, wild boars, monkeys (macaques and gibbons), and millions of bats. Be aware that the cobra is regularly spotted and leeches are particularly aggressive during the rainy season (May to October).
If you are lucky enough, you may be able to spot the rare Black Bear and tigers. But because the park is gigantic (about 80km east west) it is compulsory to rent a car and a guide. However, there are a lot of trails, but then again, it is highly advisable to get a guide who will then help you spot animals.
The Land of the Elephants
Isaan is the capital of the Elephants kingdom. And especially, Surin, in the south of the province. Every year in November, the little rural village is invaded by hundreds of pachyderms in time for the Annual Elephant Festival. This is always held, come what may, on the third Saturday of November.
In this very well patronised tribute to the Buddhist kingdom's best loved animal, over two hundred of the giant beasts are assembled to entertain and thrill the huge crowd, which gets larger year by year. Few visitors are disappointed with what they see.
The stars of the show perform a range of tasks which are well beyond the ability of many smaller domesticated animals. Between folk dances and other cultural performances, these versatile behemoths star in displays of old-time elephant hunts, demonstrations of intelligence, strength and gentility, and the spectacular re-enactment of a war elephant parade.
For several years now, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has organised overnight trips to Surin for the festival. For around US$160, a visitor can get a first-class train ride from Bangkok—including a sleeper, entrance to the elephant show, a trip to a silk-weaving village, folk dance demonstrations and, for good measure, some delightful meals, including incendiary Thai dishes. It seems likely, because of the overwhelming success of this venture, that it will become a permanent excursion every November. There are now so many foreign visitors that the local hotels cannot cope and some tourists have to be accommodated in Korat.
At Surin itself, the festival takes place over two days. There are elephant races, sparkling demonstrations of old-styles elephant hunts as well as numerous displays of the sheer strength and incredible versatility of the elephants. Battle cries resound around the dusty arena as the festival recreates battle scenes of yesteryear, and there is even a tug-of-war between an elephant and some seventy brawny members of the Royal Thai Army. They perform in ordination and harvest ceremony scenes, and the young calves following their mothers have the spectators cooing. There are sprints in which the swiftness of the animal is well demonstrated—in short sprints they can reach speeds of up to 35km an hour. The Surin elephants take part in soccer, pick up small objects such as matchboxes with their trunks and obey different commands.
In spite of their great bulk, elephants are actually exceptionally agile animals and year after year, they show their qualities of agility at the Surin festival. Nonetheless despite strength and agility they also show an endearing gentleness which goes a long way in explaining the deep affection that the Thai people hold for them. No one, rich or poor, young or old, local or foreigner, who visits the Surin festivities is not somehow moved by the events—the time when Thailand's elephants have their very own day: the annual round-up.
Silk, markets and Son Tam
Isaan is the main centre for the production of Thai silk. The trade received a major boost in the post-war years, when Jim Thompson popularised Thai silk among westerners. One of the best-known types of Isaan silk is mut-mee, which is tie-dyed to produce geometric patterns on the thread.
The skill of the weavers in Isaan was quickly recognised by King Rama V of Siam (1868-1910) and he developed the silk weaving in central Isaan around Nakhon Ratchasima to serve the court. To this day this area of Isaan is the main area of silk production in Thailand, including the Jim Thompson factories. During the period of King Rama V, wide looms which are semi-mechanised equipment were introduced by employing foreign experts from Japan and India. Thus the traditional textiles of central Isaan were adapted to wider weaving equipment and faster production since this period.
The textiles of upper Isaan and the Phutai textiles from central Isaan on the other hand maintained their original structures. In the early part of the 20th century, land concessions were given to Chinese businessmen and the forests of Isaan were cut down giving rise to new towns and villages throughout the region.
The silk mut-mee textiles of Isaan are the most varied and exciting in motif and color arrangement in Thailand. Silk ikats were reserved for ceremonial use such as going to the temple, weddings, official occasions and gift giving thus the only the most beautiful designs were made in silk. The ikat technique was reserved for women's tube-skirts and long cloths for both men and women. The tube-skirts of the Lao groups were smaller than that of the Cambodian groups. Another striking difference was the use of three shafts in the Cambodian pieces whereas the Lao used only two shafts. The result of the three shafts was a weft-faced fabric which showed off the weft ikat to its maximum.
Although the mat mi textiles of Isaan were made on simple looms and using basic bamboo or wooden equipment, stunning works of art were created. The patterns were placed into the textile in a complex process known as mut-mee or weft ikat. Thousands of designs were created in a great variety of color combinations. This wealth of creativity was carried out by village women who were not only hard working but skilled in the planning and organisation of the patterns they wove. With no formal education and in the most meager of living conditions, they were able to bring to life their beliefs and traditions in delicate, harmonious patterns woven in fine silk. The mut-mee textiles of Isaan are a legacy to the women that wove them and a treasure to the world.
For the culinary enthusiasts, Isaan the dream destination, and a trip to this area without trying the famous Som Tam would not be complete. The dish combines the four main tastes of the local cuisine: sour lime, hot chili, salty, savory fish sauce, and sweetness added by palm sugar. The ingredients are mixed and pounded in a mortar; the Thai name Som Tam literally translates as "sour pounded".
Despite the use of papaya, which one may think of as sweet, this salad is actually savory. When not yet ripe, papaya has a slightly tangy flavor. The texture is crisp and firm, sometimes to the point of crunchiness. It is this that allows the fruit to withstand being beaten in the mortar. Be prepared to experience a spicy and sour, yet delicious dish!
And for the most adventurous, Isaan is also famous for its vast array of “exotic” food, such as crickets, silk worms, and all sort of rampant creatures quickly pan fried…
It takes about a week to fully enjoy the beauties of Isaan. However, be prepared for it to be a life changing experience. The charm and gentleness of the people, as well as their simplicity, the marvels of this area, make Isaan a must see destination.