We get away from the crowds and out into the countryside of Isan in north east Thailand to discover a fascinating culture, searingly hot Thai food and genuine hospitality
Thailand has a secret. Like the elephant in the room that nobody mentions, Isan (or Thailand's north east) is the largest region in the kingdom, easily the least travelled - and surely the most fascinating of creatures.
The vast Isan plateau extends from Khorat (more accurately called Nakorn Ratchasima) up to Nong Khai on the Mekong border with Laos in the north and east, and to the Cambodian border to the south east. While it therefore has no beaches, it is rich in many other ways, and renowned for its lilting indigenous folk music called Morlam, for its Thai boxing, its spectacular festivals and historical sites, its fresh and spicy cuisine - and, perhaps most of all, for its friendly, fun-loving inhabitants.
What makes Isan so appealing is that it remains unchanged by tourism and much more focused on traditional village life and the rhythms of nature The age old ways of fishing, silk weaving, cultivating rice - and throwing impromptu parties - remain fully intact.
The indigenous people of Isan are close to their Lao or Khmer roots and traditions, with those in the northern parts of Isan speaking a Lao dialect, while those in the southern part of Isan do so in a Cambodian dialect. Isan is an agricultural area where rice growing has been the main occupation, and as such its people have been subject to the whims of the climate - be it floods or drought. Many have historically migrated to Bangkok or further afield to seek work, so you can be sure that among the taxi drivers, hotel employees, guides and workers you meet in Bangkok or other provinces more frequented by tourists, a good number of these people will be Isan natives. Take the time to visit their hometowns and learn a little of their culture (and a smattering of Lao!) and you will be delighted by how this interest will make you instant friends with them!
Isan cuisine is, for the most part, very spicy, freshly cooked, and exceedingly healthy, with a little meat or fish stretched with chillies and fresh herbs and vegetables in a deceptively simple but stunningly effective way. Do try a spicy green papaya salad, a simply marinated and grilled chicken with sticky rice, a spicy beef salad and a heart-warming hot soup with herbs. Have the villagers show you how to make the meals; its quick and easy and the results can be spectacular.
Isan has places of natural beauty, historical sites of major historical importance, and plenty to see and do. For nature lovers, there is the impressive Khao Yai National Park. History and architecture buffs will simply not want to miss Khao Phra Viharn temple near Surin or the ruins at Phimai near Korat, and all visitors should spend some time exploring the wonders of the mighty Mekong river that runs the eastern length of Isan.
Where to stay
The main cities in Isan offer a wide array of accommodation possibilities, from the occasional five star hotel down to budget guest houses or simple hotels. However, going local - yet in some style - is now possible in Isan, thanks to a small number of rural properties located among the villages out of the cities, and these really do offer a unique experience. We stayed at Gecko Villa, a holiday villa set in the countryside out of Udon Thani, with a great private pool overlooking the surrounding rice paddies. We were collected from Udon Thani by Ten, who runs the property with his family, and found they managed to blend our occasional wish to simply laze by the pool in privacy, with a genuine willingness and delight in helping us explore the sights and sounds of the region. We helped out in the rice paddies, went fishing among the pink lotus flowers in a traditional wooden boat, visited the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ban Chiang, watched silk being woven on antique looms in dusty little sheds, and enjoyed learning to make a number of Thai and Isan dishes in informal cooking lessons at the property. Wherever you choose to stay, do your research and get out of the cities into the countryside. You will not regret it.
If you have time, a road trip by car or bicycle allows the greatest independence, although be aware that this is a vast region and distances can be considerable. There are regular train and coach services from Bangkok to the main cities of Isan, and numerous flights out of Bangkok serve Udon Thani, Khon Kaen, Korat and Buriram. Fly with the national carrier, Thai Airways (www.thaiair.com), or choose a budget flight on Air Asia (www.airasia.com) or Nok Air (www.nokair.com).
Going beyond Isan
With the borders to both Cambodia and Laos now open and granting visas on arrival, it is easy to cross the river and extend your trip. We'd recommend crossing into Laos at Vientiane from Nong Khai, then heading up via Van Vieng to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang. Alternatively, flights are available that head straight from Udon Thani to Luang Prabang.