Welcome to Isan, a region in the northeastern most part of the Kingdom of Thailand. Isan consists of 20 provinces and is the largest region of Thailand. It also has the lowest per capita income with agriculture being its primary industry.
Muay Thai boxing originated here as well. The primary language is Isan, a derivative of Laotian but everyone also speaks Thai.
Anna and I came here 10 days ago to visit her family and we will stay through Songkran, the Thai lunar new year and the most important Buddhist holiday in Thailand.
Last year I celebrated Songkran in Chiang Mei, a rollicking citywide party affair where everyone gets drenched nonstop for days. This time around, it looks to be a more traditional celebration, with perhaps a bit of monk-sprinkled water on my forehead.
We are located in the village of Na Kae, population around 8,000 including the rural surrounding area. There is no 3G so the aircard I purchased to use here is useless.
Since there are already seven family members living in her father’s home, we rented a guesthouse a five minute scooter ride away. It is inexpensive, spacious and very new. With a total of six rooms (five unoccupied at present), it is the only guesthouse in Na Kae. It also has wifi.
Since I have been here I have yet to see another Caucasian, Westerner, or speaker of the English language. Life moves slowly here with emphasis on family relationships.
Food also plays a large role and over the last 10 days I have tried many Isan Thai dishes I did not know existed (as well as some old favorites like green curry and sum tum (also known as green papaya salad).
Two things that all these dishes have in common are the freshness of ingredients (often grown right on the property) and the amount of love in the preparation. I have lost weight during the last six months in Thailand but I feel like I have put on a few pounds since I have been here.
Although we have been mostly hanging and chilling, there have been a few fun side trips as well.
On the way to Isan, we stopped at a roadside stand with an enormous beehive, buying the freshest honey imaginable.
A few days ago, we went to the town of That Phenom, located along the Mekong River which forms the border with Laos. A tuk tuk picked us up at the house and we all piled in for the 40 minute drive.
Once there, we visited Wat Phra That Phenom a Buddhist Temple built during the eighth century. Like so many temples in Thailand, it has been rebuilt many times over the millennia. We wandered around and received a pre-Songkran blessing from one of the monks.
Afterward, we walked across a very rickety bamboo bridge to an island in the middle of the Mekong where we ordered and consumed lunch on a floating table midway between Thailand and Laos.
The following day a neighbor showed up with a tractor to plow a section of Anna’s farm.
One afternoon I realized I had arrived in “Isan society when Anna walked me over to some neighbors. There was a group of old farmers and ex soldiers. I was invited to sit around a wooden table with them and drink Thai rice whiskey. It is definitely rough around the edges but after the second one you don’t notice so much.
Another thing I like about Thailand in general and Isan in particular is how these tented village shopping centers will spring up literally overnight and after a few days just disappear, kind of like the old American Circus. This one appeared one morning just outside our guesthouse. We were awakened at 6:30 am by some very loud contemporary Indian music with plenty of base. It sounded like we were on the set of a Bollywood dance production. It was fun until I realized that they only had one song looped ad infinitum. If you have ever had It’s a Small Small World stuck in your head then you can relate. Still, all in all, we purchased some perfect mangos and mandarin oranges. Tonight there is no trace they were ever here.
Well, in a few hours it will be Saturday morning here and the Songkran celebration will begin. Most of Thailand will be shut down on holiday through Tuesday. On Wednesday, we are leaving. I am finalizing plans for a new round of traveling and will be sharing them very shortly. From Isan, Thailand: