A patchwork of green rice paddies, fed by the mighty Mekong, an ethnically diverse population and an intriguing local cuisine, Michael Raffael discovers Isan, one of Thailand’s lesser-known regions.
Currency is the baht (£1=48 THB). The time in Thailand is seven hours ahead of GMT. Thailand has two distinct climate zones: tropical in the south and tropical savanna in the north. The hot season lasts from March to May, with temperatures averaging in the mid-30s°C.
Thai Airways (http://thaiairways.co.uk) offers a choice of two non-stop flights from London Heathrow to Bangkok every day with midday and evening departures timed to connect with flights throughout Thailand.
Buffalo Tours (020 8545 2831, http://buffalotours.com) operates a four day Active Thailand tour, which includes a train journey to Isan. Tell Tale Travel (020 7060 4571, http://telltaletravel.co.uk) runs a 15-day Real Thailand tour taking in lesser-known areas, including Isan.
Thai Street Food (Conran Octopus, £40) won’t fit in your backpack, but David Thompson’s hefty tome, filled with beautiful photography and delicious recipes, will give you an authentic taste of the local cuisine.
Suvarnabhumi, the name of Bangkok’s airport, translates as Golden Land. Glossy and glassy, the airport sends out a message about Thailand’s place in the 21st century. Tourists queuing at the transfer desks for onward flights to Phuket’s beaches know they’re still in the modern world – even the more adventurous ones heading north to Chiang Mai. We were flying east to Ubon Ratchathani, in Isan, a region described by a Bangkok Post headline as ‘Off The Beaten Track’.
Rural, more green than gold, with a hotchpotch of Lao, Khmer, Viet and Thai-Chinese influences, the incredibly diverse Isan is only slighter larger than Ireland. To the Thai bourgeoisie, Isan is considered a poor relation to the rest of the country’s burgeoning cities. ‘It’s where we hire our maids,’ a well-heeled citizen had told me. Nang, our guide, would have smiled at that. She left school at 14 to work as a nanny for a rich family that moved to California before she was able to return to her roots.
Half an hour after landing in Isan, we found ourselves standing in a puddle watching two police teams doing backflips in a game of takraw (an intriguing mix of soccer, volleyball and kung fu) after exchanging cards with a local reporter, who just happened to be an ex-welterweight boxing champion. Sayan, our driver, had asked us politely whether we would like to see a cockfight. It seemed our options were limited: there were no resorts, beaches, massage parlours or ladyboys.
Later that day, we ate pickled raw pork, wrapped in banana leaves, salt-grilled tilapia and ‘leaping shrimps’ for dinner. The latter are crustaceans, translucent, little bigger than woodlice; they jump around on your plate like demented tiddlywinks. It takes someone with the reflexes of a gunslinger and the touch of a barista to prepare them. Our cook scoops a handful onto a plate, adds red chilli, coriander, fish sauce and lime, covers it with another plate and then shakes. They taste like adult Rice Krispies.
Isan’s larder is represented at the Ubon wet market. Here, you’ll find the living, the dead, the cooked, the raw, the pickled and everything in between – from the stomach-churning (frogs who have had their legs dislocated to prevent them hopping, cow’s placenta or fighting beetles) to the curious (freshwater crabs or ‘sky tongue’, a succulent, flapping vegetable over a foot long, or a strange willowy fungus).
We nibbled on slivers of cured salty beef on bamboo spikes; newseason green rice; mam (plump fermented sausages); and khanom krok (wafers filled with thick coconut curd). To help us digest our food, Nang offered us an astringent, green walnut-like berry called samoh Thai to chew that also helped to sweeten our bottled water.
Isan is Thailand’s driest region. In the tropics, though, dry is relative. A tented village along the main road out of town showed how devastating the effects of a monsoon can be. Houses along both banks of the Mun River still lay under water a month after it had broken its banks during the rainy season.
‘Moon River’, as American forces during the Vietnam War called the tributary, flows into the Mekong at Khong Chiam 100km away. At Song Siam, the clear blue of one dissolves into the muddy brown of the other – or so the books say. At winter’s end, the two dull ochre streams join along an invisible seam.
The Mekong divides Thailand from its neighbour Laos. At night, lights from the opposing shores wink at each other. In the early morning, the music pumped through a Laos loudspeaker floats across the border. Flat, snub-nosed fishing boats patrol its eddying currents.
At the last count, there were more than 700 species of fish living in the Mekong River including pla beuk, one of the world’s largest freshwater species. The giant catfish now faces extinction. Forty years ago, Alan Davidson (legendary compiler of The Oxford Companion to Food) was British ambassador to Laos. A phone call to the embassy there was enough for him to drop his duties in Vientiane, the capital, and drive two hours to the river for a rare tasting. He later described the catfish as being meaty and delicious.
In contrast, the gobbets of pla beuk we tried at Araya, a nearby floating restaurant, left us wondering what the fuss was all about. Floating in a hot and sour soup, they tasted like rubbery protein. So much better were the pla het, crisper than the finest whitebait, and the wild mushroom tom yam soup, or the stir-fried salted fish topped with aromatic kale.
Khong Chiam has another big daddy living in its waters, a massive prawn that can top the scales at nearly half a kilo. During the dry season, you’ll often see them prancing about on the mudbanks. They’re high status, expensive and now farmed. We figured the few lethargic specimens we spotted in a water tank at the restaurant next door were never going to dance, so we passed on them, and hit the road instead.
Following the sweep of the Mekong is like driving on a coastal road, not knowing what to expect around the next bend. One moment we were eyeballing water buffalo or rolling up our trouser legs to talk to farmers harvesting rice; the next, in Pha Taem National Park, we were treading ankle-deep in a carpet of orchids. Five minutes’ walk brought us to a cliff-edge, staring over a sinuous gorge where the river narrowed. Under its overhang were prehistoric rock paintings of stylised jars and giant fish.
Later we stopped at the village of Ban Pa Ao where the locals are renowned for their skills in casting brass and bronze bells by hand. In a clearing, a dozen men were moulding clay and cow dung, baking it over charcoal and firing the molten metal. The rest of Ban Pa Ao seemed empty. Most women have since turned to silk weaving.
When we did come across a wandering villager, she directed us to the wat (temple). Nearly all the women had gathered inside the compound; they were busy preparing a feast to mark the end of Buddhist Lent. One group of women was wrapping parcels of sweetened coconut rice, another was shredding vegetables and another was taking turns pounding the outsized mortar and pestle. Soup bases were simmering away in aluminium pots while the older ladies placidly arranged flowers.
We all sat down to plates of som tam, a green papaya salad with lime, chilli, fish sauce and palm sugar. It’s so much a part of the eating culture, Nang tells us, that children sing a nursery rhyme about it.
The Isan staple is ‘sticky’ rather than jasmine rice. Its name suggests a tacky texture that clings to the fingers. It doesn’t. Steamed in ‘baskets of joy’ (woven containers), it’s malleable enough to flatten and roll into bite-sized morsels. There’s an alternative way to eat it, ideal for soupy dishes: shape the rice into a wad, pop it in your mouth and hold it there, then add a spoonful of broth, chew and swallow.
Before harvesting, Isan’s paddy fields look like dense green moquette. Up close, you’ll find pink, yellow and lavender flowers, as well as wild herbs, growing among the crops. The herbs are known as ‘fragrant heaven grass’, by the Chinese, and have a distinct tang that’s addictive. In the irrigation channels that divide each parcel of land, fish, shellfish and water snails flourish, all of them edible.
Sayan drives us to Mahachai for lunch at his home. The kitchen, a separate building on stilts, lies at the rear of house. ‘In the old days,’ Nang explains, ‘houses had grass roofs. If they caught fire, the houses wouldn’t burn down.’
Sayan’s wife Runodom prepares the frogs and smokes the bamboo shoots for the salad over an open fire. His cousin Peng is making the soups and curries, while his two daughters pull wings off the beetles that are going to be on the menu. Nang helps out by pounding the crabs, shells and all, into a pulp.
According to Nang, the secret of Isan cooking lies in the order of its ingredients. When making soup, she tells us, you boil the water first with galangal, onion and lemon grass, then you season it with fermented fish sauce. Next, you add your fish – or frog. ‘You mustn’t stir it,’ Nang warns, ‘because it will turn the soup cloudy and make it fishy.’ When the leaf vegetables go in, the pan comes off the fire so they don’t overcook. Last of all, you squeeze in your fresh lime.
After two hours of concerted prepping, we all sit down together to share a lunch of crab coulis, charred bamboo, som tam, mushroom soup, two kinds of stir-fried beetle, sliced sky tongue, fried water snails, frog soup with rattan, and frog curry. All the ingredients used, right down to the firewood, have come from Sayan’s garden or the fields about five minutes’ walk from his home.
The tranquillity of Sayan’s rural home contrasts with the hustle and bustle of Nakhon Phanom. The Thai Chinese who have settled here do well for themselves. So does the Vietnamese community that fled here a century ago to escape the French domination of Indo-China. Ho Chi Minh spent a year in a village outside the town in the 1920s while plotting their overthrow of the French in his country.
Laotians cross the border here to buy cheap white goods. Fishermen get a better price for their catch in town and the Thais use it as a stepping stone to the Thakhek casino in Laos. Duty on wine costs less too. Amphetamine smuggling is big business for everyone. Nakhon Phanom also happens to be on the underground route for ‘dognappers’, who make a living taking strays to the Hanoi markets.
The food in Nakhon Phanom reflects the town’s hybrid qualities. For breakfast, there’s pak moh, rice flour crepes steamed over a cotton cloth stretched tight like a drum over a cooker. They are filled with minced pork, or egg or prawn crackers, and accompanied by a sweet chilli and lime dipping sauce. For kanom (dessert), we ate a dolly mixture of coloured jellies bathed in sweetened coconut milk.
To sample Isan’s contribution to the global family of noodles – kanom jeen – we had to leave town. Just after dawn, we found Bunrat had already opened her stall by Songkram Bridge. Her fermented rice noodles were exquisite. She ladled batter into a bag-like contraption with a hard perforated base, held it over a pan of simmering water and squeezed. Cooked in seconds, the strands were then twisted into fine skeins. Doused with soup and sprinkled with raw greens (wing beans, kratin and chives), it’s a dish worth more than all the noodles in Chinatown and costs about 30 pence.
On our way to catch our plane back to Bangkok, we stop at a lao hai (rice wine) shop in Renu Nakon. The large ceramic jar we buy conceals an alcoholic genie in the form of fermented rice husks. The jar comes with a pair of hollow bamboo straws. The trick is to break the seal on top of the jar, mash the bran and then add liquid (the shopkeeper recommended beer). Within minutes, you’ll get a pleasant aroma, like sake. Sucked through a straw, the wine is sweetish and mildly inebriating. Left for a while, the alcohol level will develop, producing a rounder, more subtle and satisfying taste. The mysterious and intoxicating lao hai is emblematic of Isan. The magic lies just beneath the surface, there for the tapping. The more you dig for it, the more it has to offer.
Where to Stay
Supanniga Home An exquisite property comprising three villas in 16 acres of private landscaped gardens, just 10 minutes from the city centre. Villas from £165, based on two sharing, including breakfast, transfers and Wi-Fi. 130/9 Potisarn Road Muang, Khon Kaen, 00 66 89 944 4880, http://supannigahome.com
Rachawadee Resort Modern, friendly and comfortable accommodation located close to the airport. Doubles from £38, including WiFi. 99 M20 Khon Kaen Airport Road, Khon Kaen, 00 66 4 346 8222, http://rachawadeehotel.com
Tohsang Khongjiam Resort A romantic option, overlooking the Mekong River, this is neither a boutique nor, as its name implies, a resort hotel, but it’s an ideal base for exploring the region. Villas from £60. 68 Mu 7, Huay Mark Tai Khongjiam, Khong Chiam, 00 66 45 351 1746, http://tohsang.com
Nakhonphanom River View Hotel A modern hotel that offers karaoke and cabaret simultaneously at night. It’s actually great value for money and breakfasts are excellent. Doubles from £30. 9 Nakhonphanom-Thatphanom Road, Muang District, Nakhonphanom, 00 042 522 333 40, http://nakhonphanomriverviewhotel.com
Where to Eat
Whatever guidebooks imply, hygiene isn’t a problem because everything is so fresh. Despite this, even Bangkok Thais recommend you buy Norfloxacin
from the chemist as a precaution. Don’t book. Don’t eat in the hotels (however good the cooking).
Pla Pa Noi This is a destination seafood restaurant at night-time, offering softshell crab, serpent fish, prawns and lobster. The food is more Thai mainstream than Isan, but it’s still good. From £10 for two, plus drinks. 51/10 Phothisan Road, Khon Kaen
Srilealabped Roadside restaurant specialising in duck (including the beak) plus softshell turtle. From £5 for two, plus drinks. 122/10 Srichan Rd, Naimeung
Puongped Here you’ll find a riverside view and classic Isan cooking. The lab is especially tasty, as is the chicken curry with young rattan. From £8 for two, plus drinks. 103 Samran Chai Kong Rd, Sribun Ruang
Phe Arhan Raya A floating restaurant on the Mekong where everything is pristine and the fish is fresh out of the water. From £8 for two, plus drinks. 200 Rimkong Road, Khong Chiam
- : There are endless problems with transliteration for Thai culinary terms but the following may help.
- Khao: Rice. It also refers to khao khaw (which has toasted ground rice as a seasoning), khao mao (green new season rice) or khao tom mud (sticky rice in a banana leaf).
- Kanom jeen: Fermented rice noodles.
- Gai: Chicken.
- Kop: Frog
- Ped: Duck.
- Gung (or kung): Shrimp/prawns.
- Kaeng: Curry.
- Lab: Spicy chopped meat, usually pork.
- Som tam: Papaya salad.
- Tom: Boiled or soupy dishes.
- Yam: Salad.
- Mam: Sausages. Sai krok isan are slightly fermented, some containing, blood, rice or chopped noodles.
- Pla (or plaa): Fish.
- Prik: Generic for hot and spicy.
Michael Raffael and Mark Parren Taylor travelled to Isan courtesy of Buffalo Tours (buffalotours.co.uk) and Tourism Thailand (http://tourismthailand.org)
This article was published on 31st January 2012 so certain details may not be up to date.