We’ve given up trying to figure out why so few international visitors to Thailand—on average about two percent of per year—make it to Isaan, the vast northeastern region bordering Cambodia and Laos
Isaan eventually works its way into the hearts of Thailand’s more discerning repeat visitors, and also among expatriates who know the Kingdom well and who have had enough of the traffic jams of Bangkok and crowded sands of Southern islands. The slower pace of life, the chilled people, and lower prices found in Isaan are a primary draw, along with the region’s rich historical and cultural heritage.
Geographically, the northeast sits apart from other regions atop the immense Khorat Plateau, which extends right across Isaan and into parts of Laos and Cambodia. The Phu Phan mountain range divides Isaan into two wide drainage basins, one fed by the Mekong River and its tributaries in the upper northeast, and another fed by the Chi and Mun Rivers in the lower northeast.
These large, shallow bowls offer fertile territory amidst what is otherwise one of Thailand’s least productive regions—agriculturally speaking—due to longer, hotter dry seasons. Sakon Nakhon Basin, in upper Isaan, boasts Southeast Asia’s longest history of habitation, beginning with the 4,000-year-old bronze culture of Ban Chiang, which predates both Mesopotamia and China as a metallurgical and agricultural site.
Although today part of Thailand, most of Isaan remained autonomous from early Thai kingdoms before the French arrived in the 18th century and created the Indochinese state of Laos, thus forcing Thailand to define its Northeastern boundaries.
In the 20th century, poverty-stricken Isaan proved to be fertile ground for Southeast Asia’s widespread communist movement. Ho Chi Minh spent 1928-29 proselytizing in Udon Thani, Sakon Nakhon, and Khorat, and in the 1940s a number of Indochinese Communist Party leaders fled to Isaan from Laos and helped build the Communist Party of Thailand. Thus from the 1960s until 1982, Isaan was a hotbed of guerrilla activity, especially the provinces of Buriram, Loei, Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Phanom and Sakon Nakhon.
Following Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanond’s amnesty of 1982, the Northeastern strongholds of the Communist Party dissolved rapidly. This process was hastened by a decade of economic growth that drew large numbers of Isaan peasants from the forests and rice fields to Bangkok and various provincial capitals.
Today peaceful Isaan offers a rich blend of Khmer and Lao influences. Rising above the high plains of Northeastern Thailand, man-made stone peaks today bear witness to the half-millennium reign of a powerful Khmer state which flourished from the 9th to 14th centuries. Although mostly known to today’s world as Angkor, another historical name for the civilization that extended from southern Laos and into western Cambodia—as well as much of Thailand’s lower northeast—was Isanapura. Meaning ‘Abode of Shiva’, in tribute to the principal religious tradition of the area for many centuries, the name was shortened to ‘Isaan’ by later generations of Siamese.
Often erected on hilltops, the extraordinary towers of Isanapura were part of a temple architecture that symbolized Mount Meru, the mythical peak at the center of the Hindu-Buddhist universe. Surrounding Meru, this universe unfolds in concentric circles or squares representing seven continents alternating with cosmic oceans. Beyond the seventh continent stretches an infinite ocean interrupted solely by four ‘corner’ continents. In more advanced Khmer temple complexes, moats and ponds around and amongst the towers and pavilions were intended to represent the oceans in this cosmic universe.
Sometimes referred to as ‘high Cambodia’, the provinces of Buriram, Surin, Nakhon Ratchasima, Surin, and Sisaket became a choice locale for the development of these Meru microcosms. Although Thai folk belief once held that the larger, cruciform-plan monuments served as palaces for Angkor’s all-powerful kings, in fact they were designed as worldly abodes for Shiva, Vishnu, Maitreya, and other Hindu or Buddhist deities called to earth via religious ritual. To the east of Isaan’s temple-dotted plateaus lay the river valleys of ‘low Cambodia’, the monarchical capital of the Angkor civilization.
Although often overlooked in favour of the famed Angkor city complex in Cambodia, the Khmer monuments of Isaan represent key architectural milestones in the development of Angkor design and ritual. Every Angkor-period monument played a role in an elaborate cosmology that linked the entire network, half of which lies in what is today Thailand. The grand Prasat Hin Phimai temple complex in Nakhon Ratchasima served as a Tantric Buddhist center in the early 12th century. Meanwhile, in the more elevated terrain around Prasat Hin Phanom Rung, Isaan’s second most significant Khmer temple, Hinduism prevailed.
A sacred “superhighway” linked Prasat Hin Phimai with 12th-century Angkor Wat, the largest and most complex of the Khmer temples. Angkor rulers were at the time considered to be devaraja or ‘god-kings’, and to maintain that vaunted status they and their priests periodically traveled between key monuments to perform complex ceremonies involving fire, water, and linga (sanctified stone sculptures representing Shiva’s phallus).
These structures became so important to the sanctity of the Angkor Empire that some 300 Khmer shrines were erected between the 7th and 13th centuries. Monuments en route offered spiritual and temporal support along these potentially arduous journeys. In today’s Thailand, that includes 102 temples which were dedicated to ritual and 121 used as places where pilgrims could rest and receive medical attention.
Meanwhile, along the Mekong River border with Laos, several Lao-style temples are found, including famed Wat Phra That Phanom with its gilded lotus-bud stupa. Many of the people living in this area speak Lao—or Thai dialects which are very close to Lao dialects spoken in Laos—and in fact there are more people of Lao heritage in Isaan than in all of Laos. In parts of lower Isaan, Khmer is the most common language.
Isaan food is famous for its pungency and choice of ingredients. Well-known dishes include kai yaang (grilled chicken) and somtam (spicy salad made with grated papaya, lime juice, garlic, fish sauce and fresh chilies). Northeasterners eat glutinous rice with their meals, squeezing the almost translucent grains into wads with their hands, and then dipping the rice into the main dish before popping it into their mouths. Meals are communal affairs that traditionally take place on the floor.
The music of Northeastern Thailand is highly distinctive in its folk tradition, using instruments such as the khaen, a reed instrument with two long rows of reed pipes fastened together; the ponglaang, a xylophone-like arrangement of short wooden logs; and the phin, a small three- or four-stringed lute played with a large plectrum. The most popular song forms are molam—a highly rhythmic style in which these instruments accompany vocalists singing in Isaan dialects.
The best Thai silks are found in the northeast, particularly in Khorat, Khon Kaen, and Roi Et. Visitors to the Northeastern silk-weaving towns will uncover lots of bargains, as well as learn about Thai weaving techniques. Cotton fabrics from Loei, Nong Khai, and Nakhon Phanom are highly regarded, especially those woven using mat-mee methods, in which cotton threads are tie-dyed before weaving.
Diving further into antiquity, Udon Thani province offers prehistoric cave drawings at Ban Pheu, south of Nong Khai, and a look at the ancient ceramic and bronze culture at Ban Chiang to the east of Udon.
There was a time when tourist accommodations were relatively rare in Isaan, but today every provincial capital offers a variety of two-, three-, and four-star hotels as well as numerous guesthouses, villas, and semi-boutique hotels. One of the most enjoyable ways to circulate through Isaan is to simply follow the Mekong River from Loei to Ubon, whether by local bus or rented car. Train travel is another convenient way to see the region, with three trunk lines operated by the State Railway of Thailand from Bangkok to Nong Khai, Ubon, and Aranya Prathet. Thai Airways, Nok Air, and Air Asia also offer flights to many of the larger towns of Isaan.