Away from the Crowds in Northeast Thailand
Mention Thailand and most will think of the country’s teeming capital, Bangkok, or of the tourist-focused destinations of Phuket, Koh Samui and Pattaya, or Chiang Mai. But there is a whole hidden area of Thailand where few foreigners tread, and which the author Ben Davies has called “the forgotten provinces.”
This is the kingdom’s Northeast, known locally as “Isan.” The region is a perfect destination for those seeking to experience the true soul of Thailand away from the tourist crowds. Those who get out of the cities and into the countryside of Isan will discover a landscape quilted with emerald rice paddies, traditional farming villages dotted among plantations, local farmers always quick with a smile and keen to meet rare foreign visitors, and deeply-rooted traditions in a culture proud of its own dialect, its lilting “Morlam” music, its numerous temples and its often insanely spicy food.
Local Thai Food – Zap and Zing!
But what food! Imagine lunching on marinated charcoal-grilled chicken with a green papaya salad, with a fresh and spicy “laab” made with minced beef, mint, coriander and lime and eaten with glutinous rice; or enjoying a soup such as Tom Yam Kung or a coconut and galangal chicken broth. For those with a sense of adventure, then a visit to a local, open air food market is a must, to try specialties such as grilled larvae, fried grasshoppers, ant egg soup and grilled buffalo skin…
If you are not a devotee of the chili, do not worry. Simply smile apologetically at your hosts or the waiter at your restaurant and say “My Ao Pet.” They will smile back pityingly, as Gordon Ramsay might when asked for a vegan omelet, but they will observe your peccadillos.
One Off Places to Stay
We recommend taking a Lao phrase book (Thai will always work, but the local dialect is much more akin to that in Laos) and getting out into the countryside for some one-off experiences. Making this easy are two One Off Places in Udon Thani province, Gecko Villa and Green Gecko. These are rural villas, each with a private swimming pool, where rates include daily breakfast, lunch and dinner, and where the friendly owners personally welcome guests and involve them in local activities to the extent that guests choose. You will no doubt spend much time simply chilling by your own pool and enjoying the views, perhaps also indulging in a traditional Thai massage, but do drag yourselves away to learn how to cook Thai food or to drive a tuk-tuk; to participate in a rice harvest* or field-mouse hunting; to glide in a long-tail boat over the Pink Lotus Sea nearby, or to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Museum at Ban Chiang next to its indigenous craft shops.
* You may recall the BBC series “Blood, Sweat and Takeaways.” This was filmed from Gecko Villa, so you will have an idea of the work involved!
Udon Thani airport is easily reached from Bangkok on the nation’s main carrier, Thai Airways, as well as on local budget airlines such as Nok Air, Air Asia and Thai Lion Air. For full details on travel by air, train or car do simply see the villa location page. If you are looking to mix and match – spending a week in Isan and another elsewhere, perhaps by the sea – then it is good to know that Air Asia also flies from Udon to Phuket, while Nok Air flies from Udon to Chiang Mai.
Fly & Drive around Isan
You may also want to tour Isan by car. International firms such as Avis, Hertz and Budget all offer inexpensive car hire locally, making such a trip a breeze. Ideas for itineraries could include the World Class Drive from Udon Thani to Loei via the banks of the Mekong river opposite Laos, or a drive that loops around Isan taking in a number of its spectacular ancient ruins, such as the temple complexes of Phimai near Nakorn Ratchasima, Phanom Rung near Buriram, Prasat Wat Sa Kamphaeng Yai in Sisaket province and Khao Phra Viharn in Surin. This is truly a unique way to discover the fascinating heritage of the region, with stone temple complexes that do not fall short of the breathtaking beauty of Angkor Wat in Cambodia – but minus the crowds!
Next time you are thinking of a Thailand holiday, plan to see it differently. Stay in a One Off Place in a region that itself is unique, and bring back memories of a very different Siam!