Stickman's Weekly Column December 16th, 2007

Venturing Into The Isaan


The northeast of Thailand, known also as the Isaan region, is home to more than 20 million people spread over 20 odd provinces. It is the least visited of Thailand’s regions but that should not put you off visiting. If anything, it is itself a reason to explore and discover remnants of a traditional lifestyle that is slowly dying out.

Travel in the Isaan region is a cultural tour, quite different to a visit to the capital or any of the beaches and islands. The culture and lifestyle of the northeast is sufficiently different to that of the north, the next poorest region – but heavily touristed region – so as to warrant a visit.

I have been fortunate to visit the Isaan region many times, have visited almost every province and know many of the major centres well. Today’s column provides a general overview of Isaan for anyone thinking of visiting the region.

Isaan is the poorest part of Thailand. Outside the provincial capitals many families live off the land and many operate barter systems and survive on the generosity of family, friends and neighbours. Much of the rural area is made up of small villages which have a real community feel. Each village usually has a temple, a general store and of course a village head. There may or may not be a school and there may or may not be a local representative of the boys in brown. Of course the centre of each village is the market, a place everyone visits at least once a week, some every day.

The best way to get around and see the Isaan region is by car. While there are public transport connections between all of the major cities, the districts and even the smaller villages, many of the most interesting sights are well off the beaten track and the convenience of being in command of your own vehicle allows you to see, do and experience so much more.

In Isaan as in most of the Thailand the roads connecting the main centres are generally very good and the further you get from Bangkok, the less traffic you find. But that said, in some of the more far flung parts of the region the roads can be a bit rough. The Stickmobile found some of the roads in provincial Mukdahan and parts of Roi Et not to its liking, as can be seen here.

Travel by private vehicle gives the opportunity to go "villaging". On a trip into Isaan earlier this year myself and a friend discovered that we quite liked stopping the car in smaller villages, parking up, and literally waiting for the local residents to approach us. We would then engage them in conversation and learn about them and their lives. Expect to be descended upon by kids who may have never seen a foreigner before and who would just love the chance to try out a few of the English phrases they have learnt.

But not everyone wants or is able to travel by car. Fret not, there are numerous other options.

There are two rail lines in Isaan, where the main line from Bangkok splits at Korat with one line running north from Korat to Nongkhai, and the other running east from Korat to Ubon Rachathani. Trains in Thailand provide a comfortable and inexpensive means of travel. Travel by train is also the best way to meet the locals. However, train links are not extensive and only run these two routes and should really only be seen as a means of getting between the major centres in the region. The train doesn’t, for example, stop near the popular tourist sights of Phimai or Phanom Rung.

The major alternative to the trains are buses. If you happen to travel around the Isaan region by bus, it is likely that at some point you will find yourself on one of the orange buses, the non air-con variety that are often the only means of reaching certain districts from the provincial capital. Such buses, along with songtaews, are the most commonly used means of transport for the locals and with buses often crowded, you will in all likelihood find yourself seated amongst the locals. Do expect them to engage you in conversation and do expect them to be extremely pleasant company. They will almost certainly offer you some of whatever food they are carrying and they may even invite you to their home. Don’t expect to sit there on your own in your own little world within your mind taking in the surroundings!

Isaan food is known for its spiciness and no trip to the region would be complete without at least sampling a few of the local dishes. The difficulty is finding farang friendly Isaan food outlets. Isaan food is often available on the street and the average foreigner unfamiliar with the region may struggle to locate Isaan food restaurants with full tables and chairs.

Ironically, if there’s one disappointing thing about travel in the Isaan region it is that food, both the quality of the produce and the cooking, is not always the best. Or perhaps it is just not to the farang palate? With a couple of exceptions, the Isaan food I have had in Bangkok is generally better than the Isaan food in Isaan itself. Of course you can find some gourmet delights and there are some excellent farang food restaurants scattered about too, but it has often seemed to me that the best quality produce is sent to Bangkok, or perhaps even exported.

The Isaan region is sizeable and there are plenty of things to see, but sights are perhaps not the major attraction of the region. For me, you go to the region for the vibe, to meet the people, and to see and learn about the local culture.

The people themselves are, despite their lack of English, incredibly charming and gracious. There is little more enjoyable than pulling up and jumping out of the car to admire a pretty view and be approached by locals who are keen to engage you in conversation, find out where you’re from, where you’re going and then regale you with tales of their lives and the local area. Despite the poverty in the rural areas, there is a real sense of pride, and being asked for cash or handouts is not something I have ever experienced.

The highlights of Isaan are not found in the cities. In fact many of the cities have an almost generic look about them. Downtown Khon Kaen could be Korat, or could be Udon Thani or could be Ubon Rachathani. Some of the smaller centres are pretty, especially those on the Mekhong. Nakhon Phanom, Nongkhai and Roi Et with its (man made?) lake are all very pretty spots.

The ability to speak Thai is of huge benefit when travelling throughout Isaan. There are local dialects with the local Isaan, Khmer and even some provincial dialects spoken, but everyone speaks and understands Thai, which is the language taught and used in all of the region's schools. Of course in the cities the locals you encounter in restaurants, hotels and at tourist attractions will be able to speak functional English and there will always be characters wishing to practice English conversation with you. But if you can speak Thai, the whole experience opens up and you can find out all sorts of interesting things about the people and their lifestyles.

Some of my best times travelling in Thailand have been floating around Isaan, without a specific plan of where I was going, or where I would be putting my head down that night. The freedom of exploring what is a particularly safe region is downright invigorating. Yep, despite the poverty, I have never ever felt threatened in any way in Isaan.

Being the poorest part of the country and without any real developed tourism infrastructure, Isaan is an inexpensive destination. In most centres the better hotels in town will set you back around 1,000 baht for a perfectly decent room – with a buffet breakfast included. In some spots you can find something a bit flasher, like the Sofitel in Khon Kaen, and some resorts in rural areas. If you want to go budget, there are usually Chinese style hotels in the major centres where a room can be had for around 300 baht for the night, perhaps even less. They’re basic, not always 100% clean, but if you’re on a budget, doable. In some of the more touristy spots you can find some decent guesthouses. Nongkhai in particular, being a very pleasant spot and somewhere many end up staying longer than they expected simply to enjoy the view of the Mekhong and the laid back lifestyle, is home to many charming and inexpensive guesthouses.

Farang residents can be found throughout Isaan. Some made the region their home after serving in the US military in the region and have been resident for more than 30 years. Of course you can find English teachers in all of the big towns, and there are many westerners, often older, who have married women from the region and settled down with them, often leading a quiet lifestyle. There are of course some farang owned and run businesses in the region too. The typical Western resident of Isaan is more likely to be a retiree who has settled down with a Thai lady than a businessman or a teacher.

There is much to see in the Isaan region and I would point to the following as some of the highlights, places worth going out of your way for:

Phimai Historical Park is located about 50 km north of Korat City and is perhaps the most visited and most well-known of all of the Khmer ruins in the Isaan region. I often think of it as a miniature version of Angkor Wat.

Phimai itself is a pretty town and easily explored on foot. A couple of kilometres from the historical park is Sai Ngam, the largest banyan tree in all of South East Asia which is also worth checking out.

I guess it's probably the most visited tourist spot in Isaan by Westerners but don't let that put you off. It is seldom over-run with tourists and is visually impressive.

The town square in the city of Korat where the famed Ya Mo statue is found is a hive of activity. The shops around the square are typical Isaan, with a mix of Isaan food vendors, short-time hotels, gold shops and vendors selling all sorts of unusual and interesting trinkets. The city's largest fresh market is located just south of the square on one of the side streets.

The city has many samlors (trishaws) and despite it being the first major port of call in Isaan from Bangkok, it has a real Isaan feel about it.

Many natives of Korat and other nearby provinces come and pray to Ya Mo and ask for her blessing or make other requests.

Isaan is home to countless festivals, many of which are regional, specific to or held only in one part of the region. If there were two words I could use to describe them it would be "fun" and "colourful". The people of Isaan are more fun-loving than their Bangkok brethren and seize the opportunity to enjoy themselves at every opportunity. If you ever get the chance to attend any festivals or celebrations in Isaan, grab it with both hands. You won't be disappointed.

Pictured here is ngarn wat, a temple fair, this one was held in Korat. You see fairs like this all over the country, but perhaps more in Isaan than anywhere else.

Prathat Phanom is the most revered Buddhist temple in the entire Isaan region and one of the most important as well as most visually impressive temples in all of Thailand. It is unfortunately well off the beaten track and therefore not that easy to reach.

Prathat Phanom is located approximately 50 km south of the very pretty riverside town of Nakhon Phanom. Alternatively it is straight up the coast from the provincial capital of Mukdahan. If you make it to that part of the country, I would recommend Nakhon Phanom over Mukdahan as a base.

Sala Googaew is a favourite attraction of mine, a Buddhist statue park located a couple of kilometres outside the town of Nongkhai.

The park is not actually that old, and in terms of religious or cultural significance, it is not really on the map, but it is all very impressive in its own right and somewhere I would drive well out of my way to see. If you make it to Udon Thani, it is worth taking the one hour drive up the road to Nongkhai and visiting Sala Googaew.

Nongkhai itself is a very pretty place, very relaxing, and has some of the best Isaan food I have ever had. It's an ideal place to chill.

What I love about visiting the Isaan region is the feeling of serendipity, of not knowing what is around the next corner. Take Gumpawabee district in Udon Thani province for example. One drives through the main city streets and comes upon the city square which is over-run with monkeys. I’ve never read about that in any guide book! There are treasures to be had all over the region.

But it is not the sights of Isaan which are its major draw. It is the people. A bunch of warmer, friendlier characters you would be hard pressed to find anywhere. Meeting them and engaging them in conversation is a big part of the Isaan experience. Isaan is not for the introverted. Those gregarious by nature will get more from their trip than those who lack the confidence to say "hi" to a stranger.

If you can somehow wrangle it so that your visit to Isaan sees you accompanied by a local, you'll have the best experience of all. The locals know all the best places and will show you a side of Isaan life you wouldn't otherwise see.

Touring through the Isaan region may not be for everyone, and some might find it less than relaxing. But if you want a little adventure, a change of scenery and frankly something just a little different, venturing through the region will I am sure provide a rewarding travel experience for anyone who is truly fascinated by Thailand. I know few people who have visited the region and not enjoyed it.

Where was this picture taken?


Last week's picture was taken on Racahadamnoen Road. The first person to email me with the correct location of the picture wins a 500 baht credit at Oh My Cod, the British Fish And Chips restaurant and the second wins a free jug of margarita, valued at 840 baht from Charley Brown's, a well-established, popular restaurant, offering authentic Tex-Mex Cuisine and delicious margaritas. Charley Brown's is located in the small sub-soi off Sukhumvit Soi 11.

FROM STICK MARK II'S INBOX (These are emails from readers and what is written here was not written by Stick Mark II.) Preference may be given to emails which refer to the previous week's column.

EMAIL OF THE WEEK – The Sukhumvit obstacle course.

Just in case you were in any doubt as to who and to what the lower Sukhumvit sidewalks have been designed for, let me enlighten you. First of all so that there may no longer be any confusion about their right of way, a pair of white tram lines have been painted on these pavements, with a motorbike symbol in the middle of them. Although not motorised, food vendors pushing their wheel barrows have also been granted equal right of way. To turn this course into an obstacle one, fire hydrants, raised and sunken storm drainage manhole covers, telephone kiosks, the BTS skytrain installed staircases and escalators, along with various shops also lay claim to this real estate by extending their premises. Street hawkers, food vendors, massage / tailor touts, girls catching buses with no destinations, various beggars of different descriptions try their best to fill in any remaining gaps as best they can. Whoever is responsible for the smooth, free flowing running of the pedestrian traffic along this artery, has turned this concession into the biggest money spinner outside of Las Vegas. Not one, not two but three different sets of sidewalk street vendors rent out this space during a 24 period, and when the early hours come around the ultimate of street parties begin. Doesn't anybody give any thought and consideration to the rats in this neighbourhood. Grace is given at 7.00 AM for people to be able to get to work, but again, even at this hour, there are hawkers selling from their breakfast menus. On leaving Nana BTS station in the evenings nearly the whole pavement has been taken up with these vendors, leaving only enough space for a single file of pedestrian traffic, two people meeting each other simply cannot pass.

Fixing bitterness.

I can say that the handful of times that I have been extremely pissed off at a Thai and shown my anger, I got the same reaction that you did. The one big exception to the rule: my Thai wife of 5 years. Even when I have reason to get extremely pissed off at her FOR GOOD REASON, she somehow winds up getting pissed off at me for being mad at her!? I guess she knows deep down that I would never inflict any genuine revenge.

Formaldehyde isn't delicious.

The "unusual after effects" that you attribute to drinking Singha may be due to one of the ingredients they use as a preservative. It's been a couple of years since I read the fine print in the list of ingredients on the label, but last time I looked it stated that they use formaldehyde and we know how toxic that stuff is. No other brand that I know lists it, so I cannot confirm whether any of them also uses it as a preservative.

UBC on the improve?

Say what you want about UBC in Thailand, but it is getting better, especially if you are an American sports fan. Last year I emailed ESPN Asia multiple times asking them why they don't show any NCAA football or basketball. This year they are showing both and in several different conferences plus this morning UBC is showing the Mayweather vs. Hatton fight for no extra charge. That fight would've cost me an extra 30 dollars if I had wanted to watch it at home in the US. Your readers should email the channel directly if they don't like the programming they are getting. The UBC staff is virtually worthless when it comes to any request English speaking viewers might have.

What about the toms?

Everyone knows Thailand is home of the famous ladyboys. But what about tomboys? They are everywhere, but as they look so much like boys it is often difficult to spot them. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if there were more tomboys in Thailand than ladyboys. And what makes me jealous is that their girlfriends are always very attractive girls (unlike in the West). It makes me wonder why a lovely Thai girl would choose an ugly little tomboy over a handsome Thai male. Are Thai boys really that bad?

Dispatch from Burma – or is it Myanmar?

I am in Burma, great country, nice and honest people, nothing like Thailand. Seems more like Africa. African Buddhists. The beaches are great, no hassle there, in fact no hassle anywhere. Forget about girls. They are all small and so innocent. Would take ages to get close to one, on a holiday impossible. Been to nightclubs but only prostitutes there, really ugly ones and dirty. Apart from that, everybody leaves you alone, including the police. I got lots of hassle today at the Thai embassy and I think they will refuse my tourist visa, because I overstayed 3 days. Yeah that was the reason given. Tell your folks not to get visas here, they are complicated, not like Penang. You have to arrive at 7 AM to get a token and you get in line with hundreds of Burmese.

Anyone for Egyptian?

There's a great Egyptian food stand in the regular food court on the 6th floor of MBK Centre called El Pasha. There are small signs hanging down around the floor sort of directing you. (It's El Pacha in Thai, of course.) The logo is of a man with a big moustache wearing a fez. And that's what the guy who runs the place looks like too! A very tall Egyptian man, very friendly. A big shawarma plate is 140 baht with saffron rice or 160 baht with flat bread; enough for two or three Thais or one farang like me. Regular chicken or beef shawarmas are 60 baht. There's other stuff, too. It's way off in the far corner and shares a space with the Indian food stall. Really, really good. We always eat there. Go to any food court in town and you can have any of the other stuff served there, but I can't get that good shawarma plate anywhere else. Try it sometime.

It has been a total debacle in the farang orientated bars nationwide the past couple of days. Many bars have been closed since Friday and are set to re-open tomorrow while some remained open with a limited menu highlighted by orange juice and Coke. Most bars in Bangkok's farang bar areas were open but limited to selling non-alcoholic drinks. If you looked hard in Patpong you wouldn't have been so blue with alcohol to be found, if you looked hard. In Pattaya enforcement was much more heavy handed and the bars on Walking Street that dared open were quickly closed by the boys in brown. A number of beer bars remained open with the lights dimmed and no music. All rather sterile and not really sanuk, I'm afraid. In Cowboy most bars were open and everything was on display, although you could only enjoy it to a glass of Coke. Isn't it ironic that despite threats of heavy fines for any establishment caught selling alcohol, it would appear that this weekend isn’t in fact covered by the electoral law and therefore no criminal action could be taken – has that ever stopped the local authorities?!

And I am afraid that this is not the end of the madness and we can expect round 2 next week. It is expected next weekend that it will be much the same with bars either closed for the general election OR no alcohol available for sale. Stock up your fridge beforehand and pay your barfine in advance because bars won't be open between 6 PM on the 22nd December and 6 PM on the 24th December.

What many find most annoying about all of these bar closures and difficulty finding alcohol is that official notices are often sent out the night before the days the establishments must be closed, or at least refrain from selling alcohol. If we knew in advance we could plan for it, but that is never the case.

When they are open, many Nana bars are still going at 2:30 AM, some Cowboy bars are reaching 3 AM. Things are certainly better in this respect than they were a few months back. And was that what I thought I saw at Nana? Ooops, cannot say here for the bar bosses get awfully upset when I talk about that. To them I say, do you want customers or not?! Let's just say that there is an "improved view" in some Nana bars and leave it at that.

Roxy on Walking Street in Pattaya would like to invite all to check out their new remodelled bar. There's a new layout with more sofas, a lower main stage in the centre plus 2 small stages which get punters nearer the showgirls and dancers. Showtime as usual runs from 10 PM to 2 AM daily. On the 19th and 20th of December Chang and Singha (bottles), Gin, Vodka, Bacardi, Thai whiskey and soft drinks are all offered on special at 65 baht all night long.

I made it to Patpong for the second time in two weeks this past week, and my opinion of the place has worsened further. Patpong is in a sorry state and the word that comes to mind is "tired". The girls, the venues, the touts, the whole area espouses the similar feelings of a red light district in the West, without the fun we expect in Thailand. Patpong just seems to have so little going for it these days. While there is more variety of venues in that area than any other area, it seems that there are few bars worth spending time in. Cosmos, Crystal Palace, Crown Royal and the other Soi 33-esque bars are drab and just do not have the vibrancy that a number of Soi 33 bars have. King's Castle 1, King's Castle 2 and Camelot Castle used to be known as the gogo bars with the prettiest girls in all of Thailand. No way now. No way! The likes of Angelwitch and Rainbow 4 squarely kick their butts. Even the old favourite Safari seems to be recruiting from an old people's home. Patpong is rapidly going downhill.

It's ironic that the bar with arguably the best music in Nana Plaza, DC 10 bar, is also the bar with the least attractive women. I have always wondered what the acronym "DC" stands for. Surely it is not after the aircraft but is something a bit more interesting? Any reader got an idea?!

Charley Brown's is now open for Saturday and Sunday lunch from 11 AM – 2:30 PM. It is also one of the few restaurants that have children's seats (four of them) and a games box for the kids (or adults who like Jenga, Scrabble, backgammon etc).

Anecdotal observations suggest that druggings are increasing, particularly in Pattaya. Caution should be taken when leaving your drink (or food) unattended. This may be related to the high season with more girls around and tourists perceived to be an easier mark than residents.

What will the new skybridge at Asoke connect the BTS with?

The Nike monk is back. He was seen wandering around the even numbered side of Sukhumvit on Thursday night and was informed by one farang that he had nice shoes!

Coyote restaurant near Soi 33 is now open.

My feeling is that the cost of quality medical care has rocketed up in Thailand over the last 2 – 3 years. This is anecdotal and while I do not have much in the way of comparison, treatment received by friends recently has seen them presented with monster invoices. One friend spent most of the day in a top Bangkok hospital recently where he received treatment for a kidney stone. He was NOT operated on and he did NOT stay overnight. The total bill was 40,000 baht! Another fellow was in the same hospital for a skin infection. He stayed a week and his only care was antibiotics administered intravenously. The cost ran over 120,000 baht. And whenever I hear of people in for an operation, even something relatively minor, the cost resembles a phone number. This week there was a widely publicised case of a Canadian teacher who had a fall at his apartment and ended up in Bumrungrad. The cost of his care was running $3,000 per day. I never thought I would say this, but quality medical care in Thailand is NOT cheap these days. Of course you could risk the public hospitals but I personally would prefer to stick with the likes of BNH or Bumrungrad. If you don't have medical insurance, it is well worth looking into…

Twinpalms in Phuket is asking 12,000 baht for their Moet and Chandon New Year's Party. OK, it is a flash boutique property and I'm sure the party will be magnificent, but 12,000 baht? I guess there must be free flow Champagne available all night long. (The cheapest I have seen a bottle of Moet and Chandon for in Thailand is a touch under 3,000 baht.) Can anyone beat this with a higher price for a New Year party?

There are a zillion tailors out there, many are bothersome pests who would happily sell a wardrobe of cashmere suits to a labourer. I am surprised that there aren't any really good websites out there promoting tailors, but I was pleased to stumble on to this site. Called TheTruthAboutTailors.com it offers some interesting information which I think is well worth reading for anyone who has bought or is considering buying tailored clothes. Just the info about fabrics and styles and how to maintain the fabrics makes good reading.

The Fed lowering interest rates in the US this week resulted in the baht increasing in value against the dollar by about .6% this week. It might not sound like much, but the sinking US dollar really is hurting some – predominantly American retirees in Thailand. What friends and some readers are telling me is that the 20% drop in the dollar against the baht in the last 18 months has finally started to bite. I guess it re-enforces the fact that one needs to plan their retirement carefully and that we cannot guarantee that the economic conditions of today will exist tomorrow. More here.

There's a really cool DVD shop that specialises in world cinema, rather than the mainstream Hollywood fare that most places have. If you like European or Asian films, they have a huge collection at just 120 baht a flick. It's called DVD Square and can be found on level 3 at Fortune Town.

I had a GREAT pie at Molly Malone's this week. The beef and Guinness pie really hit the spot for me. Yes, Molly Malone's is an advertiser of this site but let's put that aside for a moment, their pies are great. I am sure all pie lovers would give it the serious thumbs up. I will be going back for another one really soon.

When did the difference in the price of petrol between 91 octane and 95 octane jump to 1.3 baht a litre? It used to be just .8 baht a litre.

For all readers in the UK you might want to keep an eye out for a documentary on sex tourism which will appear on Channel 4 on December 18 at 10 PM. More here.

There was a very interesting article on Thai women in 2007 in the Bangkok Post this week.

Quote of the week, "I have never known of a place which is loved by so many people who have been made a bitter person by it."

Ask Mrs. Stick

Mrs. Stick returns after a lengthy sojourn to help you with your relationship and culture questions and the things that baffle you about life in Thailand. She accepts questions on matters of the heart or cultural misunderstandings. Her answers are entirely her own without any influence or editing by me. She looks forward to reading and answering your questions, so please give her a big welcome by sending in some thought-provoking things.

Question 1: A lot of farangs (like me) have great difficulty in finding a nice girl. With limited Thai language abilities and a lack of friends (especially those who are willing to leave the beer bars) opportunities to meet nice girls are rare. From a Thai female's point of view, could you suggest a realistic situation where and how a girl would like to be approached. I asked a girl recently but I was given the totally unrealistic idea of sitting in the coffee shop in Emporium and talking to all of the girls who came in? Surely a girl entering a coffee shop in Emporium doesn’t want to be confronted by "Hello, come and sit with me". I realize my current behaviour may have to change from going to the local bar every night & weekend if I am to meet Miss Right but I don’t fancy walking around Siam Square for eight hours making an idiot of myself.

Mrs. Stick says: It is not the approach that a woman looks at but the way a man handles himself and conducts himself when he approaches us. We like someone who is confident but at the same time a gentleman. When you approach a Thai woman for the first time you must be polite, wherever you are. You should be careful not to make any mistakes and not to pressure her. Don't be a monkey and also especially for English guys, don't use sarcasm. We are impressed by your confidence and by treating us with respect. Show us that you are friendly, polite and have something about you and you will already have our interest.

I really hope we get word soon on just what will be happening with the bars next weekend. Will they be open and selling lolly water? Will they be closed? Next weekend is the second busiest weekend of the year, beaten only by New Year's Eve. Bar owners are screaming at the closure orders as are many punters…



Yours,

Stick Mark II