Welcome to Isaan.
Everybody will remember their first time visiting Isaan, the North-Eastern part of Thailand. Depending of course how long ago, and what kind of town you visit, it could be like walking through a time-portal. Of course, it also depends of what you expect and have experienced previously.
For me, a city man, I really did not know what to expect. I had read a lot online about what various expats shared, but I started to ignore many of those stores because it was evident the vast majority of expats are very emotional when they write about Thailand. It could for some be heaven on earth, or for some some just a backward banana republic in a third world region.
So it is better to experience it yourself with an open mind.
Khon Kaen airport, 20 years ago.
The trip is really divided into three parts. At least it was for me, and always were later as well. You travel up to and inside the region, towards whichever town or city your destination is. Some take bus, or they own a car (which I did not have back then), so we booked an airplane to Khon Kaen. I can’t stand long travels on a bus/train. Then someone will either pick you up, or you rent a car, and you will head for the smaller town where your (potential?) future family lives. And finally, you might proceed from that village/town towards the farming area, if they are farmers of course. Which the majority of people in Isaan are.
Very dusty roads during the Hot season.
I was very impressed about the road network, as soon as we left the airport in Khon Kaen City, on our way to the province of Kalasin (Karasin?). Later on, I learned that a lot of this network was actually financed with American funds, during the cold war era around the Vietnam war. This to allow for a more smooth operation logistically wise for the military. If troops and equipment had to be transferred quickly.
Very lush during the wet season, and just around harvest.
The landscape is very changing, depending what time (season) of the year you travel here. It can be the hot, wet, or the dry season. Which means you might see dusty burned out farming areas, with dried out roads in the smaller towns and villages. Or you will see lots of small green pastures (rice paddies), small lakes and ponds everywhere around you, with some cattle (and water buffaloes) sometimes eating on the side of the roads. Or you will see plenty of activities if it is the end of the rainy season and the harvest is started. The best season for me is probably just before harvest, since the rain has almost stopped and the green green grass (rice) of home for the locals is still there.
Amazing to look at.
Heading in to the little town/village for the first time.
You find yourself looking out the windows watching this new and exciting world passing by, with all the sights and sounds that you never experienced before. I remember, I just sat in the car looking out the windows, while my future wife was chatting non stop with her family (who picked us up). It was just like a background chatter, which I had already learned to filter out, since the dialect here is very different from the dialect in and around Bangkok. All the practice of trying to learn Thai, was more or less useless for me here. So I observed instead of participating, and my girlfriend was translating if I asked a question.
When we enter the small town, or village, you notice this strange mix of old and new stuff. The houses and the small roads are lacking with maintenance and upgrading, but you might also observe all the satellite antennas (dishes) on the very same houses. Kind of depends how “lucky” they (or someone in the family) have been, regarding finances. You will observe the weird prioritizing they have regarding their spending. Or, it is weird to you. But most of the houses look very modest (to be nice). And we drive slowly through these narrow streets between the houses, stopping here and there to chat for a minute or two, and of course show off the “farang” (westerner).
But first, visit (in my case) Grandfather.
As soon as we have parked, I have greeted the oldest in the family (parents or other), you know how important this is. Then it is time to get the gifts out of the car, together with any snacks or food//beverages we might have picked up on our way to the town. Or, I hand over some money to my girlfriend so she can send someone to buy stuff for us. This is the same as many other places in the world. The one blessed with a better job and/or status should pay the majority of these social gatherings. Some sort of karma thing. So neighbours and relatives very soon show up. It is like the circus is in town, and you are the circus freak. 🤡 They do not shy away from staring at you and talk about you while you are there. You get used to it.
Local kids watching.
Some snacks and beverages, on your dime. 😉
As soon as the food/snacks and beverages arrive and they start socializing, you are kind of forgotten already. Just the kids really stare at you, a bit more shy maybe than the adults. The chatter is loud and very jolly. I learned later that they love to gossip in Thailand. Not only the ladies, but also the guys. So they eat and drink and talk, joke, taking pictures. It hit me how similar they were to the Filipinos in this regard. Very social, and always have food available when they get together. Of course, everything I tell here is regular stuff for anyone who has been to Isaan. But for a first timer such as myself, it was impressions after impressions.
Some snacks, and something to drink in the shadow.
Then it was time for a short drive out to the farm. Out of the village, on to the main road again, and after a small while, in to a dirt road towards all the paddies. Another eye opener was really waiting for me. Because the word farm is not really what you would use when you see it. You expect farm buildings, like back home. Here it is more like bigger and smaller sheds, which they are happy with. They do not want to spend anything extra just for the luxury of comfort. A shocker for a city slicker like me. They seem dirt poor, but really are not. I guess they could be compared to any worker families around the world. Not middle class, but not poor either.
Not what I expected.
It was quite evident that the farm was just means to an end. They did not put any priority whatsoever in to the farm since they all have a house in the small town nearby, except taking good care of the animals and the rice paddies (their livelihood). The living conditions were very basic. And I observed immediately that they couldn’t care less about it because it was not important and they were used to it anyway. That was a shocker as well. But I also got over this shock quickly because one can see immediately they do not suffer, or struggle in any way because of this.
Regardless, not long after (next visit or so), I started to put some money into this place. They did not want me to that, although they were very grateful. A well with a pump, and a generator for electricity were the first I arranged. Then some light concrete blocks for the small main house, and some corrugated metal sheets for the roof. Stuff like that. After all, if I was to visit here again and again in the future, I could not just sit an watch this. I might seem arrogant here, but that is not what I want to look like in this case.
My future father in law.
Cattle, motorbikes, rice, chicken, etc.
And just like in the village, food and beverages will be prepared for everyone to share. This time the food will be a real meal (dinner time), not only snacks. Plenty of local food I never saw or smelled before, and of course the grilled chicken, cooked chicken, grilled fish, soups, steamed rice, sticky rice, wok grilled beef bits and pork bits with their dipping sauces, and not to forget…….the insects! Oh yes, the insects. Most of us remember the insects. Roasted silk works, grasshoppers, and baby frogs. Then some soft water beetles they suck the juices and eggs out of. And the ant eggs of course. A culinary voyage you never forget. 😁
Preparation for something to eat and drink.
Lots of good stuff.
And exactly the same atmosphere as when we were in the town. The chatter and laughter is loud, and people really enjoy themself. Everyone have a good time. The ladies seem to gather in one place and the guys in one place. Don’t know why, just a cultural thing I guess. Anyway, it is kind of amazing to feel part of this, although I felt it was important to stay relatively close to my girlfriend (later wife), since she had to translate a lot. They all wanted to know about me, and I asked many questions as well. Particularly about the food.
This time, the drinking would last a bit longer. 😁 Normally it will last until someone just HAVE to get home, or if it is nothing left to drink. The latter hardly ever happens because there is always a bottle left with something to drink. Especially since the so called Thai whiskey (sometimes local Rum) is so cheap to buy, they all can afford it.
The guys enjoying something to drink.
Many Kilos ago.
As I mentioned a couple of times probably, the priority when it comes to spending their money always surprised me in the beginning. They often wanted to spend their money on more luxury gadgets as phones or a satellite dish or a newer car, and forget maintenance or living conditions.
I think I mentioned it to my brother several years later, don’t be surprised if you see an old lady squatting out in the rice paddies far away from the civilization, while she talks on a brand new iPhone. 😁
Phone is important………… for the kids as well. 😉
Soon, after dark, it will be time for us to start moving towards the town again, and also towards the nearest city for the night. Unless you sleep in town. Something I have never ever done. They shut down the lights and most are fast asleep at 9-10 pm, and up again with all the noise you can hear in the morning hours around 5 or 6 am. If you are lucky, you get your own room and air con. If you are lucky that is. No thank you from this big-city man.
So, passing the town on our way back to say goodbye for this time, and on the highway again to towards the hotel. Maybe back to the farm next day, or a night in the city before the flight back to Bangkok. At least, that was our routine.
Back in the hotel.
See you next time.
So that was my first time. Got a feeling it was not too different than many other felt it the first time they went to Isaan. Some fall in love with region, the people, and lifestyle there, and some are just so happy they still live in the holiday resort town, or bigger city somewhere else in Thailand.
For me, a smaller city in the region turned out to be the perfect match. Still some sort of city feel, but near the wife’s family.
Picture of an old friend.