This is a bit of a cheat post since apart from this introduction nothing is written by me. A friend wrote to tell me that this article appeared in the latest edition of Voyeur, which is the in-flight magazine for Virgin Australia. It is so unusual to see Isaan featured in a mainstream publication that I thought it was worth including in my blog, with all credit given to the authors.
Gecko Villa, mentioned in the article is close to where we live and must be the most upmarket holiday place in this part of Isaan. You will find their website HERE so you can see what I mean. I bet they loved the publicity. Anyway here is the article:
The only light on the road is coming from our car.
Having gone from a tarmac highway to a double-lane dirt road, we’re now crawling down a potholed lane barely wide enough for our black sedan. On either side of us, sporadic clumps of bamboo emerge from the gloom as we bump our way down the ever-shrinking track.
For the past hour or so we’ve been driving from the provincial Udon Thani International Airport. Only an hour’s flight from Bangkok, Udon Thani is one of the four major cities in Isaan, the vast agrarian plateau that encompasses most of north-east Thailand, bordering both Cambodia and Laos. While children learn Thai at school, most locals here speak Isaan as their first language, a dialect of Lao (the Laotian capital Vientiane is only about 90 minutes away). Unlike more developed parts of the kingdom, farming is still central to the Isaan way of life, with rice the most common crop; although sugar cane is increasingly popular due to the higher price at market. With little infrastructure, it attracts travellers looking to get off the tourist track.
Our home for the next few nights is Gecko Villa, a three-bedroom lodge in the heart of the Isaan countryside, owned and operated by couple Ten and Euang with the help of their four children – two sets of twin boys. For the past 15 years, they’ve welcomed guests “looking for the real Thailand”.
The next day we’re on our way to the Red Lotus Sea – the remarkable Nong Han Kumphawapi lake – which, between December and March each year, is covered in red lotus flowers (they’re actually more pink than red). We soon set sail in what amounts to a small flotilla, one boat following in the wake of the next, transporting crowds of people wanting to see the flower-covered waters. As we sit in the boat, engine off, surrounded by lotuses as far as the eye can see, the morning sun emerges from the clouds. It’s serene, even with the small intrusion of giggling teenage Thai girls snapping selfies in neighbouring boats.
Baptism by fire
Later in the afternoon, Ten drives us to nearby Kumphawapi, where we seem to be the only tourists. The main attraction here is the sprawling open-air fresh market, which is a cornucopia of the produce and spices essential for making the searingly hot local cuisine. Once little-known outside of the region, Isaan food is now found throughout Thailand, spread by migrant workers who flocked to the nation’s cities and took their fiery array of dishes with them. Today it’s difficult to walk past a street corner in Bangkok without at least one stall selling an Isaan dish.
Here in the heartland, the must-trys are som tam (papaya salad), larb moo (minced pork salad), pla pao (grilled fish) and sai krok Isaan (Isaan sausages), accompanied by sticky rice then washed down with a few chilled beers (pro tip: make like a local and fill your glass with ice). “We have a few French chefs who regularly fly up from Bangkok to stay with us, and when we bring them here they are always astonished by everything that’s sold in this market,” says Ten, adding that for foodies, Gecko Villa is happy to arrange cooking lessons.
If you want others to prepare dinner for you, Udon Miang Pla Pao serves miang pla pao, grilled fish with herbs wrapped in leaves, while the twee English-style cottage called Good Everything, as the name suggests, serves a bit of everything, and does it well.
Driving around Isaan during the local winter months (November to February), you’ll see dry rice paddies on both sides of the road, usually filled with water buffalo. While it’s romantic to picture them pulling ploughs through rain-soaked paddies in the wet season, which runs from June to October, the truth is that these animals are now mostly status symbols. “We have a tractor for that,” laughs Ten, later showing us the bright orange Kubota he keeps in a shed around the back of the villa.
As we discover on a pre-breakfast bushwalk, much of the land that surrounds Gecko Villa – and a second villa owned by the family, Green Gecko – is still a working farm with a herb garden, lime grove and cassava plantation. After discovering a ramshackle chicken coop, we push our way through scrub, emerging onto an embankment where we see a vast rice paddy filled with a dozen water buffalo. We ask Ten about his free-range-style farming and he replies with more than a little amusement, “This may seem like free-range, organic farming to you, but here in Isaan this is just the way we have always farmed. It’s easy and low maintenance.”
The next day, before our afternoon flight to Bangkok, we have time for one last challenge – driving an Isaan tuktuk. The popular three-wheeled vehicle, which is essentially a motorbike with covered wagon-style seating attached on the back, is known locally as a ‘skylab’, as they first became popular in 1979, the same year the US space station of the same name broke up as it re-entered Earth’s atmosphere. Unlike its namesake, the skylab doesn’t go very fast (“You never need to go higher than third gear,” Ten says during the driving lesson), but there’s no sense of needing to hurry in Isaan. After a few attempts at kickstarting the engine, it roars to life, and we set off on a midday jaunt around the local villages.
Avoiding the potholes, we drive past the bamboo clumps we saw on our first night and emerge onto the main road. As we cruise at 30 kilometres an hour, we wave to farmers in the field, people swinging in hammocks under their houses and kids playing in their yards. Motorbike drivers give us encouraging beeps of their horns and an ice-cream seller stops his sidecar to make sure we’re OK when we stall the engine.
Viewing Isaan by skylab, rather than from the back of a car, brings home the strong sense of community that still exists in this remote corner of Thailand. It may not have the craziness of the capital, the famed beaches of the southern islands or the cultural cachet of the mountainous north, but there’s something remarkably appealing about witnessing the simple life of Isaan. Once things are stripped back to basics, you begin to wonder if you really need anything more.
Some Like It Hot
When Sujet Saenkham opened Spice I Am in Sydney’s Surry Hills, he revolutionised the city’s understanding of Thai food. Now with five restaurants, including House, which specialises in Isaan food, he’s released a cook book, Spice I Am, Home Style Thai Recipes (Penguin) and here, talks about Isaan.
Tell us a bit about yourself?
I was born in Ratchaburi, Thailand, and moved to Australia when I was 21. I originally studied accounting and chemistry in Bangkok. But after I came here in 1985, I studied hospitality before becoming a qualified chef.
Why do you visit Isaan?
My parents come from Laos, near the Isaan area, and the food is similar.
What does it offer tourists?
Isaan food is distinctive and uses much less oil [than other areas]. It’s an agricultural region and maintains older customs.
What would you say is the region’s defining dish?
Gai yang, or barbecue chicken, papaya salad, larb and sticky rice.
What flavours are predominant in Isaan?
Chilli and chilli. They use ground meat in a lot of dishes, coconut and not much oil.