Visiting Isaan – Part 1
Many people coming to Thailand never make it to Isaan, the North East region of the country, even if they have heard of it. The obvious holiday attractions of places like Phuket, the other islands, Pattaya and the Northern cities of Chiang Mai and Rai are often at the top of traveller’s list well before anything to do with Isaan.
I have been lucky to host a steady stream of visitors the last six weeks; friends and family from Australia, who want to keep in contact and share the enjoyment I reflect in my blog about the new house, our garden and the local area where we live. Eight separate couples are making their way here between May and Christmas, some staying for a few days and others a little longer.
My brother and sister-in-law were the first and it prompted me to sit down and make a list of all the sightseeing options I knew of to give them a taste of living here and share the places of interest around Si Bun Ruang, our home town. These split into two categories – the local small everyday sights and then the more “tourist” orientated ones.
Because not a lot is written about Isaan by farang it is easy to think that there’s nothing to do here. Certainly we can’t compare with the Southern beaches and the temples of Chiang Mai but to dismiss the whole region is to miss out in some ways on a more genuine side of Thai life. Although Isaan may not be as spectacular as the big names with the absence of busloads of tourists it can be a much more intimate and real experience.
I hope this post gives you an idea of what a visit to see us might look like.
We drive out to pick you up from Udon Thani airport, a one hour trip each way. A small airport it still has regular connections to Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya, Chiang Mai and a few local international stops.
The trip back to our home in Si Bun Ruang is a fast an easy run. Great dual carriageway the 50 km to Nong Bua Lamphu and then a good quality single road the final 30 km on the 228.
People are surprised at the quality of Thai roads. Roads with a “2” at the beginning i.e. Udon to Loei is the 210, are often better than many Australian rural roads. Mind you the 210 does become pretty average a little beyond Nong Bua heading towards Loei.
Lunch at farm
Because you may have just flown into Thailand from overseas we will arrange for a quiet and relaxed day rather than head straight into doing tourist things. Even if you have spent time in Bangkok before coming our way we will still ease you into the rural lifestyle and slow you down after the hectic activity of the capital.
Once settled into the house we might take you to the local food markets and buy several fish at A$4.00 each to cook at the farm with the family for lunch. A visit to the farm is always a good way to connect you to the one of the central aspects to life in Isaan – the growing and eating of food and lots of it.
The farm is a five minute drive on a dirt road on the outskirts of the village. Even such a short distance takes you to a different world where views open up to crops of sugar, rice and mixed vegetables.
The gas stove stands unused and extra charcoal fires are brought out from the family home to BBQ the fish. Whatever vegetables are growing are collected and a super hot pappaya salad prepared, the basis of any Isaan meal.
The local food market at Si Bun Ruang.
Helping with the food preparation. Lettuce just picked from the fields.
Fish being BBQ’ed by Lud, my brother-in-law.
Settling in for a fish feast.
Hidden away just off the 228, the road between Nong Bua Lamphu and Si Bun Ruang and beyond, is a lovely wat set in the middle of an area covered in trees. As much of our part of Isaan is open farmland the contrast is a welcome break and cooler too in the heat.
This wat is oriented towards monks who want to spend time in study, meditation and contemplation. The accommodation is scattered throughout the grounds with plenty of space in-between to give quiet and privacy. The formal public buildings are a lot smaller as a result.
The monks here are great. One of them is a friend of Gaun’s, and happy to spend time with you and give a blessing if wanted.
The parking area. A lovely shady spot and such a contrast to the bright glare “outside”.
A happy looking monk. He took over an hour to braid those strings into three wristbands for us.
Gaun getting a band from her friend in a separate visit we made with other visitors from Australia.
An open hall in the temple grounds to pay your respects.
My brother receiving his good luck band.
The ceremony area.
The place is immaculately maintained, unusual in Thailand, and there is obviously access to a good flow of funding as the buildings are of a high quality. The small house above is being used by Gaun’s monk friend.
In the evenings at 7.00 pm the monks do a chanting meditation around a large central pond using a path lit with candles. I haven’t done this yet but it sounds like something worth trying.
The monk showing us the rest of the temple grounds.
Wat Tham Klong Phen
Keeping on the temple theme this wat just outside Nong Bua Lamphu on the way to Udon is worth a visit because it is a little different from the norm. Set in what in Australia we’d call bush, the wat covers a huge area with different themes in each part. I have covered this wat in detail before and you can find the post HERE.
The first and main temple area is built into large rocks that are scattered through this area.
This is a beautiful cavern naturally formed by rocks behind the main temple building. Inside you’ll find a couple of lovely Buddha statues. It is one of my favourite places in Thailand.
Those decorations called krathong are hand made. You can read about my mostly unsuccessful attempts to build a krathong for the huge Loi Krathong festival in Chiang Mai HERE. We obviously caught this temple just after a celebration of some sort and later visits had these krathongs about to be dumped.
The elephant is offering water to the Buddha while the monkey presents honeycomb in a banana leaf. I have included the full storey below because it makes for a good read and gives meaning to these statues.
A safe is provided for donations. Not unusual in Thailand wats. Just because you are in a Buddhist country don’t think that everyone is like the Buddha!
The main temple area built around the huge overhanging rocks.
The other Buddha in the rock cavern. Make sure you find this place if visiting. The entry can be found in the far right hand corner of the main hall fronting the road.
The Buddha left to live in solitude in the forest.
The forest was silent, the forest was peaceful; the forest was also cold. The Buddha climbed halfway up a small hill and found a sheltered cave near a small pool that provided a source of water for drinking and bathing, even though the water was icy cold.
As news of the Buddha’s presence spread among the forest creatures, the birds and animals began to come by to breathe in his holy presence — and yes, to worship the Holy One, as only they really knew how.
Among the creatures of the forest, a wise old elephant noticed how cold the water in the pool was, and made it his task every evening to roll down a huge rock from the very top of the hill, after it had been heated by the rays of the sun. Pushing and shoving mightily, he got it to finally end up — SPLASH — in the little pool near the Buddha’s cave, where it warmed the water for the Lord Buddha’s bath.
Then, each morning, with great effort he pushed and pushed, his mighty forehead against the huge rock, to get it back up to the top of the hill, so it would get heated by the sun again. Day after day, he rolled the huge hot rock downhill into the pool, bowing to announce to the Buddha that the task was done.
Monkey noticed all of this as he jumped around all over the place. Monkey too loved Lord Buddha. He too wanted to show his love and make an offering. So he went off swinging and leaping, climbed up a tree, snatched a good bit of a large honeycomb, fleeing the angry buzzing bees, and almost fell over Lord Buddha as he made a bumbling-tumbling bow before him, waving the dripping honeycomb in an awkward but joyous offering.
Lord Buddha smiled. Then Lord Buddha gently shook his head. “No,” he said to Monkey, “I know you mean well, but to squeeze honey from that will kill the bees still inside. We cannot harm them.’ And he instructed Monkey to leave the comb next to the tree from which he had broken it off, so that those bees could rejoin their hive.
Further up the road you will come to a separate dome building on your left, which isn’t that interesting. However directly across the road from this building you will find a lake and feeding the fish is really worthwhile. You will see lots of HUGE koi and other fish as well as the biggest turtle I have seen in Thailand if you are lucky.
Thias have a fascination in feeding fish. In many places where you find a pond you will also find fish and often people selling small packets of fish food for 10 THB or A$0.40. Here the monks have cut out the middle man/woman and you buy the fish food from a dispensing machine. 10 THB will get you a good amount.
It is always hard to get fish photos because of the reflections but trust me these are serious fish.
Driving further you will end up at the museum and final resting place of a monk called Luang Phu Khao Analayo who spent a lot of his life here.
Graffiti Thai style.
Venerable Luang Pu Khao Analayo
Luang Pu Khao Analayo was a meditation master and a follower of Luang Pu Mun Bhuridatta. Formerly, his name was Khao Koratha. He was born on December 28, 1888 at the village of Ban Bo Cha Nang Nong Kaeo Sub-district, Amnat Charoen District, Ubon Ratchathani Province. His father Puo and his mother Rod were farmers. When he was young he studied at Wat Bo Cha Nang in his home town until he was literate. He got married and had seven children.
In 1919, he had family problems which caused him deciding to be ordained at Wat Bo Cha Nang.
In 1933, he went to the North and stayed with Phra Acharn Mun Bhuritdatta Thera and his group for many years.
In 1945, he returned to his home town and stayed at Wat Po Cha Nang.
In 1958, he stayed at Wat Tham Klong Phane, Nong Bua Lamphu District, Udon Thani Province. He stayed there until his death. At 95 years and 5 months, he passed away because of senility on Monday 16May, 1983.
Nong Bua Lamphu lake
Not the big one in the middle of town – Nong = lake in the town’s name, but a smaller and hidden version on the ringroad. Coming into Nong Bua from the South on the 228 from Si Bun Ruang, turn left at the petrol station and then left again at a blue sign in Thai about 100 meters on the ringroad. The lake is a couple of minutes down this road on the left.
The hidden lake of Nong Bua Lamphu! These little salas or bamboo huts sit over the water. Choose one and settle in. Bring cushions if you are intending to stay for a while.
The kitchen is in the middle of the lake. Once you have arrived a boat will paddle over and menus delivered. The boat will come back later and take your order. The food is then shipped to you!
The food and drinks arrive and are handed up to you. There is a bamboo “bell” on the side of the sala facing the water if you need to call for more beer.
At 260 THB this is the most expensive fish meal I have had in Thailand, except for Phuket which is often tourist priced. However it comes with lots of trimmings and the location and service make it a unique experience and one that’s recommended.
All Thai music groups I have seen dress up in this weird mix of clothing. A sort of sexy cowgirl come Las Vegas go go dancers. No complaints from this farang or the crowd.
Thais love a party and will throw one for as many reasons as possible. Weddings, funerals, monk initiations all get celebrated with food, grog and loud music. The major festivals are scattered throughout the year including Bun Bang Fai, which I originally wrote about HERE and HERE.
This festival comprises two parts. Each Moo Baan or village will have their own mini-version, often combined with several other Moo Baans, aimed at having a good time and encourage the rains to come. It is a two day event with one day for a procession and party and the next to launch rockets and party!
Then there is then a major festival weekend, the 6th and 7th of June this year, where all the Moo Baans and there are twelve that form the town of Si Bun Ruang, combine for a major procession down the main street that takes about three hours to run.
My brother and sister in law were lucky enough to be in Isaan for the mini-festivals and my friends Gaz and Saskia for the main procession weekend.
My brother Richard and sister-in-law Sam enjoying a pappaya salad at one of the local Moo Baan parties. They both have Isaan blood in them because they can take a level of chilli that would leave most normal people for dead – literally! Sam’s face maybe reflecting the experience 🙂
A mix of my Thai and Aussie family playing up.
The main festival in the main street of Si Bun Ruang. Each Moo Baan contributes a dancing group and there is a competition for the best performance. Seeing it was in the mid-30’s at this time of day I thought they all deserved a prize just for being there and dancing in the heat for a couple of hours.
Huge speaker trucks run behind every Moo Baan dance group. That kid is going to have serious hearing problems later in life, but then I think all Thais have based on the volume of their music.
Each Moo Baan dresses up in a different costume. Beautifully presented.
A happy cop. This guy is from Chiang Rai.
Camera shy she isn’t. A young girl wakes up for a camera shot. She was hidden away in one of the large dragon floats that make up the procession each year.
One of those great Thai face shots.
Dressed up as Buddha with the serpent heads protecting him. You will often see this as a cobra who reared up behind Buddha to protect him from the sun….so the story goes.
ASEAN. The countries of Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam each represented here.
These large dragon floats spread themselves throughout the procession.
The dragon heads bounce around and spray water onto the crowd, which is most welcome. They are so tall that they have their own attendants who have long poles to lift low hanging power and telephone lines out of the way so they can get through. Not a job I would volunteer for.
Heaps still to cover in part 2 of Visitors in Isaan. We will take you to the best markets and restaurant in Udon Thani, drive to Nong Khai on the Mekong river and share some of the sights there, stay at the Mut Mee guesthouse, pop into the Nong Bua cliff lookout, go fishing at Lake Ratana, have a swim at the weird Suanam resort, visit a local technical college, drink Isaan whisky brewed by a Frenchman and walk through the Phu Phra Bat historical park.
Thanks for reading.