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  • Elizabeth Cochran

Travel in Thailand in Isaan Region #ExploreNew

Isaan Thailand is a less explored region in Thailand by foreigners, but I am here to tell you why you should visit the Isaan region and how to do it. Lets go see Isaan the North East part of Thailand and explore new places and cuisines.

Isaan is less traveled to as it is more agriculture, more nature, and less touristy. There is some touristy gems that you should not miss out on for your trips to Isaan, but it is worth mentioning that Isaan will be a challenge for English speaking travelers. This is what "scares" people away, but as a Vietnamese American and a solo traveler to Isaan, I had an enjoyable and even enriching time while there. Isaan is where all Thai's roots are. Most local Thai's living in the metropolis or other cities around Thailand most likely are from Isaan region. To experience the roots of Thailand is equally fascinating and enriching. In Isaan, I want to inform you it is referring to the entire North East region of Thailand. It is not easy to see it in a few days as Isaan is an entire huge region. For more trip, I was overly ambitious thinking I would be able to hit up multiple provinces. For an entire week I spent the entire time in Loei province. If you like what you are reading, please support me and my website and buy me a coffee. I appreciate you being here.

I planned for my trip to visit Loei, Buriram, Khon Kaen, and Udon Ratchtani... yet the first day when I arrived in Loei I knew this was impossible. I had a week only to explore the region at the time. I visited the Loei district in the main town, some national parks, and a picturesque town on the Mekong called Chiang Khan. While I was in Loei, I muddled through a new dialect in Thai. For all of you travelers you might be thinking all Thai is the same? My answer is same same, but different. I was expecting that the dialect to be slight pronunciation differences, only to find out that it seemed at times they were speaking another language. Don't let this discourage you, if you want to experience the real Thailand, Isaan is a must see. Expats that have been living here for years, take their time to make it to Isaan, but it is worth it. The place is a backpacker's paradise, filled with beautiful nature, local people, local cuisines, rich culture, and an immersive experience.

I took an overnight bus from Chiang Mai to Loei. The bus was amazing quality as it was air conditioned, and they even had stops along the way for snacks. The bus took around 12-14 hours. I slept most of the way, until the sunrise. When I arrived in Loei it was just dawn, the air was fresh, and crisp. The town was empty except for the sounds of birds and morning chants from the monks. There were only a few of us at that got off at the city centre of Loei, most continued on to Chiang Khan. I got off the bus with my single backpack and was so sleepy. I looked around for taxis and watched my surroundings. The other Thais had friends pick them up, so that made it hard to gage the taxi people. Normally, I pretend I am busy or sit silently to observe in these situations. I do this to be low profile and avoid any taxi harassments or tourist scams. When travelling alone, do not get on your phone all the time. Don't stand out, or look lost even if you are.. it is a bad situation to let yourself appear this way, as it will make you prone to scammers.

Yet, Thailand is one of the safest and most solo-friendly countries, I find these tips to be true and suggest you to do this anyways. I observed and sat silently in the bus station as if I were waiting for a new bus or had everything together. The taxis drivers immediately went to the others exiting the bus and paid no attention to me. Just as I wanted it to be. I listened to the locals talk with them, and it seemed not a single Thai trusted any of them. I watched as the Thais tried to get away from them. The had to "politely" tell them no, and I observed as they walked to another street to call a taxi. I observed this and let myself be seen by the taxis drivers... they wanted a high high fee. I knew I was going to say no, but I wanted to see if they would give me a discount anyways. I said no need, my friend will come, and they all left. The taxis drivers in Thailand everywhere always try to scam you. While they do it with a smile, it is still way way overpriced. I searched if grab worked here, and no drivers at 5 - 6 am, why would there be right? Grab taxis are the number one way to prevent taxi scams, as the price is set before the ride.

I walked around the bus station to find that there was a sign on the price, it would be 50 baht for a tuk tuk ride, and in the day time there are songthoews for local transport. I had arrived so early in the morning though that the local transport wasn't available yet. I searched for the accommodations, yet realized not a single hotel would be open at 6 am. I just sat in the bus station, observing the town starting to awake. I wanted to walk around, but knowing that most of Thailand has street dogs, decided not to. I eventually saw a tuk- tuk guy and decided to go with him.

Songtheow "local transportation" Image: Wikipedia songtheow

In rural Thailand they most common way besides motorbike is to get around with a songthoew. A songthoew means two rows in Thai, it is a pickup truck with two rows of seats. It is a very small fee and you can find these in more rural areas in very Thai places. When I lived in Nakon Pathom province I would hop on the songthoews all the time to explore the province and other nearby provinces. The songthoews have short ride ones and long ride ones. Just ask the direction (ti nai na?) then tell them the road or area of the town and hop on. For the short ride ones it can be as little as 5 baht- 30 baht, and longer rides will be around 30-60 baht. They have this on the islands, but it is not used in the same way it is high tourist price. Traditionally the songthoews are for the community, so there is a general direction the truck is going and you hop on and pay the small fee at the end. I hadn't even picked an accommodation for Loei, as I had no clue what to expect in this region, and I felt comfortable going with the flow. I like to live on the edge and make it interesting to say the least. Going to this region was an unexpected adventure. I wanted to go with the flow as much as possible, and get a feel for the area, as seriously there is no information on Isaan.

The tuk tuk driver understood me, but I didn't understand his Thai. He brought a woman from a nearby shop to communicate with me in Thai and I understood her fully. Paid the flat fee of 50 baht to the main circle where there are hotels. It was the main part of town near a roundabout circle and a small stream. At night in Loei, there is a walking market only on the weekends though. The market was more booming with life than any of the markets in Chiang Mai currently. I felt excited and eager to find Isaan food. I felt so excited to be in Loei, it felt like the village I lived in Nakon Pathom, a local feel.

While wandering through Loei's night market I ate tofu skewers, drank a fruit shake, ate Viet food including banh mi and banh xeo. I met a Laos Vietnamese lady selling banh mi and she asked me if I was half Vietnamese. I assume she knew I was Viet, since the food I realized was Viet and ordered it in Thai and the dish name in Viet.

How to order the sandwich and omelet in Thai and Vietnamese:

Ow banh mi sai banh xeo na ka. I want = Ow (Thai)

Banh mi = sandwich (Viet) sai= with (Thai)

Banh xeo = omelete Na ka = polite ending particle ... ka+ krap .. ka for woman, krap fro man. I felt so happy to have met her and be able to buy banh mi from her. She spoke English, Thai, and Vietnamese. It was a mutual understanding when I met her. We spoke in all of the languages. Ba la nguoi Viet Nam? Are you half Vietnamese? Are you from Vietnam? Viet Khiue? I responded with amazement that she could see my Vietness at least. We smiled and exchanged stories briefly of our life. As we spoke in Thai, Vietnamese, and English we both innately knew our ancestors experience. I felt proud, happy, and seen by her. She didn't judge my Viet skills or Thai skills, and I didn't judge her English. We had three common languages of some level of understanding and a similar background and it felt amazing. She was a similar age to my father. She has been working as a food seller and picking up any job that can get her by. She fled Vietnam in the 1970's during the refugee crisis and fled to Laos. In Laos there is little opportunity. Eventually she made her way to the Thai border town and now the main part of Loei as a small Vietnamese food shop. She told me she feels safe, she has family both here and there (Laos Vientiane and in Viet Nam). Our conversation was warm and genuine. And as Viet people show their love she had gave me some extra stuffing inside my banh mi and told me to eat good and we parted ways with "chok dee (good luck in Thai) and cam on mue (thank you in Vietnamese).

In the market, there were many talented young people singing karaoke, performing traditional dances, and performing in their bands popular Thai music I recognized. It was vibrant and full of people enjoying the atmosphere. I loved to hear people talking, laughing drinking Beer Laos, Chang Beer, and people taking selfies with their bubble tea. A thing I saw that was more than other regions in Thailand was the amount of grilled insects and worms. Something I saw for the first time was a grilled rat and I turned my head as I realized what is was. This was rare and I had heard in Isaan they eat rats, but really meat is meat. It is a praire rat, eating grass and from the rice fields, generally pretty clean. In Peru, people eat guinea pigs and in the United States we eat alligator and frogs sometimes so no need to judge. I did not wish to try any insects or rats regardless though. Life is unexpected though right? While in lockdown on the island in Koh Phangan in 2020 I never expected to eat a squirrel out of limited resources, or go fetching for fruit in the jungles, or even spearing my own fish for food... so never say never right?

The main part of Loei is filled with gorgeous nature, national parks, mountains, waterfalls, and serene nature. Bring your hiking boots, lightweight clothing, and mosquito repellent. The best way is to dress Thai style for your nature getaway, I think wearing a big hat, and some flowy trousers will be best suited for this trip. Pack very light for a trip to Isaan. This is always my recommendation, however as it is more Thai traveling from one place to another will be a motorbike, songthoew, or a tuk tuk. So if you can't find a way to fit that in those modes of transports, you have brought too much. Unlike tourist places it a must to dress appropriately. Thais rarely wear shorts or tank tops (vest) as it is disrespectful for temples. Women especially are expected to cover up, the don't dress as Western and don't wear revealing clothing, so be mindful.

I visited numerous national parks, the admission was free, and I wrote my name in Thai while greeting the workers there in Thai. I appear Thai here often, so if you appear more like a "foreigner" they might make you pay a small fee, honestly I have no clue. I don't pretend to be Thai, it just often is assumed I am, therefore I let them think as they wish. I was lucky to understand their Thai as they were speaking the general Thai dialect. The national parks were gorgeous. There were caves, lakes, interesting rock formations, and waterfalls. I have never seen so much beautiful nature in one park alone. It was bloody hot, so come in the morning. Also, unlike other tourist places this is a local town, so bring your snacks or water with you the national park is a true national park with only the nature and a rest stop for the toilet. After Loei, I headed to the border town in Loei called Chiang Khan. In Chiang Khan it was a quaint town filled with tourist shoppes, endless cafes, themed cafes, bicycles, tourist photo opportunities, huge walking street food market at night, and swarms of domestic Thai tourists at night. While the Thai feeling was not new to me as it was a very Thai atmosphere and also no one really speaking English over here, it felt new and exciting. The walking street was so gorgeous, quaint, picturesque, and laid back. The foods were vibrant, an abundance of sellers enticing you with their handicrafts and products. The streets were filled with Chiang Khan shirts, bags, souvenirs, and handicrafts. However, something that has been dying out in Thailand has been the handicrafts. I was thrilled to see so many independent artists with their creations. While, Chiang Khan was "touristy", it was filled with local Thai's and other Thai's, thus the atmosphere was enjoyable.

souvenir, thailand, market
Souvenirs, Chiang Khan market Image: @thitiwas.photgraphy on INSTA

A thing that is fading in Thailand a thing of the past, is the handicrafts. Grasshoppers made out of bamboo, hand woven scarfs, things made from recycled materials, these kind of crafts.. it used to be what Thailand was all about, the handicrafts and street food. At least this charming town was keeping this tradition alive. I met a lovely couple in Chiang Khan who were Bangokians. The man was a photographer on INSTA and his work is featured. His photographs perfectly capture the essence of what Chiang Khan looked like.

Whilst in Chiang Khan I befriended some Thais. I became a nice friend with the homestay owner where I stayed. I got the nickname "sleepy sister" as I loved to sleep in more and also take naps in the afternoon. It was my time off from work and I love the slow travel. I didn't come to this town for tourism as many local Thais do. I came for the experience and deepening my understanding of the different regions in Thailand. The homestay owner expected I would want to do touristy things the entire stay, but I felt content talking with local, enjoying a cafe, basking in the sunset alongside the Mekong, and exploring the nature. When it was night, I would walk the streets and eat all the local Thai food and street food I desired.

It was my first time in the Isaan region, as I have visited around 25 provinces in Thailand thus far including: Central, South and North regions; destinations I have already visited includes: Koh Samui, Koh Phangan which is in Surathani, Nakohn Si Thammarat, Phuket, Bangkok, Kanchanaburi, Nonthaburi, Lopburi, Suphanburi, Nakhon Pathom, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Song -Pai, Chonburi, Chanthaburi, Rayong, Koh Samed, Koh Chang and many more. Check out my guides and resources for travel guides in Thailand. It has been almost three entire years in the Land of Thailand, and as I have loved the adventures I am announcing that my time will be wrapping up soon (for now). While living here, I acquired a lot of knowledge of the Land of Smiles, endless adventures, and in the end visited nearly half the country. I feel thankful and hope all of my stories have inspired you to see more of Thailand, or even see more of the world.

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