Places to Visit in Thailand – Northeast

Rice field in Northeast Thailand, Khun Han, Sisaket
Land spreading out so far and wide! Oh darling I love you but, give me that country side... duh duh duh duh dutdut

We had a great time touring the northeast Thailand (Isaan, Isan, esarn) region for almost two months. There is something cool about the northeast – and it’s nothing to do with all the amazing sites and scenery you can see there – though there are a few things worth checking out – like Huai Chan Waterfall in Sisaket province. We were there the day Cambodia was firing artillery across the border – but didn’t hear anything. It’s right on the border with Cambodia.

We saw Nong Khai, Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, Korat, Ubon, Sisaket, Surin, and some baan nawk places in Sisaket where my some of my wife’s family live. All in all it was a great place to visit – and I highly recommend it if you have spousal relatives up that way. Go for the adventure.

The people in the northeast of Thailand are real gems… If your spouse comes from a decent family you’ll see the best Thailand has to offer. If your spouse comes from a family of bar workers – well, you’ll see some of the worst people in Thailand and you won’t have that great a time shelling out cash for sick buffalos, hospital visits, new cars, and short-term loans that are never payed back. Luckily I didn’t have to deal with any nonsense… they took care of me and I had an amazing and restful vacation for over a month and a half.

I’ve read somewhere that less than 2% of all foreign tourists make it to the Isaan region – even to stop in any of the cities. Isaan is a giant place – and there IS a lot to see. There are waterfalls, mountain areas, the border with Laos can be fun for a day or 2… There are lakes for fishing or riding paddle boats on them… fish aquariums… even Sisaket has a well put together fish aquarium now. Entrance fee was dirt cheap – I think even I payed only 30 THB.

Huai Chan Waterfall in Northeast Thailand - Sisaket Province near Khun Han

There are cultural things to see – morlam laos dancers and great places for som tam, gangleeung, and more… The chicken in the northeast is always better – less fatty, because they use free-roaming chickens for the most part. The som tam is the best. The spice in the Ubon / Sisaket area is the hottest in the nation that I’ve had so far. I always ask for Pedt Silopsilai – so spicy I fall down into a coma. Only in Sisaket do they take that literally as a challenge.

So, basically the best reason to visit the northeast is because you haven’t been before, and the people are great.

Go have a look, see what you’re missing. Chances are you’ll go right back to where you were staying before, but, it’s worth a look so you can appreciate what you have. That’s what it did for me – as well as make me miss the place a bit.

Thailand’s Northeast – Some Notes…

We’ve been on what started out as a home-hunting trip in Isaan, but it has ended and we’ll be heading out in a couple of days.

It has been about 5 years since I’ve been back to places like Khon Kaen, Nong Khai, Ubon, Sisaket, Korat… and I noticed some things that I wanted to jot down. Your experience may be different, but these are just my impressions.

DUST – it’s the dry season, and few have planted rice yet – so there are thousands of square kilometers of dirt at the farms… there is dirt everywhere. Some days it’s windy – and it’s like a dust storm.

DRY AIR – the air is extraordinarily dry. I wake up once/twice a night with cotton mouth. My breathing – asthma is affecting me sometimes – because of the cold, dry, and dust-filled air.

ALLERGIES – I have allergies here in the northeast that are nonexistent in Thailand’s other areas.

DRIVING – is a helluva lot more dangerous. There are 2 stoplights in Sisaket where people don’t stop for the lights – just blow through them at 80+ kph. If you don’t know where these two lights are – you could be killed going through your green light and thinking traffic coming from your left will stop. They won’t. Likewise, if you DO stop at the stoplight – some jackass behind you might plow right through you – thinking you KNOW – this light we don’t stop at.

Roads are very narrow – in general – in the northeast.

FOOD POISONING – happens more often. We’ve all been sick (6 of us), and baby has been on a 5 night hospital stay because of it. We’ve heard many stories from friends here of it.

SEAFOOD – is horrible in the northeast. It’s old. It’s small (shrimp), and I wouldn’t recommend it.

PEOPLE – are lovely… just like always. I love the level of respect people have for each other here. I love the simple way of life. I love the helpful attitude.  I love the smiles. People are focused more on PEOPLE here – not business, not world events.

POLITICS – they want Thaksin back REAL bad. Thaksin was their saviour, and they want him back regardless what he was said to have done negative in the country.

WAR – SISAKET and CAMBODIA – you’d never know there was artillery fire just 60km away from here with Cambodia… nobody changed the way they live… nobody is talking about it much, knowing it will blow over.

KHON KAEN is fricking HUGE. I don’t remember it like that 5 years ago. I must not have been in the main city area much.

BUDDHIST TEMPLES – are so much better here. There are many Khmer ruins.

SNAKES – there are few. I’ve found just one juvenile python here, and I’ve looked hard a few nights.

FOREIGNERS – there are MANY. Did everyone move out of Bangkok and hit the suburbs? I saw many (<50) in Ubon, about 10 in Sisaket, 100 in Nong Khai, and about 100 in Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima).

FOREIGN RESTAURANTS – there are more.

FOREST WATS – Wat Nong Pah Phong, Wat Pah Nanachat are as cool as ever. Beautiful places… both with foreign monks.

HIS MAJESTY THE KING and ROYAL FAMILY – they love them to death. They make regular visits to Bangkok to pay respects to HM.

Overall – a really nice visit to the northeast. I’d not live here. I was sure I would, having loved it the first time I came. I think I’ve been spoiled by living in the south – there are so many amazing natural wonders and opportunities for exercise and adventure that I think I see the northeast as barren and having too little to keep me happy anymore.

We thought for sure we’d move to Khon Kaen – but, after seeing it – it’s like a little Chiang Mai – it’s huge. Way too big. Too much traffic, pollution, big buildings, bad streets.

How about you – you enjoy the northeast – Isaan region – or no?

Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand: Travel Review

Ubon Ratchathani, A Review of a city in Isaan

I stayed in Ubon Ratchathani for over a year. It was my first stop after having stayed in Patong Beach for a couple months. I arrived in Ubon and was there for a few days before the Tsunami of 2004 hit Patong Beach in Phuket. I called my friend to see if he survived and he had slept through it. The house he stayed in was up the hill a little ways on the north side of the beach and the water didn’t come up as high as he was, though it was close.

I came to Ubon Ratchathani because it was a link on the way to Warin Chamrap which was my real destination. I wanted to see “Wat Pa Nanachat”, the Buddhist temple for English speaking foreigners that a monk had told me about in the states.

I took a tuk-tuk from Ubon all the way to Wat Pa Nanachat and I’m sure I lost 3 octaves of sensitivity in my hearing that day. You probably should take a bus or motorbike taxi like everyone else and not follow my example. I think I paid 170 baht (less than $5 usd) to take the tuk-tuk, which is a good price considering it’s about 15 kilometers away from the Ubon bus terminal. Maybe more.

I found what I was looking for at the temple. The Australian monk told me what I’d waiting about 9 years to hear… I had reached states of Jhana during meditation that, apparently is quite on the way to Nirvana or whatever you believe happens after that. The abbot invited me to stay, but I wasn’t really too excited about staying there and becoming enlightened. I still don’t really see the point of it right now but it’s probably something I’d want to do before I die. I think. :)

Ubon has anywhere from 100,000 to a million people if you believe the census or what people will give you for estimates – myself included. I don’t really have the slightest idea how to estimate the population for a city. I grew up in a town of about 3500. I don’t really have a good reference point for anything between that, and Honolulu, New York City, or Tampa where I spent the majority of time “living life”.

There is a bus terminal that can get you anywhere in the country, both VIP air-conditioned buses and local red/pink fan-equipped buses can be found here. Buses leave at night to reach Bangkok by early morning. The train station is in Warin Chamrap and is about 5 kilometers away from the bus terminal. One needs to cross a bridge over the Moon (Mun) river to reach Warin Chamrap. The airport found following a main road off Chayangkun Road near Robinsons. The airport can get you to Bangkok and there are 2 flights arriving from there and departing for the capital daily.

Ubon has Big C and Tesco shopping centers as well as a Robinsons and a mall called “SK Mall”. There is a Major Cineplex movie theater in SK Mall as well as MK Sukiyaki, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Mr. Donuts, Dairy Queen (the dummed down version of course), and a coffee shop on the ground level and the 3rd level where the Cineplex is. There is a very fast, comfortable and expensive (35 baht per hour) internet service operated by TOT on the 2nd level and hidden behind some small clothing shops and a bakery/eatery that is actually quite good named “Fern Hut”. They have a good pork hamburger with ketchup, mustard and french fries on the side.

Both Tesco and Big C have decent bakery sections, though if it’s Italian / French bread and sandwich meat you crave you’ll want to head to Tesco and pick up a 22 baht loaf. It’s rather good as they put salt in their bread and it seems nearly none of the other Tesco’s in the country do so. There is a good assortment of sliced meats too: Salami, pepperoni, Bologna, ham, and some other things I don’t eat so I didn’t pay much attention to. There is a salad bar section where one can get cut onions, tomatoes and other vegetables that is all put into the same bag and weighed at the deli counter for a price to stick on the bag for when you check out. They can’t weigh it at the main checkout. Tesco also has Haagen Dazs ice-cream in small and larger sizes and it’s quite expensive but they have “coffee” flavor which I sometimes can’t resist.

There are some really good tasting restaurants in Ubon, though the ambiance is not classy and clean. It’s more “Thai and traditional”. That being said, there is one place with a nice atmosphere that I ate at more than once… Indochine Vietnamese / Thai restaurant on Sapphasit Road which is the road the main public hospital, Sapphasit Hospital, is on.

If you get a chance there are three restaurants you should try. One is Italian and is named, “Risottos”. It is on the road that parallels Sapphasit Road and is one block south of the hospital. You can find it just by walking one block south. It is on the corner and is an orange-walled restaurant with lots of large glass windows and white curtains inside. The pizza, spaghetti and pork chop with mashed potatos and spinach are all very good. The lasagna is frozen and isn’t ordered much so it’s perhaps wise to stay away from that one. They do have an assortment of wines and it’s air-conditioned. The staff is just lovely.

Another restaurant is where all the Thais’ go for their seafood, it’s called, “Gok Kham”. It’s a large assortment of tents all put together to form this large place to eat. Their food is great and very reasonably priced. Gok Kham is located on the road which surrounds Ubon Ratchathani, called appropriately, “Ring Road”.

The final restaurant to tell you about, though you should spend some time visiting as many as you can, is further down Ring road going toward Warin from Ubon. You will come to a bridge and on the right side down the river is a sign for “Had Ku Dua”. You’ll need to turn down that dirt road and go about a kilometer before you come to a group of restaurants on the water. One in particular that is especially good is called, “Jo-Jo” – but everything is written in Thai language. If you ask someone you might get it. Bringing along a Thai speaker that can find it for you, is a much better suggestion.
This place has a nice ambiance because you eat sitting down on a bamboo and thatch hut that is floating on the river. They give you pillows and some mats to sit on. As your food is ready they will bring it out to you – sometimes balancing on the half-sinking bamboo walkway to reach you! There is a light at each floating hut for nighttime and the mosquitos are harsh, but bearable. Sometimes the ants are NOT bearable though, best to bring some bug lotion.

Not a restaurant, but a great coffee place is “Laos Coffee” which is in a hidden place. To find it you will need to start at Tung C. Muang Park. From there go North on Chayangkun road and make a left before the Montana Hotel which is on the left side of Chayangkun Road. Travel west until you see a 7-11 on the right hand corner. Make a left turn at that intersection and the Laos coffee shop will be on your left side after 100 meters or so. It has fresh-ground Laos coffee to die for… yen (cold) or lon (hot).

If you are into golf there is a driving range near the airport, and another near Benjamahara School. You can rent some clubs and hit balls for some ridiculously cheap rate. There is a golf course in Ubon too!

Ubon is not close to very much. It’s isolated pretty well. Sisaket is 60 km to the west. Chong Mek border crossing with Laos is to the east 100 km. Mukdahan is about 80 km north. Yasothon is about 100 km northwest. Pha-Taem National park is 100+ km away and towards Chong Mek. It’s a very nice park, though like a desert in the Summer (March – September). There are a few scattered waterfalls out in that same area though they are dry if it’s not the rainy season.

Ubon has two major city parks. One is located at the town center and named, “Tung C. Muang”. It has basketball, takgraw, volleyball, football (soccer) areas, aerobics at night starting from about 5:30pm and a large walking path that encircles the entire park and which is about .8 kilometers for one lap. There are hundreds of people in the park every evening, regardless of temperatures. The park is safe until about 8pm when there are few people. Late at night it is rumored to be a haunt for ladyboys and others looking to find company for the night.

Nong Bua park is in the north part of the city up around Big C and very close to Nong Bua temple that you can probably find on your map of Ubon. This park is nicely landscaped around a lake in the middle. It too is maybe .8 kilometers around the walking path. There are two groups of aerobics going on every evening. One group is moving around quite quickly, the other group seems to me more stretching and calisthenics based. There is basketball, volleyball, football, and takgraw played by the high school students until after dark. If you have a radio-controlled boat with you this is a great place to do it.

Ubon is a quiet place. There is not a lot to do for tourists except tour the Buddhist temples and do a little shopping. A trip to a village on the outskirts of the city is eye-opening. They live meagerly and yet seem to be very happy. You’ll hear “farang” (usually pronounced “falang”) from people that see you (assuming you’re a westerner like myself). “Farang” is the word they use for visitor or foreigner and should not be taken as derogatory… unless of course they are chasing you with a weapon.

The best reason to visit Ubon Ratchathani or anywhere in the northeast of Thailand is that the people are very friendly and helpful. They love to see foreigners and it’s not uncommon to have complete strangers smiling at you, and trying to touch the hair on your arm or just touch you for good luck. They are very superstitious and they love to sell something to a “farang” from their store as they take it as good luck. Many things are seen as good luck and bad luck, and luckily for us we’re seen as good luck.

Ubon Ratchathani is not for everyone, but if you’re looking to see a bit of how Thailand REALLY is, or how the rest of Thailand really should be… you should stay there for a few days. If you go by train there is a man named, “Pichet” that has a white truck and is there at the train station as the trains arrive from Bangkok every morning. He’ll try to persuade you to accompany him back to his home. You should GO! He has a very nice, new home surrounded by dormitories for students at Rajabhat University and he is a very friendly and helpful guy. He speaks English well enough that you can eventually communicate everything you need to with him.

Ubon Ratchathani is one of my favorite cities in Thailand, go visit!

Travelling in Isaan Thailand (Northeast)

Isaan is the coolest place in Thailand.  It's got the best atmosphere of anywhere I've been.

First off foreigners are gawked at. I don't mind… at least SOMEONE is looking at me, you know?  Girls in their teens are flirting with me -and for what reason? I haven't the slightest idea. Someone must have told them that all farangs are good looking. It's far from true, but as long as the Thai girls are believing it – I'm all for it.

I know if I'M getting flirted with then anyone is getting flirted with. It defies explanation really. What is going on here? Would some analysis shed some light?

I doubt it – some things in Thailand DON'T make western sense and won't. Nor will westerners really understand what is going on. Somettimes one must just accept it and forget about any further questioning, it's not even worth it.

I drove over 215 kilometers today through the highways of Isaan. Saw 3 big cities and all of them were cool enough to live in – or to live in the shadow of – in the outskirts so to speak.  It was cooler since a low-pressure system moved in from China and we were supposed to have these horrible storms starting today (Sunday), complete with HAIL.  I was looking forward to that since I haven't seen hail in quite a long time. I think I was 12 or so.

No hail, but awefully cold at 100km per hour on the motorbike. I had a long sleeve shirt and two short-sleeved shirts under that. I had undies, shorts and then pants (jeans) on top. I had cotton athletic socks and nike running shoes. By all improbability there is no way I could be cold in the summer in Isaan. But, I was shivering and my teeth chattering for a good 30 minutes before my mind started to get fuzzy and I recognized it as hypothermia – from lifeguard training… and man, who would have thought THAT was possible in Thailand?  It may have had something to do with my physical state of health… example given:  I had a horrible "business" that morning that was likely a result of eating out every meal since I left Surat Thani 4 days before.  

I call a dookie – "business".

It's more professional.

So I stop and eat some VERY hot soup – I swallow it hot – hoping it will warm me up a bit. I slide into the restroom and exchange baggy shorts for bicycling shorts with the pad in the crotch for bicycle riding to keep everything from chaffing down there as I ride. These shorts are tighter and maybe warmer. I notice that they sag in the stomach area – which is very odd – considering lycra shorts are supposed to be tight EVERYWHERE.  

I have lost quite a bit of fat since last year when I had these shorts on last. I lost 10 kilograms without hardly trying.  That's another post.

So – after an hour of sitting – I start to feel almost normal. I can think straight again. I'm still dizzy though.  Not like I was, but dizzy enough to know things aren't "right".

I decide to go for it.  It's 11:30 and I've got to make it another 100 kilometers to get where I'm going.  

I get going – and it's all smooth from there – the sun came out and warmed me up. I was able to do 80-100 per hour on average and I didn't feel all that cold.

Arriving at Ubon Ratchathani was nice. I remember everything, having spent about a year and a half here when I first arrived in Thailand.  I know the roads, the bumps in the road, the traffic signals, the shortcuts, and how people drive. It was nice to feel good about a place again. Surat didn't really do it for me. Kids drove like racers on the motorbikes, endangering everyone and often dying.  In Ubon it's more civilized.  

The best reason for making a stop here – I know all the great places to eat – and there are MANY.  I've already planned out the next 6 meals.  Isaan food is very different than the rest of the country… there are more spices that they use – and they use more of them. Salt, chili peppers, garlic, fermented fish, limes, I love it all – and in the same dish is great too.

I've already hit 7-11 where they stock a local bakery's banana bread roll which was what I subsisted on for over a year for breakfast.  It is awesome stuff. You must try it if you come to Ubon Ratchathani.  

School is out and the kids are away. There is very little traffic and it's almost deserted here. The town limits of Ubon Ratchathani usually holds in excess of 100,000 people I'm guessing.  The census figures are wrong for all of Thailand as there has been some serious migration toward the cities.  

Jobs are everywhere in Isaan for teaching – there's nobody that couldn't get one if they wanted. With diploma or without. Being native speaker or not. Being able to teach or not.  There are Germans teaching here that nobody can understand, but they are getting paid to teach English. In Isaan the schools will take whatever they can get.

There are some things to do here. "THE ROCK" is a large nightclub in the bottom of the NEVADA hotel – pronounced by Thais' as "Neh wah dah".  There are nightly ladyboy danceshows and real ladies too – they alternate.  The shows start about 9 pm and keep going until 11 or so when it's just dance music over the speakers, and usually the same tunes – but everyone feels comfortable dancing to them – and things get rocking after 12:30 or so.  The club also FILLS UP after about midnight as other smaller clubs start to close.  No ID is needed, nor will they frisk you for weapons, but the Thais' need ID and a frisk.

If you take care of the bouncer type guys there with 20-40 baht everytime you see them you'll get royal treatment and they'll probably stop a fight that breaks out if you're involved – unless you really deserve it.  I've not seen any fights inside The Rock, but I've heard of a couple. Be careful.  There are Thai guys there that are used to being Numero UNO, if you come in with your western posse and suddenly you are the one being looked at and talked about – you are now number 1 and they guy or guys may not appreciate it and start something.

One time I was mildly buzzed and pointed to some guy's plate of food and was incredulous that he could get Gai Pad King in the club – I didn't even know they served it as nobody else is ever eating in there.  The guy got extremely pissed – probably thinking I'm calling his food shite or something – and my Thai friend had to intervene and Kartold krup about 9 times as the guy cooled off a little with each one.

So – when you're drunk you might do something similar that might seem innocuous, but that leads to you getting beat to death by 15 guys.

It's quarter to five on Saturday and I'll likely not get this out today. I'll try to send it tomorrow before I head off to a nearby town.

You should visit Isaan – Ubon, Amnat Charoen, Mahasarakham, whatever – just to get a different feel for Thailand. It's what I think Thailand is really about… many people giving food to the monks in the early morning… dancers in the street following pickup trucks with speakers playing music from a wired-in guitar like instrument that goes really fast like Indian music… Forest wats… great food – spicy maak maa…  reasonable traffic… beautiful people…  good parties and Songkran…  and hotter than hell in the summer – don't come until Winter – you'll appreciate it more!