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Archive for December, 2009

Isahn (Isaan) Impressions

Michael Babcock, Saturday, December 5th, 2009

I’ve only travelled extensively to Isahn (or Isaan) – Northeastern Thailand – one time. Here are some thoughts and impressions.

Grilled sticky rice in Loei

Grilled sticky rice in Loei

Kasma will be in Khon Kaen in Northern Thailand on the day this is published. She’s leading one of her small-group trips to Thailand to Isahn (Northeastern Thailand); this is the first time she’s led the Isahn trip since 1998. How I wish I were on it!

In December 2004, Kasma and I took an exploration trip up there along with our driver, Sun; at the time she was thinking of doing another NE trip and wanted to see how things had changed since her previous trip in 1998. I had travelled quite extensively in other parts of Thailand with Kasma so was curious to see what Isahn was like, particularly since you meet people from the northeast all over Thailand.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Kanom jeen noodles in Korat

Kanom jeen noodles in Korat

Isahn is one of the poorer regions in Thailand. That’s one reason you meet so many people from there throughout Thailand – they have to leave their homes to make a living. Just one example is the woman who sells kanom krok (grilled coconut rice-cakes) at Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thong Lo) on weekends. (I’ve written about her in Siripon, Maker of Kanom Krok.) She has come to Bangkok with her husband to sell street food and send money home while their children are raised by the grandparents.

Serving green papaya salad

Serving green papaya salad

When we travelled there in December 2004, it seemed much less tropical than the rest of Thailand. Much of the land has been deforested so it is certainly not as lush as the south and central regions.

As always, anywhere in Thailand, some of my most vivid memories are of the markets and the food. Every town seemed to have a bustling, lively market, often with some things I don’t notice elsewhere (such as grilled sticky rice on a stick, rats). One of my favorite memories was eating kanom jeen at a market in Korat. Kanom jeen are a type of fermented rice noodle, eaten all over Thailand but especially popular in the northeast. You’ll find a vendor in nearly every market – you can choose from any number of different toppings to put on the noodles.

BBQ chicken in Loei

BBQ chicken in Loei

Another lasting impression is just how very spicy-hot Isahn people can eat. Although I couldn’t eat very hot at all when I first met Kasma, over the years I’ve learned to enjoy food that I think is very spicy. At an early stop on our trip, we were ordering Green Papaya Salad (Som Dtam), one of the best know dishes from Isahn, and the vendor asked if I could eat spicy. Kasma said I could and told him to make it “regular.” Well, their regular is off my spice scale! Their regular is incendiary! Som dtam and barbecued chicken (gai yang) were two of our staples throughout Isahn.

This trip was also the first time I ate bplah som – sour fish. It’s fish that is mixed with salt, garlic and cooked rice and then left out to ferment (sour). After a few days, it’s fried up crispy and has a delightful, sour flavor that’s hard to describe.

Detail at Khmer ruin

Detail at Khmer ruin

During our trip we visited a number of Khmer-style ruins. Throughout history, much of the area has gone back and forth between the Khmer of Cambodia and Thailand. The ruins are reminiscent of Angkor Wat, although much smaller; on the other hand, we had many of the ruins nearly to ourselves. On this trip, we did not visit Phimai, perhaps the best known of the Khmer ruins in Thailand, or Phanom Wan, both in Korat. We did visit are Prasit Puay Noi in Khon Kaen and several ruins is Surin province: Prasat Hin Wat Sa Kamphaeng Yai and Prasat Sikhoraphum.

Mukdahan Rock Formation

Mukdahan Rock Formation

One more interesting feature in the north east would be the unusual rock formations. Many of them feature rocks perched on the tops of other rocks in quite improbable positions. Phu Phra Baht Historical Park in Nong Khai. In Mukdahan there’s Phu Pha Theup National Park, a hilly, rocky plateau with fabulous mushroom-shaped rock formations. There’s also Sao Chaliang in Khong Jiam. We spent many hours wandering around these natural areas.

Ceramic boat in Ubon Ratchathani

Ceramic boat in Ubon Ratchathani

Of course there are numerous temples. Isahn, more than the rest of Thailand, remains more traditional Buddhist. Young men here are more likely to ordain at some point in their lives, a traditional practice once followed throughout Thailand. The temples range from more traditional ones, to forest monasteries (Wat Pah Pong, established by Ajahn Chah, is found in Ubon Ratchathani province) to less traditional, such as the temple built entirely from ceramics – Wat Bahn Na Meuang in Ubon Ratchathani.

Weaving Village near Galasin

Weaving Village near Galasin

Then there’s the weaving. Traditionally, nearly every village had an area where the women would get together to weave, cotton or silk. Although much of the weaving activity has disappeared there are still many outstanding weaving stops in the north east, from Mukdhadan to Khong Kaen to the Thasawang co-op silk village in Surin. For more on weaving in the NE, see Kasma’s blog entry:

Making spring roll wrappers

Making spring roll wrappers

There was so much more. Fabulous dragons at temples; hieroglyphics that are thousands of years old; a factory where they make gongs (we got to watch the tuning process, which involved a lot of banging!); watching them make spring roll wrappers at Sri Chieng Mai in Nong Kai.

Such a rich region! Suggestions for travel: if you go on your own, do your research before you go so you know where to go. One possibility is to use the itinerary for Kasma’s NE trip as a starting point – she’s already scouted out many of the best places. Plan to drive: either renting a car on your own or renting a car with a driver – it’s a big region and you’ll log a lot of kilometers getting from place to place.

Checking the tone of a gong

Checking the tone of a gong

Although we don’t have another trip to the NE planned, Kasma will probably do another one at some point. If you would like to be contacted when we do schedule a trip, please contact Kasma.

I’ve barely scratched the surface. For more, check out:


Written by Michael Babcock, December 2009.

Grilled Bananas (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Grilled Bananas in Bangkok’s Chinatown

Grilled bananas

Grilled bananas in Bangkok's Chinatown

There are many more varieties of bananas in Thailand than we ever see in the San Francisco Bay Area. All of them taste better than what we’re used to. Some are used for frying, some for just plain eating and others for grilling.

You’ll see delicious grilled bananas such as these in nearly every open-air market you go to. These are from a vendor in Bangkok’s Chinatown. You get a sense of how easy it is to set up a street food stand: for this, all you need is a grill, some charcoal and bananas.

These are very delicious. It’s hard to pass them by, even when you’re very full from the last delicious Thai meal!


The Wednesday Photo is a new picture  each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.