After the bustle and frenetic traffic of Bangkok and the packed seaside resorts of Phuket, Pattaya and Koh Samui, the totally unspoiled and uncrowded part of Thailand known as Isan can come as a relief.
The Isan region, in the northeast of the country, covers about one-third of Thailand's total area. It borders Laos and Cambodia, mostly along the mighty Mekong River. Traffic is light and the towns much less peopled, yet the welcoming smiles and friendliness are as genuine as visitors will find anywhere in this storied kingdom.
Proximity to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam ensures that many elements of common Indochinese culture are to be found in Isan. In fact, the region is a gateway to these other countries, each of which is opening up to tourists.
Regular air services are available from Bangkok to a number of towns in Isan, and it is possible to join tours that fly into one place and out of another.
From Udon Thani
I flew into Udon Thani, about 40 miles south of the town of Nong Khai on the Mekong, where the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge is the only road crossing of the river for hundreds of miles. There are, however, a number of ferry crossing points. The Laotian capital, Vientiane, is only 15 miles away; a visa is required to enter Laos.
Udon Thani is a busy provincial capital. Its produce market is a colorful scene: huge bags of rice and spices, and fresh meat, fish and vegetables. Some of the items on sale -- frogs, grasshoppers, cows' innards -- seem exotic to Western eyes. Markets in the towns of Isan sell an incredible array of such goods from throughout Indochina.
Isan is generally flat, and rice paddies dominate the scene, although there are many fruit and other trees. The color of the rice fields is an intense green, and water buffalo, still used when plowing the fields, are often seen wallowing in large, muddy pools.
Northwest of Udon Thani, the Phu Phra Bat Historical Park contains many unusual rock formations, and rock wall paintings of humans and animals, evidence of prehistoric cultures, have been dated to more than 3,000 years old.
In 1966, archaeologists at the village of Ban Chiang, 35 miles east of Udon Thani, stumbled across some items which, upon further excavation, revealed bronze implements and clay pottery dating back to an agrarian culture more than 5,600 years old. The museum and excavation pit contain many fascinating artifacts, including bones.
Much more recent are the striking sculptures and statues of characters from Buddhist and Hindu lore at the Sala Kaew Ku Park outside Nong Khai. The artworks look old but were made in the past 20 years.
A boat ride along the Mekong offers a leisurely, intimate look at Isan village life. On the Laotian side of the river, children appear from the small, rather rickety buildings and return waves with big smiles.
On the horizon, the jagged peaks of a mountain range form a dramatic backdrop, the dark storm clouds that are brewing in the monsoon season swirling around the tops of the peaks, and there are distant flashes of lightning.
Temples and pagodas, including ancient Khmer temples, dating back more than 10 centuries are scattered across the region. One of the most impressive is Phra That Phanom, at the village of the same name about 30 miles down the Mekong from Nakhon Phanom. The 180-foot-high structure, estimated to be about 1,500 years old, is topped with a gold spire weighing some 240 pounds. Huge drums and bells in the compound summon saffron-robed Buddhist monks to meals and religious duties.
Modern days, ancient ways
I had expected that the monks would be living lives of simplicity, daily rituals of prayer and good deeds.
However, the modern world has ways of intruding. To welcome our small group, the head monk briefly drew himself away from watching the stock market report on his TV.
However, the agrarian lifestyle and ancient traditions of most inhabitants of Isan have not changed much over the centuries. Apart from pottery, locals produce many handicrafts, with cotton, silk, woven baskets and bamboo products the most attractive and inexpensive.
Local Thais also have a rich tradition of dance; when it is part of a welcoming ceremony for tourists, it is an uplifting experience.
Thai food is noted for its subtle use of spices to induce many delicious flavors. In Isan, I tried many dishes that, although drawing on traditional Thai cooking, were quite distinctive.
Even standard dishes such as red and green curry and tom yum soup took on a new life with the use of local ingredients. Local Singha or Chang brand beers proved a good accompaniment.
Getting around Isan
Thanks to recent improvements in regional roads, it is possible to tour Isan independently by rented car. However, because there aren't any English signs on many roads, an organized tour is advised. I traveled with North by North East Tours, run by Thailand-based American expat Nick Ascot. The firm uses excellent hotels such as the Ban Chiang Hotel in Udon Thani and the Nakhon Phanom Riverview Hotel. Its guides are very knowledgeable and informative.
For more information on tours offered by these Thai and Laos travel specialists, see www.north-by-north-east.com. For more information on Isan and other parts of Thailand, contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand in New York at (800) 842-4526 or (212) 432-0433, or visit www.tourismthailand.org online.