By almost any measure Thailand’s Northeastern Region, or ‘Isan’, should top any must visit travel list for those in search of unique, local Thai experiences. Isan remains one of the Kingdom’s most authentic areas with its own exceptional cultural, musical and culinary traditions.
It is also considered Thailand’s least travelled region. Only in Isan is still possible to see people going about their everyday business as they have done for centuries – fishing, weaving silk, growing rice or trading with neighbours in huge colourful markets.
If it sounds laid back and chilled out that’s because it is. Isan is a place where charm and fascination lie, along with extraordinary festivals, fabulous food and incredible independent travel opportunities.
Isan people are intrinsically tethered to annual festivals and fun. These three festivals combine adventure and culture with down-to-earth local traditions.
Yasothon Bun Bang Fai Rocket Festival (13 to 14 May 2017):
The five-day event is known as the noisiest in Thailand. Giant homemade rockets are launched to ensure a good rainy season and rice harvest.
It starts on Friday night with Mor Lam music blasting down the main street of Yasothon (shut down to all regular traffic) where everyone is enjoying the party of the season with plenty of local food and drinks to enjoy and share.
Saturday in town a never-ending parade of rockets and dance teams showcases the hardware. The rocket motor is 10 feet long packed with home brew fuel, the bamboo tail extends another 20 feet. Each village enters their own rocket in competition for highest altitude, launch pad is Yasothon’s huge Phaya Thaen Park. Ignition is like being next to a 747 jumbo jet on take-off. Captains of failed rockets get thrown in the mud, while captains of successful rockets get thrown in the mud too.
Visitors can jump in and help teams hauling and erecting rockets onto launch ramps, no common language required. However, for safety reasons move far away from the launch pad well prior to ignition.
Pi Ta Khon Festival (starts 24-26 June 2017):
One of the most unique and colourful festivals in Thailand is Phi Ta Khon that takes place every year in Dansai district, Loei Province. It is sometimes translated into English as the ‘Ghost Festival’ as many people wear ghost masks during proceedings.
The Phi Ta Khons wear masks and unique costumes made by each villager. Over the years, these masks have become very intricate in design and colour. Every participant also has a sword-like weapon with tip that looks like a phallus, and they wear cow bells as noisemakers while doing a funky sort of a rain dance to ensure a plentiful rice harvest.
Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival (8 to 10 July 2017):
This festival is the largest religious ceremony in Ubon Ratchathani province, which is held on two Buddhist holidays every year. The candle festival also marks the beginning of the rainy season retreat for monks.
During the celebration, huge two-story wax candles are prepared by villagers from around the province before a procession is held to display the artwork. These giant candles are from an individual local temple, village or government institution and move through the town with a beautiful Thai woman representing an angel on every float.
Thai Folk Music & Dance
Every Isan festival is a celebration driven by Luk Thung (Thai Country Music). This genre has been prominently popularised throughout Isan, having from its beginnings drawn upon Northeast Thailand’s Mor Lam musical traditions and the Isan dialect.
During live performances, different singers and dancers get up on stage while the backing band stays the same. As the show progresses the music keeps pace with the audience’s enthusiasm and soon almost everyone in the crowd is on their feet dancing.
As the beats get faster and the lyrics start to get bawdy. The on-stage dancers’ costumes, already loud to begin with, shift from frilly and innocent to sexy. This isn’t the result of modernisation, Mor Lam especially has always had a sensual element. Everyone is ready to enjoy themselves and they’re more than happy to help tourists join in on the fun as well.
You don’t need to pre-book – since the region doesn’t see many tourists, just showing up is fine. It offers the fully independent traveller (FIT) an awesome opportunity to engage local Thais where they live, enjoying a unique Thailand experience while maintaining a flexible itinerary. There are both local Thais and western residents in Isan who offer rural homestays, personal tours and transportation choices.
Heading north out of Bangkok to Khao Yai National Park outside Korat (Nakorn Ratchasima) starts a great commute. The distances between the sights of Isan are often long, but each sleepy town is a possible diversion so that getting from place to place becomes part of the joy, and visitors soon adjust their own pace to match.
Isan’s vast highway network invites the bold to hire cars, explore local options or look to rideshare. Beyond the road network Isan doesn’t have huge tourist infrastructure, it’s hard to get out of town to smaller attractions where English isn’t as widely spoken. But these ‘challenges’ are actually what attract FIT travellers and make Isan much more interesting.
Isan is known for its outstanding cuisine and fun finger food that has become famous worldwide.
It is also renowned for being very spicy and pungent, seasoned with fresh herbs, fiery chillies, field crabs and fermented fish. Traditional dishes include ‘Som Tam’ papaya salads, sticky rice, grilled fish, meat salads like ‘Larb Pla’, ‘Nam Tok Moo’ and many other tasty dishes. Grilled meats are marinated before being char-broiled to maximise sensational flavour, while fresh water fish are often coated with a thick layer of salt before being grilled to keep succulently moist and savory.
It also includes a real selection of culinary extremes: red ant egg salads, animal entrails and bug carts. Not all is appealing to the western palate, but when bravado meets beetle munching it is usually highly entertaining. Cheap theatrics aside – Isan food offers much of the best eating in Thailand. Bountiful and affordable, Isan food should be enjoyed daily by any visitor to the Kingdom.