Thai‘land’ of surprises: 4 reasons to consider Isan for a vacation with a difference

Raul Dias gives you four reasons why you should consider the stunning Isan region in northeastern Thailand for a vacation with a difference

 Pics: Raul Dias and Wikicommons

I’ve always maintained that clichés aren’t as bad as they are made out to be. Especially when it comes to Thailand. I am a total sucker for the comforting familiarity a city like Bangkok affords me with its divine street food and pulsating nightlife. Or if I’m seeking some down time from all that, I know that artsy Chiang Mai way up north will provide me with that much-needed solace.

But every once in a while, I like to shake things up a bit and see a part of Thailand that has been eluding me thus far.
This time, that part happened to be Isan in the northeast of the country. As Thailand’s largest region, located on the Khorat Plateau, it is bordered by the Mekong River (along the border with Laos) to the north and east, by Cambodia to the southeast and the Sankamphaeng Range south of the province of Nakhon Ratchasima.

So, in order of brevity and a tight word limit, I’ll get straight to the point and list out the four reasons why Isan for me has been the best discovery of 2019 till now…

1. Visit a monastery with a difference

The Sala of Wat Pah Nanachat. Photo by WIKICOMMONS

The city of Ubon Ratchathani was my very first stop on my Isan sojourn and the Wat Pah Nanachat, a little outside the main city, my first introduction to a rather unique system. This Buddhist monastery in the Theravada Forest Tradition was established in 1975 by Ven. Ajahn Chah with the aim of providing English-speaking men and women the opportunity to train and practice the simple and peaceful lifestyle that the Buddha taught his monks in the forests over 2,500 years ago. All this for free for stays of as little as three days to a lifetime!

2. Isan’s natural stunners

Pha Taem National Park

As the first of the two natural wonders of the region, the Pha Taem National Park covers an area of 140 square kilometres and is famous for its irregular shaped sandstones that look like giant mushrooms. But what it is equally popular among the local Thais for, is its numerous prehistoric cave paintings that date back 3,000-4,000 years. Scenes here depict fishing, rice farming, human figures, animals, hands and geometric designs — all still vivid to this very day.

Another calling card of Isan which is also lovingly called the ‘Grand Canyon of Thailand’ is Sam Pan Bok. Touching the border with Laos, it is made up of sandstone cliffs that run along the Mekong River. The Sam Pan Bok canyon is best seen by cruising along in a hired long tail boat that departs from the Song Khon village. One can also climb up to the plateau, the view from where is breathtaking. The seven metres tall and 20 metres wide plateau lying in the middle of the Mekong River is filled with many holes and basins in shapes that range from hearts to even Mickey Mouse. No wonder the name of the place Sam Pan Bok means ‘3,000 holes’.

3. Taste the difference

Thai Som Tam Salad

Forget all about the typically Bangkok-style red/green/yellow curries or the ubiquitous pad thai and get set to let your taste buds get some unusual treats when in Isan. After your tryst with the ‘canyon’ treat yourself to a lunch of fresh Khong river fish and som tum papaya salad at the famous Krua Sam Pan Bok restaurant that is perched on a cliff overlooking the river. Or perhaps stop by for some khao tom (rice soup) at Raan Santi Pochana, a veritable institution in Ubon Ratchatani. For an early dinner head down to the town of Pimai. Here you will find Tew Pai Ped Yang, a 20-year-old food shop that is famous for its special grilled duck with a crispy skin holding juicy duck meat within. Two other dishes not to be missed here are the famous Pimai fried noodles and the fermented pork ribs.

4. Temples talk

End your trip to the Isan region by taking in the jaw-dropping wonder of two Hindu temples that are truly unique. This is because both the Prasat Hin Muang Tum and the Prasat Hin Phanom Rung are each over 1,000 years old and made in the Khmer style, as the Buriram province that they are in is not far from the border with Cambodia. In the case of the former, the complex lies at the base of a mountain that is an extinct volcano and looks like a mini version of the great Ankor Wat Temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Built on top of a hill, Prasat Hin Phanom Rung has a grand tower that is made from pink sandstone which is why the complex is also known as Phanom Rung Stone Castle among the locals.

 Raul Dias a Mumbai-based food and travel writer and restaurant reviewer. Follow Raul on Instagram @rauldias123