Bordered by Laos and Cambodia on three sides, the scorching-hot tableland of northeast Thailand – known as Isaan, after the Hindu god of death and the northeast – comprises a third of the country’s land area and is home to nearly a third of its population. This is the least-visited region of the kingdom, and the poorest: almost three-quarters of Isaan residents are in debt, and it’s thought that the majority still earn less than the regional minimum wage of B164–183 a day. Farming is the traditional livelihood here, despite appallingly infertile soil (the friable sandstone contains few nutrients and retains little water) and long periods of drought punctuated by downpours and intermittent bouts of flooding. As you’d expect, the landscape is mostly flat, but there are plenty of lively festivals and ancient temples to make a visit worth the effort.
In the 1960s, government schemes to introduce hardier crops set in motion a debt cycle that has forced farmers into monocultural cash-cropping to repay their loans for fertilizers, seeds and machinery. For many families, there’s only one way off the treadmill: of the twenty-one million people who live in Isaan, an average of two million economic refugees leave the area every year, most of them heading for Bangkok, where northeasterners now make up the majority of the capital’s lowest-paid workforce. Children and elderly parents remain in the villages, increasingly dependent on the money sent back every month from the metropolis and awaiting the annual visit in May, when migrant family members often return for a couple of months to help with the rice planting.
Rather than the cities – which are chaotic, exhausting places, with little going for them apart from accommodation and onward transport – Isaan’s prime destinations are its Khmer ruins and Khao Yai National Park. Five huge northeastern festivals also draw massive crowds: in May, Yasothon is the focus for the bawdy rocket festival; the end of June or beginning of July sees the equally raucous rainmaking festival of Phi Ta Kon in Dan Sai near Loei; in July, Ubon Ratchathani hosts the extravagant candle festival; in October, strange, pink fireballs float out of the Mekong near Nong Khai; while the flamboyant, though inevitably touristy, “elephant round-up” is staged in Surin in November.
It’s rural life that really defines Isaan though, and you can learn a lot about the local residents by staying at one of the family-run guesthouses and homestays in the southern part of the region. If you make it this far you should endeavour to see at least one set of Isaan’s Khmer ruins: those at Phimai are the most accessible, but it’s well worth making the effort to visit either Phanom Rung or Khao Phra Viharn as well, both of which occupy spectacular hilltop locations, though the latter was closed at the time of writing. Relics of an even earlier age, prehistoric cliff-paintings also draw a few tourists eastwards to the little town of Khong Chiam, which is prettily set between the Mekong and Mun rivers.
Isaan’s only mountain range of any significance divides the uninspiring town of Loei from the central plains and offers some stiff walking, awesome scenery and the possibility of spotting unusual birds and flowers in the national parks that spread across its heights. Due north of Loei at Chiang Khan, the Mekong River begins its leisurely course around Isaan with a lush stretch where a sprinkling of guesthouses has opened up the river countryside to travellers. The powerful waterway acts as a natural boundary between Thailand and Laos, but it’s no longer the forbidding barrier it once was; with Laos opening further border crossings to visitors, the river is becoming an increasingly important transport link.
At the eastern end of this upper stretch, the border town of Nong Khai is surrounded by wonderfully ornate temples, some of which are used by the significant population of Chinese and Vietnamese migrants. The grandest and most important religious site in the northeast, however, is Wat Phra That Phanom, way downstream beyond Nakhon Phanom, a town that affords some of the finest Isaan vistas.
Most northeasterners speak a dialect that’s more comprehensible to residents of Vientiane than Bangkok, and Isaan’s historic allegiances have tied it more closely to Laos and Cambodia than to Thailand. Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, the all-powerful Khmers covered the northeast in magnificent stone temple complexes, the remains of which constitute the region’s most satisfying tourist attractions. During subsequent centuries the territories along the Mekong River changed hands numerous times, until the present border with Laos was set at the end of World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, Communist insurgents played on the northeast’s traditional ties with Laos; a movement to align Isaan with the Marxists of Laos gathered some force, and the Communist Party of Thailand, gaining sympathy among poverty-stricken northeastern farmers, established bases in the region. At about the same time, major US air bases for the Vietnam War were set up in Khorat, Ubon Ratchathani and Udon Thani, fuelling a sex industry that has plagued the region ever since. When the American military moved out, northeastern women turned to the tourist-oriented Bangkok flesh-trade instead, and today the majority of prostitutes in the capital come from Isaan.