What is it that makes Isan so ‘authentic’ in the eyes of so many tourists and resident foreigners when in respect of language and culture it is more Lao than Thai? Well, for one thing, there is little or nothing in the region that is designed or calculated to attract foreign tourists. There are no sea-side beaches, though there are some river-side ones. There is nothing like Khao San Road, Pattaya, or the islands of the south. There are no exotically-dressed hill-tribes people and no mountains to trek in.
So what is there here to interest a tourist? Well, there is the ‘real Thailand’ where people are busy going about their daily lives: they work in the fields at certain times of the year; they work in the urban areas of Korat, Khon Khaen,Ubon and Udonthani; they fish on the Mun River and the Mekong River, in lakes and ponds. They live in towns and villages that are increasingly aware of the modern world and involved with it. In Ubon Province, they live in a landscape that defies the stereotyped image of Isan as an arid, waterless region: it is well-watered by many rivers including the Chi and Mun, and bordered by the great Mekong. In Si Sa Ket , Surin and Buriram the countryside is dotted with ruins of the ancient Khmer civilisation but these provinces also have a wealth of flourishing Buddhist monasteries. Although their provincial cities are of relatively recent foundation there is evidence of human habitation stretching back thousands of years. For the people of Isan religion (predominantly Buddhism but others are found here, too) is a central part of their lives.
Many also pay tribute in their rituals to animism and spirit cults as well as displaying echoes of an ancient adherence to Hinduism. Ubon is proud of its connection through birth or residence with many famous Buddhist monks such as Phra Ubali, Phra Acharn Man who was ordained in Ubon and Phra Acharn Chah, one of his followers, who founded a forest monastery at Warin Chamrab and an international monastery nearby which now has branch monasteries throughout the world. Throughout Isan there are temples in cties, towns, villages, forests and on mountains.
For the visitor there are hotels, guest-houses, resorts, National Park bungalows and even many temples where you can lay yourself down after a day exploring what Isan has to offer. There is the local food, much of it probably familiar because it is popular outside Isan. There are rock paintings 3-4,000 years old at Pha Taem, in Ubon Ratchathani Province. In Udonthani Province there is Ban Chiang, a small village which is considered the most important prehistoric settlement so far discovered in South-East Asia. It marks an important stage in human cultural, social and technological evolution. The site presents the earliest evidence of farming in the region and of the manufacture and use of metals. Dinosaur remains have been found in the provinces of Khon Khaen and Kalasin. And there are mountains (though they are not very high), waterfalls, and in the north and east of Isan the great Mekong River is the boundary with neighbouring Laos. And Isan is a natural jumping-off point for Laos, with crossings at Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahan and Chong Mek in Ubon Ratchathani Province. Cambodia, too, can be approached by road from Si Sa Ket Province.
Take a look at the images below to get some idea of the colour and variety that awaits you in Isan, a little-visited region that has a distinctive culture and pace of life that ensures you will always receive a warm welcome there!