Isaan Eyes Are Smiling

In this Blog I’m going to get downright subjective and possibly a bit sloppy and sentimental. One of the most seductive aspects of Thai culture I believe would have to be the Thai smile. Although incredibly over hyped in tourist promotions and Thai airways advertisements – it is nonetheless still an important part of the Thai image.

But is the Thai smile homogenous? Is a smile in Mae Sai similar to a smile in Had Yai? I confess to being biased. Whilst the Thai smile might wrap you in its arms right round the country, its in Northeast Thailand that it truly warms you. During our earlier trips to Thailand. We used to catch a bus from the Northern Bus terminal in Bangkok to travel to Phimai in Khorat province. The bus now travels non-stop to Phimai but a few years back you had to change buses in Nakhonratchasima (Khorat) and then get on a Phimai bus.

Phimai Bus

Stepping out at the Khorat bus terminal you felt straight away that you were in a different part of Thailand. But why? The bus station was just as noisy, smelly, and frenetic as other parts of the country. The commerce at the station was in your face and close your eyes – the fermenting smell from the pay toilet as bad as anywhere in the country. But of course it’s the smiles that seemed to make the difference together with the laid back ambience of the place.

The Thai smile in Isaan I feel is bigger and warmer than other parts of the country. Bigger, not in the sense that bigger is better or even trying to work out its size with a tape measure. Just intrinsically bigger. Everywhere you come across the “smile” in Isaan – school kids, people at the market, even Monks on village binderbaht sneaking or at times barely hiding a smile with family and friends on their alms round. Smiles from people in a part of the country that often endures heavy economic and social hardships.

cheerful drink

This now leads me to express a theory that is totally unsubstantiated, nonresearched and I expect to be blown out of the water for saying it. The theory relates to what is the underlying influence of Isaan on foreign perceptions on Thailand. The imagery of Thailand that springs to a foreigners mind will more often or not be shopping in Bangkok, southern beach resorts and the mountains in the north with areas such as Isaan barely recording on mental registers.

One of the enduring memories that people take away from a holiday in Thailand is the friendliness of the Thai people. These memories can be kicked off by little things such as a particularly happy Taxi driver, a cheerful food seller out on the streets or a helpful maid in a hotel. This is where my Isaan theory kicks in – so many of the aforementioned people that tourists come across come from Isaan. This has resulted of course by poverty in rural Isaan which over the past decades has seen a large number of its inhabitants seek work outside of Isaan – a large percentage end up working in the service industry. The natural friendliness of Isaan people working in heavily touristed areas has I believe unconsciously contributed to Thailand’s image abroad.


In the end I think more visitors will remember the smiles of these people more than say as example the smiles of Thai Airways cabin staff or an overly polite hotel concierge.

Of everything I have written in this Blog I can no more prove than I can prove that Singha beer tastes better than Heineken. It’s basically a feeling that I hold to be true in my gut.


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