The Making Of An Isaan Tragic

vendors at village market

One term that has entered into today’s language is that of the modern tragic. Not tragic in the sense of calamity or back luck but rather descriptive of borderline or even complete obsession or absorption by an issue/ topic. This can range from anything from cricket, golf or even the belief that vinyl long play records have a superior sound to compact disc, etc. etc.

“Non-Believers” tend to look at Tragics not so much with pity, but rather wonderment that somebody could be so caught up in something (Mind you I suspect most “non-believers” have a “tragic” obsession locked in their closets).

One common trademark of the modern tragic is the obsessive pursuit of foreign travel together with their soul taking on board as much cultural experience as possible. The travel tragic soon latches onto a particular country/culture as the object of their affection. Thailand is a case in point not only myself but for an international army of “true believers” who can’t get enough of the kingdom. Not surprising when you consider how likeable Thailand is.

mekong calm

Of course like a wheel within a wheel the Thai tragic will latch onto a region or place in the Kingdom which becomes a firm favourite. This can be anywhere from the mountains in the north, the big mango (Bangkok), southern beaches or the ongoing pursuit of the ultimate taste experience in street hawker Somtam. For this tragic my focus over the years has been the North-East region of Thailand more commonly known as Isaan.

Unlike the languid North with its mountains and the pugnacious culture of the south with its tropical foliage and beaches, which are always pleasing to the soul Isaan is more of an acquired taste. Whilst most of us develop a life long taste for chocolate when we are young, the flavour for other things can take a bit longer. In that sense learning to appreciate Isaan is a bit like appreciating the experience of eating durian. At first you are repelled by the pungent smell and taste and then “bang” one day you discover the beauty. Sometimes you never find it.

As described above, in many parts of the kingdom the beauty of Thailand is right in your face. Isaan in contrast is a bit like my durian analogy – an acquired taste. Covering a third of the nations land mass, it can be a bit of a chore just moving around it. Matching that with the flat terrain of the Khorat plateau which covers most of Isaan, the first time visitor quite often will encounter monotony. Pre-conception also plays its part and although it might be Khmer monuments and the Mekong that they are coming for, they will have read that Isaan has another monotonous reputation – poverty.

farm vehicle

However, repeat the visit to Isaan (sometimes it happens straight away) and its hidden gems slowly come to view. One of the first is finding yourself as an outsider , seemingly smack in the middle of no where – a single Farang not having to compete with other foreign visitors in tourist traps such as Kho Samui or Pattaya is a liberation in itself. Gradually the growing Isaan tragic will find themselves drawn to food that’s a tad more fiery, music that is not only traditional but even better – fun!! and a human culture that tends to be more beguiling than the rest of the country.

new generation

The destination of becoming an Isaan tragic comes when it finally becomes part of your soul. That realization quite often comes when you are traveling outside of Isaan. You may be in another part of beautiful Thailand, enjoying brilliant sunsets, vibrant nightlife, spiritual experiences but after a few days find yourself pining for the dust of the country, the sound of a pre dawn temple bell echoing across the Mekong or just simply for an Isaan smile. You soon find yourself boarding a bus bound for Isaan, and once you get off at a bus terminal at your Isaan destination you feel at home again.

Of course many would argue against my choice of obsession, but one of the advantages of being a tragic is that you don’t have to justify anything – you know you are right.

My 23 year old daughter, Natalie arrived home yesterday from a trip to Turkey, a place she was apparently totally enamoured with. She just made me a glass of Turkish apple tea which I have been sipping as I wrote this blog. As I listen to Natalie rave about her trip, I can’t help but think – Ahh!!! Another tragic in the making.


5 responses to “The Making Of An Isaan Tragic

  1. Poem rak Issan, Khon Issan duey. Issan is a very special place. I lived in Khon Buri for 2 years, and everyday I wish I was back in Issan. Someday I’ll return. Your article is very true, the first time you arrive in Issan, you don’t think much of it. But once you acquire the taste, it never goes away.

  2. Another thoughtful blog, Bill. I have never thought of myself as a modern tragic for my love of travel, rather I have thought those people here who loudly insist that travel to any place outside of the UK is not worth the money or the effort to be truly tragic -particularly those who have never tried it !!

  3. Thanks Khun Don

    The first time that I heard the word “tragic” used in this context happened when the Australian PM John Howard was asked what the most important position in Australia was and without a blink he replied “captain of the Australian Cricket Team”

    I’m usely wary of what politicians utter but accepted his word at face value. Like many Tragic’s Howard has always worn his love of cricket on his sleeve


  4. Hi Bill! I just wanted to thank you for your wonderful blog entry today. I will be leaving for Thailand in 26 days. While there I will be living in Isaan for 5 months. I will be based in Khon Kaen, but throughout the program I will be traveling throughout the region to live with various families to better understand numerous topics. I am more excited than I can even say and your post raised that excitement to an even higher level.
    ~ Tabitha

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