I recently returned from my first visit to the Issan region of Thailand. Much of what I saw there was fascinating and beautiful. Once again I am reminded how good it is to get away from Bangkok and into Thailand's regions. You can find the full article and pictures at Road to Issan.
I flew from Bangkok to Udon at 6.40am on a Saturday morning. Yes, it's a very anti-social hour but the only other flight departed at 6.30am. I'll do anything for an extra 10 minutes sleep!
I flew Air Asia about whom I have heard a lot of complaints, mostly along the lines of cancelled or very delayed flights. Well I had no problems at all and the cost was less than half that of Thai Airways.
It was my first time at the new Suwannaphum airport.
It's an interesting set of structures, reminding me of the new airports in Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Seoul, all of which have opened in the last few years. I suspect it will come to be a highly reputed airport but, for now, navigation is not easy and baggage handling a mess. Navigation can be fixed easily but the baggage handling may prove a longer term problem because there are not enough conveyor belts.
I arrived in Udon and hopped onto a bus for Nong Khai. The airport in Udon is tiny, rather like a small US city commuter airport. It has the somewhat ironic name of Udon Thani International Airport, ironic in that there are not actually any international flights!
The bus ride to Nong Khai, 50 kilometers north of Udon, was uneventful and I soon arrived at the friendship bridge that links Thailand to Laos. I would love to spend some time in Laos one day but for this trip I had no time. My purpose for crossing into Laos was to renew my visa.
Thai bureaucracy is curious at the best of times. I have a one year B visa yet I have to leave the country every three months. I also have a one year work permit but it also is valid for just three months at a time. So I find these visa renewals rather wasteful.In my early days living here I used to take a bus to Cambodia, which was never a good experience. Nowadays I try to tie my visa run to a business trip outside the country.
The visa process was painless and easy. I was in and out of Laos within an hour and back on a bus to Udon. I had decided to stay not in Udon itself, but about 40 minutes south, in a tiny village near Nong Saen.
I have some small experience of Thai villages from a number of trips around the Korat region, but the village I went to (I don't know the name) was tiny even by Thai standards, with maybe 30 houses in all. It's a farming village, mostly crops like sugar cane and rubber trees, but there was also a lot of livestock chaos — oxen blocking roads, chickens running wildly as if headless already, ducks and geese, few sheep and just too many dogs. I am reasonably sure, from the lack of smell, that there were no pigs!
Very few farang come to this place. Every time I walked along the tracks with my camera I would be pursued by groups of small children yelling "farang, farang" at the top of their voices, together with small, medium and large sized chickens and dogs barking and clucking away.
The people are incredibly friendly. Thailand is known for being a friendly country, but my experience of Issan falls into the "super friendly" class. Everyone was so charming and welcoming. For sure it is partly the oddity of seeing a farang but you can feel that the warmth is genuine.It's such a contrast to Europe, where strangers are mostly ignored, rarely welcomed.
These people are poor.
Granted, my experience was mostly limited to one small village but I don't think it's unfair to classify most of Issan as being less than wealthy. The quality of housing is often pitiful, with minimal sanitation and privacy. The people live off the land. If the harvest does not come in, they don't eat. It's a hard, tough existence, working day by day to bring food to the table. There is minimal state support though the Thaksin government did begin to improve via their investment credit scheme.
I have seen poverty in many places, most especially Russia and Romania. With the people of Issan I found something very interesting. Yes they are poor and yes life is hard, but they continue to smile. The family and community ethic pulls them all together. With so little to be grateful for they manage their way through life without the usually obvious signs of misery and poverty, and with graceful dignity.
I like this. It makes me feel more humble, more grateful for what I have and more willing to share.
Three events stand out in my memory, my visits to Pra Phu Bat, Phu Foilom and a chance encounter at a Loy Kratong festival.
You cand find all the photographs at Isaan pictures.