Darkest Isan (where decent thais fear to tread), Part One
The gateway to Isan, already I’m scared to enter. This urban malaise of noise, sweat and dirt seems to be trying its hardest to impersonate Bangkok, three colours of pollution on every street corner. Fortunately someone told me the rest of Isan is nothing like this. Having lived in Khon Kaen for a month, a decade ago, I really don’t believe this someone who told me this.
Isan is the one part of Thailand I’ve never really travelled. I passed through it on a number of occasions on the way to Lao, (Ubon, Mukdahan and Nong Khai) but never stayed there apart from my hated month in Khon Kaen.So I decided to take the plunge and circumnavigate the region for a month, eating all the sticky rice, drinking all the Lao Khao and wearing all the red shirts I could muster.
Isan is the northeast region of Thailand, the most populous part of Thailand, a hotch potch of Lao, Khmer, and Vietnamese speakers, the poorest part of the country, home to the recent political unrest and looked down upon from such a height by middle class Bangkokers that they must surely be suffering vertigo.
Basically Isaners are Lao people who found themselves part of the expanding Thai empire a couple of centuries ago and have suffered for it ever since. Thanks to having superior labidos than their Thai cousins they now make up the single most populous region of the country, and poorest. They also have the reputation of being more outgoing and far less anal than the rest of the country…..
The first sense you get when you enter Isan, and one that stays with you the whole time is that the place isn’t exactly built for tourists. 15 years ago Chang Mai had the same feeling, the tourists inhabiting a small enclave and the rest of the city doing non-tourist business. Nowadays in Chiang Mai it’s hard to find single business in the whole city not tourist orientated. Korat may not be a beauty spot but it’s a spot that’s prospering on its own merits and not off my visit, and in Thailand that’s a kind of beautiful thing these days.
Tao Suranaree Monument
Tao Suranaree, maybe a myth or maybe she did actually exist. Yo Ma as known locally according to Thai (Ahem!) history books lead the defence of the city against the invading Lao army in 1826 by sneakily getting the Lao army too drunk to fight. Obviously she’s never been to an English pub on a Saturday night, as I don’t quite think alcohol has that effect on men.
The statue in the middle of town provides a great way to see the animist religion as not only locals but pilgrims from all over Thailand come to pay respect to her spirit. It’s also the best spot in town not to cross the road as the driver of any vehicle that drives past may alarmingly take his hands off the wheel mid traffic to bow to the statue as he goes by.
Wat Prayup Cave
Just down the road from the monument is Wat Prayap a very unusual looking stone temple, surrounded by large boulders placed all around the temple, the architect going for that Stonehenge chic. Beside the temple is a quite impressive man made cave full of genuine stalagmites and stalactites and even a rock pool. All the rock for the temple came from a cement quarry and the stalagmites and stalactites would have been dynamited if the temple hadn’t of saved them. The cave is a geologist’s wet dream full of all kinds of amazing rock and crystals saved from becoming part of the city’s latest concrete monstrosity. I never even knew rock was an endangered species, I guess I better get in touch with Greenpeace. The Buddha image is an Indian Gupta style also made of quarried stone.