After nearly two years of blogging at ‘Live Less Ordinary’ we have decided to push forward into new areas of tourism and to follow other passions and interests. We will be doing this through private group tours in rural Thailand (IsaanTours.com) exploring the simple life of Thailand’s Isaan region where guests can “Experience the Real Thailand”. The Isaan region is no doubt perfect for this, rich in tradition and authentic in local life but it is also a region we know well and are well connected in. Fanfan was in fact born and raised in Isaan and, while I’ve only visited a handful of times, I can say each and every visit felt life changing in one way or another. With Isaan Tours we hope to recreate these experiences for others and if all goes to plan Isaan Tours will be given a trial run starting March 2015.
It is no secret that tourists to Thailand are drawn more to the big cities, beach resorts and jungle treks. The experiences which rarely feel authentic or real, or at least to me. Isaan tours is therefore set to to escape these trails of tourists and travellers, getting off-the-beaten-track to find more authentic and inspiring experiences. No place is better for this than Isaan’s vast rural plains where forgotten rural villages host strong family values and well celebrated Thai tradition. We won’t pay locals to put on traditional dress, or triangle hats. We won’t drug animals to let you pet them (note don’t pet the buffaloes). At Isaan Tours everyone you meet will be real, everything we share will be authentic and every experience we create will be Thailand.
Isaan is the less travelled Northeastern region of Thailand, found a short(ish) bus journey from Bangkok towards the Laos and Cambodia borders. While this region covers roughly one third of Thailand it also goes unnoticed by passing tourists. No doubt Isaan is hard to explore independently with its expansive size, lack of transport and hard-to-find English speakers but the major cities are also few and far between and when Korat, Khon Kaen and Udon Thani are put against Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket, we all know who is going to win. So Isaan is all about rural life, escaping concrete sprawls to find the unspoiled simplicity of Thai living which in the big cities is hard to find with watered down culture and simple life left behind. We are fortunate to have our own base in Nang Rong, a simple rural town best known for its convenient location next to Phanom Rung Historical Park.
Found on the rim of an extinct volcano Phanom Rung is one of Thailand’s most revered Khmer Temples and while not quite on par with Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia it does hold its own against many of its others. Phanom Rung is also unique in Thailand as the only Khmer temple to be built on a mountain (since Phra Viharn was nabbed by the Khmer next door). The site is located at the Cambodian border and with its remote and hard-to-reach location Phanom Rung goes relatively untouched by tourists to Thailand. While under consideration as a future World Heritage Site (Unesco) the visitor numbers will likely increase in the future and Phanom Rung is in no doubt worthy of the Isaan Tours itinerary (here for our full blog more on Phanom Rung)
This second and smaller Khmer Temple is not found far from Phanom Rung and should be covered on the same Isaan Tours itinerary. Muang Tam, unlike the hilltop temple of Phanom Rung, is found on the lower flatter lands and was used in ancient days as a water supply for nearby villages using the “Ba Rai” man-made reservoirs found surrounding the front temple entrance.
Away from ancient Khmer ruins and Hindu deities (Shiva) the local religion of Isaan, as with most of Thailand, is Buddhism and dotted throughout local towns and countrysides are seemingly endless numbers of Buddhist temples. These temples were established by local communities for prayer, merit making and to house the local monks. They are also open to anyone to visit. It is common to make an offering of a ‘Sang Kathan” basket which is a decorative gold basket filled with ‘requisites’ for the monks. Baskets often contain things like candles and incense for prayer and toilet paper, toothbrush, medicines for daily life, etc. In return the temple monks will bless the donor and in many cases offer a ‘sai sin’ sacred bracelet.
The scene of morning alms offerings (Bintabaht) has become iconic to Southeast Asia where local monks take to the streets with alms bowls in hand to collect donations for the local temple. This happens at roughly 6am on each morning, of every day. Donations tend to be little more than a scoop of cooked rice placed into the alms bowl and a bag of snacks set on top. Again snacks can be anything; soy milks, tuna tins, fresh fruit, a chocolate bar… In return the monks bless the donor who should kneel in prayer. The monks then return to the temple grounds for their first meal of the day (8am). At 11am they eat again and from midday onward they fast to the following day. Monks are early risers and will often wake as early as 3.30am before prayers between 4am and 5am (Tam Wat Chao). Bintabaht will be an option on all Isaan tours but must be done early at a local home or street (not hotels).
A common misconception with monks is that they are monks for life. For most this is not the case as they many will only ordain for short-term periods to be a monk in temporary ordination. This can be days, weeks, months or years and at some point of a Thai man’s life most they will likely serve as a monk. After completing the term at the temple they will return to ‘laity’ in normal life. For most monk ordinations they will take place at their hometowns with many big city dwellers returning to rural towns to join the local temples. Therefore monk ordinations are common to Isaan and processions can be seen on local streets when ordaining monks are led from their home to join the temple. Of course this is a hit-and-miss attraction for Isaan Tours and, as to not be intrusive, we can’t add it to an itinerary. However, if we pass or know of an ordination taking place, we can watch as it passes and chances are you will be swept along with the procession joined by traditional music, dancing and, more often than not, hard liquor. Ordinations are better found in Thai summer months (between April and June) (Check here for our blog on Isaan monk ordinations).
Rural life is simple life, homes are often self-sustained and livings are made through agriculture and farming. Fanfan’s family are no different owning their own slice of Isaan land with all sorts of farming and produce; from mango forests and fresh water lakes to rice fields and buffaloes. With seasonal crops and harvests it is hard to predict the daily routine for Isaan Tours but there will always be some way to get your hands dirty. In the past much of the heavy lifting in farming was taken on by buffaloes however they have now became almost obsolete as modern and mechanical alternatives take over. Now the primary job of buffaloes is to eat grass and defecate fertilizer. Note, buffaloes look passive and docile from a distance but up close they can be a little bit terrifying.
What isn’t found in the family garden will no doubt be found at the local market where fresh and wet markets often run central to the local communities. These farmer’s markets share all sorts of fresh produce taken from surrounding areas and vary from fresh fruits and veg to the more obscure Isann bites such as frog skins or betel nut. The more exciting market experiences come at the weekend with night markets (Sunday in Nang Rong) and for many this is the highlight of the week in rural towns. Night markets focus more on fun than groceries and while clothes and trinket shopping is common the popular stall are no doubt the food sand cooking vendors. Night markets are perfect for foodies and food lovers.
Again for the food lovers, Isaan is home to many of Thailand’s celebrated dishes and of course in Isaan they are found at their best. Fiery salads, barbecued meats, sticky rice (the regional staple) all served with optional sides of fresh veg (white cabbage, sweet basil and long beans). Isaan is also known for its obscure eats with common sights of deep fried insects and the annual ant egg salad festival among the favourite attractions. There’s something for all sorts. Isaan tours can be tailored specifically to food exploration, eating and traditional cooking (Here for our full guide to Isaan food). For those not overly keen on Isaan food the standard Thai favourites can be easily found at local restaurants (Here for our Nang Rong food guide).
These days traditional cooking methods are hard to find so we feel lucky to have granny ‘Yai Thip’ who cooks authentic Thai recipes, every night, knelt over a coconut husk flamed stove. All ingredients are sourced locally and are prepared through traditional methods, from the squeezing of coconut milks to the pounding of curry pastes. Traditional cooking will always be an option for Isaan Tours as everyone here loves to eat. It will be no problem to set up a second stove for visitors to cook along.
A favourite with the younger generations the Moo Krata barbecue comes as a hands-on eating cooking and sharing your own meats and soups over a charcoal flamed skillet. The top grill barbecues meats, the surrounding edge boils a soup of veg, noodles, meats and egg. Mix together with a tangy chilli dip (nam jim) and wash done with drinks and rural banter. Moo Krata is more of an evening feast (rarely found before 5pm) and while restaurants are easy to find we prefer to keep it homely and intimate ordering the delivery option and have the meats and cooking pots are delivered to the house.
Another hands-on eating option is Jim Jum a fiery Thai hot pot which originates from Isaan. This uniquely Thai hot pot comes with a signature infused broth of shallot, lemongrass, chilli, garlic and sweet basil. As with Moo Krata it is up to eaters to pick and prepare their own choice of meats and ingredients. As with most food in Thailand Jim Jum comes served with a side bowl of chilli sauce (Nam Jim) and is also a popular evening feast with both restaurant and delivery options.
To share a simple example of life in rural Thailand and the destination of Isaan Tours we put together the video below from our last visit. Small group tours can of course be tailored to the interests of the guests from food and cooking tours to agriculture and local culture. Exploration and adventure is never far away and year round there is always something happening in the area.
The best route to Nang Rong is from Bangkok (Mo Chit Bus Station) using the regular buses to Buriram City. Nang Rong is roughly one hour before Buriram. To Nang Rong it takes roughly 5 hours, depending on traffic, and while this may sound like a lengthy time to spend on a bus, it is also necessary to escape the tourist and traveller trails. Bus travel is comfortable and cheap in Thailand (around 370 Baht to Nang Rong) and our recommended service is Nakhonchai Air with massage chairs, movies, headphones and lots of reclining and leg room. Alternative transport routes include slow travelling trains, or flights to Buriram. Local pickup will be arranged. A direct taxi service from Bangkok is also an option but will obviously be pricier than the rest (roughly 4,500 Baht). Isaan Tours will provide transport from then onward.