I started reading up on Isan after my first trip to Thailand in July 2016. As little as I knew about Thailand back then, the word “Isan” kept cropping up all the time – connected to delicious food and, sometimes, to the background of the people I met.
Isan is a name given to the 20 provinces that comprise North-Eastern Thailand. But this geographically huge region is also a cultural one, with its own language – a dialect of Laos- its own folk music tradition, and a cuisine that has been exported to the rest of the country: sticky rice, som tam, larb, grilled chicken…come to think of it, most of my Thai favs are Isan! Isan is also a reputedly poor region, which contributes only 10% of the nation’s GDP, despite accounting for as much as 30% of the population. Which probably explains why Isan folk are to be found all over the country, including the tourist service sector, and why I kept meeting them in Chiang Mai or Bangkok
My readings -mainly Travelfish.org and Nomadic Matt– set in my mind that this was to be one of my destinations: really, a B-side destination par excellence, boasting only modest highlights such as a few Khmer ruins, some noteworthy national parks and views on the ever-present Mekong.
My anticipation: the fiery som tams, lively night markets, extra friendly people, few farang, colorful expats…and pretty girls. Or where they less pretty in Isan, I wondered, as the best of them had fled the region for the bars and massage parlors of Phuket, Bangkok and Pattaya?
So I planned a short break in which I’d visit Nakhon Ratchasima -better known as Korat- and nearby Phimai. Both destinations could be easily reached by public transport, and in less than three full days I would be able to combine the visit to one of Isan’s “big four” with a small town offering a taster of Khmer architecture, in relatively untouristy surroundings and with the undeniable perk of a lively night market.
Such was my plan. Now I just had to get out of Bangkok.