Geoff Richards

Isaan insights

Some background on this fascinating area of Thailand

The northeast of Thailand is called Isaan [also Isan and Isarn] and takes in towns and cities like Udon Thani, Khon Kaen, Loei and Nong Khai.

It is the poorest and least touristy area of the country.

There are a lot of retired foreigners living across the region though.

Houses and apartments are cheap to rent. What would cost upwards of 10,000 baht per month in Bangkok can be had for 2,500 baht in Isaan. Accommodation can be found either in town or outside it, with the latter frequently offering beautiful views of paddy fields and fruit trees.

Apartment blocks in town tend to be seedy affairs because most of the tenants are male tourists that frequent go-go bars. If you are here for the longer-term, then you should rent out of town.

Taxi-buses are cheap, reliable and fairly extensive, but finish shortly after sunset. Tuk-tuks and motorbike-taxis can be reasonable, but not at airports or train and bus stations.

Secondhand motorbikes are cheap and, once you are established here, it is easy to find a local who will sign a monthly deal for you with a motorbike dealer if you want a new one.

New and used cars do not provide good value for money. I always find this surprising because Thailand manufactures cars.

Traffic police can be a nuisance unless you have a helmet, a license and an up-to-date tax disk. Fines range between 200 and 500 baht. Ironically, if you are stopped for not wearing a helmet, you are free to ride off again just as soon as you have paid the fine.

Much of Isaan was part of ancient Lao and getting to and from Vientiane and a certain consulate is quick and easy when compared with overnight journeys that many people have to make from the south.

The immigration office at Nong Khai has toughened up on visa rules over the last 12 months though, and you must meet requirements to get extensions.

Isaan cuisine is probably the best and most unique food in the whole country. It is a fusion of Lao and Thai with hints of Chinese and Vietnamese. This reflects the ethnicity of the people in the region.

Despite the fact that the locals all speak Thai and Laos, none of them will tell you that they are Thai-Lao in origin. Thai-Thai, yes. Thai-Chinese, yes. Thai-Vietnamese, yes. Thai-Lao, never.

Useless trivia. Why do the gold shops have Chinese writing on them? Because Chinese prospectors settled here after the California gold rush and all of the families that own those shops are Thai-Chinese.

With a lot of Isaan food you have to be adventurous. The best way to experience it is through dinner party invitations and to listen to local advice as to which are the best restaurants.

With the exception of perhaps green chicken curry, classic Thai dishes are not as good here as they are elsewhere in the country.

The most common Isaan staples are sticky rice and papaya salad, with the latter being the best in Thailand and coming in many different varieties. But watch that MSG though.

Sticky rice is an essential part of a lot of Isaan cuisine so give it a chance by weaning yourself onto it. And wash your hands before eating it too.

The number of vegetable, meat and fish dips that accompany it is mouth-wateringly mind boggling.

A lot of the food is seasonal. All of the leaf and herb salads are good for body and soul, and the wild fruits and vegetables that appear at various stages throughout the year are not to be missed.

My own personal favourites are the raw beef salads and the barbecue and hot pot dishes that you cook at the table.

Freshwater fish, cockles and shrimp from the Mekong are always high on my shopping list.

Sa-gok from Nong Khai is up there with the world's best sausages.

Rice porridge is the best in the country and, once you have found a really good breakfast shop, addiction quickly follows. Along with many other foreigners here, it is my favourite meal of the day.

While it is possible to eat low-calorie and low-fat food, many delicious Isaan dishes are not for those watching their weight or cholesterol levels.

Street vendor food tends to be below par when compared with the rest of the country. Incidentally, the best hawker food I have ever tried was in Chon Buri.

Food markets are cheap and plentiful, and it is easy to eat three decent meals for no more than 80 baht a day. 100 baht and you are a true Isaan prince.

Beer is also cheap, especially in out of town stores. Three large bottles of Chang and a bag of ice should cost you no more than 110 baht.

Beer Lao is also available but at almost twice the price of what you would pay for it across the border. There has to be a good reason why one of the world's finest brews has yet to make a mark outside of its own country.

Foreign owned bars tend to be overpriced, with Thai beers coming in at around the 90 baht mark. At 160 baht a pint, Irish stout is extortionate.

I prefer cheap and cheerful Thai watering holes by local beauty spots.

There are a number of foreign restaurants that deserve a mention too.

All of the established German, Italian and Japanese restaurants are excellent. German restaurants also have great deli and bakery sections. Those offering Bavarian or Swabian menus are the best.

If you are looking for authentic French or a really good Indian curry, Vientiane is your next destination.

British restaurants always seem to have one thing missing. No horseradish for the beef. No English mustard for the chicken or pork. No salad cream for the ham salads. No mushy peas with the fish and chips. No fried slice or black pudding with the cooked breakfasts.

Never short on condiments or side-dishes though are the American restaurants. Started up by ex-servicemen, they offer some of the tastiest home-cooked southern-style food anywhere outside of the USA.

Food prices at foreign restaurants are reasonable but it is not possible to eat at them everyday if you are on a budget.

KFC is here in force, but McDonalds has yet to make a dent.

Lots of foreign foods and brands can be found at retailers such as Tops, Tesco Lotus and Big C.

Isaan folk are by far the easiest to get along with in Thailand. In four years of living here I have only had two of those encounters where a local that you know, for no apparent reason, suddenly starts ignoring you. And even those exceptions went away quickly.

Even in larger places like Khon Kaen and Udon Thani, the local grapevine can make or break you.

My advice is to stay well away from go-go bars. I have known three teachers that lost their jobs over this.

There are opportunities for entrepreneurs, but you need money and good local contacts.

Failing that, teaching English is the way to go and there is usually plenty to choose from.

Most of the vacancies never make it to the Internet.

You can work for government schools and earn up to 30,000 baht a month. Higher than this is uncommon for Isaan.

Private schools are a better option for teachers who take work more seriously because you can actively become involved in curriculum development and other interesting initiatives.

Most schools do not push for a work permit. Indeed, you have to push them.

Universities do insist on work permits however, so you will need your documents in order.

You can increase your income by about 5,000 to 15,000 baht a month by teaching part-time at private language centres. If you go all out and work seven days a week, daytimes for your school and evenings and weekends for AUA, you can expect to net an additional 30,000 baht a month. This shift is a killer though.

With the exception of AUA, do not give up your day job if a language centre tells you that it has full-time work. This is always seasonal and never lasts for very long. One language centre that has about seven branches across the region is notorious for doing this.

In most cases, you need to actually be here to find work and this is why there are so few female teachers here.

As newcomers, the first places that they go to are the town and city centres where they see bars and restaurants full of retired foreign men with Thai partners. And then they see the other kind of establishments previously mentioned.

I know only two female teachers that have lasted it out here and that is because they both have Thai partners.

Well, you can play golf at excellent courses and visit beautiful national parks. You can even take in the odd cave, prehistoric site or ancient temple. But, above and beyond that, Isaan offers very little in the way of tourist attractions.

What it does offer is a simple, laid-back and inexpensive lifestyle. And that is something I will gladly accept any day of the week.


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