THE SECRET SOUL OF ISAN
Three small resorts in northeast Thailand provide an immediate connection to the culture and traditions of their far-flung locales— and the comforts in which to enjoy them.
Named after the Hindu god Shiva, Isan is a place where shamans and spirits dwell, where the landscape morphs from lush, tropical rain forest to dry and dusty table-flat plains. It’s a land that has yielded prehistoric cave paintings, Bronze Age artifacts, and Khmer ruins. And yet, for foreign visitors, Thailand’s vast northeastern region remains one of the least-visited areas in the country. Roughly half the size of Germany, it sprawls across the high sandstone Khorat Plateau, bounded by Laos and the Mekong River to the north and east and Cambodia to the south. This hardscrabble rural region is home to some of the poorest provinces in Thailand. Yet it’s culturally rich, renowned for fiery food, high-quality silk, jaunty mor lam music, and a heritage that’s closer attuned to neighboring Laos. In search of an authentic Isan experience, Bangkok-based photographer Christopher Wise and I turned to Secret Retreats, an Asia-wide collective of small independent properties that are rooted in their respective locales. In northeastern Thailand the group works with three privately owned resorts jointly billed as the Isan Boutique Collection, which can be booked independently or as a circuit. We’ve opted for the latter, committing ourselves to covering a fair amount of ground over the course of more than a week. The payoff? Homespun charm, delicious local cooking, and the sort of cultural insights that can only come from staying at intimate lodgings such as these.
“They’re escaping,” Phajongkitt Laorauvirodge laughs as I grab a struggling, determined turtle before it can clamber prematurely out of its plastic bucket. It’s late in the afternoon and we have come to a quiet bank of the Chi River with a group of saffronrobed monks and some of Phajongkitt’s close friends to release dozens of fish and turtles for merit. “I do this at least once a month,” she says, kneeling by the water and gently tipping a basin to allow several eels to swim out. Just an hour earlier they were splashing around in a wet market, destined to be steamed or stir-fried for hungry shoppers.
Phajongkitt is the owner of Supanniga Home, a boutique resort of just three villas outside the city of Khon Kaen, some 450 kilometers northeast of Bangkok. Each villa is individually styled, from antique Thai furniture and outdoor showers to a Jacuzzi pool in the largest one. The property takes its name from the trees with bright yellow flowers that adorn the six-and-a-half-hectare garden that Phajongkitt spent 20 years creating. “No one wanted this land,” she says as we sit in the
shade of a thick-trunked banyan tree. “So I started clearing it and planting as a hobby. But it soon became an almost nonstop hobby,” she adds with a laugh. “I don’t even know how many trees there are now. Certainly more than a hundred.”
The resort itself has spiritual roots—as the garden flourished, it became a Buddhist retreat on the suggestion of a visiting senior monk. This tradition continues with the property closing four times a year for eight consecutive days. Buddhism is an active part of Phajongkitt’s life; she usually dresses in white to reflect “the brightness and purity of the inner spirit.” Phajongkitt leads us to her meditation hall, where a glazed, seated Buddha greets us at the entrance. We sit cross-legged on the floor. “Listen to your breath to still your mind. This is the start of mindfulness for greater awareness.” Thoughts ricochet about in my head, but I keep returning to my breathing. After 20 minutes, I open my eyes, feeling calm.
Wandering around afterward, I find there is also something whimsical and eclectic about the place. There are monolithic stone tables, fish ponds, a three-story tree house that’s great for sundowners, and repurposed wood from bullock carts and barns. Geckos dart through the grass; the sound of chirping drifts over from bird’s nests in the trees. Pebbled paths lead past bougainvillea and heliconia that send bursts of color among the dense greenery of ferns and palms.
That night, we meet Samran Deesarapan, who has been preparing meals for Phajongkitt’s family for more than 20 years. His home recipes are simple, rustic and yet impart a complex mix of flavors: crispy pork salad with tamarind sauce, crab cakes, tom yum goong, grilled beef with jaew sauce.
After breakfast the next morning, Phajongkitt invites us for an ancient Chinese tea ceremony. It’s an elegant ritual in which she brews and pours pu’er into small clay cups. “Drink loudly while it’s still hot,” she says, while savoring hers with quick sips. “It’s good for your health. But also for mindfulness.” Preparing a second brew, she tells us to pour the cold tea over one of the nine dragon figurines on the table. I spill some over a turtle-shaped dragon, which signifies long life. Christopher pours it over the vision-dragon; a good choice for a photographer. The nine- and 11-year vintages both have a soft, musty flavor. But a cup of the oldest brew conjures a Proustian moment—a scent of barns, caves, mushrooms.
In the afternoon, we take an hour’s drive to Chonnabot, a small town in a district known for producing some of the highest-quality silk, including a kind called mudmee. Silk production here has been traced back to prehistoric times— buoyed by soil conditions ideal for growing the silkworms’ diet of mulberry bushes—and may even predate that of China. After observing women tie-dyeing yarns and working the looms in a small village, we visit Chin Thai Silk, a large store where we are greeted by owner Suramontri Srisomboon, a nationally recognized artisan known for his creativity in weaving mudmee with vegetable dyes. The selections are overwhelming— from silk jackets and dresses to walls of shelves stacked high with fabrics. Opening one of the fashion books on a table, I find several pictures of
Phajongkitt modeling dresses from the shop.
Back in Khon Kaen, we stop to admire the murals inside Wat Nong Waeng, a nine-story, pyramid-shaped temple beside Kaen Nakhon lake. At night the gilded temple is illuminated, partially by lights on its spire that Phajongkitt donated. “Giving is always better than taking,” she says. “How much you’ve given rather than what you own is the measure of your true worth.”
It has been a few tumbleweed-dry months, but as we drive through the countryside of neighboring Loei province I can easily imagine that during and after the rains from May to October, the valleys are flowered, the rice fields glistening green, and the rounded hills in super bloom. And as we continue to wind our way through the province, forests of towering evergreens and small streams silvery in the sunlight come into view. In Thai, loei means “beyond” or “to the furthest extreme.” It’s fitting. In a country where cultural heritage is often sacrificed to breakneck tourism development, this northernmost part of northeast Thailand has escaped the boom so far. The virtue of this has been an ability to preserve long-held customs and traditions.
Eventually we roll into Phunacome Resort, which sits in a sweet spot of the Dansai Valley near the Thai–Lao border. Spread over more than four hectares between densely wooded hills and fruit orchards are 16 contemporary Isan-style rooms and, across a
ON A PROMONTORY OVERLOOKING THE RIVER AND THE WOODED BANKS OF LAOS BEYOND, MEKONG VILLAS’ THREE THAI HOUSES ARE ENSCONCED IN THICK GREENERY
stream, four more traditional bungalows.
“This area means a lot to me. I connected to its beauty and natural variety right away,” says managing director Neeracha Wongmasa as we sit on a deck overlooking the infinity pool. The grounds here are planted with an eye-catching assortment of young trees: pine, Ivory Coast almond, pink cassia, cananga, Chinese rose, Siamese neem.
Smoke-free and eco-conscious, Phunacome has won several green awards since opening in 2010. The rooms are made of local materials and have low-energy lighting powered by solar panels. Outside, there’s a salt-treated pool and three large ponds for plant watering. Waste management and recycling are de rigueur. The gift shop supports local artisans, while guests and villagers are offered free courses in sustainable living.
That evening, in the open-air restaurant, Christopher and I enjoy a dinner of farm-to-table regional dishes that incorporate ingredients from Phunacome’s 7.7-hectare organic garden, with accents that are only found within 50 kilometers of Dansai. One such flavor, added to our serving of Isan’s ubiquitous som tam (spicy green papaya salad), is nam plaa sathorn: a vegan “fish sauce” made from fermented young sathorn leaves. Also on the menu is naam prik
phunacome, a medium-spicy dip of grilled green chilies, mushrooms, fish sauce, and tamarind. It’s served with a colorful plate of organic steamed vegetables—foraged young kale blossoms and stalks, bamboo shoots, baby gourds, mushrooms, eggplant, carrots, and long beans. And then there’s kai-pam, a Thai omelet featuring carrots, mushrooms, wild dill, and coriander that is first steamed in banana leaves then finished off on the grill, charring the leaves to impart an aromatic smokiness.
Early the next morning, I walk around the leaf-strewn pathways and discover several large, spirit-headed mannequins propped up in a gazebo. Driving through Loei city, I occasionally saw these freaky-faced figures with long noses and ghoulish grins in front of restaurants and shops, like scarecrows from another world. But Dansai, I learn, is the most ghost-haunted town, with its annual, three-day Phi Ta Khon celebrations in June. Also known as the Ghost Festival, its origins are rooted in a tale about Prince Vessantara—Buddha’s former incarnation—taking a long journey before attaining nirvana. Returning to his city, the response was so wild that it woke the dead. Today, young men dress in ragged robes and colorful masks with hats made from huat, the bamboo containers used to make sticky rice, but worn upside down. After breakfast, we head into town for a special meeting with the
jao por guan, Dansai’s spiritual leader. Consulted about ceremonies, festivals and weddings, he also acts as medium to the spirit world, giving blessings from ancestors and helping people make the right offerings. Wearing a white shirt, white headband, and plum-colored pants, and surrounded by trays of food offerings and letters from villagers, the medium explains how he was chosen. Now aged 67, he was a 39-year old farmer with a family when his father identified him, among his brothers, as the next spiritual leader.
We then visit Phra That Si Song Rak, a hilltop pagoda built in 1560 that gazes out over the Man River, once the border between the kingdoms of Ayutthaya and Lan Xang (a predecessor of modern Laos). It remains a symbol of mutual friendship between the Lao and Thai kings who were in alliance against an invading Burmese army. Because no blood was spilled between these two oncewarring kingdoms, red clothing or red flowers are not allowed here.
Back at Phunacome Resort, we walk past the ponds where sev- eral rescued water buffalo graze. There’s a fragrant smell of earth as dragonflies dart in the sunlight. Neeracha points to Phu Ang Rung, a mountain overlooking the resort. She joins annual hikes to the summit to pay respect to the “holy spirit” that safeguards the town. “Many of the mountains in this area have protecting spirits within them,” she says.
Here, even the mountains are alive.
The following morning, Christopher and I drive to Mekong Villas in Pak Chom, Loei’s northernmost district. It’s not that far. But on the winding two-lane road known as Highway 211, we often find ourselves behind lumbering trucks or slowed down by construction, making the journey longer. Not that I’m complaining. Much of the blacktop hugs the Mekong, which flows past slow and silent.
We’re not sure where the turn off is—Google’s GPS is vague in this remote area. Then we spot a roadside
sign, and a gravelly path time-machines us to Thailand some 30 years ago. On a promontory overlooking the river and the densely wooded banks of Laos beyond, three traditional Thai houses are ensconced in thick greenery. Except for the sound of birds in towering bamboo groves and rustling leaves in the hazy afternoon, it’s silent and serene—a place to reconnect with nature.
Mekong Villas sleeps up to a dozen people in six rooms. Interiors are rustic-chic and comfy, with local and Laotian pieces and furniture designed by Thai artist Somboon Hormthienthong. Two of the wooden villas were taken from Ayutthaya, Thailand’s former capital about 560 kilometers away, and rebuilt in their original detail. “It was fairly easy bringing them here,” says owner Narisa Chakrabongse. “Thai houses are based on a modular system of panels, which means that they aren’t difficult to dismantle and reassemble.” The third villa, with its log-cabin look, is secluded from the others. “This was designed by us using local materials and local builders,” Narisa adds. “It was done for my brother-in-law when he got married. I thought it was so romantic being able to walk there across a suspension bridge.”
We learn more about the property—and Narisa herself—on a hike up a nearby hill to catch the sunset. Half British, a quarter Thai, and a quarter Russian, Narisa grew up shuffled between schools in rural Cornwall, England, where she was born, and Bangkok, where her connection to the country is rooted in royalty, being a great-granddaughter of Thailand’s King Rama V (1868–1910). As we pass mango groves, banana trees, and thick clumps of bamboo, Narisa recalls the first time she came here. “I still remember the day. It was beautiful. Little kids had made a mud slide into the river. Birds were singing in bamboo groves. It was a picture of how Thailand was many years ago, a Thailand of my childhood.” When an overgrown plot of land—with a sweeping river view to boot—was put on the market, Narisa snapped it up and began building the re- treat. “Everyone thought I was crazy,” she says. But part of its charm, she adds, was the fact that there were no other Bangkokians in the area.
After about 30 minutes we reach the summit. A beautiful 360-degree view greets us. In the burnished light of a spreading sunset, the river below is smooth as a mirror and cottony clouds spill over the hump of hills around us. The air smells of the forest. That evening we enjoy a home-cooked candlelit dinner on one of the verandas. The food could not be fresher, having come from the market just that morning.
The next day brings us to Nong Khai, about 67 kilometers to the east. En route, the Mekong disappears behind towns with ramshackle wooden buildings, sprawling vegetable fields and rice paddies. Then, across the river, we see two new-looking, large hotels, the first sign of the Laotian capital, Vientiane. Once a sleepy border town, the opening of the Friendship Bridge in 1994 helped turn Nong Khai into one of the busiest commercial centers in Thailand’s northeast.
Lunch awaits at riverside Daeng Namnuang, a large outdoor Vietnamese restaurant that Narisa has been coming to for years. Between rows of tables, staff bustle about balancing large trays of food. We order the popular nem nuong, a set of spring rolls, barbecued sausages, fresh green veg- etables and herbs, rice vermicelli, peanuts, chili sauces, and a stack of tissue-thin rice paper in which to wrap all the different ingredients. It may not be Isan fare, but it is delicious.
We’re back at the villas by late afternoon, which Narisa says is when she often likes to kayak upstream and let the river current do the rest of the work. For us, however, she suggests something else: dinner in nearby Chiang Khan, whose main attractions are a four-kilometer esplanade along the south bank of the Mekong and a busy walking street of century-old teakwood shophouses. We arrive in time to catch the river reflecting a line of fire-colored light from a blood-orange sun, as a flock of starlings crosses a sky painted magenta, yellow, and blue. Wandering back to a funky café amid the shophouses, Christopher and I plop down in plastic chairs and order sticky rice, som tam, yam
nuea yang (spicy grilled beef salad), grilled fish, and a couple of tall bottles of Beer Lao.
The next morning, just as the sun is rising, we finally go kayaking. There’s a nice chill to the air and the water appears calm and glassy. Still, small whirlpools and some swift undercurrents make navigating trickier than it looks, and paddling around a grass-tufted island I manage to steer us into a submerged rock. We back-paddle and stop in the middle of the river, letting the kayak drift in the wakening light.
Amid the slow rhythms of rural Isan, there are also unexpectedly clamorous moments. On our last night, as we finish our dinner on the veranda in the light of a full moon, we hear what sounds like a thousand firecrackers going off at once. From the other side of the villa, I can see a huge hill ablaze across the river—the result of slash-and-burn farming. The earsplitting barrage of noise is actually bamboo exploding in the flames.
We watch the conflagration and its eerie orange glow reflected on the Mekong. It’s almost as though someone has staged a pyrotechnics show to mark the end of our visit. Some staff join us. Above, the moon continues to climb into the starry night sky. It’s an unforgettable sight, and one that I know will remain with me long after I leave this remarkable corner of Thailand.
Above, from left: Wat Nong Waeng in Khon Kaen; a stand of bamboo on the grounds of Mekong Villas. Opposite, clockwise from
top left: Inside the meditation room at Supanniga Home; the spiritual leader of Dansai, a town near Phunacome Resort; gardenfresh vegetables at Supanniga Home; the bedroom of the same resort’s Banyan Villa.
Above: Poolside at Phunacome Resort. Right: A Phi Ta Khon “ghost” festival sculpture in the Dansai Valley. Opposite, from top: Prawn curry at Supanniga Home; Narisa Chakrabongse, owner of Mekong Villas.