THE SE­CRET SOUL OF ISAN

DestinAsian - - FEATURES - By Paul Ehrlich

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.

Mekong Vil­las.

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