The Allure of Thailand’s Isan

Amid this huge swath of rural Thailand, three small resorts 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.

The riverfront at Mekong Villas. All photos in this article are by Christopher Wise. Featured photo is courtesy of Mekong Villas.

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 saffron-robed 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.

A young staffer at Suppaniga Home holding one of the resort’s namesake flowers.

Phajongkitt is the owner of Supanniga Home, a boutique resort of just three villas outside the city of Khon Kaen, some 450 kilo-meters 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.

Wat Nong Waeng in Khon Kaen

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.

A stand of bamboo on the grounds of Mekong Villas

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.

Inside the meditation room of Supanniga Home

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.

The spiritual leader of Dansai, a town near Phunacome Resort

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 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.

Garden fresh vegetables at Phunacome Resort

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.

Poolside at Phunacome Resort

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