Going to Isaan

Words by Katy Anne, Photos by Ilana Freddye

Looking for a coffee shop this morning, I went too far and ran into the river right on the northern border of Brooklyn, a short canal that separates it from Queens. I could smell the dirty water flowing, sewage and fish. I looked out at the graffitied walls and battered boats and crowded grey buildings, and for a minute it didn't feel that different from Thailand. I could picture turning around to a street full of food carts just waking up, woks warming, men pushing pallets of half-hatched eggs and plastic straws. 

A lot of Thailand was largely like New York - overgrown grey cities with garbage on the street and a hodgepodge of struggling small businesses. It's also largely multicultural at this point, at least on the beaten path - there's towns where there's more white folk than Thai people, more bruschetta than noodles. 

After a couple days in Pai, we were growing tired of all the tourists and craving a more "authentic" experience. We'd fallen hard for the Isaan-style food in Chiang Mai and we heard that the region is largely untouched by Westerners. So we spontaneously booked a bus to Udon Thani, one of the four major cities in Isaan. 

I pictured Isaan as green and lush, small villages dotted with grilled chicken restaurants and free-roaming birds behind them. But then we got off the bus, at 530am, into an awkwardly-placed shopping mall in the center of town. No one spoke much English and we were the only tourists, the only Westerners besides the groups of older white men looking for Thai wives. There weren't so many coffee shops and food carts as there were storefronts packed with cheap plastic commodities and stacks of newborn baby chicks. Piles of cabbage skins and used plastic bags. Fish butchered on newspaper. They butcher the fish and then they walk away and never clean the guts from the ground. The pigeons feed on it. Everything smelled like fish stomach and pigeon shit. It was the first time I felt the American in me calling out for something sanitized: some fresh vegetables, black coffee, a piece of seedy bread. I felt like a fraud, desperate to get off the beaten path and then bummed to see it didn't fit my expectations. It must be the feeling of going to America for the first time and finding yourself in an industrial part of Cincinnati - so this is it?  

We left without staying the night and took a bus down to Khon Kaen, the province right below Udon Thani. It was a similarly small city but more colorful and much more alive. We rented tiny, squeaky bikes from the hostel and rode around the local markets. The stench of pla ra, Isaan's famous fermented fish saucewas everywhere, and the streets were filled with large bowls of salted fish in different stages of fermentation. Live eels and turtles, shrimp pastes, air-dried fish skeletons. 

There's a heavy Vietnamese influence there so we sampled a few restaurants for breakfast, and had bread (!!) for the first time in weeks. And then we found what we'd really been looking for - a kai yaang (grilled chicken) restaurant on the outskirts of Khon Kaen. The food was similar to what we had in Chiang Mai, but a lot funkier and fiery. The birds were spatchcocked, coal-roasted, and topped with crispy lemongrass and garlic. They were active, you could taste it, and had barely any breasts.

We fell in love with it all over again, dipping succulent pieces of meat into chili sauce and wiping our hands with piles of one-ply napkins. The papaya salad was distinctly different - darker, saucier, and super funky. Fried tilapia with succulent fried garlic. Bowls of cabbage and herbs we'd never heard of, limes, and shaved cucumbers. No one at the restaurant spoke a word of English. It's the first time we were truly lost in translation. A lot of Google translate, back and forth, bowing, and awkwardly laughing. 


We left for Bangkok (to fly down to Phuket) right as it started monsoon raining. The streets were filled with water in under 20 minutes. Our cab driver took us far out of the way to a grocery store near some train tracks. We argued in what was probably a hilarious back and forth - us showing him the map, him shaking his head, us saying in English, "no the TRAIN STATION," him yelling back, "yes you idiot, this IS the train station" in Thai. The meter kept running. Finally he found a British man in the parking lot who was able to explain to us that the train station in town was closed.

To get to the train, he started to explain, you walk through a half-open gate out of the grocery store parking lot, tip toe over a couple slabs of concrete, through a moat of red mud and rain water, and across two live tracks to the waiting area. When we finally made it across, feeling like we'd just finished Legend of the Hidden Temple, a man yelled from a window, "Hello! My friend! Mango?" and handed us a bowl of unripe mango. We graciously accepted. We had 5 hours to kill before the train.