sign in a cave in Laos

26 October 2008

Isaan area, NE Thailand - BT

Published on The Brunei Times (
Venturing into the heart of Northeastern Thailand

Isaan country: A woman weaving silk. Picture: BT/Liz Price

Liz Price

Sunday, October 26, 2008

THE village street consisted of about 10 houses and yet there was a hive of activity quietly taking place. Women were going about their daily chores, some were making handicrafts. Animals lazed around. The men were conspicuous by their absence. Maybe they were working in the fields although from what we had seen earlier, it seemed to be mostly women who were planting rice and attending to the corn. The men were sitting on the tractors watching!

This area of Khon Kaen is in the heart of Isaan country. Isaan is a general term for northeastern Thailand, from the Sanskrit name for the medieval kingdom Isana, which encompassed parts of Cambodia and northeastern Thailand. The area is less developed than the rest of Thailand and has comparatively few tourists. There are many archaeological sites scattered around the 18 provinces which form this region, which is also famous for its silk and cotton.

The best silk in Thailand is said to come from the northeast. There are several silk weaving towns and the finished products are cheaper than in other parts of Thailand. Many of the rural villages have cottage industries and we stopped at one to watch the weaving process.

One lady was spinning the cotton, teasing out the knotty strands and winding them neatly onto a large spool. Although the cotton is still grown locally, and silk still harvested from the silkworm cocoons, much of the materials used nowadays are bought from the town of Loei. Other ladies were weaving the yarn on looms. The white cotton thread was wound around the large framework of the loom, and coloured yarn was woven in according to the pattern. It was a laborious process requiring much patience and concentration. I was surprised to see one lady using green string to form the pattern of her material. This looked like the normal plastic string used so commonly in Asia and I imagined this would give a rough feel to the finished product.

There are actually two methods, one is the tie-dye, and the other is ikat in which the cotton is tie-dyed before the weaving. Many of the ladies wear the traditional skirts and blouses as part of their everyday attire. It reminded me of the Indonesian ikat. Most common is the geometric, diamond-grid pattern. Some women were laying out chillies to dry in the sun; others were attending to the livestock which were relaxing under the stilted houses. It was all very peaceful. The children were obviously at school as there were none to be seen.

One villager came out with some sticky rice wrapped in leaves for us to try. I enjoy trying the rice packets in Thailand as you never know what will be inside, sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is savoury, so it's a pot luck affair. We wandered down to the nearby river and it was quite busy with traffic, mostly of the non-vehicular kind.

White ducks were swimming, paddling quite hard in an effort not to get swept downstream. The river was swollen from rain, and the water was brown, so I wondered how the ducks stayed white; I imagined the muddy water would stain them!

Ladies were crossing the river with empty baskets on their way to the fields. A man came to the water's edge with a small herd of cows. At first the cows looked dubious about entering the water, they obviously knew it was deeper than usual, and were unsure of their footing.

The lead one was persuaded into the swirling water and the rest followed suit. They looked quite comical swimming diagonally against the current. Next to entertain us was a tractor with a few workers aboard. The tractors in this part of Thailand consist of a wooden platform which forms the trailer body, and two to three metres long handles lead to the tractor with the engine. It reminded me of the long tailed boats so commonly seen in Thailand. We were in the heart of farming country.

By now it was time for lunch. The Isaan culture has good food, known for its pungency and choice of ingredients, the specialities being chicken and sausage. We stopped at a series of roadside stalls, which were all selling spicy chicken. The chicken pieces are flattened and stuck onto bamboo skewers and grilled by the roadside. One enterprising lady had some skewered pieces of chicken and was standing at the roadside waving her wares to entice passing motorists. It worked, because we stopped. The chicken looked no different from the chicken sold at street stalls all over Thailand, but the taste was good. We ate it with glutinous rice and chilli sauce as an accompaniment.

Later that day we tried the som-tam, a spicy salad made with grated papaya, lime juice, garlic, fish sauce and fresh chillies. As the combination of tastes hit the palate, it is a bit of a shock and makes the mouth tingle, but soon you realise how delicious it is. That afternoon we stopped at Tham Erawan, a famous cave off the Wang Saphung to Udon Thani road.

You can clearly see the cave from several kilometres away. A large seated Buddha sits in the entrance, which is high up the cliff face. Tham Erawan is one of the most famous caves in this area.

About 600 steps lead up to the cave. After much huffing and puffing I reached the entrance with the huge sitting Buddha which gazes out over the plains and across to the other limestone hills in the distance. The cave is huge, there were a few very large stalagmites, and the roof was some 40m above my head.

Luckily there was some electric lighting as I had stupidly left my torch in the car. It was worth the effort of the climb as the cave size was so impressive.

After we left the cave there was monsoon rain and we were treated to a spectacular sight of a double rainbow.

There were two rainbows, side by side. It was quite a spectacular end to our day in Isaan country.

The Brunei Times


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