sign in a cave in Laos

26 October 2008

Isaan area, Thailand - Star

Lifestyle > Features

Saturday February 12, 2005
Life in Isaan
Story & Pictures By Liz Price

THE village street consisted of about 10 houses, and yet there was a hive of activity about the place. Women were going about their daily chores, which included making handicrafts. Animals lazed around.

The men were conspicuous by their absence. Obviously, they were taking time off, leaving the womenfolk to do all the work. Maybe they were working in the fields, although from what we had seen earlier, it seemed to be mostly women who were planting padi 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, Thailand. Isaan is a general term for north-eastern Thailand, from the Sanskrit name for the medieval kingdom “Isana”, which encompassed parts of Cambodia and north-eastern Thailand. The area is less developed than the rest of Thailand and has comparatively fewer tourists. There are many archaeological sites scattered around the 18 provinces which form the region, famous for its silk and cotton.

Among the work women do here is spin cotton.

The best silk in Thailand is said to come from the north-east, especially around Khon Kaen, Khorat and Roi Et. There are several silk-weaving towns and the finished products are cheaper than in other parts of Thailand. As we travelled round some of the villages in the rural area, we stopped at one small village where we could watch the whole 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 they still harvest silk 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 plastic string used so commonly in Malaysia and Thailand. I imagined this would give a rough feel to the finished product.

There are actually two methods: tie-dye, and 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 was still full from breakfast but I had to be polite and sample the offering. I enjoy trying the rice packets in Thailand as you never know what you’ll find inside – sometimes it’s sweet, and sometimes savoury . . . so it’s a pot luck affair.

Open stalls selling desserts.

We wandered down to the nearby river and it was quite busy with traffic, mostly of the non-vehicular kind. White ducks were paddling quite hard in an effort not to get swept downstream. The river was swollen from the previous night’s rain, and the water was brown, darker than kopi tarik. I wondered how the ducks stayed white.

Ladies were crossing the river with empty baskets on their way to the fields. Then a man came to the water’s edge with a small herd of cows. At first the cows looked reluctant to enter the water. They obviously knew it was deeper than usual, and were unsure of their footing. The one leading 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 onboard. The tractors in these parts consist of a wooden platform which forms the trailer body, and then 2m-3m 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. Luckily, the Isaan have good food, the specialities being chicken and sausage. In fact, Isaan food is known for its pungency and choice of ingredients. We stopped at a series of roadside stalls, which were all selling spicy chicken. The chicken pieces were 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 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 – simple, but delicious.

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 hits the palate, it is a shock to the system and makes the mouth tingle. But soon you warm up to it and tuck in.

That afternoon we found ourselves driving along the Wang Saphung to Udon Thani road. My guidebook mentioned a famous cave, and as it was only 2km off the road, we decided to have a look. There are signboards at the turn-off, but in fact you can clearly see the cave from several kilometres away. A large seated Buddha is at the entrance, which is high up the cliff face. Tham Erawan is one of the most famous caves in this area.

It is located by a wat (temple) of the same name. Having seen how high up the cliff the cave was, my two friends decided to stay in the car, leaving me to tackle the steps alone. Of course there was no mention of how many steps there were. The signboard only told of the legend of the lady with scented hair.

I began the climb and found that the flights of steps were interspersed with gentle slopes. As the trail wound around, it was impossible to see how much further I had to go as the cave was hidden from view. After much huffing and puffing I was relieved to reach the entrance with the huge sitting Buddha. Buddha gazes out over the plains and across to the other limestone hills in the distance.

The men here seem to take things easy, while the women do all the work.

The cave is huge, and there is an enormous chamber which slopes downwards. Luckily there was some electric lighting as I had stupidly left my torch in the car. There were a few very large stalagmites, and the roof was some 30m above my head. It was worth the effort of the climb as the cave size was so impressive. I wondered how many foreign tourists come here? Not many I imagine.

After we left the cave, we drove through very heavy rain, almost monsoon-like. Once the rain stopped, we were treated to a spectacular sight of a double rainbow. We thought this was wonderful. Later we were able to see the entire arch of one of the rainbows. We stopped the car and took many photos, but we were too near to get the whole arch in the viewfinder. It was quite a spectacular end to our day in Isaan country.

Getting there

MAS and AirAsia fly to Bangkok. Within Thailand, there are lowcost domestic airlines flying to Khon Kaen, Udon Thani and Nong Khai. Buses and trains also serve these towns, departing from Bangkok. Khon Kaen is considered the “gateway”.

Driving is easy, as signboards are in English. The highways are also good.

The north-east is one of the drier places in Thailand, and the dry months are from Dec-May.

Compared to the rest of Thailand, the pace of life here is slower. People are friendlier in the Isaan provinces and although few speak English, travelling is easy.

Accommodation is easily available, from budget to top-end in the larger towns.

© Liz Price
No reproduction without permission

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