By Megan Leon
Oct 7, 2022
YOU’D BE FORGIVEN if you’ve never heard of a little slice of northeastern Thailand called Udon Thani. But perhaps you’ve heard the hypnotic rhythms of Morlam music or tasted its fiery, fermented food. This is our definitive travel guide for the Isaan region: home to some of Thailand’s best historic sites, national parks and, as every foodie in-the-know knows, cuisine.
FORAGING WITH CHEF NUM
“I’VE BEEN COMING TO to this forest for years, even spent nights after long, treacherous hikes,” chef Weerawat ‘Num’ Triyasenawat tells me while we are deep in the woods in northeast Thailand. “I treasure it because it’s a personal connection with the food I eat and what I want to share with others.”
Num is owner and head chef of Udon Thani’s Samuay and Sons restaurant, which has garnered acclaim from diners and chefs around the world who travel to this corner of northeastern Thailand for not only his “New Isaan” style of dining, but also for his tireless advocacy of the region’s distinctive culture and ingredients. He is on the 50 Best Discovery list, and is a strong contender for a star when Michelin expands throughout Thailand later this year. I’d long been a fan of his and made it to many of his pop-ups in Bangkok, which made me want to learn more about the agricultural hub from which he hails. So, happily, Num agrees to take me on one of his foraging trips and, before I know it, I’m in his 4×4 on the way to the mountains of Sakhon Nakhon.
His love of nature radiates from him as we make our way through the jagged trail, but it’s his knowledge of the ingredients we find along the way that astounds me. Vibrant pink Torch Ginger flowers peek out through the forestry where Num cuts a few to use in fresh salads. Pak wan, a favorite wild leaf in Thai cuisine, grows abundantly in Isaan so we grab as much as we can throughout the trek that will later be used in a soup and stir-fry. Preservation, knowledge and community relationships are the fundamentals of Num’s ethics and I realize this is why I have gravitated so much to his work. I love getting the chance to meet the people he is so proud to work with. There is a predominant Lao influence in Isaan cuisine due to its location and though the food here is known to be very hot and intense in taste, you will also encounter a lot of fermentation such as in the holy grail of Isaan food, pla ra, as well as the raw proteins and anything goes ingredients from wild herbs to creatures like frogs and seasonal red-ant eggs all meant to be eaten with heaps of sticky rice by hand.
“Currently we work with a farm in Khon Kaen called Wor Tha Wee Farm, which operates on a bio-dynamic system,” he tells me. They supply Num with grass-fed beef that has been raised in the mountains for nearly four years–a relationship that exemplifies his desire to put small-scale farmers at the forefront. His strong connections with the community extend throughout the province where he is known on a first name basis everywhere he turns. He is also turning to the younger generation of artists to showcase Isaan culture, such as unique ceramics by Noir Row Art Space. “We want to make very interesting scenes in our town,” he explains.
The fruits of his labor aren’t just for the local community but also for his fine-casual restaurant where he presents Isaan cuisine in a more contemporary way without requiring himself to hew entirely to authenticity. “We all have our own interpretation of what’s authentic,” he explains. “I’m happy when I see Thai cooks getting back to their roots and bringing pride in their own cuisine and it doesn’t matter which way you do it because once you get back to your roots, it automatically links you to local ingredients.”
Dinner here is a far cry from your traditional shophouse and nods in many directions like in the purple-tinted tortilla made from jackfruit seeds that is so perfectly pliable and tender, I can’t believe it isn’t corn. There are scattered Nordic touches and a long list of fermented goodness, but every ingredient is 100 percent Thai. “This is what we call, ‘New Isaan,’” Num proclaims.
Locavore to the heart, his obsession with the diversity of Thai food recently led him to expand his restaurant with a space dedicated to researching, testing and discovering the possibilities of Thai ingredients. Mahnoi Food Lab, co-run by Canadian chef Curtis Shetland, is further helping to change the game for Isaan fare. With his contemporary approach and unwavering passion, Num is like an unofficial ambassador for the people and culture of Isaan, easily comparable to the likes of Magnus Nilsson of Faviken or fellow forager Rene Redzdepi.
Udon Thani might not have the glitz or glam of Bangkok but it’s real and honest, something that settles quite well with me. The people here are welcoming, perhaps a touch shy from the language barrier, but visiting truly is an eye opener and any aspiring chefs or travelers would be remiss not to pay a visit and discover the culinary road less traveled. Before the stars start shining in northeastern Thailand, that is.
www.instagram.com/samuayandsons; tasting menu Bt 2,600.
EXPLAINER: MORLAM MUSIC
For Isaan people, music plays a big role, especially in the form of Morlam, a type of rural folk music that has been around since at least before the 19th century. Rich in sound and history, morlam originated in Lao villages along the Mekong River before making its way to neighboring Isaan territory. Local lore has it that the roots of this genre stem from Lao hilltribes folk-storytelling in addition to indigenous traditions from Buddhist Monks.
Morlam in Thai roughly translates to “expert song” or “skilled singer.” Traditional morlam, known as lam puen, only consists of a singer and the player of the khaen, a free reed organ made from bamboo that is played vertically and provides the polyphonic base for the singer who tells the stories ranging from Buddhist literature or local village tales. Songs also touch on the challenges of life in rural Isaan and Laos and, more often than not, unrequited love.
The melodic sounds have transformed and progressed rapidly, starting in the 1960s and 70s when American GI’s were stationed in several military bases around Isaan bringing with them foreign tunes of rock, soul, and psychedelic sounds. Then another major shift happened in the 90s with a flashier, faster sound called lam sing, adding more performers and more instruments like the phin, a pear-shaped lute with three strings, and ching, small bells resembling cymbals.
Morlam is more than just music for Isaan people; it is an expression of their life, history and a special way to identify with their hometowns. It became so popular and intrinsically linked that Khaen Music was officially inscribed in UNESCO 2017 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It’s also a raucous, total delight for anyone to listen to, whether or not you understand the words–the language of morlam music is universal.
WHAT TO DO, EAT AND DRINK IN ISAAN: 6 ESSENTIAL EXPERIENCES
With the spotlight always on those famous islands, northeast Thailand often goes unnoticed, but this major agricultural hub has much to offer by way of heart-capturing sights, flavors and sounds. Isaan includes 20 provinces you could travel around, has approximately three different dialects, and boasts a spicy food repertoire not for the faint-hearted. Rich in biodiversity, prehistoric art and perfectly preserved national parks, this vibrant region is just beckoning you to get off the beaten track.
1. Red Lotus Lake
About 40 kilometers from Udon Thani is the quiet town of Nong Han where you’ll find yourself enchanted by Talay Bua Daeng aka The Red Lotus Lake. Natural, flowing carpets of what are actually, contrary to the name, pink water lilies, have created a special tourist attraction not only for foreigners but also locals as the lake is a significant water source for the region’s people and wildlife and carries with it an ancient folk story of tragic love and serpents (not to worry, none of the latter are found here). The best time of year for flowers in full bloom is over the cooler months from November to March; go from 6 to 11 a.m. before it becomes too hot. Viewing this magical sight from the shoreline is impossible, so rent a pontoon or covered longtail for optimal immersion and incredible pictures.
2. Phu Chong Nayoi Park
You’ve heard of the Golden Triangle in far northern Thailand, but do you know about the “Emerald” Triangle in the east? It is the junction where Thailand, Laos and Cambodia meet and the cliffs of Phu Chong Nai Yoi National Park offer the best viewpoint to take in the majestic views. Located in the Ubon Ratchathani province, the park occupies 687 square kilometers filled with hiking trails, lakes and lush greenery–making it one of the most preserved jungles in Thailand. The must-see is the Namtok Huai Luang, a stunning waterfall set over a 40-meter cliff that pours down into a turquoise-tinted pool perfect for a midday swim. If you keep following the trail, you’ll also discover a group of springs at Bo Nam Sap.
3. The world of som tum
No visit to Thailand is complete without hearing the clinks of the clay mortar and pestle pounding som tum (papaya salad) into existence. It was even named one of the “World’s 50 Best Foods” by CNN Travel in 2018, but what most people don’t know is that in Isaan, som tum doesn’t always involve the unripened fruit. With “som” meaning sour and “tum” meaning pounding, the choices are endless. Throw in origins from neighboring countries and the famous salad takes a different turn, such as tum pah, in which fermented fish is key among a medley of local vegetables and mud crabs that can be salty, funky and extremely spicy. Tum Sua is prepared with fermented rice vermicelli (kanom jeen) and just a touch of papaya for texture then pounded with a dressing made with pla ra (fermented fish). Try: Tum Katoei or Jai Jai.
4. National Museum of Ban Chiang
A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992, the National Museum of Ban Chiang houses what is believed to be the oldest pottery in the world, dating back some 5,000 to 7,000 years, and is considered as one of the most important prehistoric sites discovered in Southeast Asia. Located in the Nong Han district of Udon Thani, the museum is worth the visit whether you’re a history buff or not with exhibits including excavated pottery decorated with a unique red pattern known now as the “Ban Chiang Rope,” which appears in different styles from spiral, wavy and geometric designs where a variety of techniques like scratching, carving and painting were used. Also in the collection is a traveling exhibit, “Discovery of a Lost Bronze Age,” boasting recovered objects like bracelets, spearheads, axes and adzes.
thailandtourismdirectory.go.th/en/attraction/1253 ; open Weds-Sun 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
5. Ban Non Kok Weaving Factory
Did you know northeast Thailand is known to have a silk route of its own? Ban Non Kok stands out for their unique cotton and silk woven on an ancient loom and dyed with color from red lotus petals. Travel to this village to learn how the fabric is made and dyed using different techniques with the lotus petals connecting you further to the livelihoods of the Isaan people. Then try not to buy all the beautiful goodness.
thailandtourismdirectory.go.th/en/attraction/22605; open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
6. Isaan Rum Distillery
Drinking rum in the middle of Isaan is a thing and for that we can thank the ever so passionate Frenchman, David Giallorenzo, who has created a distillery in the heart of Nong Khai where rice and sugarcane grows abundantly. Small tours and tastings are a great way to discover these local spirits, which you can find at some Bangkok’s best bars and restaurants if you’re paying attention. The harvest takes place from November to March making it the ideal time to pay them a visit to sample the different varieties.
firstname.lastname@example.org; Nong Khai open 10 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.
Off the beaten track as it is, you won’t find the usual big brands in Udon Thai, and until recently your best bet for a bed would’ve been an upscale homestay. But now, you can settle down after a day of exploring at the beautifully designed Hotel Moco. Centrally located and only two kilometers from the airport, the hotel offers a sweet escape with a touch of finesse behind its colonial architectural facade, similar to the buildings during the reign of King Rama V and VI. Grab a drink at the swanky bar or relax in one of the modern and spacious rooms fitted with Isaan decor and colors reflecting the cultural identity of the city.
hotelmoco.com; deluxe rooms from Bt2,900.