Thailand’s Northeast, Part 1: Vientiane to Udon Thani

There’s no beach. Very few bars. Foreigners are few and far between, and the locals barely speak English. The cities are big and noisy. In a lot of ways, Thailand’s northeastern region known as Isaan is the “real” Thailand, without makeup and fancy costumes.

We loved it. Of course.

Jogging by the Lake

Thailand’s poorest region still shocked us with modernity as we stepped off the bus from Laos. Bertrand, a French veterinarian who works for ElefantAsia in Laos, described riding up the road alongside the Mekong on his way north. “You’re riding along a dirt road, and on the Thai side of the river, you see fancy SUVs going by on asphalt. It’s as unreal as a car commercial.”

Udon Thani’s friendliness surprised us next. Everywhere we walked, people smiled at us simply, eager to say hello. After the long walk to our guesthouse, we knew we were somewhere special, a Thai city where foreigners rarely ventured. One tuk-tuk driver saw us walk out of the train station one afternoon. “Welcome to Thailand!” he exclaimed with a grin. Oh, we felt welcomed alright!

Although the center of Udon Thani features the usual farang trappings of bars and foreign restaurants catering to retired expats, we found the heart of Udon in the west, near its large reservoir. In the evenings, Udon Thani residents gather there for open-air aerobics, or to jog or bike around the lake. In a superb show of business-savvy, massage stalls have popped up on the southeastern side of the artificial lake, catering to those who need a break after their run. Then, further north, a series of street stalls offer everything from fresh juices to Thai hot pot. The Thais enjoying the area seemed full of positive energy. Just strolling down the path, we felt buoyed by their spirits.

Forget Bacon!

Isaan offers a cuisine that is both Thai and Lao at once. Although Laos and Thailand share a lot of common history, the two countries have evolved separately in modern times: while Thailand prospered under the influx of foreign investment and tourism, Laos only recently emerged from its isolation, in a bid to escape crippling poverty.

Truth be told, it was easier to experience the food shared by Isaan and Laos here than in Vientiane, given that the Thais have the means to eat out, which is unfortunately not true of a majority of Lao. Street stalls and tiny restaurants thrive in Udon Thani, and you can even share the company of Thais when you sit down on a terrace for a laap (spicy meat salad) and a drink.

The most memorable item in Isaan’s food repertoire has to be its pork sausage, spicy, fat and slightly fermented, cooked right on the street. One will set you back 20B (65 cents US), and comes with fresh chili peppers, cabbage, and sometimes pickled ginger or raw garlic. You try the sausage, savoring the juicy pork, then bite on the chili, garlic or ginger to kick it up a notch. Too intense? Chew on some cabbage to cool down. This is the real, decadent expression of pork’s goodness.

Forget bacon!

Fusion Food

With one morning to go, Helene and I headed out early to the side of the reservoir, for one more Udon Thani specialty: kai khata.

Meaning literally “oeuf au plat”, the dish consists of an egg cooked in a small pan sunny side up, and sprinkled with a generous helping of Isaan sausage. A typical Thai dish, it incorporates influences from the French by way of Vietnamese immigrants to the region, and is best enjoyed with Vietnamese-style baguette, cooked on coals.

In other words, a true fusion dish, and not a five-star chef in sight.

We ate our breakfast merrily, enjoying the sun, and sipping our sweet Thai coffees, bidding farewell to the denizens of Udon Thani. It was time to board the local train to Khon Kaen.

Where to Go

The town of Udon Thani is conveniently located on the Bangkok-Nong Khai train line, and makes a pleasant stop on a trip from Bangkok to Vientiane. The train station is central, and a number of songthaews travel through the city, a ride costing 8-10B.

The reservoir is located west of the city center, and can be reached via songthaew. There’s a number of open-air restaurants on the northeastern side of the reservoir. Evening massage stalls and street stalls are found on the southeastern side. Early in the morning, these stalls disappear in favor of a few kai khata stalls.

The Backpack Foodie’s travel through Isaan continues in Thailand’s Northeast,Part 2: Udon Thani to Khorat

About Daniel Roy

Daniel is a writer, backpack foodie, slow traveler, and endurance runner. He is the author of the upcoming book, "The Way of Slow Travel: A Hands-On Guide to the Best Travel of Your Life."

4 comments

  1. Food sounds fantastic!! I just realized you weren’t on my blog roll so I added you. I thought I did that a while ago – oops! Keep up the great mouthwatering posts. đŸ™‚ – Beth

  2. Hi Beth! Thanks for the inclusion in the blogroll! Makes me realize I ought to have one… You guys would definitely be on it!

  3. analabouthistory

    Sorry to be a bit pedantic about history but i am sure you would anger almost all of the Lao/Issan and Khmer populations with what you have said above.

    Would be hard pressed to say that Laos and Cambodia were part of thailand till France pried them away! The different kingdoms that compromise present day Laos were always independent of Auyuthya and Sukothai (precursors of what they call Thailand today). Actually, the kingdom of ViengChan and Lan Xan (Luang Prabang) held most of Issan. It was only in the 1700 and 1800s that Thailand took them away from Laos. Remember also the great khmer kingdomes were never under control of any small Thai kingdom at that time…

    Before the french and western colonialists came there were only city states which vied for power and influence in the region. To say any country existed at that time would be nonsense and even more so to say that any of the cultures dominated over the others for any too long of a period…

    Besides that, you have a great website and keep up the excellent work!

  4. Hi,

    I certainly meant no insult. I should have specifically mentioned Siam, as it’s my understanding that much of modern-day Laos was annexed by Siam prior to the French snatching the territories.

    Anyway, thank you for the clarification! I’ve altered the wording of the post, as this didn’t bring much to my main point. I appreciate the comment!

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