By Ellen Clark
No stranger to Thailand, I've hung out on white sand beaches, shopped in glitzy malls, visited elaborate temples, had Thai massages, stayed in luxurious — and not so luxurious — hotels, ridden an elephant and even visited a theme park where Thai cowboys did rope tricks, but I had not a clue about the northeastern part of the country.
Known as Isan, it has often been written off by tourists as being nothing but farmland, but northeastern Thailand is beginning to come into its own. This still relatively "undiscovered" region offers a side of Thailand that is relaxed and unique. Fabric production is big here. You can watch workers spin raw silk off cocoons, weave the silk threads into beautiful fabrics and buy one-of-a-kind outfits right from the designer's studio. You can try your hand at indigo tie-dyeing, take a tour of a farm specializing in producing black farm animals, visit a 4,000-year-old UNESCO World Heritage excavation site, walk on a bridge over the Mekong River halfway to Laos, eat at a classy restaurant featuring fine wines and live jazz, stay in a new and simply elegant hotel overlooking a lotus-filled lake and the list goes on.
So where to start? Since this is an agricultural area, how about a place that is working on soil revitalizing methods and breeding black farm animals? Now that's what I call an unlikely combination.
The Phu Phan Royal Development Study Center is located in Sakon Nakhon in the middle of miles of farmland. Established in 1982, the center was created to introduce development methods that would improve living standards for the local farmers. But over the years the center has branched out. Besides developing conservation methods that will regenerate and improve the soil, they now make sweet-smelling and medicinal compresses filled with their homegrown herbs and breed black farm animals. We walked around the facility and were introduced to cows, pigs and chickens that were all black. They were fun to see, especially the piglets, but I'm still not exactly clear as to what the benefit of a black farm animal is.
After lunch at, appropriately, a local steakhouse, it was off to check out how the famous Thai silk is made at Queen Sirikit Sericulture Center. One of Thailand's beloved queen's pet projects is to make sure that Thai silk remains part of the country's cultural heritage. At the center the ancient art of silk production is done from start to finish. Mulberry trees are cultivated to produce the hundreds of silkworms that give their lives to produce the silk thread. Once the thread is spun it is dyed and then woven into beautiful pieces of silk on hand-operated looms.
Continuing with the fabric theme, it was off to Kram Sakon to participate in an indigo dying workshop. After choosing a T-shirt for my dying project I was shown how to produce patterns using chopsticks, wooden clothespins and rubber bands. I can't say I had much of a clue as to what the finished product was going to look like, but I pressed on anyway.
With my "design" in place I was outfitted with a rubber apron and elbow-length rubber gloves and plopped down in front of a vat full of inky black indigo dye. After a fair amount of squeezing and sloshing, as instructed, my T-shirt was washed and laid out to dry. Frankly I was amazed at how well it turned out.
For those who want to engage in a little retail therapy, this is an area where you can buy one-of-a-kind handmade items right from the designer's studio. This means bargain-hunters cut out the middleman.
Nisachon is a center that preserves ancient weaving techniques and traditional methods of dyeing cloth to make comfortable clothes that are attractive and easy to care for. Founder Mrs. Nisachon learned about traditional Thai fabrics and techniques from her mother, and she is now passing on this knowledge to her daughter. At her center there are weaving demonstrations and a shop that features finished outfits using her handmade and hand-dyed material.
Located in Nong Khai, across from the Mekong River, is a large shop that features Mantra, a luxury Thai traditional clothing brand. All the products are handmade using traditional methods to achieve contemporary looks. And employees are hired from the local communities in an attempt to reduce migration to the large cities. The shop is big and has lots of lovely Thai designs that are sold here at far less than in the big shops in Bangkok.
Lest you think the area is all about agriculture and silk, think again. You can mix a little exercise with history by taking a walk over the Mekong River on First Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, opened in 1994. Linking Nong Khai in Thailand with Vientiane in Laos, the bridge allows car traffic to go all the way across, but there's a barbed-wire fence at the Laos border barring foot travel from one country to another.
For a dose of ancient history, there's the Ban Chiang Archaeological Site, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Considered to be one of the most important prehistoric settlements in Southeast Asia, the site shows some of the earliest evidence of farming and the manufacturing and use of metals. An excavation pit is filled with skeletons and pottery — though the pots are reproductions, with the actual pottery being in the nearby Ban Chiang National Museum. Besides antique pottery, the museum displays anything that is associated with the ancient culture of Ban Chiang. The museum's exhibits are carefully displayed so that visitors can learn about the culture by studying the ancient tools, household items and other objects, many of which are more than 4,000 years old.
There is no shortage of restaurants in the northeast, with most serving either traditional Thai or, especially near the Laos border, Vietnamese cuisine. But the town of Udon-Thani offers an interesting and surprising alternative, Wine Company UD. Serving continental cuisine in a classy atmosphere, the wine selection is impressive and the not-too-loud live jazz band is a nice touch.
Who'd have thought that in an area known for modest hotels, guesthouses and home-stays there'd be a simple but elegant boutique hotel. Located on the outskirts of Udon Thani, Brown House Hotel is a chic hotel with Thai touches. Inspired by the traditional Isan house, it is built out of unpainted wood. The decor features both traditional Isan artifacts and contemporary designs. My corner room had a terrace with views of a lake covered in lotus blossoms. In the lobby tea and cookies are available all day long.
Clearly there are many reasons to visit northeast Thailand. And the time to visit the area while the tourist traffic is blissfully light is now because when word gets out about this fascinating area, this is bound to change.
WHEN YOU GO
For help planning your trip, visit www.tourismthailand.org.
Ellen Clark is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.