Beyond Bangkok - Life as an Expat In Northeast Thailand
Updated: Jan 6, 2022
When we think of Thailand, we often associate the country with pristine waters, party islands, sleepless cities, or the tourist capital of the world - Bangkok. Very rarely do we associate Thailand with what exemplifies Thai culture so well, its Northeastern region, Isaan.
Home to 20 provinces and almost a third of the country’s population, Isaan is often overlooked when it comes to travel itineraries. There’s no denying that destinations in the North, South, and Central Thailand possess qualities that make them such desirable locations. Whether you’re a teacher or a traveller, here’s why you should consider abandoning your ‘Bangkok or bust’ or ‘Chiang Mai or goodbye’ mentality and opt for a more distinct path.
Bangkok Or Bust?
In Bangkok, a culture of pleasure and sophistication awaits each traveller. There’s no doubt as to why Bangkok proves to be the tourist capital of the world time and time again. Whether you opt for temple tours or food markets, roadside beers or cocktails atop skyscraper bars, Bangkok has it all.
However, while the thrilling metropolis offers a taste of Thai culture as well as the comfort of westernised influence, it may not encapsulate a true and authentic picture of Thailand. Its popularity has inevitably led to a surge of Western influence which comes at the cost of Thai identity. Having sights only for the capital only may result in a one dimensional Thai experience.
Why Living in Isaan Presents an Authentic Experience
While the name Isaan derives from the Hindu god of death (Yamanivesana), the region suggests anything but. Bountiful rice paddies, tropical forests, and mountainous terrain, Isaan boasts of destinations polarised to the rest of Thailand. Khao Yai and Phu Pha Man, 2 of 26 national parks in Isaan, are examples of the region’s rich biodiversity.
Where the bountiful harvest lies on the fringes of bustling Thai communities, Isaan is a place where travellers can choose between natural tranquillity or urban frenzy at the blink of an eye. The countryside provides a scenic escape from the city life with its rich life courtesy of the mounds of rice paddies and crops of sugarcane.
In a region where its economy is dominated by agriculture, growing fresh produce is woven into the fabric of life. Anecdotally, co-workers typically arrive at work with fresh produce to share every morning. Sharing is a staple of Thai culture, and expats can expect to revel in an organic community.
Members of society with conventional jobs such as teachers, taxi drivers and police officers have their own allotment and farms. I was particularly intrigued when I discovered that one of my co-workers at school also managed an alligator farm for five years, before making the transition into goat farming, all whilst being a full-time teacher.
Difference In Attitude Towards Expats
One of the quintessential differences between cosmopolitan cities such as Bangkok and areas of Isaan is the attitude towards expats. With around 22,000,000 foreign tourists arriving into Bangkok each year, the local population is bound to grow indifferent to tourists.
In cities and towns of Isaan, however, the local population will be much more receptive to foreign presence. Foreigners, or ‘farangs’, will notice the vast difference between the two locations when it comes to their reception. Since the presence of foreigners is much more of a novelty in Northeast Thailand, locals will be much more inquisitive.
This will have its benefits as well as its drawbacks, depending on the traveller. It might be refreshing to receive significantly more attention than you usually would back home, or even in Bangkok or Chiang Mai.
However, you might even feel more valued in a rural Isaan community, where your presence is always met with greetings reminding you why Thailand is the “Land of Smiles”. This would supplement the experience of being hassled by street vendors in the strips of Bangkok or Phuket where you might be treated as a mere commodity.
It could also be overwhelming and invite elements of culture shock. A significantly smaller portion of the population will speak English than other regions in Thailand. Trying to navigate the cities of Isaan as well as its language barriers, all while being scrutinised, may prove to be stressful or even intimidating. However, it will certainly teach travellers to become more comfortable at the centre of attention outside of your comfort zone.
Two Cultures In One Experience
With a shared border of 1,845km between Thailand and Laos, Isaan is connected to Laos, geographically, ethnically, and culturally. Isaan’s shared cultural characteristics with Laos is exemplified by its physical connection courtesy of the Thai-Lao “Friendship Bridge”. The bridge hangs over the Mekong River, the 12th longest river in the world, and is located in Nong Khai only 20 km away from Laos’ capital Vientiane.
Additionally, around 20,000,000 people in Isaan speak the dialect of “Thai-Lao” which is more recognisable to the population of Vientiane than those in Bangkok. Of course, this may pose some difficulties for travellers who are eager to learn the Thai language which is comprehensible to most of the population.
Most digital apps and Thai phrasebooks opt for ‘Standard Thai’, spoken by those native to Bangkok and its surrounding areas. For this reason, travellers will have to learn Thai-Lao to communicate optimally with the local population.
Solitude in the Northeast of Thailand
While one of the benefits of living in Isaan is its lifestyle which is raw, unrefined, and free from commercialisation, one could argue its drawback is its remoteness. With fewer facilities and amenities than other populous areas, expats can either revel in its originality or be left feeling secluded.
As Thailand’s largest region and predominated by agriculture, areas of Isaan can be less accessible to the rest of the country’s popular destinations. Should full-time teachers want to experience other areas of southern or central Thailand, it may be inconvenient to reach these destinations if they are short for time.
However, Isaan still has its 4 major cities in Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, Nakhon Ratchasima, and Ubon Ratchathani, and other destinations are only a short flight or modest bus journey away. With an abundance of national holidays and lengthy semester breaks, there are plenty of opportunities to explore within and beyond Isan.
Just like any other location or region, Isaan presents many advantages as well as disadvantages. One could consider it an advantage to experience an entirely genuine and raw side to Thailand. However, others could consider it to be an intimidating experience if they aren’t prepared.
Ultimately, the traveller’s experience is what he or she makes of it. Whether teachers and travellers view Isaan as a source of solitude or isolation is up to how they embrace the experience.
Venturing off the beaten path provides a unique opportunity to see the sides that travellers rarely get to see. If you think that you are adventurous and to embrace the unknown while truly immersing yourself within one’s raw and unrefined Thai culture, Isaan could be the perfect opportunity for you.