We were traveling in a part of Thailand that we had never been to before and got the chance to experience a cuisine that was similar in some ways to what we were familiar with as “Thai” but unique in its on right. I still can’t stop thinking about Isaan food.
While we flew in and out of Bangkok, most of our time was spent well outside the city and included time in Chiang Mai, Sukhothai and a number of cities around the north & east perimeter of the Northeastern provinces, which are also referred to as “Isaan”. While definitely in Thailand, the culture and food of the Northeast share some similarities with southern Laos.
Before our trip, we spent some time trying to find some suggestions on restaurants to visit. As might be expected, there was tons of information on Bangkok and quite a bit on Chiang Mai but recommendations for the other cities we were visiting were few and far between. Hopefully, this report will provide a starting point for the next person looking for similar info. As it turns out, in some of these cities, the best option on dinner meals was to head to the local walking street for street food.
I want to mention our guide and driver team that provided many good suggestions on restaurants and helped us order dishes we would not have known we liked. Nook (firstname.lastname@example.org) and her friend Ed are a delight to be with and more than helpful in so many ways.
For example: On our first day I realized that I had forgotten to pack the power source for my Dell laptop. Ed took down the computer model number and the next day showed up with a brand new power source and receipt for about $33 USD.
We had spent a few days with Nook last year in Bangkok so she understood our love for Thai food and spent time working with us mapping out our food plan before this trip. And our driver Ed was a great source for choosing lunch spots along the road side that turned out to be some of our most memorable meals. Nook took great delight in taking us to “walking streets” in the evening for street food meals in several cities. Anybody interested in a local food experience would be happy to have their advice and help while in Bangkok or on tour in other parts of Thailand.
For the first few days or our trip, we were on our own in Northern Thailand. In Chiang Mai, we stayed at the Secret Garden, which describes itself as “Bungalows & Cooking Guesthouse Wellness Resort in Bor Sang.”
This is definitely not the place for you if you are looking for a 5-star resort but we really enjoyed our stay. Despite our best intentions, we did not take advantage of the offer to help out with the preparation of evening meals with Pai, the wife of the owner couple but greatly enjoyed the food there. While not a huge spread, the breakfast buffet had exactly what we wanted to eat including a selection of hams prepared on-site by Peter, (the husband of the owner couple) and an interesting variation on fried eggs. Basically it was a sunny side up egg with ham, cheese and tomatoes placed into the white of the egg as it cooked. Sort of like a fried egg omelet. I’ve been trying to recreate that one since we got home. Dinners were served buffet style, were straight ahead traditional Thai and very good.
We were in Chiang Mai over a weekend so we headed down to the Sunday Night Market and had a meal there walking from one food stall to the next. Virtually everything was 20-25 baht or roughly $0.75 per dish and we didn’t eat anything there that wasn’t excellent. That experience really set us up to enjoy meals at street markets throughout our trip.
The one meal of note in a restaurant in Chiang Mai was at the Riverside. Our favorite dish was the Snakehead fish with green mango salad, which turned out to be fried fish prepared 2 ways. One half of the fish was filleted, cut into chunks, deep fried and then placed back on top of the other half, which was left whole on the bone; and all covered with the mango salad.
Before the trip we had looked forward to trying the traditional Northern Thai dish of Khao Soi in Chiang Mai but sorry to report that our one experience was underwhelming. We had booked seats at a Muay Thai boxing match that evening and asked the driver to take us to a place where we could try Khao Soi on the way to the fight. We wound up at Aroon (Rai) Restaurant, a few blocks south of the Thapae Gate, outside the Old City. The food was Ok but not the glorious experience we had read about. I’m sure there are probably better choices in Chiang Mai to try the dish.
We were in Sukothai primarily to visit the ancient city and there less than 24-hours. After a long train ride that day, we decided to eat at our hotel, the Tharaburi Resort. While a little expensive, the meal was very good.
In Sukothai, we met up with Nook and Ed and headed east on the long drive to Udon Thani. That evening, we had a nice meal at RaBieng Patchanee Restaurant. We sat outside overlooking a small lake. The meal was good but nothing extraordinary.
However lunch the next day was one of the top highlights of all the meals we ate in Thailand over the 3-weeks we were there. We had driven north to visit a weaving village (a passion of my better half) and from there on to Nong Khai, the Thai city just across the river from Vientiane, Laos. Then we headed back south towards Udon before turning east. Nook mentioned that the local specialty of this area was grilled jumbo river prawns and asked if we would like to try that.
About 15 minutes out from Baan NaKa Village, Ed pulled off the highway and we were at KungPao Restaurant. Not only did we enjoy the grilled prawns but we had a terrific version of Gaeng Som, mixed seafood spicy & sour soup with a red chili paste broth chock full of mushrooms, tomatoes, herbs and every type of freshwater seafood one could imagine. Bitten by the Gaeng Som bug, we tried it several more times during the trip in much fancier restaurants but never found a version as good as at this roadside café. I’m not sure how you would find this place without the help of someone with local knowledge.
That night we were in in Nakhon Phanom and had dinner close by our hotel at the View Khong Restaurant, an open-air restaurant on the Mekong River with beautiful views of Laos on the other side of the river. Our most memorable dish there was fish hamok, a Thai version of the Khmer style fish amok.
The next day, as we traveled from Nakhon Phanom to Sakon Nakhon, we stopped at another weaving village. As we walked through a market area of the town, we passed a vendor making the coconut pudding and sweet corn treat known as Kanom Krok. This is my wife’s absolute favorite Thai sweet and we never missed a chance to buy them hot out of the pan.
This was another day where we stopped along the roadside (on our way to and from places) and picked a place where we saw lots of local eating. While I’m afraid I can’t tell you the name of where we ate, the food was great and very cheap. We had chicken noodle soup plus an order of fried rice at a total cost of $3 for both of us.
We had timed our trip to the Northeastern provinces to coincide with the many festivals celebrating the end of Buddhist Lent (and the rainy season). In Sakon Nakhon, that meant the Wax Castle Festival. The parade was to be the next day but that night, the huge wax temple floats were on display around town and the festivities included a street food festival in the center of the town. With Nook’s help, we sampled a wide range of Isaan dishes including sour sausage, grilled duck, grilled fish, green papaya salad and steamed dumplings; some filled with sweets like pumpkin and others savory with barbequed pork.
We had another great roadside lunch experience the next day as we drove to Ubon Ratchathani. We pulled into Krau Mee Chai Restaurant in Pa Na Village. We were the only customers there and Nook took charge of ordering the food. The lady taking the order was concerned that some of the dishes were going to be too spicy for Westerners but Nook assured her we could take the heat. Everything was good but the best was an Isaan beef larb with the meat in small slices rather than finely chopped and a spicy papaya salad that was known locally by a name other than som tam. (Sorry I don’t recall that name.) As we were finishing our meal, one of the ladies that had served us came to the table and asked Nook if we were from New Zealand. She told her no and asked why she had asked. She told us a story about her younger sister who had moved to New Zealand but who had passed away 4 years ago. She said she had been so touched that her sister’s New Zealand friends had brought back her ashes to her home village. She said, every time she met Westerners, she thought of those kind people from New Zealand.
We spent that night at the Tohsang Khongjiam Resort & Spa. There really isn’t much of a town in Khong Jiam so we had dinner at the very nice outdoor hotel restaurant overlooking the river bank. One of the reasons we wanted to eat there was a chance to see the seasonal natural phenomenon known as Naga Fireballs but that didn’t work out. Our waiter told us the river was a bit high for best sightings. As might be expected, (at about $27 USD) this was one of the more expensive meals we ate during our trip but the food and service were very good. I should also mention that this hotel had the best breakfast buffet I think I have ever enjoyed anywhere in the world.
The next day we were off to Ubon Ratchathani City and had a great Vietnamese lunch at Indochine. This is a beautifully rambling romantic restaurant and everything we ate was terrific.
That evening, we made our way down to the riverfront near the Rattanakosin Bicentennial Bridge for the Illuminated Boat Procession where boats with lighted displays from different temples parade up and down the river. The festivities include a fireworks display and other rituals involving candles and lights designed to rid bad luck for the upcoming year. We again hit the local market for street food that night.
Our last stop before heading back to Bangkok was in Nakhon Ratchasima (aka Khorat City). We were in Thailand during some serious flooding and while we managed to avoid virtually all of the disaster, Khorat was one of the hardest hit localities. Days before we arrived, city streets were flooded but we saw little evidence of any damage when we hit one last market for a street food dinner that night.
From there we were off to Bangkok where more good meals awaited.