Regional Esan (north-eastern) Cuisine
After visiting Pak Chong, Korat we decided to drive back to Chiang Mai via Khon Kaen and Loei in the Esan region. Between Korat and Khon Kaen (a 5 hour trip) we saw stalls selling Esan-style sausage and cow bladders both of which I sampled. Our first stop was Khon Kaen where we consumed delicious Noodles at Guadtiaw Rua Muang Khon, recommended by a friend.
Khon Kaen City
One reason for our alternative route was to research other cities of comparable size to Chiang Mai. Certainly, Khon Kaen appeared to be of similar size and we discovered several cafes of similar style to Chiang Mai. We visited Doubleshot Khon Kaen which had a likable ambience, great coffee and was convenient for relaxation and online working. Later, we wandered around Ton Tan markets (southern Khon Kaen), which included food/drinks and clothes, an interesting experience. We sampled appetising Bporbia (Spring Rolls) and Guay Jab Yuan (Vietnamese Noodles) before settling at the Hop Inn Hotel.
Guay Jab Yuan (Noodle Soup)
This is a famous street food in the Esan Provinces bordering Laos which previously used Lao (Khao Piak Sen) noodles. Presently inspired by Vietnamese Báhn Cahn, the dish contains rice noodles, pork sausage, pork belly ribs and a pork bone broth. The noodles were tender though sticky, the sausage firm, whilst the belly ribs were juicy inside and crispy at the edges. These were accompanied by a deliciously aromatic pork-flavoured, peppery broth, crispy shallots and chilli flakes. Apparently, Guay Jab Yuan has a distinguished flavour in Ubon Ratchathani Province as some particular ingredients are included.
Breakfast in Khon Kaen
Before leaving we visited Pak Mor Pu Pan restaurant which included further Lao-Vietnamese influenced dishes like Yam Moo Yor. Others included Bang Yuan (Vietnamese Baguette), Pak Mor (steamed dumplings), Kaao Grieb Pak Mor (rice cracker dumpling) and Guay Jab Yuan. We sampled Kaao Grieb Pak Mor and Guay Jab Yuan with Vietnamese coffee using Phin (brewing technique), a heavenly combination. Additionally, I have tried Guay Jab Yuan in Chiang Mai at various restaurants, several of which we regularly frequent.
From Khon Kaen we travelled the near 200km to Loei passing through winding roads and fascinating landscapes whilst witnessing extensive agriculture. Further en-route, impressive mountains appeared, giving the impression we had returned to the north of Thailand. Indeed, now close to the border, there were influences from Laos we witnessed when deciding on lunch in Loei. After calling into an interesting cafe with displays of coffee and ambience, we again sampled Guay Jab Yuan and Pak Mor. Our onward destination was Chiang Khan around one hour north on the Mekong River mountain basin.
Mekong River Tour
Arriving into Chiang Khan the roads turned narrow, whilst the Mekong River border with Laos contributed a magnificent backdrop. We walked from our guesthouse to the riverfront and spontaneously boarded a boat for a trip between Thailand and Laos. Certainly, cruising so close to the banks of Laos at sunset, where children were playing, was an amazing experience. From the majestic Mekong we witnessed the spectacular Thai-Lao mountain ranges which further demonstrated how remote the region is.
Walking Street Market
Our guesthouse was adjacent to the main street-turned market and, like Pai, becomes the central night-time attraction. Indeed the market was of considerable length, well-frequented by Thai tourists and included an abundance of food. We tried a type of Thai dough ‘snack’ along with grilled pork and sausages on sticks. Additionally, I discovered several food related ‘OTOP‘ from Loei, research I enjoy when visiting new provinces. Examples of these included young coconuts, wild honey and various types of nuts.
The next morning we awoke at dawn to engage in an endeavour termed Dak Batt (offering alms) for Buddhist Monks. This incorporated the community, taking place on the same market street, involving us scooping sticky rice into the monks alms bowl. Indeed, Chiang Khan, nestled on the Mekong, was a fascinating place and a learning experience, from history and geography to culture and Buddhism.
One final viewpoint we witnessed was the Skywalk, an elevated glass viewing platform, 20km south-west of Chiang Khan. We used a Songthaew for the steepest part up to the Skywalk where remarkable views over the Mekong mountains appeared. This perspective emphasised the sheer width of the river winding between the forests of Laos and Thailand. Above all, the region is exceptionally mountainous with areas of outstanding biodiversity, of which I felt incredibly grateful to capture. The final stage of our trip involved a night in Phitsanulok before passing through Lampang and Lamphun to Chiang Mai.
Esan was a really enjoyable part of Thailand to visit, having spent Chinese New Year with my extended Thai family. After sharing traditional rituals and lunch in Korat, I was further grateful to sample Esan food in Khon Kaen and Loei. Certainly, visiting Esan displayed the scale of the region and why the cuisine has become popular nationwide. Indeed, in Chiang Mai there are numerous Esan restaurants including national favourites, for example, Som Tam (Papaya Salad). Additionally, the Mekong River, mountainous landscapes and making Buddhist merits left me feeling humbled and awestruck, the power of travel.