Thailand has always been a favorite destination for travelers from all over the world, made popular for pristine beaches and exciting nightlife. Travelers tend to explore areas such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and it's surrounding islands. Although these destinations have many wonderful offerings for foreigners to experience, they are often times overrun with tourists and tourist traps. As a general rule, I enjoy spending time in a high volume tourist area about as much as I enjoy sitting in traffic in Los Angeles. This is why I always try to get off the beaten path and find places that are still left unspoiled.
My favorite places to travel are the places that tourists rarely visit, where I can connect with a part of the culture that most traveler's don't get to see. I love to interact with locals, enjoy food that is unique to the place I'm visiting, and soak up the culture of the region. It can sometimes be a difficult task to find these places in this day in age. Thailand offers many incredible regions to visit, each rich in history and culture, many of which are not overrun by tourists. A recent assignment sent me to the Northeastern area of the country, where I felt I was able to discover the true Thailand, and not just the glossy tourist hotspots.
If you are heading to Thailand, these are the four places you must visit for an authentic experience.
Sakon Nakhon is the the area known to be the summer palace of the queen. It is also home to the Queen's Royal Project. This project was put in place to help the less fortunate people of Thailand in more rural areas develop skills to improve their quality of life, generally related to improving talents arts and handicraft.
As I walk the expansive lush green property at Queen Sirikit Sericulture Center in Thailand, I am blown away at all of the hard work that goes into the making of Thai silk. On my last visit to Bangkok, I was sure to have custom clothing made for me out of the beautifully crafted silks. Thai silk is an extremely popular good in Thailand, and silk goods are a popular souvenir from a visit to this country. On this trip, instead of just purchasing the coveted material, I was able to experience each step that goes into the process of creating the silk.
At Queen Sirikit Sericulture Center in the area of Sakon Nakhon visitors are able to view each step of the process to gather the raw materials. As I move throughout the facility, I learn that the silk worms are raised, fed and cared for until they make a cocoon. These bright yellow cocoons, with the live silkworms still inside, are eventually boiled and cocoons are almost magically spun into a silk thread by the skilled women of the center. If you are brave enough, you can even eat a silkworm!
After experiencing the entire process and the dedication that goes into the creation of the raw material, I leave with a better appreciation of the finished product, and a better understanding an connection to the product and the area of Sakon Nakhon.
As I sit on a boat in the middle of Borneo, Indonesia, I am surrounded by people from all over the world, including many Indonesians. A fellow travel writer innocently asks me who has better food, Thailand or Indonesia. Forgetting my surroundings, I quickly blurt out "I think that Thai food is the golden standard for asian cuisine. It's everything, sweet, savory, spicy."
Oops. I'm surrounded by Indonesians on a press trip in their country. I quickly backtrack and praise Indonesian cuisine, but it's too late, I have spoken the truth.
Thai food is well known throughout the world for being some of the most flavorful. Many of the Thai dishes that the world is familiar with have come from the Northeasten region of Thailand. If I could recommend only one place for authentic Thai cuisine it would be the Night Markets in Udon Thani. As I wander the food stalls in the night market, I am completely spoiled by my surroundings. Everywhere I look, every scent that I inhale is deliciously unfamiliar. The authenticity of the food that is placed in front of me is thrilling, and my mouth begins to water.
The food at this night market Udon Thani is without a doubt the best Thai food I have ever tasted. Plates of larb (a meat salad), green papaya salad and whole fish filled my table. The best part was that there were no other travelers or tourists in sight. I leave with a smile, satisfied to have not only have found incredible food, but also an authentic local experience, free from tourists.
In a tiny shop in the small town of Ban Chiang, I am inspecting a gorgeous handmade indigo shirt. As I am about to consider haggling over the price of 2,000 Thai Baht (Around $60 USD), I begin to reconsider. Although haggling is something that I am very good at when shopping foreign markets, next to me are the women who make these clothes. One woman working here is well into her 80's. I watch as they skillfully turn the blue string into a piece of art. I realize the clothes that are hanging all around me require an acute attention to detail take a painstaking amount of time to create. They not only take great care, but the clothing takes skill to produce. Do I haggle? Well, just a little. I offered 1,600 and the owner meets me at final offer of 1,800 Baht. More than fair for the quality of the product I now possess. This piece is a great representation of how my time was spent in Northeastern Thailand, and will make a great gift for my mom.
The modern city of Ban Chiang was the base for the American Air Force during the Vietnam conflict. The big draw to this area now is the Ban Chiang Archeological Site, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site and the museum are intriguing for any history buff, as many of the artifacts are over 4,000 years old. This site has been declared the most important pre-historic settlement in all of South-East Asia, as it presents the earliest evidence of farming and use of metals. A bonus of getting off the beaten path, is that the archeological site and the museum are nearly empty from pushy tourists. This allows something that is rare when traveling in this day in age, the enjoyment of a UNESCO World Heritage Site with some peace and quiet.
I have just stepped onto the streets of the Indo-China market in Nong Khai, I couldn't help but walk slowly to take it all in. It's picturesque. Everywhere I look is exactly what I had always imagined Thailand to look like before I had visited the bigger cities of Bangkok & Chaing Mai. A middle-aged woman is wearing a rice hat and selling freshly grilled bananas. Nearby, another woman is selling grilled eggs on a skewer. An interesting snack, I have to stop and try. As I wander through the market, I cross to the other side of the shops where there is an river walk. It's nearly empty, a nice break from many of the bustling cities I visit as a traveler, cities that are always too crowded to enjoy.
Next to me is the Mekong River, and it divides Northeastern Thailand and Laos. I think to myself "Maybe I should visit Laos for a few hours", intrigued about the possibility of walking across the border for the experience and to possibly eat a Laotian meal for lunch. I don't go, as there is too much to experience on this side of the river.
Nong Khai is a must-visit Thai town. It is most well known for the IndoChina market, friendship bridge, which connects Thailand and Laos, and the large Vietnamese influence in the local cuisine. Nong Khai a unique town due to the influence from neighboring countries. Many of the products from Laos and Vietnam pass through this area, giving the town of Nong Khai characteristics that won't be found in other areas of Thailand.
Although Thailand receives many tourists each year, Northeastern Thailand is a hidden gem. No matter where your travels may take you, get off the beaten path. Find hidden treasures; the places most tourists are unaware or unwilling to go. The experiences you will have will create more rewarding and unique memories.