Peeling Away from the Banana Pancake Trail
My situation is a bit different than the other MediaKids teachers, in that I had already traveled extensively throughout Thailand before beginning my job as an English teacher. For that reason, I am able to determine what my little town of Sawangdaendin has—or does not have—to offer in comparison with the popular Thai tourist/backpacker destinations. While Isan (the Northeast region of Thailand, where Sawangdaendin resides) is not a very popular area amongst travelers, that does not mean it is not worth checking out. Although it is devoid of the party scene that Westerners crave while doing their pilgrimage along the Banana Pancake Trail, Isan would be a good choice if you want to experience the more cultural side of Thailand while escaping the never-ending hordes of tourists/backpackers that descend upon The Land of Smiles every year. As my time teaching in Thailand draws to a close, I have really begun to appreciate the benefits that come with teaching in Isan.
Reveling in the awesome view that has been bestowed upon me after hiking up Phu Toc (“Lonely Mountain”)
If you’re expecting your time in Thailand to be one long, continuous stroll down the Khao San Road of every tourist hotspot, then do both yourself and the locals a favor and stay away from their humble little towns…stay far, far away. In my own experience, nightlife in Isan is geared toward Thai culture; that’s not to say that they don’t welcome farang (foreigners)—in fact, they very much do—it just means that instead of hearing Ed Sheeran every other song, you are likely to hear (or be subjected to, depending on your feelings about it) a variety of songs from Thai artists, there will be considerably less English spoken by the locals, and everything will be a lot more relaxed. Now, don’t get me wrong—nobody’s had more fun on Ko Phi Phi than I have. But if all that fun and excitement eventually wears off and you find yourself wanting to feel something, I don’t know—real—than the Isan region is a great place to head. Here you will see what day-to-day Thai life looks like. You won’t be pestered by tuk-tuk drivers or scantily clad women (and I use the word “women” loosely) offering massages.
Admittedly, when I left Thailand after five months of traveling through Southeast Asia, I was under the impression that the Thai people were opportunists who valued money more than any deity, but used one as a means to obtain the other. I went down to Australia for another five months before returning to Thailand to both teach English and be with my girlfriend (whom I met at Koh Phangan’s Full-Moon Party—a celebration of hedonism). Since I returned at the beginning of May, I can now see that I was wrong about the Thai people; I was so wrong. It is almost cartoonish the way in which Thai people have helped me when I needed it. They are so, so much better than the way I had written them off, and I feel like I owe each and every one an apology. On the many instances in which I’ve had trouble with my motorbike, there is always—within minutes—a friendly local there to help me. And no, they never ask or seem to expect financial compensation. It’s just who they are. If I don’t have enough coins to pay for the bus fare, someone behind me will volunteer the fee for me. If I am having trouble locating an item in town, someone will get on their motorbike and have me follow them to the appropriate shop. If I ask someone for directions, they will drive me to where I need to go. As silly as it may sound, it vaguely reminds me of that scene in Naked Gun when the woman freaks out on the plane and there is a line of people waiting to beat her with various objects in order to calm her down—except it’s a long line of friendly locals waiting to help me out of a jam.
My girlfriend and I along the Me Kong river that separates Thailand from Laos in Chiang Khan (Isan)
Everyone has some idea that immediately comes to mind when they think of Thailand, and to many that idea is beaches. Unfortunately, Isan is landlocked, so there are no beaches where you can cool off during Thailand’s notorious heatstreaks. I suspect that is a primary factor of why far less tourists go to Isan than they do to the south. And you know what? That’s okay with me; it just means there is less incentive for the locals to sell out and therefore it won’t befall the same fate that is already affecting my beloved little mountain village of Pai (probably my favorite place in Thailand, but, as Bob Dylan expressed, the times they are a’ changin’—I shudder to think of how it will be in three, or even two, years). Isan being largely ignored by tourists can also be attributed to another topographical shortcoming: it is very flat. Besides the beaches and Bangkok (where you pretty much have to go to begin your travels throughout SEA), Thailand’s other renown destinations for foreigners are up in the mountains (Chiang Mai and the aforementioned Pai). Tourists like to go to places that aren’t the same as what they’re used to, so they avoid dull landscapes such as what Isan consists of. But there is a difference between dull landscapes and dull places. Isan can be quite exciting if you know where to look. I have the distinct advantage of having a girlfriend who is from here, so I have been able to see a lot more of the region than my peers. Because of this, I know that there are definitely places to go and things to see here (like Nong Kai’s sculpture park, Phu Toc, Udon Thani’s nightlife areas, etc.).
Walking along this thin wooden path that separated me from certain doom was a lot sketchier than this photo suggests.
As I said, while my time teaching English in Sawagdaendin winds down, I grow more and more grateful that I’ve had the chance to flesh out this very special culture. I’m thrilled to be able to give back to a country that has given me so much. I’ve been helped out here more times than I can count, I’ve seen some of the biggest smiles in my life, and I’ve done things that I never have back home in the US. I’m not sure if I will ever have an experience quite like what I’ve had here in Isan. I definitely won’t say that it’s been a stress-free experience, but nothing in life that’s worth anything is ever easy.