Boutique Hotels in Thailand's Northeast
Three boutique hotels have partnered up to offer an insider's tour of Thailand's largest territory. Merritt Gurley travels the northeast.
Published on Apr 21, 2015
Shake clean the mental Etch a Sketch of flip-flop clad tourists, powdery beaches and turquoise waters that you picture when you think of Thailand; Isan is a different world. In the country's largest region, the culture revolves around farming, the ebb and flow of the Mekong, the changing cycles of the moon. Each month is celebrated with a different festival to appease the ghosts and honor the gods, daily life is guided by the strictures of superstitions and spiritualism, and meals are fueled by the hot and sour flavors that mark Isan cuisine as some of Thailand's most fiery. In a territory still largely uncharted by your Agodas and Airbnbs, finding accommodation in Isan has always been a challenge. Now, three small-scale properties have teamed up to form the Isan Boutique Collection, taking the guesswork out of building an itinerary across this sprawl of terrain and offering travelers a chili-rich taste of old Siam.
On the mighty Mekong. Courtesy of Mekong Villas.
My four-day expedition begins with a 450-kilometer drive from Bangkok to Dan Sai. Along the way we stop for lunch, a feast packed with Isan specialties: larb ped (spicy minced duck salad), gai yang (grilled chicken served with hot chili sauce), pla som (sour fish), and khao niew (sticky rice). Though the food is phenomenal and the highways are smooth sailing, a six-hour road trip in Thailand is not for the faint of heart. To speed things up you can fly into the airport at Loei, but it is still an hour's drive from there to my first destination: Phunacome Resort (461 Moo 3, Ban Doen, Dan Sai District, Loei Province; +66 42 892 005; phunacomeresort.com), a 20-bungalow property set on bucolic farmland. Water buffaloes graze on rolling green hills and there's a pervasive calm that soundly slakes the city-dweller's thirst for quiet. This dreamy outpost is all about sustainability, with organic handmade soaps; an onsite garden that supplies the restaurant; and educational programs on water conservation and waste reduction. The rooms are bright, decorated in Thai motifs, with verandas overlooking the scenic countryside. The style is basic, but brimming with warm touches like handcrafted welcome gifts. "The beauty is in the simplicity," owner Neeracha Wongmasa tells me.
A resident buffalo grazes at Phunacome. Courtesy of Phunacome Resort.
Before dinner—a delectable medley of pea-flower blue rice, grilled fish, and a tart sauce made of fermented Sathorn tree leaves—Wongmasa sits me down with a group of fellow travelers for a lesson on Phi Ta Khon. This is a revered spirit in Dan Sai, where the belief system is a blend of Buddhism, Brahmanism and Animism. There's an entire museum dedicated to Phi Ta Khon masks, which are made of rice steamers and coconut husks, sporting long curved noses and ghoulish smiles. A local artist gives us a quick tutorial, brushes, blank masks and paints. An hour later he appraises our work and offer us each a psychoanalysis based on the finished product.
The girl to my right has fashioned a mask with full red lips. "Very creative," he says, "you are cute and lovely." The man to my left has painted a face with black stars and a Cheshire cat grin. "Very imaginative and funny," the artist says. "You have a good sense of humor." He picks up my mask, looks at it and frowns. "Inside you are deeply horrifying," he proclaims. Well, damn.
The next day, I go on a bike trip through Dan Sai, stopping at the home of Jao Por Kuan, the village's spiritual leader, to try to shake this bad juju. "When I need help, I ask the spirits for their guidance, and they let me know how to make things right," our guide translates. The spirits tell Jao Por Kuan when the festivals should fall each year and who should be involved in the celebrations. In a province where many villagers struggle to make ends meet, Joa Por Kuan says the monthly festivals help bring the community together and elevate morale. Phi Ta Khon is the biggest of the annual festivals, spanning three days, and includes firing rockets, bathing in mud, diving the river for polished stones, speaking to spirits, dancing, and all manner of merrymaking. Before leaving Dan Sai I buy a rainbow-hued Phi Ta Khon mask, to replace my own failed handiwork and bring a little countryside magic to my city center apartment. Maybe looking at it every day will elevate my morale too—it might even make me a little less horrifying inside.
A playful pair of Phi Ta Khon puppets. Courtesy of Jody Chen.
Next I'm shuttled farther north, to Pak Chom, for a night at the intimate six-room Mekong Villas (96 Moo 6, Leab Mekong River Rd., kilometer 53, Ban Kok Pai, Loei Province; +66 2 222 1290; mekongvillas.com), built on the riverfront. These Isan-style wooden houses, elevated on stilts with decks overlooking the water, appear quite traditional, but inside there are modern bathrooms, western kitchens and plush furniture. It feels more like a summer vacation home than a resort, and all of the amenities have been tailored for daily convenience. I make a beeline for the kayaks hitched along the embankment and paddle out into the mighty Mekong—which quickly proves too mighty, so I succumb to the current and float back to the villas for a leisurely read. "Isan is still relatively untouched," Mekong Villas co-owner Narisa Chakrabongse says of the region. "It is somewhat like Thailand was 30 years ago." Lounging in a gazebo at sunset and squinting at Laos, glimmering in the distance, I imagine the scene wouldn't have been much different back then.
Traditional stilted houses at Mekong Villas. Courtesy of Mekong Villas.
Finally, circling back down south to Khon Kaen, I end the trip with two peaceful nights at the high-design Supanniga Home (130/9 Potisarn Rd., Muang District, Khon Kaen Province; +66 89 944 4880; supannigahome.com), with its three luxury villas spread across six hectares of garden land. Picture a private park with groves of fruit trees, dotted with fish ponds, and mapped in pebble walkways that lead to cottages where every detail has been accounted for, from the antique Thai furniture to the outdoor showers and waterfall walls. This stunning property is only 10 kilometers from the Khon Kaen airport and is by far the easiest of the three to access from Bangkok. Khon Kaen is a university town known for its dinosaur museum, organic silk village, and the nearby Nam Phong National Park, where you can see prehistoric cave paintings said to date back 4,000 years.
Charm and style at Supanniga Home. Courtesy of Supanniga Home.
The rich history of the region is almost palpable as we pull up to this impeccably manicured estate where I'm welcomed with an ancient Chinese tea ceremony. Owner Phajongkitt Laorauviroaj offers me a dainty cup and in succession pours three different varieties of Pu-erh tea, aged two years, 10 years and 25 years. "Drink quickly and drink loudly," she says. "That is polite." She nods to a family of dragon figurines that sits on a tray on the table. "If the tea gets cold in your cup, feed it to the dragons," she says and pours a little of the 10-year Pu-erh over one of the small statues. "This dragon is for making money," she tells me, then shifts her attention to another, "This dragon is for keeping money." She spills some on to its head too: "I better share my tea with both."
Honestly, I can't taste the difference between the three vintages, but the ritual is elegant and meditative, a perfect reflection of the setting. As I slurp my tea, I forget the mask-painter's diagnosis and feel utterly calm.I don't need to feed the dragons; I've got everything I need.
To book a tour through Isan contact firstname.lastname@example.org.