Smiling Albino

A soulful Isaan masterpiece: How we dressed up far-flung Thailand

february 2022

Thailand’s luxury tourism infrastructure has evolved over the last couple of decades to become the envy of much of the world. Award-winning 5-star hotels, world-class dining and drinking experiences of every form, designer boutiques and local brands, not to mention yachts, limousines, and hi-tech infrastructure to service wealthy travellers from around the world.

But there’s a region in Thailand that has largely missed all of this development and attention. Several hours to the northeast of Bangkok begins the large but much less-affluent region of Isaan, bypassed by most travellers, local and international.

We like to use the analogy that Isaan is the Thai version of rural Appalachia, or the American Deep South. Isaan has become a bit of a Catch-22: without affluent travelers, there’s no demand to build luxury infrastructure, and without the infrastructure, travellers don’t have much incentive to visit. Or so it may seem.

Smiling Albino was recently presented with a unique challenge during the closed-border pandemic period in 2021. A group of discerning local Thais and Expats asked us to arrange an “epic trip in Isaan,” the Smiling Albino way. This is a group that moves comfortably between private helicopters, avant-garde fashion shows, Michelin-star tables and refurbished heritage homes with award-winning art collections. We had once over-delivered an adventure in Northern Thailand for the same group. But what to do in Isaan, rural Thailand’s dusty far-flung backwater? Their short brief was simply: “surprise us”.

Isaan is somewhat the Thai version of rural Appalachia or distinct corners of the American Deep South.

Can you put lipstick on a water buffalo?

Don’t get us wrong, we didn’t intend to “change” Isaan, or to indicate it is somehow flawed. Isaan just lacks the services, dining, accommodations and convenience of the rest of Thailand. Drives are long between points, many towns appear to lack distinction from the outside, the architecture more brutalist than creative, and you can only visit so many temples.

But there are deeper layers to Isaan, infused with animism, ancient traditions and, at times, an unbridled joy of life not found elsewhere in Thailand. Our mission was to peel back the façade and immerse ourselves in Isaan’s rebel soul. We wanted to find the offbeat vehicles, incredible food, textiles and folk crafts, rural dance, rhythmic music, spirits and beliefs – the rural heritage that can be either backwards or brilliant, depending on one’s perspective. We sought to weave together these themes in the Smiling Albino way that does justice to the glory of Isaan, and create a kick-ass, high-end adventure at the same time.

The challenge was daunting. How do we take high-expectations travelers to the least developed, most logistically-clumsy part of Thailand? Put another way, how would you satisfy a group of Connecticut socialites looking for a stimulating week of culture in Branson, Missouri?

The answer: Go beyond the boundaries of conventional tourism — and let your imagination be your guide.

The Trippy Trip

We chose a roughly 800 kilometer loop to explore over nine days in Isaan’s northern provinces, separated from Laos by the great Mekong River – Udon Thani, Nakhon Phanom, Bueng Kan, Nong Khai and Chiang Khan, Loei.

Travel to us is creating magic and value in the spaces in between, not so much the common sites or regular paths.

Local Connections

Over twenty years of relationship making across Thailand does pay dividends. And combining that with multiple surveys meant we’d forged real relationships with everyone from school teachers to bartenders, the town mayor and the boat driver, the head monk and the town historian, plus the head of performance groups, singers, drag queens (why not?!), artists, and local fixers. 

Smiling Albino’s co-founder, Daniel Fraser, has filmed Long Ruk Yim documentaries in some of the most off-the-grid parts of Thailand, and sometimes this provides unique contacts and access for our guests. We left no stones unturned, and during surveys our team – lead by the preternatural Guide Berm – was always asking locals “what more can happen?” “What would you be proud to show us?” And, repeating the client brief, “surprise us!”

There’s no doubt that local contacts helped us transform our Isaan adventure into an incredible, and unduplicable experience.

The Accommodation Challenge

There were evenings when the best accommodation in the village was a far cry short of what we had in mind… so one night we transformed a middle-of-nowhere coffee shop into a boutique hotel suite complete with premium linens, branded toiletries, luxury towels and pillows

We switched out fluorescent tubes with warm lamps and decorated the rooms with local crafts. The kind and accommodating guesthouse owners were thrilled at the upgrades – they understood our peculiarities – and we were grateful for their support.

Udon Thani: First Impressions Matter

We set the bar high on Day One. Upon landing in Udon Thani, we set off to explore the artisan villages nearby. Hopping from place-to-place using tricked out farm vehicles, and the senior village leadership came out to greet us with the kind of sincere welcome only possible in Isaan. We got our hands dirty with a pre-arranged pottery and painting workshop mimicking the 3,000-year-old folk craft of the Ban Chiang Community, and enjoyed a private lunch in the home of a local Thai Puan ethnic group. It was a quick injection right into rural village life 90-minutes from unbuckling our seatbelts from the flight from Bangkok.

That evening, we celebrated our arrival in Isaan with a show performed by the exceptional Isaan-based troupe ‘Nak Lhen Nam’ while delighting in a welcome dinner at our homestay, Bua Daeng Homestay. Overlooking the rice fields on the roof, the night was catered by Samuay & Sons, one of Thailand’s top restaurants for innovative, locally-sourced ingredients. You can not visit Udon Thani without indulging in the magical delicacies of Chef Num!

First thing the next morning we embarked on a dawn boat cruise on Red Lotus Lake (Bua Daeng) in Udon. The timing was special as we had the lake to ourselves at the golden moment the sun rose over the lake of infinite pink lotus blossoms. But things always get better on a Smiling Albino trip, and our breakfast boat arrived to surprise the guests with freshly brewed coffee and personal rattan gift baskets of French pastries and treats.

udon boat
udon boat server
udon boat breakfast

In less than 24 hours, we’d immersed ourselves with locals, took part in heritage crafts and village life, dined with Isaan’s most sought-after chef, and conquered the red lotus lake in style with luxury frills for good measure. Bangkok seemed a million miles away.

Heading east en route to Nakhon Phanom, we paused in Sakon Nakhon, famous for their brilliant indigo dye derived from Indigofera Tinctoria, grown along the Songkhram River. On pre-trip surveys, we arranged for a 4-house village tour on foot to see different stages of textile production and dyeing, each dedicated to perfecting the craft for more than a century.

The challenge here was where to have lunch for guests who, rightly, place high importance on group mealtime? The closest resemblance of a ‘restaurant’ was miles and miles away from these unique textile villages that we did not want to miss. So, our ground team poised the challenge to a group of aunties in the village (who had more culinary experience than most restaurant chefs) to create the most sumptuous spread of local favourites. And indeed they did! The result for the day was a lovely village walk, a textiles workshop, and a stellar local organic meal, as the village had rolled out their indigo carpets just for us. From here we were properly fuelled up for a climb to the remarkable 11th Century Phra That Phu Pek Khmer ruins just a few minutes away.

Laying Foundations in Nakhon Phanom

Bringing sleepy Nakhon Phanom to life beyond the lovely temples was next on the agenda.

The Mayor of Renu Nakorn, a small town in Nakhon Phanom Province, has been a longtime acquaintance of ours, and she certainly did surprise us on the third day when she invited our group to be the guests of honour for a procession to lay the foundations for the new city pillar. What?! This rare event quickly turned into a party with our guests mingling with the townsfolk amongst the lively music and celebrations. A grand feast followed at the community museum complete with a dance retinue, traditional ceremonies of the Phu Thai ethnic group, and a pong lang Lao-style band. It was as if the entire town came out to show their genuine Isaan hospitality and appreciation for us bringing travels to this far-flung corner of the kingdom. It was also very symbolic for Smiling Albino, as we laid foundations in Nakhon Phanom for future experiences.

The next day in Nakhon Phanom, we cycled through quaint villages, travelled the countryside in a decked out E-Tan village truck, dined at a 100-year old home with food prepared by the culinary students of the local university, and toured the essential historical sites of the self-proclaimed “Thailand’s Happiest Town”.

nakhon procession 2
nakhon offering
nakhon procession 1
nakhon performance
nakhon dinner group
nakhon dinner
nakhon cycling
nakhon cycling bikes

The Magic Bus!

A visit to Isaan would not be complete without a deep mo lam musical experience. Mo lam could be defined as a rockabilly Isaan-style bluegrass. But these musical performances are harder to find these days… especially during the pandemic when live music is still on the freeze. This desire and conundrum triggered an idea…

Some of our earliest memories of travelling around Thailand inevitably included a bus trip between remote destinations in Isaan. The local Isaan “buses” are in no way related to North America’s efficient and organized Greyhound public transport buses. These classic steel beasts, covered in red dust, often with live mo lam folk music blaring out songs from the back, can be heard approaching from miles away. This visual seemed to capture so much of the spirit of rural Isaan: classic, festive, fun, a bit gaudy, but undeniably unique.

Backpacking trips twenty years ago implanted a dream to one day hold our own mo lam Party Bus.

#PlantobeLucky has been one of our operating mottos, so when on a survey we spotted a vintage bus puttering down the streets near Nakhon Phanom, we knew that was our calling! After convincing the driver to let us run wild with our vision, we next brought in decorators, performers, sound and logistics people, and recruited everyone from the local police to local farmers to help us ensure this event came off right, and as a complete surprise to the guests.

A Mo Lam bus party like this was the perfect vehicle (pun intended) to convey much of Isaan’s cultural exuberance in one exciting event while filling a gap between long drives. We were going to create a surprise mobile party-in-a-teacup experience that showcased the region’s musical genre in a way to honour the craft and create lifetime memories! The dream of “Priscilla, Queen of Isaan ” was launched.

The afternoon was a huge success that escalated as the bus stopped along the way picking up additional entertainers at select points, and reached a crescendo as we pulled into the village where we were to spend the evening, transformed into a BBQ with a rural cowboy theme party, complete with albino water buffalo, more music performances, a bar, and Muay Thai style muscled dancers for entertainment.

The bus adventure in Isaan was over-the-top for a reason: to create a lifetime memory in the middle of nowhere while celebrating the very best and quirkiest of Isaan! This event will soon have a blog of its own.

field party
field exit
bensley isaan field party guest
bensley isaan field party exit
bensley party
bensley party dancers

The Whales of Bueng Kan

Bueng Kan is one of the most densely forested provinces in Isaan, and blessed with surreal temples and geological formations. One of Bueng Kan’s – indeed the region’s – most stunning locations is Three Whale Rock (Hin Sam Wan). From previous visits we’d befriended the local rangers, and they were waiting for us in the early morning to lead us along lesser-known nature trails up to the 75 million-year-old rock formations that resemble a family of whales jutting out of the mountain range. From atop the rocks, you can view the winding Mekong river and the mountains of Nam Kading National Park inside Laos. This is a relatively new site open to travelers, and the early morning is the best chance to have the rocks to yourselves. Photos taken here often become people’s social media profile pics.

Local Experts in Nong Khai

Nong Khai can be a charming town but is often overlooked. There are the famous sites like the Sala Kaew Koo sculpture park, various Naga temples, and the lovely Mekong front promenade. Our rooms were top in house at the cozy Mut Mee Guesthouse – named for the textiles dyeing technique that comes from the area. With bragging rights Mekong Views from our rooms, we set up paint brushes and easels on guest balconies as the views inspire putting paint to canvas.

To visit the sculpture park and add context for this storied site, we recruited a local expert, Mr Julian, owner of Mut Mee Guesthouse, to walk us through personally and share his 30-plus years of studying the various sculptures which intertwine Buddhism, Hinduism, Thai-Lao animism, and various other influences. Local connections also enabled us private access to one of Thailand’s most impressive silk and textiles collections. A grand Thai matriarch who nearly single-handedly put Nong Khai textiles and mut mee dyeing on the global map, Khun Lek, opened her fabulous country home-gallery for us, much to the delight of our craft-shopping guests!

Lastly, visiting Nong Khai province without paying a visit to Sri Chiang Mai district and their curious history of Northern Thai Lanna villagers settling centuries ago would be a miss. The Wang Nam Mok community – a tiny village gem known to us from one of Dan’s documentary shows, welcomed us with one of the best home-cooked Isaan-meets-Lanna meals we’ve ever had, as well as invited us to do a ceremony dressing in traditional clothes and visiting the stunning teakwood temples with village elders.

It is so often that local connections add the special context that brings a location to life. This is what leaves a lasting impression on our guests, and it paid off in spades for Smiling Albino in Nong Khai.

nong khai 1
nong khai 3
nong khai 2

A Mystical Evening

Our final stop was in Loei province. Chiang Khan is a chilled-out town of old wooden buildings in Northern Loei on the banks of the Mekong River. After an afternoon of enjoying the picturesque town, we headed down the Mekong River to check-in to our accommodation in Pak Chom, where the fabulous accommodations at Mekong Villas sit on the banks of the river. This is Loei’s most fabulous private residence with picturesque Mekong River views. So where’s the action? Unaware to our guests who sat down to a gala dinner in the garden, the action was lurking in the surrounding dark forest.

loei dinner
loei isaan brunch
loei painting

The province of Loei is known to outsiders primarily for their unique Phi Ta Khon Festival – a multi-day event where locals dress up as “hairy water ghosts”, or spirit gypsies, donning large masks made from colourfully painted rattan sticky rice steamers and strips of bright cloth, and take part in Buddhist merit making processions.

Digging deeper, we found a village carrying on the 200-year-old tradition of Phi Khon Nam, a localized and original spirit ceremony practised in some parts well before the world came to know about the now famous Phi Ta Khon Festival. We wanted to reveal, share and celebrate this hidden tradition with our guests. We brought 15 villagers from up in the hills down to our villa to perform what most had never seen nor heard of before as an insider’s contrast to the well known Phi Ta Khon.

Our very own Phi Khon Nam beastly deities emerged from the darkness, surrounding the cheerful dinner setting with wide-eyed guests. There commenced an evening of eclectic entertainment devolving to outrageous Phi Ta Khon-masked drag shows, to burlesque and fire performances. Definitely an evening to remember on the forested banks of the Mekong!

chiang khan performance 7
chiang khan performance 5
chiang khan performance 3
chiang khan performance 1
chiang khan performance 6

The Conclusion

The gap between luxury and an unduplicable lifetime memory is bridged by sheer creativity. Curiously, it is often this kind of creative imagination that is missing from the luxury hospitality industry. It’s perhaps why most people or companies might not think of creating a luxurious, highly complex experience in a place like Isaan. It’s more than lipstick on a water buffalo. It’s that glass-chewing, fire-in-the-belly creativity required to make a region like Isaan bare its glorious soul which results in once-in-a-lifetime memories for even the most discerning travelers.

A huge shout out to our amazing Smiling Albino team who made this adventure happen, and the fabulous guests who trust us with their precious time and memories!

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