Luxury and fried silkworms in Northeast Thailand

Silk-weaving is a well-established, traditional craft in the rural villages of Northeast Thailand (or “Isan” as the locals call it.)  Old ladies with wizened faces sit at their antique wooden looms on a dusty floor, skillfully and painstakingly threading the most intricate of “mudmee” weft patterns into the warp. Indeed, archaeologists found the oldest silk fibres at the dig at Ban Chiang in Udon Thani province, a civilization some 3,000 years old.

These silk-weaving villages are dotted across the Northeast of Thailand, a region quilted by rice paddies that serve as a mirror to the seasons there: arid during the hottest part of the year, splendidly verdant in the green season and hewn with gold before the annual harvest.

The Northeast of Thailand remains an excellent choice for the inquisitive traveler seeking to get off the beaten track and away from the crowds. Whilst international hotels line the beaches of Phuket in the South or the roads of Chiang Mai in the North, this region has maintained its authenticity. History buffs will be amazed by the ruins of  Phimai near Khorat, by Prasat Hin Phanom Rung near Buriram, and by the spectacular Preah Vihear Temple near Sisaket. The villagers in the Northeast have a strong sense of identity, are proud of their zingy Isan cuisine and their Lao dialect, and welcome the rare visitors to the rice farming villages with a broad smile.

Whilst accommodation options in the countryside there have historically been either non-existent or extremely basic, enterprising locals now welcome guests to the region with a promise of authenticity and style, and the luxury of privacy and space. Whilst few and far between, these owners have taken a leaf from the book of Jim Thompson, who refined Thai silk to give it pride of place on the world’s luxury silk market, by refining the indigenous to offer something truly unique and rooted in the region.

The Thai holiday villa Green Gecko is one such property, located between Udon Thani and the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Ban Chiang. Guests are met at Udon Thani airport and driven out of town along ever smaller and rougher roads, until they turn down a private forest lane to the villa. Surrounded by rice paddies, sugar cane and cassava plantations and woodlands, the property stands imposingly like a Thai temple. A large hardwood staircase leads up to the wooden deck of the property that is raised on tall stilts in the indigenous style, is clad in wood in the Thai motif, and roofed with tall curved arches, finished in hand made terracotta tiles. Around this raised deck and the very private swimming pool are two air-conditioned, en-suite bedrooms, each with a king sized, four poster teak bed, a covered “sala”, a fully equipped kitchen and a large living and dining room with old wooden floorboards, which is accented by Thai silks, local antiques, and heavy cottons. An ever-helpful Thai family from a village close by prepares delicious Thai meals at no charge throughout your stay, and is happy to take guests to experience the local area – exploring the breathtaking local lotus lake by long-tail boat, negotiating local markets in a typical “samlor”, or arranging a traditional Thai massage by the gurgling private pool.

A particular delight is the local Isan cuisine. Renowned for its depth of flavours, its fiery zing and its freshness, it is surprisingly easy to master. A stroll through a local market will highlight the importance of fresh produce there, with stalls overflowing with green vegetables and herbs, live fish and prawns, and freshly-pounded curry pastes.  Such a visit will also have its surprises – as it may well appear that the people of Isan will eat almost anything that moves! Deep fried grasshoppers and silkworms, steamed bugs, thousand year old eggs and red ant egg soups all vie for their place and will keep the inquisitive gourmet fascinated. Those with a less adventurous palate should not fail to try charcoal grilled, marinated chicken with a green papaya salad, a fresh and juicy beef salad with herbs served with sticky rice, or pumpkin steamed with coconut custard…

Blending discovery and the eclectic with comfort and style, the Northeast of Thailand can now offer the luxury traveller a thoroughly different experience of the kingdom. It is easily accessible by plane via its main cities of Udon Thani, Khon Kaen and Ubon Ratchathani which are served with frequent daily flights by Thai Air, Nok Air and Air Asia.

Charles Coleman is a Director at Thailand Holiday House.

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