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The 19 provinces of northeastern Thailand are collectively called Isan (e-sahn) and account for roughly one-third of the country's landmass, and a third of the population. Bordered by Laos to the north and east (along the Mekong) and by Cambodia to the south, the region suffers from a stagnant rural economy. Life is hard on the scorched plains of Isan, but the friendly people of this region welcome travelers warmly -- you'll experience something along the lines of America's southern hospitality. There are a few tourist attractions, mostly off the beaten track, including some important archaeological sites (mostly dating from the Khmer period), lovely river towns, finely made crafts, and fiery food. The areas in the far north and along the Mekong are particularly worth the trip.

The weather is especially hot in Isan but follows a pattern much like the rest of Thailand: It's coolest from November to February; hot and dry from March to May; and rainy from June to October. Windswept and infertile in parts, but verdant along the Mekong, the region is attracting more international tourists who come for the trekking options, but also because Isan is a good jumping-off point for trips to Laos.

Indeed, much about Isan, from the weather to the local dialect and culture, resembles Laos and is quite distinct from mainstream Thai culture. As a result, many joke about Prathet Isan, or "the Nation of Isan," for its unique language, culture, and stubbornly snail-like pace. As the poorest region of Thailand, with little opportunity for its young populace, Isan is experiencing an ever-increasing drain on people as young folks move to the area's larger cities. A few learned phrases of the Isan dialect will endear you to a large part of the Bangkok cab driver population, for example. You are sure to meet kind folks from Isan in every region of Thailand, and the fact that you know the name of their town, much less have been there, will be a source of wonder.

Information & Tours

A few Thai Airways (tel. 02356-1111; www.thaiair.com) and PB Air (tel. 02326-8000; www.pbair.com) flights are available to these parts, and there are regular bus and train connections throughout Isan. In more remote parts, buses are slow and won't stop near sights, so try to arrange a tour, or go by your own rented vehicle with a driver. The latter is a relatively affordable proposition; expect to pay about 2,000B per day, plus fuel. Contact Isan Discovery Travel in Khon Kaen (311/15 Klang Muang Rd., 3rd Floor, Room 305, Khon Kaen 40000; tel. 04332-1268; fax 04322-5196; www.thaitraveldreams.com), a small, expat-owned tour company; they can arrange a private itinerary covering the region.

There are Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT) offices in bigger towns in the region (though few are conveniently located). Check out www.tourismthailand.org, or call tel. 1672 for assistance.