Tales of the riverbank

The Mekong valley in north-eastern Thailand is a mysterious region seldom visited by tourists. Matt Warren explores its stunning waterfalls and temples - and tries its 'exotic' cuisine

So, this is dinner. From where I'm sitting, it looks more like a childhood nightmare. The insects start small: grubs, flying ants and caterpillars. Sprinkled with monosodium glutamate and deep-fried until a rich, golden brown, they are brought to the table stacked high on plates and arranged in incongruous, kaleidoscopic patterns.

So, this is dinner. From where I'm sitting, it looks more like a childhood nightmare. The insects start small: grubs, flying ants and caterpillars. Sprinkled with monosodium glutamate and deep-fried until a rich, golden brown, they are brought to the table stacked high on plates and arranged in incongruous, kaleidoscopic patterns.

Seri, my guide, goes first. He selects a plump grub, flicks it into his mouth and starts rummaging around in the grasshoppers. I match his grub with a bamboo worm, which he then trumps with a flying ant. Surprisingly, the grubs are as moreish as multiplex popcorn.

But this is as good as it gets. At my end of the table is a monstrous pyramid of giant water beetles. In the unforgiving glare of the strip lights, these three-and-a-half-inch-long bugs look like alien cadavers laid out on a slab. The garnish - two lettuce leaves and a radish bulb - is fooling no one.

It is the monsoon season in Isan, Thailand's remote north-east, and the rains are hammering out a drum roll on the tin roof of the restaurant. All I'd wanted was a cheeseburger, but McDonald's tends to follow the tourists in Thailand, so in this corner of the country bugs still reign supreme.

The next day we are eating bearded catfish on the banks of the muddy Mekong river in Nong Khai. Peeking out of the water is the cap of a half-submerged temple and beyond, on the other bank, is Laos. Just out of town, the Friendship Bridge spans the river, where tourists congregate after the long bus journey from Bangkok before crossing the border. North-eastern Thailand is poor by comparison to the rest of the country, but things get a lot more basic in Laos, where one of the world's last Communist regimes keeps a tight hold on power and four out of five people are subsistence farmers. For now, the bridge is a Checkpoint Charlie across South-east Asia's economic Iron Curtain.

Perhaps it is the spell of the sleepy river, perhaps it is Isan's strong sense of identity and mythology, but the area has a through-the-looking-glass quality to it. Head west from Nong Khai and the roads are lined with topiary: dinosaurs, Thai boxers, even Teletubbies. Head west, and you reach the even stranger Sala Kaew Ku sculpture park.

The park was designed by Luang Pu, a man who described himself as "half-man, half-snake" and claimed to have learnt the mysteries of the underworld from an ascetic he met down a hole. It is full of Hindu and Buddhist symbolism - passing 25m-high concrete snakes and anthropomorphic dogs, a walk through the park is like an afternoon in the mind of William Burroughs.

And things just get curiouser and curiouser. Downstream, the Mekong is famed for its naga fireballs - unexplained globes of light that rise from the water and float off into the air. Appearing annually at the end of the Buddhist Rains Retreat, which is held with the 15th waxing moon of the 11th lunar month, the fireballs are a popular subject of drunken debate. There has even been a film, Mekhong Full Moon Party, about them.

"They do exist," says Julian, the owner of our guest house. "They appear every year like clockwork. I have seen them." Excitedly, I ask to see the photos; unfortunately, I am told, they never come out. Four hours later, I am watching a plant dance to a toy monkey playing a drum. It is one of Thailand's least visited tourist attractions, but the Udorn Sunshine Nursery in nearby Udon Thani is proof that Isan does things differently.

Long known for his orchids, which he grows to make a perfume, the nursery's owner recently turned his attentions to breeding a plant that moves to music. "Look," he says as the monkey drums. "You see? The leaves are vibrating." And so they are. I have yet to be struck blind by one of Isan's little miracles, but by the time I hit the highway, I am definitely feeling a little more like Alice.

Isan is also a region of paddy fields and farmers, a congregation of poor provinces detached from the Thailand of mass tourism, soda white beaches and go-go bars. This is not the beaten track. Some 800 years ago, it sure came close though. As a strategic part of the powerful Khmer Empire, which erected Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia, modern Isan is still peppered with ancient monuments thrown up during its heyday.

The guns of recent conflict still surround the huge temple of Khao Phra Wihan. Built atop a geological line between Thailand and Cambodia, the complex was once home to remnants of the Khmer Rouge, who sheltered in the region until as recently as 1998. Rusting artillery pieces sit on deflated tyres next to piles of ancient rubble, and landmines pepper the surrounding forest. Standing on the edge of the cliff, with the towers of the 12th-century temple behind and Cambodia 600m below, is one of Thailand's great "wish you were here" moments.

Although only really accessible from Thailand, Khao Phra Wihan is actually in Cambodia. The walk from the car park (in Thailand) to the temple involves crossing a no-man's-land where passports are checked, fences are negotiated and national flags are flown. On the Cambodian side, a ragtag army of Khmer postcard vendors, occupying a makeshift village at the base of the temple, do their best to make a living from the wealthy Thai tourists. A thousand kilometres from Nong Khai, South-east Asia's Iron Curtain is still drawn tightly shut.

Isan doesn't have beaches, but that didn't stop them filming some of The Beach here. Captivated by the beauty of the Khao Yai National Park, location scouts for Danny Boyle's film adaptation awarded the park's Heo Suwat waterfall a starring role. Tigers are the park's resident stars now and as we tramp through the jungle, strange sounds seem to hang in the soggy forest air. Even time gets sluggish in the sticky humidity.

We don't find a tiger, but we do encounter sambar deer, wild pigs, gibbons and, one of the park's wild elephants. I also collect a leech, which has to be burnt off my back with a cigarette. "Oh my god! You have those?" someone says. "This is the monsoon," the guide replies. "When you get back to the camp, it is wise to check in your trousers."

Isan is even home to Thailand's finest winery, Chateau de Loei. In the far north of the region, and well off the road travelled by foreign tourists, this little swathe of pseudo-France offers wine tastings to anyone who happens to be passing. In June, the nearby village of Dan Sai plays host to the explosive Bun Phra Wet festival, but at this time of year, as the monsoon rains stroke the vineyards, I am the only visitor.

My Thai isn't good enough to talk wine with the employee at the tasting table and so I take my glass of chenin outside and lean against the wall. It is a strange thing, drinking chilled white and swatting up on elegantly printed tasting notes as muddy buffalo trundle past. Then again, this is Isan.

SURVIVAL TIPS

GETTING THERE

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Thai Airways (0870 606 0911; ww.thaiairways.co.uk), Qantas (0845 774 7767; www.qantas.com) and Eva Air (020-7380 8300; www.evaair.com) all fly non-stop between Heathrow and Bangkok. Thai Airways (00 66 2545 1000; www.thaiairways.com) and Air Asia (00 66 2515 9999; www.airasia.com) both fly daily between Bangkok and Udon Thani.

STAYING THERE

There are hotels in all of north-east Thailand's major towns. Mut Mee Guest House (00 66 4246 0717; www.mutmee.net), in Nong Khai, is a perennial favourite and the owner is a great source of information on the region. Doubles cost from 440 baht (£6).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Khao Yai National Park (00 66 2 579 0529; www.khaoyai.com)

Chateau de Loei (00 66 2 716 5337; www.chateaudeloei.com)

The Tourism Authority of Thailand (0870 900 2007; www.thaismile.co.uk).

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