Our Home Away from Home in Dan Sai, Isaan, Thailand
Just outside of Dan Sai, a diminutive town in the northwest of Thailand’s Isaan region, we stayed at PhuNaCome, a beautiful boutique resort set amid lush rolling hills typical of the countryside of the Loie province.
From the balcony of the main sandstone building, where there’s a cosy sitting room and functional restaurant, there are bucolic vistas of the verdant valley and the stunning swimming pool below.
There’s a small lake floating with lotus flowers, and beyond that there is an organic farm that provides the property with fresh produce. Reception staff will ask for your meal orders well before you eat – which baffled us until we discovered (purely by accident, while we were strolling around the property) that it’s so the kitchen staff can go and pick your ingredients from the garden.
Although the restaurant menu was short and could definitely do with a few additional dishes, the delicious food at PhuNaCome was a real highlight – typical Isaan cuisine; simple, hearty, and home-style: tasty fried chicken, tangy som tam, and a rich coconut chicken curry.
As there are no other eating options close by, you will be eating your main meals at PhuNaCome unless you’re happy to take a bit of a drive, so it’s fortunate the food is something to look forward to. Now, drinks on the other hand… It seems the hotel doesn’t get too many guests ordering beer or wine. When we stayed, the choice was limited, the selection bad, there was very little of it, the wine was old, and a corkscrew took forever to be found. While we’d expect this of a more basic hotel, PhuNaCome markets itself as a ’boutique resort’ thereby raising guests expectations.
If you feel like reaching for something from the mini-bar after a long drive or a sweaty day out and about in the Isaan, then it’s best to bring your own. Buy supplies from Khon Kaen or whatever other big town or city you’re coming from, as the mini-bar is, well, let’s just say ‘limited’.
The rooms themselves are super comfortable and well-fitted out otherwise. Most of the accommodation is in one of two adjoining two-storey buildings overlooking the small lake. The spacious rooms have comfy beds, crisp cotton sheets, polished wooden floorboards, lovely bathrooms, teak furniture and fittings, mod-cons like satellite television, tea and coffee making facilities, and air-conditioning, and big balconies overlooking the lake with a table and chairs that are ideal for sipping a cold something as you watch the sun go down.
Across on the opposite side of the lake, however, are three delightful, traditional, Isaan-style houses, with grass roofs and walls, low beds with mosquito nets, and big wooden balconies with cute alcoves that would make even lovelier spots to sip something cold from, along with all the mod-cons of the modern rooms. However, unfortunately these aren’t clearly identified on the website at all and I wasn’t aware these could be booked. In hindsight, I would have preferred to stay in one of these little houses for more of an Isaan experience.
And an Isaan experience is what we had really been expecting when I booked PhuNaCome. In theory, the property should be perfect for experiential travellers looking to learn something about local culture. The website lists countless activities that are available that had really got us excited about going here – everything from cotton-weaving to mask-making.
But while reservations staff confirmed by email that we could participate in some farming activities and suggested we learn how to make the Phi Ta Khon Masks for which Dan Sai is famous, the staff on site didn’t seem to know about this and the farmer who had been there when we arrived had gone home when we returned in the afternoon and it was his day off the next day.
Like Supanniga, where we’d stayed in Khon Kaen, there was only one staff member at PhuNaCome who spoke English, and she wasn’t around for most of our time there. The owner apologised for this when she called from Bangkok, explaining that the other English-speaking staff were away on training. It was low season after all.
We’re not the kind of travellers who expect staff to speak our language either – we’re in Thailand, so we expect them to speak Thai; and we’re in the country’s poorest and most off the beaten track region so we understand finding English-speaking staff must be challenging – however, I wonder how some, less tolerant travellers might manage. If they have dietary requirements, for instance, I wonder how they might communicate that. By speaking loudly I guess?
If there are tricky arrangements that need to be made, such as ordering meals in advance or arranging activities that should have been arranged, then the hotel needs to have some kind of communication process in place if there are no English-speaking staff around, other than phoning the owner in Bangkok. The English-speaking reservations staff on the other end of the emails should have given me a heads-up that I’d need to pack my Thai-English phrasebook. (Unfortunately, I’d forgotten it.) Or better yet, they should have their own Thai-English phrasebook on the shelf so guests and staff can play a pointing game, which is always fun.
The little issues of language and communications aside, PhuNaCome is a wonderful place to relax for a bit if you’re going to stay overnight in Dan Sai and we highly recommend it. We really do. Just make sure that if you stay longer than a day and want to do some activities, that you confirm them and reconfirm them well in advance. With some activities sprinkled throughout a stay, it would even be a fab place to spend a few days.
Just make sure you book one of those Isaan-style houses. And do let us know if you like it.
Note: Dan Sai is written as both Dan Sai and Dansai; it is the same place.