Most visitors to Thailand, eager for the hackneyed image of beaches, boutique hotels and floating markets never make it to Isaan - the vast plain of land that makes up Thailand's northeastern region. The same visitors, wherever they end up in the kingdom, will have experienced Isaan culture in some form or other. From the bellboy at your hotel to the taxi or tuk-tuk driver and that delicious street food you've just scoffed, likelihood is that there is an Isaan connection. So distinct are Isaan's people, culture and language that many barely consider them Thai at all. The wealthy whiter Thais of the central plain certainly look down their noses at this region and that's their loss, as Isaan is the friendliest part of a friendly country. The locals, tired of being labelled country bumpkins by the sophisticates of Bangkok, are delighted to see visitors taking an interest in their region. However, there's more than this. At Ban Chiang, a village east of Udon Thani, some of the world's earliest evidence of agriculture has been uncovered, dating back 5000 to 7000 years. The region once formed an integral part of the magnificent Khmer Empire based at Angkor. The impressive ruins at Phimai, Phnom Rung, Muang Tham and Prasat Khao Phra Viharn clearly show that Isaan - the Thai name for the northeast - has not always been devoid of 'civilized' life, whatever those in Bangkok might like to think. There's a rich, contemporary Isaan culture too: check out the exotic temple fairs and wild rocket festivals; the fine handwoven textiles and unique celebrations of Buddhist lent; aromatic kai yang (grilled chicken) and fiery som tam (papaya salads); while Isaan pop musicians, nasal to the max, are among the highest sellers in the country. And don't forget national parks, mountain walks, elephant treks, tubing on the Mekong and the best bicycling in the country.