Whoa! Just logged back in and didn't realize I'd get so much great input! Thanks!
A few things have changed since my original post. I feel committed to Isan now. I do thank all of the other recommendations, but having been in Bangkok several times, I can honestly say it's one of my least favorite cities on Earth. I was considering it for all of the luxuries, options, and language schools, but I now feel it's a no-go. Also, I had not mentioned it in the original post, but the thesis has a lot to do with Isan and it would be cool to understand what the region is all about.
I do understand it can be boring for a farang, but that's fine. I may just rent for a month and then decide if I need to relocate. The communication barrier still concerns me, but I'm gonna give it a go anyway. I have done some research, and I see almost every major Isan city (Ubon, Korat, Udon Thani, Khon Kaen, Surin, Buriram) has some nightclubs..some with molam (like Tawan Daeng)...which is all I really need. I don't really need (or want) hi-so nightclubs or go-go bars.
I've backed off on needing a gym or a pool at my residence. It'd be nice to find a local gym though...trying to get back into it since I have some time. I think if I can just find a nice condo, I'm solid.
For the language thing, I did find an affordable and well reputed Thai language instructor in Ubon. I haven't started looking in the other cities yet and will check it out this week. I do want to have regular lessons. Although I know the dialects shift greatly, it looks like there are still some good Thai teachers out there. I'm alright if they call me a "redneck" in Bangkok...LOL.
jmor - thanks for the recommendation about the journal access. I've been assured by my uni I'll have access. The tough thing is to make sure I've already notated from any non-electronic sources before I get out there! But your idea of visiting the Thai unis is great. Thanks.
I see a lot of recommendations for Buriram and Surin, which were not on my radar before so I'll definitely check those out! Do they feel much "smaller" than the "big 4" Isan cities? I don't want to go get TOO remote.
I also see some votes for Udon Thani. How does Ubon Ratchathani compare to the others?