Published: 16th September, 2019
Rice paddies extend to the horizon, punctuated by a weaving village, a meditation monastery or the ruins of a 1,000-year-old Khmer settlement. Legs crossed on floor mat, a local drops you a bucket of ice and a ya-dong whiskey to help you compete with the six mean chillies of a som tam Lao. Colloquially known as Isaan, under-visited Northeast Thailand has brought some of our favourite memories of travel in the kingdom.
Thais are often surprised when foreigners voice their appreciation of the Northeast. Predominantly flat and dusty, with some rather less-than-charming prefab and featureless towns, this isn’t a region that leaps out at the visitor. But take a closer look and you’ll find some special places, from languid river towns to haunting ruins and national parks with strangely shaped rocks, sunrise viewpoints, roaring waterfalls and 3,000-year-old rock paintings.
Set to a dialect and cuisine closely related to Laos, and with substantial Khmer, Chinese, Vietnamese and tribal influences in places, Isaan’s 20 provinces maintain an identity that’s both connected to, and yet distinct from, the rest of Thailand. Drawing few tourists, the region is perhaps best known for warm hospitality and addictively spicy and intense food. Bring a phrasebook and don’t be shy around the locals—they’re great fun.
Below we offer a pair of two-week routes: one cutting north through central Isaan from Bangkok to Nong Khai, and the other running east out across lower Isaan to Ubon Ratchathani. Which you choose may depend on where you want to enter Laos—in the lower north at Vientiane or the south near Pakse and not far from northern Cambodia. If you want to keep plodding through Isaan, follow the Mekong north from Ubon or east from Nong Khai to fuse both of the two-week routes covered below into a full Isaan breakfast lasting six to eight weeks in total.
Jumping between Isaan’s provincial capitals is relatively stress-free thanks to a comprehensive network of buses and minibuses (vans). Each of the routes covered below loosely follows one of the region’s two railway lines as well. Cheap flights connect Bangkok to Isaan via sleepy airports in Buriram, Khon Kaen, Loei, Nakhon Phanom, Roi Et, Sakhon Nakhon, Ubon Ratchathani and Udon Thani.
Tuk tuks, local songthaews and slow, old-style buses connect provincial capitals to smaller towns and villages. Motorbike rental is available in most of the larger cities, and the region is great for a rental car. (If you’re thinking of riding a scooter without an international motorcycle license, read this first.) For more details, see our individual transport pages—like this one for Nakhon Ratchasima—and try an online search at Travelfish partner 12Go Asia.
Life on the Isaan plateau weaves into paddies and we love visiting both when the fields are being sewn with rice in the beginning of wet season around May and June, and during harvest time in October and November. The mostly flat terrain gets wet from July through September, and excruciatingly hot in March and April.
Cities like Khon Kaen are however popular for the Songkran (Thai New Year) bash in April, which kicks off a festival period that lasts until harvest time throughout Isaan. Other noteworthy celebrations include Loei’s freaky Phi Ta Khon; the decked-out candle parade of Ubon; Nong Khai’s mysterious naga fireball display; and, of course, the competing rocket blasts of Yasothon and Roi Et. Almost every town in Isaan enjoys a festival at some point.
Either way, pop 70 km north to Ayutthaya, settle into a guesthouse and set out on bicycle to explore the Thai capital of 1350 to 1767. With a second day, employ a frog-themed tuk tuk or a longtail boat for a trip to outlying temples, the 19th-century Bang Pa In Palace or the crafts centre at Bang Sai. Return to soak in scenery along three rivers as you fill up on savoury boat noodles and prawns the size of a grown man’s forearm. Though part of Central Thailand, Ayutthaya makes a worthwhile stop on the way up to Isaan.
If you’re a morning person, lift yourself up to catch Ayutthaya’s ruins at dawn—Wat Lokkayasuttharam’s reclining Buddha is magic at this hour. Otherwise enjoy a leisurely brunch before waving goodbye to Ayutthaya’s headless buddhas on your way to catch a train to Pak Chong, jumping off point for Khao Yai National Park. Beginning in Bangkok’s industrial shadow, listen to the train wheels click as you sway into to the cooler air of the Khao Yai (“Big Mountain”) sub-region, the gateway from Central Thailand to Isaan.
Put on your hiking shoes for a granddaddy of Thai national parks, home to impressive waterfalls, chilly mountain viewpoints and peaceful campgrounds. Keep an eye peeled for wild elephants, leopards, gibbons and all sorts of birds, bats and reptiles amid Khao Yai’s 2,100-square-km jungle. Expect to lose a couple of days within park boundaries, perhaps saving a third day for the farm and wine trail of Muak Lek, the rolling hills of Wang Nam Kiew or the striking dam and more waterfalls found to the south of Khao Yai in Nakhon Nayok province.
Rest your trekking legs on the train or bus from Pak Chong to the capital of Nakhon Ratchasima, the largest province in Isaan by landmass and the second largest in Thailand. Commonly referred to as Khorat, the capital is home to roughly 400,000 people and serves as a major transport hub. Lose a day in town and a second hitting the Khmer ruins and burial sites of Phimai to the north; or the silk and pottery towns of Pak Thong Chai and Dan Kwian to the south.
Or just stay in Khorat city for endless food, including pungent khanom jeen in Mae Kim Heng market, excellent Japanese fare and the province’s signature som tam which dashes Isaan-style fermented fish into a Central Thai presentation. Have it with sticky rice and rotisserie bird from Saeng Thai after paying respects to Ya Mo in the town square. While Khorat has its share of sleek business hotels and youth hostels, we still prefer the old-school Sansabai House.
Located 60 km northeast of Khorat, Phimai is a laid-back town introducing the charm of Isaan countryside alongside the Moon River and one of the most stunning sets of Khmer ruins found outside of Cambodia. Also check out the fabulous lintels and statuary in the National Museum and spooky Sai Ngam, said to be the largest banyan grove in Thailand. If it’s not too much trouble, make your way to the nearby village of Ban Prasat to meet local craftspeople after observing a trio of 2,000-year-old burial sites. Among them is an execution pit, with homestays and plenty of cows besides. This area is famous for its pulled rice noodles—look for them in pad mii Phimai, a provincial cousin of pad Thai with more savoury and less sweet tones on the tongue.
Heading north from Phimai is a little tricky but doable; ask the motorbike taxi drivers for help at the tiny bus station and, after some waiting and a leisurely songthaew ride, hop on a bus to the Khon Kaen metropolis, 150 km to the north. This capital city houses some 500,000 people as a dynamic hub of commerce and transport. It’s decidedly non-touristy, but also well educated via several universities and with a solid spread of hotels and food. Don’t miss the lake and the chedi that towers beside it to the south of downtown.
Around Khon Kaen, have fun choosing from quirky attractions including dinosaur-bone archaeology pits; a scenic reservoir; and a riveting king cobra village. Consider a side trip to the offbeat towns of Chaiyaphum and Nong Bua Lamphu as you plod north up to the next urban stop: Udon Thani.
Though not a charming place, this large city makes a good base for launching day trips to the extensive archaeological site at Ban Chiang and Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, both of which stand as highlights of the Isaan region. In the latter you’ll walk a mysterious, ancient trail filled with 3,000-year-old cave paintings and stone markers assembled like Stonehenge more than a millennia ago.
The next stop for most travellers will be Nong Khai, a top spot hosting the most popular border crossing to Laos for those travelling north to Vientiane and perhaps onwards to Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.
If you’re down for some slow travel along the way, skip Udon Thani’s busy bus terminals and catch a songthaew from Talad Rangsina to the sedate Mekong river town of Sangkhom. Watch this grand river flow past from the porch of a bungalow at Buoy Guesthouse before catching the slow but steady green local bus through Sri Chiang Mai and back east to the capital town of Nong Khai. If you have a vehicle, stop at Wat Ong Tue and Wat Hin Mak Peng along the way.
Before catching that tuk tuk to the Friendship Bridge and into Laos, hang around Nong Khai to stroll the riverfront, dig into Vietnamese fare and take a bike ride to the captivating sculpture park. The mid-size city has a strong spread of accommodation, including the classic Mut Mee Guesthouse overlooking the Mekong.
For the lower route we pick up in Khorat but instead of rolling north to Phimai and Khon Kaen, strike east to the provincial capital of Buriram. This small and largely unremarkable city is mad for Buriram United, the local football squad that’s always the best in Thailand thanks to the help of a former prime minister from the area. Stay a night if there’s a match on at the Thunder Dome; otherwise pivot straight south to Nang Rong.
Set 55 km from Buriram town, this boring spot is clustered along a highway and attracts a trickle of travellers to the family-run Honey Inn, a reliable spot to find a room and transport to the nearby ruins of Phanom Rung and Muang Tam. Both of these 1,000-year-old sites boast exquisite Hindu artistry of Khmer design, hemmed in by lotus ponds and reservoirs dug by the ancients. Also hit the unrestored ruins at Ta Muan, a site shared between Thai and Cambodian military outposts and set slap bang on the border. Unlike at Phra Wihan (Preah Vihear), which can only be visited from Cambodia at time of writing, authorities of the two countries have worked out a deal allowing foreign visitors to access the Ta Muan site from either country.
The next stop is Surin, a lively and ancient city displaying prominent Khmer features in culture, language and architecture. With terrific value on accommodation and a fun nightlife scene, this elephant-themed city makes for an entertaining night. Give the markets a wander for frog curry and sticky rice soaked in rice wine after peeping murals inspired by the Thai Forest Tradition at Wat Burapharam.
Not far from Surin’s golden elephant Olympian statue sits the train station, where you can pick up a slow crawl east to Si Saket, with or without a stop at the roadside Khmer ruins of Sikhoraphum. Skip Si Saket if you’re short on time; otherwise hop off for a night of feasting on deep-fried larva, laab and som tam mixed with food of Khmer origin and cold beer at markets extending from the train station. Si Saket province also hosts the quirky Wat Lan Kuad (“Million Bottle Temple”) and some minor Khmer ruins of its own.
As an alternative to Si Saket which takes you 100 km north on a side trip, the low-key provincial capital of Yasothon is a lovely slice of offbeat Isaan. The giant toad museum is good fun and dishes like spicy young banana salad and laab made with crab from the local streams can be scored in an attractive old quarter. “Yaso” and its rivals in neighbouring Roi Et province turn rocket mad in May and June—don’t miss the festivities if passing through then.
Turning 100 km southeast we come to Ubon Ratchathani, the fourth and last of Isaan’s large cities and home to modern shopping centres blending into straw-hat-wearing charm along the Moon River. Check out the many sparkling wats and strike into the countryside to visit the brass makers of Baan Pa Ao or the foreign meditation monks at Wat Pah Nanachat. Leave time to feast on fiery laab duck and Vietnamese-style peppered pork soup with fresh rice noodles. Ubon finishes off nicely with a stroll or jog in Thung Si Muang followed by a lounge beside the Moon River and a graze at the night market on the way back to a comfy and affordable room at Outside Inn.
From Ubon city you could keep east straight to the Laos border crossing at Chong Mek, or take the slow route with an optional stop in Phibun Mangsahan on the way to scenic Khong Chiam. Known for the “two water river” that forms where the Mekong meets the Moon, the town serves as jumping off point for the ancient cliff paintings and angelic waterfalls of Pha Taem, one of our favourite national parks in the region. If you have the time and means, keep north to poke around the “3,000 holes” in a vast slope of riverside rock at Sam Phan Bok. If you make it there, don’t miss a boat ride through the “Grand Canyon of Isaan”.
At this point you could drop south and cross into Southern Laos en route to Pakse and the moving ruins at Wat Phu near Champasak. If staying in Thailand, keep north from Khong Chiam through Amnat Charoen to pick up our Isaan Mekong itinerary, starting at Mukdahan. If choosing to stay in Thailand after Nong Khai, strike east to Bueng Kan or Sakhon Nakhon.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don't over plan!
Burma lends itself to a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don't leave the ground. There isn't much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.