Khon Kaen is a city of contrasts. Having been the big winner in the Isaan region's economic boom of recent years, this is a big, fast-paced city with lots going on. In fact, it is Thailand's fourth largest, and yet it still manages to retain at least something of a small-town feel.
The place may be buzzing, but western tourists are still by no means common currency — this is the northeast, after all, which means you can expect plenty of inquisitive smiles and friendly conversation. This is particularly the case if you go for a wander by the Bueng Khaen Nakhon lake (recommended) where the happy-go-lucky crowd it attracts — both young and old — are always up for a chat.
Traffic on the roads can be sluggish, and there are even the exact same taxis and tuk-tuks here as in Bangkok, but a wide songthaew service means getting around is on the whole both cheap and easy. One guide book goes so far as to suggest you'll need the elephants trudging the streets (with the mahouts selling the obligatory food) to remind you that you are in Thailand — and while that may be stretching the truth, there are certainly times when it is easy to forget you are in the northeast.
Particularly for seafood, Khon Kaen is paradise for foodies. Take a stroll through one of the fresh street markets in late afternoon, and you will be struck by the abundance of produce — squid, shrimps, clams, whole fish and a massive range of meats and vegetables, the displays glistening as the blinding sun sets across the city and vendors dowse down their stock with icy cold water to keep it fresh.
So too at the main night market, underwear and denim jeans sit alongside stacks of eggs and bags of fresh chillies. This is a city straddling tradition and modernity — it may now have two large shopping centres, complete with Tesco, McDonalds and KFC, but old-style Isaan foods are still here too and, certainly in the countryside, agriculture still looms large.
Accommodation choices are plentiful, and overall Khon Kaen makes for a very pleasant stopover en route to or from elsewhere in the north or northeast.
All major Thai banks are represented in Khon Kaen and you'll have no trouble finding international access ATMs and money-exchange facilities.
Many hotels and guest houses offer free WiFi to guests, while internet cafés are also dotted around town — the biggest and best is the mighty S-Force, near the corner of Na Muang and Ruen Chit roads, which has reliable access for 17B per hour.
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Text and/or map last updated on 30th October, 2013.