The proud city of Khon Kaen sprawls on the east side of the same-named province and serves as a major hub of education, transport and commerce for the Isaan region. Most foreigners who pass through are either here on business or to catch a bus, but travellers looking to practice their Thai while getting a feel for a big, non-touristy Thai city will find enough to do for a couple of days. What Khon Kaen lacks in charm, it makes up for in energy.
Often dubbed the heart of Isaan, Khon Kaen has a population between 200,000 and 400,000 (depending on the source), making it one of Thailand’s largest cities. With an enrolment of over 25,000, Khon Kaen University is the biggest in the Northeast. Laos and Vietnam both have consulates here issuing visas in advance — a necessity for travel to Vietnam and required if you want to catch one of the international buses to Vientiane.
Modernity is the way in Khon Kaen today. A handful of buildings reaching up to 30 storeys have joined modern shopping malls, major international chain hotels and sprawling suburbs. While the city lacks the charm of Chiang Mai or Ubon Ratchathani, a few neighbourhoods to the north of town are still graced by old wooden houses, and the tree-lined Bueng Kaen Nakhon Lake provides a scenic stretch for relaxation in the city’s southern reaches.
Khon Kaen was named after Phra That Kham Kaen, an old chedi built over a tamarind tree that supposedly grew miraculously after a relic of the Buddha was placed in a dead stump. It’s located 20 kilometres northeast of the provincial capital, which was founded in the late 1700s by an officer from Vientiane who switched sides after Siam conquered Laos.
Jumping back 65-145 million years to the Cretaceous Period, dinosaurs of many shapes and sizes roamed the land that now encompasses Khon Kaen province. Beginning in the early 1980s, archaeologists at several sites that are now part of Phu Wiang National Park unearthed many fossils and skeletons, including a previously unknown ancestor of the T Rex. Dinosaurs now feature in signs and statuary all over the province.
Chinese-Thais, Vietnamese-Thais and a substantial community of Indian-Thai Sikhs who often sell ravishing fabrics downtown join the area’s majority Lao/Isaan-Thais. Unlike nearby Udon Thani, Khon Kaen has a relatively small expat community and English is not widely spoken. If you’re intimidated by the lack of tourist services but still want to explore the area, an American contributor to Lonely Planet co-operates a local tour company, Isan Explorer.
Khon Kaen is a large province with plenty of attractions, though none are all that popular, especially among foreign travellers. You could head southeast to the Khmer ruins at Prasat Puay Noi; southwest to see gorgeous mutmee silk crafted in Chonnabot; northeast to Baan Khok Sa-Nga, where the locals keep king cobras as pets; or west to the large Ubonrattana Reservoir and the dinosaur attractions of Phu Wiang. Back in the city itself, Wat Nong Waeng’s nine-floor chedi overlooking Kaen Nakhon Lake should not be missed.
Every year in April, Khon Kaen puts on one of Thailand’s biggest water-splashing parties for the annual Songkran (Thai New Year) festival — a great option if you’re looking to celebrate away from the tourist crowds. This is also when bunches of bushy yellow flowers bloom on the city’s golden shower trees.
Khon Kaen is centrally located at a crossroads in the upper Isaan region, 450 kilometres northeast of Bangkok and 200 kilometres south of Vientiane. It’s one of Thailand’s biggest transport hubs. Highway 2 (or Mittraphap Road) runs north to south through the west side of the city and eventually shoots all the way up to Udon Thani and Nong Khai, and down to Khorat.
The city is clustered between Bueng Kaen Nakhon Lake in the south and Khon Kaen University in the north. The main north-to-south drag through the city centre is Klang Mueang Road, while Sri Chant Road starts near the Central Plaza shopping mall in the west and cuts east through downtown before turning into Highway 12 in the eastern suburbs.
Hotels are found all over town, including several towards the northern side of downtown near Prachasamoson Road and Klang Mueang Road. Just northeast of the train station and west of Klang Mueang, the towering Pullman Raja Orchid Hotel overshadows a small expat and nightlife area on Soi Kosa, where you’ll find several Western restaurants, a shopping centre, car and motorbike rental outlets, nightclubs and a few mildly seedy beer bars.
A walk south on Klang Mueang Road takes past an enormous cluster of open-air markets displaying everything from cheap clothes to live eels and curries for takeaway. Some of the nearby shophouses sell Indian textiles and silk/cotton wears made nearby. Continue south to hit the night market on Ruen Rom Road, followed by the back entrance to Wat Nong Waeng.
The Vietnamese Consulate (T: (043) 242 190;(043) 241 154) is located on the east side of the city at 65/6 Chata Phadung Road, a five-minute walk south of Prachasamoson Rd. It’s open Mon-Fri 09:00-11:30 and 14:00-16:00; we were told that visa applications can be dropped off at any time during opening hours and picked up the next afternoon.
The Lao consulate (T: (043) 242 858;(080) 363 7450) used to be conveniently located close to the Vietnamese one, but in 2013 it moved to the city’s distant northern fringe. Find it on the east side of Highway 2, about 500 metres north of Tesco Lotus and across from Mooban Raja City (songthaew #4 can take you here). It’s open Mon-Fri 09:00-11:30 and 13:00-16:00, and it usually takes only a few minutes to apply for and receive a visa.
Note that both the Lao and Vietnamese consulates are closed on all public Thai holidays as well as their own respective holidays. The Thai word for “consulate” is sa-tan-tut, so, for example, say “sa-tan-tut Lao” to a taxi driver.
If you need an extension on a Thai visa, the Khon Kaen immigration office is located on the far north side of town off Highway 2 and can be reached by the same number 4 songthaew that passes the Lao consulate.
The public Khon Kaen Hospital is located on Sri Chant Road on the east side of town, but finding someone who speaks English may be a challenge here. The better (and pricier) option is the private Bangkok Hospital on Maliwan Road, just east of Khon Kaen University’s southern entrance. There’s also the Srinagarind Hospital to the north of town off Highway 12, and Khon Kaen Ram Hospital, just west of Central Plaza off Sri Chant Road.
The police station is centrally located on Klang Mueang Rd, a three-minute walk south of Sri Chant and next to the post office. If you need some direction on what to do in Khon Kaen, the TAT has an office across from the northwestern side of Kaen Nakhon Lake on Rop Beung Road.
ATMs and banks are readily available all over town. If you need to get online, Relax Internet Cafe is located on the side street between Sri Chant Road and the Kosa Hotel, just east of the Pullman.
By David Luekens.
Last updated on 8th October, 2016.