Northeast Thailand

Northeast Thailand

The Northeast region of Thailand, also known as Isaan, is often ignored by backpackers and travellers to Thailand. Many seem to write it off as dusty, flat and boring—they couldn't be more off the mark. Isaan is a traditional yet wildly colourful and interesting region of Thailand which is well worth allowing some time to explore.

Elsewhere on Travelfish: Highlights of Northeast Thailand

Though it lacks the pristine beaches, hill-tribe trekking and fast-paced urban energy found elsewhere in Thailand, Isaan's appeal is far more subtle. Often friendlier than in other regions, many of the locals speak a Lao dialect and their rustic Lao-influenced cuisine can be a highlight. There are also significant Vietnamese populations in cities like Ubon Ratchathani, Khon Kaen and Sakhon Nakhon, while a Khmer dialect can be heard in Surin and Buriram.

And then there's the Mekong, a vast churning river that tends to cast a dreamy spell on travellers. The riverside provincial towns of Nong Khai, Nakhon Phanom and Mukdahan all have scenic river frontage, good eating and a relaxed feel. From all three of these you can also cross the river for a day trip or extended stay in Laos.

Many lesser known spots dot the river's bank and some of them—That Phanom, Sangkhom and Khong Chiam, to name a few—are rewarding destinations in their own right. These are places where you can relax into the slow-paced lifestyle, getting to know the guesthouse owners and actually learning something about the country you're travelling in.

Away from the river you'll find a host of ancient Khmer ruins that are also worth a trip: Phimai and Phanom Rung are the best known. More unexpected are the mysterious Mon ruins at Phu Phra Bat and a highly significant archaelogical dig at Ban Chiang. The Buddhism-inclined will also find a plethora of monasteries founded by famous meditation monks, and some, like Wat Pah Nanachat, open their doors to foreigners for extended stays.

If you prefer to get into the wild, Khao Yai is one of Thailand's best (and most popular) national parks. With that said there are plenty of other parks on offer, including Pha Taem which, overlooking the Mekong River and Laos, features ancient graffiti and Roadrunner style stone outcrops.

Or maybe you'll be moved by the unusual festivals, from the totally mental Rocket Festival in Yasothon to the slightly mental Phi Ta Khon in Loei and the pachyderm parades at the Elephant Round-up in Surin.

Isaan sees far fewer travellers than the other Thai regions, making it somewhat more of a challenge to navigate if you've grown used to banana pancakes and English-speaking travel agents. However this also translates into better-value accommodation and an altogether more memorable experience. For the right sort of independent-minded traveller, the Northeast might be just the ticket.

23 destinations in Northeast Thailand

Learn more about That Phanom
That Phanom

One of our favourites

Learn more about Sangkhom

A sleepy river town

Learn more about Phanom Rung
Phanom Rung

Marvelous Khmer ruins

Learn more about Nong Khai
Nong Khai

Welcome to Thailand, hello to Laos

Learn more about Loei

Pack a sweater

Learn more about Phimai

Small town, big ruins

Learn more about Khao Yai National Park
Khao Yai National Park

Welcome to "Big Mountain"

Learn more about Dan Sai
Dan Sai

Home to the Phi Ta Khon Festival

Learn more about Ubon Ratchathani
Ubon Ratchathani

Quintessentially Isaan

Learn more about Khong Chiam
Khong Chiam

Where the Mekong meets the Moon

Learn more about Chiang Khan
Chiang Khan

Popular with Thai travellers

Learn more about Nakhon Ratchasima
Nakhon Ratchasima

Gateway to Isaan

Learn more about Bueng Kan
Bueng Kan

Thailand’s newest province

Learn more about Mukdahan

A growing city by the Mekong

Learn more about Sakhon Nakhon
Sakhon Nakhon

Important temples and a lake

Learn more about Khon Kaen
Khon Kaen

The heart of Isaan

Learn more about Surin

Home to elephant olympians

Learn more about Si Saket
Si Saket

Quirky temples, fiery food

Learn more about Yasothon

Watch out for rockets

Learn more about Nakhon Phanom
Nakhon Phanom

Tremendous Mekong scenery

Learn more about Udon Thani
Udon Thani

Ancient pottery and abundant markets

Learn more about Buriram

Rich Khmer heritage

Learn more about Chaiyaphum

Silk and Siamese tulips