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.
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