Photo: Terrific food!

Isaan explorer - get to know the northeast of Thailand

Rice paddies stretch to the horizon, punctuated by a silk-weaving village, a meditation monastery or the ruins of a 1,000-year-old Khmer settlement. Locals offer a whiskey as you sweat through a meal of som tam Lao and sticky rice beside the Mekong River. Colloquially known as Isaan, Northeast Thailand makes for a beautiful and rich cultural experience.

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Introduction

With a dialect and cuisine closely related to Laos and with substantial Khmer, Vietnamese and tribal influences in places, Isaan’s 20 provinces maintain an identity distinct from the rest of Thailand. It’s known for addictively spicy food and warm hospitality—for the most part you can shed the invisible shield that protected you from scammers and touts in touristy Thailand.

The grand approach to Phanom Rung.

The grand approach to Phanom Rung. Photo: David Luekens

The mostly flat terrain reveals some worthwhile natural attractions to join the Lao-style temples, Khmer ruins and Mekong scenery. While some destinations have caught on with domestic tourists, the vast majority of Thailand’s poorest region is still devoted to agriculture. Outside of Isaan’s few urban centres, straw hats and water buffaloes abound.

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Off the beaten track

Isaan’s lack of tourists is a boon for many, but it also means that travel here can be more of a challenge. Be prepared to use local transport and don’t expect traveller cafes or English-speaking travel agents selling package tours. If you don’t speak Thai, bring a phrasebook.

Just you, a cow and a prasat at Kuti Reusi Nong Bua Rai.

Just you, a cow and a prasat at Kuti Reusi Nong Bua Rai. Photo: David Luekens

The friendly locals help to make up for the lack of tourist services, and if you really need a cheeseburger, most of Isaan’s cities have at least one expat-run haunt. The sparse tourism trade often results in great-value accommodation, making Isaan a favourite of budget travellers with independent and adventurous spirits.

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Suggested trip length

This itinerary runs in a loop, roughly covering the rim of Isaan, and works best at a slow pace. We’d want six weeks (at least) to cover the majority of the places mentioned below, so you might settle for either the upper or lower half of the region if you’ve only two or three weeks to spare. Smaller slices can work as strategic compliments to Northern Thailand, Southeastern Thai islands like Ko Chang, or various parts of Laos and Cambodia, both of which can be reached from Isaan via several border crossings.

A light lunch in Mukdahan.

A light lunch in Mukdahan. Photo: David Luekens

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Weather

Apart from the brutally hot months of March and April, there’s really no bad time to visit Isaan. The paddies shimmer bright green during the rainy months from May to October, when a late-afternoon storm can be expected on most days. A less picturesque straw yellow encompasses the fields from November to April, but the dry months are better for hiking and camping. (See our weather page for more details.)

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Sample itinerary

Starting out from Bangkok or Ayutthaya, head northeast to explore the jungle, viewpoints and waterfalls of Khao Yai, followed by the farm and wine trail if you’ve enough time. After a quick stop in Khorat and perhaps a side trip to the ruins at Phimai, carry on to Buriram to climb on the breathtaking Khmer ruins at Phanom Rung.

Enjoy a quiet moment at Wat Burapharam in Surin.

Enjoy a quiet moment at Wat Burapharam in Surin. Photo: David Luekens

You’ll hear a Khmer dialect spoken in Surin, a town that loves elephants and makes for a comfy stopover on the way to Si Saket, where you’ll find quirky temples, great markets and no other foreign travellers. From here you could take a day trip down to the Cambodia border to glimpse Phra Wihan (or Preah Vihear), though at time of writing it’s not possible to get close to this ancient Khmer sanctuary from the Thai side.

Next you won’t want to miss Ubon Ratchathani, a vast province offering a quintessential Isaan experience. Sample the city’s phenomenal food and abundant temples, and then follow the Moon River east to where it meets the Mekong at a point known as “two-colour river”. While hanging around relaxing Khong Chiam, take a side trip to see the ancient cave paintings and pretty waterfalls at Pha Taem.

Now that is a two-colour river.

Now that is a two-colour river. Photo: David Luekens

From here you could cross into Southern Laos at nearby Chong Mek for a side trip to Pakse and Wat Phu; otherwise stick to Thailand by cutting north to the city of Mukdahan. Another border crossing point, Muk boasts a bustling market alongside the Mekong, with some great food and nearby Phu Pha Thoep providing a fun half-day hike.

Continuing north up the Mekong, don’t skip charming That Phanom, home to one of Thailand’s most revered chedis and some very friendly locals. Nakhon Phanom—with its photogenic French-Indochinese houses and tremendous views across the river to Laos’ limestone peaks—is only an hour’s ride further upstream. If you’re after an adventure, consider crossing the border for a spin around the Tha Khaek loop.

Meet Wat That Phanom.

Meet Wat That Phanom. Photo: David Luekens

At this point you could keep following the Mekong up to far-flung Bueng Kan, or cut inland to check out the temples of Sakhon Nakhon. Opting for the latter makes it easy to swing through the highly significant archaeological dig at Ban Chiang on your way west. Nearby Udon Thani is not Isaan’s most charming city, but it does serve as a comfortable jumping off point for the fantastic and unusual Phu Phra Bat Historical Park.

Whether coming from Udon or Bueng Kan, your next stop will most likely be Nong Khai, which features a funky sculpture park and is probably the Isaan region’s most popular travel destination. From here you could pop across the original Friendship Bridge to sip espresso and go sightseeing in the Lao capital, Vientiane, or continue west on the Thai side to the serene riverside village of Sangkhom.

Put your feet up and watch the river slide by at Sangkhom.

Put your feet up and watch the river slide by at Sangkhom. Photo: David Luekens

Next, take the slow bus as it rumbles west to Chiang Khan to stay in an old teakwood house overlooking a particularly scenic stretch of the Mekong. From here you could head south to Loei and arrange transport to the mountains and waterfalls of Phu Ruea and Phu Kradueng—do pack a sweater.

If you’ll be around here in July, also try to work Dan Sai’s mesmerising Phi Ta Khon Festival into your plans.

Misty woods in Phu Ruea.

Misty woods in Phu Ruea. Photo: David Luekens

Finish up your Isaan trip with a stop in the region’s commercial centre: Khon Kaen. This sprawling city is a challenge for non-Thai speakers to navigate, but by now we reckon you’ll be seasoned at catching songthaews and ordering street food. With a plethora of onward transport options, it’s an ideal place to figure out where the wind will take you next.

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