Photo: Terrific food!

Four weeks along the Mekong in Northeast Thailand

From the Himalayas to the Pacific, the soul of mainland Southeast Asia rides the Mekong. Thailand shares nearly a quarter of this 4,350-km river with Laos, most of it along the outer rim of the Northeast Thai region, known as Isaan. Sedate villages, vast paddies and sampan net fishers join historic temples and national parks in a less-travelled part of the region. We really dig it.

Itinerary map


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Introduction

Some of these places are off the beaten track, even for cow herders. Bring a Thai and Lao phrasebook, and expect to use the latter more than expected since most khon Isaan speak a Lao dialect while following a Lao flavour of Theravada Buddhism. They also spend loads of time with an intensely spiced cuisine, ubiquitous on both sides of the border, bursting with freshwater fish, aromatic herbs and fresh chillies tempered by sticky rice. Don’t be surprised when the famously hospitable people insist you have a taste.

The food in Loei. Yes, unfortunately you will need to leave.

The food in Loei. Yes, unfortunately you will need to leave. Photo: David Luekens

In the mid-19th century, the people and culture of Isaan were largely indistinguishable from those on the left bank of the Mekong in what’s now the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, with its capital at Vientiane. Back then it was all part of Siam, former name of the Kingdom of Thailand still rooted in Bangkok. Initially based up the Mekong at Luang Prabang, the Lan Xiang Kingdom controlled much of the valley from the mid 14th to 18th centuries, and prior to that, around a millennium ago, the Khmer oversaw long stretches from its centre at Angkor. No matter which of these powers were around, the people who lived along the Mekong tended to view it not as a political or cultural boundary, but simply as a big and abundant river that could be crossed without much hassle.

That changed when the French demarcated much of the Mekong as a border with Siam when annexing Laos into its colonies in 1893, part of the aftermath of the Pak Nam Incident in Bangkok. Siam held onto Isaan in a deal that marked an enduring border.

Big river.

Big river. Photo: David Luekens

Later, the American secret war on Laos—and the related Vietnam War and Lao Civil War—took hundreds of thousands of lives and triggered major social and economic changes, ending with the 1975 communist takeover and downfall of the Lao monarchy. Meanwhile, the United States heavily influenced the Thai side of the Mekong via military bases and related aid throughout these wars. In Laos, some of the roughly 270 million cluster bombs dropped by American planes keep killing each year.

These days Thailand is the more developed of the pair, with better-value accommodation in many of its Mekong river towns. Some travellers prefer the “wild west” feel of Laos. Differences break down in the hinterland, where Lao-speaking folks on both sides trade and mingle as neighbours and family. Hundreds of villages dot the Mekong—don’t be surprised if your fondest memories come in places whose names you won’t remember.

All shiny at Wat That Phanom.

All shiny at Wat That Phanom. Photo: Stuart McDonald

While our four-week route sticks to the Thai side of the border over roughly 900 km, much may be done on the Lao side and you could always cover some stretches in Thailand and others in Laos. With that in mind, we mention worthwhile spots in Laos accessible via any of the “Friendship Bridge” border crossings. If you’re really looking to explore Isaan, combine this with a pair of routes out of Bangkok to create a two-month loop taking you through 20 Northeast Thai provinces—a great way to use up a tourist visa.

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Getting around

The train runs from Bangkok up to Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) and from there you can cruise north to Nong Khai, or east to Ubon Ratchathani. You can also fly between Bangkok and the provincial airports in Phitsanulok, Loei, Khon Kaen, Sakhon Nakhon, Nakhon Phanom and Ubon Ratchathani. On the Lao side, airports stand in Vientiane, Luang Prabang, Savannakhet and Pakse. Expect to pay more if flying via Laos.

Phitsanulok train station. You want neither of these.

Phitsanulok train station. You want neither of these. Photo: David Luekens

Every Isaan provincial capital has a bus station with reliable onward transport to Bangkok, around the Isaan region and sometimes into Laos. Remote towns and national parks can be more of an adventure to reach via slow local buses, songthaews or tuk tuks. Overall, Isaan’s attitude is so laid back that travel tends to be enjoyable, even when half a dozen motorbike taxi boys have to join forces to explain the bus you want doesn’t leave ‘til morning.

Thailand’s Mekong region is conducive to a rental car, available online and in person at the airports and from local agencies (they generally cannot be brought across the border). Motorbike rental is available in some, but not all, of Isaan’s larger towns. Mekong trips on two wheels are a blast, though be sure to have a Thai and/or international motorcycle license before shoving off. Read this first if you’re thinking of riding unlicensed.

There are plenty of options for getting around.

There are plenty of options for getting around. Photo: David Luekens

If hopping back and forth across the river (i.e. the border) often, beware that as of late 2018 Thailand allows only two free 30-day visa-exempt stays per calendar year for travellers crossing overland—a rule which is especially noteworthy for anyone exploring the Thai/Lao Mekong valley. If you’ll be crossing into Thailand more than twice over the course of this trip, even if only jumping to Laos to look for that Beer Lao “golden” variety, you’ll have to grab a Thai tourist visa in Vientiane or Savannakhet (or fly from, say, Vientiane to Bangkok) for the third entry to Thailand. Use those crossings wisely.

As for Laos, most travellers have no problems entering on as many visas on arrival as they like, but the 1,500 baht fee piles up. Don’t be surprised to pay an additional 100-baht fee for “processing” or “after hours” to the Lao border guards. Also, bring the name and address of a guesthouse, as travellers who have no idea where they’ll stay might be charged yet again.

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When to go

Our favourite periods for Isaan are May/June when the paddies are being sewn, and during rice harvest in October/November. December through February is dry and relatively cool, but the landscape becomes parched and the paddies sport ugly brown stubble later in that period. April can be excruciatingly hot and is the worst month for Isaan, unless you’re coming specifically for Songkran. Other key festivals include Yasothon’s Rocket Festival, Dan Sai’s wild Phi Ta Khon around late June and Ubon’s dazzling candle parade in July. Reserve rooms well in advance for festival time.

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Day by day

Day 1: Phitsanulok to Dan Sai
Perhaps you’re sitting in a cafe in Sukhothai, scratching your head as you look over a map. Or maybe you’re clinking south from Chiang Mai on the train to Bangkok, thinking about calling the airline to put off that flight back home. Just make your way to the transport hub of Phitsanulok, and it will all work out. Find a bus that goes east, making a stop in Dan Sai.

Pull up a pew and slow down. Somewhere in Dan Sai.

Pull up a pew and slow down. Somewhere in Dan Sai. Photo: David Luekens

At the footstep of upper Isaan, this mountain-rimmed village is best known for its scary Phi Ta Khon outfits and the related festival—do make it a priority if you’re in the vicinity around June. One of the town’s striking wats sports a chedi established in the 1500s as a display of mutual respect between the Lan Xiang (Lao) and Ayutthaya (Siamese/Thai) kingdoms. The friendliness didn’t last—Siam invaded Vientiane two centuries later—but the chedi at Dan Sai continues to symbolize the Lao-Thai identity of the Isaan people.

Days 2-3: Loei
It’s an 80-km bus ride east from Dan Sai to the capital of Loei province, which remains off the radar for most foreign travellers. The small and rather featureless city has some good markets for sampling country mushroom curry and giant water bugs pounded into chilli pastes.

Loei has plenty of wow.

Loei has plenty of wow. Photo: David Luekens

For the second day, dine on crunchy “dancing shrimp” and whole grilled fish with fresh sticky rice noodles and herbs in a floating shack, working off the calories on a climb through the limestone karsts of Suan Pha Hin Ngam. Also known as “Loei’s Kunming”, this Tarzan-esque landscape is not too far from the “Mount Fuji of Thailand”, whose peak lies beneath a blanket of fog most mornings. After a full day, kick your feet up at the good-value Sugar Guesthouse.

Days 4-6: Phu Kradueng or Phu Ruea
Loei province proffers rugged swathes of mountains—the subject of two worthwhile national parks. To the west, sub-zero temperatures occasionally hit Phu Ruea’s 1,365-metre peaks—an occurrence that’s entirely exotic to Thais who flock up here in December. Located about 50 km west of Loei town on the way to Dan Sai, the park and surrounding agricultural region are a good bet if you’ve been sweltering in the flatlands.

Misty woods in Phu Ruea.

Misty woods in Phu Ruea. Photo: David Luekens

But if we only had time for one of these parks, we’d pick Phu Kradueng for its trail leading past serene waterfalls, viewpoints and up to a campground draped in temperate forest atop a 1,300-metre plateau. Located some 80 km south of Loei town and accessible by regular public buses, Phu Kradueng can also be reached from Khon Kaen and even Bangkok’s Morchit terminal, if coming from the south.

Days 6-7: Chiang Khan
Properly introducing you to the Mekong River some 60 km north of Loei town, languid Chiang Khan has become a hot spot in the Thai tourism circuit. Some of the “boutique” cafes and hostels go bravely into the realm of kitsch as natives moved inland, renting out their riverside heritage houses to entrepreneurs from Bangkok and elsewhere. Don’t be surprised when a gaggle of Thai uni students pile into your guesthouse lounge.

Meet Chiang Khan. Are you picking up on our slow down message yet?

Meet Chiang Khan. Are you picking up on our slow down message yet? Photo: David Luekens

Chiang Khan’s century-old houses and temples are as handsome as ever, and it’s tough to beat a Mekong sunset from the riverside walkway, fluffy green hills catching light on the opposing bank as longtail boats putter to shore. On day two, wake up and take a songthaew up Phu Tok for a sunrise view of the Mekong from above. By afternoon we once found ourselves in the minuscule village of Ban Tha Di Mi to see a big Buddha standing beside the exact point where the Mekong reintroduces itself to Thailand after flowing down from Luang Prabang.

Side trip option: Luang Prabang via Tha Li
We’ve not yet used the little-known border crossing at Ban Na Kra Seng in Tha Li district to the west of Chiang Khan. While there appears to be little of interest immediately on the Lao side, it’s worth keeping in mind as a less touristy alternate route up to Luang Prabang via an international bus caught at in Loei town. We’ve heard the road is not quite as curvy and nausea inducing as the one from Vientiane. This is no casual detour—the round trip to LP will add some 800 km to your journey.

Days 8-9: Sangkhom
Many travellers return to Loei town and catch the first bus to Nong Khai, but we’d seek the local bus that passes beautiful scenery while crawling east along the Mekong like a tortoise on the way to Sangkhom. Straddling the river amid fields of tobacco and papaya, this sedate town hosts the laid-back Buoy Guesthouse and sits within striking distance of the Mekong viewpoint at forest temple Wat Pha Tak Seua, not far from the angelic Than Thip Waterfall.

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

If you can afford to lose a day, take a swing into Udon Thani province to observe the ancient stone ritual markings, mushroom-shaped “balancing rocks” and cave paintings of Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, a highlight of Isaan. Back in Sangkhom, lounge beside the Mekong at dusk as you sip Mekong whiskey with a bucket of ice and nibble on Mekong catfish sizzled in curry paste or simmered into tom yum. The next morning, return to that tortoise bus for the 80-km ride to the next stop.

Days 10-13: Nong Khai
Nong Khai, the most popular destination in this itinerary, is still nowhere near as popular as, say, Chiang Mai or Sukhothai, and we think it’s worth at least a day to wander the riverfront and visit the imaginative sculpture park. With extra days you have a couple of day trip options—west to Sangkhom and the rice paper village of Sri Chiang Mai, or east for Wat Phu Tok in Bueng Kan province. In either direction, farmers in straw hats join their water buffalo and lotus patches.

Nong Khai: Thailand ends shortly.

Nong Khai: Thailand ends shortly. Photo: David Luekens

A lot of travellers simply bide their time at Mutmee Guesthouse, leaving their riverside hammock only to wander Nong Khai’s riverfront and dig into Vietnamese fare as delicate as the Isaan food is ferocious. With a well dug-in traveller scene based on the Friendship Bridge 1 crossing near the Lao capital, Nong Khai is a key waypoint on this journey.

Side trip option: Vientiane
The Lao capital sprawls around 20 km west of Nong Khai and onward transport is readily available on both sides, making this the most popular crossing between Thailand and Laos via the original Friendship Bridge. It was also the original crossing point when Laos reopened to international travellers in the early 1990s. It’s a breeze to catch an international bus or even a train across the border to temple hop and lounge in Vientiane’s European-style cafes between bites of Lao and Vietnamese fare. It would be silly to visit Nong Khai and not meet Vientiane as well.

Days 14-15: Bueng Kan or Sakhon Nakhon
Now the compass points east as you have a couple of obscure, non-touristy provinces to choose from on the Thai side of the border. Those wanting to stick to the Mekong head to Bueng Kan, which was part of Nong Khai province until it seceded and became the 77th Thai province in 2011. The highlight is Wat Phu Tok, a haunting cave temple strung to a cliff by a series of walkways and steps. Those who fear heights may want to pass.

Sakhon Nakhon is home to Thailand’s largest parasite infected lake. The food is great tho, just skip the raw fish salads...

Sakhon Nakhon is home to Thailand’s largest parasite infected lake. The food is great tho, just skip the raw fish salads... Photo: David Luekens

Alternately you could swing south from the Mekong and check out the small city of Sakhon Nakhon, known for its Thai Forest Tradition meditation monasteries and natural lake infested with fish who carry cancer-causing liver flukes—avoid the raw fish salad known as koi! SK may not be a highlight, but not a bad option as a one-night stopover that also gives you a shorter travel leg to the next stop.

Days 16-18: Nakhon Phanom
If coming down from Bueng Kan you’ll be treated to more picturesque Mekong scenery on the ride to the river town of Nakhon Phanom, capital of the eponymous province. Studded with temples, this charming town has built one of the longest riverfront bicycle lanes in Isaan, all of it overlooking the magnificent limestone massifs of Tha Khaek over on the left bank in Laos.

In Nakhon Phanom the views are great, but the food is even better.

In Nakhon Phanom the views are great, but the food is even better. Photo: David Luekens

The town’s few minor sights include a house where Ho Chi Minh plotted his next moves in the 1920s, standing as part of an area settled by Vietnamese who arrived at various points during the last century. We also love this town for its night market and colonial-period architecture, including a Gothic-style cathedral and former governor’s residence, both built by the Mekong in the early 20th century.

Side trip option: Tha Khaek
About that scenery on the Lao side: it’s pretty damn dazzling and easy enough to access via the Friendship Bridge 3 out of Nakhon Phanom. Tha Khaek town has a range of travel services, including motorbikes rented out to travellers embarking on the loop. After completing it you could cruise south in Laos and re-enter Thailand via the Savannakhet / Mukdahan crossing, hitting the next stop on a day trip from there.

Day 19: That Phanom
Set halfway between Nakhon Phanom and Mukdahan on a road winding past paddies and solar farms along the Mekong, That Phanom (it rhymes with “got to roam”) has to be one of the friendliest place we’ve passed through in decades of travel in the kingdom. On our last visit, a monk led us to his uncle’s house for fresh papaya and tea—and that was after a table of aunties insisted we join them for gaeng normai (bamboo shoot curry), som tam and fish.

Meet Wat That Phanom.

Meet Wat That Phanom. Photo: David Luekens

The main attraction in this tranquil riverside town is the revered Phra That Phanom, a chedi of impressive proportions and historical significance for people of Isaan and Laos. A stone stump first marked the site as sacred in the 8th century. The 57-metre-high chedi seen today was rebuilt in 1975 as part of a succession of rebuilds, each styled differently, which came and went over the centuries. In the wat’s extensive museum, a series of paintings depict successive stages of how Phra That Phanom changed and developed.

Days 20-22: Mukdahan
Minibuses roll 50 miles downstream to “Muang Muk”, a city that’s grown at a rapid pace since the Friendship Bridge 2 opened in 2007. Several comfy hotels cater to travellers and businesspeople who haggle on wholesale goods in Indochine Market.

A light lunch in Mukdahan.

A light lunch in Mukdahan. Photo: David Luekens

Muk’s riverfront walkway meanders past atmospheric wats and eateries where you grab a stool with a river view to sip ice-cooled beer and munch on deep-fried cicadas and a fiery laab of minced Mekong fish. On a second day, explore the mushroom-shaped rocks and tranquil waterfall and meditation cave at Phu Pha Toep National Park, set just 15 km south of town and reachable via one of the colourful Isaan tuk tuks.

Side trip option: Savannakhet
Mukdahan’s sister city on the Lao side retains a sleepier vibe defined by attractive French-Indochinese houses and unhurried people. Sample som tam made with Laos’ super-pungent fermented fish sauce, or dine on upscale French cuisine beside the old church and town square. While here, imagine the French colonialists trading with Chinese, Siamese, Vietnamese, Lao and tribal merchants in centuries past.

Days 23-25: Ubon Ratchathani
The largest city in this itinerary, Ubon lies 160 km south of Mukdahan and you could make a pit stop in either Yasothon or Amnat Charoen on the way. Or you could stick close to the Mekong and stop in any of a hundred or more villages.

When in Ubon, eat everything.

When in Ubon, eat everything. Photo: David Luekens

Once in Ubon, fill up on fiery laab duck and Vietnamese-style pulled rice noodle soup with peppered pork. In addition to the terrific food and calming scenery by the Moon River, this city of around 400,000 people contains one of the region’s most attractive collections of temples. Travellers into meditating and experiencing the workings of a forest temple can stay at Wat Pah Nanachat, the only monastery in Thailand where English is the main language used. If crafts are your thing, visit the weavers and smiths of Baan Pa Ao.

Day 26: Khong Chiam
Wake up early and jump in an orange local bus (or a more boring white minibus) bound for Phibun Mangsahan, a town full of shops selling steamed Chinese buns and temple gongs. Don’t miss Phibun’s fresh market before you transfer to another bus (or minibus) that rolls 70 km further east to the Mekong settlement of Khong Chiam.

Now that is a two-colour river.

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

Set where the chocolate-milky brown water of the Mekong meets the dark-blue Moon River, this wee town is a fine place to be waylaid at for a night or two. Rouse a tuk tuk driver at the morning market for a ride south to Woen Buk, the southernmost Mekong River settlement in Thailand. Locals produce forest mushrooms, fish and sturdy sticky rice steaming baskets. They also tend to the mules that graze on roadsides. On a hill above town towers a slender chedi, its golden surfaces shimmering in an idyllic scene.

Days 27-28: Pha Taem National Park
For many travellers, the real reason to hit Khong Chiam is for its daytripping potential to Pha Taem—not your typical national park. After catching the earliest sunrise in Thailand and perusing 3,000-year-old cliff paintings depicting odd geometric shapes, plod north up a red-dirt back road to hit a trio of waterfalls. Our favourite is Nam Tok Saeng Chan, where the water plunges through a circular hole in the roof of a cavern.

Ancient art, timeless views. At Pha Taem National Park.

Ancient art, timeless views. At Pha Taem National Park. Photo: David Luekens

After exploring Pha Taem, don’t miss nearby Sam Phan Bok for its namesake “three thousand holes” pegging a wide, other-worldly expanse of riverside stone. The site has been promoted for tourists in recent years and longtail boats will cruise you through the narrowest point in Thailand’s portion of the Mekong after a songthaew trucks you down to shore. Along the way, fishers squat on the cliffs to dip two-metre-wide nets into the current.

Where to next?
The obvious move from the Khong Chiam area is to strike south past Sirindhorn Reservoir and exit Thailand at the Chong Mek / Vang Tao crossing, where onward transport is available to Pakse and Champasak. After visiting the haunting ruins of Wat Phu, keep south to end your Mekong voyage with a bang at the 4,000 islands. Or, keep going down into Cambodia using the Veun Kham / Dom Kralor crossing to follow the Mekong all the way to Phnom Penh and onwards to the delta in Southern Vietnam.

Alternately you could stay in Thailand and get lost in the remote “Emerald Triangle” region where Laos, Cambodia and Thailand nudge up to one another. If returning to Bangkok, take your pick of plane, train or bus out of Ubon. If you flipped the itinerary and finished around Nong Khai or Loei, consider picking up one of these five routes up to Chiang Mai.

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