Thailand’s Isaan region is one of the most under-visited parts of the country. The area is its most rural, and travelers simply pass through it on their way to Laos or skip it altogether in favor of places like Pai, Chiang Mai, or the islands of the south. While Thailand is thought of as this overrun, tourist-filled place, most of the country is actually devoid of them.
In my two weeks in the region, I saw six other travelers. SIX! Travelers are so rare in this part of Thailand that I was often met with quizzical looks by locals — faces that seemed to ask: “Are you lost? Chiang Mai is the other way.” (For all the talk of “getting off the beaten path,” few backpackers leave the banana pancake trail.)
After spending close to ten years traveling and living in Thailand, I had decided it was time to get off the beaten track and visit this region (it was the main reason I took the cheap flight to Thailand in November). There are only so many times one can go to Chiang Mai! I wanted to see the rural interior — Thai life away from Western influences and tourist infrastructure — and get to know Thai culture a little better.
Isaan — a land of mostly farms and villages, architecturally uninspiring cities, and spicy and delicious food (some of the best in Thailand) — exceeded all of my expectations. Isaan is one of those places where you can get off the trail and see what life, unspoiled by tourists, is really like in Thailand.
While I’ll get into the logistics of traveling Isaan in another post, today I want to share my favorite sights and activities:
Isaan’s gateway city, Korat is the nickname given to Nakhon Ratchasima. It’s the region’s largest, most well-to-do town and features a big university. Like most Thai cities, it lacks any real inspiring architecture, but it does have a lot of beautiful temples, including Wat Ban Rai and Wat Phayap. The city is definitely worth a day or two as you make your way deeper into Isaan. When you’re there, head to the Yellow Pumpkin for a cool coffee shop, stay at Tokyo Mansion, and eat at the soup stall on the corner of Buarong and Suranaree Rds. It’s open at night and incredibly popular. I stumbled on it, and it was the best noodle soup I had in Isaan.
This historic ruin is an easy day trip from Korat. It was mostly built around the 11th and 12th centuries by the Khmers when they controlled the area. Beautiful and under-visited, this site features a center temple surrounded by a few mini-strictures and a square gigantic wall. To get to the temple, you walk across a naga bridge (naga serpents were guardians of heaven), through a crumbling wall, and across a field. The complex inspires awe as you approach it, and it reminded me a lot of Angkor Wat (they were built in the same style) but without the crowds. I saw only two other foreigners there, as this ruin is mostly frequented by Thais and school groups.
Mostly a stopover city for tourists coming in and out of Laos, Nong Khai was awesome. There are amazing food and coffee shops (try Macky’s Riverside Kitchen or Cake at Toey’s), river cruises up and down the Mekong, and a cool market. Also, lots of temples: I’m a big fan of Wat Pho Chi and Wat Phra That Khlang Nam. While I really liked the slow pace of life, what really blew me away was Sala Kaew Ku. This sculpture park, built by Bunleua Sulilat in 1978, has hundreds of statues (mostly of Buddha) in all shapes and sizes. It was the coolest thing I saw in all of the city, and I especially loved the giant Buddha with the naga snakes over it (that’s a lot of concrete!).
Another stopover city for tourists on their way to Laos. I liked the relaxed feel here. The only foreigners who stay in this city either married a Thai or teach English. There isn’t much to do here, so it’s a good place to unwind. You can overload on one of the Buddhist temples in the city (my favorites are Wat Tai Prachao Yai Ong Tue and Wat Thung Si Muang), visit the famous night market or the surprisingly detailed national museum, and eat dinner on the river, but there’s not much more to the city than that! I would also suggest a cab to the Wat Nong Pah Pong outside the city (300 baht round-trip). A tiny temple, the tree-covered grounds, and numerous paths make it an incredibly tranquil and Japan-esque place to walk around.
Prasat Ta Muan
In between Korat and Surin is Prasat Ta Muan, a historic site consisting of two large temples built by the Khmers in the 11th century. The first site is located on top of a hill and, well, quite underwhelming. It’s a beautiful temple, with a large prasat (temple) in the middle and Indiana Jones–style ruins surrounding it. This main structure is where they would pray. There’s a large Buddha shrine and some cool pits and drains where they would purify themselves during rituals. The highlight, though, is really the view of the surrounding area. You get this sweeping view of the hills and farms in the area. I liked the smaller Ta Muan Toch complex better (it’s about a 20 minute ride from the big temple). There are far fewer people (I counted eight on my visit), and four beautiful ponds and a well-preserved wall surround the temple. The inner area itself is mostly a pile of ruins, however. You can visit both as a day tour from Korat or Surin, but with more time, stay in Nang Rang for a night and rent a bike to get around. If you do, stay at Honey Inn. It’s cheap and the owners are amazing (and they will drive you to the bus station in the morning).
Phu Phra Bat Historical Park
An hour outside of Nong Khai is Phu Phra Bat, a national archeological park that features ancient stone houses and rock formations. After a beautiful scenic drive, you’ll arrive at the park (it’s going to be just you and school kids) where you can wander a forest and see some rock art. The purpose of the area is still a mystery to historians and archeologists alike, but the 3,000-year-old rock formations are thought to have been formed initially by river erosion and then later modified by religious groups.
Biking around the countryside
The best part of Isaan is wandering the rural countryside, and that’s very hard to do if you don’t have your own transport. Isaan lacks an extensive transportation network outside the major towns. My favorite memories were the scenic bike rides through the rice fields, farms, and small towns, and down dirt roads. But I wouldn’t have had those if I had hired drivers to take me around the whole time, which was an expensive thing to do. And, I never got really far because I could only hire some for the day. When I wandered Isaan with a driver, I wished I had my own method to get around. Rent a bike or car, go at your own pace, get far off the road, and enjoy lush and vibrant green farmland, friendly and curious locals, cheap meals, and cows blocking your way!