The pattern of travel to Thailand developed in a way that
reflects that in other popular global destinations, with intrepid
travellers spidering their way throughout the country, leading to a
growing backpacker market. This in turn led to a focus on tourism at
all levels - but with a specific focus on a few destinations that
burgeoned over time. However, in Thailand as in other popular
holiday countries such as Spain, France or Egypt, it is still very
possible to leave the tourism hubs behind, and to venture off the
beaten track to discover the soul of the country.
In Thailand, this soul, this spirit, inhabits the Isan plateau - Thailand's Northeast - that borders Cambodia to the West and Laos to the North. From the indigenous molam music to the region's distinctive food, from its historical ruins and legends to its archaeological idiosyncrasies, and from the local villagers' hand-woven silks and cottons to the renowned sense of warm hospitality and humour, runs the golden thread of the Isan sensibility.
Discover the Northeast by car, train, or bus - and see a completely different Thailand from that generally witnessed by foreigners. Combine a visit to the historical sights with a determined foray into the countryside, where you will be plentifully rewarded for escaping the city!
We do not here propose a fixed itinerary for a tour of Isan, as set
programmes rapidly become generic and stifle spontaneity. So, if you
see an interesting little track leading off into the rice fields -
why not take it? If you stumble across a local festival ablaze with
colour and music, why not participate?
However, we outline below some suggestions of places of interest, that may form part of your travels through the Northeast.
From Bangkok, travel to the National Park of Khao Yai.
This is a popular excursion for Bangkokians, given its proximity to the capital, and there are numerous resorts of all categories here. The national park is famous for its waterfalls (including Haew Suwat), its volcanic caves (often home to millions of bats whose nocturnal food forays launch with a thick, comic-book swarm from the caves at dusk), its wide variety of flora and fauna (including elephant, monkey, gaur, deer and orchids), its areas of natural beauty and markets.
From Khao Yai, head up to Khorat (Nakorn Ratchasima) and to the impressive Khmer temple ruins at Phimai (Prasat Hin Phimai). The edifices were constructed in the tenth and eleventh centuries - so before the famous temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia - in white and pink sandstones.
Two kilometers away at Sai Ngaam, Thailand's largest banyan tree may be found, which is believed to be 350 years old. Also near Khorat is the village of Dan Kwian, renowned for its beautiful earthenware.
From Khorat, head North towards Green Gecko near Udon Thani, and from here explore the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ban Chiang.
From Green Gecko, a drive of approximately ninety minute will take you to the border town of Nong Khai on the Mekong river, opposite the Lao capital of Vientiane. The Friendship Bridge may be crossed by car, bus or train: enjoy either a brief visit of Vientiane itself before returning to Thailand, or head up to Luang Prabang via Van Vieng for a deeper exploration of Laos itself.
From Ban Chiang, head east to Nakhon Phanom , set on the banks of the Mekong river amongst jungle-clad hills, opposite Thakhaek in Laos. The region is infused with the dialects, customs and cuisine of Lao and ethnic minorities that have migrated here over the centuries.
From here, head south to Ubon Ratchanthani (Ubon) and across to the little town of Khong Jiam, Thailand's most easterly point where the muddy-brown Mekong and dark blue Mun rivers meet, giving rise to the local name of Two Colour River (Maenam Song See).
From Ubon head towards Si Saket and Surin to Khao Phra Viharn (or Preah Vihear), a truly magnificent ancient temple, which was finally listed in 2008 as a Cambodian World Heritage Site, after bitter wrangles between Thailand and Cambodia. Whilst the temple complex is on Cambodian territory, it can only be accessed from Thailand, as it stands atop a tall, looming cliff. This awe-inspiring temple was deliberately built on the summit of the cliff, with a large processional path leading up to it, a sacred way from the human world to the divine. The stairs begin at the foot of the hill (in Thailand) and culminate at the peak (in Cambodia).
Whilst the site's demise started as from the collapse of Angkor in 1431, the ruins of the temple must constitute one of the most magnificent spectacles in South East Asia. Foreigners unfamiliar with the political tussles are all the more taken aback by its beauty, as in general they have not heard of Phra Viharn and so react, perhaps, as Mouhot did when rediscovering Angkor.
Udon Thani to Loei
The most scenic drive from Udon Thani to Loei is not the one generally highlighted by road signs (which indicate a quicker route via Nong Bua Lamphu), but a journey that fundamentally hugs the banks of the Mekong upstream.From Udon Thani, head north towards Nong Khai. Before arriving in the town, look out for highway 211 leading off to the left at KM marker 158, towards Tha Bo, Si Chiang Mai, Sang Khom, Pak Chom (the former site of a major Hmong refugee camp) and Chiang Khan. This road will take you up to the Mekong at Tha Bo and then track this mighty river all the way to Chiang Khan. After Tha Bo, the scenery gradually becomes more and more dramatic, with steeper jungle-clad hills rolling down to the banks of the Mekong, opposite Laos.
From here, then head south to Loei on highway 201.
Loei to Chiang Mai
From Loei, head towards Dan Sai (if traveling in June, check out the Phi Ta Kon festival) and then to Phitsanuloke. From here travel north to Uttaradit then Phrae, before heading on to Lampang and finally to Chiang Mai itself.
Udon Thani to Ubon
This trip can be made by car, motorcycle or public transport (with a mix of buses, coaches and songthaew pickups), but particularly appeals to cyclists as the area is perfectly suited to exploration on bicycle, and avoids the hills of the Udon Thani - Loei route.
From Udon Thani
head up to Nong Khai. If you are leaving from Green Gecko, head
first to Ban Chiang and then take road 2096 up to Ban Dung and
Kham Ta Kla. Here turn left onto highway 222 up to Bung Kan. Nearby
are the Phu Wua Wildlife Preservation centre, and the spectacular, famous
temple of Phu Tok, with its seven winding levels of paths to the summit
of the mountain. Only attempt the ascent if you are in fine fettle!
From Bung Kan head to Ban Peung, enjoying the tranquil scenery and the small villages that dot the way. From here, the road continues to hug the cafe-au-lait waters of the churning Mekong river, along to the city of Nakhon Phanom - the first major conurbation along this route.
From here, you can follow the Mekong down via Mukdahan to Khemarat, Khong Jiam and finally to Ubon Rathchathani.
Isaan, or Northeastern Thailand, covers a large expanse of land, but may readily be explored by plane, car, motorcycle, bicycle or bus - depending on the time available and your propensity towards exercise!
Airports in Northeast Thailand The main airports of Northeast Thailand include Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, and Ubon (Ubon Ratchathani). Smaller airports at Buriram, Sakhon Nakhon and Roi Et, serviced by Nok Air.
Four Wheels in Northeast Thailand Car hire is available in all of these cities. Companies such as Budget and Avis offer "one-way" hires, and these often make sense for those wishing to drive one way and fly the other.
Clickety-Clack: Train Routes in Isaan The two main train routes follow the railway lines north from Khorat to Nong Khai on the Lao border, and east from Khorat to Ubon Ratchathani towards the Cambodian border.
Spinning Wheels in Isaan For cycling enthusiasts, Isaan offers a variety of terrains and routes that will allow riders of all levels to match their preferences in terms of distances, terrain, and topography to a suitable itinerary. If you want to get to see the hidden backwaters of Thailand and lush tropical scenery, try the Udon to Ubon route above. If you own a treadmill, have used it regularly, and enjoy reading the Myth of Sisyphus, try completing the Udon to Loei route above in 3 days!