Isan – About Isan in Thailand

Isan is an area in the northeastern part of Thailand. It is a great place to visit if you would like to experience the real Thailand in a place that is not packed with tourists. One of the reasons there are relatively few travelers to this region is that it is inland, far from the Thai coast, and thus has no beaches. Instead it is a hilly, even mountainous, area full of small towns and villages. An interesting fact about Isan is that the local culture has evolved from an eclectic mix of Thai, Lao and Cambodian influences. You are not likely to find major five star resorts to stay in here but you will be able to travel around and find a comfortable place to sleep.

Isan is visited mainly by backpackers and adventure seekers. Families with small children will not find the types of organized activities or the comfort level they need. Travelers to Isan generally want to see as much of the region as possible, spending only a night or two in each town. To help you plan your trip, read about Isan and its cities, which have both a traditional Thai atmosphere and interesting things for you as a traveler to do.

Thailand - Isan Isan in Thailand
 

Khon Kaen

The Mittraphap Road, also known as Highway 2, brings tourists to Khon Kaen. This town is a center for Thai industry, in particular silk production. Khon Kaen is also a center for education, so you should be able to find people to speak English with.

Loei

Surrounded by lovely mountains and hills, Loei is adjacent to the Mekong River. It is well known as a center for producing wine.

Nakhon Phanom

Nakhon Phanom is a fascinating city, heavily influenced by Lao culture. This should not come as a surprise, considering that it is right next to the Lao border.

Nakhon Ratchasima

Don’t miss this city, the vibrant capital of Isan.

Nong Khai

The beautiful scenery of the Mekong River surrounds Nong Khai.

Roi Et

Phra Rattana Phuttha Mongkhon, the world’s largest statue of Buddha, is located in this town.

Surin

Surin is known for its Khmer Temple. Every year, the city hosts an elephant parade.

Udon Thani

Visit Udon Thani to see the Ban Chiang architectural excavations.

Thailand - Isan Isan in Thailand
 

Getting there

Flying by airplane is the fastest and most convenient way of getting to these areas from Bangkok. If there are no scheduled flights, your options are bus or train. Bus is the cheaper of the two, with regularly scheduled service, but train is more convenient. It’s best to arrange for your accommodation in advance, as this region does not have a strong tourist infrastructure. You can find a place to spend the night in most of the villages, though it may not be a plushy 5 star hotel.

Dining

The food in Isan is very different from what you will taste in the rest of Thailand. The influence of traditional Lao cooking style is very clearly apparent. Som Tam, a dish that is very common locally, consists of a sort of salad made of unripe papayas. Most Thai are used to eating Som Tam with dried fish, but in Isan you’re more likely to see it topped with fish or canned crab. Chicken and rice is another popular combo. Larb is a cold meat salad flavored with mint and citrus. Be warned – the local food is exceptionally spicy. You can even add a little (!) spice to your adult beverage. Only the bravest tourists are ready to sample a favorite local concoction – rum combined with orange juice and hot chilies.

Activities

One of the most unforgettable activities in Isan is getting to know the local residents and their culture. Other activities center mainly on admiring architecture and nature. There are a number of temples that are considered noteworthy tourist attractions, such as the Si Saket temple, constructed out of beer bottles or the Chiang Khan temple inside a mountain. The Phanom Rung historical park is the site of several amazing Khmer temples. Phimai historical park also features some interesting examples of Khmer architecture. In Nong Khai, visit the unique Sala Kaew Ku statues. For a change of pace, head to Khao Yai National Park to admire the local flora and fauna and some gorgeous waterfalls. Isan is well worth a visit, but be advised to plan your trip in advance so you will get as much out of it as possible. There have been some rumors that travel in the north of Thailand can be dangerous, especially in the area along the Cambodian border near Preah Vihear. The Thai soldiers on guard tend to have altercations with the Khmer, and it is really not a great place for civilians to wander into. The best advice is read about Isan in the news to know the current political climate, and to be extra careful.

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