North Eastern Thailand is the Thailand of old and the least visited part of the country. While hoards of tourists and backpackers swarm the beaches of the South, a ‘farang’ (a foreigner) is rarely seen in this part of Thailand, yet those who do visit here are greeted with friendly, welcoming locals – excited to have a tourist in their village.
The area is also known as ‘Isaan’ and shares many characteristics with neighbouring Laos, such as the language and the ever so spicy food – such as the famous ‘somtam’ spicy papaya salad! The culture here also has many distinct features from the rest of Thailand, such as the indigenous Isaan folk music and the unique Festivals, such as Phi Ta Khon in Loei province.
The actual towns don’t offer much to write home about, but it’s out in the countryside where you will experience an amazing part of Thailand rarely glimpsed by backpackers.
Rice fields go on forever, dirt tracks leading through to villages of wooden houses and dustbins made out of old tyres. Sure there are satellite dishes and mobile phones here; but mostly people work in the fields, keep buffalo and chickens and grow most of their own fruit and vegetables. It’s sustainable living in practice and for the tourist, it’s a unique glimpse of real ‘Thai’ life – a throwback to a Thailand from thirty years ago.
For independent travellers, it can be a much harder challenge to explore this part of Thailand without your own transport and good contacts for places to stay; and you are much less likely to meet other backpackers up here. However, if you’re in search of a slice of Thailand that is slowly fading, it’s worth making the effort. North Eastern Thailand is yours to explore.
Places to stay in Isaan
Khon Kaen: Khon Kaen is a great base for exploring Isaan as it is located smack dab in the middle of the region. The cities claim to fame is geological, this being the place where the first dinosaur fossils were found in Thailand. If history gets you all jazzed up, spend an afternoon checking out the Phu Wiang Dinosaur Museum. In order to be close to a smattering of restaurants and bars, it’s best to stay on or around Srichan road.
Udon Thani: A comfortable metropolis this place is as modern as it gets out in the countryside.Udon Thani is a great place to stay for those seeking balance. It’s easy to find the Central Plaza mall, thriving nightlife, and international dining options. However, drive 20 minutes away and find yourself back in a land more populated by water buffalo than people. Stay around Prajaksilapakom road which is close to the main bus station, markets, and the mall.
Khorat: Khorat is a mere three hours from Bangkok and known as the gateway to Isaan. It is also the main entrance point to Khao Yai National Park. This park is one of the most impressive in all of Thailand and offers visitors the chance to stumble upon wild elephants, monkeys, snakes, and even jaguars (if an exorbitant amount of luck happens to be on your side)!
That Phanom: Looking to really get away from it all? Explore this tiny town on the banks of the Mekong, which really picks up in February when the That Phanom festival takes place. Discreetly glimpse what life is like for local fishers while enjoying the popular dolly fish (you know it’s fresh) from one of the many floating restaurants.
Things to do in Isaan
Why not volunteer?
Compared to the many other places in Thailand where the scene is set up perfectly for the backpacker, in Isaan, activities are limited, communication is choppy, and transportation can be slightly less reliable than in the rest of Thailand. In order to better experience this part of the country many visitors opt to get involved in a volunteer project which exposes them to a side of Isaan that would be difficult to access on their own. Projects vary in length, so even if you only have a couple days to give volunteering can still be a viable option. Check out the volunteering possibilities below.
Volunteer Teach English: Check out The “Open Mind Project” which can set you up with both long term or short term teaching opportunities. The Open Mind Project has volunteer sites all over South East Asia, including the Isaan region. Choose from teaching English, computer skills, or eco-tourism and conservation. For more information read about an English teachers experience teaching for 5 months in the country side of Nong Khai.
Work on a farm: Why not don a conical hat, feel the mud between your toes, and learn more about the art of rice farming? Volunteers can opt to go through an organization (such as Woofing) or set up a private agreement (such as Workaway) with individual farmers. Both options help set up individual travellers with families or communities who have started organic farms. Volunteers help out for a set number of hours per day (depending on the family) in exchange for housing and meals. Each opportunity is a tad different so make sure to read through the details before signing on.
Help construct a new learning and recycling centre: Isara Charity Foundation is always looking for volunteers not afraid to get down and dirty in the construction field. The organization offers FREE volunteer opportunities in Thailand with a range of choices to choose from. Check out the website for access to an online chat community of past and current volunteers ready to spew their knowledge.
Make sure you try Isaan food: Isaan food is spicy and delicious – don’t miss out! Start with som tom, spicy papaya salad. Try gai yhang, Isaan grilled chicken, for dinner. Finish with kow neeow mamuang, mango with sticky rice, for dessert!
Drink with the locals: If you are invited out chances are you will be drinking cheap whisky (Sangsom) and coke. Order a bottle at any Thai bar and your glass will be conveniently refilled by staff as the night unfolds. Not finished by the end of the night? No problem most bars will hold your bottle for you until you return.
Go skydiving: Want to learn how to fly? What better place than over the rice paddies of Isaan at the Birds Paradise Resort located in the province of Sakon Nakon. If falling out of planes makes you more nervous than excited check out the resorts many other activities including; pilot programs, jet skiing, obstacle courses, ATV rentals, and mountain biking.
Bike: One of the best ways to experience Isaan is to pedal through it. Travel here is far less about the destinations themselves and more about taking the time to appreciate the understated moments that define this region. And there are no hills to climb – it’s all flat!
Where to go next?
This destination guide was written by Tyler Protano-Goodwin who spent six months in Thabo, north eastern Thailand teaching English. You can read more of her experiences in Isaan on her blog, The Thai Chronicles.