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Isaan is a region of Thailand located in the north-east, well off the popular tourist trails, but well worth the effort of getting to and exploring.  You might not have heard of Isaan as a travel destination before, but you might have heard about places like Khon Kaen, Nakhon Ratchasima, Knon Khai, Udon Thani or Ubon Ratchathani, all of which are located in Isaan region.

I first became aware of Isaan region because my oldest brother was stationed at what is now known as Ubon Royal Thai Airforce Base (also known as Ubon Ratchathani Airport) when he served with the 79 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force during the 1960s, before redeploying to Butterworth in Malaysia.

The reason I mention this is because Isaan is so interesting as a travel destination for about the same reason as it was so interesting to the USAF and the RAAF during the Vietnam War … it’s very close proximity to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. It’s a great launching place to explore Thailand’s very friendly ASEAN neighbours. But it also has lots of attractions of its own.

  • For nature lovers, you’ll want to know that Khao Yai National Park in Isaan has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • For temple lovers, you’ll want to know about Phimai Historical Park near Phimai town in Nakhon Ratchasima province, has some of the best kept Khmer temple ruins in Thailand (some of which are older than Angkor Wat).
  • For history lovers, you’ll want to know that Phanom Rung Historic Park, near the town of Nang Rong, is a smaller scale Angkor Wat style temple complex built by the Khmer in the 10th century.

Understanding Isaan

Map of Isaan region courtesy of Wikitravel.
Map of Isaan region courtesy of Wikitravel.

Isaan is divided into three sub-regions – Northern Isaan (around Udon Thani), Central Isaan (around Khon Kaen) and Southern Isaan (around Ubon Ratchathani). The major cities and towns in Isaan Region are:

  • Khon Kaen – established by King Rama I in the 18th century and now a centre of learning in the north-east. This area has dinosaur artifacts and ancient Khmer ruins.
  • Loei – located on the banks of the Mekong River in the shadow of the Phetchabun mountains. This area is popular with eco-tourists and a nice place to escape the summer heat.
  • Nakhon Phanom – a gateway town into the Khamoun Province of Laos with a very diverse population and a mostly Lao and Vietnamise cultural heritage. Famous as Ho Chi Min’s home town in the ’20s.
  • Nakhon Ratchasima – sometimes called Korat, the “capital” of the Isaan region and a base for travellers exploring the region. Also has buses to Laos and Cambodia as well as major regional tourist destinations.
  • Nong Khai – a quiet town on the banks of the Mekong, best known as a gateway for travellers to Laos as it is located only 20 km from Vientiane.
  • Roi Et – a province rather than a city, with lots of small historic sites from the historic era of Saket Nakhon, built by Lao Khmers, and even remains of prehistoric people.
  • Surin – a small town in a province of the same name, famous for its annual Elephant Roundup in November as well as for its silk, it’s rice and the remains of many Khmer settlements going back more than 2000 years.
  • Ubon Ratchathani – usually just called Ubon and located on the Mun River, it was built by exiled Lao princes in the 16th century and was once known as the “Royal City of the Lotus”.
  • Udon Thani – usually just called Udon, it’s the fourth largest city in Thailand and a major commercial hub with a large ex-pat population and an international airport (UTH).

Famous Isaan tourist attractions

Something on the artistic scale White Temple in Chiang Rai, but very different
Something on the artistic scale White Temple in Chiang Rai, but very different

Sala Kaew Ku (also called Sala Keoku or Wat Khaek) near the town of Nong Khai is like a museum to the history of Thai Buddhism and Hinduism. It’s a huge park on the border between Thailand and Laos, on the banks of the Mekong River, where a local artist has kept himself busy building huge concrete  statues including a snake with seven heads, a representation of the Wheel of Life and a three storey domed pavilion. The artist started building the park originally on the Lao side of the river but was forced out when the communists took over. If you’re familiar with the White Temple in Chiang Rai, this is a visionary creation on a similar scale but totally different except for one White Temple inspired creation of hundreds of dogs snapping at the legs of an elephant and another of a couple of skeletons holding hands. You could spend days here and still be discovering exciting new concepts of art.

A famous temple built into a cave in the side of a mountain near Loei
A famous temple built into a cave in the side of a mountain near Loei

Pha Bing Cave Temple near Chiang Khan in Loei Province, reputed to have the Buddha’s footprint on its ceiling and once home to the most famous meditation master in Thailand. The temple began life in a cave inside the mountain and became a famous destination for Buddhist monks wanting to refine their meditation skills. When the most famous of these monks died, a stupa was built on top of the mountain to commemorate his life. There is also another cave temple nearby called Pha Puu, with Buddha images inside.

A temple made entirely of beer bottles ... and not a drop to drink
A temple made entirely of beer bottles … and not a drop to drink

Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew (also known as Wat Larn Kuad) in southern Si Saket province is a very unusual temple where everything, including the toilets and a crematorium, has been built out of more than a million (empty) Heinekin (green) and Chang (brown) beer bottles which reflect the sunlight and glitter in the distance for miles around. The temple is located in the middle of nowhere, with only a very small village nearby, yet it is large enough to host huge festivals and is pretty much untouched by tourists. Recycling at its best!

Map of key locations in Isaan region