Central Thailand evokes images of a cosmopolitan, sleepless city and Thai temples. Northern Thailand promises cool, green mountains. Southern Thailand wows visitors with gorgeous beaches and islands. But what is Isaan Thailand? And why should you travel there? This region is often overlooked by international travelers but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t travel there, especially if you’re the type to seek out adventure and undiscovered places.
Our first trip to Isaan (pronounced ee-sahn) was just over three years ago. It’s a region of Thailand so unlike anywhere else we’ve visited before or since. And perhaps because so little is written about it (at least, in English) much remains a mystery.
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We wrote about the overwhelmingly gorgeous Red Lotus Sea but nothing more. At the time, we weren’t sure how to present our experiences in a way for our readers to follow in our footsteps. After all, most of the activities and places we went to were very rustic and the locals spoke almost entirely in Thai (that is, Isaan Thai), which can be daunting for first-time travelers!
Our first trip was an introduction to three provinces: Loei, Udon Thani, and Nong Khai. Later we visited another province called Chaiyaphum with a good Thai friend. There we met her parents and siblings for the first time, participated in a house blessing ceremony, and explored four stunning national parks.
Where is Isaan, Thailand?
As we like to say, Isaan is the ‘elephant’s right ear.’ Look at the map and you’ll see what we mean.
Isaan is in the northeastern region of Thailand. To put it into perspective, Bangkok is in Central Thailand, Chiang Mai is in Northern Thailand, and Phuket is in Southern Thailand. Off to the right is Isaan.
It is arguably the least traveled region of Thailand by international travelers. It’s a comparatively sleepy area to the country’s other regions, too. But many of our Thai friends and acquaintances are from Isaan Thailand. The major cities there (Udon Thani, Khon Kaen, Ubon Ratchathani, and Korat) are particularly popular with expats, too.
It’s true that many visiting foreigners simply pass through this region, onward to more functional or arguably more exciting endeavors. Many fly into Udon Thani only to quickly continue to Vientiane, Laos for a visa run. Others go to Luang Prabang (also in Laos), which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site situated on the Mekong River. It’s appeal to tourists is snapping the perfect photo of monks collecting alms as the sun rises.
Getting there: Buses, trains, and planes
Isaan is regularly serviced by trains and buses from other regions of Thailand. The network is complex and goes all over the place but the long road trips take some getting used to. If you want to visit small towns or villages, expect for a private driver take you there or have someone pick you up.
You may even ride on a tractor, like this guy.
Then there are the local train lines that connect to Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station. There are two main arteries: one branching northward through Udon Thani and ending at Nong Khai near the Laos border, the other one snaking eastward to Ubon Ratchathani, which is equidistant from Cambodia’s northern border and Laos’s southwest border.
Bus routes come from major cities such as Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Station and Bangkok’s Mo Chit (Northeastern) Bus Terminal. For those who prefer to fly, the Udon Thani Airport services most Thai airlines from major cities including the budget-friendly AirAsia and Nok Air.
It does help to be able to read and speak a little Thai while traveling in Isaan – at least to recognize the towns’ names. Bus and train tickets are usually purchased in person with cash a few days in advance up to the day of travel. More recently, there are sites like 12go.asia that allow visitors to reserve tickets online (in English!) and pay with the convenience of a debit or credit card.
Isaan Thailand is flatter than the mountainous region of Northern Thailand. It doesn’t have the booming cities as Central Thailand does and due to its land-locked state there are no beaches. Instead, you can expect to see long stretches of rice, corn, pineapple, and taro fields. The Mekong River snakes across its northern and eastern borders, though, and there are many peaceful lakes.
We were constantly whipping out our camera to capture the natural beauty.
From the ‘Grand Canyon’ of Thailand and the unending stretches of hot pink flowers to dazzling white salt fields and archaeologically significant stone formations, travelers don’t have to look far for fantastic sights.
One noticeable difference when traveling to and around Isaan is the friendly stares. In Thailand’s touristy cities, our foreign faces blended in with thousands of other international travelers and expats. But in Isaan, we were very often the only foreigners visiting a restaurant, hotel, or site, which prompted curious looks from the locals.
This seemed especially true for the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Angela. Or perhaps it’s a novelty that a youngish female was traveling through this part of the world. It’s much more common to see American, European, and other Asian men living as expats in this part of Thailand.
Angela was regularly an object of wonder in the smaller towns and especially the villages. We have since lost our collection of photos of our encounters, but one favorite moment happened in the quaint streets of Chiang Khan, Loei. A paparazzi-like swarm of school girls surrounded Angela and asked to take photos posing with her. I stood from a distance and snapped a few photos of the event.
There have been other moments where Angela’s been singled out by older Thai women to help with making wax flower decorations (educational) or a join in a group dance (quite embarrassing for her, but entertaining for me.)
Isaan travel guides indicate that there are restaurants serving a good mix of Western and Thai in the major cities. Udon Thani has a large Vietnamese community thanks to the influx of refugees from the Vietnam-American War.
But everywhere we visited was very rustic. As in, open-aired, garden-style restaurants with a full view of the cook sautéing dishes in a wok over a makeshift gas-burner stove top.
We also noticed a distinct difference in the Thai cuisine. Regional dishes tended to feature more unusual cuts of meat such as intestines, blood, lots of in-bone stewed pieces. There are sour sauces, bitter herbs, and very pungent fish pastes – which, try as we might, did not enjoy that much.
But since that visit, we realize that many of the foods we have come to love are from Isaan. Grilled pork neck (kaw moo yahng), papaya salad (som tom), Isaan sour sausage (sai grok) and minced meat ‘salad’ (laab), to name a few.
More about Isaan
We’ve written a series of posts that share our stories of travels to Isaan years ago. Specifically, it highlights the amazing places we visited in Loei and Udon Thani (the Red Lotus Sea in particular), and Nong Khai. These posts have been a long time in the making.