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Aug 22

Exploring the Isaan: Road Tripping Thailand

We love nothing more than doing a road trip and if you’re going to do a road trip anywhere in Thailand, the country’s most off-the-beaten-track region, the remote northeastern Isaan, is the place to do it.

A confession: I don’t drive. Well, I can drive and I have driven, but I don’t have a driver’s license. Terence drives and I navigate. That partly explains my fondness for, okay, let’s admit it, obsession with maps. But this trip we did neither and the Thailand road atlas I’d lovingly highlighted and dog-eared on our last road trip around the country to update the DK Thailand guidebook stayed packed away.

Instead, because we were on a magazine assignment, and Terence had thousands of images to shoot and I had endless notes to make, we hired a driver and were chauffeured around the Isaan by Narawat, an excellent English-speaking driver from Ubon Ratchathani, who knows the region intimately.

A driver is a necessity when we do these kinds of jobs. We’re getting up well before the crack of dawn, we’re working our butts off all day checking things out, making beautiful photos (Terence) and interviewing people (me). We’re going to bed late after downloading and backing up images (Terence), answering emails (both of us), and making onward travel arrangements and working on stories (me). It’s too exhausting to worry about driving and navigating on top of all that. Trust us, we’ve done it before.

But being driven is not the same as self-driving. The things I love about our road trips are the rituals we develop and the freedom driving ourselves gives us.

While hiring a driver certainly provides a lot more freedom to go anywhere and do anything than we’d have taking a bus or train – and that freedom is what we’re paying for – we’re still conscious of how many hours the driver has driven, how hard we’re working the poor guy, and how much we’re paying him, to really go crazy.

When we drive ourselves we can spontaneously decide to stay longer in a place that looks intriguing or skip a town that seems dull and drive longer into the night if we choose. It’s hard to do that with another person, even when we’re paying him.

And it’s also hard to develop those rituals that scream road trip. We’ve done long road trips before – from a few weeks to a few months – across Australia, Morocco, Syria and Lebanon, the UAE, Oman, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria, and so on… our first ever road trip as a couple (after eloping in Vegas!) was along Route 66 in the USA. So we know how they play out…

After a few days on the road you get into the swing of things, forming certain habits, and acting out particular rites, especially on long trips: there are the soundtracks that create themselves, the silly games that are played, the pit-stops for coffee, tea, lunch, and toilet, and those spontaneous looks across at each other and sudden manoeuvres when you see something you want to screech the car to a halt for – a cool shot, a kooky sign, a camel, a cow, or kangaroo. In Thailand, it’s mostly monks, spirit houses, monkeys, and elephants. And in the Isaan, cows too.

But you don’t really do any of that when you have a driver, a stranger. You behave yourself instead, which makes for a much more serious road trip, and road trips after all are meant to be fun.

The Isaan is certainly a region that’s made for road-tripping, with more signs in Thai than not, fascinating and diverse landscapes that are especially lovely once you get off the highways, and all sorts of interesting stuff by the side of the road to stop for – from fried chicken and Isaan sausage sellers to extravagantly decorated shrines.

So, to drive or hire a driver in Thailand? Driving in Thailand is actually easy if you’re not working as we were. We’ve never had any problems driving in the country before. Touch wood. But if you’re not confident driving in a foreign country and find the thought of it stressful, or you’d simply prefer to sit back and take in the scenery than worry about which road to take, then hire a driver. Then again, there’s always a first time for everything…

TRIP ESSENTIALS

When to Go: the Isaan region is about as off-the-beaten-track as travel gets in Thailand for foreign travellers so there’s really no period when you need to avoid the high season crowds of other regions. Check the Tourism Authority of Thailand website www.tatnews.org for events in the region such as The Miracle of the Khao Phanom Rung and Phi Ta Kon.

Where to Start/End: if you don’t feel like driving all the way from Bangkok, because distances around the region are large, then we recommend taking a bus, train or plane to Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima) or flying to Udon Thani or Ubon Ratchathani, picking up a car and doing a loop. For instance, we took a bus to Korat from Bangkok (see this post for details), where we met our driver. From Korat we headed east, drove north, then northwest, looped around the Loie province, and flew out of Khon Kaen. We were on a tight schedule as we had a magazine deadline. If we would have had more time, we would have gone as far east as Chong Mek and Khong Chiam, north to Nakhon Phanom and explored the northeast, and then headed west to Udon Thani and up to Nong Khai. We will do that next time.

Renting a Car: we’ve driven hire cars the length and breadth of Thailand and always book them online through one of the major car rental companies or booking sites and collect the vehicle from the airport. We strongly recommend this as it gives you a chance to adjust to roads and signs on the way from the airport rather than in the chaotic centre of a city. Always take your own road atlas or maps, a Thai-English dictionary and a phrase book.

Hiring a Driver: if you decide to hire a driver, you can try and organize one through your hotel, however, this is usually the most expensive option and you’ll find it difficult to find one who speaks English. It took us a long time and our best contacts to find an English-speaking driver in the Isaan, but it was worth it, he was brilliant. Narawat is knowledgeable and flexible; his number is 081 579 0388. If you book him, do tell him we sent you.

5 comments

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  1. Nik

    Hi! I really wan to let you know that I enjoy your blog. I came across it while conducting research for a final grad school paper. I’m getting my MS in Tourism Management. I am traveling to Thailand in January with my husband and I’m interested in a couple things: 1) Can you recommend other cooking classes (good quality but less expensive than the Mandarin Oriental class. 2) How far is Isaan from Bangkok and it is a full one-day trip? We are only in bangkok for a few days then traveling to Koh Samui. Thanks a lot! – Nik

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hi Nik, thank you so much for your kind words. What’s your grad school paper on? (I was an academic in a former life, so curious to know.)

      We can recommend another cooking class, which we’ll be posting on next week – the only reason we haven’t posted about it yet is because we have a story about it coming out in the Australian travel magazine Get Lost on the 1st January – but it’s called Helping Hands Thai Cooking School and it’s ran by a vivacious young woman, a former noodle vendor, called Poo, our of a small kitchen opposite her home in the slums of Khlong Toey. It’s worth doing as much for the insight it provides into everyday life there as much for the course itself. The course is very simple – nothing like the Mandarin Oriental; it’s probably the extreme opposite in terms of the kind of experience it is – but it’s great fun. Look out for that post next week.

      You can’t do the Isaan region in a day trip I’m afraid, even if you were to fly. It’s Thailand’s largest region and distances are vast. It’s really a region that is made for a road trip and warrants a minimum of a few days if not a week to explore. I’d recommend you stick to Bangkok for your few days as it’s a fabulous city and there’s so much to see and do. If you wanted a day trip out of town, you could take a boat up to Ayuttaya, which boasts beautiful sprawling archaeological ruins. It was hard hit by the recent floods and they desperately need tourists.

      Enjoy! And do let us know if you need more tips. Also come back after your trip and tell us how you enjoyed Thailand!

  2. Sara

    Great post! I used to live in a small village outside of Ubon and am planning to come for a visit next month. There is very limited bus service, and since I have don’t have a valid driver’s license in any country, I am in need of a driver!
    Narawat sounds lovely, I will be contacting him soon. I’ll definitely tell him how I found him.
    Best
    Sara

  3. Josie Leung

    I recently went on a road trip in northern thailand too! I rented the car at Chiang Mai, went to Pai and the Mae Hong Soon area and drove back to Bangkok to return it. The Isaan region sounds really cool. Im definitely going back to Thailand to do that! thanks for sharing!

    1. Lara Dunston

      Sounds wonderful, Josie! We very briefly passed through Pai and Mae Hong Soon many years ago when updating a DK Thailand book but never spent anytime there. Keen to return and stay longer one day. What I like about the Isaan region is that it’s actually not extraordinary beautiful although it’s very bucolic in parts, and it isn’t developed for tourists, so you get a great insight into ordinary people’s lives. Do come back and visit us if you ever do that trip. Would love to hear how you like it. Thanks for visiting!

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