Exploring the Isaan: Cool Khon Kaen. Thailand.

Exploring the Isaan: Cool Khon Kaen

Cool Khon Kaen, at the centre of Thailand’s northeast Isaan region, is a hip little city. Short on sights in comparison to the cities of the north, such as Chiang Mai, the appeal for us is the upbeat atmosphere of the place.

A university city, Khon Kaen has a youthful vibe, a lovely lake skirted by leafy paths, lively weekend evening markets, and street vendors serving up delicious Isaan food, whose stalls seem to dot every footpath and roadside around the entire city.

Khon Kaen is the kind of place where we wished we could have stayed longer and is a place we’re already planning to head back to. But, sadly, we were on a tight magazine deadline – the Isaan road trip story we’d been working on was due the day we returned to Bangkok! – and we had less than 24 hours in town.

After checking in to our charming Isaan style villa at Supanniga (read our review of the property here), we did check out a couple of the sights.

We visited the town’s gigantic, gleaming, nine-tiered gold pagoda, known as Phra Mahathat Kaen Nakhon, at the temple complex of Wat Nongwang Muang, also known as Wat Nong Waeng.

There, we watched ladyboys flirting with each-other as they made offerings and young novice monks taking photos of pretty girls with their mobile phones. And we wandered around the grounds of the wat with a friendly monk who told us how much he loves to travel and meet people.

We also strolled around Beung Kaen Nakhon, the lake that is Khon Kaen’s centre-piece, where locals love to power-walk, jog, ride their bicycles, walk their dogs, feed the pigeons, rent pedalos, breakdance, fool around with hula hoops, and do laps of the evening markets, grazing on the fantastic fiery food.

At the market, young hipsters hung out and flirted, sold handmade jewellery and second-hand clothes for less than one dollar a piece, and traded in all kinds of kooky services.

There was an elaborate nail stand set up where several young women were painting wild designs onto customers’ artificial nails. There was a pottery-making stand, where you could paint a ceramic at low tables by the lake then pop it in the kiln and pick it up your creation later on.

At another stand, a student sold all kinds of helpful IT services from two laptops he’d set up on a blanket on the ground – he could do anything from clean your hard-drive of viruses and download software to help you set up your Facebook pages and Twitter accounts.

And then there were the food stalls… ah, the food stalls. I’m salivating just thinking about them, but I’m going to tell you about those in another post…


There are 17 comments

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  1. ciki

    university cities are cool.. i love the vibe there too.. and the street food is cheaper as it caters to students. So nice!

  2. khon kaen

    You definitely were not living like the locals if you stayed at the Supanniga. And, it is NOT the Isaan, it is Isaan – meaning Northeast. If you had stayed more than a day, you would realize that Khon Kaen is not short on sites. You missed Khmer ruins, dinosaur museum, Phrathat Kham Kaen,Wat Pa Saeng Arun, and the King Cobra Village to name a few.

    Also, the 9-story wat is called Phra Mahathat Kaen Nakhon – you should have walked to the top, you would have seen the mini-museums and statuary on each floor.

    Come back to Khon Kane and stay at a local homestay instead of one of the priciest places in Isaan.

  3. Lara Dunston

    As someone from Khon Kaen, you’d appreciate there are many different locals from all sorts of backgrounds, classes, etc. Locals are not only poor if that’s what you’re suggesting. The charming owners of Supanniga are indeed local, from Khon Kaen, and they’ve lovingly decorated the property to their own taste.

    We will do homestays at some stage, but they weren’t appropriate to the story we were hired to do on this occasion. We had a specific brief to cover the things we experienced during our road trip through the region – hence the short duration of this particular trip. We were working, we were not on holidays, so our time was dictated by magazine schedules.

    As for the content covered above, these are blog posts, not comprehensive stories covering our every movement. We *did* visit the Isaan’s Khmer ruins in fact (click through and you’ll find posts on those). We did not visit and have no interest in visiting the Dinosaur Museum or King Cobra Village – we don’t write about typical tourist sights. We *will* be returning to Khon Kaen again, but next time to write about its food.

    Let me clarify also the name you’re referring to is for the 9-storey pagoda or stupa, but the entire wat complex is called Wat Nongwang Muang or Wat Nongwaeng; Muang being the district of course. I’ve now clarified that in the post.

    When referring to the region, it’s common to use ‘the’ as in ‘the Isaan’, in the same way we might say ‘the Northeast’. Both are correct, just as Isaan is spelt Isaan, Isan, Isarn,and even Esarn.

  4. Lara Dunston

    Agree! We just love the atmosphere of cities like these. Whenever we travel we’d much rather just hang out, walk, eat, and do some people-watching, than visit tourist sights, and we can do it in places like this guilt-free. And, yes, you’re right about the prices – very cheap! An added bonus. Thanks for dropping by!

  5. khon kaen

    My reference to “living like locals” is from your description in the top right corner of this blog. You were definitely not living like the locals in Khon Kaen despite the fancy resort being owned by locals.

    And, no one, other than you, refers to this area as “The Isaan”.

  6. tom

    First of all Khon Kaen is not a little city. As much as I do not truly believe in “Wikipedia” you might read it’s entry on the City. I understand you want to see beyond the usual tourist sites. I find it odd then that the one place you mention Mahathat Kaen Nakhon is one of the most advertised tourist destinations in town. In 500 words or so you might have offered a more realistic view of Beung Kaen Nakhon or a couple hundred words about the much ignored City Museum at the Beung or any of a dozen or so handricraft cooperatives in the Privince that have shops in town

  7. Terence Carter

    1. As Lara said, locals own the ‘resort’ and they live there. We’re not pretending that this is how the average person lives in Khon Kaen, we were on a magazine assignment where the target market is affluent Asians and Westerners. No apologies for that. I’m sure you’re horrified that this exists. You mentioned we should have stayed in homestays but you have a big ad for hotels on your website. Go figure.
    2. However, I don’t think you’ve ever been to a “fancy resort”, if you think that’s what it is. It’s a series of three villas. Fancy, to us, is something like this.
    3. 80,000 google results for ‘the Isaan’ would disagree with your assertion about ‘the Isaan’, but despite this, we take your point, even if it’s grammatically debatable.
    4. If you’re really trying to help tourism in the region, perhaps don’t write books on scams in Thailand, have advertising on your website such as “Date Asian Female
    Soft&gentle girls from China&Thai seek romance with sincere man.” or be snarky to other people writing about Khon Kaen, even if they were only there for 24hrs.

  8. Terence Carter

    Thanks for your comment.
    Comparatively, *Khon Kaen* is a small city. We don’t read Wikipedia for factual information, but even there it lists the population at 113,754. Which is a long way from Bangkok’s 9,100,000.
    We don’t write to other people’s agenda’s here. This is a personal blog and we can write about whatever we feel inspired to write about. What most inspired us was the atmosphere of the city, which is what we’ve written about, and the food, which we’re covering in another post. We’re not trying to give an overview of the places we visit, we just write about what interests us.
    By the way, Mahathat Kaen Nakhon might be one of the most advertised tourist destinations in town, but we were the only Western tourists there when we visited. And the monk I spoke to for half an hour said they rarely get Western visitors. And he lives there.
    In regards to Beung Kaen Nakhon, that was what we saw and that’s what I have photos of. I guess you have a different reality. Which is why you and your friend Larry can write about that on *your* websites 😉

  9. Brian

    Good lord. Amazing how a breezy, nine-paragraph post about a quick, fun visit to Khon Kaen can bring out the “I’m an expert, you’re not” nitpickers. Don’t think you guys need to defend yourselves here (which isn’t to say the factual retorts-cum-zingers aren’t a hoot).

  10. Krapwai

    why must come to conflict about Khonkaen city? I think everybody loves and want to learn with the place at oneself lives, and believe in sure that which thing that unknow, and want to eager to know must inquire see, wrong or right even place this owner still clear perhaps 100%, thus if you want to come to just travel request have fun the tourism and pass by, by don’t mind with the thing that change to come in request think ever have an have experience once in the life here. Please don’t speaks in the sense of that not good. with the respect.

  11. Lara Dunston

    Khon Kaen – frankly, this is getting tedious, as I’ve already said it above and Terence has said it too, but I’ll say it again because it doesn’t seem to be sinking in, but:
    1) Supanniga is not a fancy resort – read our review, look at their website – it consists of 3 houses
    2) sure, Isan/Issan/Isaan/The Isaan/The Northeast/Northeast or whatever you want to call it may be Thailand’s poorest region (we know it is), but that does mean ALL locals are poor and therefore to live like locals you must live like poor people.
    3) there are probably a dozen different ways that one could ‘live like locals’ – from doing a homestay experience to living in a cheap flat to staying on a farm to, yes, shock horror, staying somewhere like Supanniga
    4) the owners of Supanniga are Thais, they are local, they are from Khon Kaen, they are successful business people, and Supanniga is a personal project created with a great deal of love by the family. I met the son, who mostly lives in Bangkok, I know another business he owns; I’m imagining, and he can correct me if I’m wrong, that the family probably lives in a way that is fairly close to what one experiences at Supanniga. I would say that all provide local experiences. Staying in a hotel – luxury or budget – would not, but Supanniga is not a hotel, it’s three houses.

  12. Lara Dunston

    Good lord, indeed. And the conversation has continued off-line too. Imagine if we would have actually written something critical and opinionated rather than a few paras of simple observation. Thanks for dropping by!

  13. Lara Dunston

    Don’t worry, there’s no conflict – just different opinions and correcting a few errors, that’s all. We loved Khon Kaen, thank you, as this post and our next post will show. It’s a wonderful city and we will return. Thanks for visiting Grantourismo 🙂

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