Exploring the Isaan region of Northeast Thailand is a must if you’re road tripping Thailand. We love nothing more than doing a slow drive and if we’re going to do a road trip in Thailand, our first choice will be the Isaan region, Thailand’s most off-the-beaten-track region in the remote northeast of the country.
Exploring the Isaan region by car in Thailand’s northeast – ‘isaan’ actually means ‘northeast’ – has long been a dream of mine. I love a slow drive and while road tripping Thailand is something we love to do, we’d never driven through Thailand’s Isaan region until this trip.
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, my absolute 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 for exploring the Isaan region. We were chauffeured around northeastern Thailand by Narawat, an excellent English-speaking driver from Ubon Ratchathani, who knows the region intimately. Here’s how we did it.
Exploring the Isaan Region of Northeast Thailand is a Must if Road Tripping Thailand
Exploring the Isaan region by car in Thailand’s northeast had long been a dream of mine, which is why I’d pitched this story to a magazine editor in the first place. A driver is a necessity for us when we do these kinds of jobs, but especially so in a region such as Thailand’s northeastern Isaan.
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 so many times 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 make road trips special. 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, some cows, or kangaroo. Exploring the Isaan region in Thailand is no different. Only there we were mostly stopping for processions of 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.
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 – the Isaan is certainly a region that’s made for road-tripping.
Tips to Exploring Thailand’s Northeast Isaan Region By Car
To Self Drive or Hire a Driver in Northeast Thailand?
Driving in Thailand is actually easy if you’re not working as we were, but when it comes to exploring the Isaan region, driving in the northeast is an absolute delight. We’d never had any problems driving in Thailand before, and road tripping the Isaan region was a breeze, with good roads and very little traffic.
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 have to worry about which road to take, then hire a driver. Then again, there’s always a first time for everything…
When to Go to the Isaan Region
Exploring the Isaan region is about as off-the-beaten-track as road 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. November to February are the coolest and driest months, while March and April are sweltering. Check the Tourism Authority of Thailand website www.tatnews.org for festivals and events in the region such as Phi Ta Kon.
Where to Start and End Your Isaan Region Road Trip
If you don’t feel like driving all the way from Bangkok, because distances around the Isaan region are large, then we recommend taking a bus, train or plane to Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima) or flying to Udon Thani or Ubon Ratchathani, then picking up a car from the airport or town and begin exploring the Isaan region in the region itself.
On this particular trip, 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 in the Isaan for Your Northeast Thailand Road Trip
We’ve driven hire cars the length and breadth of Thailand and we 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 for exploring the Isaan region, 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.
Make sure you buy car insurance from the car rental company if you’re not covered by your travel insurance and always take your own road atlas or maps, a Thai-English dictionary, and a Thai phrase book.
Hiring a Driver for Exploring the Isaan
If you decide to hire a driver for exploring the Isaan region, you can try and organise a driver through your hotel, however, this is usually the most expensive option in Isaan 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 lovely, knowledgeable and flexible. His number is 081 579 0388. If you book him, do tell him we sent you.
Are you planning on exploring the Isaan region of Northeast Thailand by car? Or have you done a road trip through Thailand’s northeast before? Do let us know if you have any questions in the comments below and feel free to share tips for our readers.