Exploring the Isaan region of northeastern Thailand on the lovely backroads to Loie was a highlight of a road trip through Thailand’s largest, poorest and least developed region. While the enchanting Khmer Empire temples took our breath away, the quiet countryside gave us a chance to breathe.
From Khon Kaen, where we explored gleaming gold pagodas, ambled about the laidback town with an affable monk, strolled around the scenic lake, people-watched at the waterfront hipster market, and savoured the aromas of Isaan food sizzling at the night markets, we drove in a north-westerly direction through Loie province.
We’d had a busy few days road-tripping through Thailand’s northeastern Isaan region working on a magazine story. We rose at 4am on our first day to drive from Nakhon Ratchasima, also known as Khorat, to reach the spectacular Khmer Empire temple complex of Prasat Phanom Rung for sunrise.
From there we drove down to the enchanting Prasat Muang Tam, surrounded by still lotus ponds, for a mosey around the landscape gardens, then stopped nearby to photograph cows and cowboys.
We scrambled about the splendid Prasat Hin Phimai, slapbang in the centre of the town of Phimai before driving to Chonnabot to learn about silk-waring and watch patient weavers going about their work in the silk producing village.
Which is why I scheduled very little for the last few days of our Isaan road trip through Northeastern Thailand. Our main aim was just to enjoy the countryside and soak up rural life.
Exploring the Isaan Region of Northeastern Thailand on the Lovely Backroads to Loie
We’d largely met the brief for the magazine story we’d travelled to the northeast of Thailand to write. Our goal had been to experience of the ‘treasures of the Isaan’, the most exquisite of the ancient Khmer Empire temples dotted throughout this region that for centuries was under the rule of the Khmer kings of neighbouring Cambodia, well before the Tais arrived from Southern China.
While the Khmer temples were, indeed, the highlight of our Isaan road trip, now we wanted simply to experience and photograph the bucolic countryside we’d heard about and the Loie province had been recommended to us as boasting some of the most beautiful landscapes in Thailand’s northeast.
It must be said that Thailand’s Isaan region is not uniformly stunning in the way that scenery can be in some other parts of Thailand, such as southern Thailand or the northwest from Chiang Mai or the Chiang Rai region in the far northeast, all of which we had criss-crossed by road a few years earlier when we were updating the Dorling Kindersley Thailand guide.
I remember some truly magical routes from that trip, such as the drive from the island of Koh Samui (part of which is by ferry obviously) to the island of Phuket, which meanders through lush green rainforest and those craggy silver-grey limestone peaks you’d recognise Tourism Thailand ads.
It was a wonderful route to explore, even when it rained, when cotton wool-like puffs of cloud floated between rugged mountains, and you have to slow down to make way for elephants and monkeys crossing the road.
The main roads through Thailand’s northeast Isaan region aren’t nearly as scenic or exciting, and the vistas from many in fact were just plain ugly, with hideous new concrete developments and gigantic roadside billboards advertising beer that I didn’t expect to see in this remote off-the-beaten-track region.
But once we got off the highways and onto the back roads, as we did on our drive from Khon Kaen to Loie, the lush landscapes were as idyllic as I’d imagined. We snaked along country roads that became like tunnels, shaded by canopies of enormous old trees.
We drove up and down and around and over rolling hills to find surprising vistas at every dip and turn: a ramshackle wooden hut on a slope for workers to escape the searing midday heat of the fields; gardeners in wide brimmed sun hats watering their colourful crops of flowers on the area’s famous flower farm; a verdant valley of rice paddies; or a farmer casually herding his water buffalo or cows to fresh pasture.
There weren’t any glittering pagodas to gawk at, certainly no hipster street food markets to savour, and no awe-inspiring ancient temple complexes to explore, or rise at the crack of dawn for in order to capture them in their best light…
But that lack of attractions and monuments and the opportunity to slow down for a little while and simply take in the picturesque countryside and everyday life, was exactly what made our little drive through the Loie province so lovely.