From Khon Kaen, where we explored gleaming gold temples, ambled about the town with an affable monk, strolled by the scenic lake, people-watched at the waterfront hipster market, and savoured the aromas of Isaan food sizzling away at the night markets, we drove in a north-westerly direction through the Loie province.
We’d had a busy few days in Thailand’s north-eastern Isaan region, rising at 4am on our first day to drive from Nakhon Ratchasima, also known as Khorat, to reach the spectacular Khmer temple complex of Prasat Phanom Rung for sunrise; moseying around the enchanting Prasat Muang Tam, surrounded by still lotus ponds; stopping to photograph cows (seriously!); scrambling about the equally splendid Prasat Hin Phimai, slapbang in the centre of the town of Phimai; and watching patient weavers going about their work in the silk producing village of Chonnabot.
Which is why I scheduled very little for the last couple of days of our Isaan road trip. We’d largely met the brief for the magazine story we’d travelled to the north-east to write – to experience the ‘treasures of the Isaan’.
Now we wanted simply to see (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 the region.
It must be said that Thailand’s Isaan region is not uniformly stunning in the way that scenery is in other parts of Thailand, such as the south or the north-west, which we criss-crossed by road a few years ago when we were updating the Dorling Kindersley Thailand guide.
I remember some truly magical routes from that trip, like the drive from Koh Samui (part of which was by ferry obviously) to Phuket, which meandered through lush green rainforest and those craggy silver-grey limestone peaks you’ve seen on all the Tourism Thailand television ads and postcards.
It was a wonderful route to explore, even when it rained, when cotton wool-like puffs of cloud floated between the mountains. I remember having to slow down several times for elephants and monkeys!
The main roads through the Isaan region aren’t nearly as scenic or exciting, and the vistas from many in fact were just plain ugly, with hideous developments and horrible billboards that I didn’t expect in a region that is Thailand’s poorest.
But once we got off the highways and onto the back roads, as we did on our drive from Khon Kaen to Loie, the landscapes were as idyllic as I’d imagined. We snaked along country roads that became like tunnels, shaded by canopies of old trees.
We drove up and down and around and over hills to find surprising vistas at every dip and turn: a ramshackle wooden hut on a slope for workers to escape the searing heat of the fields; gardeners in gigantic sun hats watering their bold-coloured crops on a flower farm; a verdant valley of rice fields resting the season out; or a farmer casually herding his water buffalo or cows to fresh pasture.
There weren’t any monuments or sights to see, no temples to explore, no villages to visit, and no ruins to race to in order to capture them in their best light… but that lack of attractions and the possibility to slow down a while and take in the scenery, however attractive or ugly it was, was exactly what made our little drive through the Loie province so lovely.