This Northeastern Thailand itinerary takes you off the beaten track on a two-week journey through Thailand’s Isaan region. Khmer Empire temples, bucolic countryside, blisteringly hot food, travelling monks, and Thai cowboys: exploring the Isaan is like visiting no other region in Thailand.
Since posting yesterday’s chat with chef Chalee Kader of 100 Mahaseth restaurant in Bangkok, who shared his love for Isaan food from Northeastern Thailand, some readers have asked how to get to Thailand’s Isaan region, and where they should go and what they should see, do and eat. We did an Isaan road trip in early 2011 for some magazine stories and I adore the region (it reminds me of Cambodia) and would love to see more people travelling there.
Very few of Thailand’s staggering 37 million visitors a year get to Isaan, Thailand’s off-the-beaten-track northeastern region, and the country’s poorest region. Long distances, little English spoken, long distances, limited accommodation options, and long distances, deter all but the most intrepid travellers – which is a great shame (although great for travellers to the region).
Yet the enormous northeast region – it covers a third of Thailand, with one third of its population – is a favourite of Thais keen to escape the more popular destinations that teem with farang (foreign) travellers. And it’s not hard to understand why if you’ve been to Bangkok, Chiang Mai or Phuket in peak tourist season, because the vast majority of those 37 million visitors are visiting the same places.
Northeastern Thailand’s scarcity of travellers not only makes up for the lack of tourism infrastructure and hotels geared to Thai holidaymakers, it’s a big part of Isaan’s appeal – along with the incredibly sweet people (they remind me of Cambodians, and there’s a reason for that), the little-visited Khmer Empire temple, the wonderful spicy food, and some of the country’s most diverse landscapes, from lush rice paddies and rolling green hills to forested mountains and pancake-flat plains.
Then there is Isaan’s arts and crafts, from silk-weaving and mask-making, its countless festivals, and the country-folk-pop music that blares from every shop, bar, car, and bus. Not to mention the cowboy-hat wearing farmers who listen to the stuff!
Here’s our Northeastern Thailand itinerary with advice on how to spend your two weeks in Isaan, how to get there and away, how to get around, what to do and see, where to stay and eat, and how to reduce the duration of the trip if you don’t have 14 days.
Northeastern Thailand Itinerary – Two Weeks in Off the Beaten Track Isaan
This two-week Northeastern Thailand itinerary begins in Ubon Ratchatani, which you can easily reach on a cheap, short (55-minute) flight from Bangkok. (Low-cost airline Nok Air has the cheapest flights.) It ends in Nong Khai, from where you can drive to Udon Thani Airport (58kms away) for another cheap, short (65-minute) flight to Bangkok. If you take our advice and do a road trip through the Isaan, this option makes sense as you can pick up a rental car at Ubon Ratchatani and drop your hire car at Udon Thai Airport. Hertz, Sixt and Budget have local reps at both airports but you’ll need to book and arrange in advance and pay a one-way fee.
Alternatively, at the end of the trip, from Nong Khai you could could cross the Mekong River to Laos by the Thai Laos Friendship Bridge to the capital Vientiane and explore this lovely country. (Don’t miss gorgeous Luang Prabang.) If you’re on a tight budget and need to make a beeline back to Bangkok, the train from Nong Khai via Khon Kaen takes 10-12 hours to reach Bangkok and there are overnight trains with sleepers. There are also buses from Udon Thani (9+ hours) and a one-hour mini-bus from Nong Khai will get you there.
If you don’t have two weeks, you could reduce this Northeastern Thailand itinerary by two days by skipping Nong Khai and taking Nok Air’s fly-ride (bus and plane) option from Chiang Khan to Bangkok (which includes a bus ride to Loie then flight to Bangkok) or you could drive to Udon Thani (3 hours 20 minutes away) to grab a flight. Need to save another two days? Skip Ubon Ratchatani and start in Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat), from where you can do a day trip to the Khmer temples. You’ll be moving at a faster pace – whereas for us, Isaan is really a slow travel destination – but it’s still do-able.
When to Go to Northeastern Thailand
While we normally encourage you to visit Thailand (and Cambodia) during the monsoonal green season, we discourage travel to Northeastern Thailand during the wettest months of the rainy season, late August, September and early October, when low-lying areas are subject to severe flooding, especially towns on the Mekong River or its tributaries. The final destination of this two-week itinerary, Nong Khai, experienced severe flooding in early September when much of the town was under water.
Wait until November to visit Northeastern Thailand when the rains have stopped, things are drying up, and the weather is starting to cool down, yet it’s still green. Even better, Thailand’s ‘winter’ in December and January, when it’s lovely and ‘cool’ (by Southeast Asian standards). This is a busy period for Thailand’s popular destinations, when I’d normally advise you against travelling, but not so in the Northeast due to the dearth of tourists. February is still dry, however, it’s starting to warm up, while March and April (‘summer’), the hottest, driest months should be avoided. May and June are still hot and sticky, but early monsoonal rains cool things down a tad and the countryside greens up and comes to life with the soundtrack of frogs and geckos.
Getting Around Northeastern Thailand
This two-week Northeastern Thailand itinerary is best done behind the wheel of your own car. Although if you don’t want to hire a car or your budget prohibits you from doing so, you could use a combination of transport, including buses, mini-buses and shared taxis, and, when you need to, hire a car and driver.
We’ve driven around a fair bit of Thailand updating guidebooks and can attest that driving is easy in Thailand’s northeastern Isaan or, rather, easier than it is in many more congested parts of the country. Roads are generally good (although can get damaged after floods), signage is decent, and driving is safer than in neighbouring Cambodia.
You won’t have internet access everywhere so don’t rely on accessing Google Maps. A copy of the Thailand Road Atlas is essential and a printed Thailand guidebook such as Lonely Planet Thailand will come in super-handy.
If you’re not self-driving and are relying on a combination of transport, such as buses, mini-buses and shared taxis, this Northeastern Thailand itinerary might take a little longer than two weeks. Once you decide how you’re going to get around the Isaan, decide how to get there, as there are logical options.
How to Get to Northeastern Thailand
If you’re going to self-drive this Northeastern Thailand itinerary then we recommend booking a rental car for pick up at Ubon Ratchatani Airport. Nok Air has cheap frequent flights from Bangkok to Ubon Ratchatani (55 minutes) and once you’re there Hertz, Sixt and Budget car rentals have representatives at Ubon Ratchatani Airport. If you’re not driving, you’ll need to take buses, mini-buses and shared taxis between towns, and may need to hire a car and driver to get to some spots.
Northeastern Thailand Itinerary – Where to Go and What to See
Ubon Ratchatani – 2 Nights
Begin your two-week Northeastern Thailand itinerary in Ubon Ratchatani where you can spend a day or two exploring the city’s slow-moving surrounds.
Start with sleepy Mekong River village, Khong Chiam, the easternmost point of the province, where you can hire a longtail boat to cruise along the river to see the prehistoric paintings of animals at Pha Taem Historical Park.
Kaeng Tana on the Moon River boasts refreshing waterfalls while the village of Ban Pa Ao is well regarded for its stunning bronze ware.
In Ubon Ratchatani itself, the fascinating National Museum and Wat Thung Sri Muang, which bears influences of Thai, Burmese and Laos Buddhist architecture warrant a visit.
If you’re doing the 5 hour/350km drive to Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat), we recommend leaving at the crack of dawn on your final morning (or even better, in the darkness to arrive for sunrise) to stop at Prasat Phanom Rung and Prasat Muang Tam, 255kms away or a 3-hour 45-minute drive. Take a picnic breakfast. If you prefer to hire a driver to take you or do a tour, this is typically done from Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat) so I’ve left the temples below.
Where to Stay in Ubon Ratchatani
De Lit has more character than most Ubon hotels, located in a whitewashed Moroccan-Med inspired building with rustic blue doors, polished concrete floors, mismatched retro furniture, a small swimming pool, and rooms starting at US$27. Young Thai travellers like 3-star Pen Ta Hug, which has cool murals above the bed in all rooms (US$22) but is otherwise a modern, functional hotel. The Bliss, another modern albeit comfortable 4-star, feels sterile despite the splashes of colour; rooms also start at US$27.
Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat) – 3 Nights
Boasting a moated walled town, bustling night markets, and street food stalls selling Isaan’s famously blazing-hot Thai food on seemingly every corner, busy Nakhon Ratchasima (official name) or Korat (as it’s also called by locals) is the gateway to the Northeastern Thailand and the best base for visiting Isaan’s star attractions.
Spend your first full day exploring the moated old town and grazing the night markets in the evening. But keep in mind if you didn’t stop en route from Ubon Ratchatani to visit the Khmer Empire temple ruins of Prasat Phanom Rung and Prasat Muang Tam you’ll want to do this on the next day and will have to rise at 4am for the two-hour drive southeast if you want to arrive for sunrise.
Built between the 10th and 13th centuries Prasat Phanom Rung is considered to be Thailand’s finest example of Angkor era architecture. The breathtaking temple sanctuary is set on the summit of an extinct volcano amidst lush gardens of frangipani trees. Terence has some great tips here for photographing Prasat Phanom Rung.
After, visit Prasat Muang Tam, 8km away in a tranquil farming village on the plains below. Surrounded by pretty lotus ponds it’s easily as enchanting.
On the same afternoon you could drive 60km northeast of Korat to Prasat Hin Phimai, slap bang in the centre of the town of Phimai, or you could do it on the morning you leave. Dedicated to Mahayana Buddhism, as attested by the exquisite carvings, the 11th century sanctuary marked the end of the ancient Khmer highway from Angkor.
Where to Stay in Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat)
The best hotel in Nakhon Ratchasima is the grand Kantary Hotel Korat with plush, spacious rooms (starting at US$67), some with kitchenettes, and a swimming pool, gym, two restaurants, and a bar. The Aisana Hotel is more contemporary, with a bit more style, and has light-filled rooms starting at US$47. Urban Bamboo is in a great location for grazing on street food, with colourful themed rooms starting at US$26. The 339 Hotel and Resort combines the traditional and modern, with polished concrete, timber floorboards, and plenty of greenery, with spacious rooms starting at US$20 and pleasant bungalows at US$24.
Khon Kaen – 2 Nights
A buzzy yet laidback university city Khon Kaen boasts the Isaan’s best street food scene with several markets, a busy night bazaar, and street food stalls on every corner.
While you could easily spend a few days slurping tongue-scorching curries, there are a handful of sights to explore. Stroll round the lake, Beung Kaen Nakhon, feed the pigeons and carp, and hope you’re here for a weekend to hit the hipster market.
Pagodas are sprinkled around the lake, but the most impressive is Wat Nongwang Muang Kao, a glittering nine-tiered pagoda, guarded by bold-coloured nagas, and affable young novice Buddhist monks up for a chat.
Spend a couple of days exploring the province by car. Isaan’s silk is almost as celebrated as its food so visit the weaving village of Chonnabot, where the textiles are regarded as Thailand’s finest, kept busy year-round with Royal Palace orders.
Sala Mai Thai is a centre dedicated to the conservation of Chonnabot’s famous mudmee technique. While you’ll see women weaving on antique wooden looms beneath most houses, one of the busiest workshops is Boonmee Thai Silk.
At Phuwiang National Park, home to the oldest fossil of a tyrannosaur dinosaur, aged some 120 million years, you can visit a number of archaeological digs and a museum.
Where to Stay in Khon Kaen
The 5-star AVANI Khon Kaen Hotel and Convention Centre is very elegant with a gorgeous green swimming pool and comfortable rooms starting at US$52 while The Pullman has two swimming pools, ten restaurants and bars, although its plush rooms (from US$57) are rather old-fashioned in style. More thought has gone into the design of the Terminal Hotel, a contemporary train-themed hotel with rooms starting at US$30 a night.
Dan Sai – 3 Nights
From Khon Kaen the roads meander through the lovely Loei province, renowned for its flower orchards, to the tiny town of Dan Sai, set in an idyllic valley among gently undulating hills.
As you’re now at the start of the second week of our 2-week Northeastern Thailand itinerary, we recommend taking it easy in beautiful Dan Sai and taking some time to relax.
Dan Sai is famous for its boisterous three-day rainmaking festival called Phi Ta Kon, where locals in colourful masks and raggedy patchwork costumes parade through the streets, fire rockets in the air, and pray at the temple for rain. When not in the rice fields, artisans will spend time painstakingly painting masks on the floor of their workshops. The mask makers are usually happy to have visitors stop by and watch, chat, and take photos.
In the grounds of Wat Phon Chai, masks and costumes are on display in a small but fascinating folk museum. Also visit the whitewashed Phra That Si Songrak stupa on wooded hills overlooking the Muan River.
At eco-resort, PhuNaCome, you could easily spend a couple of days doing activities such as cooking classes, rice harvesting, basket weaving, and mask making.
There are several national parks in the are that are worth a visit for their well-marked walking hiking trails and abundant birdlife, such as Phu Reua National Park. The turn-off is at Chateau de Loei Vineyard, where you can taste a few wines and brandies.
Where to Stay in Dan Sai
After so many mediocre hotels this far into your Northeastern Thailand itinerary, Dan Sai’s accommodation will be very much welcomed. Set on a farm, eco-friendly PhuNaCome Resort has spacious rooms with polished floorboards, big balconies, and bucolic views starting at around US$76 a night. Phu Pha Nam Resort is more rustic in style, with a good swimming pool and a wide range of rooms (starting at US$52), some with magnificent mountain views, and access to a lake, orchards, and forest walking paths.
Chiang Khan – 2 Nights
If you haven’t yet noticed barefooted monks and novices in mandarin coloured robes, carrying alms bowls and sleeping bags, marching in single file along the highways and byways, you’ve probably had your eye on the maps too much.
You should easily spot them in Chiang Khan, a very charming riverside town crammed with traditional teak shuttered houses, where their morning alms collection is much photographed.
Increasingly popular with Thai tourists, Chiang Khan boasts chic shops selling hill tribe textiles, cute cafes selling cupcakes and macarons, and some of the best Lao-influenced Thai food in this part of the region.
The best reason to visit this Mekong River town, however, is to do very little at all – other than a cruise upstream toward the majestic mountains of Khao Laem and Khao Ngu, stopping to climb hilltops to take in the picturesque vistas, swim from sandy beaches, and try your hand at fishing.
As you’re nearing the end of your Northeastern Thailand itinerary, you’re probably ready to do very little at all and Chiang Khan and surrounds is a good place for it.
Where to Stay in Chiang Khan
A favourite destination of young Thais, Chiang Khan has accommodation ranging from cosy bed and breakfasts to quirky lodgings, such as container rooms. Norn Nab Dao Rimkhong in Chiang Khan has basic rooms with bicycle murals (starting at US$46 a night), some with Mekong River views (be specific when you book). If you’re self-driving, the polished concrete and timber Chiang Klong Riverside Resort, 9kms from Chiang Khan, has large rooms with big decks with breathtaking river views, staring at US$52 (make it clear when you book that you want unobstructed river views). Mekong Villas, overlooking the Mekong, 25kms out of Chiang Khan, is the pick of the bunch, and perhaps the pick of this Northeastern Thailand itinerary, with a swimming pool and beautiful rooms, cottages and traditional wooden houses (starting from US$105), set in lush gardens.
Nong Khai – 2 Nights
Like Chiang Khan, Nong Khai’s appeal also lies in its riverside location, laidback vibe, and opportunities to get on the water. On the Laos border, accessible via the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge, Nong Khai also boasts a few fascinating sights.
The most popular attractions are the surreal sculpture garden Sala Kaeo Kou; Wat Phra That Bang Phuan, a modern pagoda hiding a 2,000-year old Indian chedi; and the strange eroded sandstone formations of Ban Phu.
Our Northeastern Thailand itinerary ends here. See our advice above for getting away from the Isaan. If you’re heading south to Udon Thani and the airport, take a detour en route to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ban Chiang.
Ban Chiang is an excavated bronze age settlement, where you can see the remarkable collection of excavated clay pots, bones and charcoal in the museum, as well as taking in some of the prettiest scenery in the Isaan region.
Where to Stay in Nong Khai
The 4-star Amanta Hotel is the fanciest in town, with sprawling lawns and spacious modern rooms (from US$40), some with balconies and river views (you’ll need to request these). Considerably more basic and homey, the 1-star Rim Riverside Guesthouse, has functional rooms, starting at US$31 for a river view and terrace.
Do let us know if you do our two-week Northeastern Thailand itinerary or you simply travel to the Isaan region. We’d love to get your feedback.