Away from Thailand’s vibrant metropolis of Bangkok, Isaan is a land of first-class Khmer ruins without the tourist crush and national parks without the squeeze. It’s a region that has gone from being one of the poorest areas to the fastest growing economy in Thailand. So naturally, there are plenty of things to do in Isaan for tourists.
Nestled against Cambodia and Laos, Isaan has an unhurried and nostalgic pace.
The name Isaan derives from the Sanskrit Ishan meaning ‘in a northeastern direction’.
As the Khmer empire progressed through the area, a string of worshipping sites of magnificent proportions was built in the region still in existence today.
Isaan is Thailand without the sky-bars and luxury spas but it has some of the most amazing landmarks in Thailand.
There is something for everybody here and lots of places to visit in Isaan Thailand, from a magic mushroom farm to fine wineries that will make you think you are somewhere in Europe.
- 20 Things to do in Isaan
- Isaan Bucket List
- Udon Thani
- Nong Khai
- Chiang Khan
20 Things to do in Isaan
By Maria Visconti and Christina Pfeiffer
Isaan Bucket List
1- Explore Prasat Hin Phimai
This area is part of an ancient path dotted with Hindu temples that starts in Prasat Hin Phimai or Phimai Historical Park (Thailand) and finishes in Angkor (Cambodia) linking seventeen Khmer sites.
Seven of these are located on the Thailand side.
The Khmer ruins of Phimai and Phanom Rung (which sits at the top of an extinct volcano) date from the 10th-century AD, with lintels and pediments depicting episodes from the Indian Ramayana.
Like Angkor Wat, they became Buddhist edifices later in the 16th century but retained most of their original features.
So you may find an ancient Buddha statue sitting on a pediment that held a Shiva lingam centuries before.
The gates of these buildings are aligned to let the sun rays penetrate the inner sanctum during the solar equinoxes and therefore illuminate the Shiva lingam or, as it is today, a Buddha image.
The practice of adopting rather than destroying is responsible for the survival of these amazing buildings today.
Manicured lawns surround the ruins and only a handful of visitors slowly take in the atmospheric vibe.
Prasat Hin Phimai is beautifully restored and while ancient temples are often located in isolated jungle spots, Prasat Hin Phimai’s charm lies in its position in the centre of the town of Phimai.
We arrived in time to see the preparations for a light show.
The dancers looked beautiful in their traditional northern Thai silk outfits, glittering jewellery and ornate hairpins.
As we wandered around the temple’s courtyards, we were able to imagine an ancient civilisation.
The temple started off as a shrine dedicated to Shiva and was later transformed into a Mahayana Buddhist temple.
Two orange-robed Buddhist monks approached us and offered us meditation CD’s and Buddhist neck amulets.
Later, we spotted the same monks taking photographs of the temple with brand new digital cameras.
We clambered up the steep narrow stone steps for a closer look at some of the temple’s lintels and pediments, many of which portray ancient scenes from the Indian classical epic Ramayana.
2- Discover the mysteries of Phnom Rung
The Khmer dynasty had some of the world’s greatest ancient architects.
They built elaborate temples that symbolized the divine connection between their rulers and gods.
King Suryavarman II (1112-1152) built Angkor Watt and is believed to have drawn his inspiration from another Thai temple, Prasat Hin Phnom Rung.
Located on top of an extinct volcano, Prasat Hin Phnom Rung is a grand 12th century Khmer temple complex.
We slowly climbed the endless staircase built to symbolize the spiritual journey from earth to Hindu heaven.
In the temple grounds, we followed a group of young novice monks past the Naga Bridge, a structure guarded by serpent deities, into the eastern chamber.
In the chamber, there was a statue of Nandin the bull, the mythical mount of Hindu deity Shiva.
The Naga Bridges are identical to those in Angkor Wat.
The Khmer kings were also skillful astronomers and Phnom Rung’s buildings were astronomically aligned.
Visit during April around the time of the Songkran Festival (Thai New Year) and there’s a chance you’ll see the rays from the rising sun through all 15 doors of the stone sanctuary.
It gets pretty busy at that time of the year as crowds often camp out in the grounds at night to be the first in line to get into the temple.
At the foot of the Phnom Rung Mountain lies the remains of Prasat Muang Tam.
Phnom Rung was constructed exclusively for the ruling class but Muang Tam was open to the common folk.
Although most of its chambers lie in ruins, it has a picturesque L-shaped ornamental lotus pond.
3- Thao Suranari
In April, thousands of visitors flock to Thao Suranari to honour the memory of Khun Ying Mo, a brave local woman who saved the city from the Laotian army.
In 1825 Prince Anuwong of Vientiane moved his troops into this city hoping to free Vientiane from the Bangkok kings.
The city was taken by surprise and Khun Ying Mo (the wife of the Deputy Governor) cleverly plied the troops with liquor and gathered the townsfolk to fight for freedom.
4- Taste Street Food
The night markets here are orderly, clean and well organised, yet untouched by the brunt of en masse tourism assault; hence they retain a gentleness and non-pushiness that attracts.
University students set up stalls here to help with their educational fees.
Stay-at-home-mums who hand-make pretty baby and children’s clothes are also present here.
The food side is unbelievably good, varied and cheap.
Khorat wants to be the next Bangkok but it is its provincial charm that is the main attraction.
5- Shop for pottery in Dan Kwian
All around Isaan you’ll find villages that specialise in one product or craft, be it pottery, silk weaving or other cottage industries.
The village of Dan Kwian is dedicated to pottery as the banks of the river provide a very special kind of clay the locals have used for centuries.
Here anything that can be made of clay, is.
There is the inevitable kitschy stuff (very popular judging by the purchases being made all around) the equivalent of garden gnomes in the shape of cute dolls, cows, rabbits and all manner of creature big and small.
But there is, however, a massive area dedicated to reproducing entire Khmer wall plaques and art depicting well-known scenes from Khmer temples.
Here, restaurateurs and hoteliers from all over the world come and order entire walls to adorn their locales.
Water features and big garden sculptures are also international favourites.
6- Visit Kao Yai National Park
Kao Yai is Thailand’s first National Park and the second-largest in the country.
Of the amazing variety of wildlife here present, it isn’t the 200 wild elephants or the tigers- but the leeches that may drive some back in the end.
A steamy walk to the impressive waterfalls is worth it, especially since park rangers now offer anti-leech gaiters to wear over your trousers.
There is also a night safari on specially designed vehicles that take you around to spot nocturnal wildlife.
7- Drink wine at Khao Yai’s PJ Winery
The winery is only a two-hour drive from Bangkok in the Khorat region.
Don’t miss the chance to visit this shiny, spick-and-span, modern winery.
The rolling hills explode with grapes of different types under the watchful eye of staff who trained in Germany and New Zealand.
Shiraz, Tempranillo, Rose and Chenin Blanc are their specialties and they are excellent.
You can inspect the facilities from a cute train-like vehicle and have lunch here in their stunning restaurant.
Wine tasting and exclusive accommodation is also available.
8- Visit Panorama Farm
“We serve you Happiness” is their slogan and indeed this off the main road farm has a magic mushroom vibe.
They not only grow an extensive variety of mushrooms in state-of-the-art pavilions but make mushroom treats, juice, shampoo, conditioner, soap and a million other things.
But, that is not all…
You can stay here in mushroom-shaped houses, swim in a mushroom-shaped pool and picnic around mushroom statuary.
It is a kind of Mushroom Disneyland.
If you dislike fungi, well, keep away but kids are guaranteed a great time here and it is very close to Khao Yai National Park.
9- Escape to Palio
Palio is a romantic escape to the Tuscany of Thailand – and yes – more shopping (but with a difference)!
The Palio outdoor complex is a maze of quaint walking streets with a range of 100 stores in an Italian setting: sienna coloured walls; clock towers; fountains and even a replica of La Bocca Della Verita (the Mouth of Truth) found in Rome, most famous for its role as a lie detector.
Starting from the Middle Ages, it was believed that if one told a lie with one’s hand in the mouth of the sculpture, it would be bitten off.
Palio is crammed with boutiques laden with all kinds of fashion, beauty and home furnishings.
The complex also has restaurants, bakeries, ice cream parlours and cafes.
Palio is located on Thanarad road, next to the Juldis Hotel and is open daily from 10 am to 8 pm.
By Heather Udy
Touching down in Udon Thani International airport, I was excited as to what the next few days were going to bring.
I was in Thailand as part of the Women’s Journey Campaign, a tourism campaign to showcase Thailand from a female perspective.
Things to do in Udon Thani province included visiting local villages, temples, markets and local markets.
Udon Thani is the capital of the Udon Thani province in the Isaan region approximately 560km north of Bangkok and easily accessible by a short domestic flight that takes about one hour.
10- Visit the Indigo Dye Village
Our first stop was straight to an Indigo-Dyed cotton village about 1.5 hour’s drive away.
If the luscious countryside scenery wasn’t nice enough on the way there, the delighted faces and warm welcome of the ladies who work in the cotton dyeing village were definitely a treat.
Although they were initially a bit shy to pose for photos, it didn’t take too long before they were happily showing us how they work.
We were fascinated with the process, from hand-weaving the fabrics into intricate patterns to extracting the indigo dye from the plants grown and carefully dyeing each piece by soaking it in each pot to gain the desired depth of colour.
11- Experience the serenity of Kham Chanot
Next stop on the list of Udon Thani things to do was to visit Kham Chanot, which is a Buddhist forest temple.
This Udon Thani temple is located in the Wang Nakhon area at a lake, where it is believed the Naga Lord Sisotho – a large mythical snake lives.
It is believed the Naga serpent plays a role in the protection of Buddhism and the worship of this Naga lord is one of the main features in this small forest monastery.
Local Thai people, and also some from Laos, still believe the Naga lord has a hideaway on the island.
People come to visit and give offerings of flowers, candles and incense.
12- Shop at the Udon Thani market
The following morning we set off to explore the local market and experience the local way of life.
The market was a hive of activity and I wasn’t surprised to learn that it’s one of the more popular Udon Thani attractions.
There were lots of stalls selling an array of different food items, freshly made Thai dishes, fruit, vegetables, fish, clothing, trinkets. You name it, you can probably find it.
Like many other markets in Thailand, the food looked delicious and we tried a few things. But some items were just a little too adventurous for us and we left those to the locals!
Photographing the strange types of food is probably considered one of the more bizarre Udon Thani tourist attractions!
I should give a special mention to the iced coffee though.
It’s the best I’ve ever had anywhere, even when compared to the drinks served at the Udon Thani restaurants we tried.
13- Meditate at Wat Pa Baan Tat Temple
After we’d spent a good few hours wandering the markets (I would suggest allowing at least two hours), we departed for Wat Pa Baan Tat Temple.
This peaceful Buddhist monastery has long been a place for meditation.
Since the beginning, it has been a place solely for developing the mind. It was established in 1955 and is set in a small forest which is well looked after.
There is lush beautiful vegetation and much to my delight, we spotted many forest animals in the area.
My favourite area of this forest temple though would definitely be the ‘walking meditation’ area. Walking meditation is another form of meditation.
As its name suggests, you walk while you meditate.
You are encouraged to become mindful of the experience of simply walking.
You need to pay attention to each step as the soles of your feet touch the ground and get in touch with the natural sensations throughout your body while walking.
It really was quite a profound and blissful experience in such beautiful surroundings.
14- Explore Ban Chiang Archaeological Site
History lovers wondering what to do in Udon Thani will definitely want to spend some time at the Ban Chiang Archaeological Site in the Nong Han District.
Ban Chiang is considered to be the most important prehistoric settlement discovered in South East Asia to date.
It is a prehistoric human habitation and burial site, which was abandoned and buried underground.
The site was first discovered in 1966, with the first scientific excavation being carried out in 1967.
The site shows early evidence of farming in the region, the manufacture and use of metals and the production of pottery by prehistoric people in Ban Chiang.
Over the years, Ban Chiang has been extensively excavated and the earliest evidence of human existence dates back 5600 years ago.
There has been evidence found of people living here from the late Stone Age through the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age.
It has been listed on UNESCO World Heritage since 1992.
If you’re a history buff then Ban Chiang should be a must-see on your to-do list.
Afterwards, we were treated to a lesson in how to make and paint our own pottery by very talented locals.
Where is Udon Thani?
Udon Thani is located in the Udon Thani province, which is part of the region of Isaan. It is the provincial and a city in northeast Thailand. The distance between Udon Thani and Bangkok is around 560km. A domestic flight takes about one hour.
What are the best Udon Thani hotels?
Staying in Udon Thani is a cost-effective option for travellers, as there are plenty of budget local hotels. You can get clean local dormitory accommodation for as little as $10 a night but the best Udon Thani hotels will cost $50 a night or more, depending on the time of year.
What about the Udon Thani nightlife?
You might be surprised to discover that the Udon Thani nightlife scene is hopping. There are lots of bars and nightclubs located in a small area (there are more than 30 within walking distance). Head to Soi Samphan Thamit behind Central Plaza Mall to enjoy a beer. The most popular bears include Vikings Corner Bar, Sports Bar, Zaaps and the Irish Clock.
This is where the Mekong River forms the border between Thailand and Laos to the North, and Cambodia to the South.
We visited during the wet season, which runs from May through to October.
80% of the rainfall occurs in August and September, so don’t let the rainy season deter you from visiting Nong Khai.
I was in awe of the lush green countryside, especially seeing the fog rolling in through the mountains during the early morning.
The scenery around Nong Khai was spectacular.
The temperature can be quite warm and humid, so bring some cool light clothing.
One point worth mentioning is if you plan on visiting any temples (which we certainly did and I would highly recommend), make sure to pack appropriate temple wear.
Think along the lines of modest clothing.
Keep your shoulders covered (t-shirts and blouses are fine) and pack a pair of long pants or a long skirt to cover your knees.
You’ll also be required to remove footwear before entering a temple.
15- Visit Wat Pa Phu Kon Temple
One of the first places we visited was Wat Pa Phu Kon Temple.
A stunning temple high up a mountain surrounded by a lush green landscape, I was in awe of the beauty of the temple.
If possible, I would suggest arriving there fairly early on in the day.
After about 10 am it can start to get quite busy as all the locals come to pray.
Although the temple is beautiful on the outside, the main attraction at Wat Pa Phu Kon would have to be the 20m-long reclining Buddha.
What’s even more amazing is the Buddha is made from Italian Carrara marble.
The temple itself is just exquisite and there are stunning views all around. Visiting the temple is definitely one of the top things to do in Nong Khai.
16- Mekong River Cruise
Our boat wasn’t a luxury liner but I much prefer an authentic experience over luxury any day.
I was more than happy to have a real taste of local life on a local boat.
Cola the dog, joined our cruise and provided us with good entertainment. Cola also seemed to enjoy cruising the river and taking in the sights as much as we did!
The Mekong River is the longest river in South East Asia.
At 4350km, it is the 7th longest in Asia and the 12th longest in the world.
It forms the boundary between Thailand and Laos. Interestingly, parts of the river in the North East completely dry up during the dry season and it is possible to walk across to Laos!
As we visited during the wet season while the river was flowing, this was quite hard to fathom. I had to query my guide several times to ensure I was hearing correctly!
Although the views are picturesque cruising up the river with Thailand to one side and Laos to the other, the scenery also paints a very real picture of a developing country.
Thailand is a country that is striving hard to become more advanced socially and economically.
The river is home to many different species of fish.
The most famous is the Mekong Catfish, which you will find on the menu at most local restaurants.
I’m a lover of good fish and I ate this several times in various dishes. I was never disappointed. Here’s a photo of local fishermen fishing for catfish.
The Thai-Lao friendship bridge is 1170m long and crosses over the Mekong River.
It connects Thailand and Laos. It was the first major bridge over the Lower Mekong region. The bridge first opened in 1994.
Australians may be interested to hear that the bridge was funded by the Australian Government at a cost of $42 million dollars (the money was provided as development aid).
The result is the bridge has helped Thailand’s economy and increased trade, tourism, investment and cultural exchanges between Australia and Thailand.
We were also treated to a good view of Wat Lam Duan temple, which is famous for its giant golden Buddha statue that sits on the roof.
17- Wat Ha Tak Suea Temple
The following day we departed for Wat Ha Tak Suea temple, which sits at the top of another mountain.
Partway up the mountain, we were begging the driver to pull over while we grabbed our cameras to take photos of the breathtaking view.
At the top of the mountain, there’s a 16m glass skywalk that where you can see stunning views of the Mekong River and the Laotian territory.
Being here was simply beautiful. The clouds and fog all around us (from being so high up the mountain) added to the serene atmosphere of our surroundings.
Being a nature lover, I was continually blown away by the beauty of the Isaan region. Nong Khai, in particular, captured my heart. Everywhere we went, we saw an abundance of wildlife which is a testament to the pristine and undamaged environment.
Nong Khai may not be too well known for being a tourist destination but that’s a good reason to visit. Each place we visited I kept thinking “this is my new favourite place” but then the next place would be even more amazing!
The environment and surroundings will leave you speechless and you’ll probably be inspired to plan your return trip while you’re there.
Chiang Khan is a delightful little town located in Loei Province in Isaan, in the northeast of Thailand. Situated on the banks of the Mekong River, Chiang Khan is 580km north of Bangkok and about 50km south of the town of Loei.
Directly across the river is the country of Laos.
Chiang Khan was founded in the late 19th century when villagers from Laos crossed over the Mekong River after the French colonised Laos.
We were lucky enough to spend two nights in the district and I was definitely not disappointed with all it had to offer.
18- Experience local life in Chiang Khan
On arrival one of the first things that struck me about Chiang Khan was the vibrant main street of Chai Khong which runs parallel to the river.
It’s filled with history and charm that immediately made me quite nostalgic and experience a feeling of familiarity.
The locals were incredibly warm and friendly, and within minutes of being here, I had already decided I would be returning again one day soon.
During the day, Chiang Khan is lined with street vendors selling an array of local food and produce, including these river prawns which can be eaten straight off a skewer.
Or they can also be deep-fried.
At night, however, it turns into the bustling Walking Street Market which it is much better known for.
From 5 pm onwards you can take a stroll up the street and find an assortment of freshly cooked street food, stalls with souvenirs, an array of clothing, buskers, or simply buy a coffee (which I might add the coffee here is exceptionally good) or just a cold beer to wander and take in all the things on offer.
The weekends can get quite busy as people from nearby neighbouring regions travel to Chiang Khan to indulge in the slow-paced, yet vibrant lifestyle on offer.
Chiang Khan is a good destination to choose if you’re looking for an undiscovered spot that is kind on the budget, especially if you’re backpacking around Thailand as the cost of living is pretty low compared to the larger cities
19- Watch the sunrise from Phu Tok Mountain
The scenery is nothing short of amazing, and if you don’t mind an early morning you can be treated to a dazzling sunrise overlooking the Mekong River, while the fog rolls in through the mountains across Laos in the background.
Phu Tok Mountain is also a lovely place to go to watch a sunrise.
Now I’m an avid lover of a good sunrise, and although the morning we were there didn’t offer much colour, the amazing views made it more than worthwhile getting up early for.
It’s known for the ‘sea of fog’ which blankets the town, river and surroundings early morning.
You can drive to the bottom of the mountain (or get your hotel to arrange for you) and then catch a local taxi – or songthaew to the top.
20- Enjoy the sunset over the Mekong
If sunrises aren’t really your thing, the sunsets are just as exquisite to watch while enjoying dinner from one of the many restaurants overlooking the Mekong River.
21- Feed the Buddhist Monks
One thing worth getting up for in the morning though is to see the Buddhist monks doing their sticky rice alms round at dawn every morning.
As many of the people from this area are descended from Laos, one of the age-old traditions they have brought with them is to give offerings to the monks of sticky rice during their morning alms rounds.
The monks start their rounds at 6 am every morning walking barefooted through the village accepting offerings of sticky rice from the locals.
In the North East regions, traditionally only sticky rice was offered, however, these days other food offerings, such as eggs fruit are also given.
The monks only eat two meals per day – breakfast and lunch, and whatever they are given must last them for their meals.
After lunchtime, they only drink water until the next morning.
A 90-year-old lady waits patiently every morning to give her offerings to the monks.
After each offering, the monks will stop and chant a prayer and blessing for the giver.
While we’re on the subject I’d like to talk a bit more about sticky rice.
It is quite different from the usual steamed rice you will find in the area’s further south.
Sticky rice, also known as glutinous rice has a very low amylose content, which gives it its ‘sticky’ texture when cooked.
It is the staple food of the Isaan region and the main agricultural crops you will find growing up here.
22- Enjoy the Festival of Ghosts
While in the Chiang Khan district I would highly recommend visiting the sleepy little farming village of Dan Sai, which is approximately 125km away.
It is the home of the Phi Ta Kohn festival, otherwise known as the Festival of the Ghosts.
The festival is held annually on the first weekend after the sixth full moon and lasts for three days.
It is part of a larger celebration known as Bun Luang, which is part of a Buddhist merit-making holiday.
There are a few different theories as to the origins of the festival, one of them being that Buddha, in one of his past lives was a prince who went away on a long journey and was presumed dead.
However, he did return and the celebrations upon his return were so joyful and loud that they ‘woke the dead’.
The costumes are loud and colourful, and the masks hand-painted masks are just incredible.
We were treated to a performance by the locals, including children, who don these colourful costumes and dance to traditional Isaan music.
The experience was beautiful and incredibly moving.
If there was one more place you need to add to your bucket list I would highly recommend Chiang Khan as you will not be disappointed.
Looking for more things to do in Southeast Asia? Try these: