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 is not all ancient ruins and cottage industries.
There is something for everybody here and lots of things to do in Isaan Thailand, from a magic mushroom farm to fine wineries that will make you think you are somewhere in Europe.
Things to do in Isaan
1- Explore Prasat Hin Phimai and Phanom Rung
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 Wat (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 itself, 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 sunrays 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.
Also read this post if you’re interested in a northern Cambodia road trip itinerary.
2- Try Isaan 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.
I had the pleasure of being in the same group tour with Chef Duncan Robertson (of TV show Duncan’s Thai Kitchen) and veteran TV cameraman Andrew Beck who is behind the camera and production assemblage. Check out this video:
3- Explore craft villages in Isaan
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.
4- Visit Kao Yai National Park
Kao Yai is Thailand’s first National Park (and second largest). 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.
5- Drink wine at Khao Yai’s PJ Winery
The location 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.
6- 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.
7- 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. Open Daily from 10.00 to 20.00
8- Explore Udon Thani
9- Visit Nong Khai
10- Discover Chiang Khan