Last Updated: 12/4/23 | December 4th, 2023
Isaan is one of the most under-visited parts of Thailand. The region is the country’s most rural, without any internationally known attractions or cities to visit.
As a result, travelers backpacking through Southeast Asia simply pass through it on their way to Laos, and those on shorter trips skip it altogether in favor of places like Pai, Chiang Mai, or the islands of the south.
While Thailand is often thought of as an overrun, tourist-filled place, most of the country is actually devoid of tourists. In my two weeks in Isaan, I saw six other travelers. SIX! Travelers are so rare in this part of Thailand that I was often met with quizzical looks by locals, faces that seemed to ask: “Are you lost? Chiang Mai is the other way.”
After spending close to ten years traveling and living in Thailand, I had decided it was time to get off the beaten track and visit this region (it was the main reason for that specfic trip). I wanted to see the rural interior, to see Thai life away from Western influences and tourist infrastructure and get to know Thai culture a little better.
Isaan is a land of mostly farms and villages (it’s where most of the country’s rice and other important crops are grown), architecturally uninspiring cities, and spicy and delicious food (some of the best in Thailand).
And it exceeded all of my expectations.
It’s one of those places where you can get off the trail and see what life, unspoiled by tourists, is really like in Thailand.
I covered the logistics of traveling Isaan in another post so today I want to share my favorite sights and activities.
Table of Contents
- 1. Admire the Temples of Korat
- 2. Wander the Ruins of Phimai
- 3. Go Trekking in Khao Yai National Park
- 4. See the Sculptures of Nong Khai
- 5. Unwind in Ubon Ratchathani
- 6. Tour Phanom Rung Historical Park and Prasat Ta Muen Thom
- 7. Wander Phu Phra Bat Historical Park
- 8. Explore the Countryside
- Get the In-Depth Budget Guide to Thailand!
1. Admire the Temples of Korat
Isaan’s gateway city, Korat is the nickname given to Nakhon Ratchasima. It’s the region’s largest, most well-to-do town and features a big university. Like most Thai cities, it lacks any real inspiring architecture, but it does have a lot of beautiful temples, including Wat Ban Rai, Wat Phayap, and Wat Non Kum.
The city is definitely worth a day or two as you make your way deeper into Isaan. When you’re there, head to the Yellow Pumpkin for a cool coffee shop and eat at the soup stall on the corner of Buarong and Suranaree Rds. It’s open at night and incredibly popular. I stumbled on it, and it was the best noodle soup I had in Isaan.
2. Wander the Ruins of Phimai
This historic ruin is an easy day trip from Korat. It was mostly built around the 11th and 12th centuries by the Khmers when they controlled the area. Beautiful and never crowded, this site features a center temple surrounded by a few mini-structures and a gigantic square wall.
To get to the temple, you walk across a naga bridge (naga serpents were guardians of heaven), through a crumbling wall, and across a field. The complex inspires awe as you approach it, and it reminded me a lot of Angkor Wat (they were built in the same style) but without the crowds. I saw only two other foreigners there, as this ruin is mostly frequented by Thais and school groups.
3. Go Trekking in Khao Yai National Park
Located in the region of Nakhon Ratchasima, if travelers visit the region of Isaan at all, it’s on a day trip from Bangkok to Khao Yai National Park. Located halfway between Bangkok and the aforementioned Nakhon Ratchasima (about two hours away from each), Khao Yai is one of Thailand’s best national parks.
Established in 1962, it was Thailand’s first national park and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is truly amazing. It’s filled with lush flora and fauna, tons of birds, waterfalls, beautiful hikes, a few wild elephants, and is virtually empty of tourists.
4. See the Sculptures of Nong Khai
Mostly a stopover city for tourists coming in and out of Laos, Nong Khai has amazing food and coffee shops (try Macky’s Riverside Kitchen or Cake at Toey’s), river cruises up and down the Mekong, and a cool market.
It also has lots of temples. I’m a big fan of Wat Pho Chi and Wat Phra That Khlang Nam. While I really liked the slow pace of life, what really blew me away was Sala Kaew Ku. This sculpture park, built by Bunleua Sulilat in 1978, has hundreds of statues (mostly of Buddha) in all shapes and sizes. It was the coolest thing I saw in all of the city. I especially loved the giant Buddha with the naga snakes over it (that’s a lot of concrete!).
5. Unwind in Ubon Ratchathani
Another stopover city for tourists on their way to Laos, I liked the relaxed feel here. The only foreigners who stay in this city either married a Thai or teach English.
There isn’t much to do here, so it’s a good place to unwind. You can overload on one of the many Buddhist temples in the city (my favorites are Wat Tai Prachao Yai Ong Tue and Wat Thung Si Muang), visit the famous night market or the surprisingly detailed Maha Viravong National Museum, and eat dinner on the river, but there’s not much more to the city than that.
I would also suggest taking a cab to Wat Nong Pah Pong outside the city. A tiny temple, the tree-covered grounds and numerous paths make it an incredibly tranquil place to walk around. It has a very Japanese feel to it.
6. Tour Phanom Rung Historical Park and Prasat Ta Muen Thom
In between Korat and Surin City is Phanom Rung, an important Khmer ruin built by the Khmers in the 11th century. It’s a beautiful palace/temple, with a large prasat (inner temple) in the middle and Indiana Jones–style ruins surrounding it.
Further south (about an hour south, near the border with Cambodia) is the Prasat Ta Muen Thom complex, through which the Ancient Khmer Highway (a road between Angkor Wat and Phimai) used to run. I liked this complex better as there were far fewer people (I counted eight on my visit). There were also four beautiful ponds and a well-preserved wall surrounding the temple.
You can visit both as a day tour from Korat or Surin City, but with more time, stay in Nang Rong for a night and rent a bike to get around. If you do, stay at Honey Inn. It’s cheap and the owners are amazing (and they will drive you to the bus station in the morning). Plus, they offer a variety of ways to explore the area, including motorbike rentals, drivers for hire, and even group tours to the nearby sights.
7. Wander Phu Phra Bat Historical Park
An hour outside of Nong Khai is Phu Phra Bat, a national archeological park that features ancient stone houses and rock formations. After a beautiful scenic drive, you’ll arrive at the park (it’s going to be just you and school kids) where you can wander a forest and see some rock art. The purpose of the area is still a mystery to historians and archeologists alike, but the 3,000-year-old rock formations are thought to have been formed initially by river erosion and then later modified by religious groups.
8. Explore the Countryside
The best part of Isaan is wandering the rural countryside, and that’s very hard to do if you don’t have your own transport. Isaan lacks an extensive transportation network outside the major towns. My favorite memories were the scenic bike rides through the rice fields, farms, and small towns, and down dirt roads. But I wouldn’t have had those if I had hired drivers to take me around the whole time, which was an expensive thing to do.
And, I never got really far because I could only hire some for the day. When I wandered Isaan with a driver, I wished I had my own method to get around. Rent a bike or car (use Discover Cars to find the best deals), go at your own pace, get far off the road, and enjoy lush and vibrant green farmland, friendly and curious locals, cheap meals, and cows blocking your way!
It’s a shame not many people visit this part of Thailand and I kick myself for not visiting sooner. This area may be rural and lack the activities of other regions, but Isaan is a diamond in the rough and a visit here will give you a fascinating look at small-town Thailand. It’s an area to get away from it all and enjoy the country.
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