A few weeks ago, I wrote about my exploration of and love for the underrated Thailand region of Isaan. Most travelers just simply skip over this region on their way to Laos. The area is mostly farmland and little towns and lacks any real “attractions,” so travelers just pass through or go elsewhere in Thailand. But this region is proof that even in a country as touristy as Thailand, there’s still an off-the-beaten-path area to see.
I loved Isaan and think that it is a real shame that most people neglect to visit it. If you want to take a look at what day-to-day life in Thailand is like away from the crowds, Isaan is the place to go. I loved getting away from it all and the feeling of really “exploring” Thailand. The country feels too easy and Westernized when you’re on the main tourist routes, but in Isaan, I felt as if I was peering into some secret place no one else knew about.
While my previous post listed some of my favorite places, this week I want to get into the nitty-gritty and talk about how to plan a trip and explore the region.
First, what route should you take around the region? This is the route I followed:
Bangkok – Korat – Nong Kong – Surin – Ubon Ratchathani – Laos – Nong Khai, Khon Kaen – Bangkok
I went through Laos because I wanted to see the famous 4,000 Islands and travel back up through Vientiane. This made for an easy loop, and I didn’t have to double back. With this itinerary, I explored the edges of Isaan, but didn’t go “deep” into the region.
If you really wanted to embark on an intense Isaan trek while still avoiding doubling back, I would travel this way:
Bangkok – Korat – Nong Kong – Surin – Sisaket – Ubon Ratchathani – Yasothon & Roi Et – Sakon Nakhon – Nong Khai – Udon Thani – Khon Kaen – Bangkok
With this route you dive deep into the region by cutting across the middle of Isaan, which lets you see a lot of national parks like Phu Phan or Phu Pha Yon, the monkey temple (Ku Phra Ko Na) outside Roi Et, tiny rural towns, and beautiful rivers. You can be the only foreigner around and enjoy some of Thailand’s most off-the-beaten-path destinations!
If you don’t want to do the loop, any one of these legs would be wonderful on its own. You would have to double back to get to Bangkok if you aren’t moving on to Laos, though.
If you planned to follow this entire itinerary, you would need a minimum of one month, but 6–8 weeks is a much more reasonable pace and one that won’t have you packing your bags every third day. I traversed my shorter route in 2.5 weeks (not counting Laos).
6 Tips for Isaan Traveling
Isaan doesn’t have huge tourist infrastructure, it’s hard to get out of the big cities to the smaller attractions, and English isn’t as widely spoken, but those “challenges” actually make it much more exciting. Here are six things you should know before you travel Isaan:
1. You don’t need to pre-book – Since the region doesn’t see many tourists, just showing up to guesthouses and bus stops is fine. I didn’t pre-book anything on my trip and never had any issues. You aren’t fighting for space.
2. Try to have your own transportation – Isaan is one of those parts of the world (like Ireland, Southern France, or Iceland) that is best explored with your own transportation. To really get out and see everything the area has to offer, rent your own bike or car and drive around. My fondest memories were getting off the main roads on the back of my taxi driver’s bike and wishing I had my own ride.
3. Drivers can be hired and prices shared – Since I didn’t have my own transportation, I had to hire drivers a lot. That’s expensive, but it was the only way to get to the national parks and ruins I wanted to see as most of the parks and ruins are far outside the cities. However, the drivers all charge set prices, so you can share tuk-tuk or car hire costs with new friends!
4. There are a lot of expats who can help via Couchsurfing – Isaan is filled with English teachers (and old guys and their Thai wives), so if you want to break into the local scene, you can find a lot of hosts on Couchsurfing, as well as people who will show you around (foreigner or Thai!).
5. National parks are far from cities, and day tours are hard to organize – See points #2 and #3 for this.
6. English is not widely spoken – Since there are fewer tourists, there is going to be a bigger language barrier. You’ll be able to get around but expect to use more hand gestures, pointing, and language dictionaries!
How Much Does Isaan Cost?
Compared to other parts of Thailand, Isaan is SUPER cheap and quite a bargain, especially when compared to the other parts of the country. I averaged around 900 baht ($25 USD) a day. That included only private rooms, hiring motorbikes to take me around (see points above), and drinking a few too many beers with my friends who live in the region. Here are some common prices:
- Dorm bed: 100 baht
- Private room with bathroom: 300 baht
- Bike hire for the day: 300 baht
- Short distance train rides: 50 baht
- Phimai Historical Park: 100 baht
- National Park fees: 50-200 baht
- Car hire for the day: 1200 baht
- Som tam and rice: 40 baht
- Soup from a street vendor: 35 baht
A daily budget of $15–25 USD would be plenty for Isaan if you were to stick to dorms rooms (or the occasional cheap private room), street food, and buses (or had your own transportation). If you were hiring drivers, wanted more Western meals, a few more beers, or only private rooms with A/C, I would budget $25–35 USD per day. For anything higher than that, you’re just spending too much money for no reason!
I wish I had spent more time in Isaan. I loved it and I strongly, STRONGLY encourage you to go there to see what Thailand is like away from the massive tourist industry and the “banana pancake” trail filled with backpackers. It’s the cheapest area of Thailand and, to use a cliché, the most “authentic.”
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