Everyone knows Thailand. Everyone loves Thailand. However, there are still some regions in this well-trodden country that are almost never visited by tourists. One of those regions is the North East of the country, deep in the heart of Isan Province, along the Mekong River and the country's border with impoverished Laos. This region is a far cry from the bright lights of Bangkok or the sandy beaches of Ko Pha-ngan, but what you will find is a deep-rooted and longstanding culture alongside some of the most friendly people you are ever likely to meet.
Location: North-East Thailand
Area: 168,854 km²
Population: 22.14 Million
Demonym: Khon Isan
Largest City: Nakhon Ratchasima
Religion: Theravada Buddhism
Why should I visit?
This region of Thailand is almost entirely undeveloped in comparison to the bigger cities and more visited regions of the country. This is a glimpse of the 'real Thailand', where people live by their longstanding culture. One of the most compelling reasons for visiting Isan is the lack of tourists you will encounter while you are here, and it is simply a place to get off the tourist trail altogether. English is not widely spoken here but don't let that put you off, the locals are extremely friendly and will look after you if you ever get stuck. Visitors to Isan will leave knowing they have seen some of the most beautiful landscapes in one of the countries hidden gems.
Where should I visit?
This eccentric city is often the port of call for tourists who do visit the Isan region as it is the last major city and main departure destination for those wishing to cross the border in to Laos. Here you will find an incredible night market packed with cheap souvenirs and delicious local food that is almost unrivalled anywhere in Thailand. One of the oddities that make this city worth visiting are the large rubber ducks that sit in the lake at the Nong Prajak Public Park. Just outside the city is the beautiful Red Lotus Sea, a natural lake filled with millions of blossoming red lotus flowers that you can take a boat journey through.
Home of the most historically important temples in Thailand, That Phanom is a calm riverside town that is a quintessential part of the Isan experience. Take in the beautiful Wat Phra That Phanom (pictured above) at night to really admire its beauty. It is said that this temple houses some of the bones of the Buddha himself. On certain days of the week the town hosts a Thai-Lao market as well as the That Phanom festival, whose loud music and vibrancy attracts visitors from all over the country.
Phanom Rung Historical Park
This formerly disputed Khmer Temple complex is situated close to the border with Cambodia in the south of the region and boasts many of the architectural themes that you may be familiar with from the world famous Angkor Wat. If the beautiful temples weren't enough to draw you here, the fact that the park is sat atop an extinct volcano may just do the trick.
Khao Yai National Park
Khao Yai is probably the national park closest to Bangkok at just over three hours away, but it still lies within the Isan province and is close to the largest city there; Nakhon Ratchasima. The dense forest is popular among locals and adventurous tourists thanks to its abundant wildlife, beautiful natural fauna and amazing waterfalls.
One of the four major cities of the region, Ubon Ratchathani is a populous city that is known as the royal lotus city. It is home to many beautiful temples, with Wat Thung Si Muang, a wooden library sat upon stilts in the middle of a small lake, being probably the most beautiful of them all.
Another vibrant city on the banks of the Mekong, Nakhon Phanom is the starting point visiting the far North-East of the region. Home to many beautiful, golden riverside temples from here you can take a riverboat across to Laos, bike alongside the Mekong or visit the hidden house of the former Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh, who was exiled here in the 1920s.
When should I visit?
To get the driest, warmest weather you should visit here around February time, although temperature and rainfall can be unpredictable at all times of the year. The wet season runs through June to October and the peak season is April.
How do I visit?
There are public buses and private coaches available to all major destinations in the region from Bangkok. Udon Thani, Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Phanom, Buri Ram & Nakhon Ratchasima all have airports that host flights from a number of domestic locations.
What should I eat?
Even among Thai people, Isan food has a reputation as being some of the most spicy (and delicious) so tread carefully when ordering or you may end up with an unwanted surprise. The region is famous for its Papaya Salads and Sticky Rice. In the Mekong riverside areas, some of the most common dishes are beautiful fish curries.