Travel in Isan: What to see and where to go in Northeast Thailand

Thailand villa for holiday rental

Tour the Forgotten Provinces of North East Thailand

See the other Thailand

Northeast Thailand is commonly referred to as Isaan (or Isan, Isarn, or Esan). It is one of the most populous of the 5 main regions of Thailand - the Northeast, the North, the South and the central plains. Centred on the Khorat Plateau, it is bordered by the Mekong River (which comprises the frontier with Laos) to the north and east, by Cambodia to the southeast, and by the mountains of Prachinburi.

The northeast as a whole differs considerably from the other regions of Thailand, being a highly populated area spread out over a large geographical area, with its inhabitants living principally in small rural villages and leading a life based predominantly on agricultural smallholdings. The towns and cities serve as hubs for the civil service and as trading bases for those trading crops.

As a result of the relative poverty of the Northeast (caused in part by cycles of very dry weather and then heavy rains which can make crops unpredictable and farming an economically hazardous undertaking), the region is the principle source of labour for the main locomotives of Thai industry in the capital, and of tourism in the widely promoted travel destinations of the kingdom.

Northeast Thailand also supplies numerous workers to overseas job markets, where natives work in construction, factories, and the hotel industries amongst others. Whilst local folk will always return home for the rituals of planting and harvesting rice, many of them spend the rest of the year elsewhere in the country, eking out a living and remitting funds back home.

One of the successes of Gecko Villa has been its ability to provide permanent employment for local villagers who can now remain together in the traditional family unit.

Northeast Thailand encompasses nineteen provinces, namely Amnat Charoen, Buriram, Chaiyaphum, Kalasin, Khon Kaen, Loei, Maha Sarakham, Mukdahan, Nakhon Phanom, Nakhon Ratchasima, Nongbua Lamphu, Nong Khai, Roi Et, Sakon Nakhon, Sisaket, Surin, Ubon Ratchathani, Udon Thani and Yasothon. Udon Thani is located in the heart of the Khorat Plateau, between Khon Kaen and Nong Khai. It is often used as a stopping point for travellers visiting Vientiane (the capital of Laos) from Bangkok.

The accidental tourist: getting off the beaten path has its advantages

Despite the lack of development in the region - or indeed perhaps because of it - the indigenous people of the Northeast are known to be extremely welcoming and hospitable to travellers, always ready with a smile and an invitation to indulge in some of the region's particularly spicy dishes or lethal rice whiskies, and to dance the traditional Mor Lam jig.

To experience northeast Thailand to the full, you do need to get out of its major towns and cities and into the deep countryside. As you leave the bustling town behind, with its 7/11 shops, ATMs and department stores, you will head into the countryside on a wide four lane carriageway, before turning off onto smaller "B" roads , and finally onto un-surfaced red tracks that lead to the smallest villages, with their rickety corer store shacks, bicycles, and noodle stalls.

Often water buffalo rather than cars will be kept under the wooden houses raised on stilts, and life will seem to be played out underneath these houses in full public view, rather than behind the walls of the city's residences. Stroll around and visit the local markets, schools, temples and stores; watch as wizened old ladies weave grass mats on old looms; and take up that smiling invitation to join the villagers for a drink or a bite to eat! Or should you prefer to take time to explore the regions dramatic ruins and temples, then plan a trip to any number of these in the area.

Highlights of northeast Thailand

Northeast Thailand is often separated into two based upon the origin of the local dialects - with either Lao or Khmer influences. The main historical sights in North East Thailand include the ruins of the Khmer Empire, prehistoric drawings at Ban Phu near Udon Thani and the Unesco World Heritage site of Ban Chiang near Udon Thani.

The region also has numerous areas of outstanding natural beauty, with waterfalls, the Mekong River valley and national parks, and of course is home to many arts and crafts traditions producing local handicrafts including the famous mutmee silks, khit cloth, Ban Chiang pottery and Dan Kwian ceramics. The local music (such as morlam), festivals and folklore also weave a a rich strand through Isan life, as does its very special north eastern Thai Cuisine.

The museum and excavations at Ban Chiang are readily accessible from Gecko Villa. Phu Phra Bat Historical Park may also be visited form the property, with its strange rock formations, prehistoric cave paintings and wealth of trees.

For those driving up to Gecko Villa from Bangkok, or taking the train, the thousand year old Khmer ruins are a highpoint for many. Amongst these are Phimai near Nakhon Ratchasima. This is an 11-12th century ancient Khmer city surrounded by a moat, and nearby is the town's Phimai National Museum, displaying Khmer artefacts and works of art from excavations. The site is Thailand's prime example of Khmer architecture.

Preah Vihear has seen many controversies between Thailand and Cambodia, as it is said to be located on Cambodian soil but is only accessible from Thailand. The dramatic temple is definitely worth a visit and many consider it to be the most spectacular in the region. This temple to the Hindu God Shiva dates from around 893 when King Yashovarman launched its construction.

Phanom Rung Park is set on a volcanic hill in Buri Ram. Built in the 12th century, it was dedicated to Shiva, the supreme Hindu Deity. Prasat Muang Tam in Surin is a Hindu religious sanctuary constructed of laterite, brick and sandstone, dating back to the 10th and 11th centuries.