Explore the culture, distinctive cuisine and diverse wildlife of north eastern Thailand

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Isan is the largest region in Thailand (containing within it 20 separate provinces) and makes up the entire northeast corner of the country.

Often Thailand’s visitors are seeking sun, sea and sand and as Isan does not have any coastline, a large portion of tourists completely overlook this part of the country. However, there is so much to see and do here; it has a distinct culture compared with other areas of Thailand partly thanks to its location bordering Cambodia and Laos, meaning there is a lot of international influence in its history, culture and cuisine.

This region is a top place to find ancient Khmer ruins for example. In fact this region is truly steeped in political and religious history and is home to some really fantastic temples and archaeological sites. If you’re more of a foodie than a culture vulture, the Isan cuisine is unique and delicious with varied flavours, whilst the natural scenery is quite unbeatable: there is a staggering range of animals, lakes, rivers and national parks to be explored here.

If you are visiting Thailand we would highly recommend a foray into Isan – you will not be disappointed. Of course we could not give a comprehensive list of everything to see, eat, listen to or wander through here but below we’ve explored a few of Isan’s top attractions.

Culture

There is such an incredible amount of historical and religious culture to be explored in Isan, it can be hard to know where to begin so here are a few of the most influential sites in the region. Udon Thani in northern Isan, is home to the Ban Chiang Archaeological Site. The site was discovered in 1967 and has since been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site thanks to the astounding artefacts that have been found here. There are skeletons from as far back as 2100 BCE and hundreds of accompanying bronze artefacts such as axes, blades, spearheads, bracelets, anklets and necklaces and lots of fragments and remnants of pottery pieces. Today you can visit the site and the accompanying museum, which provides information and examples of the fossils and objects that were discovered here.

Buriram province is located in southern Isan next to Cambodia and thanks to this very central location and its international border it has a lot to offer visitors looking for a slice of history. The region is awash with various Khmer relics and ruins the most impressive of which is Angkor Phanom Rung, which sits in the Phanom Rung Historical Park. This incredible temple complex, believed to have been built between the 10th and 13th centuries, sits atop an extinct volcano and is a maze of stone towers, stairways, platforms and hallways set in green garden surroundings. It makes for a stunning day out; not only is the architecture visually impressive but the historical context feels almost tangible.

Roi Et is a province which sits in central Isan, it was formerly controlled by the Khmer empire and it was during this time that many temples were erected here, a large proportion of which still stand today in varying states of preservation. Perhaps the most impressive is the Phra Maha Chedi Chai Mongkol pagoda, which is an incredible 101 metres tall and adorned in intricate white and gold detailing. Inside visitors will find several enshrined Buddha relics.

Cuisine

Isan food is quite distinctive in comparison with dishes found in the rest of Thailand. Thanks to its location there are some quite clear influences from Khmer (in Cambodia), Laos and even Vietnam. Food here is spicy, fresh and uses a lot of different meats including chicken, pork, seafood and insects. Sticky rice and chilli are the two most common ingredients; the sticky rice is rolled into balls by hand and dipped into other dishes.

The cuisine here is less known internationally than more central Thai dishes (such as pad thai or green curry) but it is hugely popular in Thailand and it is easy to see why. Admittedly some of the dishes can be off putting to foreigners, perhaps you may not want to try ant egg salad or mola crickets with chilli dip but do not write off their entire repertoire. Here are some of our favourite dishes that are not to be missed.

Som tam pla ra is the Isan variation of the traditional spicy papaya salad made with green papaya, eggplant, long beans, gourami fish, fish sauce and chillies. It is a tangy light dish normally eaten with sticky rice. Isan sausages (sold widely by street vendors) have a unique almost sour flavour made from fermented pork and sticky rice – it doesn’t necessarily sound appealing but trust us it is delicious – served with cabbage, ginger and fresh chilli for a snack with a kick.

Nature

Isan is striking in its natural beauty. Northern Isan is perhaps the most beautiful and verdant part of the region, it makes up part of the Mekong Valley and is home to vast national parks each with a diverse selection of flora and fauna to be discovered. Meanwhile central and southern Isan form the Chi River Basin and the Mun River Basin respectively and are also home to some of Thailand’s best loved national parks. The Khao Yai National Park in the Mun River Basin opened in 1962 making it Thailand’s first ever national park and still today it is the country’s third largest covering over 2,000 square kilometres. There is a jaw-dropping range of creatures to be seen here, including mammals such as elephants, bears and gibbons and also birds including hornbills, partridges and jungle fowls and reptiles such as the Chinese water dragon and the reticulated python. The park is open to visitors and offers public guided tours and private tours for small groups with options that extend over several days where you can stay at one of the various nearby off-site guest houses.

Meanwhile in northern Isan in Loei province (famed for its rolling hills and mountain ranges) sits another incredibly popular national park: Phu Kradueng National Park. This park was also bequeathed the status of a national park in the 1960s; Phu Kradueng is Thailand’s second national park and sits over Phu Kradueng mountain range with a peak elevation of over 4000 feet. Consequently you can find a range of flora and fauna here: along the mountain sides you will see evergreen forests and bamboo plants whilst the plateau atop the peak has a sandy ground and here lies a pine savannah landscape. It is almost as if you have walked into another world. The park is also home to various animals, including foxes, squirrels, multiple species of deer, elephants, bears, eagles and a very rare species of turtle (named Tao Poo Loo) which lives in mountainous forest streams and stands out from other turtles thanks to its long tail.


More suggestions

Below are few more specific suggestions of things not to miss on your trip to the region of Isan.

  • If you’re visiting Roi Et’s various temples then make a stop at the Roi Et National Museum. It is well worth a visit with exhibits from the 8th century until the present day covering archeology, history, pottery, fabrics, artwork and models depicting past lives. Open Wednesday through to Sunday from 9am to 4pm.
  • In Khao Yai National Park there are two waterfalls, which are really something to behold. The first is Haew Narok Waterfall, which is the tallest waterfall in this national park and is formed of three separate steps accumulating to a height of 150 metres from the top of the waterfall to the ravine at the bottom. The second is the Haew Suwat Waterfall, which is much smaller, only reaching 25 meters at its peak but it is interesting because during dry season the water is low enough for visitors to gain access to a small hidden cave in the rock face below.
  • One of Isan’s largest cities is Nakhon Ratchasima and here you will find a surplus of great places to eat. Check out the Suan Muang Porn Restaurant for traditional Isan fare accompanied with stunning views of the nearby reservoir and rolling hills in the distance. Sunset is a particularly beautiful time to get there but it is still stunning throughout the day.
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Lily Guy-Vogel
Lily, originally from London, and a former Medieval Literature student, has had the travel bug ever since she can remember, and has travelled extensively, never wishing to stay in one place for too long! She has written for a stream of publications and blogs on her way, often bringing a comedic edge to her work. She loves adventure and exploring new places, and is determined to set foot in every continent before choosing a home.