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Khon Kaen: Isan Initiation

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Another emerging destination to fulfill your requirements for an authentic Thai holiday experience.

By Percy Roxas

Forget the beach destinations for a while. There is so much in Thailand awaiting your discovery and exploration. In Northeastern Thailand alone, many hidden gems such as Khon Kaen – await to make your Thai holiday experience more meaningful. Established a little over two centuries ago, Khon Kaen sits on an area dating to prehistoric era, making a veritable goldmine of unique holiday experiences at every turn. Khon Kaen is located in the heart of the Korat Plateau, a former home to dinosaurs, experts say. Through the ages, people from various cultures occupied the plateau enriching it with their own varying heritages. It became part of the ancient Khmer Empire in the 12th century, which left its own stamp in the area. Today, the Khon Kaen that was established in 1783, is considered the commercial and political center of the Isan (Northeastern Thailand) region, a hub of education and technology, a leading producer of high quality Thai silk, and not the least – an emerging major educational tourism destination in its own right.

Why go
While the second largest Isan province may be a bit underrated as a tourist magnet yet, the province is richly endowed with beauty and attractions, both natural and manmade, that should help it rise to its historic tourism fortunes soon. The place is great for eco-adventure activities – there are several national and animal parks — as well as educational tourism. It also offers visitors a first-hand look at the production of a local silk called “mudmee” (the region’s famous tie-dyed silk). There is much to learn for history buffs, so much to see for cultural and archaeological vultures, and so much to enjoy for those in search of the more rustic Thai experience. Also, Khon Kaen is easy to visit and with its reputation for fine eateries and swanky hotels, assures a most enjoyable breakaway from Bangkok. You will get plenty of old-fashioned kindness, amazing Thai food, and a chance to experience Thailand as many visitors hope it would always be.
What to see
There is no dearth of places to see and visit. The Art and Cultural Center, located at Khon Kaen University, is popular for sampling genuine Isan-style arts and culture. Khon Kaen National Museum on Lang Sun Ratchakan Road boasts antiques and precious art pieces from pre-historical to historical periods as well as a skeleton of the New Stone Age man and tools from the prehistoric area of Ban Chiang. Visitors should not miss the sandstone Sema boundary markers from the Semas Dvaravati period. Other interesting exhibits include Khmer stone lintels from ruins in the region as well as art pieces from other periods such as Sukhothai and Ayutthaya eras, and native tools. Khon Kaen University, located on the hill called ‘Mo Din Daeng’ on a 5,000+ -rai plot of land, is the largest educational institute in Isan, and particularly famous for the disciplines that directly involve and benefit the Isan people. The Treasure Hall is a place established to strengthen local identity, a museum offering a glimpse of the city’s history. For a Jurassic Park-like experience – sans the terror, of course — try a visit to Phu Wiang Dinosaur Museum, part of the Phu Wiang Dinosaur Fossil Study and Research Center. The center displays the origin of the Earth: rocks, minerals, fossils, dinosaur models, and related stuff.

As in most places in Thailand, religious places of varying significance are scattered around Khon Kaen. One is the Phra Mahathat Kaen Nakhon (9-storey stupa) at Wat Nong Waeng, a royal temple on Klang Mueang Road that houses Lord Buddha’s relics and important Buddhist scriptures. Another is the Sim Isan (Wat Pa Saeng Arun). Sim Isan is a northeastern term for ordination hall or ubosot. Sim Isan’s outstanding features include its typical shape, style, and solidity, as well as the beautiful murals with mudmee patterns. Interested in art? Then, Wat Chai might be for you. The temple, located at Ban Sawathi, was declared a national ancient monument in 2001 and has an ordination hall with magnificent mural paintings, both inside and outside, created by folk artisans from Maha Sarakham. There is also a museum where rare Isan folk artifacts are collected. Archaeological buffs will find the Ku Prapha Chai (Ku Ban Na Kham Noi) most interesting too.

What to do
centara khon kaenDepending on your interests, there are plenty to take your time. Exploring some of the national parks is highly recommended. You can choose from the Phu Kao-Phu Phan Kham National Park and the Nam Phong National Park, a major source of herbs, with several viewpoints. ‘Hin Chang Si’ has a scenic view of the Ubolratana Lake and Khon Kaen city; or the Phu Wiang National Park. Besides dinosaur fossils, traces of ancient civilizations are also evident in this area, including a relief of the reclining Buddha on the cliff at the crest of Phu Wiang Mountain. You can also explore caves such as the Tham Phra, which houses beautiful stalagmites, stalactites, and big stone pillars; and visit several beautiful waterfalls. For easier chill-out time, relax at the Bueng Kaen Nakhon, a lake occupying an area of 603 rai with a shady park that is dotted with sculptures.Cultural tours around the area are available, for example to rural spots like the King Cobra village or the ancient pottery site of Ban Chiang. Even more amazingly, you can be eating at the night market or enjoying the Boeng Kak Lake in downtown Khon Kaen by just driving five minutes from your very own private paradise.
Foodies will not be disappointed either. There is a wide range of eateries specializing in different cuisines and serving them to fit varying pockets. For some authentic taste of Isan, try the Khao Soi Chiang Mai, (along Prachamosorn Rd after the Lao Consulate.). The Smile@Waterside on 142-144 Rop Beung Rd has a great lakeside garden atmosphere with live jazz. Up-scale by local and backpacker standards for Thai food, but less than what you’re likely to pay in similar settings in Bangkok. TastyChocolat, (across from Tessabansuansanuk School.) is a Belgian chocolate shop for those with a yearning for the real thing, and Pomodoro – as its name implies — is great for pizza and pasta. Along the road from the Roma Hotel are several street eateries, which are quite cheap and offer a good range of food. There is a food market in the center of the town. There are various night markets, which also are good places to try out many different kinds of food: a “young and hip” market at Khon Kaen University behind the complex where students sell many of the goods; a popular one on Glang Muang Rd; and one that sometimes doubles as a carnival, at Bueng Kaen Nakhon. Of course, the leading hotels boast restaurants and bars that may suit more discerning tastes.
The Club at Hotel Charoen Thani Princess is famous for music and dancing, although the most popular, locals say, is The Rad Club. The place offers live music, disco, and coyote girls. You can also visit the Sync on 43/2 Pimpasut Rd, Na Mueang Rd (beside the Khon Kaen Hotel), and Tawandang Khon Kaen, (Chalermprakiat Rd near intersection with Ammat Road) – which has more or less the authentic Isan feel. There are several other popular nightclubs near the Pullman Hotel in the downtown area too. Both feature live music and bands. There are many others not mentioned – and all you have to do is venture a little bit away from your hotel.
Centara Hotel & Convention Centre Khon Kaen - Deluxe roomWhatever your preference, whatever your budget, there is something for you in Khon Kaen. There are apartments, guesthouses, and hotels with daily rates starting from Bt550 per night to Bt5000 per month. There are places just costing under Bt400 per day although offering very basic services and facilities but with great location. A bit on the upper scale is the Khon Kaen Orchid (Tel: 043-334-000); The Piman Garden Hotel (Tel: 043-334-111), and Hotel Pullman Khon Kaen Raja Orchid (Tel: 043-322-155). In the capital Khon Kaen is a boutique resort, which is on the prestigious Relais & Chateaux list of global boutique lodgings. This is Suppaniga Home (Tel: 089-944-4880). Those in town for business can stay at the Centara Hotel and Convention Center Khon Kaen (Tel: 043-209-888). These hotel recommendations, by the way, are random. Check the Web for more before you make your plans.
How to get there
By Plane:
Thai Airways (Tel: 043-227-701) flies from Bangkok to Khon Kaen and back three times a day. The local airport number is 043-246-345.

By Train:
Express trains leave Hua Lumphong Bangkok (Bangkok-Nong Khai line) at 8:20 a.m., 6:30 p.m. and 8:45 p.m. for the eight-hour journey to the Khon Kaen Train Station daily.

By Bus:
Buses leave Bangkok’s Northern (Morchit) Bus Terminal every 15 minutes from early morning until late. There are also some private VIP bus service operators.