Driving your way around the provinces of Isan is another exciting way of discovering the region and its people.
By Percy Roxas.
Isan – the northeast of Thailand. Perhaps no other region of the country offers such diversity, such wealth of culture, such traditions and such range of both natural and manmade attractions than Isan, which even those who have been living in Thailand for a long time has been taking for granted. But what we have seen in this region have enamored it to us so.
My love affair with Isan started years back, when I first joined a fam trip to explore some provinces along the Mekong River. It was an eye-opener, to say the least. Seeing the harsh realities of daily Isan life – the region is among the poorest in Thailand – on one side, and enjoying the countryside’s diverse attractions and beauty on the other, one is left wondering why this region is being left out by other mainstream tourist destinations.
We have always wanted to explore more of this region. A full road trip is not always possible, since we are a mere salary man hounded by the limitations of the daily office grind, so we try to visit the region province by province. For example, one time we would just go to Buriram, famed for the remaining relics of the Khmer Empire that rule this part of the country for decades, or just visit Ubon Ratchathani, that beautiful border province that is a melting pot of culture and home to the park where the first rays of sunrise in Thailand are witnessed.
But we recently had a chance to take a road trip that took us from the Isan gateway that is Korat to the northernmost Isan outreach of Loei, rounding the trip off by short stop overs in neighboring provinces to complete our journey – and then back. There was no plan, no program, and we decided to just go where the four wheels would take us.
Korat is perfect as a springboard for an Isan roadtrip. Not only is it the closest to Bangkok, but also, the province is connected to almost all the Isan provinces – and up to the Lao border in fact — by big, wide, well-maintained highways. Driving from here to elsewhere in the region is therefore always a pleasure.
Korat (or Nakhonratchasima) is also one of the four major cities of Isan. It is the capital of the Nakhon Ratchasima Province, said to be the biggest in terms of land area in the region. Located at the western edge of the Khorat Plateau, it once marked the boundary between Lao and Siamese territory. Because we always visit Korat – often as a side trip from Khao Yai – we just skirted its streets and skimmed over its attractions; we know we can come back here so easily anyway.
From the capital city, we headed straight to Loei, which is about 279km or 173miles from Korat. There are actually two routes to get there, one passing Chaiyaphum, and the other through Khon Kaen. We chose the one passing by Chiayaphum, and it was a smooth six hours or so drive.
Why Loei? Loei has always been off the tourist radar and one of the few remaining Thai provinces that we’ve been to. But in fact, one of our main goals in doing this trip is visiting Chiang Khan, a riverside community that is gaining a reputation among intrepid travelers, both here and abroad.
On the way to Chiang Khan, we stopped by Phu Pa Po, where there are some lovely walking trails and viewpoints to take in the views of Phu Ho, a 900m-mountain that resembles Japan’s Mount Fuji. People have been coming here to look at the mountain ever since and also across Loei’s lush landscape. Tractors take you through meadows of wildflowers and every ridge seems to boast a beautiful view.
From the “Japanese” side of Loei, we when moved to the “Chinese” side: the ancient limestone formation of Suan Hin Phan Ngam, which is just farther down the road. Suan Hin Pha Ngam is often called “Loei’s Kunming,” and there are nature trails and caves hidden in a landscape that was formed over millions of years. The prehistoric hills offer challenging hikes and adventure and it’s worth taking an afternoon to explore.
After seeing these two highlights, everything else seems to pale in comparison. But in fact, down every winding road on the way to Chiang Khan there’s a view to enjoy: timeless scenes such as farmers planting the paddies, children swimming in the rivers, ordinary Thais getting about their daily chores in their usual ways, and more.
We skipped Dansai, home to the popular “Phi Ta Khon Festival,” but we stopped for a bit at Tai Dam Village, which is home to ethnic groups, each with their own traditions. There are many interesting stories to tell from here, but they are probably fit for a separate article later.
Before dusk had fully set in, we reached Chiang Khan, regarded as Northeastern Thailand’s best-kept secret – that is, until now. The secret is now out and this charming town on the side of the Mekong — once an important crossing link into colonial Lao PDR – is now welcoming an influx of tourists, although the locals seem still quite wary of them.
Chiang Khan’s charm is more apparent in the evening when its main roads become abuzz with activities. The main road, Chai Khong, doubles as a Walking Street, where you can enjoy not only shopping but also eating, drinking, and mixing with the locals. We stayed in one of the teak hotels overlooking the river and, while enjoying a sundowner on an open space facing the river, thought about how many of the Thai destinations started pretty much the same way.
The next day, we woke up early to visit the Lao-style temples, including Wat Si Khun Mueang, which was built during the reign of Rama III and boasts some lovely murals. This is just one of the many temples we visited, as Thais are prone to do when they travel around the country. There are still many attractions that we want to see, but we’re just on the first leg of the road trip and there’s so much more to see and visit.
From Chiang Khan, we took the main road by the Mekong on the way to Nong Khai, the northernmost of the northeastern provinces. To give you an idea where it is, we must mention the provinces neighboring Nong Khai (from east clockwise): Bueng Kan, Sakon Nakhon, Udon Thani, and Loei.
We stopped by almost every temple, we visited the marketplaces, we alighted our vehicle every now and then to get a glimpse of what’s abuzz in the river itself, we ate at any street corner to meet local people, and we scouted for some trinkets to serve as our memento of the trip.
While driving so many kilometers down, my friend was telling me about how the Mekong is the lifeblood of the region, how the Lao and Thai people used to live side by side in war and in peace, how the provinces here have come to where they are today. I guess the best travel experience of all is just letting your self be ruled by serendipity. Without a programmed bucket list, you are free to be even where you thought you wouldn’t be – and in turn really learn not just something new but a lot indeed.
We reached Nong Khai in the early evening (again), welcomed by a drizzle that gave the streets a kind of theatrical, dramatic feel. We stayed at a hotel in a street that is obviously touristic; lined up with bars, restaurants, Internet cafes, and other fun places. But we aren’t so keen to experience the nightlife at the moment, as we are so tired from the trip, so we went straight to sleep.
This wasn’t our first time in Nong Khai, but since my friends and I have not been here for a while we decided to follow a more mainstream course. So, after breakfast, we went to Wat Pho Chai, where the Luangpho Phra Sai, a sacred Buddha image of the town that is respected by the people of Nong Khai, is housed. It is also the place where the annual rocket merit-making festival, a festival unique to Isan, is held.
Nong Khai is also home to “Bang Fai Phaya Nak (Naga Fireball Festival),” a phenomenon that occurs at the end of Buddhist Lent, which is this month. “Bang Fai Phaya Nak” is a term used for red and pinkish fireballs, which according to belief, belong to Phaya Nak or the great serpent of the underwater world. On the day marking the end of the Buddhist Lent, you’’ll see a stream of people coming to witness the phenomenon.
But Nong Khai is perhaps more famous among visa runners, as the border town is connected to Laos by the Thai-Lao Friendhsip Bridge that was opened in 1994. Vientiane, the Laotian capital, is on 25km away from the provincial capital of Nong Khai.
Our next stop was the Tha Sadet Market, which is a source of products from Indochina and Eastern Europe, including dried food, processed food, electric appliances, clothes, watches, and kitchenware. A walk in market at noontime wasn’t really fun at all, but our mood changed when we went to this Vietnamese restaurant by the river that served some of the finest food in Nong Khai ever!
From Nong Khai, we could have gone farther south to Mukdahan and Ubon Ratchathani, but we reckoned we needed more days if we are to continue toward that trail. We drove to Udon Thani instead.
As you can probably tell there is still so much of Isan to explore; we have barely scratched the surface of its awesome attractions. But that’s OK, because then we have still a lot of reason to come back, again, and again!