When you are asked about Thailand, most people think of stunning beaches, beautiful temples, ancient ruins and lively bars. Its tourist attractions are so popular that millions of tourists flock to Thailand every year. So many tourists that you see foreigners travelling around almost everywhere in the country.
Well, maybe except Isaan.
Isaan is mostly skipped by tourists because they thought that the place is just a “stretch of boring, green rice fields” or as the locals say, “a place of mountains and rice fields”. In fact, you might not find any foreigner wandering around there. It is like you are back in time when Thailand is still untouched by modernity and not yet discovered by the tourists.
So if you are tired of the fast paced life and the congested traffic of the cities, you might want to pay a visit this wonderful area. A breath of a fresh air and a laid back, relaxed provincial scenery are all you need to wind down your pace of life in the city.
I would like to share a list of must see places in Isaan.
Khao Yai National Park
The name Khao Yai literally means Big Mountain and it lives up to its name. It is Thailand’s oldest and one of the largest national parks. It is also one of the most visited places by both local and foreign tourists alike. You might say that this place doesn’t belong to the “off the beaten path” list because of its popularity.
It is quite true. There was heavy traffic at the entrance when we got there. In Chao Por Khao Yai, the hillside temple for the spirit of the mountain, both tourists and the devout alike were crowding inside and around the temple to take pictures or pray. But drive for 30 minutes more and you will see the vast grasslands and the protected wildlife sauntering around. Another 20 minutes and you will arrive at the viewpoint where you can enjoy the breathtaking views of the mountains and the jungle. But be careful, some naughty little monkeys are always on alert to snatch your food (or belongings) whilst you’re not looking. A few more minutes of driving and you will arrive at the camping ground. From there, you can trek through the forest for about an hour and you will be rewarded with the beautiful waterfalls. You might even be lucky when you catch a sight of a free roaming Asian elephant. We were only able to see their marked paths, the trees they uprooted, and their footprints on the side of the mountain. To see how devastatingly strong these elephants are and are still very adept in climbing the side of the mountains made me respect these gentle and majestic animals more.
What’s great about this trip is that you’ll have the chance to commune with nature and appreciate its unspoilt beauty. Signal reception is weak up there in the mountains so that’s also a plus because you are not distracted anymore by incessant notifications and alerts. You can focus more on observing and enjoying the nature around you.
The Secret Garden is another great place in Khao Yai province that is worth checking. Most of its visitors are locals but the place is really amazing. You can find coffee shops and a restaurant inside. The place was designed like a private domicile of an artist, with a numbered route to several small houses and gardens, each with unique themes. But at the end of the route, you can find a room full of breathtaking and very intricate wooden sculptures. The whole place’s theme might not be entirely Thai, but they showcase the exceptional talent of Thai people in wood carving through a display of elaborate carvings and minutely detailed wooden sculptures.
Phimai Historical Park
One of the under-visited landmarks in Thailand is the Phimai Historical Park. This ancient temple that looks similarly like the Angkor Wat was built around 11th – 12th century by the former Khmer Empire. Its intricate wall designs are still intact and the royal ground is very well preserved. So if you love ancient temples but hate the crowd, this one is worth a visit. You can even take some great pictures without any people in the background.
After visiting the sacred ground, you might want to check out a spookier attraction of Phimai. Located just at the edge of the town is the largest and oldest Sai Ngam (Banyan) tree in Thailand. Adding to its eerie atmosphere, the local believes that the tree as an abode of female spirits. Spanning an area of approximately 1,350 square metres and about 350 years old, its great roots are encroaching the side of the river. There is also a food court beside it where you can relax and enjoy Isaan style foods.
Nakhon Phanom’s Walking Street
Even though Nakhon Phanom has the best view of the Mekong River in Thailand, very few tourists come here to enjoy it. Most of them see it as just one of the stopovers to Laos. Nakhon Phanom boasts its 3km Walking Street where you can cycle around (you can rent a bicycle in the area or at a local hotel). Walking Street is lined with shady trees that make it walkable, too.
When I went there, I just strolled around so that I can appreciate more of the view. Across the river is Laos and you can see beyond the irregular outline of mountains. The overcast day made the mountains look more mystical. I ended my stroll by drinking coffee in View Khong Restaurant. It is an open air restaurant that offers a great view of the river while enjoying your food and or coffee. There are also several ferryboats by the river. Although crossing the border by boat is not allowed anymore since the opening of the Friendship Bridge 3, these ferryboats will cruise in leisurely pace along the riverbank of Thailand then will cruise back along the riverbank of Laos, offering both views of the country. Food and drink are also served on the ferry.
Nakhon Phanom’s culture is very diverse; its culture is a mix of Vietnamese, Laos, and Thai. Their language is also a variety of these different cultures but the widely used is the Isaan language.
Ho Chi Minh sought refuge in Nakhon Phanom during the mid to late 1920s thus the Vietnamese influence in the province. His house is now a museum, displaying memorabilia and depictions of the way of life of Vietnamese in Thailand.
Mukdahan and the Indochina Market
Mukdahan is a common stopover of tourists to Savannakhet, Laos. It also has its own beautiful view of Mekong River but it is better known for the Indochina Market. My friend and I went to Mukdahan to check (and buy cheap but good things) the Indochina Market and we found that it also has an underground extension.
Even though Mukdahan is a fast growing province, its attractions are still not well known. It has the Ho Kaew Tower, 66 metre high, where you can have a 360 degree bird’s eye view of Mukdahan. Its lower floor exhibits the history and culture of its eight different ethnicities.
There is a newly constructed giant Buddha on the mountain that seems to look over the whole province that is also worth a visit.
Sakon Nakhon and its hidden charms
Unlike the four previous areas explored, very few people in Sakon Nakhon speak English. Conversing with locals might require a lot of hand you go there during the weekdays, you can enjoy swimming in the waterfalls alone. In order to get there, you have to leave your car or motorcycle in the headquarters and walk for several kilometres to the waterfalls.
There is also a thousand years cliff carvings, or ancient paintings, at Ban Na Phang. We got lost when we tried to go there. Instead, we found ourselves to an isolated dwelling of the monks at the top side of the mountain. We wanted to reach the pinnacle but a monk stopped us because it’s almost dark and he said that there are wild tigers roaming in the jungle. In spite of that, we were not disappointed. The drive up there in the mountain was a little bit dangerous but we were rewarded with the exhilarating view of the sunset.
And when you drive late in the afternoon, when all the workers in Bangkok are stuck in the middle of the busy highway, you might also find yourself stuck in the middle of a rural road, giving way to a parade of cows and buffalos going home from their whole day toiling in the paddy fields.
Contrary to what most people say, driving around the countryside is never boring. Probably you’ll chance a tourist or two wandering around and you’ll see some locals gawking at your foreign face and most of them are very friendly and more than willing to help you find your way around. But the most exciting part of this journey is to discover the real exotic and untouched beauty of Thailand.