Think you’ve seen all that there is to see in Thailand? Think again, Isaan in the far east of the country is the least visited and perhaps largely because of this, the most fascinating region.
Very few people have ever even heard of Isaan as it doesn’t quite fit in the convenient north to south axis that dominates Thai tourism. With very good reason Chiang Mai in the north, Bangkok in the middle and the many beaches of the south have dominated our attentions, but for those looking for road less travelled the joy of Isaan awaits. Below are a few reasons to visit.
Large and Varied
At more than 160,000 sq kms it makes up one third of the country and is largely rural with landscapes of rice paddies, dense tropical rainforests, rolling prairies and arid grasslands.
With substantial Khmer and Lao influence, Isaan is home to some of Thailand’s most interesting and ethnically diverse dishes. It isn’t for the faint of heart, though. Even among Thais, who are famously adept at eating spicy food, Isaan food is known to be particularly fiery - so be careful! For example Papaya Salad or “Som Tum” is found throughout the country in various forms, but it is in fact an Isaan dish. As is the case with any food, if you want to have “real” Papaya Salad, you have to have it where it comes from -the spices and flavours will knock your socks off!
Architecture to blow your mind
In a country riddled with magnificent temples, it’s no small thing to say that Isaan is home to what is probably the country’s most impressive architecture. One of the best examples is Wat Phra Maha Chedi Chai Mongkol.
Nestled in the rural landscape of Roi Et (“One Hundred and One in Thai) province, the temple is built on 101 rai of land, measures 101 metres in length and is 101 metres tall. Every inch of the temple complex is littered with intricate sculptures and artwork. And that’s just the beginning, for example the region is also home to the Thailand’s tallest standing Buddha statue at Wat Buraphraphiram, and a multitude of other, equally impressive, structures.
It’s home to some of Thailand’s most precious wildlife preserves. For example Khao Yai National Park covers over 300 sq kms and is Thailand’s oldest nature preserve and its third largest national park.
It’s part of Dong Phayayen-Khao Yai Forest Complex, a World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO, covering 5 protected areas from Khao Yai to Cambodian border. The other protected areas are; Pang Sida National Park, Thap Lan National Park, Ta Phraya National Park and Dong Yai Wildlife Sanctuary.
Within the park you’ll find more than 3000 species of plants, 320 species of birds, and 66 species of mammals - apparently including wild elephants, bears, and tigers, although you’ll be unbelievably lucky to see the latter. However it’s one of the few places in Asia that you can go where you are virtually guaranteed to see “real” wildlife - not just a smattering of small birds and lizards.
For example at its far reaches, close the Laos border, you’ll find the so-called “Grand Canyon of Thailand” in Ubon Ratchathani province. It’s a vast river gorge that’s reminiscent of a Martian landscape and well-deserving of the colloquial title endowed to it. Sam Phan Bok is one of the most unique landscapes in Thailand.
Isaan is considered by many to be the cradle of human settlement in Thailand. Homo erectus fragments have been found scattered throughout Isaan and evidence of their presence can be found in the form of some of Asia’s most incredible cave paintings at Pha Taem National Park and Hua Mountain.
To really see a country you ideally need to travel overland rather than just flying over it. Add Isaan to your holiday itinerary and you can mix and match, perhaps travelling by train from Ayutthaya to the Laos border or by car through Khao Yai National Park and Phanom Rung Historical Park into Cambodia or by boat for a 3 day cruise along the Mekong.