Isaan, in Thailand’s north-east region, is an often overlooked part of the country. There’s no coastline, so there are no beaches to draw those seeking sand and sea. Isaan, however, is a multicultural area where Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand meet and the area has a rich history. Isaan is mainly an agricultural region. Northern Isaan comprises the great Mekong Valley, the national parks of Loei, Ban Chiang, Nong Khai, Wat Phra That Phanom, and more. Central Isaan, also known as the Chi River Basin, goes from Bangkok to Khon Kaen. Southern Isaan, centered around the chaotic Nakhon Ratchasima and the Mun River Basin is home to Khao Yai National Park and the beautiful Khmer architecture of Phanom Rung and Phimai.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Historically, Khon Kaen is quite a new town, established a little over two centuries ago during the reign of King Rama I. But prehistorically, this town on the plateau has involved various natural phenomena and cultures. Artifacts have proven that millions of years ago the area was ruled by dinosaurs. People in various cultures then occupied the plateau during the pre-historical period until the ancient Khmer Empire expanded its presence into the area in the 12th century. These cultures, traditions, and historical sites have all contributed to shaping the Thai people and Thailand. Geographically, Khon Kaen plays an important role as the center of the Northeast region. Furthermore, the province, thanks to Khon Kaen University, is a major hub of education and technology. A major source of local wisdom in silk production is in Amphoe Chonnabot where excellent Mudmee silk is delicately woven by hand using the tie-dye technique.
Loei is a boundary province located in the upper northeastern part of Thailand, on the bank of the Mekong River along the Phetchabun mountain range. The town of Loei is an eco-tourism city surrounded by undulating mountain ranges whose summits are covered by fog and abundant with flora. The best-known mountains are Phu Kradueng, Phu Luang, and Phu Ruea. Loei’s temperature is comfortably cool, with beautiful geographical surroundings, as well as unique cultures and traditions. In the cool season, it can get decidedly chilly: it is one of the few places in Thailand that ever gets close to freezing.
Nakhon Phanom borders Laos on the Khamoun Province or the Tha Khaek district. Nakhon Phanom was prominent during the Vietnam War, serving U.S. forces of the 56th Air Commando Wing stationed at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base. Their missions were search and rescue and interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos 30 miles to the east. The city has a beautiful landscape, with the Mekong River running adjacent to the city, marking the current border between Thailand and Laos.
Known as the Naga City (Nagas being the giant serpent guardians said to inhabit the Mekong River – see below) and famed for its lovely position on the Mekong, Nong Khai is a bustling Thai town and the gateway to Laos and Vientiane. It has many beautiful features that attract a considerable number of Thai and foreign visitors every year, including Sala Keaw Khu the almost surreal sculpture park; the enormously revered Luang Por Phra Sai Buddha image which has a remarkable history; the truly extraordinary Phu Phra Bat Historical Park (though in Udon Province it is easily reached from Nong Khai); and the Thai-Lao Indochina Market called Tha Sadet Market which occupies many streets in the center of town. A large part of the center of town, including the riverbank, has been made pedestrian-only. The Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, opened in Apr 1994, was the first bridge across the lower Mekong, and only the second on the full course of the Mekong. So you can travel to Vientiane easily.
Surin, a quiet town, its one claim to fame is its annual Elephant Roundup, which takes place each November. Surin is well-known for its elephants. Surin’s people have a long relationship with elephants and they have become the provincial icon. Throw in plenty of Khmer ruins, beautiful silk, and aromatic jasmine rice and they all make Surin an interesting destination.
Ubon was founded on the northern bank of the Mun River by a group of Lao princes fleeing Vientiane in the late 1700s. They applied for King Taksin’s protection, duly granted in 1779 along with the city’s new name, meaning “Royal City of the Lotus”. Modern-day Ubon was a U.S. airbase during the Vietnam War and grew rapidly at the time, but little has happened since then. The town of Warin Chamrap, on the south bank of the river, is effectively a suburb of Ubon these days.
Udon was home to a major USAF airbase during the Vietnam War that increased its wealth and importance. Surrounded by one of the major agricultural areas of the country, Udon Thani has become a regional hub for agriculture, commercial distribution, shopping, and a fledgling tourism industry. Because of the U.S. presence (the airbase until 1976, a consulate until 1995, and, now, a Voice of America station), many Thais were well-paid and learned English, making them more marketable to foreign labor recruiters. Udon has a large number of citizens who have or are working overseas, particularly in Middle East oilfields. This has contributed both to the wealth of the area and its desirability as an ex-pat destination. More than 5,000 ex-pats from Europe, Australia, and North America have settled in the area.
KHAO YAI NATIONAL PARK
Khao Yai is the second largest national park in Thailand. In 2005 it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the larger Dong Phaya Yen–Khao Yai Forest Complex. Situated on the southwestern boundary of the Khorat Plateau, it occupies the western part of the Sankamphaeng Mountain range. Thick jungle covers the mountainous slopes, interspersed with some scenic waterfalls.
PHIMAI HISTORICAL PARK
Phimai Historical Park and its Khmer temples, among the best-preserved in Thailand and similar (if much smaller) than those at Angkor Wat. Parts of the park are older than Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Includes Khmer buildings, sculptures leading to the shrine, restaurant, and gift shop. The largest banyan tree in Thailand is located about one mile out of town.