Thailand Off the Beaten Path: A Guide to Isaan

It’s always the same itinerary: Koh Phi Phi, Bangkok, Chiang Mai. For such a vast and stunning country, it’s puzzling how many people stay on Thailand’s beaten path. What about those parts of Thailand that are less discovered? The ones that have all of the acclaimed Thai hospitality, culture, and food but none of the backpackers? On the border of Laos, in the northeastern part of Thailand, lies Isaan, an entire region that has been largely neglected by outsiders. The area is rural Thailand at its best: farmland meets sleepy villages. It’s proof that Thailand isn’t completely trodden with tourists.

Khon Kaen landscape | Photo: Alamy

Khon Kaen, a bustling city in central Isaan, makes for the perfect base. The airport has regular flights to and from Bangkok, and it’s a great midpoint from which to explore. Given the area is a lot less discovered than places like Bangkok, there are no gleaming five-star hotels with artsy lobbies. Suppaniga Home is a charming retreat, set in a wild garden permeated with the scent of bread flowers and gentle sound of birds, with a few simple villas and meditation offered at various times of the year. Staying in the center of the city might defeat the purpose of visiting this peaceful region altogether, but the Avani Khon Kaen is a contemporary hotel with rooms that have terrific views of the surrounding area.

Night market in Khon Kaen | Photo: Alamy

The Isaan region’s glimmering drawing card is its distinctive spicy and pungent food, which is abundant. Family-style restaurant Wanida Rosewises Khonkaen is unfussy and filled with locals ordering their weekly favorites, like the herby papaya salad; rich Isaan sausage (Krok Isan) served with ginger, peanuts, and scallions; and barbecued chicken accompanied by sticky rice. At Krua Supanniga by Khun Yai at Suppaniga Home, age-old recipes (spicy salads, sausages, and curries) from the Isaan region dot the menu. Started by Thanaruek Laoraowirodge, who spent much of his childhood in Isaan, the restaurant evokes the food his grandmother used to prepare. Of course, everybody knows that some of the best food in Thailand is the street food. And the Khon Kaen walking street night market is where to get it. Held every Saturday night, the market comes to life with live music and hundreds of vendors selling everything from edible insects and barbecued chicken to mango sticky rice and coconut pancakes.

Spinning silk from cocoonsPhoto: Alamy


The area surrounding Khon Kaen is also known for its unique tie-dyed silk (there are entire villages dedicated to creating beautiful handwoven pieces) and Laotian-influenced temples. The silk-producing villages and stunning temples are peppered throughout the region, so if you haven’t rented a car, the best way to experience this is through a tour company in Khon Kaen. In Chonnabot, one of the most acclaimed silk villages, the artisans make each piece by hand—from feeding the silkworms to tie-dyeing the fabrics they’ve painstakingly woven together. There’s a silk museum in Chonnabot (Sala Man Thai), as well as a shopping street (Th Sriboonruang) known as Silk Road, where shoppers can purchase yards of silk.


Phra Mahathat Kaen Nakhon TemplePhoto: Alamy


Like anywhere in Thailand, the region is awash in temples. Just outside Khon Kaen is Phra Mahathat Kaen Nakhon, a towering nine-story temple with a detailed red and gold facade. Inside, there are murals and relics of Lord Buddha, but the panoramic view from the top (of Khon Kaen and surroundings), which requires a thigh-burning walk up many flights of stairs, is the real clincher. A short drive away, the smaller temple and religious ground of Pra That Kham Khan isn’t as impressive as Phra Mahathat Kaen Nakhon, but feels more low-key, with locals stopping by to worship and then moving on with daily life.