Some people say “If you haven’t been to Isan, you haven’t been to Thailand.”

Thailand’s northeastern region, locally known as ‘Isan’, is one of a few places that can be called “undiscovered” by the tourism industry.

This fact results in two things:

  1. Isan is the poorhouse of Thailand, as little tourist-dollars are flowing in.
  2. The region remains mostly in its natural state, which is of a rough beauty. 

People in Isan are said to be the most friendly and welcoming in all of Thailand. They are proud to share the little they have and curious to things from the “outside” world.

I have experienced it myself. There are villagers, who have never or very rarely seen a “non- Thai”. So the arrival of a white-skinned “farang” (foreigner) like me was a kind of a local attraction, especially with old Isan- ladies, staring at me from up close and trying to touch my skin, perhaps to see if the color rubs off!


Beautiful Isan

Indeed, there are some things about Isan that the region is well known for- at least inside of Thailand. Some of Thailand’s most famous dishes originate in this region such as Somtum (spicy papaya salad) and spciy minced-pork salad. They aredelicious and even more spicy than the “normal” Thai food. Some dishes are challenging to your palates than the others. I am not exclusively talking about the fried insects, of which so far I tried grasshoppers and ant- salad (and must admit, that both are very tasty!). Rat is also on the menu, as is frog or snake…and I like it! But wherever people are poor, everything and anything that is eatable will land on the menu.

There is one particular food that made me not want to kiss my girlfriend unless she brushes her teeth and wash her mouth with soap! On the outside it looks like a hard boiled egg…and it kind of is one. Only this “treat” has a half bred chicken inside…

While Thailand’s northern and central regions offer masses of temples and other sights, Isan has a beautiful landscape that changes with the seasons. When the rain comes, rice fields stretch as far as the eye can see. During the dry season, they are replaced by tobacco plantations. And when I say “dry- season”, it is very dry and hot!

Green during rainy-season…

Isan has some very interesting sights to see, though. Go to Phimai in Nakhon Ratchasima Province and visit the oldest Khmer style temple on Thai soil. The structure is similar to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The cities of Surin and Nong Khai are places of unique festivals. Surin is known as the “Elephant City”. During the annual festival, hundreds of elephants parade the street in festive garment or take part in big shows that re-enact the great battles of ancient times.

Nong Khai is a friendly little town by the Mekong River with a lovely promenade. Every year in October, local tourists come here to see the “Naga Fireball”festival. The legend has it that the great serpent Naga greeted Lord Buddha with a display of giant fireballs, rocketing towards the sky, when he returned from heavens after paying a visit to his mother. Thousands of spectators will gather at the Mekong’s riverbank to see the beautiful fireworks.

There is also a quiet bizarre temple in Nong Khai, where giant mythical creatures greet the visitors.

Wat Kek in Nong Khai

With the borders to both Cambodia and Laos, Isan is also perfect for paying a visit to Thailand’s neighboring countries. From Nong Khai to the Laotian capital of Vientiane, it is just a short trip of approximately 20 minutes.

And last but not least, Isan is also home of unique Thai country music, which is a mix of folk and pop music. Shows are always a mix of colorful costumes, dancing and drinking. It is fun to see Isan country style concerts.  

With less developed tourist attractions, Isan is an ideal place to explore the beauty of Thailand and Thai people that is less influenced by mass tourism.