Northeast Thailand: the Best Things to See and Do in Isaan

Phanom Rung is a stunning temple you can't miss on a visit to Isaan
Phanom Rung is a stunning temple you can't miss on a visit to Isaan | © Tuul and Bruno Morandi / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Kyle Hulme
10 September 2021

What inland Isaan – the largest region in Thailand – lacks in beaches, it more than makes up for with landscapes and sights. It cradles some of the most beautiful temples you’ll encounter in the Land of Smiles – in spectacular landscapes to boot. The food is remarkable and people here love welcoming visitors. Ready to head up to the remote and romantic northeast of Thailand? Here are some of the best things to see and do as you journey through dramatic Isaan.

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Tuck into som tam

Restaurant, Thai
G1T75M Green papaya salad Som Tam. Thailand Food
© Simon Reddy / Alamy Stock Photo

Khon Kaen city’s favourite local restaurant, Kai Yang, has a huge menu of Thai standards and regional dishes. Top choice is the grilled chicken, served with spicy Thai salad – made from shredded green papaya, beans, garlic, peanuts, cucumber seasoned with lots of lime juice. Papaya was introduced into Ayutthaya in the 16th century by the Portuguese, but Isaan locals regard it as one of their own special dishes, so there’s nowhere better to try it.

Trek through Khao Yai National Park

Natural Feature, Park, Hiking Trail
C3WGPX Endangered wild Asian or Asiatic (Elephas maximus) Elephant in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand.
© Oliver Thompson-Holmes / Alamy Stock Photo
Lush forests, waterfalls, wild-gibbon calls, flocks of macaques, glimpses of elephants – even clouded leopards or a tiger… Khao Yai National Park is one of the top wildlife spots in Thailand. Tours are easy to organise through agencies in the closest town, Pak Chong, or Bangkok, and usually include light treks and waterfall swims. Top tip: bring repellent and wear trousers tucked into long socks after rain when leeches are rife.

Watch a Buriram United soccer game at their home stadium

W6CT13 Brazilian football player Edgar, left, of Thailand's Buriram United FC heads the ball against China's Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC in a Group G matc
©  Imaginechina Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

The Thais are crazy about football. Any local will talk enthusiastically about the English Premier League. People everywhere dress casually in the red and white of Manchester United, the most popular team in Thailand, or the blue of Thai-owned Leicester City. Buriram United is Isaan’s best local team, and the first club in Thai football history to win all the domestic trophies.

Browse the Saveone night market

C1NPWB Thailand, Nakhon Ratchasima province, Phimai, night market
© Hemis / Alamy Stock Photo

The largest open-air market in Isaan is a 10-minute tuk tuk ride from the centre of Nakhon Ratchasima, the biggest city in Isaan. Aim to spend a day wandering by the stalls and kiosks or, better still, a night: Saveone comes alive after dark when flaming woks flash and crowds hunt for bargains and after-work street food. A portion of pad Thai will cost you mere coins – and as for clothes and electronic accessories, they’re as cheap and varied as at the Chatuchak weekend market in Bangkok.

Visit the awe-inspiring Phanom Rung

Park, Hindu Temple
JM780J Statue guarding the southern entrance to main sanctuary at Khmer Phanom Rung temple ruins, Phanom Rung Historical Park, Buriram Province, Thailand.
© BorradasFC / Alamy Stock Photo
Here’s one of the most beautiful temples in Southeast Asia – a stupendous remnant of the Khmer empire and a former Hindu temple, built of pink sandstone with roots in the 10th century. Balanced on the rim of an extinct volcano, it has architecture reminiscent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, while lavish carvings and spiritual scenes have been etched painstakingly onto the walls.

Discover Sala Kaew Ku

Park, Historical Landmark, Architectural Landmark
© Zoonar GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Sala Kaew Ku is home to some of the most visually striking statues in Thailand: traditional icons of the Theravada Buddhist religion include the Buddha and the nationally symbolic seven-headed naga serpent. There are many more scenes on display – look for an elephant among a pack of dogs, a lesson in ignoring gossip. You’ll see statues rising 82ft (25m) into the sky, and learn fascinating details about Thai and Buddhist culture.

Climb the mountain to see Wat Phu Tok

Natural Feature, Buddhist Temple
2DA3PNE Traditional Thai religion buddha monk statues at Wat Phu Tok, Bueng Kan, Thailand
©  chanon tamtad / Alamy Stock Photo

It translates, roughly, as temple of the mountain – and that’s exactly what you’ll find at Wat Phu Tok, a temple rising more than 1,000ft (305m) into the sky. Get here before the day gets too hot, so you can tackle the seven levels of the mountain – the number symbolises Buddhism’s seven levels of spiritual enlightenment. The ladders, steps and platforms might look daunting, but it’s not too challenging – and you’re rewarded with curious caves along the way, as well as great views at the top.

Join the Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival

Architectural Landmark, Natural Feature
W3TNCC Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand. 17th July, 2019. Tourists watch giant wax sculptures during the candle festival in Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand, July 16, 2019. The Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival is held to commemorate the Buddha's first sermon and mark the beginning of the Buddhist Lent. The highlight of the annual event is the parade of giant floats of wax sculptures throughout the city, each representing a local temple, a district or an institution. Credit: Zhang Keren/Xinhua/Alamy Live News
© Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo

Coinciding with Thailand’s Asanha Bucha national holiday is Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival. Huge, ornately carved beeswax candles – the biggest you’ll ever see – are paraded through town, judged on their beauty and design as they’re transported to temples. There’s a party atmosphere and market stalls to rummage through.

Spend the day at Korat Zoo

EWYKC8 Leopard looking for beef, Korat zoo, Nakhon Ratchasima province, Thailand
© Supong Sornniyom / Alamy Stock Photo

This bustling menagerie, with shows and an upbeat waterpark, is the largest of its kind in Thailand, and a top ticket for kids, parents, and even grandparents. Rest assured you’re visiting one of the most ethically sound animal attractions in the country – the focus is on animal welfare, and wildlife preservation is a key mission statement. So relax and enjoy the creatures on display, among them lions and rhinos, plus the waterpark rides and pools.

Be awed by the Than Thip waterfall

Natural Feature
J17503 Thor Thip waterfall in thai national park.waterfall in the deep forest on mountain
© sirichai raksue / Alamy Stock Photo

Northeastern Thailand isn’t short on natural beauty, but Than Thip waterfall surely nets the gold medal. Just beyond Isaan, near the Mekong river, it’s a doddle to do for a day trip. Immersed in thick, atmospheric Thai jungle, it’s the highest in the province. One of the main reasons for coming is to take a cooling plunge after that hot and sticky journey here – of course, it’s terrific Instagram material. Top tip: think twice about visiting at weekends or once schools finish, when the crowds swell.

Alex Robinson contributed additional reporting to this article.

These recommendations were updated on September 10, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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