The northeast: Isaan Travel Guide
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Bordered by Laos and Cambodia on three sides, the scorching-hot tableland of northeast Thailand – known as Isaan, after the Hindu god of death and the northeast – comprises a third of the country’s land area and is home to nearly a third of its population. This is the least-visited region of the kingdom, and the poorest: almost three-quarters of Isaan residents are in debt, and it’s thought that the majority still earn less than the regional minimum wage of B164–183 a day. Farming is the traditional livelihood here, despite appallingly infertile soil (the friable sandstone contains few nutrients and retains little water) and long periods of drought punctuated by downpours and intermittent bouts of flooding. As you’d expect, the landscape is mostly flat, but there are plenty of lively festivals and ancient temples to make a visit worth the effort.
In the 1960s, government schemes to introduce hardier crops set in motion a debt cycle that has forced farmers into monocultural cash-cropping to repay their loans for fertilizers, seeds and machinery. For many families, there’s only one way off the treadmill: of the twenty-one million people who live in Isaan, an average of two million economic refugees leave the area every year, most of them heading for Bangkok, where northeasterners now make up the majority of the capital’s lowest-paid workforce. Children and elderly parents remain in the villages, increasingly dependent on the money sent back every month from the metropolis and awaiting the annual visit in May, when migrant family members often return for a couple of months to help with the rice planting.
Rather than the cities – which are chaotic, exhausting places, with little going for them apart from accommodation and onward transport – Isaan’s prime destinations are its Khmer ruins and Khao Yai National Park. Five huge northeastern festivals also draw massive crowds: in May, Yasothon is the focus for the bawdy rocket festival; the end of June or beginning of July sees the equally raucous rainmaking festival of Phi Ta Kon in Dan Sai near Loei; in July, Ubon Ratchathani hosts the extravagant candle festival; in October, strange, pink fireballs float out of the Mekong near Nong Khai; while the flamboyant, though inevitably touristy, “elephant round-up” is staged in Surin in November.
It’s rural life that really defines Isaan though, and you can learn a lot about the local residents by staying at one of the family-run guesthouses and homestays in the southern part of the region. If you make it this far you should endeavour to see at least one set of Isaan’s Khmer ruins: those at Phimai are the most accessible, but it’s well worth making the effort to visit either Phanom Rung or Khao Phra Viharn as well, both of which occupy spectacular hilltop locations, though the latter was closed at the time of writing. Relics of an even earlier age, prehistoric cliff-paintings also draw a few tourists eastwards to the little town of Khong Chiam, which is prettily set between the Mekong and Mun rivers.
Isaan’s only mountain range of any significance divides the uninspiring town of Loei from the central plains and offers some stiff walking, awesome scenery and the possibility of spotting unusual birds and flowers in the national parks that spread across its heights. Due north of Loei at Chiang Khan, the Mekong River begins its leisurely course around Isaan with a lush stretch where a sprinkling of guesthouses has opened up the river countryside to travellers. The powerful waterway acts as a natural boundary between Thailand and Laos, but it’s no longer the forbidding barrier it once was; with Laos opening further border crossings to visitors, the river is becoming an increasingly important transport link.
At the eastern end of this upper stretch, the border town of Nong Khai is surrounded by wonderfully ornate temples, some of which are used by the significant population of Chinese and Vietnamese migrants. The grandest and most important religious site in the northeast, however, is Wat Phra That Phanom, way downstream beyond Nakhon Phanom, a town that affords some of the finest Isaan vistas.
Most northeasterners speak a dialect that’s more comprehensible to residents of Vientiane than Bangkok, and Isaan’s historic allegiances have tied it more closely to Laos and Cambodia than to Thailand. Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, the all-powerful Khmers covered the northeast in magnificent stone temple complexes, the remains of which constitute the region’s most satisfying tourist attractions. During subsequent centuries the territories along the Mekong River changed hands numerous times, until the present border with Laos was set at the end of World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, Communist insurgents played on the northeast’s traditional ties with Laos; a movement to align Isaan with the Marxists of Laos gathered some force, and the Communist Party of Thailand, gaining sympathy among poverty-stricken northeastern farmers, established bases in the region. At about the same time, major US air bases for the Vietnam War were set up in Khorat, Ubon Ratchathani and Udon Thani, fuelling a sex industry that has plagued the region ever since. When the American military moved out, northeastern women turned to the tourist-oriented Bangkok flesh-trade instead, and today the majority of prostitutes in the capital come from Isaan.
Isaan has four major border crossings into Laos, all of which issue Lao visas. The most popular of these is at Nong Khai, a route that provides easy road access to the Lao capital, Vientiane; the others are Nakhon Phanom, Mukdahan and Chong Mek. If you want to avoid possible queues at the border, you can get a Lao visa in advance from the consulate in the central Isaan town of Khon Kaen. Here you’ll also find a Vietnamese consulate issuing visas for Vietnam.
It’s also possible to travel overland between Isaan and Cambodia through two different border crossings: via the Thai town of Kap Choeng, in Surin province, to O’Smach, which has transport to Anlong Veng and then on to Siem Reap; and via Sa Ngam in the Phusing district of Si Saket province to Choam in Anlong Veng.
Hemmed in by its old city walls and encircled by tributaries of the Mun River, the small modern town of PHIMAI, 60km northeast of Khorat, is dominated by the charmingly restored Khmer temple complex of Prasat Hin Phimai. No one knows for sure when the prasat was built or for whom, but as a religious site it probably dates back to the reign of the Khmer king Suriyavarman I (1002–49), and parts of the complex are said to be older than Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. The complex was connected by a direct road to Angkor and oriented southeast, towards the Khmer capital. Over the next couple of centuries Khmer rulers made substantial modifications, and by the end of Jayavarman VII’s reign in 1220, Phimai had been officially dedicated to Mahayana Buddhism. Phimai’s other claim to fame is Sai Ngam (Beautiful Banyan), reputedly the largest banyan tree in Thailand. Otherwise there’s plenty to like about its peaceful, small-town feel. Most visitors arrive here on day-trips, but with an excellent guesthouse and plenty of opportunities for early-morning bike rides, it’s worth staying overnight.
Built mainly of dusky pink and greyish white sandstone, Prasat Hin Phimai is a seductive sight from a distance; closer inspection reveals a mass of intricate carvings. Entering the complex from the main southeastern gate, it’s worth checking out the visitors’ centre on the right-hand side after the ticket office, which uses simple wall-hung exhibits to explain the history of the site.
Heading into the complex from the southeastern gate, a staircase ornamented with classic naga (serpent) balustrades leads to a gopura in the outer walls, which are punctuated on either side by false balustraded windows – a bit of sculptural sleight-of-hand to jazz up the solid stonework without piercing the defences. A raised pathway bridges the space between these walls and the inner gallery that protects the prangs of the inner sanctuary. The minor prang to the right, made of laterite, is attributed to the twelfth-century Buddhist king Jayavarman VII, who engaged in a massive temple-building campaign. His statue is enshrined within; it’s a copy of the much more impressive original, now housed in the Phimai National Museum. The pink sandstone prang to the left, connected to a Brahmin shrine where seven stone linga were found, was probably built around the same time.
After more than twenty years of archeological detective work and painstaking reassembly, the towering white-sandstone main prang has now been restored to its original cruciform groundplan and conical shape, complete with an almost full set of carved lintels, pediments and antefixes, and capped with a stone lotus-bud. The impressively detailed carvings around the outside of the prang depict predominantly Hindu themes. Shiva the Destroyer dances above the main entrance to the southeast antechamber: his destruction dance heralds the end of the world and the creation of a new order, a supremely potent image that warranted this position over the most important doorway. Most of the other external carvings pick out momentous episodes from the Ramayana, starring heroic Rama, his brother Lakshaman and their band of faithful monkeys in endless battles of strength, wits and magical powers against Ravana, the embodiment of evil. Inside, more sedate Buddhist scenes give evidence of the conversion from Hindu to Buddhist faith, and the prasat’s most important image, the Buddha sheltered by a seven-headed naga, sits atop a base that once supported a Hindu Shiva lingam.
Phimai’s biggest event of the year is its festival of boat races, held on the Mun’s tributaries over a weekend in early November, in a tradition that’s endured for over a century. In common with many other riverside towns, Phimai marks the end of the rainy season by holding fiercely competitive longboat competitions and putting on lavish parades of ornate barges done up to emulate the Royal Barges of Bangkok. During the festival, a son et lumière show is staged at the temple ruins for five nights in a row.
East of Khorat the bleached plains roll on, broken only by the occasional small town and, if you’re travelling along Highway 24, the odd tantalizing glimpse of the smoky Phanom Dangkrek mountain range above the southern horizon. That said, it’s well worth jumping off the Surin-bound bus for a detour to the fine Khmer ruins of Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung and Prasat Muang Tam. Built during the same period as Phimai, and for the same purpose, the temple complexes form two more links in the chain that once connected the Khmer capital of Angkor with the limits of its empire. Sited dramatically atop an extinct volcano, Phanom Rung has been beautifully restored, and the more recently renovated Muang Tam lies on the plains below. Most people visit in the morning, so if you’re staying in nearby Buriram or Nang Rong, consider visiting in the afternoon when the sites are less crowded.
Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung is the finest example of Khmer architecture in Thailand, graced with innumerable exquisite carvings, its sandstone and laterite buildings designed to align with the sun at certain times of the year (see Spiritual alignment). As at most Khmer prasats, building here spanned several reigns, probably from the beginning of the tenth century to the early thirteenth. The heart of the temple was constructed in the mid-twelfth century, in early Angkorian style, and is attributed to local ruler Narendraditya and his son Hiranya. Narendraditya was a follower of the Shivaite cult, a sect which practised yoga and fire worship and used alcohol and sex in its rituals; carved depictions of all these practices decorate the temple. There are cheap foodstalls outside the Gate 1 entrance and in its car park area, where the museum-like tourist information centre provides an outstanding introduction to the temple’s construction, iconography and restoration.
The approach to the temple is one of the most dramatic of its kind. Symbolic of the journey from earth to the heavenly palace of the gods, the ascent to the inner compound is imbued with metaphorical import: by following the 200m-long avenue, paved in laterite and sandstone and flanked with lotus-bud pillars, you are walking to the ends of the earth. Ahead, the main prang, representing Mount Meru, home of the gods, looms large above the gallery walls, and is accessible only via the first of three naga bridges, a raised cruciform structure with sixteen five-headed naga balustrades. Once across the bridge you have traversed the abyss between earth and heaven. A series of stairways ascends to the eastern entrance of the celestial home, first passing four small ponds, thought to have been used for ritual purification.
A second naga bridge crosses to the east gopura, entrance to the inner sanctuary, which is topped by a lintel carved with Indra (god of the east) sitting on a lion throne. The gopura is the main gateway through the gallery, which runs right round the inner compound and has been restored in part, with arched stone roofs, small chambers inside and false windows; real windows wouldn’t have been strong enough to support such a heavy stone roof, so false ones, which retained the delicate pilasters but backed them with stone blocks, were an aesthetically acceptable compromise.
Phanom Rung is surprisingly compact, the east gopura leading almost directly into the main prang, separated from it only by a final naga bridge. A dancing Shiva, nine of his ten arms intact, and a lintel carved with a relief of a reclining Vishnu preside over the eastern entrance to the prang. This depicts a common Hindu creation myth, known as “Reclining Vishnu Asleep on the Milky Sea of Eternity”, in which Vishnu dreams up a new universe, and Brahma (the four-faced god perched on the lotus blossom that springs from Vishnu’s navel) puts the dream into practice.
On the pediment above this famous relief is a lively carving of Shiva Nataraja, or Shiva’s Dance of Destruction, which shows him dancing on Mount Kailash in front of several other gods, including Ganesh, Brahma and Vishnu. The dance brings about the total destruction of the world and replaces it with a new epoch. Of the other figures decorating the prang, one of the most important is the lion head of Kala, also known as Kirtimukha, symbolic of both the lunar and the solar eclipse and – because he’s able to “swallow” the sun – considered far superior to other planetary gods. Inside the prang kneels an almost life-size statue of Shiva’s vehicle, the bull Nandi, behind which stands the all-powerful Shiva lingam, for which the prang was originally built; the stone channel that runs off the lingam and out of the north side of the prang was designed to catch the lustral water with which the sacred stone was bathed.
Two rough-hewn laterite libraries stand alongside the main prang, in the northeast and southeast corners, and there are also remains of two early tenth-century brick prangs just northeast of the main prang. The unfinished prang noi (“Little Prang”) in the southwest corner now contains a stone Buddha footprint, which has become the focus of the merit-making at the annual April festivities, neatly linking ancient and modern religious practices.
Prasat Hin Khao Phanom Rung is so perfectly built that on the morning of the fifteenth day of the waxing moon in the fifth month of the lunar calendar you can stand at the westernmost gopura and see the rising sun through all fifteen doors. This day is celebrated with a day-long festival of huge parades all the way up the hill to the prasat – a tradition believed to go back eight hundred years.
Down on the plains 8km southeast of Phanom Rung, and accessed via a scenic minor road that cuts through a swathe of rice fields, the small but elegant temple complex of Prasat Muang Tam is sited behind a huge kilometre-long baray (Khmer reservoir), which was probably constructed at the same time as the main part of the temple, in the early eleventh century. Like Phanom Rung, Muang Tam was probably built in stages between the tenth and thirteenth centuries, and is based on the classic Khmer design of a central prang flanked by minor prangs and encircled by a gallery and four gopura. The history of Muang Tam is presented in brief at the Tourist Information Centre in the temple car park.
The approach to Muang Tam is nothing like as grand as at Phanom Rung but, once through the main, eastern, gopura in the outside wall, it’s a pretty scene, with the central gallery encircled by four L-shaped ponds – such important features that they are referred to in a contemporary inscription that states “this sanctuary is preserved by sacred water”. The shape of the ponds gives the impression that the prasat is set within a moat that’s been severed by the four entrance pathways at the cardinal points. Each pond is lined with laterite brick steps designed to enable easy access for priests drawing sacred water, and possibly also for devotees to cleanse themselves before entering the central sanctuary. The rims are constructed from sandstone blocks that form naga, the sacred water serpents.
The rectangular central gallery was probably roofed with timber (long since rotted away) and so could be punctuated with real windows, rather than the more load-bearing false versions that had to be used at Phanom Rung. Inside, the five red-brick towers of the inner sanctuary are arranged on a laterite platform, with three prangs in the front (eastern) row, and two behind. The main, central, prang has collapsed, leaving only its base, but the four other towers are merely decapitated and some have carved lintels intact. The lintel above the doorway of the front right tower is particularly lively in its depiction of the popular scene known as Ume Mahesvara (Uma and her consort Shiva riding the bull Nandi). There are interesting details in the temple complex, including recurrent motifs of foliage designs and Kala lion-faces, and figures of ascetics carved into the base of the doorway pillars on the eastern gopura of the outer wall.
Perched atop a 547m-high spur of the Dangkrek mountains right on the Thai–Cambodian border, the ninth-to-twelfth-century Khmer ruins of KHAO PHRA VIHARN (or Preah Vihear) surpass even the spectacularly set Phanom Rung. A magnificent avenue over 500m long rises to the clifftop sanctuary, from where you get breathtaking views over the jungle-clad hills of Cambodia.
Unfortunately, the sanctuary has been closed on and off since 2008 due to a territorial dispute between Thailand and Cambodia over who owns the site. In July 2011, following a fresh series of skirmishes, the International Court of Justice ruled that both countries should remove their forces from the area. But in November 2011 the stalemate continued, with significant numbers of soldiers still stationed along the border, and, at the time of writing, the complex remained closed.
In fact, the complex was only opened to visitors in 1998, following almost a century of squabbling between the two governments. During Cambodia’s civil war, the Khmer Rouge laid mines around the temple, and while the ruins have been de-mined, there are skull-and-crossbones signs in the vicinity, which should be heeded if and when the temple reopens to visitors.
The temple buildings themselves, built of grey and yellow sandstone, retain some fine original carvings and have been sufficiently restored to give a good idea of their original structure. Constructed over a three-hundred-year period, Khao Phra Viharn was dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva and is thought to have served both as a retreat for Hindu priests – hence the isolated site – and an object of pilgrimage, with the difficulty of getting there an extra challenge. The large complex would have also been inhabited by a big cast of supporting villagers who took care of the priests and the pilgrims, which explains the presence of several large reservoirs on the site.
The approach to the temple complex begins with a steep stairway and continues up the cliff face via a series of pillared causeways, small terraces with naga balustrades and four cruciform-shaped gopura (pavilions), each built with doorways at the cardinal points, and decorated with carved reliefs of tales from Hindu mythology. Beyond the first gopura, you’ll see to the left (east) one of the temple’s biggest reservoirs, a large stone-lined tank sunk into the cliff and guarded by statues of lions.
As you pass through the last, southernmost, doorway of the second gopura, look back at the door to admire the pediment carving, which depicts the Hindu creation myth, the Churning of the Sea of Milk, in which Vishnu appears in his tortoise incarnation and, along with a naga and a sacred mountain (here symbolized by the churning stick), helps stir the cosmic ocean and thereby create the universes, as well as the sacred nectar of immortality.
The ascent of the cliff face finally reaches its climax at the central sanctuary, built on the summit and enclosed within a courtyard whose impressive colonnaded galleries are punctuated by windows to the east and west. The pediment above the northern entrance to this shrine depicts the multi-armed dancing Shiva, whose ecstatic dance brings about the destruction of the existing world and the beginning of a new epoch. Climb through one of the gallery windows to walk across to the cliff edge, from where you get far-reaching views of Cambodia and can appreciate just how isolated the temple must have been. A look back at the temple complex shows that though the sanctuary’s southernmost wall is punctuated by a couple of beautifully carved false doors, there are no genuine south-facing doors or windows; experts assume that this was to stop priests being distracted by the clifftop panorama.
The area around Ubon is a good deal more interesting than the metropolitan hub, particularly if you venture eastwards towards the appealing Mekong riverside town of Khong Chiam and the prehistoric paintings at Pha Taem. There is also a crossing into Laos, and a border market, southeast of Ubon at Chong Mek.
The riverside village of KHONG CHIAM (pronounced Kong Jiem) is a popular destination for day-tripping Thais, who drive here from across Isaan to see the somewhat fancifully named “two-coloured river” for which the village is nationally renowned. Created by the merging of the muddy brown Mun with the muddy brown Mekong at “the easternmost point of Thailand”, the water is hardly an irresistible attraction (come in April to see the colour contrast at its most vivid), but the village itself has plenty of tranquil appeal. If you have your own transport, Khong Chiam combines well with visits to Chong Mek (just 27km away) and Kaeng Tana National Park.
Comprising little more than a collection of wooden houses and a few resorts, Khong Chiam feels like an island, with the Mun defining its southern limit and the Mekong its northern one. A cracked concrete walkway runs several hundred metres along the banks of the Mekong, lined by predictable souvenir stalls and leading to the large sala that’s built right over the confluence and affords uninterrupted views. Behind the sala, Wat Khong Chiam is a typically charming rural Thai temple and has an old wooden bell tower in its compound. Khong Chiam’s other temple, the cliffside Wat Tham Khu Ha Sawan, located near the point where Route 2222 turns into Khong Chiam, is a striking white colour, with natural wood sculptures festooned with orchids in its grounds, and a huge Buddha image staring down on the villagers below.
Khong Chiam doesn’t have many sights, but you can rent motorbikes or bicycles from Apple Guest House and explore the quiet streets around the riverfront, or charter a longtail boat for a trip up the Mekong River to see the Pha Taem cliff-paintings. Otherwise you could charter a songthaew to Pha Taem from Khong Chiam; ask at the bus station.
Even though Laos is just a few hundred metres away from Khong Chiam, on the other bank of the Mekong, foreigners are not supposed to cross the border here, though you may be able to persuade boatmen to take you there and back for B350/boat, with a quick stop at the bankside village of Ban Mai; the official border crossing is further downstream at Chong Mek.
By the beginning of May, Isaan is desperate for rain; there may not have been a significant downpour for six months and the rice crops need to be planted. In northeastern folklore, rain is the fruit of sexual encounters between the gods, so at this time villagers all over Isaan hold the bawdy, merit-making Bun Bang Fai rocket festival to encourage the gods to get on with it. The largest and most public of these festivals takes place in the provincial capital of YASOTHON, 98km northwest of Ubon, on a weekend in mid-May (check with TAT for dates). Not only are the fireworks spectacular, but the rockets built to launch them are superbly crafted machines in themselves, beautifully decorated and carried proudly through the streets before blast-off. Up to 25kg of gunpowder may be packed into the 9m-long rockets and, in keeping with the fertility theme, performance is everything. Sexual innuendo, general flirtation and dirty jokes are essential components of Bun Bang Fai; rocket-builders compete to shoot their rockets the highest, and anyone whose missile fails to leave the ground gets coated in mud as a punishment.
At other times of the year, Yasothon has little to tempt tourists other than a handful of unremarkable wats and a few evocative old colonial-style shopfronts near Wat Singh Tha at the west end of Thanon Srisonthoon.
The excavated Bronze Age settlement of BAN CHIANG, 50km east of Udon Thani in sleepy farming country, was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. It achieved worldwide fame in 1966, when a rich seam of archeological remains was accidentally discovered: clay pots, uncovered in human graves alongside sophisticated bronze objects, were eventually dated to around 2000 BC, implying the same date for the bronze pieces. Ban Chiang has been hailed as the Southeast Asian vanguard of the Bronze Age, about three hundred years after Mesopotamia’s discovery of the metal.
The village of Ban Chiang is unremarkable nowadays, although its fertile setting is attractive and the villagers, who still weave (and sell) especially rich and intricate lengths of silk and cotton mut mee, are noticeably friendly to visitors. The museum here, which focuses on the Bronze Age finds, is one of the region’s most interesting. There’s also a bird and animal sanctuary 6km away, and a couple of interesting forest wats closer to the village.
Some travellers base themselves in Udon Thani but others visit Ban Chiang on a day-trip from Nong Khai.
Most visitors carry on from Udon Thani due north to Nong Khai, but making a detour via LOEI, 147km to the west, takes you within range of several towering national parks and sets you up for a lazy tour along the Mekong River. The capital of a province renowned for the unusual shapes of its stark, craggy mountains, Loei is also the crossroads of one of Thailand’s least-tamed border regions, with all manner of illegal goods coming across from Laos. This trade may have been reined in – or perhaps spurred on – by the opening in 2008 of a 3km-long bridge across the Heuang River, 80km northwest of Loei, to Xainyabouli province in Laos (the crossing is open to foreigners, but there’s no public transport on either side). Despite its frontier feel, the town, lying along the west bank of the small Loei River, is friendly and offers legitimate products of its own, such as sweet tamarind paste and pork sausages, which are for sale along Thanon Charoenrat, Loei’s main street, and the adjacent Thanon Oua Aree. But Loei is really only useful as a transport hub and a base for the nearby national parks. The most popular are Phu Kradung National Park, which has some excellent walking trails, Nam Nao National Park, home to around a hundred different species of mammals, and Phu Reua National Park, which affords magnificent views over Laos.
One reason to make a special trip to Loei province is to attend the unique rainmaking festival of Phi Ta Kon, or Bun Phra Wet, held over three days either at the end of June or the beginning of July in the small town of Dan Sai, 80km to the southwest of the provincial capital. In order to encourage the heavens to open, townsfolk dress up as spirits in colourful patchwork rags and fierce, brightly painted masks (made from coconut palm fronds and the baskets used for steaming sticky rice), then rowdily parade the town’s most sacred Buddha image round the streets while making fun of as many onlookers as they can, waving wooden phalluses about and generally having themselves a whale of a time. Top folk and country musicians from around Isaan are attracted to perform in the evenings during Phi Ta Kon; the afternoon of the second day of the festival sees the firing off of dozens of bamboo rockets, while the third day is a much more solemn affair, with Buddhist sermons and a purification ceremony at Wat Phon Chai. The carnival can be visited in a day from Loei (ask at Loei’s TAT office for transport details), though rooms are hard to come by at this time. The town’s main permanent attraction is the Dan Sai Folk Museum on Thanon Kaew Asa, the town’s high street, which explains some of the traditions surrounding Phi Ta Kon and has an impressive collection of vivid costumes and masks.
The most accessible and popular of the parks in Loei province, PHU KRADUNG NATIONAL PARK protects a grassy 1300m plateau 80km south of Loei whose temperate climate supports a number of tree, flower and bird species not normally found in Thailand. Walking trails crisscross much of sixty-square-kilometre Phu Kradung (Bell Mountain), and you could spend three days here exploring them fully – you’ll need one night as a minimum, as the trip from Loei to the top of the plateau and back can’t be done comfortably in a day. The park is at its busiest during weekends in December and January, when the main headquarters up on the plateau is surrounded by a sea of tents.
The attractions of the mountain come and go with the seasons. October is muddy after the rains, but the waterfalls that tumble off the northwestern edge of the plateau are in full cascade and the main trail is green and shady. December brings out the maple leaves; by February the waterfalls have disappeared and the vegetation on the lower slopes has been burnt away. April is good for rhododendrons and wild roses, which in Thailand are only found at such high altitudes as this.
Among the park’s wildlife, mammals such as elephants, sambar deer and gibbons can be seen very occasionally, but they generally confine themselves to the evergreen forest on the northern part of the plateau, which is out of bounds to visitors. In the temperate pines, oaks and beeches that dot the rest of the plateau you’re more likely to spot resident birds such as jays, sultan tits and snowy-browed flycatchers if you’re out walking in the early morning and evening.
The challenging main trail leads from the Sri Taan visitor centre, at the base of the mountain, 5.5km up the eastern side of Phu Kradung, passing occasional refreshment stalls, and becoming steeper and rockier on the last 1km, with wooden steps over the most difficult parts; most people take at least three hours, including rest stops. The main trail is occasionally closed for maintenance, when a parallel 4.5km trail is opened up in its place. At the end of the actual climb, the unbelievable view as your head peeps over the rim more than rewards the effort: flat as a playing field, the broad plateau is dotted with odd clumps of pine trees thinned by periodic lightning fires, which give it the appearance of a country park.
Several feeder trails fan out from here, including a 9.5km path along the precipitous southern edge that offers sweeping views of Dong Phaya Yen, the untidy range of mountains to the southwest that forms the unofficial border between the northeast and the central plains. Another trail heads along the eastern rim for 2.5km to Pha Nok An – also reached by a 2km path east from the main visitor centre – which looks down on neat rice fields and matchbox-like houses in the valley below, an outlook that’s especially breathtaking at sunrise.
With its tallest peak reaching 1271m, Nam Nao National Park is easily visible among the undulating sandstone hills of the Phetchabun range. However, it remains a seldom-visited place, at least as far as tourists go, with plenty of wildlife and some good, challenging hikes.
At just under a thousand square kilometres, Nam Nao, which is 160km south of Loei by road, is home to a healthy wildlife population: around a hundred mammal species, including large animals such as forest elephant and banteng and a handful of tigers, and more-often-seen barking deer, gibbons and leaf monkeys, as well as over two hundred bird species. These creatures thrive in habitats ranging from tropical bamboo and banana stands to the dominant features of dry evergreen forest, grasslands, open forest and pine stands that look almost European.
Though the park was established in 1972, it remained a stronghold for guerillas of the Communist Party of Thailand until the early 1980s and was regarded as unsafe for visitors. Still much less visited than Phu Kradung, it can provide a sense of real solitude. The range of wildlife here also benefited from a physical isolation that stopped abruptly in 1975, when Highway 12 was cut through the park and poachers could gain access more easily. However, as the park adjoins the Phu Khieo Wildlife Sanctuary, there is beneficial movement by some species between the two areas.
A good network of clearly marked circular forest trails begins near the park headquarters, ranging from a 1km nature trail teeming with butterflies to a 6km track known for occasional elephant sightings; another 3.5km trail climbs through mixed deciduous forest to the Phu Kor outlook, with its sweeping views across to Phu Phajit.
Other trails can be accessed directly from Highway 12, most of them clearly signposted from the road: at kilometre-stone 39, a steep climb up 260 roughly hewn steps leads to the Tham Pha Hong viewpoint, a rocky outcrop offering stunning panoramas of the park; at kilometre-stone 49, there’s a 4km nature trail taking in Suan Son Dang Bak viewpoint; and at kilometre-stone 67, a 700m trail leads to the beautiful Haew Sai waterfall, best seen during or immediately after the rainy season. Experienced hikers can reach the top of Phu Phajit along a rugged trail which begins from kilometre-stone 69; you need to hire a guide from the visitor centre (best booked in advance) for the steep six-hour climb.
The 120-square-kilometre PHU REUA NATIONAL PARK, 50km west of Loei, gets the name “Boat Mountain” from its resemblance to an upturned sampan, with the sharp ridge of its hull running southeast to northwest. The highest point of the ridge, Yod Phu Reua (1365m), offers one of the most spectacular panoramas in Thailand: the land drops away sharply on the Laos side, allowing views over toy-town villages and the Heuang and Mekong rivers to countless green-ridged mountains spreading towards Louang Phabang. To the northwest rises Phu Soai Dao (2102m) on Laos’ western border; to the south are the Phetchabun mountains.
In the park itself, a day’s worth of well-marked trails fans out over the mountain’s meadows and pine and broad-leaved evergreen forests, taking in gardens of strange rock formations, orchids that flower year-round, the best sunrise viewpoint, Loan Noi, and, during and just after the rainy season, several waterfalls. The most spectacular viewpoint, Yod Phu Reua (Phu Reua Peak), is an easy 1km stroll from the top of the summit road. The park’s population of barking deer, wild pigs and pheasants has declined over recent years, but you may be lucky enough to spot one of 26 bird species, which include the crested serpent-eagle, green-billed malkoha, greater coucal, Asian fairy-bluebird, rufescent prinia and white-rumped munia, as well as several species of babbler, barbet, bulbul and drongo.
Warm clothes are essential on cool-season nights – the lowest temperature in Thailand (-4°C) was recorded here in 1981 – and even by day the mountain is usually cool and breezy.
If you happen to be driving yourself here from the west along Highway 203, it might be worth breaking your journey 10km from the Phu Reua turn-off at the Château de Loei vineyard, for the novelty value if nothing else: you can drive for 6km around the vast, incongruous fields of vines and taste a variety of wines and brandy, as well as getting something to eat at the simple restaurant and perusing a dizzying array of local foodstuffs in the attached shop.
A road runs parallel to the Mekong for 630km, linking the fast-growing border town of Mukdahan with CHIANG KHAN, a friendly town 55km north of Loei, which happily hasn’t been entirely converted to concrete yet. Rows of shuttered wooden shophouses stretch out in a 2km ribbon parallel to the river, which for much of the year runs red with what locals call “the blood of the trees”: rampant deforestation on the Lao side causes the rust-coloured topsoil to erode into the river. The town has only two streets – the main through-route (Highway 211), also known as Thanon Sri Chiang Khan, and the quieter Thanon Chai Khong on the waterfront – with a line of sois connecting them, numbered from west to east. There’s a cool vibe to the place, with entrepreneurial young Thais setting up quirky new gift shops and guesthouses all the time and, away from all the kitsch, there are a few interesting sights to see. Arguably the most enjoyable thing you can do here is to join up with other travellers for a boat trip on the river.
The Mekong is one of the great rivers of the world and the third longest in Asia, after the Yangtse and the Yellow rivers. From its source 4920m up on the east Tibetan plateau it roars down through China’s Yunnan province – where it’s known as Lancang Jiang, the “Turbulent River” – before snaking its way a little more peaceably between Burma and Laos, and then, by way of the so-called “Golden Triangle”, as the border between Thailand and Laos. After a brief shimmy into rural Laos via Luang Prabang, the river reappears in Isaan to form 750km of the border between Thailand and Laos. From Laos it crosses Cambodia and continues south to Vietnam, where it splinters into the many arms of the Mekong Delta before flowing into the South China Sea, 4184km from where its journey began.
Most guesthouses can arrange these tours, or variations of them, charging per boat.
The journey to Pak Chom and back takes you through some of the most beautiful scenery on the Thai Mekong: hills and cliffs of all shapes and sizes advance and recede around the winding flow, and outside the rainy season, the rapids are dramatic without being dangerous (best Dec–April), and the shores and islands are enlivened by neat grids of market gardens. B3000/boat, around 6hr.
The most basic of the boat trips, giving you the chance to see Chiang Khan from the water when the sunlight is at its best. B750/boat, lasts around 1hr.
Upstream trips head west towards the lofty mountains of Khao Laem and Khao Ngu on the Thai side and Phu Lane and Phu Hat Song in Laos, gliding round a long, slow bend in the Mekong to the mouth of the Heuang River tributary, 20km from Chiang Khan. Stops can be arranged to share the fine views with Phra Yai, a 20m-tall golden Buddha standing on a hilltop at the confluence, and at Hat Sai Kaew, a sandy beach for swimming, fishing and picnicking. Best undertaken in the afternoon, returning at sunset. B1500/boat, around 3hr.
The major border town in this corner of Isaan is NONG KHAI, an ethnically diverse town that’s thrived since the construction of the Thai-Australian Friendship Bridge over the Mekong on the west side of town in 1994. Occupying a strategic position at the end of Highway 2 and the northeastern rail line, and just 24km from Vientiane, Nong Khai acts as a conduit for goods bought and sold by Thais and Lao, who are allowed to pass between the two cities freely for day-trips. Consequently, the covered souvenir market that sprawls to the east of the main pier, Tha Sadet, carries Lao silver, wood and cane items, as well as goods from as far afield as China, Korea and Russia, plus local basketware and silk.
As with most of the towns along this part of the Mekong, the thing to do in Nong Khai is just to take it easy, enjoying the riverside atmosphere and the peaceful settings of its guesthouses, which offer good value. Before you lapse into a relaxation-induced coma, though, try joining an evening river-tour, or make a day-trip out to see the impressive sculptures and rock formations in the surrounding countryside (see Eating and drinking).
To catch the best of life on the river, take a boat trip on the Nagarina, which sets out from the Mut Mee Guest House every evening at around 5pm and runs up and down the length of Nong Khai for ninety minutes or so, sticking to the Thai side. Drinks are available and food can be ordered before the boat leaves. There’s no stunning scenery, but plenty of activity on both river banks as the sun sets behind the Friendship Bridge.
The crossing at Nong Khai is popular with tourists and relatively easy to use. Thais and Laos can cross the border via the ferry at Tha Sadet, but everyone else must use Nong Khai’s Thai-Australian Friendship Bridge.
To get a visa at the border, take a tuk-tuk to the foot of the bridge, where you’ll be stamped out of Thailand. You’ll then need to take a bus across the span itself to the Laos immigration post, where you can get a thirty-day tourist visa for US$30–42 (depending on nationality), plus one photo. It’s possible to pay in baht at the bridge, though it’s over the odds at B1500 and upwards; Mut Mee Guest House sells dollars at a decent rate, but if not, try the Porntip jewellery shop within the covered market. From the Laos immigration post, you can catch a shared air-conditioned minibus, tuk-tuk or infrequent bus to Vientiane, 24km away.
If you have already arranged a visa through a Lao embassy or consulate, you can head straight from Nong Khai into Laos. Six daily buses run all the way through to Vientiane from the bus station. Trains also run from Nong Khai to Tha Naleng in Laos, but as the tracks stop here you’ll need to charter a tuk-tuk, car or minibus for the rest of the journey. The border is also accessible from further afield – there are direct buses from Udon Thani and Khon Kaen to Vientiane.
If you’re not heading straight across the bridge to Laos, consider making a trip to Sala Kaeo Kou, also known as Wat Khaek, where you’ll find dozens of curious stone sculptures. To the southwest of Nong Khai is Wat Phra That Bang Phuan, which offers some classic temple sightseeing, while the natural rock formations at Ban Phu and the spectacular temple Wat Phu Tok require much more effort and a full day out. The scenic riverside route upstream to Chiang Khan is also within day-tripping distance, and it’s quite possible to get to Ban Chiang and back in a day, changing buses at Udon Thani.
The most compelling destination in the area to the east of Nong Khai is the extraordinary hilltop retreat of Wat Phu Tok. One of two sandstone outcrops that jut steeply out of the plain 35km southeast of Bung Kan, Phu Tok has been transformed into a meditation wat, its fifty or so monks building their scattered huts on perches high above breathtaking cliffs. The outcrop comes into sight long before you get there, its sheer red face sandwiched between green vegetation on the lower slopes and tufts of trees on the narrow plateau above. As you get closer, the horizontal white lines across the cliffs reveal themselves to be painted wooden walkways, built to give the temple seven levels to represent the seven stages of enlightenment.
In an ornamental garden at the base, reflected in a small lake, an elegant, modern marble chedi commemorates Phra Ajaan Juen, the famous meditation master who founded the wat in 1968 and died in a plane crash ten years later while on his way to Bangkok to celebrate the queen’s birthday. Within the chedi, the monk’s books and other belongings, and diamond-like fragments of his bones, are preserved in a small shrine.
The first part of the ascent of the outcrop takes you to the third level up a series of long, sometimes slippery, wooden staircases, the first of many for which you’ll need something more sturdy than flip-flops on your feet. A choice of two routes – the left fork is more interesting – leads to the fifth and most important level, where the Sala Yai houses the temple’s main Buddha image in an airy, dimly lit cavern. The artificial ledges that cut across the northeast face are not for the fainthearted, but they are one way of getting to the dramatic northwest tip here on level five: on the other side of a deep crevice spanned by a wooden bridge, the monks have built an open-sided Buddha viharn under a huge anvil rock (though the gate to the viharn is usually locked). This spot affords stunning views over a broad sweep of countryside and across to the second, uninhabited outcrop. The flat top of the hill forms the seventh level, where you can wander along overgrown paths through thick forest.
The lazy villages just downstream from Nong Khai and close to Mukdahan can be a welcome breath of fresh air after traipsing around Isaan’s dusty cities. There’s a good selection of welcoming homestays to bed down in, providing an opportunity to unwind and enjoy the slow pace of rural Isaan – and many rent out bikes and motorbikes for local exploration.
Off Highway 212 between Bung Kan and Nakhon Phanom, 3km southwest of Bung Khla, on the road running towards Phu Wua Wildlife Reserve t081 3059343, whomestaybkp.moonfruit.com. Close to a reserve that’s packed with wildlife, this German-Thai run homestay offers simple wooden bungalows with a/c and TV. There’s also an outdoor pool to splash about in, and you can rent motorbikes for B200/day. Internet available. Pick-up from Nong Khai can be arranged. B500
Around 60km southwest of Mukdahan, just off Highway 2042 t087 0654635, wthaihouse-isaan.com. Set around an attractive northeastern-style building in a peaceful Phu Thai village, with a handful of a/c bungalows and an apartment that has its own living room and karaoke machine. The owners can arrange tours of the local area, including a day-trip to Dinosaurland at Phuwiang National Park (B900/person, including lunch). Pick-ups available from Khon Kaen. B700
Fifty kilometres south of Nakhon Phanom, THAT PHANOM, a riverside village of weather-beaten wooden buildings, sprawls around Isaan’s most important shrine, Wat Phra That Phanom. This far-northeastern corner of Thailand may seem like a strange location for one of the country’s holiest sites, but the wat was built to serve both Thais and Lao, as evidenced by the ample boat-landing in the village. Plenty of Lao still come across the river for the fascinating Monday and Thursday morning waterfront market, bringing for sale such items as wild animal skins, black pigs and herbal medicines, alongside the usual fruit and veg.
Fifty kilometres downriver of That Phanom, MUKDAHAN is the last stop on the Mekong trail before Highway 212 heads off inland to Ubon Ratchathani, 170km to the south. You may feel a long way from the comforts of Bangkok out here, but this is one of the fastest-developing Thai provinces, owing to increasing friendship between Laos and Thailand and the proximity of Savannakhet, the second-biggest Lao city, just across the water. Few farang visitors make it this far, though Mukdahan–Savannakhet is an officially sanctioned crossing to Laos, via the new bridge 7km north of town, and as the cranes dominating the skyline show, new hotels are springing up all the time.
Mukdahan–Savannakhet is an officially sanctioned crossing to Laos, via the second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, 7km north of town. Buses cross the bridge to Savannakhet, and it’s possible to get a visa on arrival. When being stamped out of the country, you may be charged B20 by the officials.
Nong Khai celebrates the generic Thai and Isaan festivals with due gusto, but in recent years a peculiarity of this stretch of the Mekong River has been attracting thousands of celebrants from Bangkok and beyond. Every year on the full-moon night in October, silent and vapourless naga fireballs appear from the river, small, pink spheres that float vertically up to heights of as much as 300m, then disappear; in some years, several thousand appear, in others, just a handful. A tentative scientific theory proposes that the balls are a combination of methane and nitrogen from decomposed matter on the bottom of the river, which reach a certain temperature at that time of the year and are released, combusting in the presence of oxygen when they break the water’s surface; romantics will prefer the local belief that the nagas or naks (serpents) of the river breathe out the fireballs to call the Buddha to return to earth at the end of Buddhist Lent.
This strange occurrence has now been consolidated into the two-day festival of Bang Fai Phaya Nak, which coincides with Awk Phansa and the end of the longboat-racing season on the river. The fireballs have appeared as far afield as Sang Khom and Bung Kan, but are generally most numerous at Phon Phisai, 40km east of Nong Khai; if you make the trek out there, take great care on the way back, when the road is thronged with drunk drivers.