When one thinks of Thailand, images of bustling Bangkok streets, pristine Phuket beaches, and the lively nightlife of Pattaya might come to mind. However, beyond these well-trodden paths lies Isaan, a region rich in culture, history, and untouched beauty.
Situated near the borders of Laos and Cambodia, Isaan might be the part of Thailand you’ve never heard of, yet have unknowingly encountered its people, whether the hotel staff in tourist hotspots or the tuk-tuk drivers in major cities. Dominated by the ethnically Lao population, Isaan shares deep cultural, linguistic, and historical ties with its neighboring countries. Surprisingly, despite its vastness — encompassing one-third of Thailand’s land area and 20 provinces — it remains a lesser-known destination among tourists.
Venturing into Isaan is like stepping back in time. Emerald paddy fields are tended by water buffaloes, traditional markets burst with the day’s fresh harvest, and women diligently weave silk on age-old handlooms. The genuine warmth and hospitality of the Isaan people offer a refreshing contrast to some of the more tourist-laden Thai destinations.
For those with a penchant for history, Isaan does not disappoint. Monuments such as the Phanom Rung temple in Buriram and the Prasat Hin Phimai in Nakhon Ratchasima beckon. Both relics of the Khmer Empire from the 10th and 11th centuries, they stand as testaments to the region’s rich past. The former, atop an extinct volcano, boasts gates that perfectly align with the sun during solar equinoxes, illuminating its inner sanctum. The latter, with its well-preserved ruins, sits near Thailand’s oldest banyan tree, Sai Ngam, and is on UNESCO’s radar for potential World Heritage status.
Nature lovers and science enthusiasts might be drawn to Khon Kaen, “the heart of dinosaur country.” Significant paleontological discoveries have been made in the Phu Wiang Hills, and the local museum showcases impressive fossils, offering a glimpse into a time when colossal creatures dominated the region.
Isaan’s festivals, too, provide a deep dive into its unique culture. The rocket festivals in May, where towering bamboo rockets ascend to the heavens, aim to herald the rainy season. In contrast, the Naga Fireball Festival brings locals and tourists to the Mekong River’s banks to witness mysterious glowing orbs rising from its depths. Legend credits a river-dwelling serpent for the spectacle, while science offers a methane-based explanation.
The region’s allure doesn’t end there. Following the Mekong will lead adventurers to picturesque towns like Nong Khai, offering stunning vistas, sandy river beaches, and ancient cave paintings.
Culinary explorers would be remiss to overlook Isaan. Recognized as a culinary capital, the region is the birthplace of dishes like som tum and larb. The delectable bamboo-shoot curry, tangy tom saap soup, and the beloved sticky rice dessert further showcase its rich gastronomic heritage.
In essence, Isaan offers an authentic Thai experience, blending history, nature, culture, and cuisine in a tapestry that’s waiting to be discovered.