Getting to Know IsanSurrounded by mountains on the Khorat Plateau and bordered by the mighty Mekong River – the lifeblood of mainland Southeast Asia – visitors to Isan can discover a completely different side to Thailand than the typical tourist usually experiences. Still mostly undeveloped, Isan’s sprawling countryside, lush paddy fields, unspoilt terrains, roaming water buffaloes, ancient traditional handicrafts and historical sites all add to its unique, unhurried charm.
As with most places in Thailand, provinces and their provincial capitals share the same name, so the primary city of Khon Kaen province, for example, is also called Khon Kaen. Along with Khon Kaen, there are four other main cities: Udon Thani, Nakhon Ratchasima and Ubon Ratchathani. These built-up towns serve as convenient starting points to explore the rest of the northeast thanks to their accessible transportation hubs including regional airports, train stations and bus terminals.
Once in Isan, one can head slightly south to explore beautiful Khmer temples and pagodas in Surin or the lush Khao Yai National Park in Nakhon Ratchasima. Back up north, discover the famous Bronze Age archaeological site of Ban Chiang in Udon Thani or immerse yourself tranquillity along the Mekong River in Loei province’s Chang Kian district. Showcasing Thai life as it was 20 or 30 years ago, northern Isan also has incredible national parks including Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, known for its unusual rock formations and prehistoric rock painting, and Phu Reua National Park, where visitors rise early to see the morning sea of fog enveloping the mountains. Other natural wonders include Talay Bua Dang, or the Red Lotus Sea, in Udon Thani, a large reservoir filled with magenta-hued lotus flowers rising from the waters, and the salt fields in Ban Dung.
Wondering where to stay in Isan? While accommodation options are more limited than other parts of the country, it’s possible to explore Thailand’s lesser-visited eastern region while staying at the best Isan hotels. If you’re searching for a comfortable Isan hotel, design-focused Isan boutique hotel or luxurious Isan resort, contact the Secret Retreats concierge for insider tips and personalised guidance for where to stay in this fascinating region.
Discover Culture, Community & Cuisine in IsanThough people may not always make their way east, Isan’s the region’s fiery, flavourful cuisine is popular throughout Thailand. Standout Thai dishes, such as somtam (spicy green papaya salad) and laab (a type of minced meat salad stuffed with herbs and spices), have their roots in Isan. If you’ve liked eating these chilli-filled favourites before, you’ll love tasting the authentic dishes in their original home.
Throughout Isan, you can also witness some of the country’s most unique, colourful and even mysterious festivals. For example, in Loei’s Dansai district, the annual Phi Ta Khon festival, or Ghost Mask Festival, is recognised for villagers’ elaborate masks made out of sticky rice steaming baskets and carved wooden faces painted with colourful, gruesome features. Alternatively, each year in May, villages across Isan (but especially in Yasothon province), take part in the Bun Bang Fai Rocket Festival, shooting intricately decorated rockets high into the sky in hopes of cajoling the gods to bring down ample rains for the rice planting season. Another unique Isan festival, the Naga Fireball Festival, happens every October in Nong Khai province along the Mekong River. During this time, unexplained balls of fire rise from the river high into the air. Locals believe that naga, half-human and half-serpentine beings that protect the Buddha and supposedly live in the Mekong River, send up the flare at the end of Buddhist Lent to pay respect to Buddha. You’ll need to see it for yourself to believe it!