After living in Thailand for 3 years, my wife and I have pretty much been to every part of the country — except Isaan.
We’ve been Southwest to the Andaman Sea (Krabi, Phuket, Phang Nga, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, Trang Islands, Koh Lipe), Southeast to the Gulf of Thailand (Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, Koh Tao), South Central (Cha-am, Petchaburi, Hua Hin, Khao Lak, Khao Sok), East (Siracha, Pattaya, Koh Samet, Trat, Koh Chang, Koh Mak, Koh Kood), North Central (Kanchanaburi, Khao Yai, Ayuttaya, Sukhothai), and North (Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Chiang Dao, Doi Angkhang, Fang, Phayao, Phrae, Lampang), but never to Isaan other than a night in Ubon Ratchatani en route to Si Phan Don (aka the 4,000 islands) in Southern Lao.
Considering our favorite Thai cuisine is Isaan food, for our recent mid-term break, we set out to explore Isaan. In particular, we wanted to explore Loei province and hike to the top of Phu Kradueng.
For those not in the know, Phu Kradueng is basically like an inverted Grand Canyon (i.e., a mountain with a huge, relatively flat plateau on the top where in addition to camping, you can rent bicycles and explore the 50+ kilometers of hiking trails, cliffside views and waterfalls).
We were a little nervous about traveling there in the tail end of the rainy season, but since we always seem to visit Thailand’s many famous waterfalls in the dry season only to be left underwhelmed, we figured this could be the perfect time to visit — an assumption we’d later come to regret.
Our basic itinerary was to fly into Khon Kaen, take a two hour bus to Phu Kradueng, spend a night at the base of the mountain and then a night on top, then visit Loei, Chiang Khan, Nong Khai and Udon Thani, each for a night.
An ambitious feat in just 6 short days, but in our 3+ years of recent traveling, we’ve conquered far more in far less.
While we speak a little Thai, we’re far from conversational so we were also a little worried about getting around, but then we remembered — this is Thailand, where they’ve mastered the art of tourism leaps and bounds beyond any of the many other countries I’ve been fortunate enough to visit.
In our first stop, Khon Kaen, home to the largest (or maybe second largest as our tuk-tuk driver corrected us) university in Thailand, we primarily wanted to visit Gai Yang Rabeab, which the Lonely Planet refers to as the best gai yang (grilled chicken) in Thailand.
It was good, but unlike the countless gai yang we’ve had elsewhere in Thailand, at Gai Yang Rabeab, they serve you the whole chicken (beak, feet, neck and all) so it was a little less meat and a little more work than we’re typically used to, not to mention a little of the “really?” factor. While we suspect it’s actually the ‘real’ gai yang, we prefer our local chicken lady on our corner of Hua Mak Soi 14.
Surprisingly, however, the som tam accompaniment was maybe the best we’ve ever had; sweeter, nuttier and larger.
The rest of our brief time in Khon Kaen was nice (namely the large lake, Bueng Kaen Nakhon, in the southern part of the city) but not worth more than a few hours’ visit, which is precisely what we had.
Our next stop, Phu Kradueng, was everything we were hoping for, but also involved some unexpected (and unwelcome) visitors.
The town outside Phu Kradueng where we spent the night before was nothing special, but provided the perfect base for an early morning start.
After a 3 hour hike to the top (the Thais say it should take 4-6 hours, but that’s likely because they’re stopping at the half dozen little villages along the way for lunch, souvenir shopping and selfies), it was another 30 minute walk on the plateau to the visitor center and camping ground.
One of our favorite things about the national parks in Thailand is that, not only can you camp at them, but most of them rent tents, sleeping bags, mattress pads, pillows, blankets and everything else you need for a good night’s sleep under the stars.
Compared to our trip back home to the US this summer where we visited several national parks (including Yosemite, Joshua Tree and the Grand Canyon) and wanted to camp out but that would have required either buying our own gear or renting it from a private online company and paying for shipping two ways, this was a real treat.
What wasn’t a treat, however, was our afternoon trek to the several waterfalls near the campsite.
While the waterfalls themselves were nice, about halfway through the trek, we realized that dozens of tiny leeches were invading our shoes and socks.
After fending them off one by one, calming my wife down who is normally pretty tough but by this point was (understandably) hysterically crying, and moving as fast as we could through the mud, water and relentless leeches, we finally made it back to our tent only to realize we had brought some of our unexpected visitors back ‘home’ with us.
Suffice to say, it was a rough few hours at the top of Phu Kradueng, and we later realized why we hadn’t seen a single other soul on our 3-4 hour afternoon trek through the waterfalls, save for a lone park ranger who we now realize probably thought we were crazy when he asked where we were headed after our first of several waterfalls.
Fortunately, the rest of our trip to Phu Kradueng was very enjoyable, including a surprisingly free guided trek to a cliffside sunrise at 5am, and another few unexpected, but this time welcome, visitors in the form of 3 large deer who decided to join us for dinner.
In hindsight, however, in the future, we think we’ll stick to the national parks in the dry season.
Our next stop after Phu Kradueng was Loei for a night, where for a mere 600 baht, we splurged and stayed at the King Hotel, one of the few hotels we’ve stayed at in Thailand (we normally opt for the cheaper guesthouses or private room hostels).
While the town itself was pleasant, we can see why the Tourism Authority of Thailand says “the city of Loei has little to hold the traveler’s interest.” But a 600 baht hotel fit for a ‘king’ was all we needed after enduring the leeches of Phu Kradueng.
Our next stop, after Loei, was Chiang Khan, a very cute, riverside town an hour northwest of Loei on the banks of the Mekong River overlooking Laos.
Chiang Khan was everything we love about Thailand: cute, picturesque, friendly, cheap and filled with great food and great shopping.
For another 600 baht, while we didn’t stay at a royal hotel, we did stay right on the river in the middle of town.
After renting bikes and biking over to nearby Kaeng Khut Khu, another village five kilometers upstream where we joined a boat tour on the Mekong River for 100 baht/person, we spent the rest of our time exploring the cute main part of town, filled with restaurants, bars, shops and glorious views of the Mekong and neighboring Laos.
As an added bonus, there was a wonderful night market on the main road just behind the Mekong, and even a carnival to boot.
We’re not sure if this was an everyday occurrence or just a benefit of being there on a Saturday night, but knowing the Thais, I suspect the former (at least the market).
The final leg of our journey took us to Nong Khai and Udon Thani. Had we had more time, we would have liked to take a boat between Chiang Khan and Nong Khai, or at least the river road, but the former takes several days and the latter involves trying to connect with a bus thirty minutes outside of Chiang Khan that departs Loei once a day at 6am.
So instead we chose the safer route of returning to Loei (an hour songthaew), transferring to Udon Thani (a 3 hour bus), and then transferring again to Nong Khai (an hour minivan).
Despite the 3 legs and 5 hour journey, this being Thailand, we waited a mere 5 and 30 minutes for the 2 connections, respectively, and paid a paltry 185 baht a person for all 3 legs. God I love this country!
When we finally arrived in Nong Khai, though also on the Mekong River across from Laos, compared to the charming Chiang Khan, it seemed like a ghost town.
Perhaps it was a result of arriving on a Sunday afternoon after all the out of towners had returned home from the weekend, or perhaps it’s because there’s only enough room for so many charming towns along the Mekong.
Despite its emptiness, we still had a wonderful fish dinner right on the river, and enjoyed the Tha Sadet Market the following morning, filled with Vietnamese sausages and the usual bevy of snacks, trinkets and souvenirs.
Most impressive, however, was our second gai yang lunch of the trip at Saap Lah. Unlike Gai Yang Rabeab, Saap Lah had a choice between two types of gai yang: the full bird or the meatier version consisting primarily of breast, leg and thigh.
Having learned our lesson from last time, this time we opted for the latter, along with the similarly delicious (and sweeter version of) som tam plus a little kor moo yang (pork neck) and sai yang (intestines) on the side.
After lunch, we hopped on an hour-long minivan back to Udon Thani where we’d be flying back to Bangkok from the following morning.
When we arrived in Udon Thani, though we had only been ‘gone’ a week, it felt as though we had returned to a veritable metropolis.
We were dropped off right in front of the Central Plaza, Udon Thani’s main (and only) shopping mall, and immediately reveled in the thought of spending our last night in Isaan eating a Western meal and seeing a movie.
After checking into to another rare hotel for another 600 baht (UD Residence) and washing off the remnants of the Mekong River, we decided to check out the 3 adjoining night markets near our hotel (Centre Point, Precha and UD Bazaar) along with nearby UD Town, an open-air food complex.
Though we decided to skip the movie, we did enjoy a homemade pizza from one of the three local markets along with a salad from the nearby, newly opened Villa Market.
I guess after a week-long straight of eating Isaan for lunch and dinner, our Western tastebuds finally caved.
In sum, our first foray into the world of Isaan was everything we were expecting: delicious, beautiful, friendly, and at times, a little challenging.
Our short, six day trip, had a little bit of everything as well: hiking a mountain, enjoying the Mekong River, and exploring two of the region’s biggest cities.
But as with any trip we’ve taken over the past 3 years since moving to Thailand, by the end, there’s nothing we’re looking forward to more than returning to our favorite city in Asia, — and maybe the world — Bangkok.
I think we’ll finally enjoy that Western meal and a movie tomorrow, which happens to be Movie Day at the mall (100 baht/person).
All photos courtesy of David Rosenfield