They say change is as good as a holiday.
Here’s a way to combine the two in Thailand — particularly if you have previously visited the main tourist centres and are looking for a different experience.
I was recently invited by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to pay my first visit to the Isaan region in the country’s northeast, and I jumped at the opportunity. It was amazing. Yes, we all love a beach break in Phuket or Koh Samui, a cultural foray to Chiang Mai, and a stopover for some retail therapy in Bangkok. However, if you want to broaden your horizons, Thailand’s northeast is definitely worth considering as a travel destination.
Here’s a guide to the top things to do in Isaan.
Phimai Historical Park is one of Thailand’s most important surviving Khmer temple complexes. It was built around the 11th and 12th centuries by Khmer King Jayavarman V. Much has been said about the similarities between Phimai and the grand-daddy of Khmer temples Angkor Wat. Phimai is like a bite-size version. A mini-me that’s ideal for those that prefer their temple visits concise and to the point.
This is not a big site, but it’s extensive enough to impress and meticulously restored and maintained.
Khorat serves as a convenient base for visiting many of the attractions on offer in Isaan, but it does have an attraction of its own — a vibrant local market that deserves special mention. The market has two parts. To the left is a bazaar selling clothes (new and second hand) and household goods. To the right is a ripper of a street food market — one of the best I’ve seen anywhere in Asia. Wander the neat aisles to see the incredible array of street food options on offer. It’s clean, well lit and every dish is accompanied by a shy, gentle smile from the vendor. Western tourists are not the norm here, so expect to attract a bit of extra attention and the odd photo request.
Isaan is known for its entomological cuisine and this is the spot to try a deep-fried waterbug or silkworm if you feel so inclined.
One of Thailand’s most spectacular natural wonders can be found in the Isaan region — the Khao Yai National Park. This is one of the great untouched monsoon rainforest reserves left in Asia. The national park covers more than 2,000 square kilometres and every inch is teeming with life — from millipedes to elephants — and everything in between. Our visit incudes a walk to the spectacular Nam Tok Haew Narok waterfall and a night safari.
No tour of Thailand would be complete without a retail stop here and there, and we visit the fascinating Dan Kwian Pottery Village outside Khorat. This entire village has been producing pottery for centuries. It’s a bit like a visit to ceramic Disneyland. There’s a train ride through the village which is packed (the village — not the train) with colourful ceramic characters. Much of the product is exported to Dubai and Bahrain. The general style can best described as kitsch, although there are plenty of more contemporary pieces available. It’s an easy 10-minute drive from town.
Just a few kilometres further on is the Pakthongchai Silk Weaving Village, which is also well worth a visit. Once again I’m reminded of just how implausible silk is coming from the humble silk worm. It’s extraordinary. For genuine handmade silk products look for lumps, bumps and imperfections in the fabric. Nothing in nature is perfect. Embrace the flaws.
Thailand might be one of the last places you’d expect to find a flourishing wine industry. If so, you haven’t paid a visit to the PB Valley Khao Yai Winery, located on the edge of the Khao Yai National Park. The winery is stunning, with rolling lush green fields and vines positively laden with fruit. PB Winery produces shiraz, tempranillo, rose and chenin blanc vintages, and they’re all pretty decent. The current winemakers learned their craft in Germany and New Zealand and it shows. The signature shiraz is great. Aged on oak for 18 months and ready to drink, this wine is strong and robust with strawberry undertones.
The winery also has a fabulous restaurant and some on-site accommodation (with more on the way). ‘It’s Tuscany in Thailand’, we’re told by our hosts. Who am I to argue?
Having visited the Panorama Mushroom Farm near Khao Yai National Park, I now know more about mushrooms than I ever thought possible. Visitors to the farm can tour the mushroom nurseries where various types of exotic looking fungi thrive. There are trays beneath the mature adults to catch the spores that are released in to the air each morning at 5am, then bottled for their therapeutic properties. There’s a gift shop stocked with mushie-related products and a cafeteria that serves up a variety of mushroom dishes.
The property also features a newly opened mushroom resort. One can stay in a technicolour mushroom bungalow and swim in the mushroom-shaped pool. Check the mini bar for a range of fungal accoutrements. There are also plans for a mushroom health retreat. It’s all extremely well done, if a little ‘niche’, but the kids would love the resort. It would make a great base for exploring the nearby national park.
Adam travelled as a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Isaan? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Australia, Europe, Asia, North America, parts of South America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the Tour the World travel TV series on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.