Welcome to Central Issan
This is my Central Issan Wiki page and will be updated on a regular basis. If you have something to add please comment at the bottom of the page so everyone can benefit.
Central Issan is often missed by tourists who visit Thailand. This is a pity because there really is a lot to see here. Issan (อีสาน) refers to the Northeast of Thailand and this central area is the heart of the region. Here you will meet people with their own unique culture and there is a flavor to central Issan that can’t be found in any other part of Thailand. A visit to the region should provide plenty of cherished memories; most people who come here will want to come again and again.
Issan Food and Music
One of the most memorable aspects of any trip to Issan is the food and the music. Issan cuisine is unique from the rest of the country. The locals prefer hot food and sticky rice is a must with many dishes. One of the most loved local meals is Som Tam (papaya salad); other famous dishes from the Issan region include jaeo, om, and Issan sausage. The local music is referred to as Mor Lam and is created using local instruments; Mor Lam is also popular in Laos.
Language of Central Issan
The national language of Thailand is Thai of course, but like many countries you can find regional dialects in Issan. There is even a word for the language of this region, it is called passa Issan and while similar to Thai, many of the words are derived from Lao. As you move farther south in Issan you will find that there has also been a strong Khmer (Cambodian) influence on the language. Even though passa Issan is the regional dialect, everyone in Issan can also speak Central Thai because this is the language taught in school and used in newspapers and television.
You will find that spoken English is much less common in Issan compared with Bangkok and the other tourist destinations in Thailand. Even when staying at the larger hotels in Issan you may be hard pressed to find a staff member who speaks even basic English. This means that carrying a phrase book can be a huge help if you are traveling through Central Issan. Not only will it help endear you with the locals, but it will also help you improve your spoken Thai immensely. If you are an iPhone user you can even download apps that will do the translation from Thai to English and back for you.
How to Get to Central Issan
Khon Kaen Airport
Khon Kaen Airport is sometimes referred to as the gateway to Issan; this is because it is placed so centrally in the region. It is a small airport but there are about five flights per day between here and Bangkok. Khon Kaen airport is just a few kilometers outside the city.
Roi Et Airport
Roi Et has a tiny airport that has a flight arriving and leaving on most days to and from Bangkok. The airport can be found 18km outside the city.
Khon Kaen can be reached by rail on the northeastern line; this railway has two branches and Khon Kaen is on the branch that goes towards Nong Khai in northern Issan. If you are coming from Bangkok then you will pick up the train in Hualamphong railway station.
The easiest transport option for much of central Issan is the bus. If you travel by government bus then this can be a cheap way to visit the area. All the main towns have a bus service and the routes tend to be well served with plenty of buses during the day. The cheapest buses are called rot thammaadaa (ordinary bus) and these are fine for short trips. If you are want to go on longer journeys then you will be better off choosing rot air (air-conditioned buses); it is especially advisable to travel in these if you are going somewhere during the hottest months. As well as the government buses you will also find many private bus companies.
Getting Around Central Issan
If you have rented a car or motorbike then this can be a good way to see the region. The main roads are usually good quality throughout the region. Traffic is light once you get outside the main towns and cities. During the cool season there are many tourists who travel around the region on bicycle. This is a nice way see Issan but probably only appropriate for the experienced cyclist. You will find tuk-tuks, motorcycle taxis, and songtaews in most towns; the bigger cities will have a taxi service.
Khon Kaen (ขอนแก่น) is one of the most important cities in Issan and the province itself is the second-largest in this part of Thailand. The city saw a lot of growth during the nineties and it continues to develop today. There is a respectable sized ex-pat community in the area and many tourists visit each year, meaning there’s a nice selection of Khon Kaen hotels to choose from. Visitors who are traveling towards the Cambodian or Laos border will find that this is nice destination to spend some time in along the way. In Khon Kaen you get a real taste of the culture and traditions of Issan.
Where to Go in Khon Kaen
Bueng Kaen Nakhon
This lake can be found right in the heart of Khon Kaen and it is a nice place to visit in the evenings. This lake is impressively large and covers 100 hectares. There are also a few notable temples right beside the lake. If you are trying to get out of the heat during the daytime you will find a few shady spots nearby. You will find Bueng Kaen Nakhon to the south of the city.
Ulborot Reservoir is almost like visiting a beach even though the nearest one is hundreds of miles away; in fact some people refer to Ulborot Reservoir as Pattaya Song (Song in Thai means 2). If you come expecting the same amenities that you will find in the original Pattaya you will be disappointed, but this is a nice place to come and spend the afternoon enjoying the water. There are some water activities available and you will also find a few stalls selling food and beverages. You will find Ulborot Reservoir 36 kilometers from the center of Khon Kaen.
Chanabot is about 40 kilometers outside the city of Khon Kaen. The main attraction here is that this is the home of Chanabot silk; this is a type known as Mudmee silk. Here you will find many businesses focused on producing or marketing this material; a lot of these businesses are small scale and occur in people’s homes. This is a good place to pick up some nice gifts or mementos; if you don’t see anything you like in Chanabot there is also a handcraft center nearby. The trip to Chanabot also provides the opportunity to experience a bit of rural Issan.
Things to Do in Khon Kaen
A Night on the Town
There are a few western style bars in the center of Khon Kaen; mostly near the Hotel Sofitel. The local ex-pat population is usually welcoming to strangers and these people can be a great resource for your trip. The Nate Nate plaza is the place to go if you are looking for go-go bars; although this is a far from glamorous location. There are also many Thai drinking and entertainment establishments that are well worth visiting.
Visit the King Cobra Village
King Cobra Village offers you the chance to see these creatures doing interesting things. As well as a zoo devoted to the King Cobra there are also shows on a stage; here you will get to see the snakes dance and being masterly controlled by their handlers. The King Cobra village is just outside the city of Khon Kean and worth a visit if you have the time.
Visit the Local Temples
There are many fascinating temples in and around Khon Kaen city. Wat Nongwang is probably the most spectacular as it also provides a good view of the city. This is an important temple and contains artifacts that are important to the local population. Another interesting temple is Wat Wutharam which can be found near the train station. This temple is right next to a lake and there are some stalls selling fish nearby.
Wander Around the Local Markets
There are a few nice markets in Khon Kaen. These can be a great destination not only for buying cheap things but also to spend some time with the local population. Issan people love markets and these can be exciting places to visit. You will find a nice food market right beside the Charoen Thani Princess Hotel.
Watch Muay Thai
Issan has produced some of the fiercest Muay Thai fighters so there are plenty of clubs and events occurring in Khon Kaen. If you have never witnessed this fighting art in action then you should remedy the situation during your visit – it really is an exciting sport. It is possible to learn Muay Thai in Khon Kaen but the gyms are not as foreigner-friendly as some the more touristy parts of Thailand – the problem is the language barrier.
Listen to Mor Lam Music
Mor Lam is the music of Issan and you will hear it played in markets, bars, and anywhere that people can put a loud speaker. You will often see this music being played in public in Khon Kaen; often on an impromptu stage. The people of Issan love to dance to these tunes and if you want a bit of fun you should join in with them.
Off the Beaten Track in Khon Kaen
Phu Wiang Dinosaur Museum
Phu Wiang Dinosaur Museum can be found in the Wiang Kao district of Khon Kaen. The museum contains the evidence that dinosaurs once roamed the local area. There are plenty of fossils available for visitors to inspect and new discoveries are being added all the time. As well as being a museum this is also a location for a lot of research. There are a few restaurants and a souvenir shop beside the museum. The Phu Wiang Dinosaur museum is eighty kilometers outside of Khon Kaen city.
Visit Khon Kaen University
Khon Kaen is a university town and visitors are welcome to spend some time on the local campus. This is the main university in Issan and many famous Thai people have studied here. Unlike university students in many other parts of the world those in Thailand have to wear a uniform; white top and black trousers for males and white top and black skirt for females.
Roi Et (ร้อยเอ็ด) province offers and interesting mix of Khmer, Laotian, and Thai culture. The name Roi Et is Thai for one hundred and one. There was once a much older and important city in the same area called Saket Nakhon, but Roi Et is a relatively new city. There are still a few ruins to be found that date back to the Saket Nakhon and even before this.
Where to Go in Roi Et
Bueng Phalan Chai
Bueng Phalan Chai is a huge lake in Roi Et city. This is a pleasant place to visit; especially in the evenings. There is a small island on the lake and the water is home to a large population of fish. The lake is within a park area and you there is also a pillar shrine from the old city.
Pha Mok Mi Wai
Pha Mok Mi Wai (ผาหมอกมิวาย) is a beautiful location where you can get to spend some time wandering in nature. High humidity in the area means that it is covered in mist for most of the year – this only adds to its attractiveness. Pha Mok Mi Wai is part of the Pha Nam Thip Non-Hunting Area. This is a popular location to go camping and there are also other accommodation options in the local area.
Pha Nam Yoi
Pha Nam Yoi is a forest park that is famous for having the biggest chedi in Thailand. Wat Pha Nam Yoi is a huge temple with some spectacular golden Buddha images. Donations for this temple have come from all over Thailand and it was originally created because a local abbot once had a dream where he was instructed to build it. Pha Nam Yoi is also known as Issan Buddhist Park.
Things to Do in Roi Et
The Roi Et National Museum
If you are interested in finding out a bit more about the local culture you might want to visit Roi Et National Museum. It is not that big but there are plenty of artifacts dating back to prehistoric times. There are three floors in the museum and you will also see many fine examples of local textiles and other handicrafts. There is also a lot of information about local history.
Visit the Local Temples
There are many interesting temples in Roi Et and these reflect the culture and aspirations of the local people. Wat Klang Ming Mueang is a fascinating temple that has been around since the time when Thailand was ruled from Ayutthaya; it is still a working temple. Wat Pa Non Sawan is another temple that is worth visiting just because it is so striking in appearance. Wat Buraphaphiram is home to the tallest statue of the Buddha depicting him in a walking position. There are also a few other temples in the local area that are worth visiting.
Roi Et Aquarium
This is more modest than some of the aquariums that you will find elsewhere in Thailand, but it is certainly worth a visit. The focus in this aquarium is on fresh water fish and there is an underwater glass tunnel where you really get to appreciate these creatures in their natural habitat.
Mukdahan is an interesting province that borders Laos. Many tourists pass through this area before crossing to border to Savannakhet. The people of Mukdahan are originally from Laos and this has a strong influence on their culture and way of life. Those who spend a bit of time in this province will usually be impressed by the beauty of the area. Mukdahan City is a small place but full of a lot of charm.
Where to Go in Mukdahan
Phu Pha Thoep National Park
You will find Phu Pha Thoep National Park is 17km outside of the city of Mukdahan. This park covers almost fifty square kilometers and includes high cliffs and forest areas. One of the most talked about attractions in the park are the rocks that have been eroded over centuries into strange shapes; there has also been many prehistoric shells found underground in this area. There are also a number of waterfalls in the park and some fascinating caves. In one of these caves is a charming collection of statues; mostly on a Buddhist theme. Another cave contains art work that is believed to be 5,000 years old.
Phu Mu Forest Parks
Phu Mu (ภูหมู) is Thai for ‘Pig Mountain’; it was given this name because the area was once home to wild pigs. This park can be found 12 kilometers outside of Mukdahan city. There are three main peak points in the park where you can get a great view of the province. The highest point is 353 meters above sea level.
Huai Khilek Irrigation Reservoir
This can be found 23km outside Mukdahan City on the road towards Loeng Nok Tha. There are also a few attractive villages in this area as well that are worth visiting. The reservoir itself is impressively large.
Things to Do in Mukdahan
Spend Some Time Relaxing Next to the Mekong
The Mekong River flows along the border of Mukdahan. During the dry season there is a beach area known as Kaeng Kabao. This is a great location if you just want to relax for the afternoon. It is also possible to walk to some sand islands in the river when the water is low. There are also some nice restaurants right next to the river where you will find some good food.
See a 3,000 Year Old Drum
Glong Mahorathuk is a 3,000 year old drum that can be found in Don Tan. This is 90 cm in length and is made mostly from bronze. The drum was discovered 80 years ago lying on the banks of the river.
Visit the Indochina Market
The Indochina market is impressively large and has a good mix of local products as well as products from nearby countries. You will find the Indochina market right by the banks of the Mekong; not far from the immigration office. This is a good place to go if you are looking for souvenirs because there is a large selection of local crafts. You will also find plenty of food stalls with a wide variety of options including Vietnamese food.
Walk Around Mukdahan City
Mukdahan City is only small so it is possible to walk around most of it in a few hours. This is a pleasant thing to do in the evenings. A lot of the city is right up next to the river and this makes it ideal walking territory.
Cross the Border into Laos
Savannakhet is just across the border and you will be able to get a visa either in Bangkok, Khon Kaen, or at the border. This was one of the nicest border crossings in Thailand because it was all done by boat. Nowadays there is a bridge so it isn’t quite as interesting. The crossing opens at six in the morning and closes at ten at night. It is best to arrive here as early as you can because things can get quite busy later in the day.
Off the Beaten Track in Mukdahan
- Phu Sa Dok Bua National Park is a large park covering over 300 square kilometers and is shared by three provinces. There is a varied landscape within in this park but it is mostly made up of forest. This area is home to many animals and different fauna. There are also a number of peaks in the park where you can get some great views of the area.
Emergencies in Central Issan
Crime is rare in central Issan but it is always wise to be alert for the possibility. There is a wise saying; if you walk around thinking you are going to be a victim of crime you are paranoid but if you walk around thinking that you won’t be a victim of crime you are foolish. If something does go wrong then you will be best dealing with the tourist police. These have a presence in most towns and most will have at least a couple of officers who speak reasonable English. You can contact the tourist police from anywhere in Issan by calling 1155.
If you need medical treatment you will find that all of the towns will have a government hospital. It is possible to get treatment here very cheaply but for more serious complaints you will probably want to be admitted to a private hospital. It is always a good idea that you have comprehensive holiday health insurance so that you can avail of the more expensive care if you need it.
The Bar Girls of Issan
The majority of the sex workers in Thailand’s tourist areas come from Issan. This is because there are limited employment opportunities in the region. There are also many Issan women who work in non-sex related businesses in tourist locations. It is common for westerners to develop deep relationships with these women. A lot of visitors to the area are coming to see their new partner’s home so they can meet the family.
In the majority of instances these relationships are sincere and the trip to Issan will be part of the process of taking the relationship to the next level. This is not always the case though, and there are some Issan sex workers who have turned bringing western men home into a cottage industry. The purpose of the visit will be a ruse to get more money; some of these women may be bringing home one man a month. The family will often be in on the act.
If you keep your wits about you then you should be able to spot if such a proposed trip to Issan is a scam. Most of those who are victim to this type of thing will get plenty of warning signs which they choose to ignore. Reputation in a village is important and neighbors will tend to take a dim view of anyone who is bringing home a string of western men. It does happen though and for that reason you need to be careful unless you fully trust the woman in question. Keep an eye on your wallet and make sure that people aren’t taking advantage of you.
Highlights of Central Issan
- A visit to Wat Pha Nam Yoi where you will get to see the largest chedi in Thailand and enjoy the local forest.
- An evening walk around Mukdahan city and along the river Mekong; stopping at one of the local restaurants for a meal.
- A night on the town in Khon Kaen. There are not that many western style bars here but there is enough for have a great time and meet plenty of interesting people.
Where to Next
- Cross the border at Mukdahan and explore Laos. This is a fascinating country and a popular tourist destination. When you cross over from Mukdahan you will arrive in Savannakhet.
- Keep moving onto Northern Issan through Udon Thani and Nong Khai. This trip will provide many wonderful sights, sounds, and smells.
- Move down towards southern Issan and visit Khorat – the largest province in Issan.