Welcome to Southern Issan
This is my Southern 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.
The northeast of Thailand (Issan) has plenty to offer any tourist who decides to spend some time there. Life is a lot slower here and much of the economy is based around farming; a hard life but the locals make up for this with regular festivals and celebrations. This is also one of the poorest regions in Thailand. The different communities in Issan tend to be welcoming to strangers. English is not that widely spoken, but a lot can be communicated with a smile.
Southern Issan has its own unique culture and traditions; it is also renowned for having the spiciest food in the country. This part of Thailand shares a border with Cambodia and Laos; the cultures of both these countries have influenced the local people. There is also plenty of historical evidence of the ancient ties between these different Kingdoms – these ancient ruins are one of the reasons why many visitors come to Southern Issan.
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.
While Thai is the national language of the country most regions have their own dialect. In this part of Thailand most people speak passa Issan. Many of the words are similar to central Thai but it is closer to the language of Laos. In south Issan there is a huge Cambodian influence on the language. Everyone in Issan can also speak central Thai because it is compulsory in school and it is used on Television. Learning a few words of passa Issan is great way to endear yourself to the locals.
Unlike the popular tourist destinations you will find that English is less widely spoken. Even some of the big hotels in South Issan may not have staff members who speak English above a rudimentary level. This should not be too much of a problem once you have a phrase book; in fact many travelers find this a welcome challenge and a chance to improve their Thai. There are now devices like the iPhone on which you can install translation software and make things even easier.
Southern Issan Arrivals and Departures
There are a few different airports to choose from in Southern Issan.
- Buriram Airport has flights every two days between Don Muang in Bangkok (Tues, Thurs, Fri, and Sunday). Buriram Airport is about 40km outside of the city.
- Nakhon Ratchasima Airport (Khorat) is 26 kilometers outside of the city. It has flights to a number of locations including Hua Hin, Luang Prabang (Laos), Phuket, Chiang Mai, and Suvarnabhumi Bangkok.
- Surin Airport is currently not open for commercial flights, but there are plans for flights to resume in the future.
- Ubon Ratchathani International Airport has flights going to both Don Muang and Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. There are also flights going to Phuket. Interestingly this airport was once home to the American Air Force during the Vietnam War. There are a number of flights each day from this airport. Although it is called an International Airport there are currently no commercial flights going outside the country; there used to be a service to Vietnam.
The northeastern railway runs through all the main cities in Southern Issan; terminating in Ubon. You can catch this train from Hulamphong Station in Bangkok. This is a pleasant way to travel through this part of Issan and is also economical. There are regular trains leaving from Bangkok and going back the other way each day. You will find train stations in Khorat, Buriram, Surin, Sri Saket, and Ubon.
There are plenty of buses linking Southern Issan with the rest of Thailand; each town has its own bus station. The rot air (air-conditioned) government busses are the most comfortable way to travel around – they are also reasonably priced.
Getting Around Southern Issan
Rent a Car
If you have rented a car then you will find that the roads are generally good between the cities; this is less true when you leave the main highways. There usually isn’t too much traffic in this part of the world; although you will need to be careful of slow moving tractors and buffalos wandering onto the road.
Many of the big towns in Southern Issan don’t have a traditional taxi service (Khorat is an exception to this). Most places though will have some type of tuk-tuk or motorbike service to take you where you want to go.
You will find a Songthaew service in most Thai towns. These are a cheap and convenient way to get around, but using them can be confusing if you don’t speak Thai. If you do want to use this service just ask for advice from hotel staff about which Songthaew you need to take to reach your destination. Alternatively if you have the name of your destination written in Thai script the locals will be able to point you in the right direction.
Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat)
Nakhon Ratchasima (นครราชสีมา) is also called Khorat (โคราช) – this use of two names is sometimes confusing for visitors. The province is beginning to attract an increasing number of tourists, but nowhere near as many as visit places like Chiang Mai or Chonburi. There are also a growing number of ex-pats moving here because the cost of living is considered cheap in comparison to Bangkok. Khorat City offers many modern conveniences but is far less polluted and less chaotic than the capital. There are plenty of transport connections between Khorat and Bangkok with many trains and buses going every hour of the day and night.
Where to Go in Nakhon Ratchasima
Nakhon Ratchasima/Khorat is the largest city in northeast Thailand and well worth visiting if you have the time. There are a lot of modern buildings to be found around the city but you can also find plenty of historical importance as well. This is a typical Thai city and there are not as many tourists here as you might find in the other big cities. There are some good choices though when it comes to entertainment and accommodation – in fact there are some very cheap accommodation offers here if you want to save some money.
Khao Yai National Park
Khao Yai (เขาใหญ่) means ‘big mountain’ in Thai and this is what you will find when you visit this national park – as well as a lot more. A waterfall in the park was made famous in the movie ‘The Beach’; even though Khao Yai is far from the islands and the beaches. This was the first ever national park in Thailand and it remains the most impressive; the Dong Phaya Yen Mountains that can be visited in the park are a World Heritage Site.
Khao Yai is a huge and impressive park and it is not going to be possible to see much of it in one visit. This is one of the reasons why tourist often decide to spend the night in one of the nearby hotels – this also means that you can go on the night safari. If you want to explore the park fully it helps if you have your own transport – a motorbike is probably the nicest way of getting around.
Phimai is where you will find some interesting Khmer buildings that date back to about the 11th century. If you have been to somewhere like Ankor Wat in Cambodia then you will recognize the style of architecture. This historical park can be found on the outskirts of Phimai town. If you like ancient things then you will likely be fascinated by what is available at Phimai. It can occasionally get busy here but mostly you won’t have to worry about crowds.
What to Do in Nakhon Ratchasima
Visit the Ancient City Gate (Chum Phon)
There are actually 4 city gates in Khorat but only Chum Phon is original and it has been standing since the seventeenth century. On top of this gate is a beautiful wooden structure that once served as a watchtower. You will find Chum Phon in the west of the city; it probably looks most impressive at nighttime.
Visit Sala Loi Temple
Wat Sala Loi is an interesting temple; the main building resembles a sea junk. There is also a beautiful white statue of the Buddha in a standing pose. This unusual looking temple offers some great photo opportunities so don’t forget to take your camera. You can find Sala Loi temple on Thanon Rop Meung in Khorat City.
Visit Khorat Zoo
The zoo in Khorat is worth a visit if you have the time. It is one of the largest zoos in Thailand – although arguably not the best. Still, it is a good place to visit and it is large enough to keep visitors entertained for a few hours. There is a railway that goes around the zoo and kids tend to love this. It is also possible to try out some horse riding. The animals seem to be treated well and there are plenty of places to stop for refreshments if you are feeling hungry. The zoo contains everything from lions to penguins.
A Night on the Town
Khorat has the best nightlife in Southern Issan, but most venues cater predominately to Thai clientele – although all visitors will usually be very welcome. There is a small number of western style bars as well spread out around the city; some of these have ex-pats running them. If you are prepared to let your hair down and mingle with the local Thais you should have great night on the town.
Off the Beaten Track in Nakhon Rachasima
Bung Ta Lau Park & Lake
Bung Ta Lau Park is about a kilometre outside of Khorat City and a good place to go if you want go for a walk, cycle, or jog. This is a popular destination with local people who come here mostly in the evenings; there are also usually activities here for kids. It is also possible to go canoeing on the lake. There are a couple of resorts nearby if you want to spend more time enjoying this area.
Ubon Ratchthani (อุบลราชธานี) is more commonly referred to as Ubon – this is less of a mouthful for visitors. This is the largest province in Issan but is sadly often missed by tourists. The city is believed to have originated from a settlement started by fleeing princes from Laos. During the Vietnam War there were many US army personnel stationed here. There is a lot to see in Ubon though and it is highly recommended if you get the chance.
Where to Go in Ubon Ratchtahani
Thung Si Meung Park
Thung Si Meung Park can be found in Ubon City. This is a nice area to walk around in the mornings and evenings; there are also a couple of interesting monuments in the park. There is a relatively new candle structure that was introduced to the park in 2000.
Chong Mek is a border town in Ubon Ratchathani. It is possible to cross from here to Champasak in Laos but you will need to get a visa. This border was once considered very lax with tales of tourists wandering over to Laos for a few hours and no questions asked; things have changed though and this is now a proper border with strict controls. There is a lively market on both sides of the border with lots of interesting products on sale.
Nong Pah Pong Temple
Nong Pah Pong temple was where Ajarn Chah taught for many years. This monk came from the Thudong tradition which involved monks going to live in the forest. Ajarn Chah was a meditation master and he is celebrated as the teacher of some of the most famous western Buddhists. He is still very much revered by people in Thailand as well as people in the west. A lot of his written work is available in English and he has had a huge influence on how the outside world views Thai Buddhism. A trip to the temple is highly recommended.
What to Do in Ubon Ratchathani
Go on a Meditation Retreat
This part of Thailand is much celebrated as the home of some of the top meditation teachers. This is where the internationally respected Ajarn Chah grew up and had his temple. If you want to practice some meditation during your trip then the best option is probably Pah Nanachat Temple; also known as the International Forest Monastery. It is possible to just come and visit the temple if you are interested in finding out more about Buddhism.
Attend the Ubon Ratchathani Candle Festival
The Ubon Ratchathani Candle festival takes place at the start of Buddhist Lent between Asanha Puja Day and Kao Pansa (the start of Buddhist lent). The exact dates for this vary each year as it is based on the lunar calendar but it usually starts in July (the first moon of the eight lunar month). This beautiful ceremony involves a candle parade to different temples in the area. People now come from all over Thailand to witness the candle festival in Ubon.
A Night on the Town
There are some good nightlife options in Ubon. You will find a number of western style bars where ex-pats like to hang out. You will also find plenty of discos and karaoke bars that cater mostly for Thais but that are always welcoming to visitors. If you like Thai country music then you will find plenty of venues for this.
Buriram is home to some interesting examples of ancient Khmer culture. This part of the world doesn’t see that many tourists, but there is a sizable ex-pat community living here. For those who have the time to visit there are a few attractions that are well worth seeing. A visit to Buriram is also recommended because it offers a different view of life in Thailand; a glimpse at simpler times. Buriram is known as the city of pleasantness; some tourists might feel that there is not much going on here but that is part of its appeal.
Where to Go in Buriram
Buriram Town doesn’t really have too much to attract tourists. You really feel though that you are seeing a regular Thai town when you visit here and the locals always seem pleased to see tourists. Although this is the main commercial area in the province it has a very small town feel to the place. Life is quite laid back in Buriram town.
Phanom Rung Historical Park
Phanom Rung (พนมรุ้ง) historical Park is the most famous tourist attraction in the Buriram area. This is a great example of Khmer architecture and it is actually built right on the edge of an inactive volcano. These buildings are dedicated to Hindu deities and it is believed to have been created back in the tenth century – this makes it one of the most interesting of all Thai architectural tourist attractions. This historical park is currently under consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many people travel to Buriram to see this historical park and it is well worth a visit.
Khao Kradong Forest Park
Khao Kradong Forest Park can be found in the Samet sub-district of Buriram. This park also is built upon an extinct volcano. The crater of this volcano is now a lake. Khao Kradong Forest Park is also home to a Buddha footprint as well as the statue that is used as the symbol for Buriram. Khao Kradong is over 250 meters above sea level and the surrounding area is mountainous. The park itself is a nice place to stretch your legs and there is plenty of interesting wildlife and flora.
Prasat Hin Meung Tam
Prasat Hin Meung Tam (ปราสาทหินเมืองต่ำ) is another example of Khmer architecture which like Phanom Rung dates back to the 10th Century. Like the other Khmer buildings in the local area these were also built to honor Hindu goods. You will find Prasat Hin Meung Tam in the Prakhon Chai district of Buriram. As well as the temple you will also see a number of ponds in the area.
What to Do in Buriram
Visit Buriram Bird Park
Buriram Bird Park is about 15 kilometers outside of the city. The type of birds to be found here vary throughout the year as it is an open park where birds come and go as determined by their migration habits. If you enjoy bird watching then this can make a nice day out. The cool season is usually when you will see the most interesting birds in the park.
Visit the Buriram Cultural Centre
If you want to learn more about the local culture and people then you might want to pay a visit to Buriram Cultural Centre. You will be able to explore most of what the center has to offer in a couple of hours or less. You will find the Buriram Cultural Centre inside the Buriram Rajabhat Institute.
A Night on the Town in Buriram
Buriram has some good choice when it comes to nightlife. If you want to spend time with the local ex-pat population then you find a few small bars catering to westerners. If you want to jump right into the Thai nightlife scene you will have a lot more options; if you enjoy Karaoke you will spoilt for choice. A lot of the nightlife in Buriram is based around The Square.
The name Surin is actually a derivation of the name of the Hindu God Lord Indra. The area has been strongly influenced by Khmer culture in the past and it is believed that most of the local population worshiped Hindu Gods – these beliefs were later replaced by Buddhism. These days Surin is famous for elephants and you are sure to get to see some of these animals during your visit.
Where to Go in Surin
Although Surin province is quite densely populated the city feels quite small and sleepy – more like a town. The only exception to this is during November when the famous Elephant Roundup takes place here; then it gets very busy. Visitors will be able to see most of the local sights within a day or two.
Surin Elephant Village
Surin Elephant Village (also called Ban Ta Klang) is a village where the local people have taken care of this animal for centuries – some even keep an elephant in their house. The population of the village is descended from the Suay ethnic group that originally came from Cambodia. The village also contains a museum where you can learn more about the marvelous animal. Elephants were once used extensively in many parts of Thailand for different purposes such as pulling down trees; the Surin Elephant Village is a remnant of this time.
Huai Saneng Reservoir
If you want to spend a relaxing few hours by the water then Huai Saneng Reservoir would be a good place to visit. It is open to the public and many of the local population like to come here for a picnic or for leisure activities. The Princess Mother has a residence here. This is also a good place to visit if you are a birdwatcher. Huai Saneng Reservoir is situated about 5kms outside of Surin City.
Phanom Sawai Forest Park
Phanom Sawai Forest Park contains three mountain peaks as well as a Buddhist temple called Wat Phanom Sawai – this can be found the Chai Mountain and there is a staircase leading up to it. You will also find other Buddhist monuments and a footprint of the Buddha on the nearby mountains. You will find Phanom Sawai Forest Park just over 20kms outside of the city.
Prasat Mueang Thi
Prasat Mueang Thi is a good example of Khmer architecture and can be found 15km outside of Surin. Some of the buildings are little more than ruins but you get a good idea of how it originally might have looked; although it is believed that the buildings were modified over the centuries.
Things to Do in Surin
Watch the Elephant Round Up
The Elephant Round Up takes place near the end of November and is the high point of the year for many in Surin. People visit the city from all over Thailand and beyond. The purpose of this festival is to show how talented elephants are and includes demonstrations of these animals doing activities like playing football. There is also a huge elephant breakfast where they get to eat their fill. There is a real party atmosphere in the town during the event and plenty of shows and other festivities are put on during the week of this event. If you do intend to come to the Elephant Round Up make sure you book your hotel in advance – rooms are usually gone well in advance.
Visit the Local Temples
There are a few temples in the Surin area that may be of interest to visitors. The most famous of these is probably Wat Burapharam where you will find a most revered statue called Luang Phor Phra Chi. This temple was built around the same time as the birth of the city – about two centuries ago. Wat Burapharam also has the prestige of being a Royal Temple.
Buy Some Silk
Surin has a great reputation for producing silk products and you might want to pick up some of these as gifts. Ban Ta Sawang Silk Weaving Village is probably the best destination to go to if you are interested in purchasing this type of item. This village is renowned for its own special type of silk products; they use a technique called Mai Noi to create a distinct design.
A Night on the Town in Surin
Most of the night life in Surin is focused around Soi Kola; here you will find a few restaurants, karaoke bars, discos, as well as a go-go bar. There are a couple of western style bars in the area including the Farang Connection. The nightlife in Surin tends to be a bit tame but you can still have a great time.
Visit Some Khmer Ruins
As well as the Khmer ruins at Prasat Mueang Thi you will also find examples of this architecture elsewhere in the province including the Chom Phra Khmer Ruins and the Yai Ngao Khmer Ruins.
Sri Saket (ศรีสะเกษ) is also called Si Saket (the latter is closer to the pronunciation). This is another Thai province that borders Cambodia and there are more examples of Khmer culture in the area. This is also home to one of the most controversial historical ruins; both Cambodia and Thailand claim to own Preah Vihear Sanctuary. Sri Saket was once an important part of the Khmer empire. About one third of the population of Sri Saket can speak the Khmer language.
Where to Go in Sri Saket
Sri Saket Town
Sri Saket is a sleepy town but there are a few accommodation options; there is also a train station. It is a nice town to walk around but there probably isn’t much to keep the tourist here. There are a few ex-pats living in the town and the surrounding areas; these individuals can be a useful resource for ideas about what to see and do locally.
Preah Vihear Sanctuary
Preah Vihear Sanctuary is either located in Sri Saket Thailand or Kantharalak Cambodia depending on who you ask. Officially though it does seem that Cambodia currently have the honor of claiming ownership; although it is possible to enter the temple from Thailand without a visa but you will have to show your passport. This area contains buildings of huge historical importance; they are older than the temples in Ankor Wat. The ownership of this temple is still under dispute and it can be the cause of bad feeling; it is unlikely though that these tensions will endanger tourists to the area. Preach Vhhear Sanctuary is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Somdet Sri Nakarin Park
Somdet Sri Nakarin Park is a good choice if you enjoy flora and a bit of walking. This park is very scenic with rolling hills and is renowned for its Lamduan trees. There are a couple of streams passing through the park and these join together at the north of Somdet Sri Nakarin. This is a popular spot with local people who like to come here for a picnic.
Wat Pa Maha Jedi Kaeo
Wat Pa Maha Jedi Kaeo is made from bottles donated by the people of Thailand and this makes it unique. The construction is stunning and it is a bit mind blowing to see all those bottles everywhere. If you are visiting Wat Pa Maha Jedi Kaeo make sure that you bring your camera.
Khao Phra Wihan National Park
Khao Phra Wihan National Park is actually shared between Sri Saket and Ubon Ratchathani province. This is a popular tourist destination because it contains a number of noteworthy constructions as well as some stunning vistas. The Don Tuan Khmer ruins can be found in the park (these date back to the 10th Century) and there are also some Buddhist stupas that contain relics that date back from the same period as the ruins. You will also find a waterfall with three levels in the park and a few caves. There are many wild animals such as gibbon and barking deer that call this area home. The park is also covered in evergreen trees.
Things to Do in Sri Saket
Run a Half Marathon
There is a half marathon run each year in Sri Saket; this takes place on the third Sunday of December. If you are in the area around this time and you have your running shoes with you then you might like to join in. Be warned though, this half marathon is particularly challenging because it involves some steep hill climbs. The Sri Saket half marathon passes through some beautiful scenery and finishes at Preah Vihear.
Visit Khmer Ruins
As well as having access to Preah Vihear there are also plenty of other Khmer ruins in the area. Some of the most notable ones worth visiting include Sra Kampaeng Noi Khmer Ruins, Huay Tap Tan Khmer Ruins, and the Sra Kampaeng Yai Khmer Ruins. Sri Saket has some of the best examples of architecture from this period of history and it would take days to visit them all.
A Night on the Town
If you are looking for lots of partying and western bars then you may be disappointed with Sri Saket. The nightlife here is a bit sedate but there are a few good options; including a couple of western bars. If you enjoy mixing it with the Thais then you will have more chance of having a good night. There is a small ex-pat crowd that likes to hang out in a couple of the local bars.
Although this is one of the poorest areas of Thailand there isn’t much crime – it is a very safe place for tourists to visit. Of course there will always be the odd bad guy so it pays to be vigilant with your belongings. It is also important not to get into any confrontations with the locals – causing a loss of face here is a big deal and can quickly escalate to violence. Thai males are generally placid but they can become very aggressive if they feel they have been slighted.
If you do become a victim of crime then you can contact the tourist police by calling 1155. There will be a tourist police presence in all of the big towns. If you have to deal with the local police you will likely need an interpreter if you don’t speak Thai – English is not widely spoken in this part of the world.
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.
If you have any type of medical emergency then you will find that all the big cities have a reasonable hospital service. If you are in a rural area you will likely need to be transferred to a city hospital for anything serious. Government hospitals generally provide a reasonable service, but they have limited resources. This is probably why you should try to get to a good private hospital for anything serious – hopefully you will have travel insurance.
Highlights of Southern Issan
- A trip to Khao Yai National Park – this is probably the most impressive of all the national parks in Thailand.
- A visit to Preah Vihear Sanctuary. This might be technically a Cambodian tourist attraction but you will be able to visit from Sri Saket.
- Exploring the Khmer ruins as Phanom Rung Historical Park in Buriram.
Where to Next?
- Explore the rest of Issan and see what places like Khon Kaen, Udon Thani, and Nong Khai have to offer.
- Cross over the border into Laos from Ubon Ratchathani at Chong Mek
- Visit northern Thailand and get to see how the culture and lifestyle differs from Issan