Welcome to North Issan (Udon Thani, Nong Khai, Loei)
This is my North 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.
For many visitors to Thailand the only part of the country they will see will be the islands and beaches. This is a real shame because there are just so many wonderful things to see elsewhere in the country. Issan (อีสาน) refers to northeast Thailand. It is a large area covering 20 provinces (an additional province was created in 2010); each with their own unique local traditions and culture. Issan shares a border with Cambodia and Laos and the influence of both of these countries can be seen in this region.
You will see Issan spelt in a number of ways including; Isarn, Isan, Isaan, and Esan. For the sake of simplicity we will just stick to Issan as this seems to be the most commonly used name (although Isaan is probably closer to the Thai text).
North Issan has so much to offer the tourist. Many people travel through here on their way to Laos. The Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge in Nong Khai is the most popular crossings between the two countries. North Issan has a lot more to offer that just a border crossing though, and some time spent traveling the area will be well rewarded. This part of Thailand does not see that many tourists; this means you can usually expect a genuinely warm welcome.
Language of North Issan
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 North 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.
How to Get to North Issan
Udon Thani International Airport
It is possible to fly into Udon Thani airport from Bangkok, Phuket, Chiang Mai, and Loei. There is also an international flight to Luang Prabang in Laos. This is a small airport but it is used by a reasonable number of passengers; the fact that it is often possible to pick up cheap flights makes it a popular choice. Many people who intend to travel to Laos across the Friendship Bridge at Nong Khai will find that it makes sense to fly to Udon Thani airport and then take a minibus direct to the bridge.
Loei airport is small and up until recently there were three flights a week from Bangkok. This service is not running at present but may start up again in the future. The nearest airport to Loei is Udon Thani airport; Phitsanulok airport is also another possibility.
Udon Thani and Nong Khai both have train stations. This railway line goes to Bangkok. This means that if you are coming from northern Thailand you will need to travel all the way down to near Bangkok before you can change to this line. For this reason it is not a good idea to travel all the way from somewhere like Chiang Mai to north Issan by rail unless you have plenty of time to spare. There is no train station in Loei.
The normal government run bus service provides a full service to almost every town in North Issan. Some of these are more comfortable than others but this is a cheap way to see the country. There are five types of government bus with the rot air (air-conditioned bus) being the most expensive. If you are only traveling a short distance, or traveling during the cool season, then you might like to use the great value for money rot thamaadaa (ordinary bus). You will find a bus station near the center of every town. You will also find private buses in places like Nong Khai and Udon Thani; there is no real advantage to using them over the government buses.
How to Get Around in North Issan
It is possible to rent a motorbike or car in the big cities and tourist areas in North Issan. The bus service is comprehensive and will get you to most places you will want to go. You will also find tuk-tuk drivers available in most of urban areas as well as normal taxis. It is a good idea if you have the address of the places you want to go written in Thai script. Many people in this part of the world cannot read Romanized script. You should be able to get help with getting addresses in Thai script in places like hotels and guest houses. Most reputable guide books will also have place names written in Thai script as well as Romanized script.
Udon Thani (อุดรธานี) is the largest city in north Issan. During the Vietnam War it was the home of a large United States airbase; a significant number of visitors to the area once were stationed at this base. There is now a sizable ex-pat population living locally and there are a number of bars and restaurants aimed at the western visitor. Udon Thani may not see as many tourists as other areas of Thailand but those who do come tend to be repeat visitors. It also receives a lot of tourists who stop here on their way to the Thai-Laos border at nearby Nong Khai. This means there are plenty of good Udon Thani hotels to choose from when you come to visit.
Where to Go in Udon Thani
Phu Phrabat National Park
Phu Phrabat National Park (ภูพระบาทบัวบก) is in Udon Thani province and situated about 60km north-west of the city. Most of the visitors to the park are Thais and only a small number of foreign tourists get to experience this beautiful location. It is possible to see a lot of the park in half a day; to get the most from a visit is also worthwhile having a guide. As well as having some stunning natural features the park is also home to many archeological sites; some of the structures are well over a thousand years old.
Ban Chiang is a site of great historical importance for Thailand. Here there is a prehistoric settlement going back well over 5,600 years. In this area there has been evidence found that tells the story of the people who have lived in Ban Chiang since this time. It is fascinating to see how the people of Thailand once lived – long before the country even existed as a nation. You will find a museum at Ban Chiang where you can view many artifacts from the distance past.
Ban Nakha is a good place to visit if you are interested in traditional crafts. In Thailand it is fairly common for one area to focus on producing one item; this is known as ‘one tambon, one product’ (tambon (ตำบล) in Thai means district). This village focuses on making cotton and silk items; you are sure to find something nice to take home with you. This village sees a lot of visitors; mostly Thais who drop by as part of a tour. It is a nice place to go to get a taste of village life and pick up a bargain.
Nam Som National Park (Na Yung)
Nam Som National Park is about 110km from Udon Thai city in Amphoe Na Yung. The park is full of trails that will take you through some spectacular scenery. You will also find a couple of waterfalls and some high viewpoints for where you can take impressive photos. The highest spot is about 1,500 meters.
Things to Do in Udon Thani
A Night on the Town
In the center of Udon Thani you will find a number of bars and restaurants that cater to tourists – some of these are managed by ex-pats. There are also a couple of go-go bars and nightclubs. If you want to enjoy a traditional Thai night out you will find plenty of karaoke bars for this. Many of the ex-pat bars sell western food along with Thai dishes. You can also find bars in the larger Udon Thani hotels.
If you enjoy relaxing with a rod in your hand then you might want to visit Sabai Sabai Fishing Park. This is nothing too fancy but you are sure to catch something. There is also a restaurant and bar area if you are in need of refreshment.
Visit Udon Thani City Museum
If you want to find out more about the local culture then the obvious destination is Udon Thani City Museum. The building itself is quite photogenic and you should have a better idea about the history of the area after you have viewed the exhibitions.
Visit the Night Markets
There are a few night markets in Udon Thani that are well worth a visit. The one right beside the train station is about the busiest. You will also find different markets that are open during the day time as well. These are always a great place to go if you are looking for cheap gifts or want to stock up on provisions. Even if you don’t want to purchase anything it is still nice to walk around a market and see this important aspect of Thai life.
Off the Beaten Track in Udon Thani
Nong Prajak Silpakom
Nong Prajak Silpakom is a reservoir right in the heart of Udon Thani. This is a great place to go if you are missing the beach; although you will be disappointed if you turn up in your bathing suit. It is a nice place to walk though and there are a few places to eat right beside the water.
Most visitors arriving in Nong Khai (หนองคาย) intend to cross over into Laos across the Friendship Bridge. A lot of people don’t bother spending any type in Nong Khai and this is a bit of a shame. There is a lot to see here and it is worth staying for at least a day or two. The city is right on the banks of the Mekong and there is some stunning scenery nearby. This part of Thailand once belonged to Vientiane in Laos and it has been influenced by many cultures; you can even find French style buildings in the city.
Places to Go in Nong Khai
Sala Kaew Ku
Sala Kaew Ku (ศาลาแก้วกู่) is a strange place and full of different statues that have been influenced by both Buddhism and Hinduism. The concrete monuments were constructed during the seventies and they are spread out around the park. Some of the statues are huge and there are some great photo opportunities here. The park also contains the remains of creator of the park; Bunleua Sulilat was considered something of a cult figure during his life and many Thais still have a lot of respect for him. There is also a similar park that was created by Sulilat found on the Laos side of the border. Most people agree that the park on the Thai side is the most interesting.
Jom Jang is about 20kms east of the city and is a small village on the banks of the Mekong. If you arrive here during the cool season then you will be able to see some beautiful sun flowers in bloom. This village has become quite famous in Thailand for being a good example of how a community can come together to improve their circumstances. There are many small businesses that sell different local products. If you have never experienced life in a Thai village then this would be a good choice.
Si Chiang Mai
Si Chiang Mai (ศรีเชียงใหม่) is an interesting town in Nong Khai province. It shares a name with the more famous city in northern Thailand. This town is near the banks of the Mekong and so you can expect some stunning beauty. A good way to explore this area is to rent a bicycle from one of the guest houses. There are a few temples to explore in the nearby area but mostly you are just alone with peaceful nature.
Things to Do in Nong Khai
Enjoy the River Mekong
The Mekong is one of the most impressive rivers in the world and you can get to experience it during a stay in Nong Khai. During the first half of the year there is a beach area right beside the river; this disappears during the rainy season. There are a few activities available on the Mekong but most people just prefer to watch it flow past. If you have the time then a sunset cruise is certainly something that most people will enjoy. There is a nice promenade along the river which is ideal for walking or jogging. You will also find restaurants that are right on the banks of the river.
If you are looking for traditional crafts then you will find plenty to please in Nong Khai. The fact that it is a border area means that there are plenty of items that you wouldn’t normally find in your average Thai town. If you plan on going on into Laos you may want to stock up on a few items like toiletries because there is not as much of a selection available across the border.
Enjoy Vietnamese Food
There is a fairly large Vietnamese population in Nong Khai and this means that there are also a number of Vietnamese restaurants. If you want a break from Thai food then this would be a good choice.
See the City from the Back of a Bike
Many of the guesthouses rent bicycles and this can be a nice way to see the city. Just be careful though because the traffic can get chaotic. It is also advisable that you take along a stick because dog bites are a hazard of riding a bike in Nong Khai.
Visit the Local Temples
There are some stunning temples in Nong Khai. The local population is made up of people from Chinese, Laotian, and Vietnamese culture and this can be seen in the local temple architecture. Sala Jao Phu Ya is a fine example of a Chinese temple and you can find this near the covered market. Wat Pho Chai is the most revered temple in the area as this is the home of an important Buddha statue. There is a fascinating story associated with this temple and you will get to hear it if you visit.
Visit Nong Khai Museum
If you want to find out more about the local culture then you will gain a lot of insight by visiting Nong Khai museum. Here you will find many artifacts that explain the story behind local customs and culture.
Go See the Naga Fire Balls
Naga fire balls or Bangfai Payanak (บั้งไฟพญานาค) appear on the Mekong in October each year. This spectacular sight of fireballs rising into the night sky over the river is something that those who see it never forget. Nobody is quite sure what causes this phenomenon to occur and they are also known as ghost balls. The mystery of the Naga fire balls is what makes it so exciting and there is no real interest in determining the real cause. People travel from all over Thailand to see these egg-shaped balls of fire and if you are in Nong Khai at this time of year you certainly won’t want to miss it.
Off the Beaten Track in Nong Khai
Bueng Kan (บึงกาฬ) is the newest province in Thailand. Up until last year it was part of Nong Khai. Many Thai people are visiting this province just for the novelty of it, but there are a few things worth seeing there as well. The biggest tourist attraction is Phu Wua wildlife sanctuary. This is right on the banks of the Mekong and visitors get to see an impressive selection of wildlife and fauna.
Tha Bo is a market town it the middle of very rural area. It is on the border between Nong Khai and Loei. There is not much choice here in regard to accommodation but you will find a couple of guest houses. The market here sells a lot of local products, but the main attraction for the visitor is probably the fact that it is so remote.
Going Across the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge
If you intend to cross the Thai-Laos friendship bridge and enter Laos you will need to go through immigration for both countries. It is possible to get a visa on arrival for Laos but it is faster if you get this before you reach the border. If you get a tuk-tuk to the border the driver will likely try to drop you off at a travel agent. These people will then try to charge you for assistance that you don’t really need. It is true that using an agent can make the process a bit easier and possibly faster, but it is not required. If you don’t want such a service then you should just smile and refuse to get out of the tuk-tuk and visit the shop.
The procedure for actually crossing into Laos is fairly straight forward. The easiest part is leaving Thailand; you just queue up and Thai immigration will stamp you out. You then get on a bus and you will be taken across the bridge to the Laos side. If you haven’t already got a visa for Laos you will need to fill out a form and queue up to get one; this is where the delay can happen. The cost of this visa can vary depending on your nationality, but it is around $35 for most. If you arrive late in the day there can be a long queue for this visa and you may have to put up with a couple of hours wait – or even more. Once you have your visa you can then go on into Laos. There are plenty of taxis and other vehicles that can take you to Vientiane.
Loei city does not attract too many tourists, but there are a few interesting things to see here. Most of those visiting Loei will skip the city altogether and go to a small town called Chiang Khan (เชียงคาน) which is right on the banks of the Mekong. The name Loei (เลย) also means ‘extremely’ in Thai and this is a word that is used a lot in everyday speech. For this reason many people like to have fun with the word; if you say “pai loei” it can either mean “go to Loei” or “go away”. This means you need to be careful when telling the bus driver where you want to go if you are traveling to this province.
Places to Go in Loei
There isn’t a great deal of accommodation options in the city but there are a few nice places that are reasonably priced. If you are looking for night entertainment you will find plenty of karaoke bars but there is not much dedicated to the tourist. There are a few nice temples that are worth visiting if you happen to be nearby. You will also find a large market where you may pick up a few bargains.
Chiang Khan is right on the river Mekong directly across from Laos. It has become a popular backpacker destination and many ex-pats from nearby provinces visit here because it has a friendly immigration office. There is a border crossing here into Laos but this is normally not open to foreigners; although there are constant rumors of this changing. When the river is low it is possible to walk right across from one country to the other but this is not recommended for immigration purposes.
There are many cheap guest houses in the town and most of these are right on the banks of the river. It is a beautiful location and the sort of place where people go just to chill out; there is not really a lot to do here. This is nowhere near as popular as other backpacker haunts like Pai or Koh Phangan, but this is one of the nice things about it. Most first time visitors to the area are surprised that it is not better known; it is like a hidden jewel.
It is easy to see the Laos influence in Chiang Khan; it wasn’t really until the French captured Laos that people thought much about a border. The temples in Chiang Khan are in a Laos style and there are many within walking distance of the guest houses. There is also a small market nearer the center of the town.
Phu Kradueng National Park
Phu Kradueng National Park is a mountainous area in Loei that attracts many Thai visitors each year. Many people who come here will stay the night; although the only real accommodation option is staying in a tent – you don’t have to bring one as there is a ready made town of tents and you can just rent one. There are also plenty of stalls selling food. There are plenty of trails on the mountain for you to explore and the local scenery is spectacular. You will also get to pass some attractive waterfalls on the way up the mountain.
Dan Sai (ด่านซ้าย) is another district in Loei that is worth visiting if you are nearby. The Phu Luang wildlife sanctuary is here and so is the Phu Hin Rong Kla National Park. The town of Dan Sai is a sleepy place, but it is quite attractive and the locals here are always pleased to see tourists.
Off the Beaten Track in Loei
Phu Foi Lom
Phu Foi Lom is in-between Loei and Udon Thani. This is a small park that will appeal to nature lovers. It is part of the Phan Noi mountain area.
Emergencies in North Issan
Crimes against tourists are quite rare in Issan. The only exception to this seems to be the border town of Nong Khai where a small number of tourists have been mugged in the past. These crimes though are the exception rather than the rule and you should be able to avoid most of them if you take sensible precautions. Always maintain alertness to the possibility of crime; especially when it is late at night and there are few people around.
If you find yourself a victim of crime then you are advised to deal with the tourist police. You can contact them from anywhere in north Issan by phoning 1155. Most police officers in this part of the world will have limited English. You will find a tourist police presence in all the main towns and cities in north Issan.
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 in North Issan
- Hike up the impressive Phu Kradueng and discover why this mountain is such a popular tourist destination for the people of Thailand.
- Visit Nong Khai during October and get to see the mysterious Naga fire balls. A night spent watching these float above the Mekong may open your mind to the possibility of magic.
- Spending a day or two in Chiang Khan; a jewel of a town that has yet to appear on many tourists’ radar. Here you will get to relax beside the River Mekong.
Where to Next?
- Many visitors to north Issan will continue on into Laos. This country is not as developed as Thailand but there is a lot to see. The capital Vientiane is just across the border from Nong Khai and Luang Prabang in the north of the country is not to be missed.
- Travel to southern Issan and see how this area has been influenced by Khmer culture. There is a noticeable difference between north and south Issan.
- Travel into central Thailand and visit Phitsanulok and the old capital at Sukhothai.