What to do in Isaan, a hidden gem in northeastern Thailand

On the border of Laos, in the northeastern part of Thailand, lies Isaan, an underrated region that is often overlooked by international travellers. While Isaan is mostly comprised of farmland and lacks any major tourism infrastructure, it’s one of the few places in Thailand that has all of the acclaimed Thai hospitality, food and culture, but none of the hordes of tourists.

If you’ve already checked Buddhist temples and historical sites in central Thailand, lush green mountains in the north and gorgeous islands and beaches in the south off your bucket list, a visit to Isaan is the best way to get off the beaten track and discover the Kingdom’s agricultural roots and natural scenery.

What to Do

Phanom Rung
Image credit: Sam Gao/Flickr

Phnom Rung Historical Park, Buriram

Perched on an extinct volcano, Phnom Rung is probably the the most well-preserved and astonishing set of Khmer ruins in Thailand. Located in Buriram Province in the Isaan region, the Hindu Khmer temple complex is located some 50 kilometres from the Cambodian border, and 35 kilometres away from the nearest town, Nang Rong. While Phanom Rung may not be exactly on the main tourist trail, it is worth venturing into the middle of nowhere as it’s unlike any other temple you’ve seen in Thailand.

This religious sanctuary was built between the 10th and 13th centuries as part of the larger Angkor Empire, and it’s dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva. Featuring an architectural style reminiscent of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the name Phnom Rung comes from the ancient Khmer word for ‘the vast mountain’. One of the most remarkable aspects of Phnom Rung is the main tower’s galley on each of its four sides, with detailed sculptures of Shiva and Vaishnava deities painstakingly etched in the lintels and pediments over the doorways. While you’re there, don’t forget to visit Muang Tam, another ancient site that was once part of a bustling Khmer city, which is only a quick ride southeast from here.

Wat Phu Tok
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Wat Phu Tok

With a series of wooden staircases and walkways built in, on and around a giant sandstone outcrop, Wat Phu Thok is one of the most compelling wonders of the Isaan region. Located some 150km east of Nong Khai, the extraordinary hilltop retreat can be seen from miles around. Wat Phu Tok consists of seven levels, which symbolises Buddhism’s seven levels of spiritual enlightenment.

There are six wooden stages, and the final stage involves scrambling up the rocks, climbing through tree roots, some undergrowth and mud to reach the reasonably flat summit. While getting to the seventh level may sound daunting, ‘the stairway to heaven’ offers spectacular views over the Isaan plains as you ascend; most people stop at levels five or six to enjoy great views of the mountains and surrounding countryside. To avoid long commutes, the best way to get there is to stay in Bueng Kan the night before and then hire a driver to get you to Wat Phu Tok and back.

Haew Suwat waterfall
Image credit: Tanatat pongpibool/ Flickr

Khao Yai National Park

The first national park in Thailand and now the third largest park in the country, Khao Yai National Park hosts an incredible array of wildlife and more than 40 waterfalls, including the jaw-dropping Haew Narok and Haew Suwat, where Leonardo DiCaprio took a leap during the filming of The Beach. There are wonderful wildlife spotting opportunities in the park: most commonly wild elephants and more than 300 species of birds. As for other endangered species, include the Siamese crocodile and spot-billed pelican, as well as elusive animals such as leopards and tigers, you’ll need a bit of luck and patience — and probably a knowledgeable local guide to help you find them.

Khao Yai is best explored by car or motorbike; all of the trails, waterfalls and main attractions can be easily accessed from the park’s well-maintained paths. If you’re looking for the perfect spot to sit back and overlook the gorgeous mountain view, head over to the Pao Deo Die cliffs to enjoy an uninterrupted view of the Khao Yai National Park. The best season to visit is during the cooler months from November to February, as the waterfalls dry up and the forest wilts during the hot season.

red lotus sea thailand
Image credit: georgios kaleadis/Flickr

Red Lotus Sea

Roughly 45km southeast of Udon Thani, the Red Lotus Sea is one of Isaan’s most scenic attractions. A vast yet rather normal lake at most times throughout the year, the Red Lotus Sea transforms into a magical natural wonder with millions of pink lotus flowers reaching full blossom and spreading across the water like a blanket during the cooler months, from November to late February.

The lake’s full picturesque beauty isn’t immediately apparent from land — unless you look through an excellent pair of binoculars. The best way to enjoy the fairytale-like splendour is with a boat ride across the lake. The main access point is from a pier in Ban Diem, where boat trips can be arranged with ease. If you want to get the full lotus experience (and beat the crowd), the best time to visit is between 6am and 10am, when the lotus flowers are in full bloom.

Where to Stay

gecko villa

Gecko Villa

Looking for an authentic experience of Isaan countryside, set in tropical tranquility? Nestled in the jungle landscapes of Udon Thani, Gecko Villa is a secluded abode that overlooks the surrounding pastures, woodlands and rice paddies. The spacious standalone villa features tastefully furnished, Thai-style interiors and fine wood furnishings, with a large swimming pool where you can linger under the sun in complete privacy and savour the forgotten rhythms of country life.

Gecko Villa is also one of the few villas in Thailand that offers full-board accommodation, with fresh, delicious Thai meals prepared by a host family living in a nearby village. One special feature of the villa is the opportunity to connect with the local community. For those who’re interested in the Siamese culture, the host family is your guide to the area surrounded by temples, rice fields and farms, traditional Thai cooking, local festivals and neighbouring villages.

Gecko Villa, 126 Moo 13, Um Chan Prachak Sinlaphakhom, Udon Thani, Thailand, +6681 918 0500

Hero image credit: nok6716/iStock; feature image credit: georgios kaleadis/Flickr