May 26, 2011|
Don’t want to be stuck in a stifling city all holiday season? Head to Isan in Thailand’s north-east and experience a slower pace of life.
The jungle region of Isan is host to Thailand’s oldest temples. Even if you’re not an architecture buff, these old Khmer ruins provide an excuse to venture off the standard Thai tourism track and get lost in rice fields, lose all cell coverage and zip past Isan’s beautifully decorated trucks.
The temples run through Korat (Nakhon Ratchasima) and the provinces bordering Cambodia (from east to west: Ubon Ratchathani, Sisaket, Surin, Buriram). Unfortunately, that means this itinerary takes you from A to B, and doesn’t form a loop. Ideally, we recommend you fly into Ubon Ratchathani. Rent a car, and drive it all the way back to Bangkok. Before leaving, stop by a bookstore and get yourself a good road map of Isan.
To journey through Isan and get the most out of your experience, you will need a car. Thai Rent-A-Car will wait for you at the airport with a little welcome sign, and hand over the car right there and then in the airport’s parking lot—totally hassle free. Alternatively, you can sign up with a tour agency. Many offer Khmer temple tours with drivers and guides.
Ubon is a quiet and charming town. Its crown jewel is the Tung Sri Muang temple’s library. Lunch is highly recommended on the little rafts by the river.
Head to Preah Vihear National Park, which along with Phimai (Korat) and Phanom Rung (Buriram), is one of the top three Khmer temples on the Thai-Khmer temple trail for its sheer size. Its numerous structures and water basins cover four different levels, with the most impressive architecture at its summit. As you may know, Preah Vihear is in a disputed area. To find out if it is open and to sleep over at the park, contact Khao Phra Wihan National Park (045-61-9214) or the Department of National Parks (02-562-0760).
Eat by the railway tracks (that’s true in a lot of these small towns), where you’ll find numerous stalls and some concrete tables. You buy your food at the stalls, sit at the tables. It’s not really self-service because the beer girls will clean the table for you, mix your drinks and then refuse to take a tip.
Only a three hour bus ride away from Ubon, the sleepy town of Khong Jiam is a must-see while you’re in Isan. If you have time, build in a couple nights there and take off when you’re ready one early afternoon. Nestled on the Lao border, it is surrounded by mountainous cliffs overlooking the Mekong, crystal-clear waterfalls and brooks running through fields of wild flowers. Not many Bangkokians have made it to the place (yet) and foreign tourists are pretty rare. When they do arrive, though, they’re going to love it.
You can’t afford to miss the Soi Sawan waterfall. It falls from ledge to ledge from the top of a plateau deep into a creek. You can climb all the way up, where you’ll find one of the region’s most beautiful displays of blossoming flowers. For the keen hikers, a magnificent trail in the Pha Taem National Park starts at the visitor center and runs at the foot of a sheer cliff of layered, multi-colored stone, halfway down to the Mekong. Its walls are painted with prehistoric depictions of animals, humans and simple hand outlines. Pha Taem also features some dramatic rock formations, Sao Chaliang, where giant boulders are perched atop stone columns. (This is one of the rare spots with a restaurant, so grab lunch here.)
Pha Chana Dai is a slightly longer drive from town but worth every effort. It is on one of the most striking views to be had in Isan and the chance to witness where the sun first rises in Thailand. (By the way, the sun first sets in Pha Taem which is slightly less exciting but also a lot less demanding.) On the way, you can stop and wander into the countryside to see more streams and wild flowers on the rocky plateau.
Khong Jiam has two restaurants. The one proudly boasting the late chef/prime minister’s recommendation (yes, we mean Samak’s cooking show) has long been deserted by locals who prefer the next door, Rim Kong. They do good river fish, such as plaa kang pad cha. And even if you stay in a cheap guesthouse, we strongly recommend you try dining at Thosang, which is also by the river and has some very nice local specialties.
There are two temples close to town on your way to Surin: Prasat Wat Sa Kamphaeng Yai and Noi (big and small). Mr. Big’s name is well-deserved as it’s the biggest complex in the province. It’s also surrounded by more recent Buddhist temples so there’s a lot to see. The smaller Kamphaeng temple is the more charming though. It’s on very quiet temple grounds, where monks live in huts, bordering a pond, and is somewhat overrun by vegetation, making it all the more romantic.
About halfway between Amphur Muang Sisaket and Amphur Muang Surin (96km, 90min) is at Prasat Hin Sikhorapum. It features some of the most beautiful sculpted lintels in the region and a couple of its five prang still have complete roofs, mostly thanks to restorations from Laotian invaders in the 15-16th century—hence their hybrid style.
After Surin, you’ll find Prasat Baan Plai, which still has two prang standing but not much carving to show for itself. Nearby is Prasat Baan Phluang, which is almost the opposite: just one edifice but incredibly intricate stonework.
You should be able to time your arrival to catch the sunset at Prasat Hin Phanom Rung. It sits on an extinct volcano, commanding sweeping views of the countryside surrounding it. It’s a big complex, with a long pathway connecting two groups of buildings. The architecture and the carving is superb - thanks, in part, to 17 years of restoration work. This one should definitely make it onto the World Heritage list very soon. 5km from there is Prasat Mueang Tam which is another well-preserved complex with two libraries, an inner enclosure, ponds and an outer enclosure, not to mention more beautiful carved lintels.
Phi Mai (Nakakhon Ratchasima)
It’s roughly another 100km from Nangrong to Phi Mai. This temple is actually in town, which is fun because there’s food and other stuff to check out around it. The temple itself is probably the most charming in Thailand, with its serene Buddha images sitting under prangs with delicately carved lintels and its outer courtyards where tall, majestic trees soar amid the crumbling walls.
If you wish, complete your tour by going through central Isan back to Ubon, through Khon Kaen, Roi Et and Yasothon, or head down to Bangkok and get a bit more Khmer culture at Lopburi on your way back.
If you aren’t ready to leave Isan, travel a little North to Khon Kaen and see two breathtaking temples: Phra That Kham Kaen and Phra Mahathat Kaen Nakhon. The former has an impressive stupor and well maintained grounds will fill you with serenity. The Phra Mahathat Kaen Nakhon is a lot grander. Built in the 80s to celebrate the King’s jubilee and Khon Kaen’s 200th anniversary, its ninth story offers panoramic views of the city.
Another attraction in Khon Kaen is The Bung Kaen Nakhon Lake. It comes to life with a night market offering food, shopping and even some fair-like entertainment. Hungry? While Khao Suan Kwang grilled chicken is made outside of town, it’s an absolute must-try speciality: this special breed of free-range spring chicken is marinated in a special sauce and slowly charcoal grilled.
The Ubonrat Dam is a short drive north from Khon Kaen. It holds back a giant reservoir surrounded by parkland. When you’re feeling peckish, head down to the aptly named Bang Saen 2 area, which is a group of restaurants hovering just above the reservoir’s water on slender bamboo stilts. Nice breeze, perfect view and you can be sure the freshwater fish is fresh.
Who said Isan couldn’t be luxe? Book yourself a swanky retreat by taking out a whole villa (starting from B12,500 / USD414) at Sedhapura. A sister property of Tohsang (below), their views of the river are awesome, thanks to the infinity pools surrounding little loungey islands. In the villas, you’ll find a mezzanine, sunken tub, open-air bathrooms, hardwood furnishings and massive beds.
Tohsang Khong Jiam Resort
Tohsang Khong Jiam Resort is right on the river, offering superb views and very natural surroundings. The rooms (starting from B2,354 / USD78) all have views, too and (see Dining) the F&B—kai krata for breakfast has got to be the best way to start the day. Rooms are clean, simple and cozy.