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Issan (Northeastern Thailand): 5 Amazing Destinations

Issan (Northeastern Thailand): 5 Amazing Destinations

CNN recently named Issan, Thailand's northeastern region, as one of the top world destinations to visit, and for good reason.

Thailand's most rural and remote region is often overlooked by travelers in favor of Bangkok, Chiang Mai, or Phuket, but with a unique and distinct culture, amazing food, and beautiful sites to see, Issan is an unmissable destination when planning a trip to Thailand. Head to Issan in 2018 for a look at old Siam, a land of tradition and history hiding just beyond the popular destinations in Thailand. From ancient Khmer temples and magical lotus seas, to dramatic waterfalls and incredible cultural festivals, don't miss these top five amazing destinations in Issan!

Issan (Northeastern Thailand)

Top 5 Destinations in Issan

Khao Yai National Park, Pak Chong

Thailand's first and most famous National Park is Khao Yai, literally meaning "Big Mountain". From camping, trekking, and night safaris, there is a lot to do and see in Khao Yai. If you are lucky, you might even see some of  the park's famous wildlife; monkeys, deer, and wild elephants roam the kingdom's third-largest national park.

It's best to go to Khao Yai by motorbike or hired car. Admission is 400 baht. There are lots of wonderful accommodations and restaurants in the area, and the cooler hilly region is also perfect for growing grapes, making it one of Thailand's few wine regions. Khao Yai is located near Pak Chong, only about three hours away from Bangkok. The sleepy little town is known as the "Gates of Issan", and is the perfect place to begin your northeastern adventure.

waterfalls and trees in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand

Vassa Candle Festival, Ubon Ratchatani

Ubon, as it's most commonly called, is best known for its annual Candle Festival. This elaborate and beautiful parade and festival held on the day of Kao Pansa, the traditional Buddhist holiday marking the beginning of the "Rains Retreat" or "Buddhist Lent". The exact date can change from year to year, but generally occurs in the early summer months. On this day, t is traditional for the devout to bring offerings and donations to the monks who will stay in their home monasteries for a time of meditation duration the rainy season. Over time, the tradition of offering orange waxy candles has evolved and developed into a beautiful and elaborate affair, with massive and fantastically carved candles depicting traditional Hindu and Buddhist iconography. A parade passes through the city on the way to the temples, where the candles will be displayed and burned. The parade is also a great way to see traditional Thai outfits and performances.

Ubon Ratchathani orange candle festival parade

The Red Lotus Sea, Udon Thani

"Udon", not to be confused with "Ubon", is best visited in the cool season, from about  mid-November through February, when the large lake outside of the town runs low and thousands of beautiful crimson lotus flowers begin to bloom. It is best to visit the Red Lotus Sea in the morning or on an overcast day, when the flowers will be open and at their most impressive. You can hire a private boat for just 300 baht to cruise along the stunning lotus lake. Although popular with Thais, the Red Lotus Sea is still relatively unknown to foreigners, making it an exciting and unforgettable site to see.

red lotus blossoms floating on a Thai lake

Wat Phu Tok, Udon Thani

Wat Phu Tok, the "Temple of Table Mountain", is quite an adventure to get to! Located about an hour from Udon itself, the temple is one of the most unique and memorable in Thailand. Proving once again that the journey, and not the destination, is what counts, you have to climb along rising wooden paths built into the cliff side to reach this mountain top temple. Wat Phu Tok offers not only stunning and dramatic views, but also a quiet and peaceful place for reflection and meditation. It's a quiet temple, and several caves along the mountain serve as meditation rooms for local monks.

wooden bridge path up a red mountain to a temple in Thailand

Phanom Rung Historical Park, Buriram

An outpost of the ancient Khmer Empire (as in: Cambodia's Angkor Wat), Phanom Rung is a sandstone Hindu temple built upon a long-extinct volcano. It's one of the several examples of Angkor-style architecture in Thailand, and one of the best preserved. The central prang of the ruin is one of Issan's most iconic sites, and is best identified as the logo for the popular Buriram United FC. Admission to the historical park is only 40 baht.

ancient Khmer temple in Buriram, Thailand surrounded by a lotus pond

Food and Culture of Issan

Issan is home to a unique language, food, and culture that is distinct from the rest of Thailand. The language is closely related to, and intelligible with Lao (Laotian). The culture, too, is unique. Most famous is the Phi Ta Khon Ghost Festival which has its roots in ancient tradition. Villagers in colorful ghost masks will dress up to celebrate a famous Buddhist story.

blue and gold Issan ghost mask

traditional Issan mask

Issan is the most rural and least developed region in Thailand. The economy is largely tied to rice farming and other agriculture. The region's remoteness may have helped to preserve its unique culture.

Most famous of Issan culture, however, is the food! Well-known Thai dishes such as sticky rice, papaya salad (som tam), and larb (spicy minced pork) all originate in Issan!

Thai spicy shredded papaya salad som tam

papaya salad

Issan food tends to be spicy, and uses lots of fresh vegetables and local ingredients. Many people claim that the region is home to some of the most delicious Thai dishes!

larb moo Thai spicy minced pork salad with green vegetables
Comic #30 - Sardines

Comic #30 - Sardines

VIDEO Celebrating the River Festival at the Temple of the Golden Mount

VIDEO Celebrating the River Festival at the Temple of the Golden Mount