A Week in Isaan – Northeastern Thailand

The Northeastern part of Thailand, Isaan, is the least visited area in Thailand by tourists. In fact, only about 1% make it here. It also happens to be one of the only areas of the country that after 3 years here, we had yet to explore. Because there are so few tourists here, this is supposed to be one of the most local parts of Thailand (i.e., there are fewer people who speak English and therefore it’s a little harder for foreigners to get around). Personally, one of my (many) favorite things about traveling around Thailand is how easy the Thais make it for foreigners to do so. So the thought of taking that factor out of the equation made me a little nervous. But, Isaan also happens to be home to our absolute favorite Thai cuisine, and if you know Dave and me, you know we’re willing to go to great lengths for our favorite food.

Isaan food is not a cuisine that most Westerners think of when they think of Thai food. It’s all about grilled meats (e.g., chicke, pork neck, intestines) and spicy meat salads over rice (e.g.,  minced pork, chopped liver, minced catfish).  Not the familiar curries and noodle dishes that you likely think of. Isaan food is very popular and very prevalent all over Bangkok, and many of the dishes have become our favorites. So, we had to make it to the area serving up our favorite cuisine to see how it compares to the Bangkok versions.

Isaan is a huge area of the country and we chose our itinerary because there’s a popular mountain that we wanted to climb called Phu Kradueng.  The mountain is basically like an inverted Grand Canyon (i.e., a 4-5 hour hike to the top but then a huge, relatively flat top with over 50 km of hiking trails and waterfalls where you can literally bike around via bicycle or even motorbike).  Thailand has talked about building a cable car to the top for years, but as of now, the only way up is to hike.  We had about 6 days for our midterm break and created our itinerary around an overnight trip to this mountain.

Khon Kaen:

We originally were planning to fly into Loei, which is the jumping off point for Phu Kradueng, however, we decided to fly into Khon Kaen instead (just an extra hour away) after reading about a restaurant there that according to the Lonely Planet has the best gai yang (grilled chicken) and som tam (papaya salad) in Thaialnd. This is probably our favorite lunchtime meal and we have a chicken lady on the corner of our block who we think makes the best gai yang in the world. So, we had to see if there was someone out there doing it better. Khon Kaen is also home to Thailand’s 2nd largest university, so we thought it would be a fun town to start our Isaan tour in for a few hours before making our way to Phu Kradueng.

We arrived at the Khon Kaen airport at 8am (it’s an hour-long flight from Bangkok) and took a taxi to Bueng Kaen Nakhon lake to see Wat Nong Wang temple, supposedly the all-star attraction in Khaon Kaen. It was raining a little bit when we got in, however, luckily the rain stopped just as we arrived at the lake. We had all of our bags with us, so unfortunately we couldn’t do too much exploring, but it was nice to walk around for an hour or so. Strangely, all over town we were seeing dinosaur statues and we learned that this is because Khon Kaen is home to Thailand’s first dinosaur museum. For a while though, we thought they had some secret hiding out in the lake!

Finally, it was time to head to Gai Yang Rabaeb for lunch. It was close to the bus station where we’d be leaving from so the location was perfect. When you walk up to the restaurant, you see three big grills outside with chickens cooking. The size of the chickens looked a little underwhelming, but we’d heard the taste was anything but. The restaurant’s name is only in Thai on the outside, but they did have an English menu (not that we needed it – we’re experts at ordering our favorite Isaan meals!). We got our usual – a gai yang and a som tam. The chicken was very good. The biggest difference we noticed from our usual chicken was that this one came with more of the body parts, including the neck and feet. The Thais (and most people in the Asian countries we’ve traveled to) love chicken feet, but that’s one thing we never quite understood or got used to). Anyway, the chicken was very good but we still prefer our corner chicken lady in Bangkok, mainly because you get more meat for your baht.  But the real star was the som tam. It was probably the best we’ve ever had. So, the trip to Khon Kaen for lunch was definitely worth it, but now we’ll have to go back and tell our chicken lady that she’s doing it just as good as one of the best places in the country!

Phu Kradueng:

We did a little more exploring after lunch and then got on the 2-hour bus ride to Phu Kradueng. The hike up Phu Kradueng is supposed to take 4-6 hours. At the top, in addition to the aforementioned hiking trails and waterfalls, there’s also a huge camping area with dozens of local restaurants. We wanted to get an early start so that we still had time for hiking in the afternoon and then could make our way down first thing the next morning. So, we wanted to stay around the mountain the night before. Unlike some of the other national parks we’ve been to (Khao Yai, for instance), the area around Phu Kradueng is nothing special. We knew that we could stay in a bungalow at the bottom of the mountain, but we wanted to stay somewhere we could leave our stuff (namely our computers) so we didn’t have to bring it up the next day with us, even though you can hire a porter to carry your bags for 30 baht ($1) per kilogram. We found maybe the only guest house on the highway leading up to the national park (Phu Kradueng Guest House) and had dinner at the only Isaan restaurant we could find.

In the morning, we found a songtaew to take us the few kilometers to the mountain (the only way to really get there from the town). We paid the child price (200 baht pp) for our ticket, which is the new deal that many people have been making us when we tell them we don’t want to pay the foreigner price (typically 10 times the Thai price) to visit a park or attraction that we feel we’ve contributed our taxes toward, and we started hiking.

The hike up was nice but very, very muddy. Mid-October is the end of the rainy season and it had poured the night before. Getting to the top only took us three hours, but there were parts that were tough, and made tougher by the muddy conditions. The first 30 minutes and the last hour or so were pretty hard, but nothing we couldn’t handle. All along the way, there were rest stops with food stands set up. The Thais never like to go too long without eating, same as me.

Once you get to the top, it’s still a 3.5km walk along the flat plateau until you reach the Visitor’s Center and camping area. It was very foggy and a little rainy when we got up there, but I had hopes that it would clear up later in the day, in time for our hikes.

All of the national parks we’ve been to in Thailand rent tents and camping equipment (sleeping bags, pillows, blankets, etc.), which is really nice. At Phu Kradueng, not only do they rent all of this (for about 400 baht for everything for the night), the tents are already all set up for you, which was a real treat. Also unlike the other national parks we’ve been to, this one has tons of restaurants on the top. So, before getting settled into our tent for the night, we had a nice lunch of tom ka gai (coconut chicken soup) and congee/jok (rice porridge with minced pork and a fried egg on top).  Both were delish and just what the doctor ordered after a hike through the mud and rain.

By 2pm or so, we were ready to start exploring the plateau that is Phu Kradueng. There are two main things to see up there. The first is waterfalls and the second is cliffs. We decided on a 10km hike that combined the two. We started with the waterfalls. Most of the waterfalls we’ve seen in Thailand have been during the dry season, meaning they’re all dried up and not much of waterfalls at all. We were excited to finally see some waterfalls during the wet season, however, what we didn’t realize was that this also meant the trails would be extremely wet and muddy….and covered in leeches.

Neither Dave nor I had ever even seen a leech before this hike, but about half way through the waterfall circuit, we started to notice these black, worm-looking creatures crawling into our shoes and socks. They were trying to squirm their way in to get to our skin. First I saw one leech in my sock, then another and I picked them out with my hands, but then when there were about 10 crawling on me at once, that’s when I really lost it. We’d been taking our time through the trail, partially to enjoy the waterfalls and partially because there were huge puddles that we had to maneuver around, but after the leeches started coming, we pretty much ran through as fast as we could.

For the rest of the day and night I was really freaked out (someone telling me that they woke up at night with a leech in their ear didn’t help things either), but we still wanted to see the cliffs and the views. The first trail we tried was too muddy but then we finally got to the second one and were able to get a glimpse of the view below. We’d wished we had just stuck to the cliff trails, as they were a little drier and out of the jungle, but we think the leeches would have found us no matter what. You can also rent bikes to get around the trails but we thought it was way too muddy and wet for this.

By the time we got back to our tent, it was getting dark and we had to spend some time checking all of our clothes for leeches. We made the mistake of leaving our shoes outside while doing this (we thought the leeches were actually living in our shoes by this point) and when we came out, Dave’s shoes were covered in them. After de-leeching, we went back to the restaurant area for dinner and found him a new pair of rubber shoes for Dave, the same ones that all the porters wear. We had to throw his sneakers away but he brought an old pair anyways so it wasn’t a big deal.

We ended up having a good Thai meal, which made us feel a little better, and then one of the highlights of the day, we were visited at dinner by three huge deer that came up close enough that we could touch them!

I can’t say I had the best sleep that night (I was too scared of leeches crawling into my ears), but we got up at 5am to go on a free guided tour to another one of the cliffs for the sunrise view. This was really nice. When we got back from this, we packed up our stuff, went back to the first cliff we’d seen the previous day for one more view (guided by our new friend, a dog that we called som tam, who led us around pretty much the whole morning), and then headed down the very muddy mountain.

Phu Kradueng is known by the Thais as the break-up mountain. Meaning, couples go up together and they come down alone. I thought that this was because the hike was harder than most girls could handle, but I saw that there were many more challenges along the way as well. Despite the mud and the leeches, Phu Kradueng was a really cool place and somewhere I’d recommend visiting, with a caveat to STAY AWAY during the rainy season. Never again will I hike during this time of year in Thailand. Luckily though, Dave helped me all along the way, through the puddles, through the leeches (though he did tell me to stop my crying a couple times!) so it didn’t turn into the dreaded “break-up” mountain for us, like it does for so many other couples.

Loei:

When we got down to the town, we picked up our bags from our guest house, and almost immediately caught a bus to our next destination, Loei. Despite the description in our Lonely Planet, which describes Loei pretty much as a place no foreigner needs to visit, we decided to stay for the night. We treated ourselves to a nice hotel (for a mere $20), cleaned up, checked our clothes once more for leeches, caught up on email, and found a nice Isaan restaurant for dinner. We agree with our book that there wasn’t much to this town, but we had a relaxing night in a nice hotel and a good meal, which was just what the doctor ordered.

Chiang Khan:

The next day (around lunchtime, after we caught up on email and Dave watched Game 1 of the Cubs’ NLDS) we hit the road to Chiang Khan, a town located along the Mekong River. We took a songtaew here from the Loei bus station, which took about an hour, and as soon as we arrived, we found ourselves in an adorable riverside town, that reminded us a little bit of Kanchanaburi or even Pai. There were guesthouses all along the river, and cute souvenir shops and restaurants all along the road right behind the river. This was our kind of place!

In addition to checking out the very cute town and eating a fish at a restaurant on the river, the other thing to do here is visit Kaeng Kut Khu, another very cute area about 5km from Chiang Khan, with lots of souvenir and snack shops. We rented bikes in town (50 baht per day) and rode the 5km to see the very pretty scenery and take a boat ride on the river.

When we rode back to Chiang Khan, there was a huge street fair going on. We assume that this happens every weekend, but again, it reminded us of the night market in Pai a little bit, though a little less hippy-ish and a little more Thai. We’d made it back just in time to enjoy the sunset on the Mekong River and then spent the night walking around the night market and ended up at a restaurant on the river that a man we’d met earlier in the day had recommended to us (Sripan on Soi 13). We got a whole fried fish with veggies and fried rice.

Nong Khai:

The next leg of our Isaan tour was to Udon Thani and Nong Khai. There’s supposed to be a very pretty route along the river (highway 211), however, from everything we’d read there were no direct routes to Nong Khai from Chiang Khan that way. There were a couple options to get there, however, they weren’t 100% guaranteed and would end up taking us longer. We didn’t feel like worrying about it, so instead, we decided to go back to Loei to take a bus to Udon Thani and then Nong Khai from there. This seemed like the safer bet to us, so in the morning, after Dave watched the Cubs again we set off on our long day of travelling to Nong Khai.

After being so pleasantly surprised by Chiang Khan, we had high hopes for Nong Khai. We read that this town, which is where many tourists stop on their way over the “Thai/Laos Friendship Bridge” into Laos, is supposed to have one of the only real backpacker scenes in this part of Isaan. We got in a little on the late side, so we found a guest house on the river as quickly as possible so we could start exploring, however, we were quite disappointed by what we found. Not only was there not really any backpacker scene that we could see, there really wasn’t much of a night time scene at all. There were some restaurants along the river, but for the most part the town was pretty dead. There’s an area about 2km from the main part of town that’s supposed to have some fun bars and restaurants, but we got in and settled a little too late to be able to check that out, so maybe we were just trying to find the scene in the wrong spot. Either way, we were pretty forgiving about the scene we experienced after we had one of our best meals of the trip, another whole fish (this one grilled rather than fried) right on the river.

The next morning Dave woke me up at about 4:30am to watch the Bears game (this was a week full of sports!). As soon as that was over, we went for a walk through the Sadet market in the middle of town, which is a very big covered market, and over the 2 km to what was supposed to be the cute bar/restaurant area. Of course, at 10am this area was dead, but we did see some of the bars and restaurants and wondered what they’d been like the night before. Then we had another of our best meals of the trip at Saaplah, for another gai yang (grilled chicken) and som tam (papaya salad), plus some other meats on the side (koor moo yang – grilled pork neck, and sai yang – intestines).

Udon Thani:

While the scene in Nong Khai was disappointing, luckily the food was anything but. And as you know, that’s pretty much all we need to keep us happy. We hopped on a minivan for the hour-long ride to Udon Thani, our final stop on our Isaan tour, and when we arrived, we were very happy to be back in a “big city” with a big mall, western restaurants, etc. We found ourselves a nice place to stay for our last night (UD Residence), settled in, and then headed out again to check out Udon Thani’s three markets, all located next to each other around the train station.

In the few hours we spent in Udon Thani, it seemed like a pretty nice city. The markets were good, there was a lot of food options, and we had even planned on maybe seeing a movie at the mall. After a couple hours of walking around the markets, however, we realized how tired we were and how much we were in need of a western meal and a relaxing night. So, we picked up a bottle of wine and a pizza and went back to enjoy our last night in our nice guest house. We watched round 2 of the debates, and I was sleeping by 9pm!

All in all, it was a great trip. As I mentioned in the beginning of the post, I’d been nervous that Isaan would be hard for us to get around, but I had been completely wrong. Just like everywhere else in Thailand, the people were nice, the food was great, it was very easy for us to get everywhere we wanted to go, and it was one of our cheapest trips in Thailand to date. We really enjoyed our time in Isaan, but now (as always), we’re ready to get back home to Bangkok!

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