The best way to experience Issan is by road. The region is the least developed in Thailand and although cities like Ubon Ratchathani, Khon Kaen and Udon Thani are rapidly developing, the vast majority of Issan comprises swathes of arable land and misty mountain ranges intercepted by roads of varying standards that connect the many small villages. Public transport is surprisingly effective, extensive and affordable, but to really get up close and personal with these roads less travelled, rent a vehicle and go explore on your own.
"Public transport is surprisingly effective, extensive and affordable, but to really get up close and personal with these roads less travelled, rent a vehicle and go explore on your own.."
A good place to start is in Ubon Ratchathani. The city, in the easternmost part of Thailand close to the border with Laos, is anything but a backwater – except perhaps in conventional tourism terms – and visitors will perhaps be surprised to see hip cafés and stylish boutiques next to traditional wet markets and modest street kitchens.
Ever since a group of Lao princes fled Vientiane and was given royal protection by King Taksin in Ubon, the city has been a place of convergence for various peoples and nationalities, most notably Laotians, but also Chinese and Vietnamese. The diversity is first and foremost felt in the local dishes, which are a mix of pungent salads, spicy soups and fresh spring rolls. A good place to sample the food on offer is Talat Ha (market five).
"Maybe you won't find that rare piece of jewellery or an ancient Buddhist relic, but you'll no doubt be amused and entertained by the local colour."
Drive north along the border to Mukdahan, a small trading town on the banks of the Mekong River. The province is home to a number of ethnic minorities as well as sizeable groups of people from Laos and Vietnam, but it is the drive into town that is the most compelling reason to visit as it takes you along winding roads through lush forest, rolling hills and open fields. Once you enter the city, make your way to the river bank and marvel at the variety of bits and bobs on offer at the roadside market. Maybe you won't find that rare piece of jewellery or an ancient Buddhist relic but you'll no doubt be amused and entertained by the local colour.
From Mukdahan head west and let Route 12 take you through swathes of more or less arable land, through the province of Kalasin until you reach Khon Kaen, one of the largest cities in Issan and a technological and educational hub. Apart from Khon Kaen University and the city's silk production, Khon Kaen is known for its grilled chicken, one of the cornerstones in what Thai people consider a typical Issan meal. In fact the people of Khon Kaen province have perfected the art of grilling chicken and in the district of Khao Suan Kwang the dish is considered to be a bit of an art form.
Khao Suan Kwang is located some 40km from Khon Kaen City, but what better way to end a road trip in Issan than by enjoying a meal of somtam (green papaya salad), sticky rice and grilled chicken in this beautiful area of Thailand where few tourists go?
Talat Ha in Ubon Ratchathani is a great place to visit to become familiar with some of the regional dishes of Issan.