Soulful things to see and do in North East Thailand

I was getting a crick in my neck but I couldn’t stop gazing up at the enormous golden Buddha, silhoutted against a vibrant blue sky. He gazed out across the town, oblivious to the people below. The searing afternoon heat shrouded me in a humid embrace and the scent of lemon grass and coriander drifted along the street.

Standing Buddha at Roi Et in North East Thailand - photo Zoe Dawes

Eventually I dragged my eyes back down to earth and wandered off down the road to the temple complex. I was on a media trip toNorth East Thailand, currently staying in in Roi Et, a largeish town for the annual Bun Pha Wet Festival. On arrival at Khon Kaen Airport, we’d been greeted by Thai musicians and dancers wearing local costume. The regional Minister for Tourism presented us with beautiful fuschia scarves and flower lei.

Thai musicians and dancers North East Thailand - The Quirky Traveller

7 things to feed your soul in North East Thailand

Thailand is a country that can satisfy mind, body and spirit but many places are spoilt as tourism runs rampant in some areas. North East Thailand (Isan) is only just opening up to visitors, so is relatively unspoilt. Isan is Thailand’s largest region, located on the Khorat Plateau, bordering Laos in the north and east along the Mekong River, by Cambodia to the southeast and the Sankamphaeng Range south of Nakhon Ratchasima. To the west it is separated from northern and central Thailand by the Phetchabun Mountains. It’s a region of drowsy villages, fast-developing towns, traditional crafts, agriculture and textiles with friendly, hard-working people who welcome visitors. Here are a few of the experiences that should make you feel happier and more fulfilled.

1. Plant rice at Mekin Organic Farm

Mekin Organic Farm Roi Et province North East Thailand - Zoe Dawes

In the heart of rural Nong Ruea district of Khon Kaen Province, family-run Mekin Organic Farm gives you the chance to try your hand at planting rice, watch oxen wallowing in muddy pools, collecting vegetables and cooking your own meals. The organic farming initiative was inspired by King Bhumipol (Rama IX) ‘Sufficiency Economy Initiative and offers homestay in simple accommodation. We got decked out in dark blue cotton farmer’s clothes and learnt just how back-breaking it is to plant rice seedlings. Lunch was a simple, delicious meal of their own produce, fish and mango.

2. Admire Thailand’s tallest standing Buddha in Roi Et

Tallest Buddha - Wat Buraphiphiram Roi Et North East Thailand

Thailand’s tallest standing Buddha towers over a Wat Buraphaphiram, a ‘third-class’ royal temple beside the River Nuea. Known as Phra Phutta Rattanamongkho Mahamumi or Luangpho Yai, the image is made from gilded concrete and stands almost 60 metres high. The temple complex is a quite place of contemplation with monks wandering around in orange robes, smiling and namasteing merrily. The main temple has some information about its history and within the grounds there is a Reclining Buddha in the roots of a tree in a little cave and various religious figures in a little wooded glade.

Skylab tuk-tuk outside the Rice Hotel Roi Et North East Thailand - photo Zoe Dawes

You can get a ‘Skylab’ motorised tuk-tuk to the temple or walk there; just look up and follow the Buddha. We stayed at the Rice Hotel, on the edge of Roi Et. There are not many places to stay in the town; this is one of the more modern hotels and has clean, simple rooms and serves a basic breakfast.

3. Make a festive flag at Ban Sila Homestay

Make Isan Flag at Ban Sila Homestay North East Thailand - The Quirky Traveller

There’s something uniquely satisfying about working creatively with your hands. It calms the mind and stills the body, all focus on the minduflness of the activity. That’s what I felt making Spider Flags at Ban Sila Homestay in the heart of the Khon Kaen countryside. The smiles of the women who run this place would light up most of Bangkok and they are also helping sustainable living in this unspoilt area of North East Thailand. Using brightly coloured wools you’ll quickly learn how to make the unique Tung Maeng Mum, Isan celebratory flag. Stay in rustic simplicity here and enjoy the friendly hospitality and delicious food of the region for as long as you like.

4. Discover Buddha Relics at Chedi Mongkol

Chedi Mongkol NE Thailand - collage The Quirky Traveller

Its full name is Phra Maha Chedi Chai Mongkol  (Great Victorious and Auspicious Pagoda’) which is a bit of a mouthful. However, as one of the biggest pagodas (chedis) in Thailand, it deserves a big name. It sits in white and gold splendour in the centre of a temple comple, sometimes known as Isan Buddhist Park, in Roi Et Province. The pagoda is enormous; a sign says its 101 metres in diameter at the base and 101 metres high. it’s in the province of Roi Et which means 101 so it’s an appropriate name. Eight smaller pagodas surround it and the gardens are a delight for all the senses. It was designed by the Thai Department of Fine Arts and is a center of learning for Buddhist monks. There are 5 levels (with a lift to the 3rd floor) with the Relics of Buddha at the top. The Ground Floor is used for meetings and has a lift to the 3rd floor. The 1st floor has gorgeous wall paintings depicting the life of Buddha. 2nd floor has images of Buddhist monks and the 3rd floor tells the story of the abbot, with access to the terrace with great views across the countryside. The 4th floor leads up to the Relics of Buddha. Gold glitters from every surface and it is one of the most awesome edificies I have seen in Thailand. Well-worth seeking out.

5. Step back in time at Phae Taem Cave Paintings

Pha Taem Cave Paintings North East Thailand - The Quirku Traveller

In sweltering heat we walked down the winding path away from the 21st century back over 3,000 years. Here in Phae Taem National Park in Ubon Ratchathani Province, you’ll find pre-historic rock art to rival any in the world. The surface of cliffs are covered in red ochre drawings showing fishing, farming, animals, marine creatures, tiny hands and weird figures that look more like aliens than humans. This area, on the most easterly border of Thailand, also gets the first sunrise, over the Mekong River on the Laos border.

6. Feed your soul with Isan cooking

My favourite cuisine in the world is Thai, so travelling round North East Thailand is a real treat as you can find plenty of superb dishes to suit every palate.  Isan food has elements most in common with Laos and is distinct from Thai cooking further south. One of the most renowned Isan dishes is larb, minced duck/fish/chicken/pork flavoured with tasty ingredients including fish sauce, lime juice, chilli and herbs. padaek (pickled fish condiment), roasted ground rice and fresh herbs. Tam mak hung is a crunchy salad made from shredded, unripe papaya. Kai yang is barbeques chicken, marinated  in fish sauce, garlic, turmeric, coriander root (cilantro), and white pepper. Freshwater fish and squid are often simply grilled or in a stew, served with spring onions, chilli and coariander. Fruit is a key element of desserts; pineapple, mango, apples and papaya are all deliciously fresh here. Isan cuisine tends to be hotter and more sour than some other areas of Thailand but can be modified to suit Western palates. Omelettes and fried eggs satisfy simple palettes. Sticky rice is served with almost every meal, but noodles feature widely too. On our trip there were a number of people with dislikes, intolerances and serious allergies; all of these were catered for by the very obliging staff in the restaurants we ate in.

7. Enjoy a Thai Massage at Thosang Khong Resort

Thosang Khong Resort North East Thailand - The Quirky Traveller

Idyylically situated on the shores of the Mekong River, opposite Laos is the Thosang Khongjiam Resort. After some of the rumbunctious roads in North East Thailand, it’s a real pleasure to check into this simple but luxurious resort and relax for a while. On arrival we were all given a deep-tissue Thai massage to soothe away our aches and pains. On the opposite side of the river, Laotian fishermen called to each other and the heat of the day melted into the cool of the evening. One of the friendly resort cats curled up by my feet and purred contentedly as I slowly unwound from the day’s drive. Not far away is breath-takingly lovely Sirindhorn Wararam Phu Prao Temple from where you get the most amazing sunset. There’s an excellent restaurant at the resort and if you are lucky you’ll experience a display of lively Isan dancing to end your night.

Sunset at Sirindhorn Wararam Phu Prao Temple North East Thailand - photo Zoe Dawes

Sunset at Sirindhorn Wararam Phu Prao Temple

I visited north east Thailand courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand. Many thanks to our hosts and guides for their courtesy, patience and extensive knowledge of this lesser-known area. All views and photos are my own. Do leave a comment with your thoughts or any tips for visiting Thailand.


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