With 19 provinces, the huge northeastern plateau occupies almost one third of Thailand. It is bordered to the north by the Mekong River, separating Thailand from Laos, and to the south by the Dong Rek Mountains along the boundary with Cambodia.
Known as Isan, the name of the Mon-Khmer kingdom that once flourished here, the Northeast is one of most traditional areas of the country, a land based on agriculture and cottage industries. Old Thai customs remain relatively unchanged, and the population is renowned as being friendly and polite, even though it is one of the poorest.
It is a region with great history, and a strong Laotian influence in its architecture, customs, and language. Evidence of prehistoric settlements can be found along the Mekong River, in cliff paintings and at archaeological sites like Ban Chiang. The lower Northeast was part of old kingdorn of Angkor, with ruins of impressive Khmer sanctuaries scattered across the countryside.
These Khmer prasat hin (stone castles) throughout Buri Ram, Nakhon Ratchasima, Surin and Si Sa Ket are popular tourist attractions, particularly the superbly restored sites at Phimai and Phanom Rung, both historical parks. The great temple complex at Khao Phra Viharn on the Cambodian border is also now accessible to visitors after a long period of isolation.
Other major attractions include the prehistoric sites at Ban Chiang and Ban Prasat, the ancient revered temples at Phra That Phanom and Phra That Renu Nakhon and the wonderful silk-weaving villages in Khorat and Khon Kaen. The region is also home to some of Thailand's best loved national parks -IChao Yai, Phu Kradung and Phu Rua in Loci. To counter the region's great sized, an excellent road, rail and domestic flight network links all the major centres.
Split from Ubon Ratchathani in 1993, Amnat Charoen is a tranquil province known as the "Land of Dharma". As such, temples are its main attractions. Just outside town, Phra Mongkhon Ming Muang is a sanctuary with a giant Buddha set amidst the scenic Buddha Uttayan park.
Wat Chaiyatikaramit houses a bronze Buddha fashioned in the Vientiane style. Wat Tham Saeng Pheteh is a spacious meditation temple of the late Phra Acharn Cha, housing a Buddha image inside a cave.
This populous province was an integral part of the kingdom of Angkor and there are Khmer ruins in abundance. Over 140 sites in various stages of decay have been counted, and the Fine Arts Department has restored over a dozen.
The most famous of the Khmer monuments, also the largest and most stunning, is Prasat Hin (stone castle) Phanom Rung, perched on top of an extinct volcano nearly 400 metres above sea level. Built between the 10th and 13th centuries, the temple has a spectacular promenade leading up to it, evoking images of Angkor itself. Among the intricately carved masonry, the Narai lintel above the eastern entrance has a fascinating history. A popular festival is held here every April. Not far away, Muang Tam is a walled-in Khmer sanctuary that predates Phanom Rung, with good stonework and four ponds in the compound.
Dong Yai Forest gained renown when a monk tried to protect it from loggers by "ordaining" trees with monastic robes and sacred threads.
Loei s unspoilt scenery, cool weather and fabulous national parks are the reasons so many visitors head here. Phu Kradung National Park and the area around Chiang Khan are very popular spots. Phu Kradung is a bell-shaped mountain with a large plateau on top at 1,300 metres where there are forests, trekking routes and plentiful animals. The trek to the top is about 6 kilometres and takes around 4.5 hours, but the views and weather are spectacular.
Phu Rua National Park is a similar mountain hideaway, with trekking routes and spectacular scenery, particularly at the summit where you can see Laos and the Mekong River. The high plateau of Phu Luang Wildlife Sanctuary is home to both forest and savannah, plus a variety of animals and wild orchids.
Loei produces high-quality hand-woven cotton products, especially blankets to withstand the cold. The Cotton Blossom Festival, held every February, is a popular tourist attraction. Another big festival draw is the ghostly procession of Phi Ta Khon at Dan Sai, where villagers wearing outlandish costumes and brandishing phallic symbols kick off the rainmaking season in June.
This is approximately the centre of Thailand, a hilly province that is famous for its silk villages. Ban Khwao is renowned for its production of raw silk, with travellers heading for the silk farms to watch the whole production process from feeding the silk worms with mulberry leaves right through to the dyeing and weaving of thread.
Chaiyaphum also has some good elephant training schools, with most graduates now used for trekking journeys into the mountains. And it has revived its elephant round-up (rivalling Surin) every January. Phrang Ku; an ancient Khmer shrine housing a revered Buddha, is popular with residents as a "healing station".
Tat Ton National Park centres around scenic waterfalls and has very unusual forests. While Pa Hin Ngam National Park is renowned as much for its huge fascinating rock formations as it is for its pink krachiezu flowers that bloom in May to July.
Kalasin is a small, busy agricultural province with some interesting attractions. Wat Klang houses a very rare black Buddha image inscribed with ancient Thai letters. There is also a replica footprint made in sandstone.
Muang Fa Daet Song Yang is an ancient town dating many centuries back. Attractions include Phra That Ya Khu, a large stupa decorated with stucco reliefs, and carved sandstone boundary markers depicting the life of Lord Buddha.
Beside Lam Pao Dam is a large open zoo, which is becoming a major draw for visitors. Also popular are the dinosaur remains found at Wat Sakkawan.
Khon Kaen is the commercial, administrative and educational centre of the Northeast, which is often used by travellers as a base for visiting many parts of upper Isan.
Khon Kaen National Museum houses objects from the Dvaravati period and bronze sculptures from Ban Chiang. Kaen Nakhon Lake in the centre of town is a popular spot for picnics and dining, while Wat That on its bank features typical Isan spires.
Khon Kaen is the centre of the northeastern silk industry with numerous villages producing their own mudmee designs. Chonnabot is noted for its quality silks. Every December the city hosts a Silk Fair, when all the best materials are on sale.
Unusual animals are popular in the province, with the cobra and the turtle villages high on tourist programmes. In both villages, the residents live with their proteges, training them and putting on fascinating shows. A dinosaur is the provincial symbol ever since remains of these great beasts were unearthed in Phu Wiang National Park, an area also famous for its flora, fauna and waterfalls.
Nakhon Ratchasima (also known as Khorat) is considered the gateway into the Northeast. There are a number of fascinating attractions, with the best known being Khao Yai National Park.
Covering four provinces, this popular park is a forested sand stone plateau, packed with an enormous variety of animals, birds and flora. Numerous hiking trails crisscross the park and there are 20 waterfalls to visit, including the spectacular Heo Narok and Heo Sawat.
The Khmers made Khorat their home, building the superb sanctuary at Phimai that has been beautifully restored as a Historical Park. The main structure is a tall tower (prasat) surrounded by four porches and antichambers. There's lots of intricate sandstone carvings and a small museum of relics unearthed during restoration. Another historical site is found at Ban Prasat on the way to Khon Kaen. Archaeological digs have unearthed skeletons, artifacts and pottery dating back 3,000 years.
Khorat is well known for its villagers - skill in silk weaving. The best fabrics are produced in Pak Thong Chai. Other skills are shown at Dan Kwian, a village noted for its unique pottery made from a special clay found in the area.
In the heart of the Northeast, Maha Sarakham is a peaceful province known as a centre for education. Main attractions include the Isan Cultural and Arts Centre, with displays depicting the history of Northeast Thailand, its various fabrics, handicrafts and agricultural traditions.
Ku Mahathat archaeological site has uncovered relics over 700 years old and the Fine Arts Department has recently renovated two earthenware images there.
Loeng Chan Rapids are becoming popular with tour companies promoting river rafting and the surrounding area is good for hiking.
Mukdahan is known for its beautiful scenery along the Mekong River, with the town located at the river's widest point opposite Sawannakhet in Laos.
Wat Si Mongkhon Tai next to the river enshrines the town's oldest and most revered Buddha image. It's also the location for the Indochina market, where you can buy a whole host of goods from both sides of the border.
Phu Manorom Hill, a favourite local picnic spot, provides excellent views over the town and the river. Mukdahan National Park is an unusual area of caves and bizarre rock formations. There are hiking trails, and the park is gaining popularity for its wildlife, including barking deer, monkeys, wild boar and civet cats.
Phu Sa Dokbua National Park covers three provinces and is a mixture of rock formations, forest and lakes. Prehistoric paintings can be found on Phu Pha Thocp, and it is popular for its wild flowers.
The close proximity to Laos has had a major influence on the province, evident in the numerous Lao-style temples with curved, four-sided chedis.
Situated on the banks of the Mekong River, the city has an attractive riverside promenade, flanked by souvenir shops selling silver and handicrafts from Laos. A small temple complex, Wat Si Thep houses many paintings depicting the life of Buddha and kings of the Chakri Dynasty.
Phra That Phanom, 50 kilometres from the town, is the most revered shrine in the Northeast, with a 52-metre Laotian-style tower said to enshrine a breastbone of Lord Buddha. Its age is the stuff of legends, most likely over 1,500 years old. The tower was restored in 1977 when it collapsed due to flooding.
The nearby town of Renu Nakhon, which is famous for its silks and cottons, also has a phra that similar to Phra That Phanom but on a smaller scale.
Nong Khai is a long thin province running along the Mekong River, providing the main access to Laos. Originally people went by boat from Tha Sadet, but the building of the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong has made Nong Khai a major centre for transport and trade with Laos.
Attractions include Wat Pho Chai, renowned for its large seated Buddha believed to have been cast in Lan Chang, and Phra That Nong Khai, an old chedi that slipped into the river and can now only be seen completely in the dry season.
Sala Kaew Ku is a bizarre sculpture garden packed with statues of Shiva, Vishnu and Buddha as well as many other figures from Hindu and Thai culture. Phu Wua Wildlife Sanctuary near the Mekong River contains a number of beautiful waterfalls.
SI SA KET
Si Sa Ket is a quiet province on the Cambodian border with Khmer ruins scattered throughout the province. Most notable are the two ruined sanctuaries of Wat Sa Kamphaeng Yai and Noi, dating back to the 10th century.
However, the most famous Khmer site is actually in Cambodia. Khao Phra Wihan was built over 10 centuries ago and is one of the most spectacular Angkor-period sites. Built as a Hindu temple, it begins in Thailand and rises to 600 metres with the main sanctuary in Cambodia. After a long period of war, its wonderful craftsmanship, stairways and courts are now being restored. The walk to the summit is long and steep, but visitors are sure to be impressed by the size and complexity of its design.
NONG BUA LAM PHU
m Split off from Udon Thani in 1993, Nong Bua Lam Phu is a scenic province famous for its prehistoric sites. Fossilised shells about 140 million years old can be seen in the cliffs 10 kilometres outside the main town; archaeological sites at Kudkormuey and Kudkwangsoi villages are also attractions.
Well worth a visit is the huge Erawan Cave, full of beautiful stalagmites and stalactites. A very long stairway leads up to the cavern, where a large Buddha sits at the entrance.
Wat Tham Klong Phen, a tranquil forest monastery outside of town, is revered as the home of the famous meditation monk, Luang Phu Khao Analayo. A museum in the compound is dedicated to the monk. A beautiful nature reserve is found at Phu KaoPhupan Kham National Park covering 320 square kilometres, including a large lake formed by Ubon Ratana Dam, which is a popular fishing area.
Roi Et town is built around a large artificial lake, Bung Phlan Chai, where a large, walking Buddha stands on a small island in its centre. Tall Buddhas are popular in Roi Et as Wat Buraphaphiram features a 68-metre walking Buddha, with a staircase that enables visitors to climb to knee-high level. Sixty kilometres outside of town, Ku Kasing is a large Khmer sanctuary dating from the 11th century, and under restoration.
Handicrafts are the province's main product, particularly the Isan khaen, a kind of panpipe made from wood and reeds. These are best made in the small village of Si Kaew. Thanon Phadung Phanit is a good place to buy silk and cotton fabric.
Sakhon Nakhon town sits at the edge of the 32-square-kilometre Nong Han Lake (Thailand's largest natural lake). The whole province is filled with lakes and rivers, offering a different in landscape to the rest of the Northeast.
Temple attractions include Wat Phra That Choeng Chum, one of the Northeast's most sacred spots, whose main chedi was built over 10th century Khmer prang. Wat Pa Suthawat has a small museum dedicated to the famous meditation monk, Phra Acharn Man Bhuritatto. Wat Phra That Narai Cheng Weng has an old Khmer prang, and many stone carvings.
The province marks the end of Buddhist Lent with great festivity, involving a procession of intricately carved wax shrines (castles) and exciting boat racing on Nong Han Lake. Phu Phan National Park, close to the border with Kalasin, has some well-maintained hiking trails through its mountains, two popular waterfalls and a variety of birdlife.
Surin is world-renowned for its Elephant Round-up, held on the third weekend in November, putting a focus on the province's heritage of raising and training elephants. The fair features pageants, elephant football, tug-of-war and other fun events. After the fair, the elephants go to live in villages like Ban Ta Klang, where the Suay people live and work with their jumbos, welcoming visitors to watch their daily activities.
Like many of the Cambodia border provinces, Surin has numerous Khmer ruins. Recently restored is the 11th century Khmer sanctuary at Sikhoraphum that displays scenes from Hindu mythology. Ta Muan near the border consists of three ruins in good condition.
Handicrafts are also a big attraction. Ban Buthom village produces tightly-woven rattan basketry, while traditional silk weaving can be found at Ban Khwao Sinarin (as well as silver trinkets) and Ban Chanrom.
This province is a major commercial centre in the Northeast due to its proximity to Laos and Cambodia. It was an American airbase during the Vietnam War and has continued to grow in prosperity since then. The town is renowned for its superbly carved wax candles that are paraded through town at the beginning of Buddhist Lent.
The National Museum gives a good insight into the history of the province, displaying Khmer and Thai artifacts as well as local handicrafts, traditional costumes and pictures of farm life. Its most notable temples include Wat Tung Sri Muang, housing a Buddha footprint, a marvellous old wooden library and erotic wall paintings. Wat Supatanaram has an open-air museum displaying some Chinesestyle Buddhas and priceless frescos, while Wat Nong Bua is the only temple in Thailand with a Buddha gaya-style pyramidal stupa. Outside of town, Wat Nong Pa Phong is the forest temple founded by Phra Acharn Cha, whose ashes are in the lovely chedi. Nearby is Wat Pa Nanachat, the retreat begun by Acharn Cha as meditation centre for foreign monks.
Khong Chiam is at the confluence of the Moon and Mekong rivers, facing Laos. Here you can catch boats to the popular Tana Rapids. To the north are the Pha Taem cliffs overlooking the Mekong, with their famed prehistoric paintings.
m Udon Thani is an agricultural and transport centre for northern Isan. Just outside of town, the Udon Sunshine Orchid Garden grows fragrant orchids for sale, as well as their perfumes.
The province's main claim to fame is Ban Chiang, an important archaeological site, with pots and other items unearthed that are from 4,000 to 7,500 years old. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 and is a National Museum, part showing exhibits from the excavations, including a great deal of pottery and the second part an open museum around the actual archaeological digs.
Phu Phra Bat Historical Park is a fascinating place of unusual rocks, caves and prehistoric cliff paintings. Lots of trails for trekkers to follow.
Yasothon is famous for its boisterous Rocket Festival every May, when giant home-made missiles are launched into the air in a symbolic rainmaking gesture.
In the town at Wat Mahathat, Phra That Yasothon is a much-visited Lao-style c0edi, said to be over 1,200 years old. It enshrines holy relics of Phra Ananda, one of Lord Buddha's chief disciples. That Kong Khao Noi is an ancient Khmer chedi with a much revered brick and stucco Buddha that is ritually bathed every April. The handicraft village of Ban Si Than is famed for the triangular pillows used in most Thai households.