Road trip to Isaan

Northern and north eastern Thailand are great areas to explore by road, especially at the tail-end of the rains

By | Thu 8 Oct 2020

This is a perfect time of the year for a road trip. The rains are tailing off, but the nature has been drinking deep all season and it is remarkable how many hues and shades of green our forests and fields produced.

This month I decided to take a road trip to Isaan for the first time in my life and I must admit that it was so good that it was hard to eventually turn onto a road heading home. The trip was glorious and I can’t recommend it more to anyone needing to get out of town for a spell…on a shoestring.

Simply get your vehicle checked up for road readiness, fill up a full tank, download your music or audio books and head off. Thailand’s roads are very well signed, well maintained and in this part of the world, spectacular. As a single woman travelling off into un-ventured territory, at no point did I feel unsafe.

I headed out of Chiang Mai through Lamphun on the main highway to Lampang where I stopped off for lunch at one of the many famous noodle joints. Lampang has some really good food, and as our Spoon & Fork’s Auntie Spoon had just been for a visit, I had some great tips and filled up on a lip-smacking bowl of pandanus-wrapped noodles. Soon after leaving the city, however, I tried to stay on minor roads throughout as I meandered through Phrae, Uttaradit and onto Pitsanulok. There was no rush, I took my time, stopping off at stunning road-side cafes, national parks and the odd waterfall. From Pitsanulok, where I stayed at a charming riverside hotel and managed to walk myself to a local party shack where many friendly locals were downing rice wine and beers, I again chose the road less travelled as I headed up to Loei where I picked up a friend from the airport before heading to spend a few nights in Chiang Khan.

Chiang Khan is an odd place. It is charming and photogenic; it’s walking street flanked by hip and trendy cafes, souvenir shops and guesthouses, many with fabulous views of the Mekong River. You can take a stroll down the footpath which flanks the Mekong, a lovely early morning or evening walk, or join the crowds on the bustling walking street at night. It is filled with Bangkok tourists and while picture-perfect, I think that it may have been trying a little too hard to please, perhaps losing something of its own character. There was a fabulous temple fair when we were there and the entire town was celebrating – and getting rather drunk – which made for a great vibe.

There are some truly superb drives from the Chiang Khan base, with one lovely drive wending its way along the Mekong river towards Nong Khai. If you do go along this route, then make sure you stop off at the fabulous Luang Prabang Restaurant where a retired chef from Bangkok’s Oriental hotel serves up unexpectedly delightful dishes and delectable desserts. We chose to then do a loop round back through Udorn Thani and Nong Bua Lamphu provinces before heading back to our guesthouse to watch the twilight mirror over the Mekong. A surprisingly lovely drive, we at one point found ourselves high in clouds along a mountainous road flanked by nothing but dense jungle, unexpected for someone with preconceived notions of Isaan as being dry and flat. There are some great places to visit along this route, and we are gutted that we missed out on the detour to Phu Phrabhat Historic Park where you can see weird rock formations and pre-historic rock paintings. I don’t want to tell you which routes to take, however, as part of the joy was in the delights of discovering the unknown.

The drive back up north from Loei was similarly spectacular. From Chiang Khan, I took some wiggly little roads back, hardly seeing a vehicle more glamorous than an e-tan homemade truck for what felt like hours at a time, wending my way through villages and around mountains, popping into Phu Ruea National Park to try to get some nice views of Loei…only to find myself looking out of a cloud into a swirling mist, before heading to Uttaradit to check out the mysterious Muang Lap Lae, a lovely cluster of villages filled with wooden houses, the odd temple and plenty of picture-perfect views. From there, a back road through fantastic paddy fields and even more sleepy villages seduced and lulled, until I was unceremoniously spewed back onto the main highway… at which point I knew that I couldn’t avoid heading home anymore.

A final night in Phrae, and a morning exploring the quiet little city/big town soon had me reluctantly put ‘home’ into my GPS. I couldn’t resist another quick bite of the pandanus-wrapped noodles in Lampang, however, though did sulk when on arriving home when my household seemed to have been more excited with their take-away noodles, than my joyful return.

So if you are feeling the covid cabin fever, hop onto your ride and head into the wonderful countryside that surrounds us.

Stopping off at a lovely café in Pitsanulok, gazing into the sea of green hills
Me on my guesthouse balcony which overlooks the Mekong River and Laos beyond
My friend gazing off into the vista
Twilight over the ‘kong
The quiet and charming streets of Chiang Khan
Delicious street food
A small little craftsbeer bar on Chiang Khan’s main walking street
Not even sure what this was, a shop, a café, a house? It was still Insta-worthy!
Met a nice couple at the charming Miss U Soi 19 bar in Chiang Khan where they make mean whisky sours
A spectacular road from Chiang Khan to Uttaradit…probably passed about four cars in one hour, if that
Some feild in Udon Thani
Lush virgin jungles of Loei
Driving along the Mekong towards Nong Khai
Stumbling across this remarkable restaurant – Luang Prabang – on the road to Nong Khai
My little shack in Uttaradit, where I spent some quiet time
Bustling market in the lovely Uttaradit town of Muang Lap Lae
Exploring Muang Lap Lae, Uttaradit
Random stones atop Phu Ruea National Park, Loei
Useless view from my cloud on the peak of Phu Ruea National Park
Noooo! A Hello Kitty resort in Loei