Isaan (อีสาน; also Isan, Issan, Isarn and even Esarn), Thailand's north-east region, is an often overlooked part of the country. There's no coastline, so there are no beaches to draw those seeking sand and sea. Isaan, however, is a multicultural area where Laos, Cambodia and Thailand meet, and has a rich history. Isaan is mainly an agricultural region.
Isaan is a wonderful part of Thailand to visit if you become tired of Khao San Road, one temple after another, or lounging on a beach. The relative isolation and underdevelopment of the area means that Isaan is a good place to get off the beaten track and discover Thailand's agricultural roots and natural scenery.
While the national language Thai is used in schools and thus well-understood, the local Isaan language, which is a dialect of Lao, is predominant. Khmer is also widely spoken in areas near the Cambodian border. Although the person you meet in the market might speak little or no English, it's more likely than not that they are already bilingual or multilingual.
The cities of Khon Kaen, Nakhon Phanom, Sakon Nakhon, Ubon Ratchathani and Udon Thani can be reached by plane from Bangkok on both Thai Airways and Air Asia. Recently (as of 2010,) a new airline, Happy Air, reopened Nakhon Ratchasima airport for daily flights around Thailand including Suvarnabhumi airport. If you want to go directly to Nong Khai, then take a plane to Udorn Thani. Every plane is met by a minibus service (tickets available in the arrivals hall - 200 Baht) and will take you straight to Nong Khai in 1 hour. Will bring you straight to your hotel if you ask the driver.
Frequent bus services go everywhere.
Depending on where you're coming from and where you want to get to, buses, minibuses, songthaews, motorbikes, and bicycles are all good ways to get around.
The train system is also a good way to get around, however the number of locations served is limited.
There are many attractions in Isaan:
Isaan cuisine borrows heavily from Lao cuisine and is distinctly different from central Thai cooking, although there has been a considerable amount of cross-pollination. Perhaps the best-known Isaan dish is som tam (or tam mak hung in Lao/Isaan), a spicy salad prepared from unripe papayas. While Thais prepare this with dried shrimp, in Isaan the preferred style is with preserved crab (puu) or mudfish, an acquired taste. Other characteristic dishes include roast chicken (Gai yaang), sticky rice (khao niaw) and a wide variety of cold meat, mint and lemon juice "salads" known as larb.
A word of warning: Isaan food is known even among Thais for being fiery hot!
Avoid the raw fish dishes, as there is a high incidence of liver parasites which give Thailand one of the highest rates of liver cancer in the world.
The main drink in Isaan is a wonderful spirit which combines orange juice with chilli peppers and rum. It is a must for all visitors. The drink is called kaw nam lac.
Parts of the Cambodian border, mainly near Preah Vihear, are occasionally violent as Thai and Khmer soldiers occasionally shoot at each other.