The 20 provinces of northeastern Thailand are collectively called Isan (e-sahn) and account for roughly one-third of the country's landmass, and a third of the population. Bordered by Laos to the north and east (along the Mekong) and by Cambodia to the south, the area resembles Laos and is quite distinct from mainstream Thai culture (many joke about Prathet Isan, or “the Nation of Isan,” for its unique culture, and stubbornly snail-like pace). Life can hard on the scorched plains of Isan, but the friendly people of this region welcome travelers warmly—you'll experience something along the lines of America's southern hospitality. There are lovely river towns, finely made crafts, and fiery food. The areas in the far north and along the Mekong are particularly worth the trip.

That being said, Isan doesn’t get the tourist numbers that other parts of the country get; most of its towns are small with little nightlife.  However, the tides are beginning to shift as more decide to visit the region’s important archaeological sites (from the Khmer period) and try its famous local cuisine. A fresh crop of riverside retreats and boutique hotels, run by media-savvy thirtysomethings, represent a new wave of entrepreneurs looking to entice tourists and backpackers who are on the hunt for “the new Chiang Mai”, and a glimpse into laid-back and authentic Thailand. Most importantly, budget airlines just recently began offering daily flights from Bangkok across the region making it easier than ever before to get here.

The region is best explored by car, allowing for the piquant lure of the region’s famed and fiery cuisine to merit roadside stops. And if, as we suspect, you fall in love with a spicy plate of larb, a regional foodie favorite, or the tranquility of watching local fisherman navigate the placid Mekong, the general availably of accommodations encourages spontaneity in exploring. While some provinces offer more attractions than others (more on that below), Isan is ideally suited for return visitors to The Kingdom who have previously ticked the boxes of Bangkok and Chiang Mai but are looking for a deeper appreciation and understanding of Thailand and its people.

The weather is especially hot in Isan but follows a pattern much like the rest of Thailand: It’s coolest from November to February; hot and dry from March to May; and rainy from June to October. Windswept, flat, and infertile in parts, but verdant along the Mekong, the region’s farmers live a tough life, and many families send relatives to urban parts of Thailand to earn wages to send back to Isan. Strike up a conversation with a cab driver in Bangkok, or resort staff in the south, and odds are good that they’ll hail from Isan, and you’ll be rewarded with an ear-to-ear smile for knowing just a little bit about the region.

Isan’s major cities, which, for the sake of clarity, are defined as the ones with airports, offer little more than a place to bed down and onward transportation. Hard-earned tourist dollars and vacation days are better spent exploring the countryside and getting a real taste of the region. For many, Isan serves as an ideal jumping-off point to nearby Laos.