Along the Mekong from Loei to Nong Khai
One of the most scenic areas in Thailand -- and delightfully secluded -- the northwestern perimeter of Isan runs along the wide Mekong River, which forms the border with Laos. The terrain is relatively flat, the road is only lightly trafficked and in a good state of repair, and you can stop at a number of villages.
The loop begins in Loei and ends in Nong Khai. Directly north of Loei, you'll reach the riverside town of Chiang Khan, where you'll find a few riverside guesthouses, a wat worth visiting (Wat Si Khun Muang), and a few expatriates who've discovered the real simple life. You can take a trip to the rapids at Kaeng Kut Khu by longtail boat for around 1,000B for a couple of hours (contact any riverside guesthouse).
From Chiang Khan, Route 212 follows the Mekong east to Pak Chom and Si Chiang Mai before arriving in Nong Khai. Buses and songtaews make all of these connections, but taking those is a hassle, so it's best to have your own transport. The route passes lush banana plantations, terraced fruit farms, and wonderful river views. Cotton and tomato fields fan out along the verdant flood plains of the Mekong basin. Farther inland are lovely waterfalls, such as Than Thip (between Pak Chom and Si Chiang Mai), which are fun for hiking and ideal for picnics.
Don't miss the unique gold tower of the Prasutham Chedi, just west of Si Chiang Mai, along the main road, and Wat Hin Mak Peng, which is some 30km (19 miles) west of Si Chiang Mai and a glorious temple site overlooking the Mekong.
Si Chiang Mai is opposite Vientiane, the Laos capital, and is but 58km (36 miles) due west of Nong Khai. The town is just a quiet Thai backwater. Walks along the long concrete pier or relaxing and watching Laos and Thai longtail boats load and unload or chug up- and downriver is about all that's going on here. In the evenings, join in a game of badminton or a circle of people juggling a takraw (a small rattan ball). There are lots of little open-air eateries at the riverside and a few small guesthouses along the quay at town center: Try Maneerat Resort (74 Rimkong Rd., along the eastern end of the quay; tel. 04245-1311), with basic but clean air-conditioned rooms starting at 400B, and a friendly and helpful staff.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.