The country of Thailand says it received 38 million visitors in 2018, setting a new record for annual arrivals. That said, less-visited areas remain. One of those is Khon Kaen in the northwest, which is still a city that few Western tourists have explored. It appears, though, that the winds may be shifting.
Khon Kaen has experienced a plethora of new developments in the past few years and is poised to welcome all the foodies, shoppers, and nightlife hounds that flock to Thailand’s major cities — without, as of yet, all the crowds.
Khon Kaen is also a perfect weekend trip from Bangkok or Chiang Mai that won’t break the bank. If you’re looking for a culturally rich and friendly city, Khon Kaen is a must when you’re in Thailand. Here’s how to get the most out of your time.
Khon Kaen starts to welcome visitors.
Khon Kaen is located about 300 miles northeast of Bangkok. Air travel is the easiest way to get there, with flights from the capital to Khon Kaen as cheap as $35. Vientiane, the capital of Laos, is only three hours away by car if your travels plan to take you further into Southeast Asia. A new light rail system will make arrival in Khon Kaen easier as well.
Downtown Khon Kaen’s recent surge of development makes it easier to find your footing as a visitor. Until a few years ago there were no luxury hotels or apartments, the airport only had two gates, and a menu in English was a hard thing to come by. Travelers found themselves relegated to a collection of hostels and guest houses, and as a result, the Bangkok crowds never spilled over.
But since the opening of CentralPlaza mall in 2015, the surrounding area has seen a boost in high-end lodging and apartment high rises. A wide range of restaurants, bars, and shops have also opened within walking distance of those hotels and the mall, creating a well-rounded circuit for locals and visitors that extends into the evening hours.
Khon Kaen has a nightlife that, while certainly no full moon party, offers a few clubs and lounges popular with university students and the younger crowd. Though the nightlife isn’t the same as in Bangkok or Pattaya, the vibe here feels more laid-back and genuine.
Khon Kaen throws the best Songkran in Thailand.
Anywhere in Thailand, Songkran is an experience like no other, but Khon Kaen takes it to a new level. The holiday, which commemorates the Thai New Year, is also known as the water festival — something you’ll learn quite literally and very quickly.
Songkran in Khon Kaen is a little different than in some of the larger cities, where you might feel a bit lost if you don’t know specifically where to go to celebrate. In Khon Kaen, it’s all concentrated primarily in two areas. In the surrounding areas of Central Plaza, the streets are shut down to accommodate multiple concerts and street vendors.
While the Central Plaza is worth a visit, the best way to experience Songkran here is to head to the streets surrounding the Wat Nong Wang temple along Klang Muang Road at night. You’ll find traffic backed up in every direction, so don’t plan to drive in with any efficiency, but what you want to do is to hitch a ride in the back of a truck or open tuk-tuk.
People pile into the back of trucks with trash cans full of water accompanied by squirt guns, which they liberally use to splash oncomers in every direction. You’ll creep along in your truck at a snail’s pace sharing drinks, dancing, and splashing everyone with water. It’s one giant party and everyone is in on the action, from little kids to the 80-year-old grandma.
The Wat Nong Wang temple is a sight even beyond Songkran, a stunning nine-story royal temple located on Klong Muang Road. You can climb to the top and experience 360-degree views of the city, seeing Buddhist art and murals as you walk up to each floor. On the first floor, you’ll see Thai art, various historical displays, and experience a little Thai culture as you watch others give gifts called alms to the monks. You can also purchase small boxes filled with gifts and have the monks bless you if you wish to partake.
Khon Kaen is a university town — with a strong coffee culture.
The growth of a strong coffee culture has accompanied the rapid development of Khon Kaen. You can find Starbucks and the popular Thai chain, Cafe Amazon, but a plethora of mom and pop coffee shops have also recently opened. Cafe GlomGlome, a trendy coffee shop which recently opened across from Khon Kaen University, offers a variety of sweets and food to accompany your coffee. Many of the university students head over to study or visit the fat cat that roams the cafe.
The university is also a destination in itself. Khon Kaen University is the heartbeat of the city and the first university established in northeastern Thailand. It’s regarded as one of the top universities in the country. The campus is gorgeous, set with a large lake out front and a running track containing various exercise equipment surrounding it, making for a great morning workout as its open to the public.
As you walk around the campus you’ll take in art, learn a little about Thai history, and be surrounded by lush green trees along the way. Khon Kaen University also has a variety of free events open to the public, such as concerts and charity events.
The night markets rival Thailand’s bigger cities.
Like other parts of southeast Asia, Khon Kaen has a variety of night markets both big and small. Ton Tann, only a few minutes away from CentralPlaza Mall, is the largest and most popular. What sets Ton Tann apart is the variety of vendors, ranging from the local guy selling fried ants to less challenging options like pork fried rice.
An array of other vendors at Ton Tann sell everything from clothing and souvenirs to local art. You’ll find local wares and souvenirs, rock yourself through a diverse crowd of shoppers and perusers, and try interesting new foods. This is the perfect place in town to get a broad overview of what night markets in Thailand are all about and satisfy both the adventurous and the reserved traveler in your group. On weekends, Ton Tann hosts live bands and other family-friendly events.
The night market near Kaen Nakhon Lake is another unique experience. Here you’ll find a variety of exotic fruits, live fish, and delicious coconut shakes. There aren’t many places to sit, so be prepared to take your food to go, but many people find a nice spot by the lake to enjoy their food and take in the scenery.
You can get homemade ice cream on a farm.
Situated about 45 minutes outside of Khon Kaen on the way to Udon Thani is Aura Farm. Here, you can have an experience with Thai animals that won’t affect your conscience or draw international scrutiny. A visit here is a great educational activity for kids who can learn about agriculture, including how to make cheese, milk, and ice cream. Kids can also hop aboard the old train display and try out the various swings situated throughout the farm.
Walk around and view the beautiful gardens before stopping into the restaurant and ice cream shop. The shop has a few unique flavors such as banana ice cream with chunks of cheese — another experience that you likely won’t find elsewhere.