Located in the northeastern province of Isan, Khon Kaen is an important hub for the region. What it lacks in obvious big-name attractions, it more than makes up for with a collection of pretty pagodas, temples, museums and parks. A youthful student population adds a dash of dynamism, while its markets offer superb local silk products and fiery Isan food.
A fleet of Songthaews (converted pick-up trucks that function as buses) will carry you all around the city for budget-friendly fares. Otherwise, use the plentiful Tuk-tuks and taxis. Be sure to negotiate a rate for your destination before you set off.
Temple-hopping is one of the highlights of Khon Kaen. Thanks to the lack of crowds, exploring here can feel a little like peeking behind a curtain. Start with the most notable sacred site, the golden Wat Nong Wang, whose nine-tiered balcony overlooks the Bueng Kaen Nakhon Lake. Then move onto Wat Wutharam just west of the lake or Wat Pho Ban Nontan, a popular meditation centre with a suitably serene atmosphere. If you are up for the 10km trip out of town, the hushed Wat Pa Thama Uthayan provides even more tranquility.
For those who want to learn more about the region’s past, browse the exhibits at the Khon Kaen National Museum and Hong Moon Mung museum, both of which shine a spotlight on local history. Khon Kaen is an important producer of Mudmee silk, a technique that involves dying and weaving by hand. Buy silk direct from the skilled artisans who made it at one of the town’s markets or at the celebrated silk-weaving village of Chonnabot.
For fresh air, join local joggers, boaters and strollers on the picturesque banks of Bueng Kaen Nakhon. This calm 100-hectare lake is surrounded by tree-shaded picnic spots and parks.
Among the lesser-explored sacred sites in the region is Prasat Pueai Noi, a fascinating Khmer sanctuary dating back to the 12th century. Its out-of-the-way location keeps crowds at bay, so there is a good chance you’ll have it all to yourself. While it is not large, the remains are rich in detail so allow an hour or two to fully survey all the intricate carvings.
Also worth seeking out is the bat cave at Phu Pha Man National Park. Spend a day traipsing along the trails and stick around until sunset when millions of bats fly from the cave en masse, creating swarming clouds of black in the dusk sky.
Khon Kaen is a centre for Isan food, a regional Thai style that is probably best known for utilising insects such as crickets, grasshoppers and cicadas in its dishes. Rest assured, you can eat very well here without any creepy crawlies ever crossing your lips. Instead, try Som tam (a hot, funky-flavoured, crunchy papaya salad) and laab moo (minced pork salad). If you are adverse to spice, Kai yang (chicken cooked over blazing charcoal) is a milder choice. When it comes to eating in Khon Kaen, it’s all about food on the go; some of the best street stalls can be found at the night market on Ruenrom Road.