So you've partied on Pha-Ngan, snorkelled off Similan and temple-toured in Chiang Mai. If you're now looking for somewhere to just get out and stretch your legs, Thailand's little-visited northeast may have just what you need. ‘Isan’, as it’s called, has a rugged charm all its own, with plateaus, mountains and jungles that lend to great walks and hikes.
Best for jungle
One of Thailand's most valuable nature preserves, Nam Nao National Park is located in Phetchabun, but is easily accessible from the Isan city of Khon Kaen. The 966 sq km park has a wide variety of virgin jungle including bamboo forests, rainforest, and montane pine forests, but montane evergreen forests make up the majority of the area. It is home to a large elephant population, as well as kouprey, wild cattle, tigers and hundreds of bird species. An added bonus is that the park is cooler than the rest of the region – although you might want to avoid it in the wet season if leeches aren't your thing. Possible walks range from short one-hour wanders to more challenging 10km and 17km hikes.
Best for wildlife
Khao Yai National Park in Nakhon Ratchasima Province is Thailand's first, and still most famous, national park, and for good reason. It covers 300 sq km of mixed deciduous forest, tropical rainforest, dry evergreen forest and grasslands, and includes some great year-round waterfalls. Wildlife is extensive, and includes tigers (very rarely seen), elephants, barking deer and sambar deer, and a wealth of birdlife, including the great hornbill. It is one place that you're bound to see at least some wildlife if you stay for a day or so. Here you can opt for short 900m strolls up to 8km hikes, with rangers available to act as guides.
Best for wide open spaces
Phu Kradueng National Park is probably the most famous of Thailand's national parks among Thais, and is a very popular walking spot. It sits atop a plateau (the eponymous Phu Kradueng, actually a mesa) and has extensive walking tracks among grasslands, montane pine forests, dry deciduous forest and evergreen forests. Like Nam Nao National Park, this elevated forest is a good deal cooler than the surrounding countryside, and in fact holds the honour of being one of the coolest places in Thailand, with overnight temperatures known to reach 0°C at the height of the cool season (December to January), although day-time temperatures quickly climb back up to a delightful 21°C. Even in the hot season it’s a good 5°C cooler than the surrounding area. Due to natural hazards in the rainy season, such as rockslides, the park is closed from June to September inclusive.
The Phu Kradueng experience begins with a moderately challenging 5.5km hike up the mountain (with porters available if you need them), and once you’re up there there’s a choice of trials to explore, taking you to waterfalls and cliff-top viewpoints.
Best for views
Phu Kradueng would have to get the nod for the best views in Isan, but we can't help putting in a word for Hin Chang See in Khon Kaen. Located in Nam Phong National Park, Hin Chang See not only has spectacular views over the Ubonrat Dam but also some impressive boulders and a delightful little park area. While you won’t get any really long walks here (about 500m), it’s an exhilarating walk up to the viewpoint and the views from the top make it well worthwhile.
Best for vertigo
It's a well-respected meditation temple rather than a national park, but Wat Phu Thok is also an amazing place to give your climbing legs a workout. Test your vertigo with head-spinning views from the rickety stairway that ascends this singular mountain to what is one of the most spectacular temples in Thailand.
Best for history
Thailand has a rich historical tapestry covering centuries of rise and fall, from the whimsical kingdom of Sukhothai, with its 'fish in the rivers, rice in the fields, and happy people', to the tragic Ayuthaya, sacked and burned to the ground at the height of its glory. But in Isan it's all about the mighty Khmer Empire, which once stretched far and wide and covered much of present-day northeast Thailand. The crowning glory in Thailand would have to be Phanom Rung Historical Park. From the entrance along the bricked walkway to the magnificent temple itself, you can’t fail to be impressed by the industry and artistry of these ancient peoples.
Best for mystery
Phu Phrabat Historical Park in Udon Thani Province is one of the most intriguing places in all of Thailand. The park is made up of rocky outcrops, rock formations and stunted, dry deciduous forest, and the rocks themselves make some great shapes and impossible-looking balancing acts, tempting speculation that they were somehow placed in their precarious positions by ancient zealots. But it’s what’s been done to them that makes for the mystery, some of them having been carved out in ancient times to make platforms, and some carved into 2m-high sima stones (boundary markers for Buddhist monasteries) as far back as the Dvaravati era (around 1000 years ago). There is a legend attached to various sites around the park, but the mysterious history of the site is even more fascinating than the legends.