I found to my pleasant surprise that Khon Kaen in Isaan, Thailand is a city of unknown world wonders. The above Thung Sethi has been compared to the Taj Majal. It’s certainly not that, as this architectural astonishment on the outskirts of the city is not recognized on a world scale. Only the locals and a super-small percentage of travelers know of it. Although easy to access, Khon Kaen is not a tourist town per se, but I predict that it’s on its way.
I hadn’t heard of Khon Kaen until I saw it up on the screen in the train station in Bangkok a few months ago. It is on the line that goes from Bangkok to Nong Khai across the Mekong from Laos’ capital of Vientiane. I forgot the name until it came back to me after returning to Thailand from Vientiane, Laos a few weeks ago.
Thailand and SE Asia are obviously loaded with historical Buddhist architecture. This includes the city of Khon Kaen, which wasn’t founded until 1935. Today it’s been designated a modern smart city. This pleasantly smallish municipality is a perfect place to pass some time as the laid-back locale has a couple of surreal sites.
There are multiple night markets loaded with quality Thai, Japanese and western fare, all in walking distance.
You see very few western tourists in Khon Kaen as most bypass it or only stay a night and have no idea of the magic this jewel of a destination encompasses.
Khon Kaen isn’t well-known yet; however, when the new high-speed train that currently runs from Kunming, China, to Vientiane, Laos, connects to Bankgok, Khon Kaen will be one of the station stops. This ultra-fast, modern transport marvel will eventually connect down to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
This extensive engineering endeavor will be a humongous boon to the region. It already is for the Lao people. A month and a half ago I was able to take a one-and-a-half-hour glide ride from Nateuy, near Luang Namtha, to Luang Prabang. A year before that, I would have had to endure 10 or more uncomfortable hours on a bus or heinously squeezed-in minivan to cover the same otherwise ultra-rugged distance.
For me, Khon Kaen was about admiring a few terrific temples, frequenting some cool cafés and getting my Indochinese-gastro fill in one of the night markets each night. Unlike Luang Prabang and Chiang Rai, there is a low number of foreign tourists. This makes Khon Kaen one of my favorite cities –that I know of– in Thailand.
Non touristy areas are more likely to produce genuine Thai smiles.
If you’re in Khon Kaen, the Thung Setthi Temple is a must see. It lies on the outskirts of the city so you have to take a taxi or tuk tuk.
The wat is surrounded by tropical nature. Plan to pay 100 –nung roi– Baht or more each way. I tried to walk twice. The first time I gave up and turned back; the second time I made it just before dusk. It took a lot longer than I had anticipated. Tere are parts of the road that are not conducive to walking. Don’t do this. Trust me.
Hugely relieved, here I finally was about 15 minutes away by foot, on a highway not designed for walking. In hindsight, I knew I should have saved a ton of time and found a driver.
There’s a nice café besides the exotic complex, they called me a taxi back that cost exactly 100 Baht. Two days later I took a taxi back from the site and it cost 130. The meter seemed to be moving faster than it had two evenings prior. The tuk tuk to get there cost 80. You could get a motorcycle driver to do it cheaper. 100 Baht is about $3.
Unlike many travelers who rent or purchase motored bikes in South East Asia, I prefer to keep things simple and walk, only using extra transportation when I absolutely need to. Like most things and ideas, this current travel philosophy has its pros and cons.
Finding out about Wat Thung Setthi and then witnessing it first hand and walking around the grounds was an incredible blessing that triggered a former epiphany:
We as humans ought to get out into the great big world and see how wondrous it is.
Wat Nong Wang: The Second Architectural Wonder
Since it was easy to walk to, I managed to visit the remarkable Nong Wang Temple on numerous occasions. I can not say which work of architectural art is better as they are so different in their wondrous ways. Like the Thung Setthi Temple on the outskirsts, Wat Nong Wang is a must visit if you’re in Khon Kaen.
Each level and its balcony gets smaller and more narrow as the floors of the pyramid temple ascend.
There are a few night markets with good cuisine-dream opportunities. While drifting around cities and in night markets I am reminded that I’m in an omnipresent Indochina town. Considering Chinatown used to me my favorite neighborhood in Boston, I’m enjoying some of the culinary options available, but mostly of the veg or vegan variety these days.
Ton Tann is the most renowned and biggest night market in the city; however, I liked the three other after-sundown markets more than Ton Tann, as they had more veg options and were closer to my accomodation.
Being mostly vegan these days, I have become more limited in what I try, that said, this is such a food paradise that even full-on vegans manage fine. If you’re really strict and want to be fully vegan, learning some Thai food basics will help immensely, especially for when you’re outside of tourist zones.
|No fish sauce||Mai nam plaa|
|A little fish sauce||Noi nam plaa|
|No pork||Mai moo|
|No chicken||Mai gai|
|No beef||Mai nua|
|No sugar||Mai nam tan|
|I am vegan||Pom/chan Jae|
l typically say:
Noi nam plaa (a little fish sauce).
when ordering a papaya or cucumber salad as they like to use a lot of this animal liquid, which in their mind may be a key ingredient to this quintessential and ubiquitous Thai dish that is mostly vegetarian, save for the fish sauce.
Fresh, inexpensive sushi is ubiquitous to Thailand’s night markets and it’s no different in Khon Kaen. Although mostly marine fare, there are veg and egg options, especially seaweed. There is crab and tuna if you care to lightly diverse from a veg regimen. From my experience, wasabi in Thailand seems to be considerably stronger than in the US.
I have a hard time enjoying a city if I am not able to find a good place to stay. This has not been an issue in non-touristy cities of Thailand, as these areas can provide some of the best accommodation values on the planet.
I liked this basic but spacious room at the Ruen Rom Hotel on Ruen Rom Road, just a five-minute walk from the train station. The price was right at 400 Baht –around $12– per night. This included a small bathroom with hot water and even a small balcony. The A/C wasn’t needed although it was included. I felt like I experienced a very short –one week– winter as their were five consecutive chilly mornings where a sweatshirt felt required. Like the majority of hotel rooms across Thailand, the room included two bottles of water per day and cleaning. I like space and am pleased when able to find such value.
I liked my stay in Khon Kaen as I had a great-value accommodation, mostly good walking options, excellent cafés and two previously unknown world wonders to gaze upon.
While the Thung Setthi is not the Taj Majal, it also doesn’t charge $13 like the Taj Majal does, and there’s a great chance you will get it all to yourself compared to the colossally-crowded site in Agra. . . at least for now.
Have you had the privilege of witnessing any wonders of the world? Leave a comment below.
Here is the complete set of 194 photos from Khon Kaen, Thailand.