The proud city of Khon Kaen sprawls on the east side of the same-named province and serves as a major hub of education, transport, and commerce for the Isaan region. Most foreigners who pass through are either here on business or to catch a bus, but travelers looking to practice their Thai while getting a feel for a big, non-touristy Thai city will find enough to do for a couple of days. What Khon Kaen lacks in charm, it makes up for in energy.
Often dubbed the heart of Isaan, Khon Kaen has a population between 200,000 and 400,000 (depending on the source), making it one of Thailand’s largest cities. With an enrolment of over 25,000, Khon Kaen University is the biggest in the Northeast. Laos and Vietnam both have consulates here issuing visas in advance — a necessity for travel to Vietnam and required if you want to catch one of the international buses to Vientiane.
Modernity is the way in Khon Kaen today. A handful of buildings reaching up to 30 stories have joined modern shopping malls, major international chain hotels, and sprawling suburbs. While the city lacks the charm of Chiang Mai or Ubon Ratchathani, a few neighborhoods to the north of town are still graced by old wooden houses, and the tree-lined Bueng Kaen Nakhon Lake provides a scenic stretch for relaxation in the city’s southern reaches.
Khon Kaen was named after Phra That Kham Kaen, an old chedi built over a tamarind tree that supposedly grew miraculously after a relic of the Buddha was placed in a dead stump. It’s located 20 kilometers northeast of the provincial capital, which was founded in the late 1700s by an officer from Vientiane who switched sides after Siam conquered Laos.
Jumping back 65-145 million years to the Cretaceous Period, dinosaurs of many shapes and sizes roamed the land that now encompasses Khon Kaen province. Beginning in the early 1980s, archaeologists at several sites that are now part of Phu Wiang National Park unearthed many fossils and skeletons, including a previously unknown ancestor of the T Rex. Dinosaurs now feature in signs and statuary all over the province.
Chinese-Thais, Vietnamese-Thais and a substantial community of Indian-Thai Sikhs who often sell ravishing fabrics downtown join the area’s majority Lao/Isaan-Thais. Unlike nearby Udon Thani, Khon Kaen has a relatively small expat community and English is not widely spoken. If you’re intimidated by the lack of tourist services but still want to explore the area, an American contributor to Lonely Planet co-operates a local tour company, Isan Explorer.
Khon Kaen is a large province with plenty of attractions, though none are all that popular, especially among foreign travelers. You could head southeast to the Khmer ruins at Prasat Puay Noi; southwest to see gorgeous mutmee silk crafted in Chonnabot; northeast to Baan Khok Sa-Nga, where the locals keep king cobras as pets; or west to the large Ubonrattana Reservoir and the dinosaur attractions of Phu Wiang. Back in the city itself, Wat Nong Waeng’s nine-floor chedi overlooking Kaen Nakhon Lake should not be missed.
Every year in April, Khon Kaen puts on one of Thailand’s biggest water-splashing parties for the annual Songkran (Thai New Year) festival — a great option if you’re looking to celebrate away from the tourist crowds. This is also when bunches of bushy yellow flowers bloom on the city’s golden shower trees.