In a nutshell
Khon Kaen is one of the biggest cities in the Northeast of Thailand and the capital of the province with the same name.
Why go to Khon Kaen
Located roughly 450 km northeast of Bangkok, Khon Kaen is the most important commercial, political and educational centre in the whole Isaan region. Despite Khon Kaen itself is a relatively modern city founded less than two centuries ago, the whole area has a long history dating back to the dinosaurs’ era.
Prehistoric civilisations have lived there for thousands of years and several other cultures have later inhabited these territories until the Khmer took control of it. After the fall of the Khmer empire, the region remained abandoned for centuries until King Rama I decided to establish a new town that quickly became a major trading hub in the Indochina area. The Chinese, Vietnamese and Indian have been trading mainly silk for the last 200 years and their influence on Khon Kaen culture and tradition is clearly visible nowadays.
Khon Kaen hosts the biggest University in Isaan with more than 25,000 students and thanks to them the city has a palpable vibrant and youthful atmosphere. Khon Kaen is literary heart and soul of Isaan, but Western tourism is not really developed, mainly because of the lack of attractions that the city has to offer. Many travellers just make it a starting point to visit the Northeast or stop here simply to get a visa for Vietnam and Laos (both the countries have their consulates in town).
Nevertheless a couple of beautiful museums and some religious sites, plus a national park with remarkable dinosaur fossil museum will keep your days occupied while the fantastic Isaan food will take care of your evenings.
When to go to Khon Kaen
The best time to visit Khon Kaen is between November and April.
The rainy season lasts the rest of the year with July, August and September being the worst months in terms of precipitations. Khon Kaen is well known in the Isaan region as one of the best places to celebrate Songkran (Thailand’s New Year). If you’re around in April (usually between the 10th and the 15th) make sure you don’t miss it.
At the beginning of December the Silk Festival takes place in front of the City Hall and for ten days several shows, traditional performances and local products fair will give you a closer look to one of the main source of income of the city.
Where to stay in Khon Kaen
Hotels are scattered all over the city and there’s plenty of choices to accommodate everyone. Don’t expect to find any exceptional western tourists friendly solutions especially in the low budget range; there are simply not enough tourists to support this market. Affordable options are still available in aged and quite characterless buildings and this type of accommodation will not be the highlight of your trip, but will do the trick for a couple of nights. Some more solid options can be found in the mid and high budget range.
Where to eat in Khon Kaen
If the lack of accommodation may disappoint some of the travellers, the dining scene in Khon Kaen will reward everyone who decide to spend few days in town. Day and night markets, countless street vendors, traditional Thai and Isaan restaurants, Vietnamese cafes – you name it and you’ll find it. Close to the train station, a small expat and nightlife area delivers quite a few choices for everyone who is missing Western food.
How to get around in Khon Kaen
Khon Kaen is quite a big city and you’ll need to rely on public transport to move around if you do not have your own wheels. The easiest option is to take a tuk-tuk – they can be found everywhere in town. Rates will depend on the distance and your negotiation ability; expect to pay THB40 for a short ride and up to THB100 for a longer one.
Metered taxis are getting more and more common but they are obviously more expensive yet still affordable; make sure that they’ll switch on the meter, since the flat rate they will offer you will be more expensive.
The cheapest option is to rely on public songthaews system that cover the whole town with fixed routes (usually THB10); unfortunately if you don’t speak Thai it can be really confusing and a clear map with all the routes is not available. Useful routes include number 2 running downtown from Central Plaza and number 8 connecting the University to the city centre.
How to get to and from Khon Kaen
Several daily flights to/from Bangkok are operated by the regional low cost airlines – Air Asia, Nok Air, Lion Air; check the rates in advance to find some good deals for less than THB1000. In Khon Kaen, the airport is located few km west of town and a metered taxi will cost you less than THB100.
Train is probably the best option to get from Bangkok to Khon Kaen since the train station is centrally located and travelling by a night train saves you some baht on accommodation. Trains coming from Bangkok stop in Khorat and after reaching Khon Kaen keep running north to Udon Thani and Nong Khai.
From Hua Lamphong Railway Station in Bangkok there are four daily departures; the cheapest option is train number 134 that leaves at 9.09pm and takes 9 hours; a 3rd class seat will cost you THB187 though spending 8 hours in a hard seat is not what everyone’s dreaming about. The most comfortable train is number 70 leaving at 9.38pm. It offers first class sleeper cabins for THB1400. 2nd class sleeper tickets are available in all the trains for THB1000.
There are two bus stations in Khon Kaen but the old one, centrally located, has been almost completely abandoned in favour of the new one opened in 2015. The new bus terminal, or Bo-Ko-So, is located 6 km south of downtown. The transition of the operators between the bus stations is still in process at the moment (August 2017) and some long distance buses can still arrive and depart from the old terminal but the city plan is to move them all to the Bo-Ko-So to improve the traffic situation. Unfortunately this will slightly affect your budget since a taxi to town will cost you around THB200.
Buses to/from Bangkok’s Morchit terminal leave all day long and the trip takes 8 hours; fares range from THB280 for a second class to THB700 for an overnight VIP bus.
Khon Kaen has direct daily links to almost everywhere in northern and northeastern Thailand (e.g. Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Nong Khai, Surin, Khorat) and to some destinations in the south as well (Rayong, Phuket among others). Please check the schedules at the bus terminals as there is no any reliable information on that because of the changes due to the new terminal coming into operation.
Is Khon Kaen a safe place to visit?
Despite being a big city, Khon Kaen is still a tranquil town with a very low crime rate. The biggest problem you’ll have is the lack of English speakers. If you decide to rent a motorbike be extra careful with the traffic and always wear a helmet. Several hospitals are available in town ready to treat any emergency.