Khon Kaen is the third largest city in Northeast Thailand (Isan) and one of the most modern in the region. Isan has 20 provinces and more than 22 million inhabitants, being the largest, most populated and more rural region in the country, as well as the least visited by tourists. Khon Kaen has only about 120 thousand inhabitants, more or less like Chiang Mai, but the similarities between both cities are scarce. While Chiang Mai has a long history and a beautiful old center, Khon Kaen is a relatively new city, which history only traces back to the late 18th century when a former Lao officer from Vientiane decided to found a new city on the west bank of Bueng Kaen Nakhon Lake. The importance of Khon Kaen is given by its size, by the University of Khon Kaen -the most important in Isan-, and by its location, halfway between Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and Bangkok, the capital of Thailand. Thanks to all this, Khon Kaen has become one of the 4 main economic centers of the region, along with Korat, Udon Thani and Ubon Ratchathani. Khon Kaen will be one of the stops of the future high-speed train that will connect China with Singapore via Laos, Thailand and Malaysia,which is estimated to be completed by 2030.
Khon Kaen is a city without big tourist attractions and no remarkable beauty, and it is clearly not a recommended destination for a first trip to Thailand, but it can be a good destination for those heading to central or southern Laos by land, those who are makeing a route through Isan, and those living in Thailand who have already traveled the country and are looking for a non-tourist destination. But if like we do you enjoy exploring the everyday life of low-profile non-tourist Thai cities, in Khon Kaen you’ll find an unspoilt local atmosphere, a few lakes where you can experience local-style leisure, the usual share of Buddhist temples and lively markets, a beautiful nearby National Park and even a museum devoted to dinosaurs. Unknowingly visitors arriving at Khon Kaen are surprised to find dinosaur sculptures and drawings scattered everywhere, whether in the middle of a city park, in a restaurant, or even as a relief in a Buddhist temple wall. Of course, there is a good reason for this: in the surroundings of Khon Kaen, specifically in the Phu Wiang National Park, many remains of various types of dinosaurs have been found.
ℹ️ Top Things to Do in Khon Kaen
Bueng Kaen Nakhon Lake
Bueng Kaen Nakhon Lake is one of the most atmospheric areas in the city, and walking or running at sunset along the path that outlines the shore of this beautiful lake, surrounded by trees and temples, is one of the most enjoyable activities you can do in Khon Kaen, and a perfect break from the concrete. Walking all around the lake without stopping takes about half an hour, much longer if you stop to explore the shrines, temples and the nearby Hall of Culture and Heritage. The reason why many of the most important temples and shrines in Khon Kaen are found around the lake is that the city was originally founded next to its west bank. Every afternoon, a small night food market is set up, perfect for enjoying some street food snacks in a peaceful environment before dinner in the city or in one of the restaurants found around the lake. Don’t panic if you spot a huge reptilian, it’s neither a crocodile nor one of the renowned old-days Khon Kaen’s dinosaurs, but a harmless monitor lizard.
Khon Kaen Temples
The largest and most important temple in Khon Kaen is Wat Nong Waeng, built next to Bueng Kaen Nakhon lake in the same year the city was founded, 1789. The main building in the temple is Phra That Kaen Nakhon, an impressive 80 meter high chedi (stupa) which has 9 floors, each one of them containing a small exhibition hall related to Buddhism, and it’s possible to climb to the top to enjoy beautiful views of the city. Abbot Luang Paw Koon Kantigo, who designed the building, is said to have taken inspiration in the Eiffel Tower and Shwedagon Pagoda (Yangon). About fifty monks and more than two hundred novices live in this temple. Two other nearby temples are Wat Phra That Aram Luang which has it’s own huge chedi, and Wat Pho Ban Non Than, with its unusual reliefs depicting dinosaurs, besdides scenes from Buddhist hell and other. Another outstanding temple, found in the outskirts of the city, is Wat Thung Setthi, named ‘the temple of millionaires’ since there’s a belief saying that those who bring their offerings there will be rewarded by becoming millionaires… good marketing, even though sadly the currency is not specified. The temple is found surrounded by fields in a rural area, which makes its large stupa even more impressive. On one of it’s walls there’s a very gloomy representation of hell, depicting the different methods of torture according to the sin committed.
Night Market & Walking Street
Ton Taan Night Market is a quite large outdoors market, surrounded by trees and selling locally made handicrafts in a relaxed atmosphere with live music. There you will find a wide range of products, but mostly the usual selection of street food, handicrafts and clothing. Next to the street market there’s a modern shopping mall and an area with cafes and boutiques. Without a doubt, this is the best evening plan the visitor can find in the city. Ton Taan Night Market is found on Mittraphap Street, amd it is open daily from 16:00 to 23:00. Only in case you happen to be in town on Saturday, then you can skip Ton Taan and go to huge Khon Kaen Walking Street instead, also known as Saturday Night Market. It is divided in two different sections, one for food and another for clothes and other products. The market is decorated and illuminated with beautiful traditional paper lamps that give the place a warm atmosphere. You’ll find Khon Kaen’s Walking Street on Na Soon Rachakarn Rd every Saturday evening.
Phu Wiang National Park & Dinosaur Museum
If you’re interested in learning more about the dinosaurs that once lived in the region, you can visit both the National Park and the Phu Wiang Fossil Research Centre and Dinosaur Museum, about 80 km nortwest of the city. The museum provides information both on geology and on the dinosaurs that lived in Thailand, based on excavated fossils found in the area, and with its many bones and huge dinosaur recreations are an absolute must in case you are travelling with kids. A visit to the excavation sites in Phu Wiang National Park is also a good idea if you have time enough, and though the hiking trails can be a letdown if you expect to see whole dinosaur skeletons scattered around -there are not-, it is a rewarding experience just for the hiking itself, that runs along a high ridge with good views over the surrounding mountains. Phu Wiang National Park and the Dinosaur Museum are located 80 km northwest of Khon Kaen city, and about 20 km west of Phu Wiang town. It’s much easier if you have your own wheels, but it’s possible to go by public transport as well, catching a bus bound for Nong Bua Lamphu at Khon Kaen’s old bus station, getting off in Phu Wiang town, and from there taking a tuk-tuk to the museum and National Park.
Bang Saen Beach
An hour’s drive from Khon Kaen city there is the huge Ubol Ratana Dam, one of the favorite places where locals like to to spend their weekend afternoons, specifically in the area known as Bang Saen Beach, where there are several very popular floating restaurants on bamboo platforms, and during the wet season it is possible to swim, hire floats and even ride a banana boat. The views from the ‘beach’ are particularly nice when the sun sets behind the western mountain ranges. Bang Saen Beach is located 55 km from Khon Kaen city.
Mount Phu Kradueng
Nature lovers should not miss the chance to climb Phu Kradueng mountain, one of the most popular hikes in all of Thailand amongst locals. Phu Kradueng is not actually in Khon Kaen province, but in neighboring Loei, a 140 km 2-hour drive from Khon Kaen, so it can be visited as a full day trip starting very early in the morning or, even better, a two day trip. Phu Kradueng’s summit is actually not a peak but a 60 km2 plateau with an average height of 1,250 meters above sea level, and 1,316 at its summit. The hiking/climbing is quite demanding but can be done by anyone in reasonably good shape, and the trail takes a minimum total length of 9 km and almost 1 km of unevenness. Thais often climb in the last hours of night in time to watch the sunrise from the top. If you decide to stay overnight, there’s both a camping site and bungalows, which should be booked in advance, especially if going on weekends or holidays. The park is open from October 1 to May 31, and the entrance fee for foreigners is 400 THB.
🏨 Where to stay in Khon Kaen
There are many accommodation options scattered around Khon Kaen city, mainly focused towards domestic tourists, and while many of them are rather mediocre, there are more than enough good options in all price ranges. As specified below, in Khon Kaen city is especially advisable to choose a good location not too far away from the main tourist sights.
Khon Kaen city
Best for: Everyone
Accommodation available: All kinds of accommodation, from cheap hostels to 5 stars Hotels.
✔️ Choose a hotel west or north of Bueng Kaen Nakhon Lake for the best location, at walking distance from the lake, Thon Tann market, downtown and some of the city’s main sights.
✔️ Check out the 5* Avani Khon Kaen Hotel and Pullman Khon Kaen Raja Orchid Hotel if you’re looking for luxury.
✔️ Check out the 4* Glacier Hotel if you’re looking for excellent good-value upscale accommodation.
✔️ Check out the 3* Khon Kaen Hotel if you’re looking for excellent good-value flashpacker accommodation.
✔️ Check out Saem Samran Hotel and Sawasdee Hotel if you’re looking for backpacker accommodation.
🧭 Itinerary to visit Khon Kaen
One full day is enough to explore the most outstanding sites in Khon Kaen city, and you should throw in an extra day if wishing to visit some of the highlights in the surrounding area:
✈️ Arriving to Khon Kaen
There are mainly 3 ways to go to Khon Kaen:
🚌 By bus
Most common option
📍 From Bangkok’s Mochit Bus Terminal
➡️ From Bangkok’s Mo Chit (Northern Bus Terminal) there are very frequent departures from 06:30 to 00:30. Price between 280 and 540 THB depending on class. The trip takes about six hours.
➡️ To reach Mo Chit bus terminal you can take the Skytrain until Mo Chit stop, and then a motorcycle taxi to the bus terminal (60-80 THB).
➡️ Khon Kaen’s bus terminal is located right outside the outer ring road, 8 km south from the city center. From there you can take a tuk-tuk ot taxi to reach downtown.
🚊 By train
For unhurried romantics
📍 From Bangkok
➡️ Khon Kaen is a main stop in the Northeastern railway line stretch that ends at Nong Khai, the border crossing with Vientiane, Laos’s capital.
➡️ Khon Kaen’s train station is centrally located, a 5 minutes walk from/to downtown.
➡️ The trip from Bangkok takes about 8 hours, and there are 4 daily departures, one in the morning (08:20) and 3 in the evening.
➡️ Seat prices range between 190 and 400 THB, and night trains have sleeper options between 800 and 1,400 THB.
✈️ By plane
📍 From Bangkok
➡️ Thai Airways, Air Asia and Nok Air have many daily flights between Bangkok and Khon Kaen.
➡️ From Khon Kaen Airport you can take a metered taxi to your hotel, which should cost about 150 THB, or the public bus, for 15 THB.
➡️ Khon Kaen’s airport (KKC) is located about 11 km northwest of downtown.