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I’ve Now Road-Tripped From Chiang Mai to This Artsy Thai Village 3 Times

Elephant sanctuaries, molten-brass workshops, and Thai megaclubs.

Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photo: Courtesy
Photo-Illustration: The Strategist; Photo: Courtesy

Everyone knows that person who spends weeks sniffing around travel blogs, going deep into Tripadvisor rabbit holes, collecting Google docs from friends of friends, and creating A Beautiful Mind–style spreadsheets to come up with the best vacations/itineraries possible. In this recurring series, we find those people who’ve done all the work for you and have them walk us through a particularly wonderful, especially well-thought-out vacation they took that you can actually steal.

Once a year since he was 10 years old, furniture designer Robert Sukrachand has traveled to Thailand to visit family. As an adult, Sukrachand began bookending those visits to Chiang Mai and Bangkok with trips to other parts of the country, and after getting his own place in Chiang Mai in January (so he can split his time between Brooklyn and Thailand), he gained proximity to what he calls his favorite local vacation: a road trip from central Thailand to the heart of the Isan region, Ubon Ratchathani. Sukrachand first made the drive in 2019 and has replicated it twice since.

The route passes through rain forests, elephant sanctuaries, and Kui, Khmer, and brutalist design and architecture. “Most Thais don’t even visit this part of Thailand,” he says, adding that he initially mapped out the road trip on a hunch that he’d find something good to eat. Now he goes not only for the food but to check out work by the region’s marble and brass craftspeople. (Sukrachand’s recent Ban Pa Ao bell collection was designed by New York artist Pat Kim in collaboration with Ban Pa Ao craftspeople in Ubon who produce the work using their traditional lost-wax coiling techniques.) Here, he shares his favorite rain-forest hike, en plein air roadside woodworking studio, and breakfast noodles.

Day 1

9 a.m. Pick up a car (and a SIM card) at the Bangkok airport

Go in December or January. That’s the high season for all of Thailand because it’s not raining (but it’s still very green) and not as hot as the other parts of the year. Fly into Bangkok. The Asian airlines have better food and service, and the routes are shorter. Your priority should be no more than 23 hours total of travel time. I fly Cathay Pacific when I’m able to because the Hong Kong airport has great food for the layover.

Rent a car at Don Mueang airport in Bangkok from a major multinational dealer like Hertz, Budget, or Sixt. They’re the only companies that do one-way rentals, and you will end up returning your car to Ubon Ratchathani Airport. I also recommend getting an international driver’s license to be safe. They drive on the opposite side of the road, and lane markings don’t mean much. You’re technically not supposed to drive on a foreign driver’s license in Thailand, so if you were to get into an accident, it would be good to be aboveboard. You can do it through AAA for $20. While you’re at the airport, also buy a Thai SIM card for around $20. This trip isn’t possible without fast data.

11 a.m. Hit the road; stop by a terrazzo’d temple

Go north to the Khao Yai National Park, Thailand’s most famous national park, where you will start your next day. This trip wouldn’t have been possible for a non-Thai speaker ten years ago, but now you can find everything in Google Maps, and a lot of the signs are in English. The first hour is the scariest part of the drive. Highway 1 is the industrial trucking route, so everything flows through there. After that, the rural part of Thailand will be flat, easy, and open roads. Make a pit stop about an hour in at Ho Watthanatham Phuenban Thai Yuan Saraburi cultural center, where there are a series of traditional Thai Yuan wooden houses on the river. Then go to the Wat Khao Kaeo Worawihan temple. A lot of temples in Thailand are mobbed by tourists, but there’s no one at this one, and it has a lot of rural charm. There’s a beautiful staircase with mosaic terrazzo that goes through these trees. It’s not glitzy, but it’s stunning.

4 p.m. Check in to a bamboo bungalow

There are crazy five-star resorts in Khao Yai, like the new Roukh Kiri Khao Yai hotel (from $428), because it’s Thai wine country. Rich people from Bangkok have country houses here. I like to stay at a midrange hotel, like the Moosiyard Hometel Khaoyai (from $56), which is an hour east from the Saraburi province you drove through. It’s nothing too memorable, but it’s set beside gardens and a river and is close to the entrance of the national park, which is good for getting an early start for the hike the next day.

7 p.m. Eat sticky rice and ba mee moo dang at a night market

Twenty-five minutes away from the hotel is Pak Chong, which is the main town outside Khao Yai National Park, like how Joshua Tree is right outside the national park. The whole area has a Clint Eastwood–Western vibe, and there’s architecture that looks like Western saloons because Thailand went through a Western craze in the 1960s. If you’re not eating food on the street, you’re not eating the best food in Thailand. At this market, you’ll see fried things, grilled things, fresh fruit, Thai desserts, ice cream, and things to buy, like clothing. Everything. I always go for grilled chicken with sticky rice; it costs around $1. I eat noodles no matter where I am in Thailand, too. Ba mee moo dang is actually a Cantonese egg-noodle dish with roasted red pork and clear broth that has become a classic Thai dish at this point. You can’t go wrong with this dish no matter where you are in the country. You dress the noodles yourself. There are spice holders with white vinegar with fresh, sliced green chiles in it, dry bird’s-eye chile peppers that are super-spicy, fish sauce, and sugar. I like to put in a bit of vinegar.

Day 2

8 a.m. Hike through a Thai rain forest

Eat breakfast at the hotel. I remember eating rice soup, which is my favorite kind of breakfast; it’s what I crave when I’m back in New York. Drive the remaining hour to Khao Yai National Park. Ideally, you’re starting your hike by 9 a.m. because by midday, it’s uncomfortably hot. (I actually went during monsoon season in August, which I don’t recommend.) You have to get a guided hike at the visitor center when you arrive (park entry from $12; guided hikes from $15) because there are bears, snakes, and spiders, and they don’t want you getting lost. You will also need to buy leech socks there and wear them on the hike. You have a good chance of seeing deer, bears, birds, and various types of monkeys. Gibbons are all over Thailand. If you’re lucky, you’ll see wild elephants. It’s a two- or three-hour round-trip hike. On your way out on Route 2090, stop for lunch in Khao Yai at Ran Keaw Wan Khao Yai. They have a full Thai menu but specialize in green curry.

1 p.m. Stop by an open-air wood-carving studio

Route 2, the road going east, passes by dozens of roadside shops selling stone and marble products. Three hours outside Khao Yai, stop at my friend P’ Pop’s open-air wood-carving studio, Meanwhile Woodwork, where he carves bowls, trays, and cutting boards from local wood. (You put a P’ in front of the name of anyone older than you as a term of deference.) Message him on Instagram to make an appointment first: @meanwhile_woodwork. It’s set among rice paddies and his family’s orchard, and he has 18 really beautiful cats. He’ll brew a cup of tea or coffee for you and is a super-Zen guy. It’s a magical little spot.

6 p.m. Check in to a jewel-box-size hotel (with a pet turkey)

Check in at Baan Bong Pha Ohn (from $20) in Buriram, a true gem of a boutique resort and one of my favorite places in all of Thailand. The best way is to get in touch through the hotel’s Facebook page, or you can call them at +66 84 236 5060. The owner, P’ Tang, speaks good English. He’s from the village, worked as an architect in Bangkok for 15 years, then came home and built this resort. He buys vintage pieces from all over Thailand, so it’s decorated beautifully. He owns a show turkey that walks around the grounds. For dinner, let P’ Tang take care of your meals. If he’s not cooking himself, he’ll tell you where to go or help you order food from in town.

Day 3

9 a.m. Linger over a breakfast of fruit salad and kom crot

For breakfast, P’ Tang walks across the street to this grandma who makes kom crot: sweet sticky rice steamed with coconut milk in a banana leaf. He buys a platter of those and makes a fruit salad with dragon fruit, papaya, and grapes. And coffee in a Bialetti moka pot. It’s all slow. Don’t expect to get out of there quickly in the morning.

12 p.m. Get lost in Khmer-style ruins

Drive to nearby Phanom Rung Historical Park. It’s only 15 minutes from the hotel. These sprawling ruins are unlike the more touristy ruins of Ayutthaya or Sukhothai. This section of Thailand has multiple complexes like this, but this is the best one. Phanom Rung are Khmer in style, because they’re close to Cambodia, and built with massive laterite (vivid red-orange stone) boulders, Tetris-style. It looks really different from what you see in central Thailand, where ruins are built with small bricks. The ruins are very quiet. You can spend a lot of time here exploring the mazelike layout. You’re kind of in the middle of nowhere, so it’s best to get lunch here. Any time you go to these major historical parks in Thailand, they have food vendors with all of the standard fare, kind of like what you’d find at the night market: stir-fried rice or pork and basil, grilled meats, and sticky rice.

3 p.m. Peruse a silk-weaving village

In the afternoon, drive about an hour and a half north to Surin, a sleepy city where you’ll spend the night. If you’re in a rural part of Thailand and don’t know where to stay, you can’t go wrong with a Hop Inn. It’s never more than $20 a night, and they have extremely clean, air-conditioned, white-everything rooms. Arrive in the afternoon so you have time to check out Ban Tha Sawang Silk Weaving Village, which is famous for weaving gold silk brocade for the Thai royal family. They will be selling all kinds of traditional Isan-style silk goods: scarves, sarongs, and wall-hanging pieces. You’ll see the looms and people dyeing the silk. The silk is spun in these long skeins, and they dip-dye them with a lot of natural dyes, like mulberry and indigo.

8 p.m. Dine in a Thai megaclub

If you’re with other people, I’d definitely seek out Tawan Daeng Mahason Na Surin. Nightlife in Thailand used to revolve around these megaclubs with live bands and menus with every single Thai dish you’d want. You don’t encounter them much in Bangkok or Chiang Mai anymore because they’re no longer considered cool. You’re in proper Isan now, so I’d order some proper Isan food. The holy trinity of Isan food is gai yang (grilled chicken), som tum (papaya salad), and laab salad, which is a ground meat with dried chile, mint, cilantro, raw shallots, and, when you get it in this part of the country, probably some liver, too. Gai yang is one of my favorite foods of all time. It’s all about the marinade: garlic, palm sugar, cilantro roots, ground-up lemongrass, coriander, and black pepper, marinated overnight for an intensely herbaceous, savory, and sweet flavor.

Day 4

9 a.m. Visit an elephant sanctuary meets architectural wonder

Drive to ElephantsWorld in the morning (there’s a $5 entry fee for non-Thai residents). It’s designed by Boonserm Premthada, who I think is Thailand’s most exciting and innovative architect at the moment. It’s one of the most stunning architectural things I’ve ever seen, made to suit the elephants rather than just the people. The major work is a mazelike amphitheater of 30-foot-high brick walls. The village is Kui ethnically, and traditionally the Kui people have always raised elephants. These caretakers raise elephants from the day they are born. It’s their life. ElephantsWorld also repatriates elephants that have been exported to random tropical islands and bad environments. There’s an observation tower in the center, where you can see the elephants grazing.

12 p.m. Drive to Ubon Ratchathani

The 2.5-hour drive to Ubon Ratchathani is the longest drive of the trip. Ubon is food heaven and has incredible coffee, culture, and an amazing historic old town with my favorite 1970s Thai-brutalist architecture. It’s not outwardly exciting. It’s more to really chill and to enjoy a vibrant local city where there’s a blend of Vietnamese, Lao, and central-Thai dishes. I like to stay at hotel De Lit (from $30), which is a ten-minute drive from town and feels almost out of place because it has Moroccan and Mediterranean vibes. It’s cute, with a little pool. One note about Ubon: You can hire a translator to get more into the city. The first time I visited, I hired one through Upwork for $100 a day. You make a bid based on their experience.

7 p.m. Order naem neung spring rolls

For dinner, sample the local Vietnamese dishes at IndoChine. The restaurant has cement walls, tile floors, with an old-school-shop look that looks the way everything looks here. Naem neung (spring rolls with fresh vegetables, lettuce, herbs, and grilled meats), a hybrid Thai-Vietnamese delicacy, is a must-order. Spring rolls are legit at the Vietnamese places in Thailand. Don’t put the fresh chiles in unless you’re a super-advanced eater of spicy food. I don’t even do that.

9 p.m. Drink some craft beer

Start your exploration of nightlife in a way that will surprise you. Ubon Tap Taste House is literally a craft-beer place that would not be out of place anywhere in the U.S. It has a surprising selection of beers from all over the world and young Thai clientele. To see the ways in which culture is really assimilating, even from an anthropological standpoint, is sometimes the point of travel. We’re not so different.

Day 5

8 a.m. Eat a perfect breakfast at a street stall

Pak Mor is at this street stall (583 Chayangkun Rd.) on the city outskirts and may be the most satisfying single bite of food in the world. It’s a Thai-fied version of a Vietnamese dish called bánh cuốn, sort of a steamed-rice crêpe with moo yor (Isan-style sausage), herbs, fried shallots, a perfectly cooked egg, and sweet chile sauce. It is divine. Whenever I post it on Instagram, people freak out. While he steams the dish, he cracks an egg in there for a perfectly overeasy yolk.

10 a.m. Watch artisans pour molten brass

Visit the heritage craft community of Ban Pa Ao. This is where I do my brasswork. You can walk through the workshop while the craftspeople are working, and if you’re really lucky, they’ll be casting when you’re there and you watch them pour the molten brass, which is visually stunning. Ban Pa Ao is the only place in the world practicing their specific coiled lost-wax-casting technique. It involves local clay, rice husk, cow dung, resin, and fire. It’s such an elemental process. You can buy traditional Buddhist bells and ceremonial bowls that they have been making here for more than six generations.

12 p.m. Eat laab at a honky-tonk

Get lunch at Ran Lab Klang Pa, which translates literally to “laab in the forest.” The best way I can describe this is an Isan-style honky-tonk. It serves local Isan food like laab salads, grilled things, and herbaceous stews. The room has fluorescent disco lights, bamboo furniture, buffalo skulls, and mor lam music. It might be hard to order if you don’t speak Thai, but if you’ve hired the translator, they will suggest things to eat. If you are a crazy-adventurous eater, you could order raw beef and liver, which is a specialty at this place.

4 p.m. Get a healing Thai massage

Before dinner, get a two-hour Thai oil massage ($20) at Ubonvej Thai Massage. I love a Thai massage establishment that plasters No Sex in large vinyl letters on their front door because it means it’s going to be a legit, old-school massage. This place is more focused on healing than relaxing, spa-style massage; there’s a reason the word for masseuse is doctor in the local language. The masseuses here are mostly 50 and older and have crazy-strong hands.

8 p.m. Stop by every floor in a five-story restaurant

Sample the local nightlife with dinner at Impression Sunrise. This is where the local creative crowd hangs out. It’s a five-story building where every floor has a great restaurant and bar, and the top floor has live music every night. You feel like you’re in a Wong Kar Wai movie. It’s super-moody with red lights, good cocktails, and local bands that will play a mix of local Thai songs and western songs. The menu is extensive, and everything’s really good. I got yum muya (pork sausage with cucumber, cilantro, fresh chile peppers, raw shallots, and a salty sweet-and-sour dressing), which you find all over Isan.

Day 6

8 a.m. Find breakfast noodles

When in Ubon, you have to eat kuay jab yuan, a noodle dish it is famous for. These are gummy, translucent noodles with moo yor and a peppery broth. You find it on every street corner, but a safe bet is breakfast at Ubon Ocha. It’s the best way to wake up. This restaurant also has the best kao tom (rice soup) I’ve ever had. It’s a traditional Thai breakfast.

10 a.m. Wander through Thai-brutalist architecture; drink chrysanthemum tea

Before lunch, meander through the streets of Ubon’s historic old town. Start out at the new coffee shop SongSarn, where you can get a delicious latte in this space that used to be a factory. This section of town is great for wandering, as you see some of the best renditions of the mid-’70s Thai-brutalist architecture amid crumbling walls, peeling layers of paint, terrazzo, and tile. It’s a visual feast. Grab a chrysanthemum or butterfly-pea tea at the local herb shop (101 103 Phrommathep Rd.), and make sure to check out the local Chinese temple, Phuttha Kong Shrine, which has stunning terrazzo mosaics.

12 p.m. Eat a last lunch of watermelon laab and kuay jab salad

Lunch is at my friend Eve Palasak’s restaurant, Zao, which is quickly becoming a destination for the Bangkok food crowd. Eve goes to the local fresh market every morning to buy produce, and the food at her restaurant is inspired by the dishes her nanny used to make for her as a kid in the nearby Sisaket province. Highlights are the watermelon laab and kuay jab salad. From there, return your car at Ubon Ratchathani Airport and catch an afternoon flight back to Bangkok or Chiang Mai. I like to fly Thai Smile and AirAsia, which are all low-cost local airlines and are pretty reliable. You book your baggage separately, so when booking domestic flights within Thailand, make sure to pre-book your baggage by the weight you think you need — if you forget, then you have to pay nearly ten times as much at the airport.

Sukrachand’s Thailand Packing List

Phone mount

Driving in Thailand requires your focus to always be on the road, so you don’t want to be fumbling with your phone’s GPS. This is my go-to phone mount because it is magnetic and easily pops on and off any car’s AC vent. (And bring an extra USB charging cord for your phone so you can plug it into the rental car.)

Probiotics

From $17

Unless you’re a frequent traveler to Southeast Asia, it’s a good idea to prep your gut for the novel mixture of local foods you’ll be consuming. Start a regimen of probiotics a couple weeks in advance of your trip to shore up your intestinal tract with some healthy flora. Years ago, someone also recommended taking two Tums once a day (more as needed) as an additional measure against foodborne illness.

Bluetooth speaker

$100

When on a road trip like this, where you’re staying at a different hotel almost every night, I love to be able to control the vibe and feel grounded with music no matter where I’m staying. I’ve found this JBL speaker to be the best combo of size and sound quality for travel.

Sunglasses

One important thing to have for this trip is a pair of sunglasses you really love — not just for the driving but also when you’re out visiting the ruins, ElephantsWorld, etc. I’m partial to the Ray-Ban Wayfarer II Classic with a brown lens. The warming effect of the lenses just makes everything look more like a postcard, especially if it happens to be a cloudy day.

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The COVID-19 situation there: As of December 24, fully vaccinated travelers can apply for a Thailand Pass under either the Phuket Sandbox or Quarantine programs. The Phuket Sandbox allows visitors free rein on the island for one week, after which a negative PCR test allows them passage to other parts of the country. Travelers who fly into Bangkok must quarantine for one week before also taking a PCR test.
I’ve Road-Tripped Through Thailand 3 Times