Presenting a new, occasional series focused around where we’re living the nomadic life. As time allows I’ll be going back to previous cities where I’ve lived with thoughts on them as well. Read the whole ‘Life as a Nomad’ series, including guest posts from fellow nomads!
When my wife and I moved to Thailand from Korea, we decided on what we’re calling the ‘slow nomad’ style of travel. At it’s heart, a slow nomad is one that lives in a place long enough to become a part of it – long enough to feel like a local, or at the very least find the best coffee in town through rigorous testing. There’s an ulterior reason to coming to Khon Kaen, naturally – my next book is all about the weird and offbeat destinations around Thailand. Do click the link to get signed up for updates (and a discount when the book’s ready), but for now, read on.
So, tell me about Khon Kaen.
Khon Kaen is essentially the capital of Isaan, Thailand’s rural northeastern region of around 20 provinces. The population was 114,000 in 2010 – about the same as Reykjavik in Iceland or Ann Arbor in Michigan. Compared to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, it’s a slower – but more authentic – slice of life.
When did you live here?
From March 2014 to September 2014.
But why Khon Kaen?
For my next book, for starters. I’m in search for the weird and offbeat destinations around the area, and Khon Kaen is about as geographically centered as it gets in the region.
Why Khon Kaen as opposed to another city in the region, such as Udon Thani?
In one word: Research. From what we discovered, the reputation of Udon Thani was one of lots of partying… Not our cup of tea. Khon Kaen was quieter – where foreigners moved after they married a local to settle down. After a weekend trip there to see the Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, we knew we made the right choice. While it’s not entirely fair to judge a city by a single weekend trip, ‘sleazy’ was the first word that came to mind.
How do you get there?
From Bangkok, it’s a one-hour flight or an eight-hour bus ride. From Chiang Mai, it’s a one-hour flight or an 11-12 hour bus ride. The route from Chiang Mai is a little more circuitous than the straight highway between Bangkok and Khon Kaen.
Are there many foreigners around?
Some – but to be honest we live very different lives from them. In most cases they’re older, semi-retired or completely retired, living off their pensions from their European home country. I’d love to catch up with more of them to hear their stories, but it’s hasn’t been a high priority. The occasional exceptions are around (the manager and owner of the nearby pizza place are two of them), but they’re few and far between.
I’ve met several nice folks at the local quiz night (No. 1 Bar and Restaurant on Namueng road, close to the bus terminal – see kkquiz.com for a map), which is a fine place to be on Tuesday nights starting around 7:30pm.
Are there many foreign products or services around?
Quite a few. Between the newer Central Plaza (corner of Sri Chant and highway route 2) and the slightly ghetto Kosa mall (Sri Chant, east of highway 2), there’s no shortage of foreign foods. Foreign franchises aren’t well-represented outside the malls, but the local Tops (grocery store) has an ample selection of European offerings along with the snacks and fresh fruits and vegetables.
What about the language barrier?
(And these are just the consonants!)
Yeah, we knew that was going to be a problem. Bangkok and Chiang Mai are pretty easy to get around without needing to learn the Thai alphabet or even speak a word of Thai. It makes an expat lazy. Coming to Khon Kaen means there are few English speakers (though, magically, there almost always seems to be one around when we really need them!). English signs are rarer outside the more first-world areas (e.g. the malls), and almost non-existent at street stalls or smaller local restaurants. It’s giving us a chance to practice, of course.
What’s there to see around town?
Plenty of temples, for starters. Khon Kaen University is quite large, and there are some peaceful lakes and parks within biking distance. The night market is well worth the visit, and is a fine place for some local food as well.
Is it worth coming to Khon Kaen as a tourist?
Khon Kaen isn’t a huge tourist destination, although it should be for a certain kind of tourist. As a base for the Isaan area it’s hard to beat – a few examples include the monkey park where they stole my camera, the prehistoric rock paintings, and the full-size dinosaurs. All kinds of fun to pose with. Add in the aforementioned lakes, night markets, and parks to round out your trip around the city.
You’ll probably be disappointed by the nightlife, though – a smattering of bars offer live Thai music, and a block’s worth of more pretentious-looking bars offer bottle service to the hi-so’s. It’s all geared towards the locals, though – head to Bangkok for all kinds of things to do at night.
What’s the best way to get started as a nomad there?
To be honest, I’d have to wonder why you weren’t going to Bangkok (for the many entrepreneurial or networking opportunities) or Chiang Mai (for the still-cutting-edge startup scene and a flurry of activities). That there are few English speakers around means finding help might also be a bit difficult. If your opportunity or business doesn’t require a lot of networking or outside help, Khon Kaen is quiet, low-key, and pretty cheap.
Finding an apartment was a bit of a challenge – the biggest issue was trying to find something large enough for our stay (6 months) that wasn’t a glorified hotel room. Otherwise, Thailand is pretty easy to get started in – electricity and water were already on, the internet took a couple of days to hook up, and we were back to schedule within a week of moving.
What’s your favorite spot to get local cuisine – a place not frequented by tourists? What about a taste of home or the Western world?
There’s a couple of Thai cafes near our house on Sri Chant road. Decent Thai food at the usual 40-50 baht prices, and some good coffee at Sitnee Cafe. Tons of street food options along Sri Chant as well.
A taste of home? Pomodoro is hard to beat. Authentic Italian, great lasagna, and very good pizza. It’s pretty close to the train station. There’s also an outstanding buffet serving up all-you-can-eat steak, along with Western and Thai food galore. It’s called the T-Bone Steak Buffet, and it’s along Mittraphap road (GPS: 16.459853, 102.831933)
How did you find a place to live (e.g. where did you look)? What will you do differently the next time out?
Our research didn’t help us find any realtors that spoke English, so we checked into a hotel for a couple of days and biked around town. We eventually chose a house for the space, which was made available by a hotel owner.
Next time, I’ll join the Facebook groups a bit earlier to get the lay of the land – and to learn the fair prices of apartments. It also helps to have an idea of which part of town is good to be in.
Which specific websites, forums, or Facebook groups are worth joining? Which ones aren’t?
I’m not aware of too many websites aiming to connect Khon Kaen. khonkaen.com is a decent, if somewhat dated, looking website with some reference material. Thaivisa.com is a fair place to get the daily newsletter, but the forums aren’t exactly the best place to find the best of humanity.
Are there many jobs available for nomads like yourself, or is it easy to find clients in the neighborhood?
Not really, no. That’s not why we moved to Khon Kaen, of course – we moved here to research my next book about Offbeat Thailand and to have a home base in the Isaan area.
What’s the vibe you get around locals? Do they see you as a potential partner or a threat?
The locals just seem to stare – there are few other foreigners around, and they’re stereotypically older gentlemen living off their pensions. A fair number have Thai wives that look younger than they
What’s been the most difficult thing to get used to as a nomad in Khon Kaen?
Not really having a in-person community to hang out with. Again, the quiz night is great, and is one of the few things I’ll miss when we leave.
Think you’ll miss it after you leave?
Nope. It’s been comfortable and fine and all, but the extrovert in me wishes there were a bit more action around this relatively sleepy town. Not every town can be awesome (and I’d be suspicious if someone said that like they meant it!)
Last, but most important question: where’s the best place to get a beer?
A place just down the street from where we live – Pirate Pizza on Sri Chant rd. Beyond the food selection, they’re probably unrivaled as far from their imported selection goes. The owner and manager are both friendly chaps, and they’ll put on whichever game you happen to be interested in watching if they can get it. Head west down Sri Chant rd. from Central Plaza – it’s about 1.4 km from the intersection (GPS: 16.433658, 102.813703)
Now, what about your questions?
Ask in the comments or send me an e-mail!
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