Drought remains the most important factor that affects rice productivity, especially in rainfed areas, worldwide. Upland rice is one of the crop choices of farmers in the rainfed environment. Although upland rice varieties require less water than lowland rice varieties, yields often remain limited by drought, particularly in the period of early growth. The aims of this study were to identify the traits related to early drought tolerance in upland rice varieties, and to identify the potential sources of germplasm for early drought tolerance. A total of sixty upland rice varieties were planted in a factorial experiment with a randomized complete block design with 3 replications in the rainy seasons of 2011 and 2012, under greenhouse conditions. Based on the drought tolerance index (DTI), the test germplasm sources were classified into three groups: (i) susceptible; (ii) moderately tolerant; (iii) tolerant to drought stress. Grain yield (GY) showed significant negative correlations with the leaf rolling score (r= − 0.623, P< 0.01), the leaf death score (LDS) (r= − 0.673, P< 0.01) and the recovery score (r= − 0.746, P< 0.01), while leaf dry matter (r= 0.698, P< 0.01) and leaf water potential (r= 0.618, P< 0.01) had significant positive correlations with GY. These findings indicate the suitability of the DTI as the selection criteria for early drought tolerance in a breeding programme. In addition, the upland rice germplasm accessions KKU-ULR011, KKU-ULR012, KKU-ULR125, KKU-ULR199 and KKU-ULR292 were identified as having high levels of stability for drought tolerance in both the 2011 and 2012 experiments, suggesting their potential for further use for rice variety improvement for drought tolerance.