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Nong Khai – Land of the Phaya Naga

Last Update: February 2020
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In the know destinations – Thailand


I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I’ve visited Thailand. Some visits were just short beach holidays or passing through on my way to other destinations. Several, longer visits involved extensive travel for months on my way to nowhere, just exploring this wonderful country.

The list of Thailand’s highlights seems endless. Still, there are many places like Nong Khai that are not yet overrun by tourists, but certainly worth discovering. Interesting cities oozing with local culture. Small laid-back riverine towns and spectacular nature reserves. Not exactly hidden gems, but without the usual crowds, only visited by the few travelers in the know.



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Nong Khai


Nong Khai in the Northeast of Thailand is a major jump off point into Laos with the lattter capital Vientiane just 20km away. While Laos is absolutely wonderful, don’t be in such a hurry to get there. If you planned, let’s say, 1 day in Nong Khai and 2 days in Vientiane, you might want to consider doing it the other way around.

Nong Khai is actually a lot nicer than Vientiane, so stay a bit longer and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. You might even end up staying forever, as so many expats did before you.

Now, about the Phaya Naga. Y’all know what a Naga is right? Naga are mythical serpent-like creatures, sometimes with multiple heads and locals believe they live in the Mekong. Originally from Hindu myth they play a big part in Thai, Lao and even Shan mythology. Nong Khai is situated along the Mekong river and has adopted the Naga as the town’s symbol. As a result, depictions of Naga are totally dominating the towns street scene.


Naga statue in Nong Khai
Naga statue on the Nong Khai river promenade

Festivals

You should be so lucky to have your visit coincide with one of the many festivals that are specific to Nong Khai.

  • Anou Savari: Big street fair in March with street music to commemorate the defeat of the 1884-1886 Hau rebellion;

  • Bun Bang Fai Fair: Every 6th lunar month of the year (May/June) rockets are fired into the sky, asking the god of rain to take care of the crops. Crowds come together at the Wat Po Chai temple fair to celebrate with music and street stalls;

  • Candle Festival: Street parade on the day before Buddhist Lent. Huge candles are carried through the streets in a colorful parade filled with folklore;

  • Tak Bat Thewo: The biggest event of Nong Khai at the end of Buddhist lent (September/October) is celebrated with longboat rowing races. Alms are offered to the Buddhist monks in the morning. During the day, Thai and Lao longboats with up to thirty rowing crew per boat, join in spectacular races on the Mekong river.

Naga Fireballs

A mysterious phenomenon takes place every year on the last night of Buddhist Lent in October. At night red fireballs emerge from the Mekong to shoot up high into the sky. The Thai call it ‘Bang Fai Phaya Nak’. Legend says that the Naga shoot the fireballs to welcome Buddha upon his return from heaven after the monsoon. There are many scientific theories trying to explain the phenomenon, but for now there is no consensus. Don’t you just love these kind of local tales and mysteries?


fireballs in the Nong Khai sky
Naga Fireballs – photocredit: @Bangkokpost



How to get to Nong Khai


You can fly from Bangkok to Udon Thani in 1h (from THB600 to 2000) and from there continu to Nong Khai by bus (1h THB200). Check Skyscanner for the schedule and prices of flights.

Alternatively, buses and trains from the South come to Nong Khai from as far away as Bangkok, both taking app 10h. The train passes through Korat, Khon Kaen and Udon Thani making it possible to board from any of these locations.

For bus/ferry/train schedules and tickets within in Thailand I always use the transport planning tool below from 12Go.com to book online. Especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s). The tool is incredibly easy to use, just fill out your place of departure, your destination and travel date. It will show the complete schedule and ticket price of all related transport. Make your choice and book instantly.


Powered by 12Go Asia system


Getting around

For the most part you can easily navigate Nong Khai on foot, especially if you stay within the town center and along the river promenade. Due to the light traffic, ventures outside of town can be done by rented motorbike or bicycle. Some of the guesthouses rent out motorbikes and bicycles or else they are sure to know of a place that does. The going day rates are THB70 for a bicycle and THB200-250 for a motorbike.

If needed, there are ample tuk-tuk’s around, and Nong Khai tuk-tuks are really something else. As of lately, prices have gone up and bargaining remains key. Short trips with the city start at THB40-50 and trips out of town are THB90-100 depending on the distance.


Special tuk-tuk in Nong Khai
Nong Khai tuk-tuks are something else



What to see/do in Nong Khai


Tha Sadet Market, near the river promenade is an atmospheric, rather touristy market. Still, it’s different enough to be interesting with Vietnam war memorabilia and imported goods from Indochina next to the usual t-shirts and watches. The partly covered market winds through several streets like a maze to end up at the river promenade where you can sit down and relax with a cold drink and a view.

Wat Po Chai in the middle of town near the bus station is the most revered temple in Nong Khai. The temple holds the bronze “Luang Phor Phra Sai” Buddha statue with a solid gold head and some interesting mural paintings. Worth a visit.

Wat Pha Tak Suea Skywalk is pretty far out (70km) and has just a small glass floor, but it’s a great viewpoint overlooking the Mekong all the way into Laos. What’s more, the scenic route to reach it is absolutely stunning.

Sala Keo Kou, also known as Wat Khaek and the spelling differs depending on who you ask, is a bizarre sculpture park about 5km East of town. This is an absolute must see and easy to reach by bicycle. The gigantic Hindu and Buddhism themed sculptures are the life’s work of Laotian artist Bunleua Sulilat. Apparently he was banned from Laos in the late 1970s where he left behind a similar sculpture park. The park opens everyday from 7am to 6pm, entrance fee THB20.




Where to sleep in Nong Khai


Accommodations in Nong Khai are pretty much spread out over town with two main clusters. One is on the Western river promenade and the other is in the small soi’s (alleys), connecting Soi Mi Chai to Soi Rim Kong.

Khiang Khong Guesthouse
Dirt Cheap = up to THB500
This well worth cozy guesthouse with the most friendly owners ever is not listed on any of the booking sites. You will have to call them for a reservation or just show up. No breakfast, no frills, but THB500 for a clean, close to the riverside, aircon, wifi room, less, if you settle for a fan room. I forgot to take a photo so here’s a nice Mekong sunset instead. #541 Soi Rim Khong 1, Phone 0066(0)42422870.


Silsopa Hostel
Dirt Cheap = up to THB500
Housed in a beautiful old style building that also houses an art gallery. This value for money hostel rents out dorm beds and private rooms and is extremely popular, so make sure to book ahead. You share the bathroom between two rooms. Bicycles are free to use and for THB69 they serve their famous Silsopa breakfast. Located in the Western part of Soi Mi Chai just passed the Nong Khai hospital.


Ploy Inn Hotel
Budget = from THB500 to THB1000
Almost brand new and decent hotel next to the Tha Sadet market and 10 steps from the riverside. We didn’t actually stay here, but the friendly staff gave us a tour. Maybe the hotel lacks some character, but honestly, there’s nothing wrong with the free bike use and the clean, spacious rooms. Breakfast is included and is said to be one of the better in Nong Khai.


Mut Mee Garden
Budget = from THB500 to THB1000
Arguably the best location in Nong Khai, on the river front with the best views and around the corner from the weekend nightmarket. Cozy garden setting and an overall laidback, if not new-age-ish atmosphere. No aircon, but the river breeze will cool you down. Pay a little more and go for the superior rooms, since they are more spacious and river front.


Park Pool Resort
Budget = from THB500 to THB1000
Away from the town center and the river front, but just a short tuk-tuk ride away. More importantly, there’s a swimming pool! Rooms are available in the gorgeous main building or garden villas. The area is quiet and the rooms are spacious (almost 25m2). We weren’t impressed by the included breakfast, but it was ok.


Compare accommodation prices and read reviews on Agoda. The best prices, regular discounts and off season deals. 



Where to eat in Nong Khai


The town has a mixed local Isan, cosmopolitan Thai, Lao and Vietnamese population, which is also demonstrated in the food options. With a modest expat community and the steady stream of backpackers passing through, Western food is also plentiful.


Isan sausage on the grill in Nong Khai
Isan Sausage

Shabu Indy Thai hot pot restaurant with ok food, ok prices and a top location. Only beware on weekends when large Thai groups come to dine. They have a habit of completely taking over the place and don’t shy away from (bad) karaoke. Well, if you’re in to it, could be fun!

Cà phê Việt. Wow! Simple, but oh so well executed Vietnamese dishes. Very tasty and beautifully presented with reasonable pricing. Service can be a bit dodgy at times.

Ma-La-Gor. Cozy looking place, not the usual Thai canteen style, but still with very reasonable pricing. Serves mainly Isan dishes so expect papaya salads and lot’s of meat with dip.

Mackey’s Riverside Kitchen. Nice enough restaurant offering farang friendly Thai and Western food, which explains the slightly higher pricing. The setting on the promenade with views over the Mekong make this a perfect place to linger after dinner.

German Bakery. Nice breakfast with excellent coffee, fresh bread, German sausages and yum pastry.

Markets

Tha Sadet. The most prominent market in Nong Khai is my favorite food place. Actually, the market mainly targets tourists, but don’t think they compromise on the food. Next to clothing, shoes, souvenirs, electronics and Vietnam war memorabilia there are a number of seriously good food stalls. Isan grilled chicken, sausage, barbecued spicy pork with sticky rice and grilled fresh Mekong fish.

Walking Street, Every Saturday starting at 5pm a small night market appears on the river promenade. Of course there are food stalls.

Chaiyaporn Market. I didn’t try the food here yet, but fellow travelers were raving about it.



Travel Insurance


No, no, no, don’t you dare to skip this part, even if you think that travel insurance is boring. You know what really is boring? Donating your hard earned pennies for the next three years to cover your Thai medical bills, because you skimped on travel insurance.

Any serious injuries or ailments outside of Bangkok will almost certainly involve costly medical transport, payable upfront when lacking proper insurance. Same goes for hospital beds, let alone repatriation. Better have your rich family members on speed dial.

Or better yet, buy your travel insurance from a specialist for a reasonable price. Read more about travel insurance here, or get an instant quote right now!



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