Nong Khai tends to be a place that people merely pass through. Just across the river from Vientiane, Laos, the town is perhaps most known for its bridge and its immigration checkpoint. Foreign visitors, most of whom are making visa runs, rarely stick around for more than a night. But something about the mythical “birthplace of the nagas” intrigued me. I decided to explore the area for a few days, and discovered that Nong Khai has plenty in store to make it a worthy destination in its own right.
Within easy access from the center of town you’ll find temples with fascinating histories, a park filled with monolithic sculptures of Hindu gods, and spectacular sunset views over the Mekong. And the city also makes for a good base for some excellent day trips.
Nong Khai is part of the Isaan region of Thailand, a large area in the country’s northeast which comprises of 20 provinces. Isaan has its own rich culture, dialect and cuisine. In many ways, the area shares more in common with Laos than it does with other parts of Thailand. In fact, the ‘Isaan dialect’ of Thailand and the Lao tongue are actually more or less the same language!
Having just spent some time across the border before my arrival in Nong Khai, I was relieved to find the same friendly and laid back atmosphere that I experienced on the other side of the river. While I stuck around town longer than most visitors, I easily could’ve enjoyed another day or two, taking it easy with a book by the Mekong. But if you’re in a rush, all the central locations mentioned below can be crammed into a single day.
All of these locations are walkable from the center of town, though you’ll probably want to rent a bicycle to get to Sala Keoku
Birthplace of the Nagas
Nong Khai is significant to the Thais for being the mythical home of the naga serpents. If you’ve visited Thailand then you’ve surely seen these before outside of temples. Though somewhat ominous looking in appearance, the nagas, also known as “Phaya Naga,” are revered by Buddhists for having helped shield the Buddha from rain as he remained in deep meditation for days. Statues of a meditating Buddha under a group of nagas is a very common sight in Thailand, and especially in Nong Khai.
The nagas are also mentioned in Hinduism and Jainism. Throughout Asia, there are a number different myths explaining where they came from, but the Thais and Laotians claim that it’s the Mekong. In Hinduism, the serpents were commanded by the creator god Brahma to dwell underground in caves or bodies of water, only allowed out to harm the wicked. Scenes of the god Vishnu sitting under a multi-headed naga serpent have also been prevalent throughout Hindu societies long before Buddhists adopted similar imagery.
Every year on Buddhist lent, mysterious lights appear over the Mekong in Nong Khai. These strange fireballs. which appear only one night of the year, are said by locals to be produced by the nagas themselves.
It wasn’t until after my arrival in Nong Khai that I bothered to look up the date of the event. I was shocked to learn that it took place no earlier than just one day before my arrival! I walked along the river on my first night, hoping to catch a glimpse of some leftover fireballs, but my efforts were futile. One day late, or a year too early, I had to settle for admiring scenes of the big event painted on temple walls around town.
Wat Pho Chai's Mysterious Image
One of the most significant spots in Nong Khai is a temple known as Wat Pho Chai, home to one of Thailand’s most revered Buddha images. Cast in gold hundreds of years ago, the statue is known as Luang Phor Phra Sai. Along with many other stories and events from local lore, this Buddha image’s eventful history is portrayed in beautiful murals all over the temple walls.
Laotian in origin, this Buddha image was originally part of a set of three nearly identical statues, all named after local princesses. Those familiar with Southeast Asian history may be aware that the Thais attacked and looted Vientiane in the late 18th century, taking the venerated Emerald Buddha statue and the palladium of Laos, the Phra Bang statue, along with them. It’s said that they also grabbed the Luang Phor Phra Sai and the two other identical statues (called Phra Suk and Phra Serm) during this same siege.
On their way to Thailand, each statue was placed on a raft, but the image named after Princess Phra Suk didn’t make it. It sank to the bottom of the river and has never been recovered since. Phra Sai and Phra Serm, on the other hand, both made it across the river to Nong Khai. Phra Sai was placed in Wat Pho Chai, where it still remains today, and Phra Serm went to Wat Pradit Thammakhun, a close distance away.
Later on in the 1800’s, the Thai king Rama IV requested that both statues be brought to Bangkok. The Phra Sai statue, however, seemed to have a different opinion on the matter. Seemingly taking on a mind of its own, legend has it that the statue suddenly became so heavy that the cart carrying it was no longer able to move. Even elephants were summoned to pull the cart, but it still wouldn’t budge. After learning of the situation, the king decided that it was best for the statue to remain at Wat Pho Chai. Once the decision was made, the cart which the statue sat on suddenly became mobile again!
Don’t miss the stunning mural paintings all over the walls of Wat Pho Chai. You can find depictions of local legends, old Buddhist tales and even modern-day Nong Khai.
Luang Phor Phra Sai is still highly venerated by locals to this day. The image is the closest thing the town has to a local celebrity, with posters of the elegant statue hanging all over town. And Wat Pho Chai, accordingly, receives a constant stream of Thai visitors offering their respects to the sacred image.
Thais and Laotians believe that certain Buddha statues can have special powers. Everyone acknowledges, of course, that these statues are made by the hands of man, their purpose being to remind followers of the Buddha’s teachings. But this part of the world is also strongly animist at heart, and many locals believe that physical objects can absorb the energy of a person’s prayers. Multiply this by thousands of devotees over a number of years, and some statues are thought to amass some very potent occult powers. Throughout Thailand, there are plenty of legends surrounding different Buddha statues. Some simply didn’t want to be moved, while others completely changed the fortunes of their towns – for either better or for worse!
And the Phra Serm statue? It now resides in Bangkok at a temple called Wat Pathum Wanaram. During your time in Nong Khai, though, you can see a replica at the little temple of Wat Pradit Thammakhun, an easy walk from Wat Pho Chai.
Wat Pradit Thammakhun
Walking east along the Mekong from the center of town, you’ll come across Wat Pradit Thammakhun. The small wat once hosted the Phra Serm Buddha image (now in Bangkok), and today contains a replica. As you’ll likely walk past it on the way to the next destination, you may want to stop by for a quick peek.
Phra That Lanong & the Sunken Chedi
One of the other significant temples of Nong Khai is known as Phra That Lanong. But the one that’s there now is just a replica. No, not another Buddha replica, but a replica of an entire temple!
The original temple sunk into the Mekong river in 1849, with the chedi still sticking out through the water. Hence the name “sunken chedi.” Originally constructed in the 15th or 16th century, the original temple is believed to house foot bones of the Buddha. Therefore, the temple is still venerated today despite its submersion. You may even see passenger boats going out to it for a closer look.
Thanks to the replica on the edge of the river today, we can get a good idea of what the original used to look like. Inside you’ll find some more excellent murals – a common feature of temples in both Isaan and Laos.
The temple is easy to find, as you simply have to walk along the river to get there. It’s visible from the center of town, yet it turns out to be much farther than it looks. It’s about 30 minutes of walking from the Wat Pho Chai area. You may want to rent a bicycle, as there’s not a whole lot to see along the way. Or, you could occasionally venture down some of Nong Khai’s little side streets to soak up more of the local atmosphere.
If you’ve visited Vientiane, you’ve likely seen or have at least heard of the Buddha Park, home to dozens of massive concrete statues of the Buddha and all kinds of Hindu deities. Not many people realize, though, that there’s a similar park on the other side of the river in Nong Khai.
The two parks were both created by a man named Bunleua Sulilat. He escaped Laos when the Communists took over in 1975, and lived out the rest of his days in his hometown of Nong Khai, where he’d build yet another sculpture park. The Nong Khai version is known as Sala Keoku, named after Sulilat’s own spiritual teacher.
After having visited both parks, I would say that while the two are definitely worth visiting, Sala Keoku is even more impressive than the original. It’s larger and with a lot more to explore. There’s also a fascinating three-storied temple containing the remains of Sulilat himself.
You can learn more about Sala Keoku, as well as its predecessor across the river, right here.
Nong Khai is a small town and you shouldn’t need more than a day to visit all the sites listed above. But the city’s relaxing atmosphere and views from the riverfront make it the perfect place to designate a day (or more) to chill out with a good book. And if you’re looking for something a little more active, neighboring Udon Thani province is home to one of Thailand’s most unique parks.
Enjoying the Riverfront
While it may be no Luang Prabang, the Mekong riverfront of Nong Khai is much nicer than Vientiane‘s version on the other side. There are plenty of restaurants and coffee shops to choose from, while gift shops sell naga related souvenirs and t-shirts. And there’s even a preserved old-fashioned post shop where you can look at old pictures of the town.
The western part of the riverfront is a little nicer and cozier, and this is where I based myself at Pan Guest House (more below). Heading east, the boardwalk grows much wider and cafes become more sparse. Much of it was under construction during the time of my visit, so things may change by the time you’re there. It seems that the local government smartly sees the potential of their riverfront, so you can likely expect more development, hotels and restaurants in the near future.
Speaking of restaurants, you may notice that many of the establishments in Nong Khai have drastically different prices depending on whether you’re looking at the Thai or English menu. While there are a couple of places along the riverfront with equal pricing for Thais and foreigners, it might take a little time and effort to find them. Aside from this one issue, I found Nong Khai to be a friendly and welcoming town overall.
Day Trips from Nong Khai
Nong Khai borders the much larger Udon Thani province, which is home to some the Isaan region’s top landmarks. One day trip you should experience if you like nature, hiking or prehistory, is the Phu Phra Bat Historical Park. There you’ll be able to find ancient prehistorical cave paintings as well as beautifully bizarre rock formations. The park is very well-kept and organized, but not many people bother to venture out there, which is really a shame. On the bright side, you’ll get to have the gorgeous hiking trails and panoramic views mostly to yourself.
Learn more about how to get there and back from Nong Khai right here.
Another famous site in Udon Thani province is the Red Lotus Lake, which has become sort of a symbol for the entire Isaan region. The lake gets rave reviews, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to make it there during my trip. To get there, you may want to try taking a bus to Udon Thani city first. Then take a taxi to the lake. The total journey from Nong Khai should take a little under two hours one-way.
FROM WITHIN THAILAND:
There are plenty of options to getting to Nong Khai from all around Thailand, as it’s the main border town for those traveling overland to Laos. You can take a train directly from Bangkok (Hua Lamphong Station) which takes around 11 hours. You can also take a bus from Bangkok operated by the company Budsarakham Tour.
From Chiang Mai, there is one bus which goes directly to Nong Khai operated by the Sueksa Tour Company for around 900 baht.
However, the best way to reach Nong Khai from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, or anywhere else outside of the Isaan region is probably to fly. The nearest airport is Udon Thani, but you can find direct flights by Nok Air for as cheap as the bus or train tickets cost. From Udon Thani airport, you can take a minibus directly to Nong Khai for 200 baht.
From Vientiane, simply go to the same bus station behind the Talat Sao Mall where you took the bus to get to Buddha Park. Don’t take the same bus, but look for a ticket window near the mall that has an English sign for bus tickets to Thailand. There are several leaving every day and they are very cheap, only costing around 15,000 kip.
These buses will take you across the bridge, wait for you to go through Thai immigration, and then take you all the way to the bus terminal in Nong Khai. Fortunately, the Nong Khai bus terminal is within walking distance from most of the area’s hotels and guest houses, so there shouldn’t be any need for a taxi ride.
Nong Khai has plenty of affordable accommodation right beside the Mekong. Though the town isn’t popular with regular tourists (a shame, really), plenty of people doing visa runs to Laos stay for a night or two, hence the abundance of hotel options.
I had a great experience at the Pan Guesthouse. I had a very spacious room with a private bathroom for 500 baht a night. While my room had no view, there was a communal balcony with great views of the Mekong – much nicer than any of the views from the Vientiane side! There were also tables and chairs set up if you want to relax outside during the sunset.