Considering Thailand’s immense popularity with tourists, its northeastern Isaan region hardly gets the attention it deserves. The area is home to stunning landscapes, a rich cultural heritage and some of the friendliest locals you’ll encounter in the ‘Land of Smiles.’ While Isaan consists of 20 provinces in total, you can’t go wrong with Sakon Nakhon when it comes to getting a sample of the best the region has to offer.
Sakon Nakhon is a fascinating mix of Khmer, Lao and Thai cultures. As with much of Isaan, the Khmer Empire controlled the area for hundreds of years beginning in the 10th century. They left behind a handful of stone temples and even a reservoir, now home to a public park. Following the birth of the Lan Chang Kingdom in 1349, Sakon Nakhon became part of Laos for a few hundred years, and then it eventually got absorbed into Siam. To this day, many locals still identify as Lao despite carrying Thai passports.
In this guide we’ll go over the top attractions to do and see in the capital of Sakon Nakhon as well as the wider Sakon Nakhon Province. Be sure to check the end of the article for more info on getting there and around.
Wat Phra That Choeng Chum
Situated right in the center of town, Wat Phra That Choeng Chum is Sakon Nakhon’s main temple. Though hardly obvious from the outside, the temple dates back all the way to the 10th century when it was built by the Khmer Empire. But most of the temple’s structures standing there today were built in the 1600’s.
The main highlight of the temple is its 24m high chedi. In fact, the temple was even named after it. From the outside, it appears like a Lao-style chedi, not unlike the one at Pha That Luang in Vientiane. This area was, of course, long part of the Lan Chang Kingdom, the precursor to Laos.
But by stepping into the viharn, you can glimpse another layer of its history. An opening reveals part of the original laterite structure built by the Khmers, inside of which relics like a crystal Buddha are kept. It’s also believed to be a spot where the Buddha once left a footprint.
This chedi, with a Lao exterior over a Khmer base, located within present-day Thailand, could be considered an allegory for Sakon Nakhon itself.
The main Buddha image within the viharn is known as the Luang Phor Phra Ong Saen Buddha. The large golden statue is said to have been cast in the Chiang Saen style, meaning it possibly came from Chiang Rai Province in the Lanna region at some point.
And be sure not to miss the ubosot. Its interior is entirely covered in dazzling red and gold patterns, while colorful murals decorate the walls.
Walking around the spacious complex, you’ll also encounter chinthe statues, or lion-like creatures which act as temple guardians.
Also, if you happen to be visiting in October, the temple is home to the annual Wax Castle Festival. Every year, at the end of Buddhist lent, artists present their stunning recreations of Buddhist architecture made entirely of wax.
Suan Somdet Phrasinakarin Park & Nong Hang Lake
Nearby the temple, also within the city center, visitors have access to two bodies of water, around which you’ll find plenty of walking paths and benches. The first is an ancient Khmer baray, or rectangular reservoir. These can be found in nearly all cities once occupied by the ancient Khmer, and were most likely built for agricultural purposes. They may have had religious significance as well, though nobody knows for sure.
Whatever the case may be, this ancient Khmer reservoir, now over 1,000 years old, remains a scenic spot where locals can sit, relax and have a picnic. The area is known today as Suan Sa Pha Tong Park.
Interestingly, this reservoir was built right next to Nong Hang lake, one of the largest natural lakes in Thailand. In between the lake and the baray, don’t miss a mysterious Khmer ruin that may have had major astronomical significance for residents of ages past.
In between the two bodies of water, this laterite base seems to have once hosted a Khmer prasat or prang. Notice the square-shaped stone with multiple squares engraved in its top. Locals believe this has been placed to accurately mark the ‘Zodiacal Solar Calendar.’
These squares are far from uncommon at Khmer temples, however. Experts believe that their purpose was to hold precious gemstones. But perhaps they also doubled as calendars as well? As you’ll see shortly, this is not the only ruin with astronomical significance in Sakon Nakhon.
The lake is over 120 square kilometers, but thankfully, you don’t need to venture far from the town center to see a good portion of it. It’s a great spot for viewing sunsets, while there are a number of pavilions for relaxing (or taking cover during a sudden downpour).
Moreover, there a number of boatmen who can take you out to some small islands in the middle of the lake, some of which contain remnants of old temples. Don’t count on anyone being able to speak English, though.
Phra That Narai Cheng Weng
Some 6 km from the city center, Phra That Narai Cheng Weng is one of Sakon Nakhon’s most prominent historical landmarks. It’s an ancient Khmer structure that, unlike the one at Wat Phra That Choeng Chum, remains in its original form. There is, however, a modern viharn standing right next to it.
The temple was supposedly built in the Baphuon style of Khmer architecture, meaning that it dates back to sometime in the 11th century. ‘Narai’ is the local Thai term for Vishnu, meaning that this was a somewhat rare Khmer Hindu temple that wasn’t dedicated to Shiva.
And around the sandstone prasat, carvings depict scenes of Vishnu’s incarnation Krishna, though Shiva in his multi-armed form makes an appearance as well.
Nowadays, the temple functions as a Theravada Buddhist one. Notice the set of large metal balls known as luuk nimit. These balls are typically buried underground around an ubosot (ordination hall), and then stones known as bai sema are placed above them to designate the sacred space. It’s not entirely clear why these ones have been dug up, but it’s pretty interesting to see.
Inside the modern wooden temple is a seated golden Buddha image. Elsewhere in the complex, you’ll find some leftover stones from the original Khmer prasat. As we’ll cover shortly, Phra That Narai Cheng Weng is also part of an important local legend that’s tied in with another nearby Khmer temple, Phra That Phu Pek.
Phra That Phu Pek
Phra That Phu Pek is one of the most interesting and scenic sites in Sakon Nakhon Province. But it’s not easy to get to, and among the few who visit the province, even fewer make it out here. But even if you’re not a particular fan of Khmer architecture, the views, in addition to a few other surprises, make this temple well worth the journey.
Phra That Phu Pek is a rather unique Khmer temple for a number of reasons. The Khmer only built a handful of mountaintop temples in their empire, and this would’ve been the northernmost of them. At around 520 meters above sea level, the temple requires a trek up nearly 500 steps to reach.
Nobody is quite sure when the temple was built, but estimates range from the 11th – 12th centuries. And due to the absence of a roof, it’s also possible that the temple was never even finished. But why?
According to a local legend, the men and women of the area once challenged each other to a temple building competition. The deadline was the appearance of Venus in the morning sky. But in the middle of the night, the women used a lantern in a tree to trick the men. Thinking Venus had already appeared, they stopped building their temple, which gave the women a few extra hours to work on theirs.
The men’s temple, left unfinished, would come to be known as Phra That Phu Pek (‘Venus Mountain Temple’). The women’s temple, meanwhile is Phra That Narai Cheng Weng, mentioned above.
Clearly, this is a more recent local legend, and is just like another one that’s popular in neighboring Udon Thani Province. There’s just no way even these smaller Khmer temples could be built in a day! It does tell us though, that even if Phra That Phu Pek was complete at one point, it has been without its roof for quite some time.
Sitting inside the empty sanctuary is a Khmer-style Buddha image, though it’s clearly been produced recently. But just outside the prasat is what experts believe the temple was built for in the first place. Like it’s counterpart in the town center just next to the lake (situated along the same axis, in fact), Phra That Phu Pek was likely built as an astronomical calendar.
The square stone here sits in front of what appears to be a fragmented shiva linga. Like its counterpart in the center of town, local scholars claim its placement accurately marks solstices and equinoxes (not everyone agrees, however). If so, it wouldn’t be the only temple with such a function in Isaan, as the mountaintop Phnom Rung was designed for the same purpose.
The area, it turns out, is also inhabited by a large community of peacocks. You’ll likely find these elegant, colorful creatures walking right by the temple itself, but you’re bound to find even more along a nearby trail starting behind the main structure.
Keep walking along the path in the back of the temple and you’ll eventually encounter an old stone quarry. With the quarry so close, it’s even more puzzling that the temple was supposedly never finished.
Also around the area, you’ll come across a couple of lotus ponds in addition to some Buddhist shrines that were obviously added more recently. But be sure to take some time to enjoy the views.
Looking out at the gorgeous countryside, you can even spot Nong Hang Lake in the distance. You’ll also find some benches nearby the edge to rest your legs before making the descent back down.
But how does one get here? You’ll most likely have to arrange transport with your hotel, or possibly strike a deal with a taxi driver waiting around outside the Big C Supercenter. Expect to pay several hundred baht for someone to take you to Phra That Narai Cheng Weng, Phra That Phu Pek and then back into town again.
Phra That Dum
Though not nearly as essential as the two sites mentioned above, there is yet another Khmer ruin in town for archaeology fanatics. Phra That Dum originally consisted of three prasat sanctuaries lined in a row, though only one remains standing. Built of brick on a laterite base, experts believe that it was built around the same time as Phra That Narai Cheng Weng.
There’s also an intricate, yet highly eroded, sandstone lintel carving featuring a kala, or god of time. The interior, meanwhile, remains a small but functioning Buddhist shrine.
Wat Tham Phae Dan
One of the province’s more whimsical attractions, Wat Tham Phae Dan is yet another hilltop temple. But rather than being an ancient ruin, it’s a relatively modern temple which pays homage to ancient Buddhist sites around Asia. For example, you’ll find multiple carvings of the Buddha in the cliff side, reminiscent of sites in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or China.
One massive scene is that of the Hindu creation myth. As the story goes, Vishnu lies atop the serpent Ananta in the middle of an endless cosmic ocean. Out of his naval sprouts Brahma, who then goes on to create the world from scratch. While Ganesha is not part of this creation myth, the elephant god is featured here as well.
There are different vantage points spread throughout the large temple complex. This is also a good place for those who like a bit of light hiking, as narrow trails take visitors from one point to the next.
But one of the most striking vantage points is also the easiest to access. The temple has its own cafe, with the tables situated right by an amazing viewpoint of the surrounding area.
Other highlights in the area include a replica of Myanmar’s Golden Rock, a massive reclining Buddha, a Buddha footprint and a unique modern temple with tree trunks acting as the pillars.
Well out of town, Wat Tham Phae Dan is not the easiest place to get to, and you’ll need to arrange private transport there. And after parking, all visitors must hop in the back of a truck managed by the temple to go up to the site itself. But even if you find the replicas around the temple a little kitsch, the views are more than enough to warrant a journey out there.
Wat Pha Suttawas
Wat Pha Suttawas is known all throughout Thailand for its association with one of the country’s most respected monks: Phra Archan Man Phurithatto, also known as Mun Bhuridatta. A native of the Isaan region, Mun Bhuridatta lived from 1870 -1949 and is credited with founding the Thai Forest Tradition.
He spent years wandering and meditating in forests and caves throughout the country. He also developed a particular type of meditation, emphasizing meditative practice and asceticism over scripture and ritual.
Wat Pha Suttawas is the last temple where Mun Bhuridatta lived and taught, and today the temple doubles as a museum to his legacy. Interestingly, before his return to Isaan, he spent two years (1932 – 34) as the abbot of Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai. Visitors to that temple can now see the ‘Acharn Mun Bhuridatto Viharn‘ which was built in 2003.
Chaloem Phrakiat Lotus Pond
Yet another fun place to visit in Sakon Nakhon is Chaloem Phrakiat Lotus Pond, which is just as its name suggests. But what separates this place from the reservoir and lake right in the center of the town?
In contrast to the lake, the pond has walkways and paths going right over the water, giving visitors a great vantage point of the countless lotuses and lily pads floating on the surface. The site, in fact, was established in 2009 to help university students study local plant life. Now open to visitors daily until 18:00, the pond is home to over a 100 different plant species in all.
The centerpiece of the pond is a large white sculpture of a naga serpent. While popular all over Southeast Asia, nagas are especially a big deal in the Isaan region, as locals believe their ‘hometown,’ so to speak, is the nearby Mekong River.
More Around Town
Yes, there’s even still some more things to do and see around Sakon Nakhon Province. The area happens to be home to one of Thailand’s largest Christian communities. If you’re interested in seeing French-style architecture, go check out Tha Rae Village off of Highway 22. Though Thailand was never colonized by France, many of the community’s original inhabitants were Catholics who immigrated from Vietnam.
Also be sure to try local Isaan cuisine. One of the most popular dishes is Gai Yang, which is juicy grilled chicken accompanied by a special marinade the region is famous for. It includes soy sauce, fish sauce, chilies, lemongrass and garlic, among other ingredients.
Som Tum Thai, or spicy papaya salad, is another Isaan staple. It consists of unripe papaya, tomatoes, peanuts and fish sauce. Be warned, though – the dish can be spicy, and is not at all like the sweet papaya fruit flavor you may be imagining!
And for those looking to shop, Sakon Nakhon is a major producer of indigo products. The street just in front of Wat Phra That Choeng Chum, for example, turns into a market in the evenings, with just about every stall featuring some type of indigo-dyed clothing. There are also other vendors and even indigo fashion brands based in town, so try asking at your hotel if you’re interested.
Sakon Nakhon has its own airport with direct flights to and from Bangkok’s DMK airport. If you’re coming from another city such as Chiang Mai, you’d need to transfer in Bangkok first. Another alternative, though, is to fly directly to Udon Thani and then take a bus from there. The ride just lasts about 2.5 hours.
On that note, Sakon Nakhon is also easy to visit for those coming into Thailand overland from Vientiane, Laos. You can spend a few days in Nong Khai and Udon Thani before making the bus journey eastward.
As mentioned, many of the sites above require some form of private transport to access. You can find some local taxi drivers gathered outside the Big C Supercenter in the middle of town, but they’re unlikely to speak English. Therefore, it may be best to ask your hotel, and they’ll likely be able to connect you with a local driver for a reasonable price.
Or, if you’re lucky, you may run into a friendly local who will generously drive you around to many of the sites.
Considering how many of the sites are out of town, location is not incredibly important when it comes to choosing a hotel. The city center is probably the best idea, though, as it gives you easy access to Wat Phra That Choeng Chum, the reservoir and the lake. One popular option is The Room Boutique Hotel.
I spent about 2.5 days in the city, and didn’t run out of things to do. Despite its relative obscurity, there’s a surprising amount to see around the area, and you’re unlikely to regret somewhat of a long stay.