Wonderful Nakhon Phanom
This fascinating, pretty province lies alongside the mighty Khong River facing across to the mountains of Laos opposite.
Once part of the ancient Sri Kotrabun kingdom, it has a long and interesting history spanning many centuries up to modern times.
For a quiet province with a fairly small population, there is a surprising amount of things to see and do in wonderful Nakhon Phanom.
In common with the rest of Isaan (Northeast Thailand) locals speak a dialect of Lao rather than Thai.
Getting there: There are daily flights between Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport and Nakhon Phanom Airport on Air Asia.
There are also regular bus services from Bangkok’s Morchit Mai bus station, but they are long and tiring trips taking many hours.
1. Wat Phra That Phanom
This temple complex is reputed to be the oldest Buddhist center in Thailand, and is certainly the oldest in Isaan.
Legend says the breastbone of the Lord Buddha is interred under the beautiful stupa which stands as a symbol of both the temple and the province.
Archeologists say the original Khmer-style stupa was built between the 7th and 9th centuries, but it’s gone through a few renovations since then.
Several buildings were severely damaged by an earthquake in the 1930s, and a storm destroyed the stupa in 1975.
Thanks to the late King Rama 9 and local people, the stupa was rebuilt and completed in the existing Lao style in 1979.
A small but interesting museum in the temple grounds documents the history of the complex.
Wat Phra That Phanom is considered an important Buddhist site and attracts worshippers from across Thailand and Laos.
Accommodation is very limited in That Phanom and tends to be quite basic, so it may be best to base yourself in Nakhon Phanom town.
Getting there: Its located close to the Khong River in the very small town of That Phanom, about 35 minutes by road south of Nakhon Phanom town. There are regular songtaew services between the two towns.
2. The Vietnamese Connection
While Thailand doesn’t border Vietnam, the latter isn’t that far away.
The connections between Vietnam and Nakhon Phanom are quite old, with some good relationships and some not so good.
In the center of wonderful Nakhon Phanom town is a clocktower which is a local landmark; it’s also a memorial to local friendship with Vietnam.
In the 1840s King Rama 3 invited 150 Vietnamese families to settle in the village of Ban Na Chok, and their ancestors still live there.
The villagers are proud of two particular places, the colourful Buddhist shrine which is very different to the local Thai and Isaan style, and the house of Uncle Ho.
Uncle Ho, better known as Ho Chi Minh, lived in the village from 1923 to 1931 to escape the attention of the French colonial authorities back home, while plotting his successful revolution.
The house has become a popular pilgrimage for Vietnamese visitors who travel across Laos to get there. Of course it’s open to everyone else too.
Later, during what the Vietnamese call The American War, it’s reported that North Vietnamese troops along with local communist insurgents and Pathet Lao fighters occupied several districts of Nakhon Phanom.
Today it’s peaceful and visitors from anywhere are welcomed to a serene province.
Getting there: Ban Na Chok is at Km 237-238 on Highway 22 (Nakhon Phanom–Sakon Nakhon Road). You can take a motorcycle taxi or rent a songtaew from Nakhon Phanom town.
The Khong riverside along the whole province is quite picturesque, but more so in the main town where a tree lined promenade runs for several kilometers.
There are views of riverine life and the mountains in Laos on one side, and some lovely old Indochinese buildings on the Thai side.
There is also a cycle path on the same promenade which runs from the famous Naga Statue in the town center as far as the 3rd Thai-Lao friendship Bridge 12km to the north.
You can hire bikes from stores near the statue starting at about 20 baht for 1 hour.
One lovely old building amongst many on the riverfront is the Provincial Governor’s House Museum.
As the name suggests, the museum is located in the beautiful former Provincial Governor’s mansion which is over 100 years old.
Three floors of exhibits detail local history and culture, using photos and artifacts. It’s actually more interesting than we make it sound!
There are numerous other historic houses nearby but which can only be viewed from outside.
The local “Walking Street” market runs Friday to Sunday and is a fascinating stroll. Local food includes not just Thai and Isaan dishes, but also Lao and Vietnamese specialities.
You’ll find all kinds of other products here including clothes and novelty items.
The SAO Market on Saturdays attracts large numbers of vendors from the Lao town of Thakhek just across the river, who bring Lao food, silk, and other products in the hope of getting better prices than at home.
The Naga Statue mentioned above is worth seeing, if only to watch folks making offerings and praying for better luck. Nagas are believed to live in the river – see this to learn more.
About 2km north of the Naga statue on Sunthon Wichit Road is the unlikely sight of St Anne’s Church Nong Saen, facing Laos across the broad sweep of the Khong River.
A Christian church in a small country town is an intriguing sight, in a country where less than 1% of the population are Christians.
Another lovely pastime is to sit and watch the comings and goings on the Khong River from the balcony of a coffeeshop or restaurant.
Nakhon Phanom town has several decent (but not fancy) hotels on the riverside, plus quite a few guest houses.
Apart from the Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese folks, there are nine ethnic Tai communities in the province, along with a Phu Thai village.
The Tai Guan village of Ban Na Thon have developed an unusual skill of turning used vehicle leaf-springs into knives.
The village blacksmiths allow visitors to try their hand at hammering the red hot steel into shape – if you have the strength!
You can also try their traditional food, and be entertained by age-old Tai Guan dances.
Getting there: Ban Na Thon is south of Nakhon Phanom town off Highway 212. The villagers offer a tram style transfer service – check with any local tour agent.
5. Phu Langka National Park
One of Thailand’s smallest national parks at about 50sq km is in the northern most part of Nakhon Phanom and southern part of Bueng Kan province.
But don’t confuse it with Phu Langka Forest Park which is in Phayao province!
The park’s highest point known as Phu Langka offers stunning views across beautiful hills and forests, plus a large chedi at the rugged peak.
It’s a fairly hard 4km hike from the park HQ along a well marked path.
Other attractions include several waterfalls and a number of caves.
Getting there: You’d need to organise your own transport but Phu Langka National Park is easy to find. Follow Highway 212 north from Nakhon Phanom town; the park is well signposted.
6. Illuminated Boats
A stunning display of illuminated boats and spectacular fireworks happens once a year in wonderful Nakhon Phanom.
A line of beautiful illuminated boats float along the river, and launch the most incredible multicoloured firework displays to celebrate the end of Buddhist Lent.
Each boat is decorated with flowers, lanterns and candles.
As the procession is part of the larger ‘Okpansa’ celebrations the dates vary each year in line with the lunar calender. In 2019 the procession is on 13th October.
This is hugely popular so you’d need to book accommodation well in advance.
We hope you’ve enjoyed our little visit to this lovely province. Take the chance to go there before the tourist hordes do!
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