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Nong Khai


"The Mekong on both the Lao and Thai sides is dotted with towns.  Of all the Mekong towns on the the Thai side, Nong Khai would be classified as the most cosmopolitan, if such a word can be realistically used to describe any town in Isaan."  Doug Knell, Doug's Republic


The bro had been to Nong Khai in February of 2005 and said it was a cool place to hang out for a few days.  I did not put Nong Khai on the top of my must-visit destination list.  I filed it away as a place I might stop if I was passing through.   And come the end of October 2005, on my way to Laos, I did exactly that.

By 2005, Nong Khai had already developed, for its small size, a sizeable tourist sector.  A Brit had opened up a popular guesthouse near the waterfront and around this guesthouse a community of bookshops, yoga studios, meditation workshops, and (I assume) marijuana sales had blossomed.  I had an overpriced and mediocre meal there one night and never returned. 

Nong Khai

Weird rock sculptures greet you on both sides of the border

After a rough start at a guesthouse resembling a nursery school's arts and crafts room, I found a Vietnamese-run joint with air conditioning and cable TV charging less than USD 7 at the favorable exchange rates then applicable.  Returning there 5 years later, the hotel was unchanged in appearance, the receptionist, and the nightly rate in Thai baht. 

I could say the same thing about Nong Khai.   My brother, too, returned to Nong Khai 5 years after his first visit and he told me the place had dramatically changed, become more developed and touristic.  There were more tourists passing through, largely because the Gringo Banana Trail to Laos had become well trodden by now and the new "trailblazers" tended to stop in Nong Khai for a night before crossing over.  And there was some more development along the waterfront.  One Vietnamese restaurant had greatly expanded in size.  Other than that, walking around in 2010 didn't feel all that different than doing so in 2005. 

In my expert opinion, Nong Khai has benefited more from Vientiane being carved into the region's next banana pancake than the other way around.   The trailblazers would be headed to Vientiane and the other backpacker haunts of Laos anyway regardless of how charming or uncharming the Thai border town was.  Many are forced to spend a night in Nong Khai on their way to the next great adventure, realize the vibe is attractive, and remain for days or weeks. 

It's commonly thought that Thailand's Nong Khai sits astride Laos' Vientiane, an easy mistake to make since visitors from one coordinate a visit to the other immediately afterwards.  That's not true.  Sri Chiang Mai, 25 km west of Nong Khai, a forgettable place I motorbiked through, is the Thai sister town to Vientiane. 



Chinees parade Nong Khai boys parade Vietnam Nong Khai
Nong Khai experiences (l to r):  parade with Chinese dragon; boys with ample makeup that would fit right in with the glamour scene in London; Vietnamese-Thai family trying to set me up with the youngest daughter over a Mekong lunch

The main draw of Nong Khai is the Buddhist rock park, Sala Kaeo Ku.  Bunleua Sulilat started construction on this fantasyland in 1978, designed to be a new and improved version of the Buddha Park he originally worked on in Laos from 1958 until the Lao People's Democratic Republic was formed in 1975 and Sulilat no longer found himself part of the "people."  Amazingly, Sulilat built his parks on little funds.   He insisted on concrete as the structural material because it was cheap, and the concrete he used in the parks was donated and the assistance he received was from followers who donated their unskilled labor for free.  Had the Thai government had any clue how much of a tourist draw this park would become, I'm sure the King would've gladly handed out development funds in the late 70's.  Unfortunately, neither park is maintained very well.  I visited the park in both 2005 and 2010, and the park exhibited a more weathered look, which will continue unabated as the years pass. 

I rented a motorbike across the street from my hotel from a Vietnamese-Thai family owning the hotel directly across the street.  I had actually gone into their hotel to bargain for a room initially.  The family must've had deep pockets because all three daughters had gone to the United States for additional English-language instruction.  The mother brainstormed a 'great' idea of me and her attractive 20-year old daughter marrying and going back to the U.S. to start a family.  The plan wasn't very well thought out and neither the daughter nor myself were consulted in advance.  They were kind to me and took me out for lunch along the Mekong on my last full day in Nong Khai. 




 

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Insights From A Travel Mastermind

 Nong Khaoi is in Isaan near Laos. Right near the Mekong. Go see Sala Kaeo Ku, the Buddhist rock park.