"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."
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.
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
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.
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.