The mighty Mekong River runs past the Thai town of Nakhon Phanom, and it’s safe to say the river contributes much of this out-of-the-way town’s magic.
Visitors to Thailand looking to get away from its overcrowded beaches and stuffy cities only need to go north to the Isan region, a short plane hop from the capital, to this riverside settlement bordering Thakhek in Laos.
Don’t be fooled by the provincial air, Nakhon Phanom is going places. It’s a gathering point for Isan’s Tai minority communities; a crossroads for Thai, Lao, and Vietnamese cultures (helped along by the brand-spanking new bridge linking Thailand and Laos); and a low-key but increasingly popular stop for culture and history seekers.
Check out the activities in the list below to see what an ideal Nakhon Phanom visit looks like.
Explore Thailand’s Longest Urban Bike Path
Set off from Nakhon Phanom’s riverside promenade – a stall right in front of the naga statue rents bicycles for about THB 20-40 per hour – and ride up a smoothly-paved, 7.5-mile (12 km) bike trail that allows you to take in the river view on one side and the town’s low-slung infrastructure on the other.
The dedicated bicycle path, opened in 2016, is as modern as they come with skid-resistant surfaces, signage in both English and Thai, and a 1,200-foot-long covered bridge. (The covering cage is there for security purposes, as this section of the trail goes right under an immigration building.)
Set aside time for a few detours, as the bike path goes right past some of Nakhon Phanom’s top tourist destinations – the Vietnamese clock tower, the Governor’s House museum, and a cultural center for the Tai Sak minority. The trail terminates at a park overlooking the Third Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge that crosses over into Thakhek, Laos across the Mekong.
Get Hands-On in a Traditional Village
Nakhon Phanom’s location in Thailand’s northeast Isan region puts its visitors in close quarters with the country’s minority Tai peoples. Nine different Tai ethnic communities live in villages around Nakhon Phanom’s countryside, and all of them are happy to give tourists a hands-on community experience.
The Tai Guan of Ban Na Thon Village, for example, offer a tram ride to a traditional blacksmith where tourists can test their own strength hammering on red-hot steel. The blacksmiths recycle leaf springs into machete-like traditional knives, which then sell in the market for about THB 200 apiece.
The villages offer other experiences – a turmeric-and-coffee foot rub, a traditional meal with delicious curries and locally-grown vegetables, and traditional dance performances for the Tai Guan – that reflect ancient traditions that could not be suppressed during integration into the Thai nation.
Get to Know Thailand’s Vibrant Vietnamese Minority
Nakhon Phanom has had a long (and complicated) relationship with neighboring countries. On one hand, the city hosted an airbase for U.S. Air Force bombers strafing the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos during the Vietnam War; on the other, Nakhon Phanom has long welcomed a Vietnamese community that began with 150 families invited by King Rama III in the 1840s.
The Vietnamese village in Nakhon Phanom, Ban Na Chok, welcomes tourists to its colorful Buddhist shrine, but its main attraction looks a little more run down.
Ho Chi Minh himself lived in Ban Na Chok from 1925 to 1930 while on the run from French colonial authorities. The two-bedroom house he called home still welcomes busloads of Vietnamese tourists, who come to see where Uncle Ho dreamed of revolution so far from home.
Shop Ethically at the Suntree Organic Market
The Suntree Organic Market in Nakhon Phanom (Google Maps) shows the full flowering of the King’s inspiration – an open space next to the Mekong has been organized into a showcase for Thai organic farming, including an earthworm farm, a fertilizer processing plant, a demonstration space for traditional Thai crafts, and a market hawking local textiles, foodstuffs, and handicrafts.
The Suntree Organic Market was officially launched in September 2018 and aims to be Nakhon Phanom’s main venue for events that revolve around the organic/traditional space. One day you might find organic farmers giving a talk on how to make fertilizer from charcoal; on another, you’ll find workshops on making palm-leaf offerings. Watch this video for a live-action look at the market.
Pray for Good Luck at Wat Phra That Phanom Temple
Of the many Buddhist temples in this devout corner of Thailand, one stands out. Wat Phra That Thanom is particularly beloved by locals (they believe it holds the Buddha’s breastbone). Devotees crowd the plaza surrounding the 57-meter-tall stupa, offering lotus flowers and burning incense and candles at all hours of the day.
The square-based stupa reflects the area’s overwhelming Isan/Lao influence that's more similar to temples in neighboring Laos than those in Bangkok. About 110 kilos of gold leaf and depictions of Buddhist morality tales surround the base. Visitors are required to leave their shoes at the outer door and leave their offerings at the base of the stupa after walking clockwise around the stupa three times.
Even visitors with a lack of devotion will appreciate the festive atmosphere; the itinerant vendors selling snacks and offerings beyond the outer wall; and the humble two-story museum that displays artifacts and artwork related to the reconstruction of Wat Phra That Thanom after a particularly severe earthquake.
For the people of Khao Khun Mae, organic rice is more than a product, it’s a lifestyle. No rice farm in Nakhon Phanom has embraced the organic mindset more, producing rice and byproducts like skin serum and puffed rice cereal.
This award-winning rice farm wants visitors to understand where their miracle crop comes from, inviting tourists to change into indigo-blue worker smocks and sink their bare feet into their rice paddies. Tourists take rice sprouts and plant them in calf-deep water, allowing them to experience the rice-planting process for themselves.
After washing off and changing back into their regular clothes, tourists can buy Khao Khun Mae’s products, allowing them to take this unique organic rice experience home with them.
Take a Cruise to Nowhere down the Mekong River
What’s better than viewing the sunset from the Nakhon Phanom promenade? Viewing it right from a cruise boat chugging downstream on the Mekong. At 5 p.m. every day, a boat departs from a wharf on the promenade, giving its paying customers a glimpse of both Thailand and Laos riversides.
The growing infrastructure and flat landscape of the Thailand side contrasts with the karst mountains of the Laos side. The cruise experience itself is laid-back and relaxed – the boat takes a leisurely pace, circling up and down the Mekong for an hour before returning to port.
Individual cruise passengers pay THB 100 (adult rate), THB 50 for passengers from 4-11 years old. Snacks and drinks can be purchased on the boat.
Take in the Food and Atmosphere of the Night Market
After watching the sun set over the Mekong River from the promenade, walk to the Vietnamese clock tower to join the crowds at the Night Market growing at its base.
The night market takes place from 5pm to 9pm; its stalls offer a diverse selection of cultural products, from Isan sausages to grilled sticky rice to ice cream to deep-fried cicadas. Unfortunately, a surfeit of China-made gewgaws somewhat cheapens the market’s appeal – the usual collection of cheap blouses, underwear, electronics and household implements – but that’s no biggie to visitors who come for the local color.
Fortunately, the Night Market happens right in Nakhon Phanom’s retail district, so you won’t have any problems retreating to the air-conditioned comfort of any of the local restaurants along the road, where you can have a Singha Beer while you chill.