Tucked away in the far reaches of north-east Thailand, the amiable small city of Nakhon Phanom nestles serenely against the banks of the Mekong River. Few Western tourists make it to Nakhon Phanom city, but it makes an excellent base to explore some of the understated charms of the province which shares the same name. The name Nakhon Phanom translates as ‘city of mountains’ and harks back to a time when this provincial capital spanned both sides of the Mekong encompassing the mountains on the side of the river that is now Laos territory.
Many Laotians cross the Mekong each day to trade at local food markets in Nakhon Phanom. Visitors will also notice a Vietnamese influence in this part of north-east Thailand with migrants from Vietnam helping to contribute to the rich mix of architecture and cuisine found in Nakhon Phanom.
What to see and do
There are a number of interesting temples in the city including Wat Okat Si Bua Ban and Wat Mahathat, but the most revered site is Phra That Phanom located 55km south of Nakhon Phanom city centre. The town is also home to some beautiful old buildings with the architecture inspired by French colonial structures from the Indochina period. One of the most striking is the Governor’s Residence which is open to the public as a museum.
The Vietnam Memorial Clock Tower serves as a good way to get your bearings and just over 2km north of the clock-tower is St. Anna’s Church Nong Saen. Continuing north from the church for anther 800 metres brings you to the tranquil Rama IX Park and Gardens. Approximately 5km away from the city centre in the rural setting of Ban Na Chok is the former home of Ho Chi Minh who lived here in the late 1920s.
Nakhon Phanom is a quiet riverside city where it’s enjoyable to just relax and enjoy the laid-back atmosphere. Hire a bicycle or go for a stroll along the promenade next to the Mekong for great views of the river and mountains of Laos. If you’re visiting on a Friday or Saturday, the local Walking Street Market is worth checking out, but any evening is a good time to pay a visit to the host of riverside restaurants and enjoy the local food with views of the Mekong River.
Where to stay
Part of Nakhom Phanom’s appeal is that it is a quiet provincial city. This means that there is a limited choice of hotels and guest-houses, but there are some pleasant options in and around the city centre.
The River Hotel
Fortune River View
i-Hotel (outside the main centre, but a good hotel if you have your own transport)
Food and drink
Alongside all the traditional Thai favourites and spicy Isaan dishes, there is also a distinct Vietnamese influence to be found in the food in Nakhon Phanom. Eggs fried in individual pans are known as ‘kai ga ta‘ and are something of a breakfast staple in Nakhon Phanom whilst Vietnamese-style lunchtime buffets are particularly popular with families at weekends. There are a number of restaurants along the banks of the Mekong River with established local favourites such as Ruen Him Nam providing good value food alongside the river views.
Air Asia and Nok Air fly between Bangkok Don Muang (DMK) and Nakhon Phanom (KOP). The airport at Nakhon Phanom is located 20km west of the city centre with a taxi into town costing a set price of 100 Baht. Mini-buses also run from Nakhon Phanom airport to the Thai-Laos friendship Bridge and Mukdahan.
Services from Bangkok to Nakhon Phanom depart from Mo Chit bus terminal with an average journey time of 9-10 hours. Nakhon Phanom bus station is a couple of kilometres outside the town centre and you can expect to pay between 40-60 Baht for a tuktuk/skylab into town. Local buses do run to villages and towns within the province with a frequent service to Phra That Phanom.
Most of the main attractions in the town can be explored on foot or by hiring a a bicycle. There is no bus service within the town and locals and tourists alike use the distinctive ‘Skylabs’ to get around the city. Fares vary according to distance, but expect to pay anywhere between 20-60 Baht for trips within town.