Jan 03 2013

Exploring Thailand’s Mukdahan

Published by at 1:52 pm under Northeast Thailand


Nestled along the Mekong River in the distant reaches of northeastern Thailand (aka Isaan) Mukdahan is perhaps best known as the place to catch a bus to Savannakhet in Laos, or if coming from there, onwards to Thailand’s must-see destinations. Yet this provincial capital city of 50,000 is one of our favourite low-key Isaan cities, with just enough to see and do to warrant settling in for a day or two.

Typical street scene in Mukdahan.

Typical street scene in Mukdahan.

If coming from Laos and entering Thailand for the first time ever, you couldn’t ask for a more pleasant introduction to the kingdom than Mukdahan. Locals are generally warm, welcoming and friendly. The riverfront scenery and quiet, leafy side streets are similar in many ways to what you’ll find in Savannakhet, but Muk’s more modern facilities and accommodation can be refreshing after significant time spent in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia.

The riverfront, looking south from Indochina Market.

The riverfront, looking south from Indochina Market.

Mukdahan does have a Big C shopping centre, a handful of 7-eleven convenience stores and even a few happening nightclubs, but it’s still a far cry from the glittering malls and five-star hotels of Bangkok. In fact, Mukdahan is something of an Indochina crossroads — many residents hail from Vietnam or Laos, and a fantastic kway chap Yuan (Vietnamese style rice noodle soup with peppered sausage) or khanom pak maw (Vietnamese steamed rice paper dumplings with ground pork and peanut) are never far away.

Kway chap Yuan at a nameless shop on the corner of Samut Sakdarak Road and Soi Si Worrabut.

Kway chap Yuan at a nameless shop on the corner of Samut Sakdarak Road and Soi Si Worrabut.

The most obvious expression of Muk’s multicultural community is Indochina Market along the river. Here you can pick up cheap cookware from China, old military relics from the American War, a T-shirt with the Thai, Lao and Vietnamese flags, Lao country music CDs and no shortage of random crap like a six-foot tall plastic thermometer — go on, just strap it to the outside of your backpack.

Trinkets galore.

Trinkets galore.

To remind yourself that you are indeed still in Thailand, walk a few hundred metres south from the market for outstanding Thai and Isaan food at Wine Wild Why. It’s not exactly wild, but they do have some good wine to go with sweeping river views. So … why not?

Laap Pla at Wine Wild Why.

Laap Pla at Wine Wild Why.

If looking for a little more adventure, hop in a tuk tuk or set out on foot and visit the city’s signature landmark: Mukdahan Tower. It resembles an airport control tower (though the town has no airport), and we first wondered if it was built during Thailand’s struggle against Communism in the ’70s as a strategic military lookout — but it was actually built in 1996 to honour the current Thai king.

The 66 metre-high tower is worth the 50 baht entrance fee both for the 360 degree views and an extensive museum on the lower floors where you can check out, for example, spears used in ancient battles, a centuries-old palm-leaf recipe book and a tiger tooth charm that someone, at some point, deemed to have magic powers. While the views from the top of the tower are great, they’re even better from Wat Phu Manoram, perched on a mountaintop a couple of kilometres further southwest.

The view from Phu Manoram; Mukdahan Tower is in the foreground and Friendship Bridge 2 in the distance.

The view from Phu Manoram; Mukdahan Tower is in the foreground, Friendship Bridge 2 in the distance and Savannakhet to the right.

After enjoying the views and breezy surrounds of Phu Manoram, charter a tuk tuk for a couple of hours or hop in a blue songthaew and make your way to Phu Pha Thoep National Park some 20 kilometres south of town. The drive takes you past quintessential Isaan scenes like a single rowboat on a pond surrounded by forested hills, or a group of farmers harvesting their rice crop.

Harvest time -- who needs tractors?

Harvest time — who needs tractors?

At Phu Pha Thoep, explore an other-worldly landscape defined by giant rock formations that resemble mushrooms and supposedly elephants and flying saucers too. The most impressive of these are right behind the visitor centre but make sure to wander further up the vast stone slope for a taste of absolute quiet save the leaves swaying to the breeze. If you’ve got the energy, a small waterfall (although not more than a trickle in dry season), a couple of viewpoints and a cave full of old Buddha images can be reached after a two to seven kilometre hike further into the park.

Enjoying solitude at Phu Pha Thoep.

Enjoying solitude at Phu Pha Thoep.

By the time you get back from Phu Pha Thoep the sun should be sinking low over the western hills, which means only one thing — time to hit the night market. Mukdahan has one of the better evening bazaars in northeastern Thailand; it offers a lively buzz and a wide array of foods while retaining the low-key country charm that Isaan is famous for.

Fresh rose apples.

Fresh rose apples.

After soaking up this nightly gathering, you might let loose at a bumping nightclub, take it easy on a chilled out patio with a beer, or just head back to your hotel and rise early to catch a majestic Mekong scene.

Another Mekong morning in Muk.

Another Mekong morning in Muk.

*Thanks to Travelfish member MADMAC for offering recommendations on his town during our recent visit.

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