In a nutshell
Wander the sleepy streets, catch a songthaew to low key outlying attractions, explore an eclectic mix of food and stroll along the majestic Mekong at dusk. Travellers looking for an offbeat and "authentic" Isaan experience might find Mukdahan to be an unexpected highlight.
The provincial capital of Mukdahan has recently grown into one of the largest Mekong River towns in Thailand. Located directly across from Savannakhet in Laos, the bustling city draws many Lao citizens who pop over to take advantage of modern shopping centres and sprawling markets. Travellers will find some good eats along with a few note-worthy attractions.
Muang Muk, as the locals call it, was founded in the late 18th century and has always been a sister to Savannakhet. Most of Muk’s residents are Lao/Isaan-Thai but there’s also a large number of Vietnamese-Thai. Out in the countryside, minority groups like the Phu Tai, Tai Kha, Kraso and Tai Saek have largely assimilated into larger Isaan culture, though some groups retain bits and pieces of their old traditions.
Since the 2007 opening of the Second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, Mukdahan has morphed from a low-key town into a modern city with a swiftly growing population. Travellers coming from Laos will notice a stark contrast between a “developing” communist country and a so-called “middle-income” country where Western-style capitalism is deeply embedded.
Unless there’s a need to satiate a KFC craving or avail yourself of all the pleasures found in a 7-eleven, most travellers will miss Savannakhet’s attractive French-Indochinese houses upon seeing the boring blocks of concrete that line Mukdahan’s streets. If you’re looking for a more relaxing Thai town with some interesting architecture along the Mekong, head further north to That Phanom and Nakhon Phanom.
But don’t write off Muk as a travel destination just yet. It boasts a picturesque riverfront promenade along a particularly wide stretch of the Mekong, coloured by the busy Indochine Market and a smattering of temples. Some terrific Isaan and Vietnamese food can be scored all over town, and several hotels and guesthouses offer better value than what you’ll find in Savannakhet.
Just south of the city, Phu Pha Thoep National Park is well worth a half-day trip to stroll amid other-wordly rock formations, take in some terrific views and trek to a remote waterfall topped by a meditation cave. Along the way you can stop at Phu Manorom, where a massive seated Buddha image was nearing completion on a mountaintop when we last passed through.
Crossing the border
Located eight kilometres north of Mukdahan town, the border crossing with Laos via the Friendship Bridge 2 can be reached by bus for 45 baht, which will get you all the way to Savannakhet. You can also take a tuk tuk or taxi to the bridge for around 100 baht, but be warned that you'll still need to pay the 45 baht for the bus to take you across the bridge, as it's not possible to walk. If you have your own transport, long-term parking is available at the border.
The crossing is open 06:00 to 22:00 daily and is usually quiet compared to other crossings in the region. Occasionally you'll get stuck behind a busload of Thais heading to the casino on the Lao side, but even then, wait times are scarcely longer than 20 minutes.
After passing through Thai immigration, you'll need to get on the bus, cross the bridge, and then get off to pass Lao immigration. If you don't already have a Lao visa, most nationalities can obtain a visa on arrival for around 1,500 baht (exact price depends on nationality). Application forms are available at the border so all you need is one passport size photo.
Once through Lao immigration, you can re-board the bus for the ride to Savannakhet or pay a tuk tuk 100 to 200 baht -- dependent on your bartering skills -- for a ride to the accommodation of your choice. Tuk tuks are happy to accept Thai baht or US dollars, but be warned that they usually try to push travellers into staying at hotels that offer commissions in Savannakhet.
The above process is, more or less, reversed in its entirety if coming from Laos. When entering Thailand, citizens of G7 countries will be given 30 days, visa free, while citizens of many other countries will only get 15 days. If you want more time in Thailand, pick up a Thai visa at the consulate in Savannakhet.
The capital of Mukdahan province, Mukdahan town is located 630 kilometres northeast of Bangkok and 160 kilometres north of Ubon Ratchathani. The city centre is concentrated just west of the riverfront. Running alongside the river for several kilometres to the south of downtown, Samranchaikhongtai Road offers clear views over to Laos and hosts the Indochine market, four temples and some good hotels and restaurants.
At the northern tip of the riverside promenade is the immigration office. Walk a few blocks west from here on Songnang Sathit Road and you’ll hit the excellent night market, which comes to life every evening from 17:00.
Connected to Samranchaikhongtai by a bunch of side lanes, Samut Sakdarak Road runs parallel to the river and is the main north-to-south thoroughfare through the south side of town. Here you'll find several restaurants and hotels along with Mukdahan Tower. If you continue south on Samut Sakdarak, you'll hit Phu Pha Thoep National Park after 15 kilometres.
To the north Samut Sakdarak meets Mukdahan's main east to west running thoroughfare, Pitakpanomkhet Road, at a roundabout with a fountain at its centre in the heart of the city. A smidge west of the roundabout you'll first see the post office, then a large tourist info centre, then the public Mukdahan hospital.
Continue west on Pitakpanomkhet to hit Highway 212 and turn northeast to pass the bus station and a Big C supermarket before reaching the entry road to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge 2 after eight kilometres. Continue northwards from here for 50 kilometres and you'll hit That Phanom.
Mukdahan International Hospital is located just south of town on Samut Sakdarak Road and is probably the better option for foreign travellers. The police station is nearby, just off Samut Sakdarak, and is clearly marked with signs.
Banks are scattered around town, including several ATMs on Songnang Sathit Road near the night market. An ATM is also found on the Thai side of the Friendship Bridge 2. If coming from Laos or Vietnam, keep in mind that these countries’ currencies are non-transferrable (i.e. worthless) in Thailand.
Internet can be found at Dice Net on Samut Sakdarak Road, across from and a bit north of the River City Hotel. WiFi is available at a few coffee shops, including the air-con Good Mook Traveller Cafe on Songnang Sathit.
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The best way to approach Mukdahan is with the same laid back attitude that most of the locals have. With fiery Lao-Issan food often served on river view terraces, Vietnamese fresh rolls and noodle soups, a handful of northern Thai restaurants and even some well-done Western fare, it's a fun town for foodies. Be sure to hit the night market for the most variety in one place.
Though travellers with limited time will understandably pass through Muk in a single day, those on longer trips might find the sleepy city to be the perfect place to dig in and save a little cash. Cheap, comfy rooms can be scored, and it's a fine place to let yourself be captured by Isaan's subtle charm.
Mukdahan offers just enough to do in the surrounding are to keep you busy for a few days. Once you've explored the town itself, take day trips to see the giant mushroom-like rock formations at Mukdahan National Park, and one of Thailand's most revered chedis at That Phanom.
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Text and/or map last updated on 3rd September, 2015.
Check Mukdahan tickets online
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