The Nakhon Phanom riverfront

Pleasant views

What we say: 4 stars



Quite a few travellers come to explore the splendid limestone mountains rising beyond the Mekong River town of Tha Khaek in southern Laos. Across the river in Thailand, Nakhon Phanom has no mountain peaks — and virtually no foreign travellers. But it does have one thing that Tha Khaek lacks: a multi-kilometre riverfront walkway and bike lane that takes you past century-old architecture and a few low-key attractions, while affording one of the finest Mekong views found anywhere.

Nagas know where to find the best views.

Nagas know where to find the best views.

Nakhon Phanom town’s central feature is a roughly 50-metre-tall clock tower built by long-term Vietnamese residents right before they returned home in 1960 — a gift to the townspeople who had been so hospitable. A one-minute walk from there, the riverfront promenade grabs you with spacious steps and walkways, pavilions and depictions of colourful nagas that look like they’re ready for a swim.

Most Thai towns have a clock tower, but this one is special.

Many Thai towns have a clock tower, but this one is special.

Heading south, you might wander into Indochina Market for a browse through packets of Chinese tea, hats sporting the Vietnamese flag, camo fatigues and other goods imported from around the region. One of the nearby piers is only for Thai/Lao citizens making the river crossing, but a second pier docks the long boats used for daily river cruises that are open to all.

The might Mekong can look more like a lake than a river.

The mighty Mekong can look more like a lake than a river.

Each worthy of a quick stop, a few historic temples dot the southern stretch of Nakhon Phanom’s riverfront. Pop into Wat Okat to see a pair of sacred Buddha images thought to be over 1,000 years old; check out the happy-looking Lao-style Buddha in Wat Klang’s ordination hall; and take a wander around Wat Maha That’s century-old Phra Nakhon chedi. Of Nakhon Phanom province’s nine sacred chedis, it’s the only one found in the provincial capital.

Novice monks hangin' rooftop at Wat Maha That.

Novice monks hangin’ rooftop at Wat Maha That.

If you’re not getting enough exercise, take a break for some stationary aerobics, with a view.

Dibs on the elliptical.

Dibs on the elliptical.

Doubling back and cruising north from the clock tower, you’ll arrive at what we find to be the most picturesque part of Nakhon Phanom’s riverfront. Venerable banyan trees droop over the bike lane as the most awe-inspiring of Laos’ craggy spikes rise beyond floating fish farms and wooden sampans plying a wide stretch of Asia’s second longest river.

Plenty of shade.

Plenty of shade.

Continue north to pass a series of century-old houses sporting varying degrees of restoration (or lack of it) — throwbacks to the days when colonial-era France had a stake in the area.

One of the many heritage houses.

One of the many heritage houses.

Though overshadowed by the old European-style buildings, you’ll also pass a bunch of humble old wooden houses with a few papaya or banana trees stretching down towards the water.

We've always been tempted to swim over to Laos.

We’ve always been tempted to swim over to Laos.

At Ruan Rim Nam restaurant, an attractively crumbling brick-and-cement house leads you to a wide riverside terrace where whole freshwater fish and fiery red ant egg salad are served up with the views. Head to nearby Chelsea Restaurant if you fancy a burger, or grab a table in Baan Kafe’s restored wooden house for some excellent coffee and air-con.

Compulsory coffee break at Baan Kafe.

Compulsory coffee break at Baan Kafe.

Perhaps the best example of the riverfront’s heritage architecture is the Old Governor’s Residence, a handsome European-style building that hosted Thailand’s current king and queen during their visit in the 1950s. The residence fell into disrepair until, in 2006, authorities spruced things up and opened it to the public as a free historical museum.

Preservation of heritage architecture is always great to see.

Preservation of heritage architecture is always great to see.

Further north, the 1921-built St Anna’s Church stands more like a cathedral, or a monument to the many Vietnamese Catholics who have settled permanently in Nakhon Phanom. The twin steeples are indeed captivating, though we were equally taken by some of the smaller old buildings found within the expansive St Anna’s compound.

You'll have to come here yourself to see the other buildings.

You’ll have to come here yourself to see the other buildings.

The old church buildings, temples, houses, restaurants, markets, piers, parks and pavilions all add colour to Nakhon Phanom’s riverfront. But the tremendous view over to Tha Khaek’s mountains is what really sets it apart from the rest of Thailand’s Mekong River towns. If you’re into photography, be prepared to stop often.

Or you could skip the camera in favour of a fishing pole.

Or you could skip the camera in favour of a fishing pole.

While any part of the riverfront is conducive to a leisurely stroll or picnic, hiring a bicycle is the best way to see all of it in a day. You can rent them at 777 Hometel, The P Hometel, The River Hotel and LA Cycles near the clock tower. Rooms with river views can be scored at Baan Rim Khong for less than 500 baht and Viewkong Hotel for less than 1,000 baht, while those with more cash might opt for The River Hotel.

Last updated: 3rd September, 2015

About the author:
Usually found exploring Bangkok's side streets or south Thailand's islands, David Luekens is an American freelance writer & photographer who finds everyday life in Asia to be extraordinary. You can follow his travails here.
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