Where to eat and drink: Nakhon Phanom

Nakhon Phanom: Where to eat and drink

Nakhon Phanom is a fun town for foodies, with some excellent Vietnamese cuisine joining fiery Isaan, hearty Western and an extensive range of Thai and Chinese-Thai, often served on riverside terraces with breathtaking views over to Laos.

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A good place to dive into Nakhon Phanom’s food scene is the night market, open from 17:00 to around 21:00 on a closed-off stretch of Fueang Nakhon Rd running west from Aphiban Bancha. The laid-back affair mixes prepared foods with fresh fish, meat, vegetables and fruit that are often cultivated nearby. Start by grazing on deep-fried cicadas, fried bananas or grilled frog skewers, then move onto a bowl of noodle soup, khao man gai (chicken rice) or som tam with gai yang (grilled chicken) and sticky rice. While a few of the vendors offer some on-site tables, most only pack it up to go. A five-minute walk away, the riverfront pavilions are perfect for picnics if you get there before sundown.

Several dilapidated shacks churn out fiery Isaan food around town, including a couple along the riverfront road just north of Wat Klang, and a few more across from the hospital on Aphiban Bancha. We popped into one in the latter patch for a delicious pla plao (grilled whole salted river fish) along with som tam made Lao style with pla raa (fermented fish sauce) and the beloved fiery chopped pork and toasted rice salad known as laap muu. These shops display their grills right along the roadside and allow you to choose the smoking fish, chicken or pork that looks best. Most of these shops get rolling in the late morning and keep it coming until around 22:00.

If you’ve just come from Laos and are in the mood to sample a different sort of regional cuisine, Ka Tung Bi serves up trays of Southern Thai style curries and Chinese-Thai stir-fries across from the cross-river ferry pier and near the clock tower on Soonthornvijit Road. The exceedingly friendly women will dish out tasty gaeng som tai (orange curry with fish) and stir-fried soft tofu with veggies onto a huge pile of rice for just 50 baht. For a similar “you point, they serve” experience that’s all vegetarian, head to Touta on nearby Bamrung Mueang Rd. Marked by a yellow sign that says “Vegetarian 100%”, the hole-in-the-wall displays half a dozen options in large pots, and prices are as cheap as at Ka Tung Bi. Note that both of these spots close up by 17:00.

Vietnamese food is served by a few different places, including a man who does porky kuay chab yuan noodle soup among the Isaan food shops across from the hospital. For more options, pop into Good Morning Vietnam at the corner of Rat Uthit and Thamrong Prasit roads. The long-running, family-owned joint looks like a charming Saigon coffee shop from the outside, and while Vietnamese-style iced coffee is a hit, it’s the food that keeps the locals coming. You’ll find a range of Vietnamese-inspired salads along with the popular naam neuang, roll-it-yourself spring rolls featuring Vietnamese sausage with plenty of fresh veggies.

No trip to Nakhon Phanom would be complete without dining beside the Mekong River, and there’s no shortage of restaurants offering spacious riverside terraces. A standout if you’re after local cuisine is Ruan Rim Nam, which is fronted by an attractive colonial-era brick-and-mortar house that gives way to a spacious dining deck. Their big menu includes a range of Thai and Chinese-Thai dishes, including standbys like green curry, but Lao/Isaan food is the specialty. Start with yum kai mod daeng (spicy red ant egg salad -- tastes better than it sounds) and move onto a grilled, fried or steamed slice of giant catfish fresh from the Mekong. Prices run from 100 to over 300 baht, making this a good option for a splurge.

A short walk north of Ruan Rim Nam takes you to the Chelsea Riverside Restaurant and its smaller but similarly pleasant riverside terrace. The menu features mostly Thai soups and salads, but Western options like fish and chips, steaks, pizza and big, juicy burgers are what set the place apart. The owner speaks excellent English and she often hosts Nakhon Phanom’s few Western expats, making this a worthwhile stop if you’re looking for some advice on the area to go with the hearty stodge. The orange sign out front is only in Thai script, but the counter sports a blue flag with the Chelsea Football Club’s logo.

While we didn’t get around to trying it, one of the expats that we met at Chelsea instructed us to check out The River Hotel’s riverside restaurant for a more refined dining experience. He said that several Western choices and some good wines accompany excellent Thai cuisine, at relatively high prices.

Nakhon Phanom also has no shortage of coffee shops, including the very good Baan Kafe on Soonthornvijit Rd to the north of town. Offering seating in the atmospheric (and air-conditioned) front room of an old wooden house, the young owners whip up quality fresh coffee along with tasty Thai rice plates and salads for less than 100 baht. A few doors down from the Old Governor’s Residence, it makes for a perfect pit stop while on a cycling tour of the riverfront. We also had good cups of brew at The P Hometel’s cafe, and the easy-to-find Black Cat at the corner Fueang Nakorn and Aphiban Bancha roads in the heart of town.

If that sweet tooth needs satisfying, wander towards the river on Fueang Nakorn and you’ll find a couple of hole-in-the-wall bakeries serving a mix of Western cake and other baked goods to go with a selection of traditional Thai sweets. The one on the south side of the street also does delicious handmade sala bao (steamed Chinese buns) that are smaller than usual, meaning that you can try out every flavour.

Near the bakeries on Fueang Nakorn, The Ohio is one of a few “baan baan” style bar/restaurants that are suited to having a few low-key beers or whiskeys on a streetside deck, perhaps with some Thai-style pub fare like sai grok, fermented sausages served with peanuts, ginger and chillies. If you’re looking for something more rocking, the very popular Thailand-wide nightclub chain, Tawan Daeng, operates a large club just east of the bus station.

Baan Kafe: Soonthornvijit Rd, near the Old Governor’s Residence; open daily 11:00-21:00.
Chelsea Riverside Restaurant: Soonthornvijit Rd on the north side of town; open daily 10:00-20:00; T: (042) 521 100.
Good Morning Vietnam: Corner of Rat Uthit and Thamrong Prasit; open daily 06:00-20:00.
Ka Tung Bi: Across from the local cross-river ferry pier and immigration checkpoint on Soonthornvijit Rd; open daily 07:00-17:00.
Night market: West end of Fueang Nakorn Rd; nightly 05:00-21:00.
Ruan Rim Nam: Soonthornvijit Rd on the north side of town (look for the old beige building with a bunch of fake flowers hung over the front door); open daily 11:00-23:00; T: (042) 514 787.
The Ohio: Corner of Damrong Prasit and Fueang Nakorn; open 05:00-0:00.
Riverside at The River Hotel: 35/9 Highway 212 (far south of town); open daily 15:00-24:00.
Touta Vegetarian: East side of Bamrung Mueang Rd, around 50 metres east of Nittayo Rd. Open morning until around 17:00.

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