Where to eat and drink: Nong Khai

Nong Khai: Where to eat and drink

Along with several low-key nightlife options, Nong Khai offers a good mix of Thai, Lao-Isaan, Vietnamese and Western food.

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Not surprisingly, Nong Khai’s riverside promenade / Tha Sadej market is where many get their eating and drinking done. The market itself has several spots specialising in barbecued Mekong river fish along with Isaan chicken, pork neck and sticky rice. The smaller of these spots close with the rest of the market around 17:00, but several larger barbecue joints with open-air patios and larger Thai food menus stay open later. The promenade is also where you’ll find what is perhaps Nong Khai’s most famous restaurant, Daeng Naem Neuang, which churns out a wide range of authentic Vietnamese food that’s reputed to be the best you’ll find on this side of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Just west of the promenade along Rimkhong Road, several bars and restaurants aim squarely for the local trade and have no English signs, but these are good spots to enjoy spicy Isaan-style drinking food or Thai-style sukiyaki (hot pot) with cold beers and whiskey-sodas. You’ll also find a handful of rag-tag expat bars down on Rimkhong, including the funky Real Skateboards Bar and British-run Manchester Arms. The latter is known for its gay-friendly atmosphere and hearty fish and chips. For something that falls somewhere in between all of the above, Warm Up on the east end of the promenade serves food, beer and cocktails to a mix of youthful locals and travellers.

For both food and atmosphere, one of the best dining experiences in Nong Khai is undoubtedly at Nagarina Restaurant, which occupies a roofed floating dock down a long stairway from Mut Mee Guesthouse. With dishes described in English, Thai, and Thai transliterated into Roman characters, the well-put-together menu offers a great mix of Thai-Isaan cuisine with an emphasis on fresh Mekong river fishes -- fried, grilled whole or served in curries and stir-fries -- and fantastic spicy Isaan salads like som tam and laap. Prices are reasonable at around 80 to 250 baht per dish, and you can’t beat the scenery. Along with a nightly dinner cruise, Nagarina also runs the relaxing Gaia Bar on the same floating deck, where you can sit back for some good conversation or live music as the Mekong slides by.

Those who don’t shy away from local-style food shops should not miss Mee Chai Road. From the small night market that fronts the hospital in the west, all the way to a bustling day market that’s not far from Sala Kaew Ku in the east, Mee Chai and the surrounding sois are studded with shops selling roast duck, stewed pork and fiery curries with rice, Isaan salads, grilled fish and Vietnamese-style noodle soup with locally made muu yor (peppery sausage), to name just a few.

Just west of the hospital, Chaiyaporn fresh market is a good spot to sample meat on a stick while perusing locally produced fruits, veggies and flowers. You’ll also find day markets in front of the bus station and next to Wat Pho Chai, and small night markets in front of the train station and on Prajak Road, just east of Soi Hai Sok.

Mee Chai also delivers in the morning hours. If you can deal with the often-inane conversations had by expat regulars, a standout is the German Bakery at the corner of Mee Chai and Soi Hai Sok. Along with excellent coffee, the kind and soft-spoken German owner churns out massive German sausage-and-egg breakfasts, comforting pastries, huge slices of crumbly cheesecake and sandwiches made with imported hams and cheeses on house-baked bread.

Just east of the German Bakery, the Scandinavian Bakery also looks to be worth a try if you’re seeking some Western comfort food. Nearby Donika Bakery has more of a French-Vietnamese style, with enticing waffles, baguettes, sala bao (steamed rice flour buns with savoury or sweet fillings) and a few Vietnamese and Thai rice and noodle dishes. Also in this vicinity, the cake at Cake at Toey’s is nothing to write home about, but they serve real coffee and free WiFi in a smart air-conditioned atmosphere that’s ideal for catching up with your inbox.

If you’re seeking vegetarian food, a short pedal or walk west down Kaew Woravut Road brings you to Yota Vegetarian Restaurant, a Thai-Chinese style hole-in-the-wall serving mostly vegan curries, stir-fries and meat substitutes with rice. Not only is the food good, it’s also dirt cheap -- just look for the yellow flags and sign that says "Vegetarian Food". Mut Mee is also known for its healthy range of vegetarian options as well as quality breakfasts, baguettes and Thai dishes.

With many expats calling Nong Khai home, many small bars catering to this mostly male clientele are dotted around town. Clustered in the vicinity of White Hotel, the bars on Soi Nitapat to the east of town have a rather seedy vibe, but most of those found in other areas are simply laid back watering holes where you can shoot the breeze and guzzle cheap beer. Two of those that appeared most inviting to us were Blue Lagoon on Mee Chai, and Chilli’s, just north of Pantawee Hotel.

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