Despite boasting some of the finest Mekong River scenery in Southeast Asia, Nakhon Phanom is mainly viewed as a border crossing point to Tha Khaek in southern Laos. Slow-going travellers should hang around for the relaxing atmosphere and bicycle-friendly riverfront.
The small capital city of the eponymous province has built one of the longest riverfront walkways and bike lanes in Thailand. It stretches for virtually the entire length of town, passing parks, religious sites, markets, dining terraces, fish farms, piers, low-hanging banyan trees and many old French-Indochinese houses. Explore all of these as you take in views of Laos’ spectacular limestone range, which explain why Nakhon Phanom translates as “City of Mountains.”
While it’s a wonderful place to simply hang out, indulge on Mekong river fish and soak up the scenery, Nakhon Phanom town lacks any must-see attractions. The few foreign travellers who pass through are usually headed for the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge 3, located 12 kilometres north of the town, to continue into Laos for a spin around the Tha Khaek loop.
Nakhon Phanom attracts its share of Thai travellers on weekend merit-making trips with stops at the province’s nine sacred chedis. The most famous of these is Phra That Phanom, an ancient and extremely highly revered site located some 40 kilometres south of the provincial capital. It can easily be visited as a day trip, but That Phanom town is one of the friendlier places in Thailand and also warrants an overnight stay.
Vietnamese travellers are fairly common thanks to Nakhon Phanom’s place in the life of Ho Chi Minh. The communist revolutionary and father of modern Vietnam spent parts of the late 1920s in the village of Baan Na Chok, just west of Nakhon Phanom town. The modest guesthouse where he stayed has been preserved as a museum, the main attraction of the surrounding “Thai-Vietnamese Friendship Village.”
This historical tie didn’t stop Nakhon Phanom from hosting Ho Chi Minh’s enemies during the American War. From an air base to the west of town, the US launched countless bombing raids over the Ho Chi Minh trail supply line and elsewhere in southern Laos during the 1960s and ‘70s, and unexploded ordnances continue to plague the Lao people today. At the same time, a Thai communist insurgency that was allied to “Uncle Ho” maintained a substantial presence in the area into the 1980s.
Many Vietnamese resettled in Nakhon Phanom in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and while some returned home after their native country won independent from the French in the 1950s, many stuck around. Vietnamese script can still be seen at the hospital, clock tower and other key places in town, and you’ll find some terrific Vietnamese cuisine. The rest of Nakhon Phanom’s residents are mostly Lao/Isaan-Thai along with a handful of Chinese-Thai and the Phu Tai people out in the countryside.
If you’re in Nakhon Phanom town on the full moon of the 11th lunar month (around October), you’ll be swept up in the Huea Fai festival, featuring a procession of large boats adorned with twinkling lights on the Mekong. The lights form images of the Buddha, chedis, flowers, elephants and more, all part of an ancient tradition that signifies welcoming the Buddha back to earth after he’d spent the rainy season in a heavenly realm.
Nakhon Phanom province borders the Mekong River and Laos in upper Isaan, or Northeast Thailand, some 720 kilometres northeast of Bangkok and right across the river from the Lao town of Tha Khaek. The Vietnamese coast is only around 250 kilometres to the east, though getting there will not be quick.
The provincial capital, Mueang Nakhon Phanom, is laid out in a north-to-south pattern along the Mekong. Soonthornvichit Rd (also spelt Sunthorn Wichit), or Highway 12, cruises you alongside the riverfront walkway and bike lane, which was being renovated during our most recent visit. Highway 12 follows the Mekong’s path all the way north to Bueng Kan, and south to That Phanom and Mukdahan, passing countless tiny villages and bucolic scenery in both directions.
A bunch of side lanes cut west from the riverfront and connect to Aphiban Bancha Rd, which is the main north-to-south running drag through the commercial part of town. Nittayo Rd, or Highway 22, shoots west from the riverfront and continues all the way to Sakhon Nakhon. Another important road is Fueang Nakorn, cutting west from the central clock tower near the river and running past the night market on its way towards the bus station.
The large Nakhon Phanom Hospital is located off Aphiban Bancha Rd on the north side of town. You’ll find the central police station facing the river on Soonthornvichit Rd, near the eastern end of Ratchathan Rd. There’s also a tourist police booth located next to Fortune River View Hotel in the far south of town along the river, though it didn’t appear staffed when we passed by.
The immigration office is located on the riverfront road near the centre of town and ferry pier. The TAT office also has a prime riverfront location a bit further north, but don’t expect to receive the greatest tourism advice here.
Several bank branches and ATMs are spread around Aphiban Bancha and Bamrung Mueang roads in the centre of town. If coming from Laos or Vietnam, keep in mind that Lao kip and Vietnamese dong are non-transferable (i.e. worthless) in Thailand.
Several coffee shops and most hotels offer free WiFi. Otherwise, we noticed a few shared computers in 2 You Coffee Shop on Aphiban Bancha Rd, just south of and across from the hospital. There’s also Experience Internet and Game on Soi Adunyathan, on the north side of town, next to the Dahla Hotel.
By David Luekens. Last updated on 9th October, 2016.