There may be no better place than the small town of That Phanom to experience Isaan’s warm hospitality. Throw in a broad expanse of the Mekong River along with one of the most cherished chedis in Southeast Asia, and you’ve got one memorable destination. We love this place!
Situated across the river from Laos and about halfway between the larger cities of Nakhon Phanom and Mukdahan, That Phanom’s history stretches back for over 1,000 years. Probably once the capital of the Si Khotrabun kingdom, the town was moved back and forth across the Mekong several times before coming under the sway of Bangkok in 1790. No matter what the town was called or which bank it was on, it always stood in reverence of the great chedi, Phra That Phanom.
Legend says that the original chedi was built a mere eight years after the Buddha’s death around the year 550 BCE. While this is a serious stretch, it very well might have been the first Buddhist chedi built in what’s now Northeast Thailand. According to the excellent museum located next to the impressive modern version of the chedi, the original and its replacements were renovated and destroyed several times, including most recently in 1975.
Phra That Phanom is, by far, the most sacred of Nakhon Phanom province’s nine important chedis, and it’s a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists from all over Thailand, Laos and beyond. Unlike some of the region’s other key religious sites that are overrun by tourists, this one is mainly visited by monks and white-clad laypeople. Though not quite as awe-inspiring as a Wat Doi Suthep or Wat Phra Kaew, the Phra That’s spiritually charged atmosphere can be a lot more magical.
Many of the few foreign travellers who make it here come as part of a pre-arranged tour with only a quick stop in That Phanom. While it can be easily hit as a day trip from Nakhon Phanom or Mukdahan, we highly recommend settling into one of the good-value guesthouses to spend a little more time in what could very well be the friendliest town in Thailand.
On our most recent day in That Phanom, a table of old ladies invited us over for a free lunch of home-cooked Isaan fare; a charming middle-aged couple spontaneously led us to the town’s best-known sweets shop; and a monk who lives at Wat Phra That Phanom approached us on the street before spending two hours showing us around the temple and surprising us with a book and necklace. After all of that, he insisted that we join him at his auntie’s home for refreshments. If you’ve been feeling that the “Land of Smiles” is no longer a suitable nickname for Thailand, That Phanom will set you straight.
In addition to the chedi and a lovely riverside walkway (though not as scenic as Nakhon Phanom town’s riverfront), That Phanom features a good night market along with low-key lanes lined by some attractive French-Indochinese shophouses. You could also take a trip to the nearby town of Renu Nakhon to check out its own sacred chedi and the impressive cotton products that are hand-made by the area’s Phu Tai community.
If you happen to be here from the 10th day of the waxing moon to the first day of the waning moon in the third lunar month (some time in April or May), prepare to be swept up in the Phra That Phanom Fair. Centred on the chedi, the annual festival includes elaborate Phu Tai dances, folk performances and plenty of food and fun.
Located in southern Nakhon Phanom province some 55 kilometres south of the provincial capital, That Phanom is basically a two road town. Highway 212 runs into town from the north and passes the Phra That before cutting west. Phanom Phanarak Rd runs north-to-south between the highway and the Mekong River, with around two-dozen side lanes connecting it to the narrow riverfront road.
Street signs are posted only in Thai but a number marks every soi. The most important for travellers is Phanom Phanarak Soi 8, which runs east from the Phra That, passing a roundabout with an arch that resembles Vientiane’s Patuxai (though a lot smaller), and continuing past several old shophouses on the way to the river. This is where you’ll find Poo Gam Phra, where Khun Nuat sells his gorgeous paintings and Khun Maew teaches Thai and rents out bicycles.
The whole town can be covered on foot in around 20 minutes and it’s nearly impossible to get lost thanks to the chedi, which is by far the tallest structure. The police station, hospital and post office are all located on Highway 212, a couple of kilometres west of the rest of town. A few banks and ATMs are also found on 212, a bit north of the Phra That, on the way up to the Tesco Lotus.
By David Luekens. Last updated on 9th October, 2016.