Photo: Street scenes around Sakhon Nakhon.

Introduction

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The obscure Northeast Thai province of Sakhon Nakhon is best known among Thais as the stomping grounds of several 20th-century forest meditation monks believed to have been enlightened. The very few foreign travellers who make a stop in the eponymous capital city will find a few intriguing temples and markets amid the low-key lanes.



A Khmer settlement first appeared along the southern bank of Nong Han Lake around the 10th century, evidenced by ancient ruins in surprisingly good shape at Phra That Cheng Weng and Phra That Dum. Both of these are located just outside of present-day Sakhon Nakhon, and the former contains several impressive lintels.

Glimmers of the past. Photo taken in or around Sakhon Nakhon, Thailand by David Luekens.

Glimmers of the past. Photo: David Luekens

The town later became part of the Lan Xiang Kingdom, which ruled over most of present-day Laos and Northeast Thailand from the 14th century until the Siamese took control in the late 1700s. As with most of Isaan, variations on the Lao language, cuisine and customs have survived in Sakhon Nakhon. The city also hosts one of Thailand’s largest Vietnamese-Thai communities, including many who practice the Catholic faith. Just west of town, a huge domed archdiocese exemplifies the prominence of Christianity in the area.

Sakhon Nakhon was the final resting place of Ajahn Mun, the late Buddhist monk who spent his entire ordained life travelling vast distances on foot, practicing extreme austerities and meditating in cemeteries, caves and forests. Today he is considered a fully enlightened arahant who was the driving force behind the revitalisation of the Thai Forest Tradition. His legacy can be experienced at a museum and shrine at Wat Pa Sutthawat.

Old and new. Photo taken in or around Sakhon Nakhon, Thailand by David Luekens.

Old and new. Photo: David Luekens

A couple of other revered forest monks who travelled with Ajahn Mun were also cremated in Sakhon Nakhon province. Ajahn Wan is honoured at Wat Tham Phuang in the town of Sawang Daen Din, while Ajahn Fan was laid to rest at Wat Pa Udom Somphon in Phanna Nikhom district. If you have a particular interest in the Thai Forest Tradition, any bus to Udon Thani can drop you off near both temples.

Decorated with lotuses and containing several islets, Nong Han Lake is one of the largest bodies of fresh water in Isaan. It’s also a notorious breeding ground for a microscopic parasite, or fluke, that thrives in the local marine life. Traditional Isaan dishes made with raw fish, like koi pla, have been blamed for an extremely high rate of liver cancer across the region — and especially in Sakhon Nakhon. A boat ride on the lake isn’t a bad idea, but swim at your own risk!

One of the region’s largest parasite infested lakes. Photo taken in or around Sakhon Nakhon, Thailand by David Luekens.

One of the region’s largest parasite infested lakes. Photo: David Luekens

The Phu Phan mountains run through the western and southern parts of the province and are protected as part of three minor national parks: Phu Phan, Phu Pha Lek and Phu Pha Yon. We haven’t made it to these, but we’ve heard they contain a handful of waterfalls, viewpoints and 3,000-year-old rock paintings. The mountains were used during the Second World War as a hideout for the Seri Thai (Free Thai) movement, which actively opposed Thailand’s alliance to Japan, and later for the Thai Communist Party.

Held annually in October to mark the end of the Buddhist rains retreat, or Awk Phansa, the city’s biggest festival is marked by an elaborate procession of floats displaying large Thai-style “castles” crafted from beeswax. This has turned Sakhon into something of a rival of Ubon Ratchathani, which celebrates its older wax sculpture festival to mark the beginning of the rains retreat in July.




Orientation
Located west of Nakhon Phanom and east of Udon Thani in upper Isaan, Sakhon Nakhon sees very few foreign travellers. You’ll find no traveller-oriented guesthouses and virtually no tourism infrastructure. English is not widely spoken and the available accommodation is on the dismal side. A stop here can be rewarding if you want to jump way off the typical tourist track, but it will be challenging if you don’t speak basic Thai. A phrasebook can help.

Time to eat again? Ok! Photo taken in or around Sakhon Nakhon, Thailand by David Luekens.

Time to eat again? Ok! Photo: David Luekens

Home to around 70,000 people, Sakhon Nakhon’s provincial capital feels much like a small town in many places. The most interesting area is within walking distance of Nong Han Lake, which can be accessed via a series of parks just east of Wat Phra That Choeng Chum, a historic temple located on Rueang Sawat Road. West of that, many century-old wooden houses and minor temples are found amid a web of narrow streets.

Rat Phatthana Road runs north-to-south to the west of town and is a centre of local commerce with a few good restaurants. Sakhon Nakhon’s municipal fresh market covers a huge area downtown, between Pracha Rat, Suk Kasem and Rop Mueang roads. Just east of that is a large Big C shopping centre, which looms to the north of a sprawling outdoor clothing market and the city’s largest night food market on Khu Mueang Road.

Sakhon Nakhon Hospital is located in the southeastern corner of town on at the end of Charoen Mueang Road. The smaller Rak Sakon Hospital is more centrally located on Rop Mueang Road, just south of the Dusit Hotel. The police station is found far to the southwest on Suk Kasem Road. ATMs and bank branches are available in many parts of the city, including at Big C and on Rat Phatthana Road.

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