Quite a few travellers come to explore the splendid limestone mountains rising beyond the Mekong River town of Tha Khaek in southern Laos. Across the river in Thailand, Nakhon Phanom has no mountain peaks — and virtually no foreign travellers. But it does have one thing that Tha Khaek lacks: a multi-kilometre riverfront walkway and bike lane that takes you past century-old architecture and a few low-key attractions, while affording one of the finest Mekong views found anywhere.
Nakhon Phanom town’s central feature is a roughly 50-metre-tall clock tower built by long-term Vietnamese residents right before they returned home in 1960 — a gift to the townspeople who had been so hospitable. A one-minute walk from there, the riverfront promenade grabs you with spacious steps and walkways, pavilions and depictions of colourful nagas that look like they’re ready for a swim.
Heading south, you might wander into Indochina Market for a browse through packets of Chinese tea, hats sporting the Vietnamese flag, camo fatigues and other goods imported from around the region. One of the nearby piers is only for Thai/Lao citizens making the river crossing, but a second pier docks the long boats used for daily river cruises that are open to all.
Each worthy of a quick stop, a few historic temples dot the southern stretch of Nakhon Phanom’s riverfront. Pop into Wat Okat to see a pair of sacred Buddha images thought to be over 1,000 years old; check out the happy-looking Lao-style Buddha in Wat Klang’s ordination hall; and take a wander around Wat Maha That’s century-old Phra Nakhon chedi. Of Nakhon Phanom province’s nine sacred chedis, it’s the only one found in the provincial capital.
If you’re not getting enough exercise, take a break for some stationary aerobics, with a view.
Doubling back and cruising north from the clock tower, you’ll arrive at what we find to be the most picturesque part of Nakhon Phanom’s riverfront. Venerable banyan trees droop over the bike lane as the most awe-inspiring of Laos’ craggy spikes rise beyond floating fish farms and wooden sampans plying a wide stretch of Asia’s second longest river.
Continue north to pass a series of century-old houses sporting varying degrees of restoration (or lack of it) — throwbacks to the days when colonial-era France had a stake in the area.
Though overshadowed by the old European-style buildings, you’ll also pass a bunch of humble old wooden houses with a few papaya or banana trees stretching down towards the water.
At Ruan Rim Nam restaurant, an attractively crumbling brick-and-cement house leads you to a wide riverside terrace where whole freshwater fish and fiery red ant egg salad are served up with the views. Head to nearby Chelsea Restaurant if you fancy a burger, or grab a table in Baan Kafe’s restored wooden house for some excellent coffee and air-con.
Perhaps the best example of the riverfront’s heritage architecture is the Old Governor’s Residence, a handsome European-style building that hosted Thailand’s current king and queen during their visit in the 1950s. The residence fell into disrepair until, in 2006, authorities spruced things up and opened it to the public as a free historical museum.
Further north, the 1921-built St Anna’s Church stands more like a cathedral, or a monument to the many Vietnamese Catholics who have settled permanently in Nakhon Phanom. The twin steeples are indeed captivating, though we were equally taken by some of the smaller old buildings found within the expansive St Anna’s compound.
The old church buildings, temples, houses, restaurants, markets, piers, parks and pavilions all add colour to Nakhon Phanom’s riverfront. But the tremendous view over to Tha Khaek’s mountains is what really sets it apart from the rest of Thailand’s Mekong River towns. If you’re into photography, be prepared to stop often.
While any part of the riverfront is conducive to a leisurely stroll or picnic, hiring a bicycle is the best way to see all of it in a day. You can rent them at 777 Hometel, The P Hometel, The River Hotel and LA Cycles near the clock tower. Rooms with river views can be scored at Baan Rim Khong for less than 500 baht and Viewkong Hotel for less than 1,000 baht, while those with more cash might opt for The River Hotel.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 3rd September, 2015.