While some may find Sala Kaew Ku (also Keoku) sculpture park quirky or just plain bizarre, there's no denying that it's Nong Khai's only "can't-miss" attraction.
The park's countless dazzling sculptures were the life's work of Boun Leua Sulilat, a Lao man who spent much of his early life absorbing mystical knowledge from an ascetic hermit named Kaew Ku, who lived in a cave in Laos. Sala Kaew Ku is Sulilat's impressive attempt to bring this knowledge to life. While the striking depictions draw from a wide range of ancient beliefs, including animist folklore, Hindu mythology and Buddhist traditionalism, the execution is all Sulilat.
The spiritual-creative project was actually begun in Sulilat's homeland, but he was forced to abandon it when Laos succumbed to Communist rule in the 1970s. As such, a similar park can be visited on the opposite side of the Mekong, not far from the Friendship Bridge. That one is also worth a visit, but the Thai iteration is more complete and carefully maintained.
Surrounded by well-groomed gardens and a large pond, the 100+ sculptures range from modest in size to way larger than life, with the tallest reaching 25 metres in height. Along with endless grinning Buddhas and animated Hindu gods, the park features several depictions of nagas, or mythical serpents that play a prominent role in South and Southeast Asian mythology. Sulilat himself strongly identified with snakes, believing them to be the purest of all creatures.
The park's most elaborate set of sculptures depicts the wheel of life according to Theravada Buddhism, with its final piece showing a grown man crossing a threshold and emerging as a fully enlightened buddha on the other side. The main building sits at the western end of the park and houses relics from Sulilat's life alongside his mummified body, visible under a glass hemisphere on the upper floor, which was closed during our most recent visit.
How to get there
Sala Kaew Ku is located off the southern side of Route 212 on the far southeastern side of Nong Khai town, and is reachable by bicycle, motorbike or tuk tuk. Unless visiting Wat Pho Chai first, the best bicycling route is to take the riverside road all the way to the east of town, then into one of the side streets that runs south from Wat Phra That Klang Nam (the sunken chedi) to Mee Chai Road. From there, bear left at the 7-eleven that sits across the street from the day market (also worth a peek), and then hang the first left onto another side street, following a sign for Sala Kaew Ku. Once you emerge onto Route 212, take a left and then cross the highway at the first U-turn, from where the access road to Sala Kaew Ku will be almost immediately on the left. If coming from elsewhere, the park is clearly marked by signs on either side of 212. If you don't have your own wheels, a round-trip tuk tuk fare from the riverfront should be around 150 baht, including waiting time.