For many, Vientiane is a starting point for other more exotic locations such as Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng. Before you pack your bags and head straight for the bus station, pause and consider staying a day or two more. There are many places around Vientiane that you will find interesting. Just 25km south of Vientiane is Nong Khai, a city right across the Thai-Lao border. Wonder where the Laotians in Vientiane go to for shopping and food? Yes, just across the border in Nong Khai.
Some of you might be wondering, “Wait, I thought it is cheaper in Laos than in Thailand?” Well, while Laos may be less developed, they do not produce much and most daily essentials are imported from Thailand. As such, Nong Khai hosts a huge bustling market where Laotians stock up on food, clothing and other items. Yet, shopping is not the only thing you can do at Nong Khai. Here are five other reasons why you should do a day trip in Nong Khai, or even stay a day or two there:
1. The mystical sculpture park of Sala Keoku
A short 20-minute bicycle ride from the centre takes you to the magical land of Sala Keoku. A park devoted to Buddhism, the many bizarre statues there embody the vision of a particular monk and his followers. Some sculptures depict stories of Buddhism, which are familiar to those who practice it and intriguing to those who do not. With more than 100 sculptures scattered around the park, there is a lot to see and amuse yourself with! The highlight of the park is a wheel of life that portrays life from birth to death. First you step into the wheel through the mouth of mystical creature. Then you will see a reflection of your own life, regardless of which stage it may be at.
2. Amazing Isaan food
Like many parts of Thailand, Nong Khai offers amazing food at amazing prices. Moreover, Nong Khai provides what you do not usually get in Bangkok, Phuket or Chiang Mai – authentic Isaan food. While Isaan food is not well-known with tourists, ask any Thai for his or her opinion and Isaan-style cooking will be a popular choice. Did you know that the famous papaya salad (som dam) is an Isaan creation? A 20-minute bicycle ride northeast along the Mekong river brings you to a local’s favourite restaurant “Som Dam Din Tsa (ร้านส้มตำติ๋มจ๋า)”. A distinct landmark around the area is a rock protruding from the Mekong, wrapped in flags. Do try the famous papaya salad and other Isaan dishes such as the grilled fish and sliced pork. You can always ask the staff for some Isaan recommendations or simply point at the food you crave for at the large open grill.
3. The stunning Mekong promenade
The entire stretch of road that runs parallel to the Mekong river is absolutely beautiful. Head down in the evening and take a stroll or ride a bicycle. The cool breeze at dusk and the reflection of sunset over the Mekong are two reasons why you should grab a seat, maybe some beers and enjoy the view. On a good day, many locals would fly kites along the promenade, busk or run. What a great way to end your day on a relaxing note.
4. Lively night markets, songs and dances
Nong Khai’s night scene comes alive during the weekends. Many visit the huge Saturday night market that stretches along a part of the Mekong promenade. There are many performances to watch while you shop for food and other interesting items put up for sale. If you are lucky, you may even witness a short fireworks display to celebrate whatever occasion there is during the week. If you missed the Saturday night market, fret not. The Sunday night market is equally impressive. Held at the Nong Khai railway station, a 10-minute bicycle ride away from the city centre, the Sunday night market is an enormous maze. Start at one corner and walk your way through a path lined with food, clothes and other items. By the time you have figured your way out, you would be full and satisfied.
5. The gorgeous ancient settlement at Phu Phra Bat Historical Park
We have heard of the powerful kingdoms that used to rule Thailand and Laos. How many of us have heard about the cavemen and prehistoric settlements in Thailand? Totems, mushroom-like rock structures and a Thai Stonehenge, these are some of the interesting finds you will discover at Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, 65km from Nong Khai. Be prepared to spend 3 hours at the park as you trek to various areas to look for well-preserved prehistoric cave paintings and Buddhas intricately carved out of stone. You will be amazed at how people in the past could carve shelters out of stone, some as high as 30 feet (10 metres). The trek to the various structures is surprisingly easy, and you will be rewarded with picturesque panoramas and beautiful rock formations along the way.
Many people simply pass through Nong Khai on their way to Vientiane. For those who fly into Vientiane, Nong Khai is seldom on their list. Why not spend an extra day or two in Vientiane and do a day-trip to Nong Khai? Better still, cross the border with your bags and check into a guesthouse in Nong Khai. Nong Khai offers an authentic Isaan experience and boasts parks and natural scenery that you can never find elsewhere in Thailand or Laos. Considering that Nong Khai is only a 30-minute bus ride from Vientiane, it is a great place around Vientiane to spend some time before heading out.
Were the five reasons convincing enough for you to spend more time in Vientiane or in Nong Khai? Share with me by commenting below. I would love to hear if you will be heading to Nong Khai, or if you have had great experiences there. If you enjoyed this article, do share it with your friends through the social media icons below.