Nong Khai: 5 Awesome Things To Do
As a border town on the bank of the Mekong River, Nong Khai has typically been overlooked as just another “gateway to Laos.” In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
Saturated with temples, rich culture and folk ways of life, Nong Khai is a place that’s full of character and off-the-beaten-track adventures. If you’re interested in visiting a peaceful and unique Thai city that’s free of mass tourism, Nong Khai should be on the top of your travel radar.
6 months out of the year in Nong Khai, lotus flowers in full bloom populate an impressive 2,600-rai pond that lives up to its colloquial name. During the morning hours, hundreds of pink loti carpet the entire surface of the murky water below – it’s a dramatically beautiful sight to behold.
To make this picturesque sea of lotus flowers accessible to tourists, the residents of the neighboring villages, Ban Nong Po and Ban Phai Sithong, provide boat-rowing services for 50 baht per person or 200 baht per boat. Each trip lasts ~45 minutes and is best viewed early in the morning (from 6:30am to 9:30am) before the flowers retreat from the strength of the sun.
Throughout history, the lotus flower has held great symbolic weight in many Eastern cultures and is considered to be one of the most sacred plants in the world. In Buddhist culture, the lotus is primarily associated with the concepts of purity and spiritual awakening.
A lotus flower is seen as pure, since it’s able to re-emerge from murky waters every morning and be perfectly clean. As for spiritual awakening, the act of breaking from the water’s surface every morning is allegorical of humanity’s desire. For Buddhists, a person’s path in life is similar to that of a lotus flower. From the seed stage (early in the karmic cycle) to the bud emerging from murky water, is representative of a person following the path of spirituality and leaving attachment behind – the blossoming symbolizes when a person has become fully awakened.
Given the variety of colors of lotus flowers, each is connected to different aspects of Buddhism:
A hidden gem for travelers in Nong Khai is Wat Tham Si Mongkhon (aka the Naga Cave Temple). As an underground sandstone chamber that was built in 1938, this large subterranean temple is believed to resemble the underwater world of the Naga (a serpent-like creature that’s the guardian of Buddhism’s Three Gems). Additionally, the cave is believed to be the pilgrimage trail of Laotian monks and according to local legend, only those that are spiritually awakened can see the underground path to Laos inside.
Just before the cave entrance, there’s a prayer area and a variety of statues that pay respect to the mystical power of the Naga.
For 100 baht, a Thai-speaking guide will lead you and a small group through a winding 30-minute route that’s adorned with discotheque-colored lights. For safety reasons, you’re only allowed to enter the cave with a guide – it’s easy to get lost and/or hurt.
Getting through the cave requires you to go barefoot, squeeze through some claustrophobic chasms (occasionally on your back), and scale a tall ladder. During our trip, the cave floor was flooded with ankle-deep murky water and the walls were lined with sweat-inducing humidity – supposedly, it’s in this state year round. For the average “fit” person, getting through the cave shouldn’t be difficult and it’s actually a pretty peaceful experience.
Throughout the cave, there are several meditation points where mini Buddha and Naga statues reside. But that’s not all that this cave is home to, there are also a series of stacked rocks which signify the presence of ancient coffins. During the Bronze Age and Neolithic times, caves were used as burial sites across Southeast Asia.
Thirteen kilometers down the road from Wat Tham Si Mongkhon is the Wat Pha Tak Suea Skywalk. It’s a 16-meter-long transparent glass floor with an unobstructed view of the Mekong River which marks the border with Laos. It’s a stunning U-shaped walkway that protrudes from the cliff’s edge.
When admiring the panoramic view on the Sky Walk, you’ll get hit with a gentle cool breeze and it’s arguably the best way to cool down after squeezing through sweaty chasms in a cave.
Trust us, it’s worth the stop…
The Sky Walk is open from 6:00 am until 6:00 pm daily and only cost 20 baht per person, which covers the cost of the required “shoe covers” to walk on the glass floor. It’s worth noting that only 20 people at a time are allowed on the platform – the structure can support up to 2,500 kg.
To us, the glass platform seemed safe due its caliber of design and structural build – we weren’t worried, but there were several Thai families wouldn’t dare enter. They told us that their apprehension was due to some recent incidences of glass platforms breaking in China. Regardless, we think the Sky Walk is safe and highly recommend visiting. It’s definitely a lot safer than crossing Wat Phu Tok’s rickety cliffside planks.
Since Nong Khai is a city that’s nestled on the banks of the Mekong River, the local government built a modern promenade that’s more than 10 kilometers in length.
Throughout this riverfront promenade there are numerous temples, restaurants, century-old buildings, and cultural landmarks to explore.
In front of Wat Lamduan (pictured above) is one of the most important cultural landmarks in Nong Khai – the Lan Phaya Nak. It’s a massive statue of two Nagas and is where the mysterious fireball festival occurs – a yearly event where thousands of people gather to witness red orbs springing from the Mekong river into the sky, before disappearing.
According to Isaan legend, these Naga fireballs have a supernatural origin and commemorate the day Buddha returned from Daowadung heaven after three months of Lent. To welcome Buddha back to earth, the Nagas emerged from the Mekong River to greet him. As for us humans (thanks to our limited perception), our eyes are only able to process the Nagas as red orbs.
So far, scientists have been unable identify the natural cause of Nong Khai’s annual appearance of red orbs. Some people have even declared it as an elaborate hoax… we’ll let you be the judge.
In the morning, locals spend their time exercising (from Tai Chi to cycling to jogging) along the promenade. Given the cool weather in the morning and the relaxing view over the Mekong, being here early lends itself to physical activity (we’re big on staying healthy while traveling). Not to mention, the promenade is a great place to watch Nong Khai’s peach-colored sunrises.
For photographers, morning on the promenade offers a less chaotic perspective to street photography in Thailand. With a small-profile camera and some patience, you can get some interesting and non-cliche shots here.
At the very far end of the promenade, there’s an indoor mall known as Tha Sadet Market that’s open from 9:00am to 6:00pm daily. While not lavish like the malls in Bangkok, this quirky labyrinth of shops offer an eclectic mix of clothes, electronics, and assorted bric-a-brac from Laos and Vietnam. As long as you keep your expectations decidedly low, you’ll have a fun time sifting through some funky souvenirs (we guarantee at least one laugh).
When it comes to food, Tha Sadet Market is a great spot to stop for lunch. Over the years, Nong Khai has developed a reputation for serving some of the most savory Vietnamese grub in Thailand. We highly recommend getting some pho, appetizers, and Vietnamese iced coffee at Ca Phe Viet. Or grabbing a monstrous serving pork namneung at the ever-popular Daeng Namnueng.
In the evenings, nightlife in Nong Khai is minimal but there’s a variety of food stalls, restaurants, and bars that open along the promenade.
Unfortunately, we didn’t spend any time on the promenade after blue hour, so we can’t comment on where to go. And yes, we already know… we’re a couple of squares.
Just outside of town, there’s an extravagant fantasy (a Burton-esque statue park) that cannot be missed. Known as Sala Keoku, this park contains 208 giant (and arguably creepy) statues in the middle of a garden that spans more than 16,000 square meters. In our humble opinion, it’s sort of a zoo for artistically-inspired statues that represent grandiose interpretations of both Buddhist and Hindu folk legends.
Some of the sculptures at Sala Keoku reach up to 25 meters and tower over the buildings in the surrounding village. These larger-than-life and fantastical visualizations of known religious texts are made of concrete and were designed under the guidance of a visionary Laotian monk.
Within the park, the largest and most mesmerizing statue depicts the Buddha under the protection of a highly-stylized seven-headed Naga serpent. It’s an imposing statue of monumental proportions that makes the 20 baht entrance fee seem pretty undervalued.
Sala Keoku was founded by Luangpu Bunluea Surirat in 1978, out of a vision that he could blend the teachings of all regions together. Surirat blurred the concepts of Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, as well as a variety of deities from folk epics to construct his unique sculptures.
Unfortunately, Surirat passed away in 1996 after a sculpture fell on him. To this day, his mummified body still resides on the third floor of Sala Keoku’s main building. And according to his followers… they claim his hair is still growing. No comment.
Every Sunday evening, a pop-up market takes over an area of Nong Khai ‘s city center that’s beside an active railroad track. This eccentric market offers travelers a chance to experience traditional Isaan cuisine, as well as appreciate local handicrafts and other non-touristy vendors. Food wise, there are a range of stalls selling filling meals for a bargain price, quick bites that you can eat while on the go, and cold desserts that’ll keep you cool on humid days.
Above all, we recommend trying the Khanom Jeen (ขนมจีน) with fish meatball curry and having some fresh sapodillas for dessert. Together this makes for a healthy and delicious dinner.
If you’re feeling more gastronomically adventurous, you can try some Rice Eggs (ไข่ข้าว) which are fertilized eggs that were steamed prior to hatching. It’s the Thai / Laos version of the well-known Filipino dish, Balut. Taste wise, Rice Eggs pair well with Kanom Gui Chai Tod (กุ๋ยช่ายทอด) which are pan-fried chive cakes that you can dip into semi-sweet black soy sauce.
Where To Stay: For a wallet-friendly holiday, we recommend staying at the White Inn. Alternatively if you’re seeking a fancier room, check out the Amanta Hotel.
When To Visit: Nong Khai attractions are open and worth visiting year-round – just know that the rainiest months of the year are August and September – some flooding might occur. It’s also worth noting that in March and April, you can expect hazy skies due to Isaan’s sugar cane burning season (all of our pics were taken in late March).
Tip #1: We intentionally left Wat Pho Chai off of this list as it was, in our humble opinion, an overhyped tourist trap. While there were some nice murals inside the temple, there’s just so many non-touristy temples scattered throughout Nong Khai that’s there’s no particular reason to come here. You’re most likely better off spending your time elsewhere.
Tip #2: The attractions in Nong Khai are spread out and best explored with a vehicle (car rentals are available in the city). If you plan on using a motorbike to get around, it’s probably best to give yourself an extra day or two to explore the province.
Tip #3: At Wat Si Mongkhong, please DO NOT bring a backpack or a sling into the cave – we did and like idiots, we struggled. We originally thought the cave was like the rest of the open-air Wat Thams throughout Thailand – we were wrong. Also, it’s best to wear more outdoor-focused clothes that won’t rip easily and that’ll dry quickly.