Nakhon Phanom and Sakon Nakhon were influenced in their development by French Indochina, which left a surprising legacy in both provinces
By sharing a border with nearby Laos, along the Mekong River, both Nakhon Phanom and Sakon Nakhon have been influenced in their development by French Indochina. The often authoritarian colonial regime in Laos and Vietnam, as well as the more recent Vietnam War, both brought a wave of Vietnamese emigrants. This, in turn, left a surprising cultural legacy in and around both provinces. And although neither locale is likely to become a priority destination for foreign visitors, a few intrepid souls might find them just the right places to enjoy a laid back holiday.
Nakhon Phanom, nestled along the Mekong River, is a peaceful pretty corner of Isaan. For local Thais, the city is perceived as an important Buddhist pilgrimage destination. Following Thai Buddhist rituals, the province and its eight temples incarnate all seven days of the week (one temple represents the entire week), and to get good luck Thais go to the temple corresponding to the day of the week on which they were born. The most revered temple is Phra That Phanom, which contains major Buddha relics. The temple was rebuilt after its Laotian style stupa collapsed following heavy flooding in 1975. It’s always been considered the spiritual centre of Isaan, and Laos people.
For foreigners, Nakhon Phanom embodies certainly a certain quintessential Thai way of life, with its well-maintained riverfront, as well as a string of ancient buildings alternating with elegant wats along the Mekong River. But the city also offers history buffs a fascinating plunge into Indochina’s tumultuous past.
While colonial French rule influenced life across the border in neighbouring Laos, and on into Vietnam, Nakhon Phanom represented, for opponents to the French presence, a welcoming refuge. Many Vietnamese feeling oppressed by the French resettled on the Thai side of the Mekong, and their influence is still detectable to this day—not only in local food, with distinctive Vietnamese flavours, but also in some of the buildings.
Echoing French Indochinese architecture on the Laotian side of the Mekong, Thai governors ruling over Nakhon Phanom asked Vietnamese craftsmen to help in designing administrative structures. The former Governor’s House, with its tiled roof and wooden shutters, would certainly not look out of place in Takhek, the Laotian city across the border. The old residence was built between 1915 and 1925, and employed the skills of a certain Kuba Jaroen, a Vietnamese local craftsman. The beautifully restored house is today a museum where many ancient photographs of the town, as well as some old furniture, are on display.
In another part of town the Suntorn Wichit School, with its long arcade, evokes images of French schools in Saigon, while the St. Anna Church, built in 1926 and destroyed during the Vietnam War, was constructed by importing materials from Saigon. The modern church built in its place offers less interest, but the priest’s seminary in the church compound still has a typical French Indochinese style.
Another beautiful colonial style structure is the current Queen Sirikit National Library. Built between 1915 and 1919—again by Vietnamese craftsmen—the building was previously the City Hall and has a distinctive neo-classical Palladian style. Partially bombed during World War II, it was reconstructed according to the original plans. Its dark yellow colours, fountain, and manicured flower beds give the area an Italian feeling. In addition, along Gubartavai and Suntorn Wichit roads, and around the Vietnamese Memorial Clock Tower, one can find many French Indochina style buildings obviously constructed by Vietnamese immigrants.
Just a few kms from the city centre, another surprise awaits history lovers. The village of Ban Nan Chok was home, for a period of four years, to none other than Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s most emblematic leader (he lived there from 1927 to 1931). His small wooden house is surrounded by a huge garden, and the guardian of the property is proud to tell that ‘Uncle Ho’ himself planted some of the trees there. Inside the house is a museum dedicated to the father of revolutionary Vietnam. It’s almost like a pilgrimage stop, with its numerous banners, and flowers surrounding a shrine dedicated to this historical figure. It’s a piece of communism history in the midst of Thailand, and that should be unusual enough to generate some well-deserved curiosity!
Meanwhile, some 65 km west of Nakhon Phanom airport, and 23 km north of Sakon Nakhon city, stands the old village of Tha Rae (in Sakon Nakhon province). The village is home to a Catholic community, most of whom emigrated from Vietnam. The first Christian Vietnamese immigrants settled in the village around 1884, and rapidly prospered, eventually becoming Thailand’s largest Catholic community.
Today, 11,000 people live in the area, but back when the area was being first settled the community recreated their conditions in French Indochina with a city layout inspired by European standards, with the St. Michael Church representing the heart of town. Tha Rae has some of Thailand’s most beautiful arcade villas and houses, constructed in the same style as in Vietnam. A dozen of these houses survived the usual damage inflicted by passing time, including humidity and general lack of maintenance.
Due to its strong Catholic traditions, Christmas celebrations here are probably the most beautiful in the Kingdom, with trees and houses decorated with brightly lit stars. A star festival is then organized on December 25th, with a procession along the main road. The Christmas star parade is part of the celebrations throughout the Muang district since they believe the “star” is the symbol of Jesus.