Nakhon Phanom courts international travellers with a blend of slow-life tourism and unique heritage attractions
For Bangkok residents seeking a respite from city stress, or anyone visiting Thailand looking to unwind in true “slow-life” fashion, the peaceful province of Nakhon Phanom has aspirations to make it onto your travel itinerary.
One of the main draws of the city of Nakhon Phanom, the provincial capital, is its waterfront setting. Situated along the western banks of this particular section of the long and winding Mekong River, the bike paths, public areas, and hotels along the river offer magnificent views of the mountain range that encircles the Laos town of Thakek on the opposite side. On the Thai side of the river, the surrounding landscape is relatively flat—ideal for growing rice, one of the area’s main agricultural industries—and a popular saying amongst the locals here is, “Laos has the mountains, but we have the view”.
Along with the views, the city has many beautiful Buddhist temples, the most revered being Wat Mahathat, whose origins date back to the early 7th century. The centrepiece here is the Phra That Nakhon, a stunning gold and white chedi that is stylistically reminiscent of Phra That Phanom, one of the province’s other revered pagodas. Built in 1922, it stands 24 meters high, surrounded by bright golden statues that glisten in the sunlight. This particular pagoda is one of eight spiritually significant holy sites distributed throughout the province, collectively known as the ‘7-Birthday, 8-Relic Pagodas’. Each one signifies a different day of the week—there are two for Wednesday, one for the morning and one for the evening—and each houses its own particular Buddha relic. Visiting them all is part of a merit-making road trip that attracts many Thai and other Buddhist tourists to this region.
The city also pays homage to the Naga, and incarnations of this snake-like dragon deity—sometimes depicted with one head, sometimes with several heads—can be seen throughout the metropolis. In fact, the city’s most recognisable waterfront landmark is a 15-metre-high, seven-headed Naga statue made of brass that spouts a stream of water (from the mouth of the middle serpent head) into the river below.
Naga motifs are also easily spotted as part of the design of the lampposts lining the riverside promenade, but for a real psychedelic snake experience visit Wat Phra In Plaeng, where statues of the mythical creatures from the Himmapan Forest—the legendary woodlands at the base of Mount Meru in Hindu mythology—surround a temple that houses a 1,000-year-old Buddha image. Two enormous, brightly coloured, elaborately designed, fearsome snake/human figures guard the front entrance, while other fantastic creatures, including two nareepol “fruit maidens”, can be seen along the low wall that surrounds the rest of the building.
However, not all spiritual sites in the city environs are Buddhist in nature. Nakhon Phanom is home to a sizeable Vietnamese population, and the Saint Anna Nong Saeng Church on Sunthorn Vijit Road is the place of worship for local Catholics. Constructed in 1926, the building is French in design—not surprising, considering the French colonial presence in Indochina during that time—with twin spires linked by a narrow footbridge. The church is fully functional, with regularly scheduled masses each month, and during the Christmas season, the exterior is beautifully illuminated with coloured lights.
Visiting the Saint Anna Nong Saeng Church provides an introduction to the story of Vietnamese migration to Nakhon Phanom, which began in earnest when many fled the oppressive French colonial era rule of their homeland. Without a doubt, the most infamous migrant who settled here was Ho Chi Minh, who arrived in July of 1928 and lived like a local until November of 1929. At the time he went by the name Tao Chin (one of the hundreds of aliases he adopted while he was crisscrossing the globe incognito) and the home he built in the village of Na Chok—at the time a primarily Vietnamese community—is now a popular tourist attraction.
Known as Baan Na Chok, this spartan abode is a simple, three-room wooden structure, set back from the road amidst a beautifully lush garden of colourful flowering plants and fruit trees. A sign near the entrance even indicates a coconut palm said to have been planted by this future President of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Inside the house, the walls are lined with historic photos and images of Ho Chi Minh, while on the table in the centre of the room a hand-carved vintage opium pipe sits on display (perhaps once lit up by ‘Uncle Ho’ himself).
When Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam in 1941 he established the Viet Minh Movement, a national independence coalition, and in 1946 the first Indochina War broke out, sending more Vietnamese refugees to seek asylum in Thailand. By the early 1960s, North Vietnam was at war with the United States, which prompted yet another migration of Vietnamese nationals escaping their homeland, many of whom swam across the Mekong River when they found they were not welcome in neighbouring Laos. Ironically, during the Vietnam War US forces maintained several air bases in Thailand, from which air strikes were launched, and one of those was in Nakhon Phanom.
Ho Chi Minh died on September 2nd, 1969, never having seen the defeat of the American forces in 1975, or the reunification of Vietnam the following year. However, his legacy lives on, and in 2016 representatives of Thai and Vietnamese governments, together with local authorities and Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese), officially opened the Ho Chi Minh Memorial Complex to commemorate the 40th anniversary of modern Vietnam’s diplomatic relations with Thailand. This grand memorial celebrates the life of the revered Communist leader—a bit of an oddity in the staunchly anti-communist nation of Thailand—with statues, framed photos, detailed diorama displays, a museum, a gift shop, and a meticulously detailed replica of Uncle Ho’s house in nearby Na Chok village.
Venturing out to this area—collectively known as the Thai Vietnamese Friendship Village—takes about 25 minutes from the city centre aboard a sam lor, the three-wheeled, tuk-tuk-type vehicles residents here use as public transportation. On the way, visitors will travel past countless verdant rice paddies and small farms. The province is a major producer of agricultural products such as rice, sugar cane, and tapioca, but at least one local farmer is making a living raising crickets, which are harvested as food. Eating insects is common throughout Thailand, especially in Isaan, and when our guide took us to inspect a local cricket farm operation, we were treated to an array of delectable bug dishes including cricket larb, cricket nam prik, and roasted crickets with fried lime leaves and chilli.
Speaking of local Isaan delicacies, the food in Nakhom Phanom is a significant attraction, and within the city, there are plenty of restaurants serving up fresh, delicious, locally sourced fare. If you happen to be visiting on the weekend there’s a lively Walking Street set up along the section of Chayangkun Road immediately surrounding the 50-metre-high clock tower—a 60s era civic monument donated to the city by grateful Vietnamese migrants—where you can find plenty of tasty snacks, as well as clothing and various handicrafts. And if you’re looking for a place to sit down and chill out with a meal, and perhaps a cold beer or whiskey (seriously, that’s the ONLY booze the bar serves), then drop in on Tha Hornarika, a happening night spot along Chayangkun Road with live music on the weekends.
Finally, if you’re wondering when the best time to visit would be, try to coincide your trip with Lai Reua Fai, the annual illuminated boat procession that marks the end of Buddhist Lent (usually in late October). The festival pays homage to Lord Buddha but also makes offerings to the mythical Naga serpent; which, according to legend, lives in the murky depths of the mighty Mekong. The boats themselves are huge, and many weeks are spent constructing, preparing, and decorating these vessels with lanterns. On the full moon night of the 11th lunar month, the lanterns are lit, and the boats are paraded down the Mekong, complete with accompanying fireworks displays.
For those who can’t be there for the fireboat festival, there is a small but informative museum dedicated to Lai Reua Fai in the back of the Former Governor’s Residence Museum on Sunthorn Vijit Road. Admission to the main museum—a lovingly restored, ochre-coloured colonial mansion dating back to 1925—is just 20 baht, and inside it you’ll find old photos, antique telephones, period furniture, and the 2nd floor bedroom in which the King and Queen of Thailand stayed during one of their royal visits (circa 1955).
For travellers interested in getting a glimpse of traditional rural life in this region of Thailand there are nine distinct ethnic tribes living in villages spread out across Nakhon Phanom, and its neighbouring provinces of Mukdahan and Sakan Nakhan, that can be visited as part of the “tribal tourism” project being spearheaded by the Thai Ecotourism and Adventure Travel Association (TEATA).
In many ways, daily life in each of these indigenous villages is fairly similar—farming, making textiles, weaving baskets and mats—but each tribe has it’s own distinct clothing patterns, culinary specialities, ritual dances, and spoken language or dialect. On a visit to the Tai So village—one of the eight tribes in Nakhon Phanom province—we were greeted with traditional music and a dance performance, after which a huge traditional lunch was set out (the fermented fish dish was delicious).
After the meal, we were led through demonstrations of women spinning cotton and making fabrics on hand looms, and men weaving fishing nets; all pretty de rigeur stuff if you’ve visited a traditional Thai village before. Less predictable, however, was the dancing, and at the end of our visit we were treated to a second performance by the young girls of the tribe, followed by an extended show from the village’s older women—with one grey-haired granny keeping the beat by pounding two thick bamboo poles on the ground in time with the music (which is also how the tribe pounds their rice).
Where To Stay
FORTUNE RIVER VIEW: Located close to town, and directly on the river, this 122-room upscale property is one of the few hotels in town with a swimming pool.
THE RIVER HOTEL: An upscale riverfront property offering four different suite and room styles, each with all the modern amenities you’d expect. Other highlights include a riverfront restaurant and a spa.
R PHOTO HOTEL: If you don’t mind not being on the river, and a little ways away from the downtown core, this fun and funky boutique hotel offers cheap and cheerful modern rooms with a “photography” theme running throughout. The 2nd-floor outdoor terrace bar is also a great evening hang out spot.
2018 Mekong Tourism Forum
When over 400 delegates descended upon the sleepy town of Nakhon Phanom to attend the 2018 Mekong Tourism Forum (MTF), it shone a powerful spotlight on this charming riverside retreat. The four-day forum, which ran from June 26-29, was attended by a wide variety of international tourism industry professionals, including tour operators, hoteliers, travel bloggers, and travel journalists.
The 4,350 km long Mekong River runs through six different countries—namely Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam—and all six nations were represented at the event. In some of these countries the premier tourism destinations are right on the river—Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Pakse in Laos, for instance, and Phnom Penh in Cambodia—while in other countries, such as Thailand, the destinations along the Mekong are often overlooked in favour of sun-soaked beaches or bustling urban centres. However, the mandate of the MTF is to showcase the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) as a unique and desirable tourist destination, and with that idea in mind the theme of this year’s forum was ‘Transforming Travel—Transforming Lives’.
Each day attendees gathered at the Nakhon Phanom University campus, in the Tourism and Services Industry College building, where a variety of seminars, presentations, and keynote speeches were delivered. Several key Thai government officials were in attendance during the opening ceremony, including HE Mr. Weerasak Kowsurat, the Minister of Tourism & Sports, and HE Mr. Somchai Vitdamrong, the Governor of Nakhon Phanom province. The Executive Director of the Mekong Tourism Coordinating Office (MCTO), Mr. Jens Thraenhart, remarked during his opening speech that he’d “fallen in love with this small town on the Mekong River”, in reference to the MTF 2018’s host city.
The underlying message of the event was that travel can be an important catalyst in changing people’s lives for the better, but tourism must strive to be sustainable; giving back as much as possible to the local communities while in turn minimising the negative effects of tourism. One of the many keynote speakers was Jeremy Smith, co-founder and editor of the website www.travindy.com, and author of the book Transforming Travel: Realizing the Potential of Sustainable Tourism. He gave two equally inspiring talks, both of which brought to the audience’s attention some of the amazing innovations hotels and tour operators around the world are implementing to reduce waste and detrimental impact on the environment caused by over-tourism. “Transforming travel is something we all can do, and we all need to do,” he said.
Bangkok-based Gili Back, Sustainability Manager at Khiri Travel, was another keynote speaker, and her talk focused primarily on how to “deplastify your life”, the first step is saying no to bags, straws, and water bottles made of plastic. And in keeping with this environmental ethos, 2018 marked the 2nd year in a row that MTF was staged as a “single-use-plastic free” event. Each delegate’s welcome package even came with a reusable bamboo straw courtesy of BambooLao, one of the five finalists in this year’s Mekong Innovative Startups in Tourism (MIST) entrepreneur program.
Another MTF highlight was the Film Destination and Marketing Conference, emceed by Bangkok101’s very own Joe Cummings. It’s no secret that locations featured in successful motion pictures lead to a marked increase in tourism, and a talk by a representative from the Thailand Film Office (Department of Tourism) outlined the ways in which the government encourages filmmakers to operate within the Kingdom. On a different note, Mr. Deepak Ohri, CEO of Lebua Hotels and Resorts, gave an intriguing (if boastful) account of how he leveraged the maximum exposure from his property’s involvement with the hit film The Hangover Part II.
On a smaller scale, filmmakers producing targeted promotional films for tour companies and destination properties spoke about how moviemaking technique was just as important for them. As Rob Holmes, Founder and Chief Strategist at GLP Films explained, you have to “connect with your target audience through emotionally driven storytelling” in order to make a lasting impact, and not just have people scroll past your marketing video on their social media newsfeed.
The 2018 MTF was a great networking and strategising event, and bewildered local Nakhon Phanom residents admitted that it was the largest number of Westerners they’ve ever seen at one time in their fair city. For those interested in attending next year’s event, the 2019 MTF is scheduled to take place in China’s Yunnan province. For more information, visit: www.mekongtourismforum.org.
Words and photos by Bruce Scott