Nong Khai, Thailand
This is one of those cities that you’ll never hear about, even within Thailand, but is a surprising treasure. The only reason that most people stop in Nong Khai is that they are either en-route to or leaving Vientiane, Laos. Anyone who stops in Nong Khai for more than a day, though, should be pleasantly surprised by the mega Wats, relaxing riverside promenade, and healthy variety of restaurant options.
First order of business for us was to get a bike and map from the Mutmee Guesthouse, which despite the horrid name is quite a traveller’s mecca; complete with yoga studio, two restaurants, a used bookstore, and nightly boat rides down the Mekong. The map from Mutmee gives an overall view of the city, but the star attraction is the Sala Keoku Sculpture Park.
The story goes that this Lao guy, Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, fell down a hole and ended up in the cave home of Keoku, a Buddhist yogi. Keoku taught Sulilat all about the Buddha. After leaving the cave, Sulilat, with no artistic training, built a sculpture park in Laos. Well, then the whole socialist revolution came and it started to cramp Sulilat’s artistic style, so he moved to Nong Khai where he built a gigantic sculpture park, which is now attended to by his followers. Sulilat has since passed away, which is too bad because he and Alice would have had a lot to talk about once she got out of Wonderland. His incredibly detailed and life-like sculptures are of the same sort of fantasy variety, depicting all sorts of deities from Hindu and Buddhist mythology.
The main attraction of the park is the Circle of Life Garden where Sulilat set up various sculptures to represent the different stages in life from birth (you crawl through a whole as though you are a sperm), to learning, teen years, love, working, adultery, death, and then either enlightenment or reincarnation. Yeah, that’s right, adultery gets a major spotlight as a stage of life. Apparently Keoku taught him a little more than Buddhism.
Since our bike rentals lasted the entire day, we decided to explore the rest of the town. Nong Khai is littered with enough wats to rival Luang Prabang and the map from Mutmee highlighted a couple. So we peddled all the way across town, including down a major highway which happened to have a bike lane (this is Thailand folks) and over to the most grand temple we had ever seen, Wat Jaan Samakki.
Even under construction, this temple could rival almost any palace. Being Sunday, it was completely void of people and noise. The gardens surrounding the building included a small pond which we sat near for about an hour, just enjoying the quiet and the exquisite view. We probably should have saved that temple for the last because everything just paled in comparison after that.
Because of its position as crossroads into and out of Thailand, Nong Khai is a real mix of flavors. Within one restaurant you can find Thai curries, Lao laap, Chinese fried rice, and Vietnamese pho. One of the stars of the restaurant scene is the Vietnamese food factory of Daeng Namnuang. At any time of the day you can peak into the outdoor kitchen to see about 60 uniformed employees churning out chopped veggies and grilled pork rolls. Though it sounds like more of a cafeteria than a delicious place to eat, the standing room only seating at lunch time is testament to the delicious results.
After three days in town I wasn’t really ready to leave. There were many more places that I wanted to shop and eat. The overall peaceful feel of the place had completely charmed us. I guess that’s why the AARP rated Nong Khai among the top 15 places to retire some years ago. Of course, that may also explain why the entire city seems to close down around 8pm.
- Free wifi can be found at the Ruan Thai Guesthouse, which has clean a/c rooms for a good price. Their bikes are cheaper than Mutmee as well, so if you want to save money, stay here and walk the two blocks to Mutmee.
- The map at Mutmee is free and includes an explanation of the Circle of Life in Sala Keoku. Thank them by patronizing their restaurant, yoga studio, or book store if you’re not already staying there.
- Eat dinner by 6pm or you may be facing a long, hungry night. The only thing open after 8pm seems to be the expat drinking establishments along the river.