It is a real pity that for the overwhelming majority of foreign tourists passing through Nong Khai the provincial capital and the province itself remain just a transit point on the way from Thailand to the capital of Laos. Stretching along the banks of Mekong, Nong Khai boasts the scenery striking with its quiet beauty. Pink sunsets, rural temples and laidback vive are what the region can offer to the traveller who is ready to slow down and to indulge in simple pleasures of life in Isan. Probably the two most well-known attractions of Nong Khai are the surreal Sala Kaew Ku sculptural park (there is a similar creation on the other side of Mekong, too) and the ethereal naga fireballs which are an inexplicable phenomenon observed yearly on the last day of the Buddhist Lent, Wan Ok Phansa. Note that though the backpacking scene is quite modest in Nong Khai, the city still remains the most explored by travellers region of the northeastern Thailand.
Getting to Nong Khai
Getting from Bangkok to Nong Khai is straightforward and easy as the route is well-travelled. There is a direct railway line from Bangkok which passes through Nakhon Ratchasima before terminating at Nong Khai. You have also a wide choice of buses, both governmental and those of private companies. If you are travelling by car, follow Route 2 from Saraburi to Nong Khai which is actually the first Thai highway meeting all the international standards, so the road trip is normally smooth and pleasant.
From Bangkok to Nong Khai by train
Trains to Nong Khai depart from the Hua Lamphong train station in Bangkok and cover all the 624 km to the Lao border in 10-11 hours. There are morning and evening trains. Though travelling during the day makes you ‘loose’ the precious day-time of your journey, it is still worth considering as the countryside scenery you are going to pass is idyllic: grazing water buffalos, rice paddies, lively villages and much more. Besides, if you do not bother to book your train ticket in advance, the morning #75 train may be the only option available for the dates of your travel. Note that this train has the 3rd class seats only (air-conditioned, though), and for a lower back of an unprepared traveller it may turn our a challenge to spend on board 9½ hours. The night trip saves you some baht for a hotel room and the whole journey is normally a pleasant experience as you can sleep the whole night through. Even the 2nd class sleepers provide quite comfy seats which fold out into bunk beds, and there are curtains to give you some privacy. Second class AC sleepers go at THB958 and are the first to sell out. Note that #69 train departing at 8pm from Hua Lamphong also offers ladies only carriages at the same price. The first class sleepers cost THB1517 which is a good investment for the most comfortable and carefree ride. If you are on a budget, there are also 2nd class AC seats only carriages (THB453). #69 arrives to Nong Khai at 6.45am. This is the most convenient option for travelling from Bangkok. There is also the #77 train leaving Bangkok at 8.35pm but it arrives to Nong Khai early in the morning (4.15am) and has only second class AC seats.
The train station in Nong Khai is located southwest from the downtown. A tuk-tuk ride will cost you around THB60.
From Bangkok to Nong Khai by bus
The main bus terminal in Bangkok serving the route is Mochit which is in the north of the city. Buses depart throughout the day and differ in the level of comfort, but all of them have a toilet on board, serve snacks and make pit stops at a larger gas stations with multiple forecourt operators. A bus ride is about 9-10 hours long. It is a good idea to take an advantage of night buses which arrive to Nong Khai early in the morning. Budsarakan Tour and Sawadee Esan both operate night express buses and offer similar service which also includes an entertainment program (be prepared to listen to Thai style music!). Generally TV is switched off a couple of hours after the departure, so it is not a problem. There are three Budsarakan Tour night buses – at 7pm (THB479), 8.20pm (THB661) and 8.30pm (THB562). Note that the 7pm bus arrives to Nong Khai in the small hours (3.25am) and the two latter both reach the city at 5am. The Sawadee Esan’s 7.45pm bus arrives at the same time – about 5am – and costs THB551.
From Nong Khai bus station you can either walk to your guesthouse or take a tuk-tuk (about THB50).
From Nong Khai to other cities of Isan
Nong Khai has good bus connections with the other towns and cities of Isan. Buses and minibuses head to Loei, Khon Kaen, Nakhon Phatom and Udon Thani. It is also possible to get to Kanchanaburi (Central Thailand) from Nong Khai.
Getting to Laos from Nong Khai
Nong Khai is a gateway to the Lao capital of Vientiane which is located some 20 km from the border on the other side of Mekong.
If you arrive by train, you can catch a shuttle train which goes from Nong Khai train station to Tha Nalaeng train station in Laos. Buy tickets at the railway station on arrival. Note that Tha Nalaeng is literally in the middle of nowhere, and you will have to make your final 20 km to the capital by a tuk-tuk – and tuk-tuk drivers in Tha Nalaeng are very reluctant to negotiate prices! After arriving to Nong Khai train station walk (or take a tuk-tuk) to the bridge instead. Go through border formalities on the Thai side, cross the bridge (there is a shuttle bus going back and forth over the bridge) and check-in at the Lao side. From there take a tuk-tuk to Vientian which are plentiful and offer reasonable prices.
International buses to Vientiane depart from Nong Khai bus terminal every two hours (THB60). The whole trip takes about 1½ hrs due to border formalities both on the Thai and Lao sides. In Laos, buses head to the bus station in the centre of Vientiane, opposite the Morning market. If you are in a hurry (e.g. to submit your documents to the Thai consulate), you may save some time by hiring a tuk-tuk at the Lao border to go directly to the embassy. Depending on your negotiation skills it will cost you from THB100 to THB200 (you can pay in Thai baht).
Note: If you are heading to Vientiane to get your tourist visa to Thailand, note that effective from November, 13, 2015, there are no more double entry tourist visas. In Vientiane, the only option for a foreigner is a single entry tourist visa which costs THB1000. A long waited for 6-month tourist visa costs THB5000 and can be obtained through the Thai consulate or embassy in your home country only.
The First Thai-Lao Friendship bridge
Opened in 1994, a 1170m concrete bridge connects Nong Khai province in Thailand with Vientiane prefecture in Laos. While crossing the bridge, take a notice of traffic driving on the left side of the road as in Thailand. After the traffic lights at the Lao end of the bridge traffic changes the side of the road and drives on the right side.
Nong Khai is a great place for cycling. Traffic is quite limited and the scenery of the countryside near Mekong is beautiful. Many guesthouses rent out or let you use their bicycles for free. You can rent a scooter (THB200-THB250 per day), which will make your life in the city much easier and will be a good companion in your explorations. A tuk-tuk ride around the city costs from THB40 to THB60. There are taxis, too, but you have to negotiate the cost of your trip in advance. If you are planning to go to Sala Kaew Ku, all the eastbound local buses from the bus station pass close to it (THB10).
Where to stay
The majority of budget accommodation is located near the riverfront. You can easily walk to this area from the bus station or use a tuk-tuk (THB50). There are several nice digs around the town, too, but they are generally not so atmospheric as those at the banks of Mekong. The quality of guesthouses and prices are among the best in Isan. The cheapest rooms go at THB300 and offer both air-conditioning and hot water.
Visiting Nong Khai is a meditative experience. Watch the sunset over the Mekong River, sample some local food and admire intricate rural temples on the riverbanks west of the city. Nong Khai is famous for its colourful festivals, so try to adjust your schedule accordingly. There is the unique week-long Anou Savari Festival in March, the Rocket festival in May or June, the Candle festival marking the beginning of the Buddhist Lent (normally in July), and the mysterious Naga Fireballs festival at the end of the Buddhist Lent in October.
Sala Keaw Ku sculptural park occupies the upper lines in every Nong Khai visitor’s program. Built in 1996, it cannot be considered a monument of great historical or architectural value, but weird sculptures featuring Buddhist and Hindu mythical creatures do impress.
Every Saturday the colourful Nong Khai night market fills the Riverside Promenade with local handicrafts, mat mee cotton and delicious food. Do not miss it if you are around during the weekend. During the rest of the week you can find the latest imports from Lao and China in Tha Sadet market, aka Indochina market.
There are nice temples in Nong Khai, some of which show a slight Vietnamese influence. The holiest temple of the region is Wat Pho Chai which holds a gold and bronze Buddha statue, Luang Pho Phra Sai. The statue has a beautiful legend behind it and is considered to be one of the three holy images of Buddha which had belonged to the daughters of the King of Lao until King Rama I sacked Vientiane. The second statue was lost in the waters of Mekong during transportation to Thailand and the third one is kept in Bangkok.