The once sleepy border town of Nong Khai is situated 50 kilometres (31 miles) from Udon Thani on the south bank of the Mekong River in northeast Thailand. Everything changed when the newly constructed Friendship Bridge was opened connecting the town with the Lao capital of Vientiane. It was the first bridge of its kind to span the mighty Mekong between the two countries.
Ever since that day in April 1994, the town has been transformed into one of the busiest commercial centres in the region. Translated, it may well mean that Nong Khai's days of quiet contemplation could be numbered. New hotels have already started springing to life as an increase in tourism and business is anticipated. Nonetheless, the town centre still retains its original charm and unique character.
One of the most satisfying things to do in Nong Khai is to take a leisurely stroll along the neat streets and go explore all the traditional wooden shop-houses. Another is to go down to Sadat Riverboat Pier and wander around this vibrant neighbourhood with its ever friendly markets, modern shopping centres and adjacent restaurants that overlook the Mekong River. You can easily spend endless hours just gazing across the peaceful riverside as the sun goes down.
But by far the most unusual place of interest at Nong Khai lies just 5 kilometres (3 miles) east of the town. The site is known as Wat Khaek or Sala Kaew Ku. It's essentially an open-air theme park with a difference because it is filled with dozens of very unique and bewildering sculptures. The park was founded in 1978 by an extremely charismatic gentleman by the name Luang Pu Bunleua Surirat.
This Thai-Brahmin shaman's special talent first originated in Vietnam under the guidance from a Hindu Guru before he moved to Laos, but due to the rancorous attentions of the *Pathet Lao, he was forced to flee to Thailand. Should you be fortunate enough to visit Vientiane, you will be able to find a similar park there.
*The Lao Patriotic Front was formed after the second world war and, with ties to the communist party under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, was very keen to rid Laos of French rule. In 1953 Laos was declared a constitutional monarchy backed by France and the United States so the LPF's armed wing, the Pathet Lao, mounted an armed struggle against the government in the 1960's.
During the Vietnam war, the US repeatedly bombed Laos in order to stamp out the Pathet Lao's support of North Vietnam. Once the American forces withdrew from the region in 1975, the Pathet Lao staged a bloodless coup and thereafter declared Laos, the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Just thought I'd tell you.
Luang Pu Bunleua Surirat, the creator of the temple here as well as the other one near Vientiane in Laos, was also known as the Venerable Grandfather. Apparently, he would direct construction of his creations from a nearby shed, while shouting instruction to his workmen as they toiled away on scaffolding, via a megaphone.
He used no blueprints for his inspirations, but rather they came from within which he would then convey to his masons and carvers. He was said to have such charisma that anyone drinking holy water offered by him, would promptly donate their assets to the temple. If you be thinking along these lines, now is the time.
Locals were said to resent his amazing fame and subsequently there was lots of gossip going around about him and his life. He died in 1994 at the age of 74, and now his son has returned from the USA to take control and commercially turn the park into a Disney Land type of attraction. It's certainly worth visiting.
The open-air theme park is an array of enormous concrete Hindu and Buddhist sculptures. The 25 metre (82 foot) high seven-headed Naga with a tiny Buddha seated on its coils and the god of eclipses, Rahu, are just two of the freakish structures set among giant gods, saints and demons scattered around the park.
As you wander through the park's eccentric collections of weird and wonderful concrete images, you cannot help but feel the terrific atmosphere, intensified by constant incense burning and piped music. There is also an exhibition hall in the shrine building containing among other things, numerous photographs of Luang Pu Bunleua Surirat. The photo at the top of the page is the seven-headed Naga.
In the centre of Nong Khai town, you'll come across temples, monuments and various markets. There's an interesting Indochina Market off Rimkhong Road near the riverside where local trade is carried out amidst the Thai's and Laotians.
Checking out the lively scene as traders go about their daily routines, could capture your imagination and there's lots of stuff you can buy here too. Some of the goods on sale include clothing, pots and pans, woven bamboo tables and fishing nets. Perhaps not quite the stuff you would most likely want to buy, but you can still spend fun moments here. There's plenty of local food to eat too.
There is also another market on Prajak Road near the bus station and should you continue along the same road, you will come across the Village Weavers Shop where traditional silk weaving is carried out.
This factory shop specialises in mut mee, a name given to a method of tie-dying that's used in the Northeast. Apparently, this establishment formed a program to encourage local girls to stay in Nong Khai rather than have them move to urban cities like Bangkok.
Take a drive to Wat Pho Chai adjacent to the street market of the same name. It is on your way to the theme park at Wat Khaek, should you be going there. This somewhat ostentatious temple was recently restored with the most visible evidence being observed at the top of the entrance stairs of its main chapel.
You will see imposing naga balustrades alongside a pair of roaring guardian lions who I believe are there to protect the highly revered Luang Pho Phra Sai, the solid gold Buddha Image with ruby-studded flame finial, which is housed inside.
According to Thai legend, the Buddha, originally from Laos, was taken by Prince Chakri (later becoming King Rama I) following the first Thai invasion against Laos. As he attempted to ferry the Buddha over the Mekong, it fell into the water but somehow, miraculously resurfaced. After it had been rescued, it was placed at Wat Pho Chai. Murals inside the temple record a pictorial account of this story.
Nong Khai has a number of minor temples that may be worth visiting. All of them have Lao-influenced architecture. These include Wat Si Muang, Wat Si Sumang, Wat Haisoke, Wat Lamduan (partly seen in the photo near the top of the page) and Wat Si Khun Muang. Many of these temples offer views of the Mekong River.
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