Nong Khai is a Thai town (and province capital of a province bearing the same name) at the northern border of Isan at the bank of the Mekong River. It's a Thai outpost and bridgehead for the border trade with neighbouring Laos, a trade which includes also Chinese and Vietnamese goods. As a formerly remote place, the town started to boom at the end of the cold war and the opening of the Laotian economy in the early 1990s. As a landmark of the new and tightening connection between the two countries, the first Thai/Laotian Friendship Bridge was opened in 1994.
The town is home to officially around 50,000 inhabitants; the province counts more than 910,000 people. They are counted as Thai People, although a majority speaks still Laotion as native language. Also other dialects as Isan language (phasa Isan), other Laotian dialects and Vietnamese are partially spoken. Thai language is, however, the official and standard language here.
In it's history, the place was under shifting control of the kingdom of Ayutthaya and the kingdom of Lan Xang. Also the Haw Wars affected Nong Khai in the 1880s. Allegedly, Nong Khai was for a time under French rule in the early 20th century until 1932.
When I came here for the first time in 2006, the place was already a popular destination and quite well developed. This development, triggered by the construction of the Mekong bridge in the mid 1990s, continued; when I saw the place again in 2011, it had grown much.
Nong Khai's economy is coined by agriculture, particularly rice, together with silk production, cassava, cattle and water buffalos. The proximity to the Laotian capital Vientiane (24km distance) boosts also the border trade. Probably, as it is so in all border towns, smuggling in general and drug smuggling in particular are part of the (at least shadow-) economy.
The fishing industries, who exploit the natural riches of the Mekong River, play a role in the local economy.
There are branches of universities, high schools and other educational institutions in the province, who also pay a tribute to the local economy.
Additionally is Nong Khai a tourist destination for Thais as well as for tourists from other Asian countries and Westerners. Many western expatriates have decided to settle down in Nong Khai. The place is massively booming since years and got increasingly expensive.
Nong Khai lies at the northeastern railway line, which connects Bangkok via Khorat, Khon Kaen, Udon Thani with Nong Khai and goes further to Vientiane. It's planned to modernize and expand the railway line in cooperation with China to Kunming in Yunnan. After the completion the railway connection would link Beijing with Singapore.
Famous is the 1st Thai/Laotian Friendship Bridge, which spans over the Mekong River. It's about six kilometers west of the town's center.
The next airport is in Udon Thani, the southern neighbour province, about less than 60km from here.
There are not many sights in or around town, and none of them is of a greater interest. Apart from the usual, many temples of who some are claimed to be very old (up to 2,000 years, what has to be treated with suspicion), there is above all Sala-Kaeo-Ku Park (also: Wat Khaek) to mention. Normally referred to as the Sculpture Park or the Buddha Park, the larger outdoor place has a collection of large concrete sculptures of mystical fable animals and other figures out of the Ramayana Epos and the buddhist world. The leading spirit of Sala Kaeo Ku was the Laotian artist Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat. He bought the land in 1978, after he exiled from Laos to Thailand, and organized the construction of this bizarre assemblage of monuments. There is another one of the same kind not far from here in Vientiane Province, which was also made by Bunleua Sulilat in the 1950s and 1960s.
Reachable from Nong Khai by motorbike is Phu Phrabat Historical Park, a remarkable landscape which was inhabited in pre-historic times already. The park lies in neighbouring Udon Thani Province, though. There are bizarre rock formations to see and cave paintings who date back several thousand years.
Also sometimes counted as a sight is the large Indochina Market along the riverbanks (Tha Sadet Market). Plenty of goods, mostly from Vietnam, but also from China and partially from Laos and Thailand itself are here for sale. The large market is equipped with a modern, protecting roof.
It's nice to have a walk along the broad and kilometers long promenade the river up- and downwards. There is often a fresh breeze at the water and little traffic. The promenade is seamed with restaurants and some guesthouses. Some of the restaurants are on river boats.
Meanwhile there is also a freshwater aquarium to visit on Khon Kaen University campus, displaying aquatic species who live in the Mekong.
A number of festivals happen in Nong Khai around the year. Apart from Songkran, the buddhist water festival (sometimes: buddhist new year), there is a rowing festival with boat races, a candle festival and a rocket festival. In March, Anou Savari Festival is held to memorize the defeat of the Haws in 1886. Particularly strange here are the Mekong Fireballs, a mysterious appearance of glowing balls who rise out of the Mekong waters after dusk. In November happens the Chinese Dragon Festival. Thai Chinese parade through the streets in vivid costumes and give acrobatic shows. Also in November is Loi Krathong, the 'floating light festival', held.