The frontier cities of Vientiane and Nong Khai represent a part of the old French Indochina deeply rooted in the Mekong River. Both destinations are often neglected by travellers passing through the border of Laos and Thailand on their way to Bangkok or Luang Prabang. The two cities are however worth a few days visiting before heading to another destination to discover some of their hidden jewels.
Best places to visit in Nong Khai
Nong Khai in Northeastern Thailand is well known for its food scene and its riverfront along the Mekong River.
Nong Khai Waterfront and the legend of Naga
The Mekong River is the heart of Nong Khai, with the old town bordering the mighty river. In recent years, a pedestrianized riverfront has been created decorated with giant nagas. Two huge five headed Nagas adorn the main gate to the city. The Naga Fireballs Festival takes place each October on the last day of Buddhist Lent in Phon Phisai to celebrate the return of the giant Dragon who welcomes Lord Buddha. Small fireballs appear then on the surface of the river after sunset, these are believed to be shaped by the breath of the Naga.
Tha Sadet Market
Tha Sadet Market sells items from all across Indochina while river restaurants prepare delicious dishes with specialties of fishes caught in the Mekong River.
French architecture in Nong Khai
After being alternatively part of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (Laos), Nong Khai remained under Siam sovereignty when Western Laos became part of the new French Protectorate of Laos. The new French style was introduced at the end of the 19th century with a couple of houses built using elements of colonial architecture, such as Nong Khai Old Governor’s Residence, today a museum. A few houses in the area are also built in the same style.
Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge
The opening of the 1,170 meters long Saphan Mittaphap Thai-Lao, also known as Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, on April 8, 1994 marked the beginning of a new era of relationship between both countries with the development of trade and tourism.
The bridge has two wide-road lanes, two footpaths and a single railway line in its middle. The rail connects Nong Khai Railway Station to Thanaleng Station on the Laotian side. The bridge is already a historical monument as it was the first bridge ever built between Thailand and Laos and a major border checkpoint. In 2017, 22% of all international arrivals passed through the Friendship Bridge, equivalent to almost 900,000 travellers. From the bank in Nong Khai there are great shots of the bridge and the Mekong River, particularly at sunset.
Best places to visit in Vientiane
Vientiane, the capital of Laos, still retains some of its old charms despite rapid modernization.
Chao Anouvong Park, Fa Ngum Road and Watchan Village
Crossing the border we find the Mekong River passing along Mahosot Hospital (some nice French colonial buildings can be seen inside the complex) up to Chao Anouvong Park, a popular area for locals who often comes for picnic or to enjoy sunset views over the Mekong River. The Park is dominated by a massive statue of King Anouvong, erected in 2010 during Vientiane’s 450th Anniversary.
Near the park there is a small lane called Watchan Village crossing Fa Ngum Road. The street is home to some of Vientiane best preserved colonial and Laotian houses including a few restaurants surrounded by gardens and offering a peaceful atmosphere. Easy to find thanks to the presence in the street of Ansara and Le Luxe Boutique hotels.
Chao Anouvong Park is located along the Mekong River while Watchan Village links Sethathirat Road to Fa Ngum Road next to Ong Teu Temple.
Wat Phra Kaew and Presidential Palace
A few meters away from Chao Anouvong Park is Wat Phra Kaew, an ancient temple built in 1586 which used to house the Emerald Buddha. It was rebuilt in 1938 and converted in the ’70s into a small museum with some of Laos most beautiful Buddhas’ sculptures.
From the garden, there is a nice view of the Presidential Palace. The French looking structure used to be the French Governor’s residence and was later used by King Sisavangvong as his Vientiane royal residence. His architecture has been recently altered by adding a Laotian style roof over the classical façade.
Wat Sisaket monastery
This temple is a must-visit as it is the only ancient temple preserved in Vientiane not destroyed by the Siamese during the sack of the city in 1828. Built in 1818, the monastery remains intact and is home to 6,840 Buddha statues with the interior of the main hall decorated with exquisite painting.
Nam Phu Square and Sethathirat Road
Located in the heart of Vientiane old town, the old French houses lined along Sethathirat Road are today handicraft shops, art galleries, restaurants, trendy bars as well as hotels. Vientiane nightlife is also developing around that area and Nam Phu Square, famed for its illuminated fountain and its open-air stage filled with performances of young Laotian musicians. The square is surrounded by trendy pubs, restaurants, bakeries and small supermarkets.
Lane Xang Avenue and Victory Arch (Patouxay)
The large street with its incessant flow of cars is considered as the Vientiane version of the Champs-Elysees, starting from the Presidential Palace to the Victory Arch (Patouxay). The avenue concentrates all the architectural styles of Laos: the lower part is lined with some imposing French colonial villas while Soviet-style architecture can be seen at the Post Office and partially at the Morning Market (Talat Sao), finally some modern architecture can be seen in the upper part of the avenue. The Victory Arch is a copy of Paris Arch of Triumph and is accessible on its top with the best sky view in the city. The monument was built in 1957 just after the independence.
That Luang Stupa
The elegant stupa surrounded by walls is certainly Vientiane best-known symbol with its 45-m central structure covered in gold. The monument was constructed in 1566 and rebuilt after World War II in 1953.
That Luang is one of the most revered sites of Vientiane and often hosts ceremonies, festivals and processions. A new temple has recently been built next to the stupa while the National Assembly building is at walking distance and has a very distinctive Soviet style.
Ban Anou Night Market
Recently, Vientiane established a night market selling handicraft and food, called Ban Anou Night Market. The market is open every night along Pai Nam Street.
Buddha Park (Xieng Khuan Park)
This strange park is the life work of Bunleua Sulilat, a native Thai citizen and Laotian spiritual leader and sculptor who created this park with some 200 sculptures of Hindu deities, Buddhas, and also animals and demons, providing often a oneiric atmosphere. The highlight is a 40-meter long reclining Buddha in the centre of the park. All the statues were made of concrete and sculpted in an often naïve style. Opened in 1958, the park is considered a major tourist attraction by the Laotian government.
How to get to Nong Khai and Vientiane
Wattay International Airport (VTE) serves the city of Vientiane with international flights from Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand as well as domestic flights. Nong Khai is easily accesible from Bangkok by trains operated by State Railway of Thailand. There are bus routes connecting Vientiane with the major tourist destinations in Laos.
– From Vietnam, Lao Airlines and Vietnam Airlines operate international flights connecting Hanoi to Vientiane.
– From Cambodia, Lao Airlines and Vietnam Airlines operate international flights connecting Phnom Penh to Vientiane.
– From Thailand, Lao Airlines, Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways and Thai AirAsia operate international flights connecting Bangkok to Vientiane.
For more information, check our guide of international and domestic flights in Laos.
– State Railway of Thailand connects the capital Bangkok to Nong Khai, the terminus station of SRT Northeastern Line near the border with Vientiane, in Laos.
The Special Express 25 Isan Mankha is the most popular sleeper train running from Bangkok to Nong Khai, offering Air-Conditioned First class and Second class Berth coaches.
For more information, check our guide of trains in Thailand.
– King of Bus operates regular bus services and Naluang Station operates regular minivan services from Luang Prabang to Vientiane.
– Malany Transport operates regular minivan services from Vang Vieng to Vientiane.
– Champasak Bus operates regular bus services from Pakse to Vientiane.
For more information, check our guide of bus routes in Laos.
Updated on May 14, 2019.