NAKHON PHANOM, 2 July 2018: It might not be the most handsome town clock in the world, but it is prominent enough standing on the riverside road where the ferry leaves for its short journey across the Mekong River to Laos.
The narrow clock-tower street is a meeting point for local residents intent on strolling along the town’s boulevard that skirts the Mekong River, or joining the cycle path that heads north for 12.8 km to the road bridge connecting the Thai border town with Tha Khaek in Laos.
A grateful Vietnamese community that found refuge in the province during the first and second Indochina wars, fought against French and US military, donated the clock tower to the town in 1960.
The town’s customs office, immigration and ferry jetty are just a stone’s throw from the clock that stands tall on a traffic island between the riverside road and a street leading to the market.
Close by, the appropriately named Clock Tower Restaurant enjoys a roaring trade entertaining local residents with “Isan” pop music and the region’s signature dishes that have so far escaped the attention of Michelin Star chefs.
It fronts on to the riverbank nestled among quaint almost ramshackle buildings that staked a claim to a sliver of land separating the market street and riverbank. This is at the heart of the walking street’s hectic scene that unfolds on a 2 km stretch of riverside road every Friday to Sunday.
Call it the ultimate people watching turf as the town’s residents and tourists mingle among the lines of stalls piled high with gadgets and clothing probably imported from China. Street and riverside semi-open restaurants are packed with diners from dusk to around 2200 when the vendors pack their goodies and residents wander back to their cars or to nearby boutique hotels.
But the Clock Tower Restaurant is one of just a few places that enjoy a brisk trade throughout the week, with or without the walking street. At one end it has its street-side tables, a bar and stage for the evening band to entertain diners. At the other, riverside tables offer a quieter view of the dark waters of the Mekong River flowing by. Across the 1 km expanse of water the twinkling lights of Tha Khaek, in Laos, suggest that a town, once illuminated by just moonlight, is playing catch-up with an ever-expanding boulevard and the addition of chic boutique hotels and restaurants.
Nakhon Phanom’s Tha Hor Nalika Restaurant (Clock Tower) escapes the attention of TripAdvisor’s reviewers, who are drawn to Ruan Rim Nam, close to the Governor’s House Museum, and Chelsea Riverside Restaurant a couple of kilometres up-stream on the bike lane.
But for travellers who like to chill out just a short walk from the town’s hotels, the Clock Tower Restaurant is a great choice. It’s authentic too, avoiding the pitfall of toning down the red chill and spice to accommodate foreign taste buds.
The menu is typically “Isan” with an emphasis on river fish soup, or grilled salted river fish, but there are also all-time favourites such a “laap mu,” som tam, chopped fried pork and even a “laap” rolled into balls and deep-fried, a very appetising and spicy meat ball dish that goes well with an ice-cold beer.
Enjoying the combination of Friday night, pay night and full-moon night, the clock tower section of the walking street was heaving with tourists, but mainly from neighbouring provinces. There was a contingency from the media and a few travel bloggers who decided they needed farewell nosh after the four-day Mekong Tourism Forum wound up at the province’s university conference hall.
A party of seven supping beer and slurping on spicy soups and nibbling on an amazing line-up of Isan dishes paid THB 450 each for a lively and authentic Friday night out under Nakhon Phanom’s full-moon.
It was a day off for World Cup fans so the walking street and restaurants were minting tourism gold. The house band was blasting Isan country and pop and beer caps were popping, while across the crowded tables youngsters were dating via their mobile phones.
Nakhon Phanom is not on the international tourist circuit, but its riverside venues and boulevard make up for it with crowds of local residents who happily share their chilled lifestyle with whoever has an inkling to book a flight on Thai Air Asia, or Nok Air, from Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport to the town’s airport.
Once you arrive at the tiny airport, 19.4 km from town, the best transfer option is to hire a car.
Attractions in Northeast Thailand are spread out, so if you like to be independent the car hire option at the airport is good value at around THB 1,050 a day for a compact. (Pick-up and drop-off at the town’s airport).
There are no local meter taxis in town. To get around travellers hail what are called “Skylabs” at THB20 to 60 a trip within town and around THB100 from a hotel beyond the city limits.
But as most attractions are further afield the viable transport options are cycle for places with 20 km of the town centre and rental motor bikes or car hire for travels further afield.
For example, if you intend to visit the province’s famous “Phra That” temples then renting a car is a convenient and cheaper way to travel.
Nakhon Phanom province is famous for eight temples that represent the days of the week. (Two for Wednesday – morning and evening).
Just one of the temples is located in the town for pilgrims born on a Saturday. Phra That Phanom, the most famous of temples in the Northeast is special for those born on a Sunday and it is 60 km transfer from town. The rest of the temples, identified for their birthday merit making, spread out over the province for distances of 15 to 90 km from the town centre.
It also makes sense to stay at boutique hotels in town close to the walking street. Most hotels have free car parking and in the evening when you fancy a chill-out session by the river you can enjoy a meal and beers and walk back to the hotel.
There are plenty of hotels south and north of the town centre, but this is a small riverside town and its million-dollar appeal is the dramatic views of mountains and karst in Laos just across the river at downtown locations.
Fortune River View has the highest rates at around THB 1,159 probably because it has a swimming pool with a great view, while other riverside properties peg their rates at around THB 700 to 800 a night.
Smaller boutique hotels in the town centre sell a room with breakfast at around THB 500 a night.
Popular activities include chilling out at riverside restaurant as well exploring the bike lane to the 3rd Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge 12.8 km upstream. To get the most out of your trip check out the location of hotels carefully before you book and if you are using public transport stay as close as you can to the riverside.
Northeast Thailand is under-sold as a tourist destination. The crowds head for the beaches of South Thailand. But the benefits of touring Isan are evident when you tot up all your holiday costs including fare, transfers, accommodation and dining.
Destinations such as Nakhon Phanom are served by low-cost airlines, which keeps flight costs below THB 2,000 roundtrip.
Tipplers in Isan love their beer in big bottles. The small bottles are harder to come by in restaurants, but a big Leo, or Singha beer, will set you back THB80 and THB90.
It’s a great pity that Mekong cooperation doesn’t extend to beer imports. It is almost impossible to track down the greatest beer of the region; Beer Lao in both its light, or dark versions. In contrast, it is possible to buy a German beer originating in Munich. If you are wine drinker this is a desert region indeed.
But for a genuine experience this journey through the corridors of Thainess, without it being over-the-top or ostentatious, makes this small Mekong Region town a gem, one worth visiting any time of the year come sun or showers.
Fly to Udon Thani, hire a car from an internationally recognised car hire firm that will offer pick up and drop off at different depots.
Drive to Nong Khai and then follow highway 212, or any other rural road that follow the Mekong River south, to explore fascinating riverside towns including Nakhon Phanom, all the way to Ubon Ratchathani. Drop the car off at Ubon’s airport and fly back to Bangkok.
Book your hotels on Agoda and check out TripAdvisor for the attraction reviews in each destination.
If you have more time and want a retro experience of overland travel complete the Bangkok- Udon and Ubon-Bangkok sectors by train and cycle the bit in between. One of the most magnificent cycle trips imaginable if you have the time to spare.