Nong Khai (หนองคาย) is a city in the Isaan(North East)region of Thailand, and the capital city of the Province of the same name. The city lies on the southern bank of the Mekong River, only 20 km from Vientiane, the capital of Laos.
Known as the Naga City (Nagas being the giant serpent guardians said to inhabit the Mekong River - see below) and famed for its lovely position on the Mekong, Nong Khai is a bustling Thai town and the gateway to Laos and Vientiane. It has many beautiful features which attract a considerable number of Thai and foreign visitors every year, including Sala Keaw Khu the almost surreal sculpture park; the enormously revered Luang Por Phra Sai Buddha Image which has a remarkable history; the truly extraordinary Phu Phra Bat Historical Park (though in Udon Province it is easily reached from Nong Khai); and the Thai-Lao Indochina Market called Tha Sadet Market which occupies many streets in the centre of town. A large part of the centre of town, including the river bank, has been made pedestrian-only. The Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, opened in Apr 1994, was the first bridge across the lower Mekong, and only the second on the full course of the Mekong.
Nong Khai is an exemplar of Isaan culture, which dominates northeast Thailand and which has an identity distinct from the culture of the centre, north, and south of Thailand. Famed for its warmth, kindness and friendliness, the culture has evolved from its Thai and Lao roots. Today, the distinctive Isaan culture is a source of pride to those born into it. Most locals speak both Thai and the local dialect called Isaan, which is closely related to both the Thai and Lao languages. Many locals also speak a bit of English, some Vietnamese, and some Chinese.
Nong Khai played a central role in the Yunnanese (Chinese) Hor Rebellions of the 1880s. Later it was under French rule until 1932, and some examples of French architecture remain. During the Vietnam war, it became home to many Lao, Vietnamese, and Chinese immigrants who have added their own culture and entrepreneurial skills, to the great benefit of the town.
Nong Khai is filled with literally hundreds of images of the Naga, the Mekong giant serpent. Two huge five headed Nagas adorn the main gate to the city. One lurks in the city's main fountain, most of the street lights are adorned with them, they appear as guardians to every temple and shrine, and a six storey seven headed Naga towers over the Sculpture Park as its principal guardian (see photo). At the end of October every year the Naga Fireballs appear in Phon Phisai and beyond and are mystical pink points of light which arise from the river after sun set on the full moon which is the last day of Buddhist Lent, Okk Paan Saa. These points of light, for which there is no adequate scientific explanation, are said to be the breath of the Naga welcoming the Lord Buddha back to the Earth.
The nearest airport (on the Thai side) is in Udon Thani, 56 km away. There are minibuses which meet almost every flight which lands at Udorn and will bring you straight to Nong Khai. On landing at Udon Thani and entering the Arrivals Hall there is a bureau straight ahead of you were you you can by a ticket for the minivan service. The current price is 200 Baht per person. You are normally taken straight to the minivan which takes about 1 hour to reach Nong Khai. If you are staying in Nong Khai ask the driver who will bring you straight to your hotel.
Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways operate flights between Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi) and Udon Thani. AirAsia and Nok Air operate a service between Bangkok (Don Mueang) and Udon Thani. Flight time from Bangkok is approximately one hour.
Nong Khai is the terminus of the northeastern railway line from Bangkok via Khon Kaen and Udon Thani. The trip takes 10-12 hours and a first class sleeper ticket from Bangkok to Nong Khai or vice versa is currently about 1,200 baht, and a second class sleeper ticket (not bad for the price) is 748 baht. Sleepers often sell out at peak times so you may need to book in advance.
Shuttle services now operate onward from Nong Khai to Tha Nalaeng, Laos (near Vientiane) four times a day, consistent with the arrivals and departures of the Bangkok trains. You can only buy tickets at Nong Khai station, and you need to pass through immigration as well. (If coming in on train #69 from Bangkok, there's a 90-minute window to do this.) Once the formalities are done, the trip itself across the Friendship Bridge only takes 15 minutes. Visa on arrival is now available on the Lao side
There are departures to Udon Thani at least once per hour from the BKS station on Prajak Rd. The hour-long ride costs 20 baht in 3rd class (non-air con). 40 baht in 2nd class (air-con).
A 1st class bus service connects Nong Khai directly with Suvarnabhumi Airport (the new BKK).
The only mode of public transport in the city is by tuk-tuk. Although the price has gone up recently due to the increased cost of fuel, they remain inexpensive at 20-50 baht/person to anywhere around the city centre. Recently, they have gone off the planet with prices, and wanted 100 baht from the bus station to anywhere within town.
Some tuk-tuk drivers will ask for much more than 20-50 baht/person, but you can generally bargain with them to reach a reasonable price. When bargaining, smile and be patient and polite (or just walk down the street until you see a roaming tuk-tuk, which will probably be cheaper - and walking a short distance is sometimes the only way to get a reasonable price when arriving at the Friendship Bridge from Laos).
A trip to or from the Friendship Bridge can cost over 70 baht for tourists if only one passenger is on board, although the normal price is 40-50 baht.
Another good way to discover Nong Khai and its surroundings is by bicycle. Mut Mee guesthouse and the odd rental place around town offer bicycles (50 baht/day) and motorbikes (200 baht/day). Lower prices can usually be negotiated for longer rentals.
Nong Khai has one sight that cannot be missed - Sala Kaew Ku (or Sala Keoku', also known as Wat Khaek), located 6km east of Nong Khai on Highway 212 (there is signage on the road indicating the direcion to Sala Kaew Ku, which will be spelt in many different ways on different signs). It's on the side of the road going towards Nong Khai (you'll need to make a U-Turn if coming from Nong Khai). Once you turn off the highway (into Salakaewkoo Rd.), the site itself is about 1-1.5 km away on the left.
This utterly bizarre park of massive sculptures (some over 20m tall) is the handiwork of the mystic Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat, who bought the land in 1978 when he was kicked out of his native Laos - a similar park of his earlier work remains near Vientiane. Synthesizing Buddhism and Hindu ideologies, Buddhas, many-armed goddesses, naga snakes and all sorts of human-animal hybrids dominate the scenery. Entry is 20 baht for Thais and Foreigners (July/August 2011).
There is no direct public transport. The site is perfectly reachable by riding a bike or even walking. You can also arrange a return ride with a tuk-tuk (100 baht or so, including the cost of the driver waiting one hour) or hire a motorbike at Limmaneemotor in Nong Khai. (Discover Nong Khai Tours listed above can arrange private tour in an air conditioned vehicle starting from 100฿ per person. As well they offer free maps explaining the individual statues of the Wheel of Life which is invaluable when walking around. Maps are in English and can be picked up from their local office.)
Particularly noteworthy is the Wheel of Life, depicting his theory of the cycle of life; you enter via from a womb-shaped tunnel and walk the circle past statues depicting the stages.
Luang Pu's mummified remains are enshrined on the third floor of the Sala Kaew Ku pavilion itself.
The park is particularly imposing during the peak of the rain season in August, when light is soft and changeable, vegetation is particularly verdant, and acacia trees are full abloom with yellow fragrant flowers.
The top of the tallest structure of Sulilat's earlier park on the Lao side of Mekong (known as Buddha Park) can be seen jutting above the trees if you walk along the Mekong past Wat That and look carefully over the Lao side of the river.
Taa Sadej Market
The Taa Sadej Market is located in the town of Nong Khai, nearby the Mekong River. Largely covered and winding through more than seven streets, it has much of the feeling of a middle eastern bazaar where an extraordinary range of items from Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, China and even Russia can be found. It is a day time market, selling clothes, fabrics, electronics, optical equipment, ornaments, knickknacks, massage aids, traditional furniture, and oddments beyond description. You will also find the Porntip Exchange store towards the end of the Taa Sadej Market, and here all currencies of money can be exchanged.
Luang Por Phra Sai
The Buddha Image at Wat Po Chai is especially interesting. It is one of three Buddha Images cast for three daughters of famous King Setthathirath of Laos. The daughters were named Serm, Suk and Sai and thus the images are known as Phra Serm, Phra Suk and Phra Sai. Following wars between Thailand and Laos 1827-28 to put down the aspirations of Chao Anouvong of Laos (Lao equivalent of "Braveheart") the three images were taken from Vientiane by the Mekong river by the victorious Thais for eventual transportation to Bangkok. During a storm Phra Suk fell into the river never to be recovered. Phra Serm was successfully removed to Bangkok, but on each attempt to transport Phra Sai to the Thai Capital, some problem ensued and eventually it was decided to leave the image in Nong Khai, supposedly awaiting the reemergence of Phra Suk from the mighty Mekong. This fantastically valuable bronze and gold Buddha Image is displayed around the town of Nong Khai on the 13th of April every year for Song Kran.
Nong Khai Freshwater Aquarium
The Nong Khai Freshwater Aquarium is located on the Khon Kaen University campus, about 4km out of Nong Khai. It is famous for it's giant catfish and displays various ocean-dwelling species as well as freshwater species. The Nong Khai Aquarium is a great place to visit and relax, with a picnic garden area and a few drink stalls also available. On the weekends the aquarium holds scuba-diving shows. The aquarium is open from Tuesday to Sunday (9am-4:30pm) and admission price is 100B.
Phra Taat Klangnam
Phra Taat Klangnam or the Sunken Chedi, is a large Lao-style Chedi that was submerged beneath the murky waters of the Mekong in the 18th Century. The chedi eventually fell over into the river in 1847 and is marked by a number of flags in the middle of the Mekong, which can be seen in the dry season when the water level drops low enough. It is also known as the Holy Reliquary in the Middle of the River, and was supposedly built to conserve Buddha's right foot. A replica of the chedi called Phra That Klang Nam, was built in 2006 and sits on the banks of the Mekong nearby.
There a variety of events and festivals that are celebrated and take place in and around Nong Khai throughout the year.  They include various Rocket Festivals, Song Kran, The Anou Savari Festival, The Candle Festival], The Rowing Festival, the mysterious Maekong Fireballs, the Chinese Festival, and Loy Kratong.
The Anou Savari Festival
Every year, the Anou Savari festival occurs on the 5th-15th of March and spans just over one week. Unique to Nong Khai, the Anou Savari festival is the city's biggest street fair and is held in celebration of the defeat of the Hau rebellions between 1884 and 1886. Street music livens the festival while games of Ta Kraw are also played.
The Thai New Year takes place on the 13th of April and the people of Thailand celebrate by participating in 'Song Kran, also known as the water festival.. Song Kran occurs between the 12th of April and the 15th of April. Water is splashed upon others as a symbolism of a blessing, and traditionally it was the day that Buddha images were cleaned. Song Kran often turns into a large water fight between the locals and is one of the most popular festivals of the year
The rocket festivals of Nong Khai normally occur in May, which is the sixth lunar month, in June, and sometimes July (also known as Bun BângFai). Every year at these times, large rockets are fired into the sky and the crowds gather to watch this event as well as enjoy the music, stalls, and vibrant atmosphere of the festival. Visakha Puja day, which is the day that Buddha was born, the day of his enlightenment, and the day of his death, marks the beginning of one of the biggest rocket festivals and a parade takes place in celebration.
The festival is a lot of fun and traditionally it occurs to encourage the clouds to part and water the crops, as well as way to worship Phaya Thaen who is the god of the rain. Rockets are usually fired about 10km from Wat Pho Chai, but a temple festival is normally held at Wat Pho Chai itself.
The Candle Festival
The annual Candle Festival is a beautiful street parade which takes place on the day before the beginning of Buddhist Lent. Huge candles are built in the grounds of Wat Chayaporn on the days prior to the festival. On the day of the festival they are paraded on floats through the streets, accompanied by dancing girls, boys in their traditional Siamese costumes and middle aged devotees in their white robes. The candle festival takes place on the 22nd of July, 2013.
Rowing festivals take place in September and October and involve longboats with crews of up to thirty rowers each. During the first few weeks of Buddhist Lent, Paan Saa, the rowers begin their practice for the race. The race is a spectacular display of athletic talent and the festivities that surround the event are a must-see for any visitor to Nong Khai.
The Maekong Fireballs
The strange appearance of the famous Maekong Fireballs takes place on the last night of Buddhist Lent. They are visible from several points along the river bank but the most famous place to view them is Phon Phisai, 40km east of Nong Khai. These mysterious pink, glowing balls arise silently from the river after dusk, and are visible on this night only. Also known as the Naga Fireballs (after the Maekong River Naga), they appear for only a few seconds before disappearing as mysteriously as they appeared. There are many theories of what the scientific cause of these fireballs could be, but most believe it is better not to know and would rather enjoy the festivities of the night instead. This year, the Maekong fireballs will occur on the 19th of October (2013).
The Chinese Dragon Festival
During late October and early November, the people of Thailand hold their version of the Chinese Dragon Festival and it lasts for ten days. It's a fantastic event to attend and involves amazing displays of acrobatics, dancing Chinese Lions, dancing dragons, parades, firecrackers, and Chinese opera.
The Loy Krathong festival is known as the second most important festival of the year for Thai people and occurs between the middle of the 11th lunar moon to the middle of the 12th lunar moon, which is a great flood season, making the waters high and ideal for this festival. In 2013 Loy Krahtong happens on the 17th of November.
Krathong are small, floating shrines or lanterns normally made out of bamboo leaves and decorated with flowers, incense and candles. The floating of the Krathong represents the gratitude of the Thai provinces to the gods for the rain, as well as a blessing and good luck for the year. Loy Krathong involves a krathong parade, krathong-design contests, and 'Noppamas which are beauty pageants.
Nong Khai is a charming city to wander around on foot or on a rented bicycle (30 baht/day) and meet the friendly and helpful locals. It's also a good place from which soak up the Isaan culture of the neighbouring towns, which can easily be reached by bus from the main BKS ("Bor-kor-sor") bus station in the city centre, on Prajak Rd.
If you expect the usual tourist traps of Bangkok and Phuket, you will be disappointed. There are no superclubs, go-go bars and mega-malls. This is a place to chill by the Mekong River watching passenger and cargo boats transit between Thailand and Laos, or to finish that paperback that has been sitting in your luggage for weeks. You may also consider stocking up on travel necessities before trudging on to Laos. Many who have planned only an overnight stay have ended up staying for weeks.
For those interested in Muay Thai boxing lessons on a long-term basis, go to the boxing stadium beside the Grand Hotel and inquire from ex-Muay Thai boxing national champion Arjarn Lart, a friendly local who speaks just enough English. This is the real deal, so do not expect an air-conditioned gym with cushy floor mats surrounded by ceiling high mirrors.
During the months from January to May when the Mekong River level resides to its lowest, the Jomanee ("Joe-mar-nee") 'beach' appears near the Friendship Bridge, 2 km west of town. Food and drink vendors readily provide mats, shade and music for the hundreds of locals and tourists who patronise their stalls. An excellent spot to watch the sunset.
When you vist Nong Khai you must get a massage. A good one is Rungtawan Thai Massage, 1205 Jen Job Thid Rd, Nai Muang subdistrict.
Go fishing at VS Fishing Park, 157/1 Moo 5 Tambolhadkam, Tel: +66 42-411054 or +66 862 425 914. 80 baht for the day to fish. 100 baht for a days rent of rod, reel and hooks etc. 20 baht for bag of sticky rice for bait. They have a restaurant there also. Fishing competitions held on the first Sunday of each month. All fish have to be returned to the pond after being caught. 20 kg carp have been caught here.
Walking Street Every Saturday from 5.00pm onwards there is a street festival on the promenade along the Mekong River in the centre of town. There are many food stalls, dance displays, and stalls raising money for good causes and charities. Lots of interesting items for sale.
Sunday Market There is a large Sunday market at the Railway station every Sunday afternoon and evening.
The Fellowship Foundation for Child and Youth Development (FYCD)  is a local charity based in Nong Khai. They work in the Nong Khai region helping children living in difficult circumstances, teaching English and improving early childhood education. They need volunteers to help in their office as well as short and long term English teachers. Volunteering here is free of charge and for long term volunteers a stipend can be provided.
Mundo Exchange is a voluntary charity that matches volunteers with community development projects in and around Nong Khai. If you have a few days you could try teaching English or learning about environmentally friendly methods used in and around Isaan.
Thai-Experience is a charity arranging volunteer vacations and service learning projects in Nong Khai and the Isaan area. Volunteer opportunities include teaching English or computer skills and help at an orphanage.
Openmind Projects  is a locally based volunteer organisation which provides an excellent initial 3 day training to all volunteers and provides placements ranging from teaching English in local schools to more distant placements in Southern Thailand, Cambodia and Nepal, and in eco-projects in Thailand and Laos.
Getting a Thai Visa in nearby Vientiane, Laos
! so you don't need to change money. Lao currency is very difficult to change back into baht or dollars, so if you do buy kip, don't buy too much.
There are plenty of banks with ATMs in town, in particular on the main drag, Prajak Rd, and on Meechai Rd, which is runs parallel and to the north of Prajak Rd. Some ATMs limit the amount you can take out to 3,000 baht/day. The ones inside Tesco-Lotus near the cashiers allow up withdrawals up to 25,000 baht. The only bank branch open on Saturdays is at the Tesco-Lotus mall. If you stand in front of the main entrance pass the building on the right side and enter near the bookshop. Most ATMs charge 150-180 baht for overseas cards but the Aeon Bank doesn't. Find it in the Tesco Lotus shopping mall near to KFC/adjacent to the MK Restaurant.
The recently renovated Thasadej Market is a 500 m covered alley market beside the Mekong River, where one can find handmade Thai and Lao products, Chinese teas, cheap (and often low-quality) electronics, clothes and a bewildering assortment of other items. It's open daily 08:00-18:00.
South of town on the Udon Thani road is a Tesco-Lotus, a fully-fledged Western-style supermarket with satellite shopping arcade and a cinema (nearly always Thai movies or Western movies dubbed into Thai). Nearby on Sunday afternoons/evenings is the Sunday Market, which sells all kinds of things.
You can also buy and sell used books in the HornBill Book Shop, Very good book shop with a great selection of new and used English and international books also has a good selection of travel guides. This book shop is located in the Soi leading to Mut Mee guest house. The owner has an extensive knowledge about her books and about Thailand in general.
Eat & Drink
Budget accommodation is of good value, extensive and affordable relative to the other more popular cities of Thailand.