Earth : Asia : Southeast Asia : Thailand : Isaan : Nong Khai
Nong Khai is a sleepy Thai town with strong Lao influences, and is home to small Chinese, Vietnamese, and expat communities as well.
Most locals speak both Thai and the local dialect called Isaan, which is closely related to both the Thai and Lao languages. Many locals speak a little bit of English, mostly tourism-related words, and are generally very friendly and helpful if you smile and are polite.
The nearest airport (on the Thai side) is in Udon Thani, 56 km away. There are direct shuttle buses four times a day between the airport and the Friendship Bridge (2 km from Nong Khai), plus taxis and minibuses that will take you in to Nong Khai proper.
Thai Airways and Air Asia operate flights between Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi) and Udon Thani. Nok Air operates a service between Bangkok (Don Muang) and Udon.
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).
There are several departures daily from Bangkok (~9 hours), Khon Kaen (110 baht, class 2, with a stop at Udon Thani) and across the border direct from Vientiane (55 baht, 17,000 kip, two hours) via the Friendship Bridge.
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 20-30 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 20-30 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. Some guesthouses and several rental places around town offer bicycles (30 baht/day) and motorbikes (200 baht/day). Lower prices can usually be negotiated for longer rentals - try the rental stand outside the Mut Mee guesthouse or at Limmaneemotor on Meechai Road. Go for the one on Meechai Road first, their motorbikes are a lot better and the people there are very nice. You'll need a copy of your passport to rent one. Very cheap for long-term rental (Honda Dream 125 semi auto 1,500 bahts/month, Honda Scoopy 2,000/month at 2011 prices).
A new location, Nong Khai Cycle & Tours , at 867 Kaeworawut Rd between Mut Mee Guest house and Thai-Laos Hotel now rents mountain bikes starting from 70 baht/day, city bikes for 60 baht/day and children's bikes for 40 baht/day, including helmets and free bottled water with each rental.
For local tour options Khao Niao Tours offers airport service from Udon Thani & Vientiane to your guest house or hotel in Nong Khai. Udon Thani starts from 300 baht per person and Vientiane 800 baht per person. As well, they offer day tours to places such as Phu Phra Bat Historical Park, Wat Phu Tok, Ban Chiang (UNESCO World Heritage Site), Sangkhom, Chiang Khan and Laos. They also have the the only city orientation tour featuring stops at Sala Kaew Khu, Tas Sadet Market, aquarium, Wat Pho Chai, Mon Mai Research Station, Friendship Bridge, and more. They also provide free city maps as well as a map of Sala Kaew Ku which helps explain the various statues through out the park (a must have if you visit the park and one of the few places to offer the map in English).
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. (Khao Niao 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 statures 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.
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.
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.
Isara  is another volunteer organisation based in Nong Khai. They are one of Thailand's only free volunteering organisation which runs its own recycling centre, learning centre and regular helmet campaigns. They also have a programme where they send volunteers to government schools across Thailand to teach English. They work to teach English everyday to local children and adults, as well as classes in art, dance, computers, and Chinese.
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.
Visa Run - Getting a Thai Visa in nearby Vientiane, Laos
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 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.