Nakhon Phanom is my partner Ace’s home town in the northeastern region of Thailand, approximately 734 km northeast of Bangkok, 378 km southwest of Hanoi, Vietnam and borders Laos. Nakhon Phanom was prominent during the Vietnam War, serving U.S. forces of the 56th Air Commando Wing stationed at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base. Their missions were search and rescue and interdiction of the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos 48 km to the east. Today its a very relaxed town with day to day life the excitement and Ace’s says its too quiet for him.
The city has a beautiful riverside with the Mekong River running adjacent to the city, marking the current border between Thailand and Laos. The views to the mountains in the east are magnificent anytime of the day. As the sun rises and sets the mountain ranges take on a different perspective.
The population of Nakhon Phanom is a diverse mix of Thais, Thai-Vietnamese, Thai-Chinese, and perhaps a few Thai-Indians. The main languages spoken are Thai, Isaan, and Vietnamese, with Isaan being the most popular of them. The primary culture is Lao, as Isaan was part of Laos until the late 19th century. Ho Chi Minh of Vietnamese history resided in a small village between the city center and the air base to the west during the late 1920s and early 1930s. A new museum has been constructed; his home is preserved and is open to the public, which draws many Vietnamese tourists. Although a small city, Nakhon Phanom is famous for its centuries-old temples and beautiful landscape. The city has a reserved and traditional Isaan culture and we found the residents of the city very hospitable. Apparently, the main reason for the strong Vietnamese influence is that Vietnamese fled here during the struggle against the colonial French. Most of them returned to Vietnam in 1960, but left a legacy in the city. The clock tower in the main road near the river comes from their influence, and signs at the local police station and hospital, etc., are written in Thai, English, and Vietnamese. There is also Vietnamese food in local restaurants along with good hotels.
We travel to Nakhon Phanom to visit Ace’s family, to relax and see the more local and traditional Thai culture and way of life. There is lots of regional and farming areas around Issan and even Ace’s mom has a banana orchard on a rural property. We usually visit some temples and the property on our trips.
There is an annual remembrance celebration to commemorate the passing of Ace’s grandmother that is an important ritual in Thai culture.
The whole family makes this journey and it is also a time to catch up with each other.
Temples are the most frequented attractions, especially the Phra That Phanom Temple located 53 km from Nakhon Phanom city center. It is a most popular venue and people travel great distances to visit this facility.
Other points of interest are:
- Ho Chi Minh House. This is where Ho Chi Minh lived from about 1924 to 1931. It is in Ban Nachok, which is on the Nakhon Phanom to Sakhon Nakhon road.
- Old Governor’s Mansion. Contains a wide array of historical photographs, including topics such as the fire boats and royal visits to the province. Descriptions are primarily in Thai, often accompanied by limited English translations. Also contained in the building is an English language lending library, open to the public. The library was established by the volunteer teachers from World Teach 2009-10, and continues to grow with new contributions.
- Mekong River Cruise. An early evening cruise on the Mekong for about an hour takes you along the Thai shores of town and then crosses to cruise down the Laos side of the river before returning to the dock.
- Fire Boats Festival. Communities from the province build large scaffolding out of bamboo, which they put on boats and float down the river in the annual fire boat festival. Tin cans are filled with kerosene and stuffed with rags are then arranged on the scaffolding to form images of temples, the king, dragons. At night the boats float down the Mekong River for the appreciation of spectators. Held one night a year, at the end of Buddhist Lent, as determined by the lunar calendar, and usually falls sometime in the month of October. The festival culminates in the floating of the Fire Boats, but a larger festival goes on for a week preceding the end of Buddhist Lent. Other activities include markets all along the river road, long boat races, and an elephant or two.
- That Phanom Festival. In February of each year, a 10-day festival is hosted in That Phanom that attracts people from all over the country and from other countries as well. Due to the proximity to That Phanom, Nakhon Phanom can make a good home base to enjoy this festival.
Nowadays, with only a short commute between Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, many tourist travel through Nakhon Phanom and Laos to Vietnam. There is a bridge that crosses the Mekong just north of town that makes travel much easier. It is approximately a 5 hour journey to get into Vietnam from Nakhon Phanom. Many local travel agents can arrange group visits to the many attractions in Laos and Vietnam. No doubt we will be back again for other visits and to soak up this laid back tranquil life.
Getting to his home town requires a long drive from Chiang Mai of about 12 hours, but we usually break it up with an overnight stay in Udon Thani or Khon Kaen. The drive is quiet picturesque taking you south from Chiang Mai to Lampang, then on Hwy 11 to Phitsanulok then Hwy 12 through many national parks to either Khon Kaen or a cross country detour through Loei to Udon Thani. The roads are good being both 2 and 4 lane. Lots of petrol stations on the way for conveniences and stops for refreshments. Hotel accommodation is plentiful and very reasonable along the way or in the bigger cities.
On one of our trips after leaving Udon Thani travelling along Hwy 22 we stopped at an archaeological museum site to check out the offering. Ban Chiang is an archeological site in Nong Han District, Udon Thani Province, Thailand. It has been on the UNESCO world heritage list since 1992. Discovered in 1966, the site attracted enormous publicity due to its attractive red painted pottery.
Villagers had uncovered some of the pottery in prior years without insight into its age or historical importance. In August 1966 Steve Young, an anthropology and government student at Harvard College, was living in the village conducting interviews for his senior honors thesis. Young, a speaker of Thai, was familiar with the work of Wilhelm G. Solheim and his theory of possible ancient origins of civilization in Southeast Asia. One day while walking down a path in Ban Chiang with his assistant, an art teacher in the village school, Young tripped over a root of a kapok tree and fell on his face in the dirt path. Under him were the exposed tops of pottery jars of small and medium sizes. Young recognized that the firing techniques used to make the pots were very rudimentary, but that the designs applied to the surface of the vessels were unique and wonderful. He took samples of pots to Princess Phanthip Chumbote who had the private museum of Suan Pakkad in Bangkok and to Chin Yu Di of the Thai Government’s Fine Arts Department. Later, Elisabeth Lyons, an art historian on the staff of the Ford Foundation, sent sherds from Ban Chiang to the University of Pennsylvania for dating.
A date of 2100 BCE was obtained from rice phytoliths from inside a grave vessel of the lowest grave. A dating program for this site has involved dating the bones from the people who lived at Ban Chiang and the bones of animals interred with them. The resulting determinations have been analysed and the results suggested that the initial settlement of Ban Chiang took place by about 1500 BCE, with the transition to the Bronze Age about 1000 BCE. An interesting historic site that is well established with impressive museum.