Most people think of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai when they draw plans for a trip to northern Thailand. These are well marketed destinations and admittedly have their own appeals. But it comes a point in a traveler’s life that the usual places get tiring, and the need to explore other corners just comes knocking on the door.
When Thailand reopened itself to tourism in 2022, I suddenly jumped in for a little escape. I have been going back and forth to Thailand since 2007 as it was and is still a very enthusiastic host to international debate tournaments. But having seen most of its popular sites, I just had to tweak that trip a bit, which led me to visit that humble part in the north right across the capital of Laos.
Nong Khai is a city by the Mekong River that is usually glossed over by many as a mere transit hub when crossing the border. The riverside city could stand on its own and keep one enraptured for a day or two. Its Sala Keo Ku, a sculpture park, is undoubtedly its main attraction—a twin of the more famous and older one in Vientiane by the same eccentric artist. It showcases towering concrete figures blending various icons from Buddhism to whimsical, out of this world works of human imagination. There is also the esplanade that runs for eight kilometers, providing a stroller a glimpse into the local life while being able to marvel at some of its main religious monuments such as the sunken Prathat Nong Khai in the middle of the mighty Mekong and the gigantic Water Dragons, the ultimate symbol of the city.
Beyond that, however, there are two historic sites nearby that are worth renting a car for if one wants to explore what Thailand has more to offer beyond its notorious night life and world-renowned beaches.
Ban Chiang Archaeological Site. Ban Chiang is around two hours from Nong Khai, in a part of Thailand that does not see many visitors. When beautiful, red-painted pots were uncovered in this remote village in the late 50s, it drew large attention across the globe, eventually becoming the biggest archaeological find in the region. It is known for having developed its Bronze Age early on, believed to be 500 years earlier than Mesopotamia’s, making it one of the earliest civilizations there is to find. The argument can even be pushed, though it remains inconclusive, that the bronze culture actually started in the Far East.
Beside the Pho Sri Nai Temple There is an excavation site under a protective shelter that gives visitors a glimpse into how the diggings were carried out. Of the dozen sites dug during the discovery race, this is the only one that was left open and made accessible to the curious public. Hundreds of these enigmatic pots still lie in situ¸ and some of them can be seen lying alongside human remains and other artifacts.
The Ban Chiang National Museum acts as the main repository of most of the discoveries made in the area, ranging from potteries to iron agricultural implements to bronze adornments and weapons. The museum was recently refurbished and now offers a pleasant educational way of reinterpreting what the site has to offer and how rich its history is.
Ban Chiang is also known for its Tai Phuan—the name of the indigenous inhabitants— indigo-dyed cotton ikat weaving, a tradition that is still very much alive. The motifs found in the pots are some of the inspirations for the textile patterns produced.
Phu Phra Bhat Historic Park. Phu Phra Bat is an exemplary multi-layered cultural landscape set on a plateau rising to 150 meters above the floor plain. What looks like well-formed dolmens at first sight are in fact magnificent works of nature through weathering. Together with Ban Chiang, these two sites form a remarkable argument that the province sheltered the earliest civilization in the country.
What usually surprises any visitor is the extent of the site and the number of interesting rock formations in place. I recall wanting to go here in 2013 and when I searched the internet, one practically only sees images of the iconic rock tower Hor Nang U-Sa and very little of everything else. Even the latest editions of some guidebooks do not even highlight it, perhaps due to its remoteness.
Around Louk Koei Temple are sema stones, which are markers from the Dvaravati to Khmer periods demarcating Buddhist sacred grounds. These structures are also present around Hor Nang U-Sa, Kou Nang U-Sa (the “Thai Stonehenge” and one of my favorites due to its association to supposed legendary weaver), and the Kork Mah Noi, the last rock site if you follow the 2-hour circuit, and probably the most impressive for its almost impossible balancing feat.
Six rock shelters also house pre-historic rock paintings in varying conditions. The most impressive of which are in Tham Wua and Tham Khon which contains human and bovine figures, respectively, in relatively good forms.
There were a few local visitors who came in after us, but as soon as they have seen and taken photos of the central cluster where the main rock tower is, they turn around and leave. Hence, my friend and I had the pleasure of having some of the more interesting rock formations lying deeper in the park to ourselves. Despite the notorious Thailand heat, we still enjoyed the trek up to the Pha Sadet Viewpoint. Equally charming is the fact that the rock formations have been named after characters of a certain folklore as this only reinforces the significance that the local people still ascribe to the site.
Ban Chiang is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, While Phu Phra Bat is slated to become one this year.
Image credits: Bernard Joseph Esposo Guerrero