Beyond Bung Kan, the river road rounds the hilly northeastern tip of Thailand before heading south through remote country where you’re apt to find yourself stopping for water buffalo as often as for vehicles. The Mekong can only be glimpsed occasionally until you reach NAKHON PHANOM (“City of Mountains”), 313km from Nong Khai, a clean and prosperous town which affords the finest view of the river in northern Isaan, framed against the giant ant hills of the Lao mountains opposite.
The town makes a pleasant place to hang out, its quiet, broad streets lined with some grand old public buildings, colonial-style houses and creaking wooden shophouses. But most importantly for those with their sights set on Laos, the town is home to the third Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, which opened to much fanfare in November 2011.
Walking around town, you’ll see several lit-up boat shapes around the place, a reminder of Nakhon Phanom’s best-known festival, the illuminated boat procession, which is held on the river every year at the end of the rainy season, usually in late October. Around fifty boats of up to 10m in length, adorned with elaborate lights and carrying offerings of food and flowers, are launched on the river in a spectacular display. The week-long celebrations – marking the end of the annual three-month Buddhist Rains Retreat – also feature colourful dragon-boat races along the Mekong, pitting Thai and Lao teams against each other.
Even if you’re not crossing the border, you can still appreciate the beautiful riverscape by joining one of the daily boat trips that depart from just south of the main pier at 5pm (B50; drinks available). Setting out as the sun begins to sink, they motor along between the banks nice and slowly, usually returning just before dark.
Almost two-and-a-half years after foundation stones were laid on both sides of the Mekong, the third Thai-Lao friendship bridge finally opened in late 2011, at a site 8km north of Nakhon Phanom’s town centre. At the time of writing, private cars were being allowed to cross for B50. It’s not yet clear what the opening of the bridge means for the passenger ferry that leaves from the main pier across to Khammouan (Thakhek) in Laos. However you cross, thirty-day Lao visas will be available on arrival for US$30–42.