Nong Khai (หนองคาย) is a city in Isaan. The city lies on the west 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 sunset 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.
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