From the moment we arrived at our first destination in Laos, it was there, beckoning us. Strolling along the Mekong, or sipping a cold beer at one of the many riverside bars, our gazes would turn towards the setting sun, and our expressions would freeze into ones acute with longing. Often we’d peer out from a glittering wat, in the shadow of a towering Buddha, only to see the mirror image reflected back at us across the water… only the wats and Buddhas we saw across the way were shinier, newer, and much, much bigger, as if to pointedly remind us that anything Laos could do, this country could do better. As we battled power outages, glacial internet speeds, bone-splintering bus rides on pitted and potholed roads, and oddly inflated food prices, we would joke that all we had to do was hop the river—by boat or by bridge, it didn’t matter—and all of our hassles would melt away.
Eventually, we stopped joking. Overall, we enjoyed our time in Laos, but we could never shake ourselves free from the pull of what we knew lay just west of its borders. When we reached Luang Prabang, the tug became even more insistent, and in the face of it, our plans to continue north to Nong Khiaw, Muang Ngoi, and Phongsali crumbled. With news that Lao New Year festivities would soon be upon us and would disrupt transport for the better part of a week, we succumbed to the desire we had been fighting pretty much from the minute we had arrived. Braving a 12-hour bus ride on the mountainous roads between Luang Prabang and Vientiane, we returned to the capital city. The following morning, we were riding another bus, but this time, for a much shorter duration…
Within an hour, we were back where we had wanted to be all along. We were back in Thailand.
Whenever we are asked, as we always are, what our favorite countries in Asia are, we easily rattle off our top three: Vietnam, the Philippines, and Taiwan (with the caveat that the relative placement of each one is always subject to change based on our whims and desires of the day.). We then quickly add that Thailand comes in a close fourth amongst our favorites, but with this, our FIFTH visit to the country since the start of our trip, we have begun to wonder whether we might need to reappraise its position. Although we’re oddly reluctant to award it a top spot on our totally arbitrary ranking of favorites, the fact that it is our most visited country on our travels surely must count for something. Moreover, Thailand comes in second only to Vietnam in terms of amount of time we have spent in a country with a cumulative total of approximately three months to Vietnam’s five. Clearly, there is something about Thailand that keeps us (and many other travelers, I might add—it’s the 15th most popular destination in the entire world and third in Asia behind China and Malaysia (the latter of which is probably skewed by Singaporeans to some extent)) coming back for more.
It’s not easy to pinpoint what that thing is, simply because there are so many things that are great about Thailand. Despite its immense popularity with travelers (or perhaps because of it), it still remains one of the cheapest places to travel in the region, offering excellent value for money. The countryside is gorgeous and varied, the culture is rich and fascinating, the food is infamously good, and there’s a reason the country has earned itself the nickname “The Land of Smiles”—coming in from Laos, we were both immediately struck by the warmth of the greeting we received from the Thai locals, who beckoned us over with flapping hands and beaming grins, calling out hearty greetings full of cheer to us. We felt welcome, and more than that, we felt like we were home.
I don’t think we’re the only ones who feel this way, either. Some jaded travelers scoff that Thailand has given itself over to the tourists, that it’s too easy and comfortable, too westernized, that traveling here is not really traveling (whatever that means). To be perfectly honest, before we ever visited, we shared some of these concerns, worrying Thailand was too “mainstream” for us. The fact that so many bloggers and travelers (many who have never been anywhere else in Asia) had raved about Thailand’s many charms did little to put our minds at ease, as we viewed this as evidence that the country would be watered down in an attempt to appeal to the masses.
We certainly didn’t expect that we would fall in love with Thailand, but all I can say is that we were massively wrong to doubt it. Maybe we arrived intending to play hard-to-get, however it didn’t take very long at all for Thailand to win us over and for us to see why so many people seem to fall under the influence of its gravitational pull. It’s true that Thailand is an incredibly approachable destination—exotic enough to intrigue, but accessible and with enough comforts from home that you never feel totally out of your element or like you can’t cope; it’s an addictive blend and the country is sufficiently diverse and malleable that it really does offer something to suit any travel style. If you want to stick to the tourist trail and visit a floating market or wander the Grand Palace in Bangkok, frolic with elephants in Chiang Mai, be blinded by the trippy temples of Chiang Rai, channel your inner hippie in the mountains around Pai, ride the train on the death railway over the river Kwai, or take in one of the many islands’ full moon parties (whether you’re on Phi Phi, Phuket, or Phangan), it’s easy enough to do so and plenty of people are happy doing just that. Heck, we’ve done most of those things ourselves and had a blast; these activities are popular for a reason: they’re fun! But for those who think that once you’ve done these things, you’ve done Thailand, that all the places worth visiting have been explored and exploited and there are no new stories left to tell here, I would respectfully—but heartily—disagree.
Take the town of Nong Khai. It’s a place you’ve probably never heard of, burrowed as it is on the fringes of the country, meaning it’s not close to anywhere, save for the Laos capital of Vientiane. It is actually for this reason that it likely sees any travelers at all, as a transit point for those on visa runs. Given that they are so often a means to an end, you generally don’t expect much from border towns, but as it turns out, Nong Khai is actually a great example of the kind of unassuming places that are peppered throughout Thailand and that have fueled our love affair with the country.
Like Savannakhet in Laos, Nong Khai isn’t really the kind of place that you visit in order to do much other than leave. But within minutes of arriving, we are impressed with how clean the streets are and the care that has been put into cultivating its quiet charm. The locals who live here do not suffer from “farang fatigue” as so often happens when tourists overwhelm a city and behave poorly, and so they immediately offer us open smiles rather than cordial or calculated ones, and their warmth towards us is genuine and true. Their eyes grow wide when Tony asks prices in Thai (they all assume I’m a local so my attempts are more likely to produce curious scrutiny as they try to figure out why the Thai girl speaks like a white person…) and his compliments to cooks regarding their delicious food (a roi mat mat!) always earns him ear-to-ear grins, hearty thumps on the shoulder, and a cascade of encouragement and excitement over his “excellent” language skills. In places like Bangkok (which we also love, by the way, but for totally other reasons), locals are too busy and too accustomed to tourists to coo over garbled attempts at the language; but in Nong Khai, people are legitimately happy to see us. Shopkeepers bring out their children to greet us and happily pose for pictures, our guesthouse owner chats with us at length whenever he sees us passing through reception, stall owners at the fantastic local market that carries literally everything you could ever need (along with plenty you don’t) haggle with us gently and good-naturedly, and street vendors hover over us anxiously to make sure we like their food (we do!).
Like sundry other anonymous little Thai towns, Nong Khai doesn’t have much glitz or glamor but it’s an exceedingly easy and enjoyable place to be. It is blazingly hot while are there, so we spend our time enjoying the shade of the covered market, fastidiously avoiding anything that looks like a wat, and then slowly wandering the town, popping into any air-conditioned shop we can find (there is an astonishing lack of 7Elevens—is this Thailand or not?!?) while hydrating ourselves with slushies and fruit popsicles when we feel the beginnings of sun stroke.
Speaking of food (and if we weren’t exactly talking about food, clearly we should be…): oddly and surprisingly, we don’t ever really miss or crave Thai food when we’re not in Thailand and can’t eat it, but when it is available, we happily glut ourselves on the local food to the exclusion of all else and wonder how we could ever want to feast on anything else.
In Nong Khai, our bender starts on the walk from the bus station when we stop at a local “rice & three” (or as we call them amongst ourselves, “pick & mix”), in which cauldrons of various curries and stewed dishes are offered and you can pick two or three along with a serving of rice for a set price. Here it is 40B (~$1.35US) for rice + 2 options, which we supplement with a plate of the best spring rolls we have ever had in Thailand (true story: spring rolls aren’t really a Thai thing so you don’t actually see them that often… however, these are gargantuan and served with fresh herbs and with a great dipping sauce that is an ingenious combination of the tart & sweet Vietnamese dipping sauce, nuoc cham, and a peanutty satay sauce) and 2 glasses of cha yen (Thai tea—so sweet, so milky). Total damage for our massive feast is under $5US for the two of us. We liked this place so much we ate lunch here every day we were in town (and actually contemplated extending our stay just so we could eat here more!).
(Added bonus? Normally we (rightfully) feature puppies, but this time it was absolutely the owner’s baby daughter who looked like the cutest Who down in Whoville. She would take our money when we paid our bill and then deliver up the wai (traditional Thai greeting where one bows while pressing hands together as though in prayer) and delighted whenever Tony would shake her hand.)
No time in Thailand would be complete without a visit to a night market and Nong Khai has a pretty great one that sets up on the main road. A good selection of Thai dishes are offered, certainly far too many for us to try them all during our limited time in town. Highlights were the awesome duck noodles and one of the best plates of pad Thai (another surprisingly difficult dish, if not to find, then to execute correctly here) we’ve enjoyed in the country. And, of course, mango sticky rice. Because, honestly, how could we not?
Dinner at Nagarina, a floating restaurant (apparently a theme for us during this past month of travels), certainly constitutes a splurge, but is well worth it. We savored a fried fish slathered in tamarind sauce and an uncommon wingbean salad, served with crunchy prawns and perfectly soft-boiled eggs. The salad, known as yum tua plu, is famous for being one of the Queen’s favorite dishes. We hadn’t seen this dish anywhere else on our travels and are glad we had the opportunity to try it, because it is certainly unlike the Thai food we are more accustomed to. The standout element of the dish is the spicy dressing, which is slightly thick and has a sticky sweet citrus note to it; this dish manages the difficult feat of being extremely rich but still quite light and delicate.
Whenever we return to Thailand (and remember, we’ve done that four times now!), within minutes of being back, one of us always turns to the other and, with a note of complete incredulity, exclaims, “How do we always forget how much we LOVE it here?” And then the other person shrugs and sheepishly mumbles something unintelligible, largely because they are probably shoving as much food into their face as is humanly possible. No matter how much you’ve heard about how incredible Thai food in Thailand actually is, it’s actually so much better than you could ever guess; it doesn’t just live up to the hype, it exceeds it and then some. My secret tip to you is that we’ve found the best Thai food NOT in the big name cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai (or, god forbid, on any of the islands), but in the places most tourists don’t bother visiting like Ban Song, Trang, Phrae, Ayutthaya (ok, some tourists do visit this one), and now, Nong Khai. These places are filled with the food that locals eat every day, where you’ll order by pointing because there aren’t any English menus or by simply indicating how much of the one thing a vendor makes you want to eat; these cities are too small for a dud to last very long because everyone knows everybody’s business and only the best places survive. Really, when I put it that way, it’s not a surprise at all that Nong Khai turned out to be our favorite kind of little Thai town, or that it’s because of the food that Thailand tops our list of the countries we just can’t quit.
Tell Us: Do you have a country that you find yourself returning to over and over again?