In Pictures: Life along the Mekong in Thailand

Ostensibly the border between Thailand and Laos, the Mekong River serves more as a thread connecting the two cultures, making it a complex and fascinating prospect for visitors, far from the busy streets of BangkokThursday, 23 May 2019

By Mark Parren Taylor
Photographs By Mark Parren Taylor

The Mekong is the lifeblood of many towns along its length, including Renu Nakhon and Nakhon Phanom. The former is home to the stunning temple of Wat Prathat Renu Nakhon, where local girls perform traditional ‘baisri’ dances. Nakhon Phanom is a busy market town with a sizeable Vietnamese community — Ho Chi Minh lived here in the 1920s and the local cuisine includes dishes such as banh cuon (steamed rice rolls) and maeng tup (fried woodborer beetle). 

From the top of Chanadai cliff in Pha Taem National Park, the view stretches across the floodplain to the Mekong and all the way to Laos on the other side of the river. Pha Taem is home to 3,000-year-old rock art, rolling flower meadows and rock gardens that teem with delicate miniature orchids. 

Ban Pa Ao village — near the city of Ubon Ratchathani in the southeast of the Isan region — is renowned for its silk weavers and brass foundry. On religious days, villagers gather at the local temple where teams of celebrants clean, cook communal lunches and assemble colourful votive offerings.

Songkran (Thai New Year) sees locals of all ages cruising around Nakhon Phanom picking light-hearted water fights with passersby — the water is believed to wash away sins. During the three days of Songkran, Wat Phra That Phanom (rumoured to be the home of Buddha’s breastbone), is outfitted with an elaborate rig that douses the structure with ‘lustral water’. 

As the sun begins to rise, a fisherman plies the waters of the Mekong near Nakhon Phanom. This famed river brims with life: tilapia, crab, shrimp, carp, and the critically endangered giant catfish. In the distance, the hills of Laos stand silhouetted against the sky. Despite Nakhon Phanom meaning ‘city of mountains’, there are no hills on the Thai side of the border — it’s an enduring name that recalls a time when the two countries were one.

Discover more of the Mekong in this photo gallery

Published in the June 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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