The cool season is the best time of year to visit Nakhon Phanom and view the limestone hills of Laos, as the view is much crisper, with less haze. The cliffs are located just across the Mekong River and rise up like jagged teeth, evoking the great Naga serpents that are said to live in the deepest areas of the murky river.
These limestone hills include “karsts,” geological formations that are known for their dramatic, tower-like appearance, and which are dotted with caves, sinkholes, and underground springs. These particular karsts are part of the Annamite Range, a mountain range that extends across Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia.
The limestone mountains viewed from the Nakhon Phanom promenade are partly located in Thakhek, which is the capital of the Laos province of Khammouane. This beautiful, lush area is known to have great rock climbing cliffs and hiking trails.
In many areas of Laos, one has to be careful when hiking anywhere but well-worn trails, as the U.S. dropped over 260 million bombs on Laos during the Vietnam War, more bombs than were dropped on Germany and Japan combined during World War II.
While Laos was a neutral country, the U.S. illegally launched some 580,000 bombing campaigns into Laos from 1964-1973, in an attempt to cut off Vietnamese supply lines. To this day, dozens of Laos people die each year while unexpectedly encountering unexploded ordinances.
However, none of these bombing campaigns were conducted in central Laos near the border of Thailand and the Mekong River, so climbing and hiking anywhere around Thakhek (across from Nakhon Phanom) is completely safe. Thais can take a boat across the river to visit, and foreigners can take a bus across the Friendship Bridge.
Foreigners who want to cross into Laos and see the limestone hills closeup, should arrive at the Nakhon Phanom Friendship Bridge early in the morning, so as to give you plenty of time to explore Thakhek before returning on the final bus, which leaves Laos around 5pm. You also should expect to pay around 1200 baht for a Laos Visa, and another 1200 baht to rent a van after the bus drops you off in Laos.
If you decide to stay in Nakhon Phanom and walk the promenade to view the Laos mountains, you’ll see what looks like a group of demons in one area. These are Phi Ta Khon figures, the famous masked ghosts of Loei province. On the other side of the promenade (opposite the Mekong River), you’ll find several Nakhon Phanom riverside temples that are well worth visiting.
If you are traveling to Nakhon Phanom from Sakon Nakhon on a day-trip, it will take you about 90 minutes to get there by car.