Asia | South East Asia | Thailand | Northeast Thailand | Nong Khai – Isaan Thailand
Twenty-four kilometers separate Vientiane, the capitol of Laos, from the border town of Nong Khai in the Isaan area of North Eastern Thailand. The twenty- four kilometers, or indeed the short stones throw across the Mekong river, brings a whole new world. Theres a potpourri of Shell stations and 7 11s amidst a bustling market center nestled on the banks of the Mekong River, which is a source of concern to many people in the region who depend on it for water, food, and transportation. The Chinese government, responsible for a constantly increasing population, has been building several dams upriver from the nations of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, who have for generations depended on the lifeblood of the Mekong. The Chinese have plans for many more dams and talks are taking place to supposedly mitigate the negative effects on its neighbours.
Journalists from around the world, representatives of NGOs, and a newly formed multi-lateral governmental body called the Mekong River Commission have been studying, discussing, and writing about current problems that are wreaking havoc on the livelihoods of people living along the river all the way from China to the Mekong delta. Local people tell me that when there is lots of rain, the river remains low, riverside summer gardens do not benefit from the excess of water, and larger fish from the river have become fewer and fewer in recent years. In 2004, ten rare and endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins were found dead, up from the usual count of three or four that are discovered each year. The Irrawaddy dolphins are on the verge of extinction, with fewer than 300 believed to still exist in the Mekong River. I personally had the privilege to see them in Cambodia in 2000 as well as India in 2002, and although they are not as playful as ocean dolphins, they are still magical creatures integral to the life of the river.
I believe a combination of a restless sleep the previous night, eating only a small breakfast, missing lunch, and not enough water while traveling that very hot day, have caught up with me. At a restaurant in Nong Khai, I feel faint after eating dinner, and have to find a quiet place to lie down for a moment. The owners family fuss over me, bringing me water, turning the fan on me, and wiping me with cool wet towels while undoing my shirt. I am embarrassed by the attention, and after a few moments feel well enough to take a taxi back to the bungalows, promising to come back again for lunch to show them that I am indeed okay and that I know that the food there is very good. So for a few days, I resign myself to relaxing at Mut Mee Riverside Bungalows, where they play jazz and classical music while people swing in the hammocks and read novels. Still, after spending over one and a half years in Asia since 1997, one episode of food poisoning a few weeks earlier, those few minutes of feeling unwell, and an ear infection in 1998 are minor events considering the overall amount of time. I do go back to the restaurant and have the most delicious lunch!
At Mut Mee Bungalows, I meet another Canadian who I had previously met seven weeks ago on Koh Samet. He coordinates research for child protection in South East Asia, and is based in Bangkok. He and his wife regularly take weekend trips to various places around Thailand to escape the city heat, and its a happy coincidence meeting them here. We take a short river cruise in the evening after cycling around Nong Khai separately to see some of the sites including the Wat Khaek garden
The Wat Khaek garden in Nong Khai, is a marvel of whimsy, larger than life storytelling through sculpture, and homage to Hinduism and Buddhism on a massive scale. Two huge brick and mortar statues, one only partially completed, the other almost completely finished, stand outside the entrance gates. Inside, there are literally hundreds of completed statues of Buddha that tower above the old growth trees. Walkways and colorful flower gardens lead to a unique Wheel of Life sculpture that is entered by crawling through its jaws. Inside the jaws, birth and life leading to death and rebirth in its many forms are depicted in a circular pattern around the central piece that reaches out with its many arms.
After the weekend, I set off on the bike for a scenic ride up the Mekong River, heading through Sri Chiang Mai (not the big city in the northwest), and arrive in the riverside village of Sakhoum staying in another riverside bungalow. From there, I head down to Phu Pra Bat Historical park to check out the cave paintings, and rock formations reminiscent of Stonehenges circular rocks. Pausing for a short thundershower, I head towards Udon Thani, but miss a turn off, and detour 24 kms before coming back to Ban Phue and deciding to stay for the night. My back wheel has been causing me some concern, and not being able to repair it in Nong Khai a few days before because of the wheel size, I have my fingers crossed that I can make it to Bangkok where I will have to replace my cracked rim. About 35 kms outside of Udon Thani, it becomes apparent that the bike is no longer ride-able, and I will have to put it on the bus and either find a shop there, or carry it as a big piece of luggage down to Bangkok.
On arrival in Udon Thani, I get lucky, and not only find a group of taxi drivers who are genuinely concerned, but also there is one who speaks excellent English and knows which bike shop should have the right size rim. About a hundred dollars later, my bike is just like new, and the offending rim, cracked in three places, is in the trash heap. I also replace a few dubious looking spokes, add some bar ends, and change my disintegrating saddle.
The next challenge of the day is to find a hotel room, in what I discover is a very busy town at the moment. The first few hotels are full. What I am told is that there is a government seminar going on. Apparently, it must be an important government seminar, because every hotel seems to have an excessive amount of security in place. The front desk clerk at one hotel calls around for me and finds me a very nice room in a brand new hotel that has a special promotional price on their rooms. The staff are all eager to be of service, and it feels like a four star place at a one star price.
During the day, I notice that there are a lot of fighter jets taking off at regular intervals. B-52s fly overhead. Its hard not to notice the unmistakable roar in the sky. In the evening, the tattoo parlors are full of young men, and the bars are crowded with even more, as well as some of their female coworkers, and the recent influx of Thai women who have come to take some advantage of the men currently out-of-uniform. The next days newspaper reports that there is a three-week peacekeeping practice with almost 20,000 soldiers from 6 countries, including 12,000 from the states. It makes perfect sense why the hotels are full, but I am somewhat doubtful of the newspapers version of what is going on. A few days later, another newspaper confirms that it is the annual Cobra Gold war games exercise taking place, and there is concern because of separatist violence in the south that next years event will again have to be held in the north.
I take the morning train, watching a recently purchased bootleg DVD of The Last Samurai along the way. I turn the Thai subtitles on for my seatmate, who is a soldier returning to Bangkok. He thanks me and seems to enjoy the action sequences.
A light rain is falling when I arrive in Bangkok at dusk, and soon I am in Banglamphu, staying at the New Merry V guesthouse, where I have stayed many times since my first trip here in 1997. I even get the same room as my last visit, which looks out over the Chao Praya River. Below my balcony, Prah Atit Roads restaurants are buzzing on Bangkoks hip street for young Thais going out for dinner or drinks with friends. The cafes and restaurants have great food, live music, art shows, and a decidedly modern design esthetic. The next evening, the owner of the New Merry V recognizes me even though it has been four years since my last stay, and welcomes me like an old friend, serving up a delicious barbequed red snapper for supper.
After a few days calling friends, dealing with air ticket changes, doing some filming of Bangkok by night, as well as the changing face of Khao San Road and its increasing gentrification, I call and make arrangements to volunteer at Phayathai Babies Home in the HIV ward.