Nong Khai, 7th January, 2011.


It’s been a funny old day. Noo makes me laugh as sometimes she is sooo Thai but I have reached a point in my life where I no longer get frustrated or angry with the more annoying attributes of most Thais – I just tend to ‘go with the flow’.

Yesterday we slept at about 11.30 with the agreement that we would ‘get up when we woke up’ have some breakfast and at some point we would be going to see Noo’s son at his school where he would be participating in  ‘Children’s Day’.

I woke at 9.a.m. Noo soon after and we lay there lazily; Noo watching Thai TV and me checking emails on my lap top. At about 10.15 Noo’s mum called and as a result of which I was requested to rush through my ablutions and breakfast as Noo wanted me to take her mother to the local amphur to sort out some official matter. This sounded fine to me, but by the time we had walked along the river bank to the place where we were going to have our breakfast, Noo had another conversation with her mother, the result of which was that the trip to the amphur was cancelled as it was too late to get everything done in the time available.

The new plan was that after breakfast we would go to the market by the riverside, after which, we would go to another market in another area of Nong Khai, called Tha Bo. There we would buy some ‘special’ food to take back to Pattaya and also buy some food and take it back to the village where we would all have lunch together.

So after a simple breakfast of Laos coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and kow tom moo – minced pork in a rice soup, we duly took a very lengthy wander in  Tha Sadet market – a very long, partly covered market which ran along the riverside. As we started to make the return journey, Noo received a call from her uncle who was waiting for her at her mother’s house. She told me that she didn’t want to see her uncle as all that he ever wanted was money to buy booze and he never stopped demanding more and more money. So we had a new plan. We would buy food and take it to Noo’s sister’s house which was quite close to her mother’s house and she would take it to her mother for lunch and but we wouldn’t go as we had to avoid the alcoholic, money-grabbing uncle.

It sounded fine to me. I’m all for avoiding drunken, money-grabbing, wicked uncles.

Then finally, for some reason I have long since forgotten, the plan changed yet again. Now, we were not going to see any family today. We would do everything tomorrow – Saturday: buy the food, which had now been changed to Vietnamese food at a restaurant near to our guest house, then we will meet up with Noo’s mother, sister and two children, go to the other market at Tha Bo, buy our stuff  for Pattaya and generally have a family day with them, which yet again sounded fine to me.

The trouble was, every plan sounded fine but it kept changing. I wondered what had happened to the plan to go to Noo’s son’s school, but I didn’t dare ask!

So that left us with a day to kill – or what was left of it. Noo asked me where I wanted to go, so I asked her what were the famous local tourist spots, but she didn’t seem to know, never having been a tourist in the place where she was born and raised.  She hadn’t even been to the riverside before, although she did admit to once spending a day in Vientiene.

I asked her why she went to Laos?

She said: ‘For Bai tio

‘But you never go for Bai tio in Nong Khai?’

‘No’.

That just about says it all.

I looked at my road atlas which had a rudimentary map of downtown Nong Khai  with an even more rudimentary list of ‘Tourist Attraction Place’ (sic).’ We plumped for a visit to Nong Khai museum, then a drive to Nong Thin Park and Phra Ratchani Rotharungsi Monument, followed by a stroll in the nearby Rose garden.

The museum seemed to have been long since dismembered as we found no trace of it,  and we even had a bit of trouble finding the park as it was accessed by way of a very narrow soi that looked like someone’s back garden. When we eventually found it, the monument was unusual and quite impressive, being set on a large tract of land which boasted four large ornamental lakes, but not much else. At first we couldn’t find the Rose garden – all we had seen was a small, open air nursery which was full of little plants in black plastic bags. Upon closer inspection we realised that the plants were mainly roses and that this must be the ‘Rose garden’. At least Noo was delighted as she purchased a dozen plants at some ridiculously give- away price, although God knows how they will get to Pattaya in one piece is beyond me.

No wonder Noo hadn’t done the tourist thing in Nong Khai and it also helps to explain why she went to Laos, but what she found there to amuse her is beyond me for the moment.

Don’t get me wrong, the riverside area is very pleasant, especially at this time of year and sure as hell beats some of the downtown areas I have stayed in in previous visits to Issan where all there is to see is dirty, dusty, ugly buildings, shop houses and the like and the usual assortment of fume-spewing traffic.

Some years back I spent a couple of nights in Loei where, up in the very dusty hills and red-dirt roads, I found life extremely primitive and the people quite unfriendly. Here in Nong Khai, I have found the people much friendlier and although it is clearly also a poor province, it does not appear to be as impoverished as I found Loei. This might just be my brief impression, for  to really ‘know’ these places properly I would have to spend many months living there.

After the monument and the Rose Garden, we still had time to kill so we drove down a side road upon which the huge Friendship Bridge had its foundations. We parked up, walked down a winding path almost to the riverside and then onwards and towards to the footpath that led us to where the mighty bridge commenced. The bridge accommodates two lanes of traffic, has a rail line running along the road centre and on both sides has a pedestrian walkway.

Noo led the way and along with a crowd of screaming, jovial Thai students, we set off for the centre of the bridge and the border with Laos.

Ten years ago I could have never made this journey. I used to suffer from terrible vertigo and was even scared to go in lifts which had a glass wall and I would walk for miles rather than take a cable car to a beach. Then I experienced a defining moment – as far as my vertigo was concerned. I was touring the Canadian Rockies with my family, just after I had retired and we stopped at this famous tourist spot – an ancient village nestled deep on a mountainside which could only be accessed via a perilous cable car which traversed a large open gorge, with a drop of tens of thousands of feet. I had two choices – either wait in my car for 3-4 hours while my family toured the village on the other side of the gorge, or make the trip with them. I made the journey over with my eyes tightly shut and shivered in fear the whole way. But that was the last time I have ever been in fear of heights and on the return leg, I forced myself to keep my eyes open and found that I could, after all, stand the experience without suffering any ill effects. Since then, I have been on many cable car journeys – some even more perilous than the one that day, numerous skyscraper viewing decks and so.  Never again have I felt that terrifying panic that used to assail me at the very thought of such a venture. After all is said and done, it’s all in the mind. Isn’t it?

So I was quite happy to walk out to the middle of the bridge, towering as it does, many hundreds of feet above the river below and with handrail that is barely waist high.  We took some photos, and I managed to cut my toe on a rusty metal sign in the centre of the walkway which said (in Thai): ‘Do not proceed beyond this point!’ For beyond that point I would have been in Communist Laos.

By the time we had returned to my car, we were both exhausted. I think I have walked further today than I have in the past two years, so my exercise regime has finally been kick-started. The young, fit Noo was also limping from her blisters so you can see I am not exaggerating.

We drove back down to the riverside, near our guest house, and Noo announced that she was hungry for Vietnamese food, notwithstanding the fact that she would be eating it again tomorrow with her family.

So we enjoyed a delicious Vietnamese repast and washed it down with copious glasses of iced water. When I first took my seat I noticed an Asian gentleman opposite who was dining alone. Next to his plate of food was a large bottle of ice cold Singha and I watched as he filled his glass and slaked his thirst. I almost succumbed at that moment. It looked so good – so inviting. But I held the line and resisted.

More tomorrow…..

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