The Road to Nong Khai; late, late live Trip blog…
Well, 10 days late actually, but as they say, better late than…
Oct 8 – I agreed to Noo’s request that we take her aunt and her aunt’s friend on with us on our forthcoming trip to Nong Khai. That was the final nail in the coffin as far as plans to take our Tandem bike with us was concerned as well as our plans to bicycle down the far flung roads of the North-eastern countryside.
Oct 9 – Noo’s Aunt and ‘friend’ arrived from Chanthaburi at the very time when we are in the middle of shopping downtown. They are waiting in a gas station where the mini bus had dropped them. As ever in Thailand, they gave us no advance notice of their travel plans and only called after arrival, expecting us to drop everything and rush down to collect them.
At Mobi’s insistence, we finished our shopping and other errands and picked them up 90 minutes later, and drove them home, where I was informed that aunt had a bad migraine attack. Nobody made any accusations, but the assumption was that Aunt’s state of health was probably down to, (a) leaving them waiting in the hot sun for 90 minutes, and (b) my bad driving.
I gave her a couple of paracetamols, but after a couple of hours, aunt prevailed upon Noo to take her to a clinic to get an ‘injection’ for her migraine. It was at about this time that I realised that Aunt’s friend looked decidedly odd, with short cut, ginger dyed hair, and very manly clothes.
‘Yes,’ Noo confirmed, ‘she is a Tom’.
‘Oh?’ So they’re not just friends, then?’
‘They are girlfriends.’
‘She’s sleeping with a ginger tom?’
‘But I thought your aunt was married?’
‘Her husband left her so now she prefers women….’
‘Ginger toms you mean…’
Upon return from getting her trusty injection, ( I must remember these magic injections, next time I have a bad toothache), I was told that the travel plans had all changed. Aunt can’t go to Nong Khai because she is unwell, so her daughter is coming from Chanthaburi to take her place.
‘What about your aunt and Ginger Tom?’
‘They will go and stay with a friend in Pattaya and go home later.’
I should add that it was never made clear to me why it was so essential for someone from Aunt’s family to go to Nong Khai with us….
At around 8 p.m, I was informed that the planes had changed yet again. Aunt’s daughter could not find any transport to Pattaya so was not coming and now Aunt and Ginger T would go with us after all!!!! Life’s never dull with Thai families….
Oct 10 – Noo’s phone alarm went off at the excruciating hour 5 a.m and by 5.30, I gave up the unequal struggle. Noo’s 10 year old son had been up and ready since 4 a.m, looking remarkably ‘cool’ in his new jeans, jet black, plastic jacket, and yes – wait for it – wearing very dark sunglasses, even though the sun was yet to appear over the distant horizon.
As I had feared, the back of my trusty Mitsu pickup was chock- a-block with God knows what, and once we had succeeded in cramming in the last of the rubbish, we were finally on the road by 6.30.
We made excellent progress; the Mitsu Triton is such a great vehicle to drive, with loads of power in its state of the art 2 litre, turbo-charged diesel engine, a comfortable, luxurious driving cab which is set well up from the road, and a hardy suspension which can take all but the very deepest pot holes in its stride.
We drove northwards from Pattaya, on highway 331 which morphs into highway 304, through Kabin Buri in Prachin Buri province, before eventually reaching the main Highway 2 (Issan Highway) just south of Korat, (Nakhon Ratchasima)
I was able to put my foot down, but unbeknown to me, ‘Korat’s finest’ have gone hi-tech since the last time I drove along this road, and they clearly had hidden speed cameras, as when they pulled me over they were able to inform me of my speed to the millisecond. I had been driving at 133.5 kph in a 110 kph speed limit.
I must confess I have never encountered such a polite traffic cop and he was all smiles, and salutes and politeness to Noo and me, and looked forlornly at us both as he beseeched us to help him in his dilemma. We had exceeded the speed limit by more than 20 kph, and ‘what was a humble bobby to do about it?’ Noo leaned across me with a bundle of 20 baht notes and pressed them into his hand , and his worried countenance suddenly transformed itself into a deep smile. Total cost: 100 baht.
There were endless speed road blocks both before and after Korat city, but I sailed through them all unscathed, laughing at all the poor fools who were being pulled over, as I was now being much more careful with my road speed. In fact, for the first time since driving in Thailand, I actually wished the vehicle contained cruise control. All my previous vehicles had such an accessory, but I had never found any need to use one; until now….
Once I had left the city far behind I decided it was time to make up for a bit of lost time, and lo and behold – guess what? – I was done again. This time, the ever smiling cop would not be bought for a lousy hundred baht and stubbornly held onto my driving licence until I handed over another hundred baht.
As we drove off, Aunt and Ginger burst out laughing from the back seats – total cost so far, was 300 baht they said, giggling at Noo. How much more is he going to pay before we reach Nong Khai. They thought it was all highly amusing – well after all it wasn’t their money…
I decided it was time for Noo to take over the driving for a while and see how many speeding fines she could engender, but of course that would never happen as she drives somewhat more sedately than the irrepressible, ‘Sterling Mobi’. For all that, Noo has become a very good driver and I was able to snooze for a while as we continued our journey towards Khon Kaen and beyond.
We stopped somewhere between Khon Kaen and Udon Thani at around 1.45 pm for a late lunch. Of course, it was an Issan restaurant and my passengers stuffed themselves silly on som tum and gai yang, (very hot, smelly papaya salad and barbequed chicken). I passed on the som tum as these days it doesn’t exactly see eye to eye with my alcohol-ravaged stomach , but enjoyed some of the tender, well cooked chicken and some kow neo (sticky rice).
We finally arrived at our destination at around 4.30 pm after some 10 hours on the road, a distance of 730 kms, (450 miles).
We checked into Ruan Thai guesthouse, a new guest house for us, which was situated on a stretch alongside the Mekong river. The room, with an air conditioner , fridge and TV was more functional than luxurious, but I could hardly complain at 400 baht a night. Dumping our stuff in the room, we retraced our steps back to the main Nong Khai Udon Highway, and drove the 20 kms or so out to Noo’s village, near the provincial market town of Tha Bo.
Like so many Thais, Noo has one of those complicated family arrangements, whereby it is difficult to distinguish between blood relatives and those who are referred to as ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘son’, ‘daughter’, ‘uncle’, ‘aunt’ etcetera , but in point of fact, are not genuine, or ‘blood’ relatives.
In Noo’s case it seems that she was raised by a lovely old couple who she refers to as her parents, but are not, in fact, her blood parents. Her two brothers and sister were raised by her real mother and father. And this business of farming out children to different families, has even extended to Noo’s own children, as her son was raised by one set of ‘parents’, (until we moved him to Pattaya), and her daughter is being raised by the other.
The two sets of parents live in villages about 2 kms apart but they are all very friendly with each other. I am sure that if I delved deep enough, I would probably find that there is a blood connection between them, somewhere along the line. But it is all too hard – I have enough trouble figuring out which house to go to when she tells me we are going to see her ‘mum and dad’.
‘You want us to go to your ‘real’ Mum, or the mum who raised you?’
‘My real mum, then we go to my main mum…’
The ties with her adoptive parents are so strong that Noo tells me that her adoptive mother plans to leave her land in her will.
Unfortunately, her adoptive father appears to be in the very late stages of a fatal illness. I have no idea exactly what is wrong with him, but he is clearly fading away. It is not HIV- AIDS as I have seen several people in an advanced stage of AIDS and they didn’t look like him, and they certainly didn’t have his strength and energy.
As you can see, his body is skeletal, but he can still stand and walk around with a relatively strong gait and when he talks, his voice is still loud and strong. But his condition looks really dire and Noo tells me that he is expected to die quite soon. He has spent his life working for the local government so he has access to all available local health care facilities and recently spent several months in hospital, but has now been sent home to die.
After visiting both families and dropping Aunt, Ginger T and son off, we returned to Nong Khai city where we had a very large Chinese meal before collapsing into bed at the ungodly hour of about 9.30 p.m.
Oct 11 – Noo was off early to spend the day with her ‘families’ and take care of ‘family business’ while I stayed in the room to work on my novel. I did a bit of writing– but not a great deal as there was no proper chair and table to work on.
At around 1 pm I went out to find some lunch and after chatting with my landlady, she agreed to supply me with a modest chair and table I could work on…
I found a quiet riverside bar, staffed by two absolutely ravishing young waitresses and sat down for a bit of food and a fair bit of ogling. The food consisted of a ham and cheese salad sandwich in delicious ‘Laou bread’. (known to most of us westerners as a ‘crunchy baguette’.)
I wandered back to my room, and did a bit more writing on my newly acquired rickety table and even more unstable chair (the plastic legs kept splaying out – giving me the heebie jeebies that one of them would snap off at any moment.)
Noo returned at 4.30 – no doubt terrified that I would fall in love with one of the local lasses that occupied the Nong Khai bars – and immediately borrowed a bicycle from our land lady and headed off to Tha Sadet market for an hour or so.
That evening we took a very, very long walk along the Mekong river bank – more than 30 minutes in all, there and back, and then decided to have supper at an Issan food restaurant that nestled alongside the Mekong river bank.
I can’t honestly say that I enjoyed my meal: beef, pork, liver and mince cooked Issan style. I guess I just wasn’t in the mood, and in particular, Noo ordered a soup full of chicken’s innards that I just couldn’t get my mind around. But Noo got stuck in and devoured whatever I didn’t eat.
So nothing was wasted, and Mobi supplemented his evening repast with some ice-cream, cake and other disgusting unmentionables from the ubiquitous 7/11, a couple of blocks away.
Oct 12 – We were up early and arrived at Noo’s village at around 10 a.m. where we stopped at both of her family houses to collect a veritable hodgepodge of relations who were going to accompany us for a ‘day out’.
The fact that I had a ‘lid’ on my Mitsu did not deter the relatives from jumping in the back and leaving the lid ‘open’ for the 75 kms drive to Thang Thong waterfall.
We arrived at the local tourist spot at around midday and the kids wasted no time in stripping down and running helter skelter into the swirling torrents. (Well not that ‘swirling’ – but you know what I mean…)
Those not playing in the water, settled down on a couple of Thai mats which were placed on the ground but poor old, infirm Mobi, declined to join them, as these days I find it quite hard to sit on the ground, and even harder to get up again. I found a friendly rock to park my weary backside on, but soon started to get stiff with back ache.
Noo, bless her little heart, placed one of the mats next to a nice smooth rock outcropping and showed me how I could lie on the mat and support my back against the rock which she covered with a soft towel.
It worked pretty well and I lay/sat there for about an hour whilst I enjoyed a healthy repast of Issan fish and chicken which Noo served to me on a plate, together with some sticky rice. Next time I must remember to bring my own fold up chair.
Later, we decided to take the short walk to the waterfalls proper, just along the coast, but to get there we had to make our way across a shallow water- way, via some large-ish stepping stones which had been placed there for the purpose.
It wasn’t until I started to cautiously make my way across the uneven stones that I realised how unsteady I had become on my feet. The stones were of different heights, angles and sizes, but should have caused no problems for any able bodied person in reasonable health, but I confess to being a more than a little concerned that I might lose my footing and fall in the water.
Fortunately, I made it there and back in one piece, but it was a salutary wake-up call, that I am still far from 100% back to full health and strength.
In true Thai tradition, it only took a couple of hours or so for everyone to grow bored, and the mats were soon being packed up again and the rubbish collected and dumped, in preparation for the return journey back to Noo’s village.
Later that afternoon, after we had deposited the day trippers back to their homes, Noo took me to visit with her two brothers in their primitive homes, which were situated in the centre of rice fields, just outside village. The rice crop was in full sway and Noo showed me the land belonging to her adoptive mother which was to be given to her quite soon.
It was very peaceful out there, and I really felt close to nature, and to the elements of the universe, as I sat on the wooden floor of a primitive stilted hut, the design of which, had probably not changed for centuries.
If I needed further proof of the integrity of Noo’s family, it was in the sight of her two, good-looking brothers, apparently content to lead simple lives in the middle of nowhere, as rice farmers, with their young wives and children. Not all Issan youths all end up as pimps, thieves, taxi drivers and drug addicts in the big cities.
Back at the guest house, Noo immediately took off on the landlady’s bicycle once again to the local market, and reappeared an hour later, completely laden down with all manner of junk to take back with us to Pattaya.
We had a bad tasting supper in one of the riverside Thai restaurants. I had a very tough pork steak, and Noo had some Thai food that was so salty, that it was virtually inedible. She asked me to try it and I almost gagged as it was so salty. She called the waiter over to try it. He took her spoon and took a sip of the gravy.
‘Salty, isn’t it?’ asked Noo.
The waiter was silent for a few seconds before answering. ‘No, it’s fine…’
‘OK then,’ said Noo softly, ‘Thank you.’
Back at the ranch, the bloody air-conditioner played up all night. It kept shutting off every 30 minutes or so, and I had an almost sleepless night; waking up feeling hot, turning it back on, then dozing off, only to be woken again as the room heated up.
Oct 13 – Noo took off in the early morning as she was going to have a very long day sorting out some complex land legalities with her various families – I didn’t envy her.
Meanwhile, a very sleepy Mobi discovered that one of the indecipherable settings on the a/c remote control had been accidentally changed, which was the cause of the off/on problem. Ah well….
I spent a lazy day, doing a minimal amount of writing – my heart just wasn’t in it for some reason and if the creative juices aren’t flowing, there’s little point in trying to force them out, as the product will be pretty bad.
I returned to the bar which employed the pretty lasses and enjoyed a palatable lunch of fish and chips.
It was Saturday and the local farang residents were out in force. I swear it was the first occasion for several years when I actually felt younger than most of the people around me; as just about every farang that came into that bar, or wandered past it, was well into their dotage.
I doubt of any of them were under 70, and I’d bet that many were in their 80’s or even 90’s. Where they had come from and why they settled in a place like Nong Khai, I couldn’t even begin to speculate. Maybe they had been there since the end of the Vietnam War? Who knows?
Noo returned in the evening with her aunt and ginger tom, and we put them in a room overnight so that we could make an early start for Pattaya the next morning and not have to divert back to the village again.
I had thought that Aunt and ginger tom were going to be staying tin Nong Khai for a while, but Noo told me that they couldn’t wait to get back to their home; apparently 4 days of Nong Khai village life was more than enough for them! I couldn’t help wondering what the villagers thought of aunt and Ms Ginger T in their midst….
Later, we all took a wander along the banks of the Mekong where some kind of festival and show – seemingly organised by a Thai TV channel – was in full swing. We watched a really dodgy magic show for a few minutes, before all the spotlights suddenly failed and the budding David Copperfield was obliged to carry on in semi- gloom.
Further along the riverside, little Noo decided to join in an adult game of musical chairs, which went on forever. She was third from last out, and was delighted to come away with a bag of goodies. Her child-like glee was a joy to behold – probably the first time she had ever won – (or come third) – in anything.
For our final evening in Nong Khai, we agreed to try out the Vietnamese food in a very popular local restaurant, and for once, it was both tasty and very filling.
Oct 14 – My phone alarm woke me at the unholy, disgusting hour of 5.15 a.m, and forgetting where I was, I turned over to go back to sleep, before I suddenly remembered that today was the day for the return journey to civilization… well semi-civilisation …
In spite of some logistical problems in cramming all our myriad junk in the back of the pick-up, including the collapse of a cool chest containing some very smelly Issan food, we succeeded in getting on the road by 6 a.m and we had a lovely clear, empty highway for the first half of our journey home.
I knew that there was no way that the cops would be manning their speed traps at such an hour on a Sunday morning and I was able to put my foot with utter confidence that nobody would be pulling me over – which turned out to be the case.
We stopped for som tum at around 9.30, but apart from that, and a couple more brief breaks, we made excellent progress and drove almost non-stop back to Pattaya where we arrived at around 2.30 in the afternoon, a journey of 8 ½ hours.
There was no food for Mobi at home, so I was given a pass to go and forage for my own supper and by the time I returned home, Aunt and ginger tom had departed – I know not where; I do not care – and we settled sown for an early night in the company of our beloved dogs, who had missed us like crazy…
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