Nong Khai – A Brief Pictorial Sojourn
I was beginning to regret my decision to travel to Nong Khai with Lek and her two children – Neung and Song.
(In case you’re wondering, yes, they do mean ‘One’ and ‘Two’….and yes, I know, it’s a bit odd , but she’s by no means the only Thai mother who names her kids in odd ways.
I once knew a family whose kids were named A, B, C, D and E. It’s true, and when the mother was pregnant for the sixth time, nobody had any doubt what the new baby was going to be called…)
Lek had proposed that we leave at around 2.30 a.m. She usually leaves in the middle of the night when she travels alone, but for this ancient tub of lard, to get up at 2.00 a.m. (after going to bed at midnight), was a distinct no-goer.
We eventually agreed on a 5 a.m. alarm call, which was still about 4 hours too early for Mobi. But I had to admit that if we left it much later, we wouldn’t arrive before nightfall, and the last thing I wanted to do was share the roads with the drunk drivers who, like vampires, tend to emerge from their daytime haunts after sunset.
We had an ‘almost new’ bicycle which Lek wanted to take to Nong Khai for her daughter, Song, to use. We had originally bought it for our bar girls to use when they wished to pop down to the nearest 7/11 but when we sold the bar, Lek had made it clear that the bicycle was one of the few items not included in the bar sale.
It was duly loaded for the journey, but was soon removed again. We had so much junk to take back to the ‘family home’ that there was no room for the bicycle – not even in the rear of a pick-up!
Maybe next time.
We were on the road at 6 a.m. and a mere 20 minutes later, we made our first stop – for Lek to buy some Red Bull to keep her awake, and the kids to go to the loo.
At this rate would arrive at Nong Khai by tomorrow evening, I thought to myself.
Back on the road, and half an hour later we had to stop again… Song had been sick in the back….
Back on the road for a couple of hours when we had to make an emergency stop behind a line of vehicles that were being pulled over at a police road block. This was quite normal – one of the standard methods the police use to exhort money from hapless motorists.
On previous journeys, I had always been obliged to make my contribution for so-called speeding offences, although how they could tell who was speeding is anyone’s guess, as they had nothing that came close to resembling a police radar gun or speed camera.
Vehicle after vehicle was pulled over and just as I was manoeuvring the pick-up into the lay-by, Lek shouted at me,
‘No! No! They don’t want you to stop! Drive on.’
Wonders will never cease…. ‘why not?’ I asked myself angrily, ‘isn’t my money good enough for you ?’
After escaping the dreaded police road block unscathed, we made our third stop at service station to take on yet more food and drink. We made good time for a good couple of hours but then dear little Song decided it was time to put her dainty little foot in the works. Well actually she kicked over a mug of iced coffee all over the back seat and floor!
And so it went on…. I got the stomach cramps and we went in search of a decent toilet for me to sit on. The first place we stopped actually boasted a western toilet. (one)
The problem was that the plastic seat ad been ripped off and there were muddy shoe stains all around the china rim where generations of Thais had squatted on it to use it as a squat toilet.
Miraculously, my ‘need to go’ suddenly evaporated, and I managed to hold on all the way to Nong Khai.
We arrived at around 4 p.m. which wasn’t bad, all things considered, but were dismayed to find that all the local accommodation was full as it was a public holiday!
No room at the inn, and my stomach bursting to download a load…
We decided to try a place we had stayed at on a previous occasion, which I knew a many rooms. It was Ruan Thai Guest House,along the road that overlooks the Mekong River.
Even they were fully booked – but when the owner asked us if we were the ones who had phoned up to book a room about 20 minutes ago, we all shouted ‘Yes…yes… that was us!’…
I’m not sure that she really believed us, but she probably worked on the principal that a ‘bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ or maybe a ‘desperate farang and his Thai brood is worth several Thai customers who might not turn up’, she gave us a large room at the back of the complex.
We dumped our bags and I dumped my load and then we immediately took off for the 25 minute trip to Lek’s family village before the night fell.
The last time I had been to see Lek’s mother’s place, there had been an extremely dilapidated wooden structure on the site that housed the entire family. We knew they had embarked on a small house re-building project as the old house had been sinking into the mud, but never in our wildest dreams did we expect to see the structure that now dominated the site.
The old dwelling had disappeared and in its pace stood the massive pillars, roof and ground works of a very large house.
Mum and partner were sleeping in a tiny lean-to near the new structure, and God only knows where they rest of the family laid their heads.)
‘It’s so big,’ I said to Lek.
‘Yes it is, isn’t it?’ she replied.
‘Did you know it was going to be this big?’
‘No I didn’t…
‘When will it be finished?’
‘When they find the money.’
‘When will that be?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said, shrugging her shoulders.
I am keeping my own counsel on this, but there is no way that a certain farang will be funding any new building in Nong Khai– unless of course I suddenly sell a million copies of my books…but Lek knows that. (I hope).
Back at Ruan Thai, I discovered that the cable TV in our room did not have single channel that we could sit and watch, but was delighted to discover that the internet connection was quite good and that I could log into ‘Expat TV’ . I could watch live programmes directly from the UK as well as all the stuff I had previously recorded.
So, no shortage of news and entertainment.
I idly mused that there I was, thousands of miles away from London, on the other side of the world in a sleepy, somewhat primitive frontier-town, looking out over the torpid, tropical Mekong river with an even more primitive country (Laos) beyond; yet I could sit and watch live TV news from London, via my own internet link.
It seemed so incongruous.
It wasn’t that long ago, when I was working in places such as Port Harcourt or Abu Dhabi, where our main contact with the outside world was by primitive telex, short-wave radio and the weekly mail pouch.
In Jakarta, Indonesia, back in the early 70’s, I was able to avoid speaking to my bosses in California by the simple expedient of arriving at work after they had gone to bed. There was really no way they could track me down and question my debauchery and drunken lifestyle. The fax machine was not yet in common use, let alone the mobile phone, the internet along with the dreaded email.
Back to the present, it was only after I had a somewhat cold, uncomfortable shower that I discovered the power switch that transformed the ancient, broken (or so I thought) water-heater into something that actually made hot water. … grrr….
The next day, Lek was up at six and I was left to my own devices for the day. One visit per trip to Lek’s distant village was quite enough for me. As it happened I didn’t wake until 11 a.m. and by the time I had done a bit of work on the computer and taken a stroll, Lek was already on her way back to the room.
I decided to go for a stroll, although I didn’t go far as it was surprisingly hot for the time of year.
To my consternation I discovered that a large bar that used to be nearby and did half way decent lunches, including delicious, home baked bread, was gone and in its place was a car park.
A car Park! What a travesty on this delightful road that ran alongside the banks of the Mekong. OK, the bar wasn’t exactly God’s gift to scenic beauty but it did add a nice touch of rustic colour.
Dear oh dear…
There is only one western style bar/restaurant remaining along this particular stretch of the Mekong. Incongruously, it is called ‘Apples Place’ and boasts a German menu with the most horrible, unappetising faded pictures of food I have ever seen. They positively put you off everything on the menu.
I opted for Beef stew (whioch looked revolting in the menu) and it was OK –ish. At least the real thing looked much better than the picture, which was a huge relief, I can tell you.
Lek arrived and told me that her two children wanted to come and stay with us in the room. They had been so spoiled in Pattaya that they could no longer tolerate the rigours of living in a muddy village and sleeping under a lean-to.
Hmm… not surprsing…
So all four of us slept there that night – Neung on the floor, and Song next to her mother on the other side of the bed with some suitcases strategically placed to prevent her from falling onto the floor.
When I woke the next morning, all three were conspicuous by their absence.
Lek had woken me up briefly in the early morning to tell me they were all going out for a quick breakfast, but when 11 a.m. came and went, I started to wonder where the hell they had got to. I checked on my phone GPS, (which tracks Lek wherever she goes), and discovered they were many miles away. Why they had gone there, I know not, but after a sharp call from Mobi, they finally made it back – just in time for lunch!
But first we had to move rooms – quite why, I still don’t know, but move we did, before setting out to do a bit of tourist-ing.
Our first stop was Wat Pochai temple on the Po Chai Road, just outside Nong Khai town. It contains the sacred image of Luangpho Phra Sai – apparently highly respected by the folk of these parts
Every year, on the full moon day in the seventh lunar month, the people of Nong Khai hold a rocket merit-making fair or Bun Bang Fai to worship Phra Sai at the temple of Wat Pho Chai.
Next, we took a short drive to the famous Sala Keoku park.
The park, located near Nong Khai town, features fantasticical, giant concrete sculptures which were inspired by Buddhism and Hinduism. Some of the sculptures tower up to 25 metres into the sky and include a monumental depiction of Buddha meditating under the protection of a seven-headed Naga snake
There was also a large, enclosed, cacti garden, but quite what this had to do with the nearby mythical statues remains a mystery.
Finally, another short drive to Nong Khai Aquarium
It is a large green building that displays freshwater and ocean-dwelling fish from Thailand and beyond, with the giant Mekong catfish in the ‘giant tank’ being the star attraction.
It was pleasing to note that the aquarium complex was full of Thai visitors. (I was the only farang).
But were they interested in these fascinating creatures beneath the waves? Well not really, at least it didn’t seem to be the case..
It seemed to me that most of them were more interested in taking ‘selfies’, or videos of themselves with the fish, rather than having any serious desire to study the fish and read all about their habitats.
All they wanted was to do the requisite silly pics, post them on Facebook, Line, and so on… and job done!
What has the world come to? We are all so obsessed with our smart phones.
Back at the guest house, Lek and the kids decided to go to Sadet Riverside market, so I returned to German ‘Apples’.
Lying on the floor outside the bar was an elderly farang, who asked me to help him up.
‘What’s the matter?’ says I.
‘I’m drunk,’ says he.
I put my hand out to lift him.
‘Where are you from? says he.
‘England,’ says I, ‘you too?’
‘Oh no… I’m from Wales…Swansea no less…’
That explained everything.
Leaving the drunken Welshman weaving and stumbling towards the bar, I walked through to the back, where there is a panoramic view of the Mekong.
I was surprised to find that there was only one empty table as the others were occupied by what appeared to be local farang residents.They were well into their Beer Laos and setting the problems of the worlds to rights – or the problems of Thailand, anyway. I deduced that it was a regular Sunday get together.
I sat agog as they sat there discussing the merits and otherwise of illegal immigration visas and stamps in their passports. I don’t know about you, but if I had a dubious immigration stamp in my passport, the last thing I would do is go down to the nearest bar and start shouting about it – in full hearing of anyone who happened to be around.
Well… only me and a drunk Welshman, so maybe no harm done.
After a while the discussion switched to the virtues of Thai ducks and chickens and in particular, how to cook them. At least that subject was a tad less provocative, but you wouldn’t have thought so, if you listened to the raised, (mainly American) voices that were trying to make their point heard in what was becoming an increasingly acrimonious cooking debate.
I ordered a pork burger, and was astonished to be served a sliced chunk of pork loin which had been rammed into a burger bun No minced burger pork… just a slab of chewy, unappetising meat…
So having had my fill of discussions on illegal visas and how to cook Thai poultry; and less than my fill of revolting pork burger, (there was no picture to entice or deter me…), I walked back to my room where my family was awaiting my return.
At dusk, we took a stroll through the ‘Walking Street’ night market that is held every Sunday.
Once dusk had fallen, the weather was cool and very pleasant and we enjoyed our ramble along Nong Khai’s version of ‘Walking Street’ which snaked along the river bank of the Mekong – oh so different from Pattaya’s – and browse the stalls with their incredible arrays of foodstuffs for sale.
We bought a few items to be consumed later, back in our room. (No fried insects and cockroaches you will be pleased to learn)
On Monday morning, we awoke around 6 a.m. and we were on the road at the almost civilised time of 7 a.m.
Lek drove the whole way home as I was once again suffering from stomach cramps and was in no condition to drive. Maybe the Walking street foods, or more likely German ‘slab of pork in a bun’ had done its dirty work in my intestines.
Unlike the outward journey, the drive back proceeded pretty much without incident and we finally made it home to the welcoming barks and high jinks of our dogs at around 5 p.m.
At least I had done my duty, and now, at long last, I could settle down to a post-bar period of rest and relaxation.