Nong Khai: The Isan Stillness

THE TRAIN CHUGS as it arrives at the station, the final stop after traversing the northeastern railway for almost 11 hours overnight. I quickly alight the train, a purple second-class sleeper, and make my way to the information desk. I am now in Nong Khai, a sleepy riverside town in northeastern Thailand more famous as an entry point to Laos than as a charming destination in its own right. But I have spare time so I might as well burn it exploring the town.

Nong Khai is a multi-ethnic town that’s prospered since the construction of the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge in 1994, connecting it to Vientiane, Laos’ capital, in the northern side of the Mekong River. Consequently, trade between here and Laos flourished, and made travel between the two areas easier. Notwithstanding the growth of the backpacker scene, Nong Khai remains a tranquil place, with only a handful of cars, motorcycles and tuktuks zooming through the central town’s streets. It also serves as a nice introduction to learn about the history and culture of the region.

Northeastern Thailand, also known as Isan, is the country’s largest region, accounting for a third of its land area and its population. Yet despite these seemingly large-scale aspects, the region is also the least visited and the poorest in Thailand, with its people, who mostly subsist by farming, earn less than the minimum wage. Majority of the locals here speak a dialect that’s more Lao than Thai, considering that Isan’s history is more closely tied with Laos and even Cambodia. The region is peppered with stone temples reminiscent of those in the Angkor complexes as a result of Khmer occupations between the 11th and 13th centuries, and the changing of rulers and territories in the following centuries resulted in an amalgamation of cultures from neighboring kingdoms. Most recently, the takeover of the communist Pathet Lao in Laos drove thousands of Laotians from their homeland into Isan, creating the present sociological tapestry of this stretch of Thailand.

Nowadays, rural life defines Isan and the region is more about the experience. Outside the Khmer ruins in the national parks, there’s not much to see as far as traditional tourist sights are concerned. Here, itineraries are generally simplified into just taking it easy and appreciating the bucolic riverside atmosphere, which is so relaxing it’s hard not to lapse into extended sleep. Nong Khai in particular is an ideal place to chill by the Mekong River, especially in the lovable gardens of Mut Mee Guest House.

Nong Khai’s location beside the Mekong River and near the Lao capital of Vientiane has allowed the backpacking scene to flourish.
The Governor’s House, which is now a museum, features French colonial architecture prevalent in nearby Laos.
Bizarre concrete statues synthesizing Hindu and Buddhist ideologies dot the Sala Kaew Ku park.

I ARRIVE at the guest house shortly before noon and am greeted by a young woman at the front desk. “Do you have a map I can use?” I ask.

The woman ducks and disappears behind the desk, and seconds later emerges with two papers with photocopies of the town map, one with the western part and the other with the eastern part. She tapes them together and hands it to me.

“Are you okay? How may we help you?” she asks, with a sincere quality in her voice that I will soon learn as a standard among the locals here.

“Yeah, I’m okay,” I tell her. “I’m actually on my way to Laos and I’m exploring the town before I cross the border.”

“Nice,” she says. “Enjoy!”

I have drawn up my itinerary from guidebooks and online travel sites, and based on them my “mandatory” destinations are the Hindu-Buddhist sculptures in Sala Kaew Ku, and the public market. The former is 6 kilometers east of the town center so I start with the market.

It’s actually called the Tha Sadet Market and it has vendors selling an extraordinary range of items both from Thailand and other neighboring countries, with wares running the gamut from clothes to food and electronics. The market faces the Mekong River and has some restaurants within the vicinity where you can eat while enjoying the stretch of the river. Yet despite all the mercantile activities occurring, the market remains devoid of chaos present in other cities.

After walking through the lengthy complex, I emerge in the market’s eastern end and come across a few wats and guesthouses. I explore a couple of narrow alleys then exit at the main street where a tuktuk is parked, and its driver in a semi-slumber. I tell the driver I’m going to Sala Kaew Ku, and he pulls a laminated bond paper from the roof of his tuktuk, revealing a printout of various tourist attractions in the area. One image shows a sculpture of a snake with several heads, which I instantly recognize from one of the many images I saw from the Internet.

“Here, Sala Kaew Ku” the driver says, pointing to that picture of the snake.

“Yes, that one,” I tell him.

Left, Tha Sadet attracts locals and foreigners alike with various products, such as, right, snack items.
Slip into relaxation-induced coma at the charming Mut Mee Guesthouse.
Left, the Nagarina floating restaurant provides great views of the Mekong. Right, traditional Isan dishes are served at the restaurant, which is affiliated with Mut Mee Guesthouse.

A FEW SECONDS LATER, I’m riding at the back of his vehicle and we’re zipping through the highway and into the park. When we get there, I find myself looking at quite a surreal area of gigantic concrete sculptures created by Luang Poo Boun Leua Sourirat. Legend holds that the mystic fell into a hole as a child and encountered a man named Kaewkoo, who inspired him to take on mysticism. Luang Poo spent a chunk of his years in Laos, where a similar park of his earlier works can be found 25 kilometers from Vientiane, but when the communist revolution broke out in 1975, he returned across the Mekong River and created another complex – this one – three years later.

The result is a wide range of images combining deities and elements of Hinduism and Buddhism, such as goddesses with several scenes, and all sorts of quirky human-animal hybrids. One sculpture called  the Wheel of Life shows Luang Poo’s idea of a person’s life cycle – visitors enter the park through a tunnel shaped like the womb and walk through a path lined with statues depicting different life stages. The shaman’s body is also preserved inside the shrine building, along framed pictures depicting him in various stages of his life.

Later in the afternoon, I arrive at the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, clutching my passport as I prepare to leave Thailand altogether and enter Laos. A brief rain shower interrupts the day’s hot and dry spell. I take a breath and look around. I haven’t explored the area much but I know I like the place. The relaxing atmosphere is quietly addictive. I’ve heard Laos is a sleepy country, too, and things proceed at a languid place. Things can only get better.

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