Leif Pettersen's Travelogue

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Nong Khai, Thailand

Posted on May 4th, 2005

Mekong River

After two full weeks in Bangkok convalescing and maniacally pounding out 16 pages of notes from Myanmar like gold leaf into 62 pages of long-winded journal babble, I was ready to move on. There had been a flurry of activity going on in the wings of my life during this time, involving paying assignments in Hong Kong and Sapporo, Japan with fast approaching deadlines while jockeying around poorly planned, soon-to-be-expiring visas for Laos and Vietnam. The end result was that I had to scrap my plans to head for northern Thailand for some jungle trekking and cooking classes and instead race straight for the Laos border to salvage that hard-earned visa. I had just under three weeks to absorb Laos and get back to Bangkok (yes, again) to catch a plane to Hong Kong where a five star hotel and a hasty assignment were waiting for me.

But I’m getting ahead of myself already (structure is overrated), before any of that excitement, I had to remove myself from Bangkok, where I was becoming awfully comfortable and settled and take a 10 hour over night bus to the Thai border town of Nong Khai.

It just so happens that Nong Khai made the cut for Lonely Planet’s race-for-your-life, four week skeletal Thailand itinerary, so I was expecting some cool shit and as usual, whenever I get into this anticipatory mindset, I’m ripe for guaranteed disappointment. To start things off, nothing is ever overly appealing after you’ve just crossed the whole of Thailand on a 5th class, night bus. Even though I have not once had a pleasurable night bus experience, I still subject myself to them for journeys that are nine hours or longer simply because taking a day bus under the same conditions would: A) mean a certain brain grilling during Asia’s hot season, B) require me to board a bus at an ungodly early hour, which is nearly as mentally and physically detrimental as the night bus and C) not save me money on a night of accommodations.

So there you have it, the slightly lesser of two agonizing evils. No problem though, I was going to treat myself to the wonders of a VIP bus. VIP buses are purportedly pure joy. Large comfortable seats that recline way down, free food and beverages, an onboard bathroom that doesn’t make you wish you were covered in latex and cute hostesses that attend to your every need. Lonely Planet said that the price of a VIP bus to Nong Khai was going to run 545 baht (US$13.60), so I was a little concerned when I bought the ticket and the total came to 275 baht. I happened to have the translating services of one of my Ye Olde Belle buddies at the time (for some reason, Bangkok’s bus station, a place you would think would be overrun with Pinkie backpackers, doesn’t have a single word written in English other than “Toilet” and virtually no staff that speak it either) and she assured me that I had a VIP ticket. I couldn’t get over the price discrepancy though. Even if I was being spared the usual “tourist price” soaking and getting a Thai price through the fortuity of having a Thai person buy the ticket for me, it was still an awfully large difference. After being reassured yet again, I let the matter drop.

When it came time to board the bus, it was of course a disaster. It was a rattle-trap, busted up clunker. Unfortunately by the time I got a good look at the bus, it was 10 minutes before departure and racing back up into the bus station, finding the right booth and trying to correct the issue without my trusty translator – though she was half the duo who screwed this up for me in the first place – seemed hopeless. The bus had functioning air con and the seats didn’t look too bad upon examination, so I just sucked it up and settled in. The bus assistant guy, who was assigning seats and acting as gofer for the driver, took a huge liking to me after this, probably due in large part to the fact that he’d plainly consumed massive amounts of alcohol before coming into work. You could smell the booze wafting off him the instant he entered the bus. He kept on returning to my seat when he had down time and trying to chat and give me friendly hugs. The Thai woman behind me commented “I think he really likes you.” Thanks Dr. Obvious.

As soon as the bus started moving, new and unpleasant issues made themselves known. First, my seat would not lock in the upright position. Even if I put minimal pressure on the seat back, each time the driver stomped on the gas, I would go flying back into a horizontal position. I only lasted through about 30 minutes of laptop work while trying to cope with this before I gave up. Then the driver punched up the air con to rocket booster strength at which point I discovered that the vent above my head was just an open hole, there was no vent to adjust the flow of air, or better yet close it off all together. The frigid air was raging over my face like I was in a freefall. If I opened my mouth, I could make my cheeks inflate a little. I finally figured out that I could get some relief from the air con if I wrapped the window curtain around my head. This was actually very effective, but in the dark I couldn’t discern that the curtain was covered in soot for some reason and it wasn’t until the sun came up and I ran my hands over my face that I found that I was coated in filth. Oh right, and in my typical night bus experience, I only managed fitful unfulfilling micro-naps that approximately totaled a cumulative 40 minutes of sleep.

This is how I was dropped off in Nong Khai and it was no wonder that I wasn’t impressed. I arrived at my hostel, Mut Mee Guest House long before reception opened and once that event finally happened I was understandably crestfallen to learn that while they had a single room available for me, it didn’t have air con and it wouldn’t be ready until 11:00AM. I looked at my watch, it was only 8:30. Not only would I have to stay upright for several hours, but even at that hour, it was clear that the daytime heat in Nong Khai was just as intolerable as it was in Bangkok.

Well, now that I’ve bitched for several paragraphs, I have to report that everything turned out all right in the end. I crashed out on one of Mut Mee’s outdoor lounge chairs for a while before the sun hit me and I woke up soaked in sweat. Then I managed to put in a couple hours of work to fill the rest of the time, and although the heat was indeed a horror during that day, it actually wasn’t that bad at night. In Nong Khai, I learned that my spirit really tanks when I know that there is no escape from the heat. In Bangkok, it was unquestionably awful, even at 2:00AM, but I always had my comfy, air conditioned room to retreat to. More importantly, not having that sanctuary to duck into when it came time to put down some literary brilliance on my latest over night bus horror really wilted my delicate creative process. I was still frantically trying to put the Myanmar material into a state that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to show people and the heat hit my already tenuous attention span right in the veritable kidneys.

Aside from the ubiquitous heat, Mut Mee was actually a very peaceful, well-executed guest house. The garden was huge and perfectly landscaped with Thai and Laos influences and respect to the natural surroundings, there was a restaurant onsite that served fantastically good food at reasonable prices and the rooms rates were a quarter of what I was paying in Bangkok, though given the chance I would have paid Bangkok prices for some sweet air con.

I never left the Mut Mee grounds on the first day except to hustle 50 meters up the road to the Internet café to fire off a half dozen emails pleading for free flights and five star accommodations for Hong Kong and Sapporo from various organizations. I was so battered from the bus that I even managed a nap at the height of the afternoon heat (hint; when it’s not your bed, it’s quite easy on the conscious to leap straight into it buck naked after stepping out of a cold shower without so much as touching a toe to a towel. Damp body, fan blasting on me, I was borderline comfortable!). The following day I figured I had better see some of the city as I was committed to crossing into Laos the next morning. But of course nothing that frivolous pleasurable could happen until I felt I had done enough work on the Myanmar stuff. By the time I reached this point, it was going on 3:00PM, the most intensely hot part of the day during the hottest part of the year where if a thermometer doesn’t read at least 100°F, it’s been tampered with. Obviously this is the least optimum time to be pedaling a rented, dilapidated bicycle out onto the street in a strange city with some exploring on the mind, but there I was.

I decided that with my limited time I had better head for the biggest attraction Nong Khai had to offer and work my way backwards. So it was off to Sala Kaew Ku, five kilometers southeast of central Nong Khai. There’s a modest wat here, but the real attraction is the Hindu-Buddhist sculpture garden designed by Lao Brahmanic, Luang Phu Boon Lua. Luang Phu Boon Lua was a bit of a Hindu outcast who used sculpture as the medium to illustrate his quirky take on spirituality. While much of it was fairly benign interpretations of Buddha poses and Hindu concepts, some of it was certainly enough to make one dwell on the concept of alternative theology, i.e. what crack in the spiritual universe this guy had crawled out of. There were a lot of snakes, rabid dogs and common images that had been deformed into half snake beasts with melting fingers that, to the untrained eye, looked to be the undeniable product of a prolonged acid test. The disquieting feeling by the more challenging sculptures was understandably magnified by them being up to 80 feet tall.

This is actually Luang Phu Boon Lua’s second unworldly theme park. The first is just across the Mekong River outside of Vientiane and if it weren’t for the Commies finally clamoring their way into power, causing Luang Phu Boon Lua to flee the country, Nong Khai would be without it’s main physical tourist draw.

Of course there are many less striking but pleasing characteristics about Nong Khai and as I slowly made my way back to Mut Mee, I stopped to gawk at many of them. Firstly there’s the Mekong River which isn’t going to win any beauty pageants, but it’s certainly something to behold, especially at sunset which is why you have your choice of several river cruises at this time. Sadly, the operators of these cruises have virtually all gone a little overboard with the cruise amenities, the one that leaps to mind is the music. Sure some quiet soothing music might be nice as you drift down the river and observe the simple goings-on on both the Thai and Laos sides, people fishing, ride their bikes home from the market, little boys swimming and splashing around in the filthy water. Yes, appropriately serene music would be perfect in fact, but on the flip side, substandard, Thai pop, played at volumes that make dogs want to bury their heads in the sand is patently out of place. Without exception, this is the favored soundtrack for the Mekong tour boats and so those of us sitting in Mut Mee’s garden restaurant each night were assaulted by this affront to tranquility and good taste at regular intervals, which was so acoustically sharp even from a distance of 100 meters that it seemed as if we were standing in the middle of an appropriately tacky Thai night club. Meanwhile, it was clear that the unsuspecting people on the boat were experiencing acute discomfort, some of them unconsciously massaging their necks to ease the distress on their brain stems.


Nong Khai seems to be something of a tiny Buddhist nucleus in northern Thailand and thus it has a plentiful scattering of small, but enjoyable wats. The first two streets running parallel to the river seem to have a wat on every block. Each of them has a small but brightly decorated temple, a three story gong and bell tower and a dozen or so outbuildings that serve as living quarters. Though I already had seen a dozen bigger and more majestic wats, I randomly stopped at several of these unassuming places just for photographic evidence and trade effective head shaving tips with the monks.

That was about all I had time for. My wobbly rented bike was due back and I still had untold hours of work to do. I spent the evening out in Mut Mee’s garden eating, drinking and politely explaining why I was seemingly at the helm of my laptop day and night to curious bystanders who had been observing my activities for the previous 24 hours.

The next morning, I intended to eat and grab the first reasonably priced tuk-tuk driver to take me to the Friendship Bridge, the border crossing into Laos, but I got into such a red hot writing jam session during breakfast that I lingered at Mut Mee all the way through lunch before I forced myself to pack up and leave. Two Dutch girls were leaving at the same time and after three tries we found a tuk-tuk driver who was willing to give us a ride without grifting us for a weeks of Thai wages.

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