This blog is not as advertised and out of sequence but I think you’ll enjoy it. It’s a long one so get a cuppa before reading.
I was going back through some photos last night and came across the ones I had taken while in Nong Khai situated in the far North East of Thailand on the banks of the mighty Mekong River, the 11th longest river in the world (4,880 km). The trouble with travelling around is that it is easy for each place to quickly fade as new interesting sights and experiences overwhelm previous memories. Seeing the photos brought it all back and I felt the urge to share this wonderful trip with you.
The trip to Nong Khai was always going to be part of my two weeks stay in Si Bun Ruang, Isaan. To be a couple hours away from the Mekong and not to see it would be something I would regret. The Mekong defines many of the borders between Thailand and its neighbours, Myanmar (Burma), Laos in the North East and West and Cambodia in the East. Also the name Mekong is so synonymous with Asia that I had to see it for myself.
Although the trip could be done in a day I didn’t want to rush things so booked an overnight stay at the Mut Mee a highly recommended (No.1 B&B) Trip Advisor guesthouse right in the centre of Nong Khai and on the banks of the Mekong itself http://www.mutmee.com/. I do recommend it if you are in the area!
From Si Bun Ruang the drive took us through Udon Thani, a halfway point at maybe one hour, and then onto Nong Khai. Good dual lane roads with a reasonable amount of traffic but nothing too demanding other than Thai driving, which keeps one alert at all times.
You can see Nong Khai marked on the map below in the top right. Si Bun Ruang is in the bottom middle. Udon Thani in the centre right.
We arrived in Nong Khai well before our book-in time at the Mut Mee so parked in a local temple at a cost of 20 TBH ($0.70), which I hope went to the temple coffers. By the way if you are looking for parking in towns or cities temples will often have car parking available for which they may charge small fee. Can be a good option rather than hunting for a space on the street and I’m sure gets you a couple Buddhist merit points too.
Many Thai towns have these ornamental gateways at the entry and exit points. Nong Khai has a serpent theme. Many of them have large photos of Thai royalty, which by the way are everywhere you go in Thailand.
Traffic lights have a countdown display to tell you how much longer you are to wait on a red or how long the green has to go. There is a general movement forward, especially by the motorcycles who push their way to the front of the line, at about minus 5 on a red stop. The race is on after that.
Nong Khai town itself is like all Thai towns I have seen. Unattractive with not a lot going for them.
Having parked we headed straight to the riverfront to see the Mekong. Not a pretty river I have to say. Very wide at this time of year. In the dry season it can be impossible to navigate as it gets too shallow. The rains bring lots of mud so it is extremely brown and the current is running very fast. Fall in and you’d get a free trip to the South China Sea in no time.
One of the main tourist attractions for foreigners and Thais are the huge undercover markets, which sell lots of things nobody really needs like all these places. Plenty of Laos people working in the stalls as it is just a jump across the river for them and probably more work in Thailand than Laos. I don’t know how working visa regulations apply for them.
The car I rented came with a GPS which was absolutely useless in finding anywhere I wanted to go, in this case the Mut Mee guesthouse. I think it would struggle to locate Thailand let alone a particular street. The best it could do was get me close to a hospital, which I knew was somewhere in the vicinity of the guesthouse. Thankfully by pure luck we came across the sign to the Mut Mee and were very relieved to book in and have a home base.
Just out of interest the Mut Mee operates an honour system for food and drinks. You get a book when you arrive and then you help yourself to drinks from the fridge and order from the restaurant and just record it all in your book. They total it up each day and you pay when you leave. I have never seen that done before. I registered in my name and introduced Gaun to one of the staff. The next morning our book had a “Good morning Tony and Gaun” written in it, which I thought was a pretty good effort.
After settling in to our room we decided to head out to visit a local landmark called Sala Keoku (various spellings on this one), which was a must do for me while in Nong Khai. Some of the following words are extracted from Wikipedia mixed with mine. Please excuse the number of photos that have me in them. I know this will be a huge treat for many but the real reason I have included them is to give you a concept of the size of these sculptures – true!
Sala Keoku is a park featuring giant fantastic concrete sculptures inspired by Buddhism and Hinduism. The park has been built by and reflects the personal vision of Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat and his followers (the construction started in 1978). It shares the style of Sulilat’s earlier creation, Buddha Park on the Lao side of Mekong, but is marked by even more extravagant fantasy and greater proportions.
Sulilat’s eccentric and captivating personality and the blend of Buddhism and Hinduism he professed proved to hold great appeal to some of the locals, and Sala Keoku became something of a religious sect headquarters. The title Luang Pu (usually reserved for monks) came to be applied to Sulilat, who was technically a secular man. Both of the parks were constructed from donated concrete by hundreds of unskilled enthusiasts working without payment. Some other residents of the area considered Sulilat to be insane.
Some of the Sala Keoku sculptures tower up to 25m in the sky. Those include a monumental depiction of Buddha meditating under the protection of a seven-headed Naga snake – see photo below.
Perhaps the most enigmatic part of the park is the Wheel of Life, a circular multi-part group of sculptures representing the karmic cycle of birth and death. The composition culminates with a young man taking a step across the fence surrounding the entire installation to become a Buddha statue on the other side.
The park covers a huge area and includes a couple of lakes well stocked with fish.
What visit to a Thai moment would be complete without popping into the temple and making a noise. This building holds the remains of Sulilat who died in 1996.
We arrived just at the right time because by the time we left the place was being overrun with tour buses and schoolkids. I had to take a photo of this bus. Yes those are speakers built into the front of it. Why? Well we are in Thailand so logic need not apply in all circumstances.
That evening we joined a boat with six other people for a sunset Mekong River cruise. The boat is owned by the Mut Mee. You can order food, which is prepared before the boat leaves and is then served on board. Drinks available.
The next day we decided to do a big drive and follow the Mekong from Nong Khai (see maps above), through Si Chiang Mai, Sang Khom, Pak Chom, Chiang Khan then leaving the river to head inland to Loei (oei only showing on map), turn right to Nong Bua Lam Phu and back to Si Bun Ruang.
An absolutely wonderful drive with the road clinging to the edge on the Mekong most of the way with lush vegetation and crops of the left. It got more remote and basic the further we travelled from Nong Khai along the river. Very Thai.
So a big couple of days with so much covered. Many people ignore Isaan because they say there’s not much to do here. If you are prepared to put in the effort there are some wonderful places to explore. I hope I have convinced you of that in this blog entry.
Thanks for reading.