A River Between: Chiang Khan

I spent the weekend in Chiang Khan, a lovely little town on the northern border of Isan, where the Mekong River drifts idly by. It’s a traditional Thai village, where the outside of every building is beautifully maintained to protect the old standards, and the insides are thoughtfully decorated with items from the past: old motorbikes, antique bicycles, ancient mailboxes, etc.

One of my coworkers invited me on this trip. Why not go see a traditional Thai village with a personal Thai tour guide? It will be the real deal, I thought. Of course I said yes, despite my initial impression of Teacher Ning – she’s bossy, pushy, obnoxious and always in my bubble. I brushed it off as a cultural difference, until I heard the other teachers wish me good luck.

I needed it. Turns out, Ning is a full-blown diva: overdramatic, prissy and constantly changing her mind. She insisted on having her picture taken in front of every wooden door, lone bicycle, flowerpot and sign. Imagine how long it takes to walk down a picturesque street with such a prima donna, ogling over each shot and not hesitating to ask a stranger to continue shooting until he gets it just right.

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But on the bright side, I did get a good glimpse into a Thai vacation. We went to Wat Mahathat, Chiang Khan’s oldest temple, and Ning taught me the proper way to bow to Buddha – sit on the floor in front of the statue with your knees bent to the side and wai three times. Each one should start with your hands palms together, near your chest, before raising your thumbs to your eyebrows and then bowing to the ground, placing your hands flat in front of you.

Next, we bought flowers for good luck. We held the flowers with one hand, lit three incense sticks with the other and made a wish to Buddha. After placing the incense in the designated area and donating our flowers to the pile on the statue’s lap, we bowed again.

Once our evil spirits were warded away, we caught a boat ride on the river, floating slowly between Thailand and Laos, making clear the vast difference between the two. Laos is what Thailand was forty years ago. Thailand’s modern style houses and small hotels along the bank contrasted the natural flora and fauna covering the Laos side. Much of the Thai beach areas were flanked with Thai tourists and the shanty fruit shacks that follow, yet Laos was still quiet and untouched less a local fisherman and his children.

Ning boasted about her country and how much more developed it is than Laos. I looked longingly at its untouched beauty. I can’t deny that tourism is good for the growth and betterment of a country, but it also aids in reducing cultural values.

For Ning, I noticed this in her nighttime prayer. We shared a room, and I watched in awe as she faced her pillow before bed and repeated the act I had learned at the temple.

“You’re a very good Buddhist,” I said.

“Only because I’m not at home,” she said with a laugh. “I usually just hurry through it.” Then she showed me how fast she performs the actions, raising her hands and throwing them down as if playing patty cake with the pillow.

“Do you say thanks or pray for anything when you do that?” I asked.

“No,” she said to my surprise. She simply moves through the motions because it’s expected, as if bowing alone can cement ones devotion.

We woke up early enough to catch a shuttle to the top of a mountain where we stood above the clouds and watched the sun slowly peak it’s way through them. I laughed at the irony that I paid to see fog, having grown up in Condon, Oregon where foggy weather is a staple of winter, but it was lovely from above, looking out over the Laos mountaintops, knowing the vast river weaved its way between us down below.

Ning, who woke an hour before I to compete with the beauty we were about to see, was like Thailand in this scenario, overdressed, clean (in comparison) and bustling with excitement. I felt more like Laos, undeveloped, dirty and sleepy. The vast river  between the two countries has divided their differences, just as the wide ocean separating Ning and I has cultured two very different people.