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.

The 4,000 Islands

There isn’t much to do in Si Phan Don, so to speak, but there’s plenty to keep oneself entertained. A hammock hangs from the porch of every bungalow, making it a perfect place to relax with a book, take a nap, or watch the children swimming and bathing in the water below.

Si Phan Don is a sleepy cluster of islands in the Mekong delta, just above the Cambodian border. There are no roads, only dirt paths. Most people get around on bicycle or foot, and very few own motorbikes.

I rode a bike around Don Det (my choice of the only three islands offering accommodation, and I highly doubt there are actually 4,000), stopping to take pictures of the baby water buffalo, the calves, the chicks and the pigs. As a farm girl, I shouldn’t be awed by the sight of farm animals on an island, but I’m a sucker for their cuteness. They walked right up to me, not even disturbed by my presence.

The dirt path encircling the island was about four kilometers around, making Don Det the second largest of the pack. The waterfront is lined with bungalows for rent and homes for locals, while the inner island is covered with rice farms, intersected by more dirt paths. Pedaling around, taking in the beauty of such simplistic, local life was exactly what I had pictured myself doing in Southeast Asia.

On my second day, I joined a kayaking tour that was nothing short of fantastic. Another solo traveler and I shard a two-person kayak, laughing at our inexperience as we paddled out of sync, trying to catch up to the pack.

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Our first stop was one of the biggest waterfalls in the region. The water forcefully splashes over rocks and plummets through the crevaces, leaving nothing in its wake. It is beautiful, but my pictures don’t do it justice.

We paddled again to a rock island where we would watch the local Irrawaddy dolphins – an extremely rare breed resembling a whale more than a dolphin. There are said to be only ten left, and we were lucky to see about five of them. From our perch, we could also see Cambodia. The Mekong separates the two countries at this point, and we were sitting in the middle of both, enjoying chicken fried rice.

After lunch and more swimming, we were back in the kayak, headed for another waterfall that was just as impressive as the first. We were now on the mainland, so while we stared in awe at the natural wonder before us, the guides loaded our kayaks onto a large bus and prepared to drive us back to our starting point.

I was exhausted after such a full day of paddling and so I walked back to my hammock where I fell asleep early enough to catch the next mornings sunrise before going out for a run.

The day was another relaxing one, spent reading and chatting with new friends. I was going to need it before the long, chaotic adventure of traveling back to Suwannaphum, but it seems I enjoy the journey just as much as the destination.

Along the Way: New Years Eve in Pakse, Laos

The taxi driver sang to me the entire drive from Suwannaphum to Yasothon (about 30 miles). As a female farang, I was given the passenger seat, like first class in this type of travel, sitting next to the squatty, happy man who enjoyed the sound of his own voice. I didn’t mind it either. It was a nice alternative to the broken radio.

His songtao – a multi-purpose vehicle in Thailand, essentially a pickup converted into a bus with two, long bench seats in the back and a luggage (or excess passenger carrier) rack on top – was quite full, with people hanging off the back. I was lucky to have a cushioned, air-conditioned seat up front.

The cab was adorned with photographs of the young King and a few famous monks. The driver wore several religious charms around his neck and appeared to be quite a holy man, until I looked down and saw his steering column.

Around it hung a variety of wooden penises, one in every shape, size and color of wood. The dangling man parts appeared out of character for such a dedicated worshiper, so I expected him to be shy when I asked to take a picture. Instead, he proudly showed them off and explained in Thai that they mean good luck: Sabai dee be mai. Fittingly, this expression also means “Happy New Year,” which is exactly the reason I was headed to Laos.

We arrived in Yasothon just as my bus to Pakse was leaving the bus station. Mai pen rai, my driver said. He flagged down the bus driver, parked in the middle of the four-lane highway and ushered me into the V.I.P. bus that blocked an entire lane of traffic when it stopped. This was definitely going to be a good (and interesting) trip.

In Ubon Ratchathani, I changed routes again. Boarding the international bus, I had my first glimpse into what life would be like for the next four days: Lazy. I didn’t think life could get much more slugglish than the pace in which I’ve become accustomed while living in northeastern Thailand, but I’ve been proven wrong. Everything in Laos is slower and less organized.

At the border, the driver let us out and signaled us to walk across. He would meet us on the other side, after we escaped customs. Back on the road, everything seemed different. We were now driving on the right side (which felt weird after so long in Thailand), and he used the horn for everything. We slowed just enough to let the passing water buffalo cross our lane. A few miles later it was a cow, then a chicken, followed by a pig. In Thailand, these animals are usually tied to the side of busy roads, but in Laos, you might actually get a gourmet meal from road kill.

Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands) was my destination, but when I finally arrived in Pakse, I had missed the bus to go there. I was trying to avoid spending New Years Eve in one of the sleepiest towns in the country, according to Lonely Planet, but I didn’t have a choice. I checked into a hotel and headed out to find some dinner.

I walked, and walked, and walked. It was 8pm and nothing was open, but I continued walking down a long, dark stretch of road toward city lights when a local girl about my age and her family invited me to join their sidewalk party. The beer was flowing and the celebration was in full swing. I happily accepted.

Using my very basic knowledge of Thai (the languages are very similar and they usually understand both) and lots of hand signals, I managed to explain that I was a teacher, and I was hungry. Shortly after, food appeared on the mat we were sitting around, and two men, who were studying English in university, joined the party to practice with me.

When 11pm rolled around, the party was over and everybody headed for bed. It was a late night for them, explained Mr. Vic, as he wanted to be called, and more often than not they are in bed by 8pm to be ready for the next workday. It’s a nationwide law in Laos that bars must close at midnight, though many people nod off well before. Mr. Vic offered me a motorbike ride back to my hotel if I would go take a tour of the Pakse Hotel, where he works.

It was gorgeous. It is one of the tallest buildings in Pakse, boasting a spectacular rooftop bar. It’s probably one of the best in the city. We had a drink (on the house) and watched the fireworks (one every ten minutes), as I promised Mr. Vic I will stay at his hotel the next time I visit.

While there isn’t much to see in Pakse, my stopover proved as a reminder that getting to your destination is sometimes the best part of a journey, and that travel is much more about the people you meet along the way than the places you see. I had already had one of the best weekends of my life, and my vacation had yet to start.