December 16 - 18
16.12.2012 - 18.12.2012 24 °C
If you follow our blog you might remember that I mentioned a rather strange encounter we had in Nongkai. Actually, it took place while having dinner at the Thai-Chinese restaurant where we had dinner after we arrived in Nongkai. While we were eating we noticed a slightly weird looking guy sitting at the table behind us. He was very tall, lanky, very, very pale and when he walked it looked like as if he’d just swallowed a broom – he didn’t seem to move any body parts above his waist when walking. He was chugging down large Leo beers and he had already several of those sitting on the little side table next to him (something Thai restaurants do, probably in order not to loose count of the bottles of alcohol people consume) when he made contact with us.
We found out that his name was Jack and that he was from Ireland. We didn’t want to be rude and invited him over to our table, an offer that he didn’t resist in the least and in no time he was sitting on our table and started chatting. We actually thought this could be an interesting conversation but we were clearly wrong. Jack was just a very strange cat and besides the fact that he was planning to “settle” in Nongkai we didn’t really find out any more about him or his thoughts. His favorite phrase was, “if you know what I mean” at the end of long-winded, circular sermons which made no sense whatsoever. Whenever we asked a question like, “What are you planning to do here in Nongkai” or “what did you do back in Ireland” he used to respond with, “Well, that’s a long story” before rambling along, getting off into unrelated topics and ending his explanations with things that had nothing to do with the original question.
While we were sitting there it got increasingly chilly (chilly meaning slightly above 20 degrees celcius) and Anna was starting to get cold, so she decided to get a jacket back at the hotel. However, while she was at the room she decided she had enough of Jack and was getting tired of listening to him, so she just stayed at the hotel and fell asleep – smart of her. Unfortunately, this left me completely at Jack’s mercy but after realizing that he just needed someone to talk at and drink with I accepted my fate. Almost two hours, a dozen of Leo beers and a happy waitress later we finally parted ways and stumbled in opposite directions. And to this day I have no clue whatsoever what Jack was trying to tell me between, “Hi, I’m Jack from Ireland” and “Good night; it was great talking with you”. Sometimes you just meet the strangest people when travelling and although Jack was not a ‘bad’ guy, we were not keen on repeating the experience we had with him.
However, this was already put to the test the next day when we were having a coffee in a small street café in Nongkai. When we were sipping our coffees we realized that Jack was sitting in the back of the café. We thought what are the odds but we could not muster the courage to even acknowledge or say hi to him. I know it sounds mean but we were too afraid of another episode of him talking at us while we were wondering what the heck he’s trying to say. So, after we finished our coffee we just paid up and left, trying hard not even to look back in order to eliminate any chance of Jack latching on to us again.
Other than that, Nongkai is a fairly sleepy and quiet town right at the border to Laos and separated by the mighty Mekong river. We used the day to wander around, taking long strolls along the river, stopping at a couple o f the small temples along the way and taking an afternoon break in one of the nicer guesthouses right at the river. It’s called Mut Mee Guesthouse and it has a nice outside restaurant under old, beautiful trees and some of the rooms they rent out are individually decorated in very interesting designs. They also have a restaurant on a boat that is docked in the river just a few steps down from the hotel.
(The mighty Mekong river in Nongkai)
There were only a few other tourists but there seems to be a small “expat” community in Nongkai, mainly consisting of a few chaps who start drinking beer at noon in a small Scandinavian owned watering hole and retirees from different countries. We also met a number of German retirees who seem to meet every morning in a little German bakery. We actually went there one morning and had a pretty decent and authentic German breakfast, including dark bread and rolls, prosciutto, eggs and cheese. Thais don’t really eat too much for breakfast and breakfast options are very limited so this was a nice change. Many of the retirees seem to like Nongkai since it is quiet, very cheap and has a good climate. With US$ 500 per month you can actually have a pretty decent life in this part of Thailand, including rent for a small place.
(The typical tuk tuks in this region)(Street vendor in Nongkai)
We were actually a bit surprised that Nongkai was so quiet, we saw very few tourists. Tourism seems to have gone down this season and although Nongkai was never much of a tourist destination it attracted foreigners who wanted to extend their Thai tourist visa. The typical Thai tourist visa allows you to stay within Thailand for 30 days continuously. Before the 30 are over you need to leave the country and re-enter to be allowed another 30 days in the country. Naturally, many foreigners like to stay for extended periods in Thailand or even retire there and this requires that you leave the country on a regular basis. Nongkai used to be one of the few border crossings that made it fairly easy to leave Thailand into Laos and come back after a day or few hours. And that’s the main reason why people came to Nongkai. Nowadays there are more options for “visa runs” along the border, which seems to have an impact on the number of foreigners who pass through Nongkai.
One of the reasons why we came to Nongkai was to check out boat cruises on the Mekong river. Unfortunately though, there are no cruises that start in Nongkai. Most of them start in the North of Thailand, e.g. Chiang Rai or Mae Sot or in Vientiane, the capital of Laos which is only 24 km from Nongkai. There are also cruises that start in Vietnam and end in Vientiane and they will take anything between 14 and 21 days. At some point we probably will do that since Mekong cruises seem to be fascinating. But unfortunately this time we were out of luck and didn’t want to drive to Vientiane which you can conveniently do taking the “Friendship” bridge in Nongkai, a project that was funded by the Australian government as a development aid to Laos and it opened in 1994. We had been in Laos before, in Luang Prabang, which we liked tremendously but we didn’t hear many positive things about Vientiane so we didn’t make the effort to find out ourselves and pay the relatively high fee to enter the country.
So, after a couple of days in Nongkai we decided to head towards the Central Plains and visit the former Thai capitals of Sukothai and Ayutthaya which we had never visited before. But before we got on the highway heading West we stopped at Sala Kaew Ku (Wat Khaek), which has to be one of the most bizarre open air museums around. Some of the giant sculptures that are on display look as if their designers were on crystal meth when they conceived them, some of them are esthetically pleasing but many are just outright scary and sick looking. But we enjoyed this display of ‘bizarrness’ nevertheless since you won’t be able to see anything like it anywhere else.
(Statues at Sala Kaew Ku park)
In the early afternoon we finally started to head towards Sukothai, which is a beautiful drive through changing terrain for about 5-6 hours. After driving through typical Isaan villages and countryside we passed through two national parks with very mountainous terrain. Every few hundred yards there were signs warning of “elephants crossing” and while we didn’t spot any wild elephants (only lots of droppings) we enjoyed the ride tremendously. It is lush green as far as you can see and at night the rainforest seemed to take over completely, encroaching on the street we were driving on. We also saw a number of interesting looking resorts and might come back to this region, which is certainly off the beaten track for (at least foreign) tourists.
We arrived late in the evening in Sukothai and we knew from the description of the hotel we booked again on agoda.com that the place was close to the entrance of the Sukothai Historic Park. We could locate the park entrance fairly easily but drove around for another 30 minutes until we found our hotel, which was tucked away in the fields about a mile or so from the park entrance. But finally we could check into our place, which comprises of 6-8 little bungalows in a quiet setting (Baan Rim Klong Resort). So we just unloaded the car and drove to a nearby street restaurant which was also a tourist guest house. They had all our Thai favorites and we were chatting with some of the other tourists and staff until they closed at around 10 PM. People go to bed early in this region but we were tired from the long drive and went back to our hotel, again a good deal for about US$24.
(Our small bungalow in Sukothai)