17.03.2011 - 17.04.2011
As I mentioned yesterday, my school at Sai Moon is closed for the summer holiday which includes Songkhran, the Thai new year. I am not going to bore you with an account of my daily doings but instead tell you something about the places I have visited which may entice you to visit them one day very soon. I started off in Nong Khai....
NONG KHAI is in the far northeast of Thailand and it sits of the south bank of the mighty Mae Nam Khong river, or Mekong, as we call it. It is also one of the main gateways into Laos on the north bank of the Mekong thanks to the opening of the first Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge in 2009 funded mainly by a gift from the Australian government. The Lao capital, Vientiane, is 25km from the Lao end of the bridge.
Nong Khai is a busy small city which most people pass straight through on their way to Laos or if they do stop it is only for a short visit. There is a growing ex-pat community there and a number of businesses run by or catering for them such as a Danish bakery/cafe/bar/restaurant and a German bakery. There is also a very nice Dutch restaurant serving Dutch/German and Thai food.
Among the few tourist destinations in Nong Khai is the vast mostly indoors Indochina Market which is located alongside the Mekong and sells everything from thimbles to binoculars as well as some very strange things.
Another attraction is the strange sculpture park, Sala Keoku, which embraces Hindhu and Buddhist theories in the form of Buddhas, many-armed goddesses, a seven-headed Naga snake and all sorts of human-animal hybrids.
If you ever go to Nong Khai I can recommend the Pantawee Hotel where I stayed. It is in the centre of town and close to all the facilities and has many different types of room to suit everyone. It is also unusual in that every room is equipped with a computer with unlimited internet access.
UDON THANI is one hour by bus south of Nong Khai and is the capital of Udon Thani province. Today, it is a large bustling city and the commercial capital of north east Thailand. The city airport was also home to the joint USA-Thai air force base during the Vietnam War. It was also home to Air America, the covert cargo airline owned and operated by the CIA which supported operations in south east Asia during the Vietnam War.
There is a large and growing expat community in Udon because of its location near to Laos and as a result there are numerous bars and cafes etc catering for them with many owned and operated by expats in retirement.
Located 47 km east of Udon Thani is Thailand's premier Bronze Age excavation at Ban Chiang, the world-renowned archaeological site.
I stayed at the Silver Reef hotel which is right in the centre of Udon and could not be more convenient or modestly priced. It is squeaky clean and comfortable though it does not do any food however there is a very nice small restaurant just around the corner which was just perfect.
The next stop on my itinerary was Chiang Mai and I flew there in an hour on a small 30-seat Nokair plane from Udon.
CHIANG MAI is the largest and most culturally important city in Thailand. It is located 700km north of Bangkok on the river Ping which is a tributary of the mighty Chao Phraya river which flows through the centre of the capital.
The city was founded in 1296 when it succeeded Chiang Rai as the capital of the Lanna kingdom, and was surrounded by a defensive moat, which still exists around the old capital though the modern city has expanded considerably beyond the moat.
With the decline of the Lanna kingdom, the city lost importance and was often occupied either by the Burmese or Thais from Ayutthaya and, because of the Burmese wars that culminated in the fall of Ayutthaya in April 1767, Chiang Mai was abandoned between 1776 and 1791. The smaller city of Lampang then served as the capital of what remained of Lannathai.
Chiang Mai formally became part of Siam in 1774 following an agreement with Chao Kavila, after the King Taksin of Thailand helped drive out the Burmese. Chiang Mai then slowly grew in cultural, trading and economic importance to its current status.
I have mentioned before what an interesting city Chiang Mai is with its moat and fountains, long avenues of protected teak trees and quaint sois which not act as shortcuts but also contain surprising shops, restaurants, hotels and guesthouses.
Many expats have settled in Chiang Mai for all those reasons and with its international airport you are never far away from anywhere else. As for living in Chiang Mai, part of me would like to, but another part of me would want to escape from the many farang that live there and all the western focused businesses that cater to them.
Whilst in Chiang Mai I visited Phu Langka in Phayao province, a five hour drive away. Last year while surfing the web in London I came across an amazing photograph taken in Thailand showing a view looking down into a valley shrouded in mist with limestone 'teeth' jutting out from it. I decided there and then to try and go there myself and in Chiang Mai I managed to persuade a friend to drive me there. There is a small resort where visitors can stay in thatched huts and as it was out of season we were the only guests and we could choose the hut with the best view. There is nothing else to do here except admire the amazing view which is spectacular.
We arrived just before dusk so I didn't see the full view right away. I decided to get up at 5.45 to see the sun rise over the valley and I tool numerous photos the best of which you can see in my gallery. It was well worth the long drive there and back!!
My next stop was Muang Baeng, near Wang Saphung. I got the bus at 12.20pm from the Arcade bus station in Chiang Mai ex pecting to arrive about 9.30pm but because many people were going home for Songkhran (the Thai new year) more and more people were stuffed in making it an uncomfortable experience for the last half of the long journey. The extra passengers made the bus go even slower over the mountains with the river taking even more care than usual on the downhill stretches. The result was that it was nearly midnight when we neared Wang Saphung.
A further problem was that my phone decided there was no network and no matter what I did to it I could not get it to work so I was unable to let my host family know what was happening. The person sitting next to me was asleep for most of the time and I was reluctant to wake her to ask to use her phone.
I managed to do just that when she did eventually wake up only to discover that the family had mixed up am and pm and had gone to the bus station in the morning to meet me. They called me many times but, with no network, I never got their calls.
But all was well because the family came to meet me despite the late hour and we had something to eat in Wang Saphung before heading home to Muang Baeng.
MUANG BAENG. For those new to my blog, this is the village where I taught English at a 750-student school last year. I stayed with a host family who have one daughter of 16 and two sons aged 15 and 9.
Having been in Chiang Mai for Songkhran last year, which goes crazy for 3-4 days, I thought it would be good fun, and different, to stay with a family to experience Songkhran from a different perspective. If anything, it was much more fun than in Chiang Mai.
Songkhran brings every young person, and many others, onto the street to splash water onto passersby whether they be on foot, on a motorcycle or in a vehicle. The idea is to cool down at the hottest time of the year and to wish people good luck, good health etc.
The house where I stayed is on a long gentle incline. To the right you can see uphill to the crest of the hill about half a kilometre away. To the left, you can see downhill for more than a kilometre. This is important because you can see bikes and cars coming from a distance which gives you time to get ready and in position for an effective splash.
Splashing with me were the three children of my host family plus Bon, a 14 year old boy from next door but one and, from time to time, Mr Rhe. Some people do not get splashed, including people on motorcycles with very small children/babies, old people and motorcycle food traders. The real targets are girls on motorbikes who slow down to get their splash and a smear of talcum powder on their cheeks and the pick-up cars with groups of splashers with a barrel of water in the back. You splash them, and they splash you and it is a lot of fun and, of course, you get soaked again and again during the day. If you can, you splash with iced water which is not only nicely cooling but gives recipients a shock as well.
On the second day of Songkhran, April 14th, Bon’s parents took the boys and me to Chiang Khan. It was great fun driving through Muang Baeng because many students recognised me from last year and shouted ‘Hello Al’ and then tried to splash me. And then, along the road from Wang Saphung to Chiang Khan – about 20 miles away – every house and village had numerous splash stations on the roadside to douse everything that passed by.
We had one oil drum full of water which we emptied quite quickly but, being Thailand, free resupply was readily available from hoses at the roadside with water pumped from ponds or streams or even hydrants.
The closer we got to Chiang Khan, which is located in the north of Loei province, on the banks of the Mekong where you look across the river to Laos, the road became busier and the splashing more frequent. Chiang Khan itself was like a battleground with me being the only farang in sight and a sea of Thais enjoying themselves as only Thais know how.
Even though we were so far from Muang Baeng there were as many shouts of ‘Hello Al’ from students as there were of ‘farang, farang!’ It was great fun and if you get the chance, experience Songkhran the Thai way yourself.
The last day of Songkhran was spent on the roadside outside the house in Muang Baeng and it was another day of great fun. I took some photos which you can see in my gallery.
The final stop on my holiday tour will be Pattaya where I will spend some time on the beach before heading back to Kalasin.