Nok Nok – who’s there? Nok Air of course, although the stewardess on board our flight to Udon Thani disconcertingly pronounced it – ‘No care’! Still, we whiled away the hour’s flight by talking to a Scottish couple who were travelling to her brother’s wedding and looking in the delightfully titled ‘Nok Shop’ to see if there was anything worth buying. (There wasn’t).
At Udon Thani we were met by Buacel, assistant head man of the village where we were going to be staying and also driver for our host/owner of the house we had booked. It was a quiet drive as Baucel speaks little or no English and our Thai is likewise somewhat lacking. An hour after starting out we reached the Mekong River and the Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos. We went under the bridge on the true right hand side of the river to a small ban (village) about 8 klms from the city of Nong Khai.
Our home for the next 8 days was to be a wonderful teak house right on the banks of the Mekong and we sat inside it chatting to our new host, Richard, as the sun quietly slipped down over Laos on the other bank. Richard is quite a presence. An American, he has lived in Thailand for 51 years with only short sojourns away. He speaks fluent Thai and is utterly charming, fascinating and a delight to talk with. With the aid of his ‘helpers’, Baucel and his wife and the lovely Bo, he has organised all sorts of trips for us and is always on hand to help us with the many queries we have.
Our teak house was wonderfully spacious and set amidst a garden which includes a large number of lime trees from which we can pick the fruit at will. We have become dab hands at making lime sodas. Our aim in coming here was to relax and spend Christmas away from the hype and hustle and we’ve certainly been able to do that.
Our village is called Ban Mueang Mi Yai (Village of the Big Bear). The next village downstream is called Ban Mueang Mi Noi (Village of the Little Bear). According to Richard the tale is that a black bear floated down the Mekong from her home in the Himalaya (how she got to the Mekong isn’t explained) but she got stuck in a whirlpool and lost her life and where her body came ashore became Mueang Mi Yai (Yai means big). Her two cubs floated on downstream and they came ashore at Mueang Mi Noi. (Noi means little). So there you have it : you now know 4 words in Thai – Ban (village), Mueang (bear), Yai (big) and noi (small). You are now almost as fluent in Thai as we are!
Big Bear has a Wat (as does virtually every village), several dusty shops selling an odd assortment of goods, a few food places (I hesitate to call them restaurants), a large water tower which is being constructed and little else. Oh, except for a Thai Boxing ring which was a complete surprise. Even more surprising is that Richard used to run a Thai Boxing training camp here, hence the ring. Unfortunately, he had to close that business down which is a shame as it would have been great to see some boxing.
The houses in our village often have a well tended veg patch attached to them and along the banks of the river there are extensive areas set aside for growing crops. The Mekong carries a rich alluvial soil and deposits it on the banks with every flood so the soil is rich in nutrients.
Perhaps the major ‘industry’ in this very rural area is fish farming and all along the river bank, stretching for many kilometres, are tanks holding a species of freshwater fish which I haven’t been able to identify. Because the level of the river in ‘summer’ is very much below the bank level the farmers have devised a pulley system for delivering fish food down and for bringing up live fish. We were lucky to see this in action right outside our house one Sunday morning.
In order to haul up the heavy baskets of fish the pulley rope is attached to a motorbike which moves off along the promenade until the basket reaches the top. Each batch of fish, all flapping wildly, is then weighed before being tipped into large water filled containers on a pickup truck. Bottled gas supplies the fish with oxygen. It’s a slick operation and took very little time to load up the truck. I assume all these fish are destined for restaurants and the like.
Mueang Mi Yai is not exactly a big village nor does it have anything in the way of the usual tourists facilities, other than Richards’s AirBnB house. We really were the only tourists around. And, being honest, at first I thought what the heck are we going to find to do for 8 days. And yet we became immersed in village life. We wandered along either on foot or on electric trikes lent to us by Richard, spotting birds, going into the Wat, buying the odd beer, and just looking at daily life. We can’t communicate much with the locals but that doesn’t matter. A polite Sawadee Kha/Khap (depends whether Jane says it or I do) is all you need. And everyone responds to you almost without exception and with a big smile. It is true that Thailand is the Land of Smiles and it definitely amused the locals to see us on our trikes bowling along the countryside.
The sun started setting about 5pm and we had fabulous sunsets, seeing the sun setting over Laos on the far bank.
But the show wasn’t over. Another half hour or so would see the sky turn a gorgeous colour.
It was too far to go into Nong Khai in the evenings so we contented ourselves with dining in the local ‘restaurants’. One was a 20 minute walk away along the banks of the Mekong which made for a great evening stroll. But our favourite place was Honey’s, just a few minutes away. It wasn’t much to look at and the ambiance wasn’t exactly high class but the food was superb. Perfectly balanced spices with sweet and sour. And someone had translated the menu into English so we knew what we were ordering for a change! Two or three dishes with a soft drink usually came to about 100 Baht – about £2.50. Fantastic value and thoroughly authentic.
We loved Mueang Mi Yai but we did want to explore what was around Nong Khai as well. In town there is a Sculpture Park. The park was built by Luang Sililat and his followers and feature giant sculptures made out of concrete inspired by the teachings and stories of Buddhism and Hinduism. Some of the sculptures reach 25 mtrs high and it is quite an arresting sight.
Nong Khai itself doesn’t have too much to hold the interest. There is an esplanade along the river and a large covered market which was nice to wander in and it is the crossing point for people wishing to get into Laos via the Friendship Bridge.
More interesting perhaps was a trip to visit several distant Wats. Wat Pha Tak Suea is high up above the Mekong river and has a glass skywalk which gives fabulous views. It is one of the big draws of this region and so attracts the crowds but it is well worth the visit.
It does seem to be a rather ultra modern thing to build in a religious temple but even visiting monks can’t help but take pictures.
In contrast Wat Hin Mak Peng is right on the banks of the river. Unfortunately, when we visited the main shrine hall was getting a lick of paint so we couldn’t actually go in it. Still, it was nice to walk around the grounds and there were some nice animal sculptures which were at least life sized this time and not overpowering you like in the sculpture park.
There was one other place we wanted to visit and it entailed getting into the car at 5.30am and driving for a couple of hours, out beyond Udon Thani, watching as first the dawn arrived and then the sun slowly climbed in the sky. We were headed for Talay Bua Daeng, the famous Red Lotus Sea (or Lake).
You can’t actually see the lotus (strictly speaking they are a type of water lily not a lotus flower) until you get on board a boat and get taken out into the middle of the lake. And then, opening out before you like a sort of film set, is a veritable sea of beautiful pink blooms. It really is quite breathtaking.
Unsurprisingly, Red Lotus Lake is a very popular tourist destination but there is plenty of room out on the water so you don’t get in each others way. It is also very popular for wedding photo shoots as this photo demonstrates.
It was wonderful to slowly motor amongst these gorgeous flowers but even better for us was the fact that it is an important habitat for birds and as soon as our boatman realised our interest he steered the boat amongst the flowers to bring us as close as possible to the birds.
Purple Swamphen on the left, Drongo on the right
We spent a magical hour and a half floating out on the lake and the fact that we had gotten up at 4.45 to get there was soon forgotten. It was Christmas Eve and we felt a sense of being at peace with the world.
For Christmas Day itself we got Bo to drive us into Nong Khai and had another wander through the Sadet Market. We were surprised to hear some carol singing in the distance. As a rule Thais do not celebrate Christmas Day being mostly Buddhist but there in the marketplace was a choir of young bible students and their conductor giving a rendition of ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’. Of course we joined in and they, and the audience of shoppers and shop keepers, were delighted. What a great start to our Christmas non-celebration!
Our Christmas lunch was spent in a very popular and busy Daeng Namnuang Vietnamese restaurant. Their menu was a slightly strange one as it featured pork cooked in a number of ways as the only meat, with cold Vietnamese noodles and rice paper wraps and an interesting selection of salads and dips. Turkey with all the trimmings it was not!
In the evening Richard very kindly invited us to his house for a simple but wonderful meal cooked by ‘Tom’ Baucel’s wife. (I don’t know how to transliterate her name but that’s what it sounds like). Richard had sent Bo out for some Australian Cabernet and we spent the evening with Richard, chatting about our travels and his very interesting life in Thailand. Once again we have discovered a new friend on our travels and had a wonderful evening in his company. As the writer Tim Cahill says ‘Journeys are not measured in miles travelled but in friends made’. How true.
Boxing day saw us jumping back on our trikes for what was to be our longest bike ride. Richard had been told that, rather than getting up at some unearthly hour and travelling for two hours in a car, there was another red lotus lake about 7 klms away. Mind you, 7 klm on a bike may not sound much but, believe me, your bum knows all about it by the end of the ride.
Luckily, the roads were not too busy and Jane had at last learned about the controls on her battery powered trike. We were coming back from a trip to the local Tesco Lotus Express one day when she said, “There’s something wrong with this bike. It keeps jumping forward even when I’m not pedalling hard.”
I was puzzled. “There, it did it again.” she said.
“Well, you must be twisting the throttle.” I replied.
“That one under your right hand.”
“Oh,” she said, “I thought that was just loose. I kept trying to tighten it up!”
So, we powered our way, following signs to the lake, paid 100 baht, and had a lovely man row us out on a canoe. No engine this time, just the quiet of the lake, surrounded by flowers and birds.
To be fair, this lake was nowhere near as extensive as the other, more famous one, and there were fewer birds, but it was also more peaceful and it was great that we could ride there from our house. We were not the only tourists but it almost qualifies as a well kept secret.
We had a great Christmas on the banks of the Mekong River, met some wonderful people and saw some unique, beautiful sights. But it was time to move on by returning to Chiang Mai in preparation for a road trip to the far north of Thailand.