29/01/03: Catch the midday bus to Vientiane and pick up passports; cross the border into Nong Kai and book into Mut Mee Guesthouse; to a bar with L and meet O.
30/01/03: Breakfast and then explore town with L; buy T-shirt from market for 70 Baht; drink at Mut Mee with usual crowd, plus ‘Poppy’ and some Dutch girl; on to a bar.
31/01/03: Ride bikes to Sala Kaew Ku with colleague and Welsh L & K and marvel at the genius of Luang Pu Bunleva Suirat; tea at Mut Mee, and then catch the overnight train back to Bangkok…
Nong Kai: town of the wild frontier and a marked contrast from the salubrious surroundings across the border. Actually it’s rather sedate, but relative to Vientiane, staring back at me from the opposing banks of the Mekong, it’s a riot. Maybe it’s just the stories I hear, but there’s a palpable sense of violence in the air, a feeling that the simplest faux pas will not be forgiven easily. Or maybe it’s just the cold showers, or the belligerent mosquitoes. Even the Beer Chang seems uptight and I desperately crave another beer Lao before we head back south.
But do not weep, Nong Kai, for you possess a strange jewel that I imagine I’ll struggle to find the kind of ever again. Sala Kaew Ku is a bizarre collection of concrete follies on such a massive scale that one cannot help but be impressed. Hindu deities collude with every different form of Buddha you can think of. There are serpents, giant frogs, skeletons and strange symbols, and I know not what they mean. And in the centre a mausoleum with graphic depictions of the demise of Luang Pu Bunleua Surirat, the late crazed genius responsible for this place. You can make out his body beneath a glass dome; it’s been there since he died in 1996.
A part of me thought we should have targeted an earlier bus, despite my hangover. The journey to Vientiane itself was not a problem – the local transport had already proved itself to be fairly reliable – but we had to collect our passports and then make a dash for the last permitted border crossing of the day. It wouldn’t be a complete disaster if we missed this because I knew my way around Vientiane and where to find accommodation, but we’d made arrangements to stay at the same place as L, Welsh L & K, a guesthouse they all had experience of and rated very highly. On top of all that, I hoped we might be able to make a final visit to the Scandinavian Bakery.
But time was not my primary concern. I had never felt entirely comfortable about surrendering our passports for transportation back to Vientiane ahead of us. It wasn’t so much the threat of perfidy that concerned me, so much the possibility of human or administrative error. On reflection, I reasoned that, the physical distances involved aside, the process was no different to that which I’d submitted myself to in Bangkok. Besides, the little time we’d left ourselves to attend to the situation gave us few alternatives.
When we turned up at what appeared to be a derelict passport office it looked as if my worst fears might actually be realised. The doors were open but there was nobody home and little sign of any recent activity. Perhaps we had the wrong building? We double checked the address and the surrounding street signage. No, this was definitely the right building. 20 minutes worth of panic later, a member of staff walked in off the street to inform us that the passport office had been closed for lunch – no matter about the doors being left unlocked.
Our passports secured, we managed to meet up with L, who we hadn’t wanted to bore with this whole procedure, had lunch at the Scandinavian Bakery and then hailed a taxi for the border, which seemed a lot farther outside of town than I remembered.
First impressions of Mut Mee Guesthouse are good. It overlooks the Mekong, faces Vientiane, the rooms have a certain charm, and the riverside garden is a delight. Why, then, do I not feel quite right in myself? Beer in hand, I stare across the Mekong and yearn to back in Laos. I could have been too, because at the point of departure my companion and I still had two days left on our extended visas. Laos… what a revelation it had been. Looking back, I can barely recall feeling anxious or nervous, or at least not without good reason.
Before we parted company in Luang Prabang, the congenial M (Mk.2) had said something that struck a chord: that on any given travel it took him at least a month to get into his groove. Until such time had passed he’d find the whole thing quite stressful, but something one had to get through as a matter of course. It had taken at least that long for me, and, without even realising it, I’d finally found my groove in Laos. But I wasn’t in Laos anymore (which I didn’t feel was haunted, despite the many, many bombs the USA dumped there during the course of the Vietnam War) and I could feel the attendant stress I now associated with Thailand slowly edging its way back into my psyche.
When L asks anyone if they would like to accompany her to meet some friends for a drink in town, I jump at the chance. Cheap beer: it’s this nation’s saving grace. I exaggerate, but my companion is tired, and Welsh L & K fancy a break too, inspired by the experience imparted to them by their yoga teacher during the week they stayed here prior to leaving for Laos.
The bar in question also overlooks the river, so the quickest way there is to follow the waterfront; only a gloomy, empty market stands in our way. A maze of corrugated iron, it isn’t the route I would have taken, but I assume L knows what she’s doing. All is well until we come across a serious looking dog guarding its territory. Formed like a ripped Doberman Pincher, it just sits there waiting for us to make our move. L reckons the best approach is to simply walk straight passed it. Is she out of her mind? I feebly suggest that we retrace our steps and go back around the houses, but L assures me that this would add an extra 15 minutes to our journey. My pride ensures I acquiesce.
To my relief the dog allows us to pass unhindered. I cannot say whether or not it does so with much grace, because I avoid eye contact in an effort to appear as nonchalant and unthreatening as possible.
The bar, when we arrive there, displays little in the way of visual imagination, but it is pleasant enough. We are there to meet an English girl and a Dutch girl who L met whilst teaching in Nong Kai, some of her former Thai students, and O, and American chap who somehow knows this lot (he may have taught too, I don’t recall). I feel like I’m intruding on a reunion of sorts, but I like the students, who I suspect come from fairly comfortable backgrounds, and I like O, who seems quite keen on having a bit of a drink. I don’t get particularly drunk but the walk home back through the empty market isn’t half as disconcerting as the one there.
We decide to spend a day in Nong Kai before catching a night train the following evening, effectively allowing us two days to explore the place. On the Thursday my colleague and I amble into town. I’m after a pair of shades to replace the ones I damaged at that bus station in Prachuap Khiri Khan, which have since completely fallen apart. I don’t find any to suit, but I do acquire a white T-shirt – adorned with an image from the Ramayana – for the knock-down price of 40 baht at the local outdoor market (not the one with the scary dog). It’s just as well because my yellow Wrangler T-shirt doesn’t look long for this world.
It’s pretty hot (I can’t remember the last time it rained) and by day Nong Kai isn’t actually too bad a place to hang out. Mut Mee’s grounds in particular are proving the perfect environment in which to relax. Come the evening and everybody seems to be hanging out there: there’s myself, my colleague, Welsh L & K, L, O and those girls we met last night in that average bar. On top of that, people seem to be in the mood for drinking. I still feel like I’m intruding on this group a little, but some of the anecdotes we’re treated to are top rate.
It turns out that one of their number is presently recuperating in a nearby hospital after receiving a severe beating from the local “mafia”. She (she!) became involved with some local lad, but that wasn’t the issue. In a bar where the foreign teachers from the nearby English school readily mix with the locals, this English girl intervened when some Thai guy started intimidating a girl who may or may not have been one of her – the English girl’s - students. In Thai society one is expected to turn a blind eye to this sort of thing, but some of the foreign teachers couldn’t help but get involved. This caused a scene that obliged a local lad, who’d been seeing the English girl, to step in, which in turn caused a bigger scene. Ostensibly the matter was resolved, but hell hath no fury like a Thai humiliated. Some days later, the English girl and her local boyfriend were intercepted whilst out driving their scooter. She was beaten up. So was the young lad, but he also had an eye gouged out for good measure, his vile jelly serving as example to us all: don’t interfere in customs that are not yours to interfere in.
This was all second-hand news, you understand, and I can’t verify any of it. But apparently there is some sort of local Lao/Thai organised crime thing going on, and you really wouldn’t want to get involved with that. One would be wise not to mess with the Southeast Asians whoever they are, for beneath their serenity lies a ruthless capacity for violence.
Taking a slightly different tack, L has an anecdote concerning the in-house masseur, who, incidentally, bears an uncanny resemblance to a younger John Malkovich. Using the pretence of massage, she asserts he persuaded her to take off all her clothes before proceeding to manipulate her in a weird way. She’s at pains to point out that this wasn’t as indecent as it sounds, but it left her feeling rather violated. Again, I cannot verify any of this. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the spectre of John Malkovich’s face hanging about the scene, I’d have filed this tale alongside the one about M (Mk.2) being a bit “creepy”.
It’s Friday and Welsh L & K are taking me and my companion to the local Buddha Park. The Buddha Park, or Sala Kaew Ku as it is known locally, was the brainchild of an eccentric cove named Luang Pu Bunleua Surirat. The story goes that sometime during the 1970s Luang Pu was wandering the countryside when he suddenly stumbled into a deep ditch, only to find a preying monk at the bottom of it. For some reason or other, this monk persuaded Laung Pu that it was his destiny to create statues of Hindu and Buddhist deities. Completely untrained in the mixing of concrete, let alone the infra-structuring of these giant sentinels, Luang Pu proved himself to be very adept (I do not know whether or not the monk had been material specific) and built a whole park of these things, first in Laos and then, to escape the communist regime, in Nong Kai across the border.
And they really are a joy, if a little bit bonkers. The craftsmanship is quite astonishing considering the self-taught circumstances. Although Luang Pu died in 1996, his minions continue building to this day, which allows a glimpse of the process involved. They start off with a crude construction of bricks built up into the rough size and shape of whatever form they’re assembling – it might be a 40ft seven-headed serpent, a Buddha the size of a two storey house, a squat toad or something equally as random. Then, twisted metal is used to form the more intricate parts. On top of this framework the concrete is sculpted, and voila!
There’s quite an exodus headed for the capital. As well as Welsh L & K and our American friend, L, we also have O and one of the faceless extras from Mut Mee. This turns out to be of real benefit because there’s been a mix-up with the train tickets and we don’t have the beds we thought we’d booked. Instead we’ve reclining leather chairs. There are far more rudimentary versions somewhere on this train, so it could be worse. Only L seems particularly bothered, citing a hitherto unspoken about back condition as the cause of her consternation. She hobbles off in search of an empty bed while the rest of us play cards and drink beer well into the night, O now proving a most welcome addition to the team.
I think I’m probably the last to fall asleep, the soporific nature of booze finally getting the better of me just around midnight.