Nong Khai: What’s another night?

Posted: June 9, 2010 in Mountain bike touring NE Thailand 2007
Tags: , , , , , ,

Pop : 60,000

new entrance to NK

My slow start in Laos was literally brought over to Thailand as I played tourist and rode about 40 kms sightseeing around the nicest of border towns. And yes there was good Vietnamese food here too. The touristy Indochina Market which was a covered alleyway of small shops reminded me of the markets at Mai Sai, another Thai Myanmar border town in the Thai north.

As luck would have it, I also got the last available room at the new Khing Khong guesthouse, minutes beforre a pick up pulled in, it’s American driver and Thai family wanting a room. The owner profusely apologised saying that the guy on a bicycle took it a minute ago.

The town proper is just 3 parallel streets running about 3 kms by the river. Ride more than 3 kms and you’re out in the boondocks again, dirt trails by fishing and shrimp ponds, vegetable plots and even a ‘silk producing station’ some 15 kms away. Nong Khai’s railway station just out of town is also the northernmost stop for the Thai railways’ sleeper starting from Bangkok.

Like Udon Thani 55 kms south, these places have little pockets of retirement central. Udon was a major US air force base during the Vietnam war and still sees joint military training with the Thais and US army in the surrounding countryside of Issan. No shortage of passable western food which was a nice change from Thai. Convenient visa renewal runs into Laos and back in a matter of hours. No shortage of noisy pubs, bars and sleaze which had the same ol guys in the same seats from morning till night.

In defence of the large Chinese population in both towns, there’s no shortage of gold shops too. Look out for huge red shop fronts, with gold jewellery and sales people behind steel and glass cages.

I was also lucky to meet Michael Yamashita, a Nat Geo photographer who was in the area, scouting for location shots on the Mekong and a new TV documentary ‘9 Days In the Kingdom’ No pictures though, what with copyright and internet abuse issues.

Buddha Park in Nong Khai

Sang Khom to Chiang Khan was  along but leisurely 120 kms along the scenic Mekong River.

All the eating and slouching in Vientiane paid off today. The ride was just small undulating hills, a nice change from the dead flat road out of Nong Khai. As with all small undulations it was easy to ride and crest the top of a hill and coast down the other side with enough momentum to clear three quarters of the next ‘bump’ easily, my rhythm broken only because of photo stops. On some straights I could even see the tops of 3 or 4 hills.

I was about to call it quits after 70 effortless kms, due in part to a front wheel washout, skid and crash on some errant gravel. Nothing major except for a scraped right knee.

Pulling into Pak Chom a small crossroads town, all towns seem to be small here, I peeked into a couple of flea bag places to stay and decided, what’s another 50 kms of rolling country roads to Chiang Khan? Smooth, scenic, traffic free roads in the low evening light with the river on one side and green hills on the other. Oops, that was how I crashed earlier, distracted by the scenery and too powerful a front brake.

The decider was when I bought a drink and interuppted a young girl’s daytime soap opera on TV. No wonder the fridge had a padlock, just in case thieving hands conspire to interuppt her viewing again. Finding the key to the padlock, that’s another episode…..and zero internet in Pak Chom, that sealed it. I’m riding into the sunset with coagulating blood.

Giant clay jars store rain water in the dry season

Bouy’s guest house is somewhat of an institution in these parts. A small sign leads to some neighbour’s property before reaching it. Looking for it after sundown on an unlit street is near impossible. That’s was why I found it in the morning. The owners live in a huge rambling bungalow while the huts for hire lie on a land spit on the river, accessible by a small wooden bridge over some vegetable plots. Views across to Laos are dreamlike and people do stay for days on end.

“I keep it simple” said the owner, a small northern Thai lady. The only maintenance for years has been cleaning and sweeping.

“No need to make it fancy, as the tourists like it simple and clean. See the old broken wood and thatched roof. They like that. Where you stay?”

Oops, down the road, er the new place.

“You pay 700 baht?!. They crazy, just thinking of money and money. No care for tourists!”

I detected a slight tinge of jealousy. The owners of all the new flashy homes in town were Hmong migrants with US passports. To rub salt into the wound, some are from across the river in Laos. Big Californian ranch style homes with cottages and half opened restaurants attached to make some money.

But your business plan is better, I told her. Cheap rooms at Thb 200, and a food and drinks bill per couple for 2 nights at Thb 800! She let out a hearty laugh before handing me a few name cards and said, “Tell your friends to stay here!” She went back to cleaning a hut. “This is booked for 3 night” I couldnt downgrade, even if I wanted to.

Not wanting to spend a whole 1.5 grand of baht (a whole $40) on an out of town resort, I headed for Sam’s guesthouse. A savings of $25 got me the best room in the house with a balcony facing the river and an all night disco booming across the border. Seeing minimal light on the horizon, it could just be someone with a thing for Lao rap music. Happens in these parts, the louder your hi fi, the higher your standing….in the village.

I left my bike on the ground floor next to the lady owner’s mountain bike. “Oh, I like cycling too, but just for going to the market” That was good to know as I needed my khao thom or rice porridge fix for breakfast tomorrow. And her mascara was on the heavy side too.

Mekong sunrise at Sang Khom

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