26 07 2015

The rocket festival

26 07 2015

My travels in the Thai Northeast would take me close to the provinces home to the infamous Rocket Festival. I was sadly (or luckily) out of season though for the chaos. It is worth noting that in addition to this video, there is another video on youtube where you can watch someone losing an arm to the rockets…

The unexpected street art of Nong Khai

26 07 2015

Scenes from a river

26 07 2015

Made in Khon Kaen?

26 07 2015

One wonders.

There is a trailer on youtube, if you dare.

Mekong River days

26 07 2015

About three hours by train from Khon Kaen, passing through the rolling countryside of buffaloes wallowing in muddy lotus ponds, endless green rice fields and twangy luk thuung music, you hit the great Mekong. This marks the end of Isaan, the end of Thailand, and the heart of the Northern Thai-Lao culture that exists on both sides of the border and both sides of the river. The people here share the same language (essentially), the same food, the same myths and legends and the same animist and Hindu-flecked Buddhist religion.

But the Mekong also marks the beginning of other outside influences. China is upstream and Vietnam downstream, while the Muslim and Hindu descendants of the former Champa Empire, much influenced by India, live on the river banks. So too, further South, do the Khmer.

And for much of the last fifty years, the Mekong had acted as a riverine Berlin Wall, dividing Thai-Lao families with some members in stable, prosperous Thailand on one side and on the other: Communist Laos, the looming spectre of the Indochina war and later the terrifying, all-consuming chaos of Cambodia’s year Zero. The Mekong was the barrier that kept Thailand apart from all this, but also the balcony from which it watched, horrified, at what had happened to its neighbours. I had grown up at school with a girl whose family of Lao refugees had told of swimming across the river at night to the sound of gunfire. One Thai movie star, Ananda Everingham, was known for his parents’ love story – his Australian war correspondent father has SCUBA dived under the river to rescue his Lao mother and bring her back.

All this was, more or less, in the past now. The (Australian-built) Friendship bridge had opened twenty years ago to bring Thailand and Laos together in trade, and despite continual diplomatic spats and bad feeling, Cambodia and Thailand were at peace. But the weight of history could still be felt looking out over the muddy brown Mekong, Thailand on one side, something else on the far shore.

During all of my time in Khon Kaen rainclouds had been gathering, and when I arrived at the Mekong at Nong Khai, they finally burst to deliver intermittent streams of rain – much needed given Thailand’s current drought.

I didn’t mind. I was to spend dreamy, rainy days sitting by the river, watching it grow and thinking about what had happened there before.

Nong Khai

26 07 2015

Nong Khai is the biggest city (or largest town, really) on the Thai Mekong and the end of Thailand itself – riding the train from Bangkok, it is quite literally the end of the line. When night falls the city looks out at the sparse lights of Laos on the other side of the river. Its a major trading centre, where people and goods pass from one country to the other and home to Vietnamese and Lao-speaking communities as well as Thais.

My first introduction to the city was a poor one – I was dumped by a tuktuk from the train station right at the very kitschy heart of Nong Khai where the great, mysterious Mekong is framed by a sterile boardwalk full of Thai tourists and overly cute concrete windmills. I felt deflated. This isn’t what I had come for. My first meal, at the much-hyped (by my guidebook) Daeng Vietnamese restaurant was little better. The food was OK, but the staff gruff, and the place had a corporate tour group feeling.

Luckily though, after this bad first impression, Nong Khai improved. Its back streets still contained old shophouses and French-style villas (influenced from across the river) as well as some surprising street art (below). In the evening, elderly people gathered in parks to dance to traditional music, and gay teenagers did their own hip thrusting dance practice on the banks of the river. Despite the shocking (after Ratchaburi and Khon Kaen) influx of Western tourists, (the city had guesthouses and farang bars, Australian Buddhist monks and pizza restaurants) the city went on much as it always had, concerning itself with trade – some open, some illicit – and centred very much on life on the river.

My favourite place in the city though was in fact a tourist-oriented one. The Mut Mee Guesthouse had (and still has) a garden terrace where you could sit and watch the rain dripping from the palm trees, while tropical fruits thudded occasionally to the ground, and monks wandered by along the public footpath along the river. At dusk the dogs would start barking and people would ride by on motorcycles and swifts and swallows would skit across the surface of the water’s edge. The Mut Mee residents would look up from their newspapers and wander along to the floating bar moored next door. It was a great place to while away those muggy, wet Mekong afternoons.


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