Rivers; not Roads
Preface: My computer has broken. If you thought I was dead you were wrong. If you thought I was finally done with this blog and a quitter like everyone else that has ever started a blog, you are also wrong. In fact, this will be such a long post that most of you will not read it. For that reason I have broken it up into two posts so that you don’t have to store up on a weeks worth of food and water to make your way through. Good luck.
After a full day of city living, a good nights rest and a much maligned time in traffic, it was time to head to our next location. At this point I left a number of my friends to travel with another ETA. Neither of us knew exactly where we were going, but my travel buddy could speak some Thai so in the end, I couldn’t be that worried about anything. But the journey to the off-the-beaten-track town of Pla Pak started a little worrisome. Pla Pak is a very small town in the Isaan region of Thailand—just about 7 hours northeast of Bangkok situated on the Mekong river and the boarder to Laos. When we arrived at the bus station the minimal amount of Thai that we knew was looking to be a little bit wanting as we had trouble finding the correct bus and once we did, we had a number of people try to tell us that we were on the wrong bus or that we did not actually want to go to Pla Pak. But we did. We boarded the bus and set out over night for the small and secluded town where we had set up a couple of days to stay with a family in their home and try to learn a little bit about food, family and daily life.
The ride took us through the night, and in the morning we had a bit of a panic-stricken awakening not knowing when exactly to get off—we were not riding the bus to the end of the line. However, with some help of other on the bus who spoke no English, but tried their hardest, we exited the bus and walked onto the side of the road immediately surrounded by buffalo and luscious green fields of knee-high rice. The air was drier than I was accustomed, but from the earth radiated such a radiantly healthy green glow thus signifying to me that this was the season of easy-living in Thailand: constant cumulonimbus clouds rolled across the sky and were ready at any moment to drop their precious cargo of rain; it was after all rainy season.
We followed a man into the back of a pick-up truck which we hoped was heading into our small town destination; we road among a number of curious occupants, some of which included students, farmers, chickens and a rather large basket of frogs. A not so long ride later we hopped off at the small town center of Pla Pak. There, immediately across the street was the woman we had been in contact with: Wi. Wi was a homestay keeper. She allowed people to come stay with her and her family in order to receive some extra monetary compensation and learn English, from what I understood however, business was slow in this remote region, not too many western tourist were interested in making it out this far. I however, was keen on learning something about a new culture and way of life about which I knew relatively nothing. I was eager and excited to stay with and experience real culture, not simply a manufactured sense of enlightenment one receives by staying in a well-kept tourist area.
That is exactly what we received while staying with Wi. The both of us again jumped in the back of a pickup truck (a Chevy Silverado!) and road off to their family farm. Wi was quiet, warm, knowledgeable, and a little bit eccentric which made her pretty entertaining to be around. She largely managed the farm by herself, but displayed a business savvy and executive skills that where quite extraordinarily impressive, that is to say, that see worked hard to synchronize the efforts of those around her in order to reap the benefits for as many as possible.
Wi took us in and let us experience what life was like for so many in Southeast Asia, she also runs a farm. On her farm, this single woman requires the help from many, but also provides for many. The farm hands and herders of her farm are families—men and women—that do not get paid in cash, but in food, a safe haven to stay and in the much needed company of companionship that is actually needed in this remote part of the world. In addition, Wi takes in orphans, children that at least try to regularly attend school but hard times have required their parents to have them go elsewhere. These few young children are provided with food, shelter and cloths by Wi and the little money that she makes as a homestay hostess. The children in return help her with cooking, cleaning and maintaining the farm.
From the very first hour of staying there it was clear that this hive-like system or relationships was far from being about business or money, and had infinitely more to do with survival, deep understanding, empathy and perhaps most importantly happiness. Happiness can be hard-pressed, even scarce in some places and can attenuate during particular times, but I have found that people largely do what they can in order to provide nourishment for the happiness of themselves, and consequently, for others. Perhaps, this is mutualism at its finest. Perhaps it can be argued that human happiness doesn’t truly exist unless it is shared. And perhaps, this element is the most awe-inspiring condition of the Divine order, and its never-ending propensity to supply that which is needed. I am tremendously grateful to have been able to witness that snapshot of the human drama play out.
Outside of the farm the world was hard and poor, maybe even somber, but there was a reverence among people, a quite respect and warm reception if your eyes ever met another’s. We spent days learning how to cook, buying produce at the market, visiting the nearby Buddhist Temple, playing with the children of the town, and riding bikes and trucks through the ceaseless fields of green. We were even fortunate to follow the monks—normally secluded for pious reasons—on their morning walk as they rose with the sun to receive food from the villagers for the needs of the day. And at the conclusion of our time at the homestay, we were awarded a wonderful feast of traditional foods and ceremony that would bring us fortune for the year. They sent us on our way and a short truck-bed ride, a longer bus and another shorter bus trip later we arrived in Nong Khai.
Nong Khai was equally off the beaten path; I didn’t see any other foreigners around as we rolled down the streets and unloaded into the quant alleyway. The town is surprisingly larger than one might think. High in the Northern part of Isaan, Nong Khai is another of the border cities the ornament the mighty Mekong River as it winds its way through the whole of Southeast Asia. It’s relatively quiet but robust population is largely similar to other populations in the area, but it has some cultural affects that make it a worthwhile stop: namely, a myriad of Watts and Buddhist Temples, and on top of that, a bizarre sculpture park unlike any other in the world. We arrived there at the hostel during the twilight hours. We checked into the rooms, but as we did the hostel owner made note that we should probably turn around and take in the final light of the day as it emptied out of the sky to the brown-green waters of the Mekong. We settled into our rooms as the sun settled under the horizon, and only after it projected a bright pink across the sky did we make it out to do some food exploration.
I’d have to say the food was the best in Nong Khai. It was simple, with the same modest ingredients used around the area, but it’s Pad Thai, salted fish and grilled pork dishes were downright phenomenal. The night life of the people eating was a fun happening to witness as well; where in many places the phrase “night life” refers to a drinking culture, in Northern Thailand it certainly refers to an eating culture. Typically, and especially in Nong Khai, people eat multiple courses and multiple stalls in the course of the night (I even witnessed three ladies shut down a food stall by themselves as they ate all of the pork it had). By in large, the food and the night life, were exactly my speed, and I have to say that I kept up pace pretty well.
The next full day was spent exploring the city. I rented a bicycle from the hostel put some serious work into visiting all of the Watts and ancient Buddhist temples in the area. I was, in fact, some work, but after nearly a full morning of “Watt hopping”, and even a few invites to partake in chant rehearsal, I made my way across town to visit Sala Keoku; one of the strangest accumulations of sculpture in the world.
I could’ve taken a cross-town bus if it was raining or cold, but the weather was clear and tolerably warm so I rode a bike out to the park. It’s about an hour ride, but once you get to within visual distance of the park sculptures you’ll realize you’re in a different sort of life-sized art gallery. No one goes there, but they really ought to. Upon entry you are caught amongst the stone slabs and iron rods that depict things not typically voiced by artists. Some are unpleasant, but impressive. Others are quite pleasant, and impressive. There is a depth of emotion that plays out in the park that is quite rare, and a deep variety of religious and cultural icons that make the place both diametric and somehow balanced at the same time. Needless to say, it was one of my favorite places to visit in Thailand and well worth the bike ride.
After a light bike ride back to the hostel in an even lighter rain, my full day in Nong Khai was finished but I felt satisfied with what I saw along the streets, markets and temples. From that point however, it was time to leave the town, and the next morning I loaded onto a bus that took me to Udon Thani and then an Air Asia flight back to Bangkok where I would spend my final night in Thailand. But before the final night ended, I had been invited by a friend to attend a special dinner for study abroad students in enrolled at a University in the city. It was a six or seven course meal at one of the finer restaurants in the city. I couldn’t even begin to say what I ate but as luck would have it I was able to eat there for free and meet some nervous students during their first week of life outside the U.S. After a desert of some Mango cheesecake, it was a sweet way to end the night, and my time in Thailand. The next morning I took a relatively easy taxi ride to the airport and jumped on a plan back to KL: the first part of my trip was over, but an adventurous second act was in the making. I was on my way to Borneo.
Par II of “River; not Roads” will be continued in another post. Be sure to not read anything else in the mean time. You need rest.
“For from where did the food of my infancy come? From where does my desire, happiness, love and the needs of my being come?…According to Thine ordinance, whereby Thou distributes riches through the hidden springs of all things.” –Saint Augustine