Tag - mae khong

Isaan Life – New Year

New Year in Issan
New Year in Issan
New Year in Issan

There are places along Isaan’s Korat Plateau, framed by the wandering Mae Khong, dotted with centuries-old rice paddies, lumbering, long-horned water buffalo and forgotten villages influenced by the Lao culture to the north that are so stunning, so awe-inspiring that words are inadequate to describe them. Phachnadai Cliff, 45 kilometers from Khon Chiem and a six-klick hike straight up from Ban San Som, a sleepy 200-member farm community of wooden huts built on long poles, is an unusual place to greet the New Year. But then Isaan is an unusual place, a special place and teetering and shivering through the night toward dawn in a brisk, cold wind on the edge of a 15 meter black cliff with a dozen friends and 200 strangers was the perfect way to greet the New Year, a year sure to be filled with beauty, adventure and opportunity.

Our journey began 175 kilometers away at my home in Ubon Rachathani in southeast Isaan on the north bank of the Mun River, a tributary of the Mae Khong. We traveled north by motorcycle toward Ban San Som, a village that does not appear on any western map buts sits less than an hour from Laos. Neither Ban San Som nor Phachanadai Cliff produce even one hit on a Google search. It is not a destination resort. It is however a very special place to welcome the New Year.
Ban San Som in January is surrounded by freshly harvested rice fields and wandering water buffalo, eyeing the newly harvested rice strewn through the fields. In theory, there are two ways up the mountain. It’s a six kilometer hike straight up or a 13 kilometer overland trek by motorcycle. In reality, the hike is probably the way to go. A combination of laziness and rapidly disappearing sunlight produced a quick decision; the motorcycle seemed a quicker, less strenuous option. Unfortunately we were not ready for the unbeaten, unmarked track that lay in before us.
There is no visible road up the mountain. There are ruts and rocks and roots that slowed our progress to a crawl. Deep sands as shifty and slick as sheer ice blocked our path in places reminding me it’s the heart of winter back home in Vermont, USA. And at times murky brown water covered the track making it impossible to know how deep and passable it was at any given point. Nittaya Saebut, a fourth year student at Ubon Ratchathani University, described the journey charitably as “unpredictable.” Surasak Witton, a third year at Ubon Rachathani University, carried Sukie, a second year student from Rachabhat University who knew the area quite well. He said his rider made it hard to focus on the path. Surasak explained, “It was hard for me having Sukie on the bike because she would tell me about different areas of the mountain and if I took my eyes off the road for one second conditions would change and a different type of terrain would jump up in front of me.”
We made it to the top in darkness; the view would have to wait until morning: the New Year. A sheer black rock covered the peak, a lava-like geological formation though there is no volcano near Phachanadai Cliff. The difficult path to the summit didn’t keep some 200 others from making the journey to greet the New Year. Camp fires fueled with wood scavenged from nearby forest sprinkled across the black rock lit the landscape like lights on a Christmas tree. There was even New Year’s entertainment on the top of that mountain. A stage set up in the midst of the waving fires offered an assortment of colorful dancers and songs through the evening. There was even a “Cow Gee” eating contest which I entered immediately as the journey produced a severe hunger deep in the pit of my stomach. Cow Gee is sticky rice grilled with egg. I stuffed my face full of the deliciousness
and finished second among 16 other contestants. My stomach full I realized I’d won 200 baht! Being paid to overeat; Isaan is a wonderful place!
Sleeping was impossible! The wind howled constantly sending a chill deep into my spine. At 5:30 a.m. everyone that wasn’t knocked out from the New Year celebration, clustered on the 15 meter cliff to watch the sunrise. The cliff drops straight down to the ancient Mae Khong. The rising sun slowly revealed the misty mountains of Laos covered in early morning fog and produced an immense cheer from the crowd. It brought a tear to my eye, and I wished everyone “Sa Wa Dee Bee Mai.” Happy New Year 2008/2551.
About the author:
Eli Sherman is a graduate of Montpelier High School in Montpelier, the capital of the state of Vermont, USA, and a “young blood writer” living in Ubon Ratchathani, Isaan – Northeastern Thailand. He’s been to Isaan four times in his short life. Once on a cross cultural exchange with Montpelier to Thailand Project; once coming for five months as an exchange student at Benchama Maharat school in Ubon; and again coming as a guide for Montpelier to Thailand Project. He now works as a volunteer at the Institute of Nutrition Research Field Station, Mahidol University in Ubon Ratchathani and is writing to present Isaan Life to the world, and especially KhaoSanRoad.com visitors.

Isaan by Motorbike – Day 6

Isaan Tour - Northeast ThailandDAY 6
I woke up early for the last day of my travels. The day was spent in and around Nong Khai.

I cleared out of my room early and loaded up my bike. I had to do some shopping for the folks back in Bangkok then find something to do for the rest of the day. My train left at 6.30, I needed to be at the train station at 5.30 to book the bike onto the train and make sure everything was ok.

I had some breakfast then went out to look for the market, it didn’t take too long to find, well. It was less than a five minute walk from my guesthouse, but I went the long way around, the very long way around. On the bike it took me 15 minutes to find. 😉

I wandered around looking at all of the stalls all selling the same things, trying to get the prices down seemed very easy, I am more used to the tourist hardened trades people who will drive the hardest bargain of all, well, no bargain at all a lot of the time. I bought a few gifts for the folks back in Bangkok. I was sure that they would not all want a bit of dried dog as a gift.

Isaan Tour - Northeast ThailandThis market was huge; it seemed to go on in different directions for miles. It ran along the side of the river for probably 7-800 metres and spread out adjacent to the river for a couple of hundred metres. I was glad to be in the market in the morning, I think it would be unbearable to be there in the heat of midday. After looking at as many different types of tourist wares as I could handle I stopped to get some lunch.

I once again accidentally found a restaurant on the riverbank. A last, a chance to sit and take in the freshness and the sheer magnificence of it all. I ate barbeque pork, somtum and sticky rice.

As the heat of the day rose I wanted to get moving. I finished up, paid the bill and got out of there. I had a walk down the riverside road to help the digestion a little. I saw a couple of huge temples. I know there are a lot of temples in Thailand, but this riverside seems to be inundated with them. The heat became too much so it was time to get back on the bike.

Isaan Tour - Northeast ThailandI drove up to the road which runs parallel with the river and headed out of town. After a while I took a left turn towards the river, I wanted to have a look for a temple that is submerged in the middle of the river. I am not sure what was there first. If they managed to somehow build the temple (only visible in the dry season) before the river began to flow (highly unlikely) or if they somehow managed to stop the flow of the water to build the temple (also highly unlikely). Whatever the course of events, it was the place where I met my travelling partners for the rest of the day.

A couple who were just taking photos of the same spot when they asked me if I wanted to have my photo taken with Laos and the Mae Khong making up the backdrop. I accepted.

They were an odd couple to me, one Dutch lady Tessa, and one Japanese lady Akiko. I accepted their offer and started to talk. It was nice to have people to travel with for the last day. Travelling alone has many advantages but a small group was a refreshing change. Having someone to talk to about the things I was seeing was great.

They told me about a garden full of ornaments and statues that was just outside of Nong Khai. I joined them on their way there. I felt for them, I was riding my motorbike and they were riding their hired bicycles. I am sure I got the better end of the deal. We made our way to the Sala Kaew Ku garden.

We spent maybe 3 hours here, taking in the wonderful feeling of serenity and awe that this place presented to us. It is surely the strangest of statue gardens I have ever visited.

Isaan Tour - Northeast ThailandMany praises to the creator of the garden, Luang Pu Bunleua Sulilat. One of my favourite pieces is the elephant that is surrounded by many dogs in different poses. One particular statue is of a dog riding a motorcycle. Just an example of the variety of ideas of the creator.

During the heat of the midday sun we rested in a garden which displays the “Wheel of Life”. The wheel represents the different stages of life which culminate in death, as it generally does, but then the wheel starts again representing the reincarnation of the soul in to the next wheel.

We left the gardens and sought to take refuge in the town, maybe in a restaurant or something. I had to start thinking about the time we taking to do everything as I had to get back to the train station in time to take by homeward leg, to Bangkok.

We went to a restaurant at the other side of Nong Khai. Very close to the friendship bridge. The restaurant was on a pontoon, a floating platform usually for the docking of boats. The tables here were very posh looking. All single pieces of wood formed into tables. The chairs made in the same way. I was starting to worry about the cost of the food here; well if they had spent this much on the furniture then they must pay for it somehow.

I was very pleasantly surprised when I looked at the menu and saw that it was all quite reasonable. I ate my regular meal of Green Curry with Chicken. As a special treat for my travelling partners I took out some of the dried dog meat that I had purchased earlier from Sakhon Nakhon. To my delight they both tried it, not quite sure how much they liked it but they at least tried it.

We shared a few beers whilst the time passed; talked and shared a few stories then I had to get off. It would have been great to be able to stay another night there but my journey was drawing to a close and I had to keep to my timing.

I headed out towards the train station with maybe 40 minutes to spare. Nong Khai is so small that going from one end to the other is only a matter of minutes.

motorbike_travels_day_six_14I talked to the station master and booked my bike onto the train. HOW MUCH. It cost nearly double for my motorbike to sit in the freight car than it cost me to lie in an air conditioned carriage. Oh well. Whilst I was booking my self and the bike onto the train I was called. If I used my birth name then it could have been for anyone, but I heard the name SPIDER. I looked around and by the travelling fluke that happens so often, I saw my friend Leeda. She was just on her way back from Laos on the same train as me. Awesome, some to spend the drinking time with on the train.

We got onto the train and then I found her carriage. It was nice for us to be able to talk about our travels, both having very different stories to tell. They had been surrounded by people for their travels, and I had been alone for the majority of mine. Before we settled in for the trip we had a search of the train to find the beer car.

We returned to our seats and got on with some serious drinking. By the end of the session I was quite drunk and tired so time to head off for bed, but not without exchanging glasses with Leeda.

motorbike_travels_day_six_16 motorbike_travels_day_six_17

I slept like a log and woke up to the rocking of the train. Sunlight was streaming in through every possible chink in the curtains that surrounded me. Time to wake up. I felt kinda sad to be back in Bangkok.

I feel I am really a creature of the countryside. Bangkok provides for me the things I need to survive, but the open road is the place for me. Travelling along without a care in the world, mile after mile passing by as I explore new places and meet new people. Fresh air, fresh views and how could I ever forget, the very very backside!!!

Note: Story author is Steven Noake.

Isaan by Motorbike – Day 5

motorbike_travels_1DAY 5
This was to be the last day of riding. I got out of town by 9.30 am so that I would have enough time to relax in Nong Khai. I thought there would only be 1 temple stop today, nice and easy. The stop was at Wat Ar Hong Silawas. A small temple, that was simple in design, on the Thailand bank of the Mae Khong.

The temple is in grounds that are scattered with huge boulders. The house of the Buddha images was constructed with a boulder as one of the walls. A wall is really a poor description; the boulder occupies the space where the wall should be.

Back on the road for the final stretch of the journey. Onto Nong Khai. Only about 130 km, completed in less than 3 hours all good. My first stop was the massage. A very good massage too, away from any tourist places; wish I could remember the name of the street.

Next on the to do list for the day was to book the tickets for the train, booking early to make sure I have a ticket and there is space for the bike. I found the train station a few kilometres out of town. It is in a direct line with the friendship bridge between Laos and Thailand.

Isaan Tour - Northeast ThailandNext on the ‘to do’ list for the day was to book the tickets for the train, booking early to make sure I have a ticket and there is space for the bike. I found the train station a few kilometres out of town. It is in a direct line with the friendship bridge between Laos and Thailand.

I booked the ticket for me but had to wait until an hour before the train left to be able to book the bike on board. Cool as, but the bike cost around 400 baht more than me to ride in the freight car, glad I didn’t ride in the freight car.

Then back in to town for a spot of lunch. Whilst having a lazy look for a guest house I spotted a small vegetarian restaurant on the road. I stopped for some chick pea madras, awesome flavour. I sat for a while and looked at the travel book to find some possible locations to stay then finished up the coke and got on my way.

Isaan Tour - Northeast ThailandI was looking for a guesthouse when I happened upon a guy driving the same model bike as me. He showed me a nice place to stay. On the waterfront with a restaurant that overlooked the river. Into the room I watched a bit of “Snakes on the Plane” before I went out for a drink and to take some photos of the area and to wait for the sunset on the penultimate day of my travels.

This was probably the first time I had actually taken time out to sit and do nothing in the evening sun. Not the first time I had to reflect, riding the bike is good for that, but the first time to reflect without having to think about what is coming next.

Travelling with the loosest of plans is definitely for me. Not having to be fixed by the times of public transport has been amazing. Just thinking moments before then doing it has been the tops.

I have been waiting to see a sunset since the day I left, a different sunset from the ones in Bangkok. In Bangkok the sunset is clouded by the pollution that engulfs the metropolis. Here the sun is free to shine through the atmosphere right onto my already tanned skin and into my wide open eyes.

Here the position of the river, the sun, the hills and the trees seems to be perfect. As if it had all been waiting for me to be in the right place at the right time. I don’t know what the reason for waiting was, don’t understand why I didn’t do it before. Waiting for it to come along my way instead of always chasing it. The dreams will come to those who invest. Invest your time, invest yourself and the dreams will land at your feet. I don’t see a point in chasing and chasing and getting to the same point as the investor of time that puts into the system then waits. No need to be rushed to be first through the gate. The best things come to those who wait.

Isaan Tour - Northeast ThailandThe river walkway at Nong Khai seems to be an exercise haven. In the early evening a lot of people appear to start their exercise regimes. Big/small, all are here. Some seem quite serious; some have a more relaxed approach.

OK, time for dinner and some writing time. I find a bar called Brendan and Noi. I had some food and settled down to write up my journal. It was nice to just sit and think about the things I had done this week. So much roasting hot sun, a lot of friendly people, solitude and maybe the best thing of all – fresh air!!!!

I had a few welcome beers whilst I was writing. I opted to eat ferringue food again, chicken breast chips and gravy. VERY filling. The bar filled up a little bit, I finished my writing around 9pm then went back to my room to get rid of my writing book and pens.

Being early and the last night of my vacation I went out for a drink. Well I wanted to go out for a drink. By 9.30pm most of the bars had closed. I ended up back in the same bar as earlier in the evening. I had not noticed before that the bar owner was a not as inviting as he could be. I walked back in and said hello to him, he blanked me completely. Ok no worries, I stood aside and slowly drank my beer.

Shortly after a couple of German guys came into the bar. One guy asked for a beer and was heckled by the owner, who then asked the visitors name. “Hans” “And what’s your friend’s name?” “He’s called Hans too” “Two hands are better than one, eh lads, gfaw gfaw. Funny that eh? I good aint I?”

I took this as my opportunity to leave, go back to my room and get an early night.

Final day of exploration coming up.

Note: Story author is Steven Noake.