The train from Bangkok to Nung Khai was never meant to be 7 hours late, and few people ever really mean to spend more than a few hours in this remote little border city where the Friendship bridge arches over the Mekong into Laos. The train ahead of ours jumped the rails, sending a ripple of delays down the line. For most people, intent on getting up to Luang Prabang and the Lao “party” capital of Vien Veng, it’s little more than an annoying transfer of baggage from train to tuk tuk to bus and a hectic hour or so at the Laotian border post.
Gerben, a Dutch guy I met on the train, told me that he had some good information from an old man in Bangkok and that Nung Khaimight hold a little more than a dingy little market and some mediocre food vendors, so we skipped the clutch of tourists haggling with tuk tuk drivers over the fare to the border and headed off on foot to the Mut Mee guesthouse. Miraculously, they had a free room; one of those wood floored colonial-style dreamscapes that only seem to exist in wistful French movies about Vietnam. The fan cranked up, resurrecting a cloud of Mekong mosquitoes – a freakishly large and spiteful variety that seem to enjoy hiding in your open backpack to surprise you later. We checked in – just for a day…
The premier attraction in Nung Khai is a sculpture park built by a Laotian man in the 1970’s. After running afoul of the authorities in Vientiane, where he’d built the predecessor, he crossed over into Thailand and got to work on his magnum opus – a monsoon of multi-denominational weirdness set in brick and concrete. According to Julian, the British owner of Mut Mee, he preferred concrete because of its ephemeral nature. He relished the fact that his enormous sculptures would slowly degrade until, two generations from his, all that would remain of his life’s work would be a graveyard of religious icons crumbling into the encroaching jungle.
The park features about 300 unique sculptures, each mixing elements of Buddhism and Hinduism in a strange, violent concoction that reminded me of the girl tribe paintings of Henry Darger. There were anthropomorphic dogs feasting on each other and riding motor scooters beneath a harried Elephant. A majestic, towering statue of the enlightened Buddha shadowed by a massive 7 headed serpent leered down on the whole park. The most amazing bit, however, was a “wheel of life” at the far end of the park, where various points on the Buddhist cycle were interpreted using modern icons such as the soldier and the yuppie. A sort of religious cult grew out of the man’s work, and his embalmed body is preserved, Uncle Ho-like, beneath a hemisphere of glass in the main temple. Rumoured to have been gay, the sculptor found that his work was the only acceptable substitute for the monastic life he craved, but couldn’t ever really live.
I shot a nice interview with Julian, who describes the park far better than I am able, and will post it after I get home and edit. For anyone heading North into Laos from Thailand it is a must see. Nung Khai itself is a relaxed little river town, and also worth a day or two, mainly thanks to Mut Mee and the efforts Julian has madeover his 20 years there to document all of the local attractions for his guests. We spent about 4 days there, all told, inspired by our ramblings to buy a couple of granny bikes and ride them into Laos.
Gerben is on a year-long sabbatical from his job as a social worker in one of Amsterdam’s more “difficult” mental hospitals, and he has the observant, patient demeanor augmented with an easy ability to make immediate decisions common to people who work in such trying, often thankless jobs. When I suggested buying a couple of bikes, he jumped at the idea and off we went into the depths of the Nung Khai Tesco, looking for the cheapest bikes we could find that looked up to surviving 40 km a day with our 15 kilo bags stacked on the back. Although I did manage to find a new battery and charger for my camera, which I’d left in Bangkok at the excremental Sawasdee Inn, the bikes were not worth even the tiny price.
We ended up in a backstreet bike shop, getting our shiny new Asama brand cruisers polished up by a really grumpy old Thai bike mechanic. Some bungee cords, a few spare tubes and a cheap multi-tool filled out or expedition kit – the only thing we’re missing (still) is a tire pump… The whole lot cost us 8500 Baht – about $220.
The first day out, we managed to make about 65 km – following the main highway over the Friendship Bridge into Vientiane. Aside from a few stupid mistakes involving my dangling pack straps and the spokes of the rear tire, we managed it in about 3 hours. One word of warning – the Thai visa for gringos is valid for 30 days. The last day (day number 30) evidently is not included. As a final Thai treat, I was finger wagged into an office to pay a fine of 500 Baht. An irritant, more than anything else, but honestly – with all the nonsense the Thai government is playing with their visa regulations, it seems like they are intent on shooting themselves in the foot. All in the name of a few measly dollars more…
Back on the road, Gerben managed to lay his pack flat on the rear luggage rack, strapping it down withthe bungee cords and putting the heavier items into the front basket (oh yeah, they got baskets…) I, on the other hand, worked out a spine-crushing “solution” whereby I wear the pack with the shoulder straps fully extended, resting the heavier base of the bag on a cardboard box taped to the rear rack. I look fully idiotic – like a cook escaping from the circus with his pots and pans piled up behind him – but it’s worked so far. I’m working on a new set up now, but laugh at the photos while you can 😉
Vientiane is, in my opinion, a bit overrated. The ancient city, such as it was, hardly exists these days. A few of the old buildings, notably one of the palaces and old watsalong the river, are being repaired with French money, but the guard stiffened when I tried to enter the gate. Evidently, it is being repaired for the benefit of the Lao government alone. After a Siamese invasion in the 19thCentury, the city was nearly abandoned. Not until the French colonialists decided to make it their capital (a decision based on the wide ports along the Mekong and its fairly mild climate) did the city come back to a sort of life. The communists did their best to trash mmostof the French influence, leaving a smattering of rambling villas and a penchant for building wide boulevards with massive monuments. The main landmark of the city is a vulgar Asian version of the arc de triumph – made with concrete, of course.
The government, in a bid to stem the plague of budget tourists they feel are wrecking Thailand, have closed all the guest houses, leaving only those establishments which meet the dubious criteria of a “hotel”. I’m not sure there’s any difference, aside from the price and the willingness of the owner to bribe the local inspectors, but the end result is that the place is impossible to find accomodation in. To make matters worse, the locals seem to have adopted their government’s tone, scowling at anyone with a backpack instead of a Louis Vuitton matching set. It’s pretty tiresome, and kind of a “cart before the horse” effort. The place we shelled out for at last – a dusty pit that looked like it had served as an opium den for European tourists a decade ago – was not likely to attract the retired Swiss couples with Euro bills hanging out of their camera vests anytime soon.
I did manage to meet Carol Cassidy, an American woman mentioned in “A River’s Tale” who has been here in Laos for about 20 years following her dream of reviving traditional Lao weaving. Her workshop, housed in a beautiful old French villa, turns out some beautiful work. She currently employs about 15 weavers from the local area and is also working on a project in Cambodia which involves specially modified looms for landmine victims. I will make a short interview with her tomorrow about her life here in Laos and the Cambodian project. Again – it won’t be posted until I get back to Prague for editing, but I am looking forward to it.
Another “don’t miss” in Vientiane is “East West Restaurant” on Anou Road in the Chanthaboury district. Run by a Danish expat and his Sri Lankan wife, they make delicious food – really. It’s one of the few restaurants geared to the detested backpacker set run by people who actually care about good food and a fun atmosphere. Leave your name on the wall!
Unhappily, my Czech bank card doesn’t seem to be connected to the banking networks here, which is a bit worrying. It’s either that, or someone has managed to steal my number and has emptied my account. Either way, I’ll have to find a Skype phone and call back to the charming Prague staff to figure it out. Derailment nummber three, but who’s counting?
Faced with a town of full guesthouses, we ended up shacking up with an Israeli guy who was happy to cut the cost of his triple room, but seemed to think that the dirty bandages from his sliced up toe (a drinking accident, of course) were somehow common property. We found a new hotel today for half the price, and it even has a little balcony overlooking one of the busier side streets that dead ends onto the Mekong.
Tomorrow we’re off again on the bikes. Our goal is Vien Veng – about 160 km North along the main road. I’m thinking it’ll take us 2 days, but we’ll see. For now at least, we’re free of the worries of a potential train derailment, focused instead on the ominous topography my GPS is showing just outside Vientiane. Off now to explore the city and drink some more of their fantastic iced coffee. Sitting around is never so easy as when you’ve got a bike to load up…