12th November, 2012

Nong Khai to Sangkhom (cops, views and ear-invading bugs)

It was unseasonably hot in Nong Khai with temperatures pushing high thirties when high twenties were normal for what’s euphemistically called ‘winter’ here.

I hired a motorbike from Sam, who has a makeshift stall on the footpath a street back from the Mekong River. Well, I assumed his name was Sam – it’s what he scribbled on a piece of paper along with a phone number to call if I ever got in trouble.

Between cigarette puffs he presented a toothless grin, though spoke English well enough that if trouble ever appeared communication wouldn’t be a problem. The motorbike (a scooter really) was a 125cc that cost 1000 baht for the week (A$33) and had seen better days, but he assured me was well maintained.

I aimed to follow little-travelled Highway 211 along the Mekong River upstream to Chiang Khan, a distance of about 200 kilometres. From there I would decide which route to take on the return journey. The Mekong along this stretch also serves as the border between Thailand and Laos.

Nong Khai became a convenient and popular border crossing with the opening of the first Thai/Lao Friendship Bridge in 1994 (which was funded by the Australian government). It’s a lazy town by Thai standards and a popular settling spot for foreigners, but not many detour along the Mekong from here.

My luggage consisted of clothes bundled in a plastic bag strapped to the motorcycle’s front basket, and a daypack Sam recommended I carry between my legs the way many Thais do. Though in this case, a raised centre floorboard panel meant securing it between knees. It wasn’t ideal, but allowed easier access to the petrol tank, which was under the seat I would’ve otherwise strapped the daypack to.

After filling with petrol and changing money for the trip, trouble appeared sooner than expected in the form of a khak-uniformed motorcycle cop who nabbed me for going the wrong way down a one-way street. I wasn’t aware Nong Khai had one-way streets let alone that cops patrolled them, but he drew my attention to previously unrecognised signs.

“How long have you been in Thailand?” he wanted to know. I was fairly early into this trip, though it was about my third visit to Thailand in the past two years.

He asked for a licence, but mine was with ‘Sam’ as a form of insurance (along with a 1000 baht deposit). I had wanted to keep it with me for instances like this, but Sam’s response was that I should call him if that happened. I tried to explain this to the motorbike cop. Then, remembering I also had an international licence inside my money belt, I extracted it from the wad of cash I’d just exchanged, not realising, in retrospect, he might’ve thought I was about to offer a bribe The international licence wasn’t valid for a motorbike, but he barely glanced at it.

“One chance, ” he said, rasing a finger as a way of letting me off, then advised a shortcut through adjacent temple grounds to get back the way I was heading.  Weaving one’s way by motorbike among temple monks and their followers was completely legal.

Sangkhom was today’s destination, a little short of half way to Chiang Khan. I took the road that follows the river to Tha Bo, the first town of any significance. This road is reasonably narrow and busy enough to require your attention. It’s also dangerous, as I discovered on the return journey. Highway 211 detours inland here, but I suggest taking it for this stretch as well.

The Mekong River Thailand
The Mekong River on the way to Tha Bo

Tha Bo

At Tha Bo, coffee beckoned. That desire didn’t look like being fulfilled until a u-turn revealed the English side of a Thai sign outside a cafe/restaurant. It was called Baan Ruah (Our Home). Inside was Dtuk-dta, who found my Thai incomprehensible, so I ordered an Americano in English.

She sat with me. Of Vietnamese background, she had worked in Bangkok as a freelance costume designer for TV commercials, so was familiar dealing with foreigners. Dtuk-dta (doll) is her Thai nickname, in this case bestowed by her sister.

She grew up in Tha Bo, but had returned because of, as she explained it: “A turning point in my life”. She had married a Thai man and now had an 18 month-old daughter. Quite often in Thailand, women in her position were single mothers, so this was a departure from theme. But in those cases they were running their own businesses. Baan Ruah was owned by Dtuk-dta’s family.

Apparently many Vietnamese had settled in the area. Her father came here during the American War. She thought most Vietnamese in Thailand arrived at that time.

I asked her what was special in Tha Bo, but she didn’t think there was much of interest for tourists, including the market mentioned in guides …but maybe it would be for foreigners she agreed, as an afterthought.

IMG_2024 Dtuk-dta

I went past the market earlier so, returned for a closer look. It was authentic without being special, but travel experiences can happen anywhere.  Spring rolls and rice noodles are among the Vietnamese-influenced specialities in Tha Bo. I bought a long spring roll, which the woman cut into bite sized pieces with scissors, placed in a plastic bag and topped with chili sauce. She added lettuce leaves, basil and mint to another bag and gave me a metalTha Bo market spoon to eat it all with. 15 baht (A$0.50). Delicious.

After consuming spring roll and condiments while exploring the market and nearby streets, I returned the spoon and followed up with fried bananas from the stall opposite (3 for 5 baht).Tha Bo market

Highway 211 meets the Mekhong River as you leave Tha Bo – it’s a wider road with a better surface, though is still relatively busy here.

Si Chiangmai, the next town and about half way to Sangkhom, is a small transport and shopping hub with broad streets and quite a few temples, but otherwise few tourist attractions. A promenade by the river could be better used. There was only one cafe I could find along it and that was closed. Coffee is one of my addictions, if it wasn’t already obvious.

The Mekong River at Si Chiangmai

Rice was laid out in the sun beside the river.

Si Chiangmai

Checking a map later confirmed the tall buildings on the opposite side of the river were in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Two years previously I was in Vientiane looking across the river wondering about the unknown territory on this side. I would never have anticipated then that I’d be here now and had a sense of being in two places at once.

Laotian mobile phone towers tested international relations around here and bombarded my Thai mobile with text messages welcoming me to Laos and informing about international roaming and what the various costs were, and where and how I could reach the Royal Thai Embassy.

Looking across the Mekong to Vientiene

After Si Chiangmai traffic dwindled. The road winds through rain-forested verges, jungle-clad hills, and farmlands and presented frequent views of the Mekong. I kept a leisurely pace, often stopping to take photos, driving at around 50 k’s per hour, sometimes even topping 60 k. Valentino Rossi eat your heart out.

The road after leaving Si Chiangmai

Mekong looking to Laos
A road is being constructed on the Laos side of the river causing red dust to settle on the trees. Come now if you want to see this country pre-development.
A temple outisde Si Chianmai
A temple outside of Si Chiangmai, and where I had to turn my mobile off due to the bombardment of text messages from Laos.

view of Mekong

Mekong River west of Nong Khai

Sangkhom is one of those Thai villages with a lengthy main street that have an undetermined end, which is one reason I missed the guesthouse turn-off and ended up among rice fields wondering how far ‘to the west of town’ Lonely Planet suggested I should travel. Another reason was that a bi-weekly market was in operation and activity from it obscured the guesthouse sign.

Unfortunately, Thai mobile reception was still seemingly hijacked by Laotian towers, or just confused, and declaring Thai calls to be international, meaning my local calls were rejected. Re-entering Sangkhom I sought assistance from locals, who were none the wiser about where I had to go or why the phone wasn’t working.

Finally, a call went through to Bouy Guesthouse and a women by the name of Dtoy gave directions. She greeted me with a laugh when I arrived, indicated where to park the bike then lead me over a rickety footbridge to a small island of five bungalows in a garden setting which I took an instant liking to.

Bouy bungalows

My bungalow was at one end. Next to it was a farm, a small plot of tropical abundance that dog-legged around to the front of the hut. Flowing past was the majestic Mekong with views to Laos, though the bank opposite, I discovered later, was actually part of an island the river forked around. The hut was basic, but if trying to imagine one beside the Mekong this would match best idyllic fantasies. Unfortunately, it would be just for one night – a French group had booked out the whole place tomorrow.

Mekong River, Sangkhom

I jokingly asked if the thump-thump of music we could hear belonged to a disco, but Dtoy said it came from the market. After a shower I checked it out: the market, that is. This one is held every Monday and Friday. It’s mostly a flea market; clothes and thongs compete with take-away food stalls. There’s also fish, other meats …and more exotic fare (silkworms, grasshoppers and various bugs I couldn’t identify).Sangkhom bi-weekly market

Sangkhom was once on the main backpacker trail with several guesthouses offering riverside bungalows. Some had suffered flood damage and were never repaired. My guess, though, is that the bridge in Nong Khai making Laos more accessible was probably the main reason for Sangkhom’s decline. Nong Khai became a gateway to another Asian destination rather than the end of the road and a detour to other parts of Thailand.

Away from the river and main road, pleasant tree-lined streets and soi meander through the village. I kind of appreciated I had found no WiFi cafes yet, but would like a decent coffee. Dtoy said she was thinking about getting WiFi – not sure if that’s good or bad.

I returned in time to enjoy a late afternoon big Chang on the bungalow veranda while the sun set. Though strictly speaking this is a sunrise venue, given we’re on the west bank – here the descending sun shines on Laos, along with any clouds wanting to be part of the picture.

Mekong River Sangkhom

The amber liquid soothed my parched throat as the Mekong ambled by in dusk’s fading light. The occasional long-tail boat crossed to and from Laos. Birds chirped, geckos echo-ed, a gentle breeze cooled … WiFi would be an unnecessary distraction here, I thought. I was indulging in how sublime it all was when another of God’s creatures, a large insect, on an erratic circuit around the hut went into a buzzing orbit of my head. A casual attempt to swoosh it away only served to direct it inside my ear where it became marooned, fluttering in vain

That’s what I thought initially then stillness, quiet – maybe it had escaped and taken flight? Then, once more, I felt/heard the unnerving vibration of wings. Then nothing again. Was I imagining things? But the frantic fluttering returned. The wax along with my ear canal was acting like a Venus fly trap. Struggle as much as it liked, this bug wasn’t going anywhere. Should I just let it rest and decompose and wait for my annual ear syringe? What kind of bug was it anyway? Poisonous or harmless? Hopefully it wasn’t the burrowing kind, recalling an episode from an ancient television series, Twilight Zone, where earwigs were apparently capable of eating a pathway from one ear, through brain matter, to the other side.

I crossed the footbridge to tell Dtoy about my predicament. She started giving directions to a medical clinic and/or hospital, but my confused look conveyed enough helplessness for her to transport me on the back of her motorbike.

The staff at the medical clinic took a dismayed look at this foreigner and quickly pointed Dtoy to the hospital, which was about another 1.5 kilometres further on and where she was able to get me straight through to a nurse who gestured for me to lie on my side on a bed covered with a plastic sheet.

She approached with the ear-inspecting instrument (an otoscope), but seemed unsure how to operate it. This didn’t instil a lot of confidence. I could hear her say, “mai mee”, which is a common, all-purpose expression in Thai meaning, in this case “is not”. Or to be more exact that there was nothing to be seen.

Was the intermittent, annoying buzz a figment of my imagination? Or had the bug indeed buggered off?

Dtoy was now in the foyer so unable to translate. The nurse sought heavier artillery – a long, thin pair of scissors, about 10 inches in length – overkill in my thinking. A pierced eardrum was up there with ear-burrowing in my nightmarish imaginings.

On closer inspection I discovered they were, in fact, tweezers. But now she had two pieces of equipment to coordinate. On the plus side this confirmed she wasn’t pursuing figments. I could feel she was occasionally gripping the bug, but unable to extract it and I could sense her frustration.

Eventually, success! I felt the final delicate tug that made my ear bug-free. I raised a thumb, saying, “dee, dee” (good, well done). De-bugged! Another nurse displayed it on tissue paper, as evidence. It looked as dormant and intact as if it had spent several million years embedded in amber.

“Pain?” one nurse asked. No, everything was sublime again.

Dtoy was back now and translating. They called it a butterfly, but it looked more like a moth. Apparently I now had to weigh myself. Unsure why, given there was no ‘before’ to measure against and the scales unlikely to detect any difference. They requested my height as well. For the record.

An invoice was printed out in English. 170 baht for ‘removal of foreign object’. I took this to a window where Dtoy summoned up a friendly fellow who asked if the offending object had been removed and if I was feeling okay.

As we left, Dtoy said the nurse could speak English. Maybe she hadn’t because Dtoy was there, or she lacked confidence in using it. Though, communication isn’t the strongest of Thai suits. But overall the hospital was clean and quiet and, as long as your ailment wasn’t too serious, perfectly suitable. For anything else hightail it to Nong Khai.

On the return journey Dtoy took it slowly. I learned she’d had the guesthouse 22 years. She wondered if she should expand or upgrade, but doesn’t want the extra work. I thought it was just right now. Perfect.

Her husband had a stroke several years ago, so day-to-day running of it was her responsibility. He had greeted me with “Bonjour” when I first arrived, thinking me French. Now, on my return from the hospital, he advised, “Watch out for the scorpions.”

I replied, “That’s okay, they only sting.”

Dtoy cooked up a hearty meal of chicken khapao – fried chicken and basil with chili, though, in this case, it included a bounty of vegetables. Then I grabbed another big Chang and retired to the bungalow to watch the river flow past in the calmness of night, and take full advantage of this tropical idyll.

Well, I did until the Frenchman in the next bungalow switched on his outside light.


Even paradise isn’t perfect.