13th November, 2012

Sangkhom (sunrise, a waterfall and temple views)

During the night, dogs could be heard barking intermittently in the distance from the island on the other side of the river in Laos.

At this time of year the temperature cools enough overnight, so there was no need to bring the fan in from the veranda. Despite the mattress being at the rock-hard end of the comfort spectrum, a folded blanket provided a layer of additional cushioning, and a good night’s snoozing was had.

No side effects were detected following yesterday’s ear-invasion and hospital visit.

I was up in time to catch a vermilion glow downstream, on the opposite horizon (see gallery at end for more pics)…

Mekong River, Sangkhom

Mekong River, Sangkhom

As long-tail boats crossed to and fro.

Mekong River, Sangkhom

The Frenchman next door sat, hunched over, making breakfast in the dim shadows of his veranda, as he had done during dinner the night before. This was fairly extreme budget travel given how little it cost to eat out in Thailand. But for all I knew there were other reasons he needed to prepare his own food.

Sangkhom, Bouy guesthouse

I crossed the footbridge for breakfast at Dtoy’s – pancake with fresh and abundant fruit salad accompanied by not-so-palatable instant coffee. If anything, her meals cost a little more than average, but servings are large and good value.

Bouy guesthouse, Sangkhom

Their life appeared comfortable, but these things are relative. Dtoy said they were poor.

Mr Dtoy qualified, “We’re poor, but we love people”.

When I mentioned the barking dogs across the river he said, “I love all animals except for dog”. He then added that Vietnamese and Laotians ate dog.

I’m only referring to him as Mr Dtoy to distinguish him. They both call themselves Dtoy, though Dtoy also said she her name was “Bouy”, which is their son’s name, and who they named the guesthouse after. This indicates, as much as anything, something about Thai affection for their children, and each other.

Dtoy confirmed the French invasion was still happening, so I’d have to find somewhere else to stay for tonight. There hadn’t been time to become familiar with the other guests. Apart from the Frenchman next to me there was an American couple who were staying long term and had the largest bungalow at the far end from mine – they wouldn’t need to check out. And there was another Frenchman by the name of Henry who I had a brief chat with. No one else was travelling by motorbike.

Tallied everything in the honour-system note-book dedicated to my bungalow: accommodation, beer and food came to 600 baht (or about A$20). And that was only after I rounded up. Hard to find better value than that anywhere.

The French group wasn’t arriving until 3pm so we could delay checking out. I didn’t take up the offer, though, because I aimed to see the sights around Sangkhom. But I did spend some time relaxing on the veranda taking in the scene.

Mekong river view Sangkhom

Mekong river view Sangkhom

For alternative accommodation, Dtoy suggested a place called Ruanmaithai. After, check-out I headed in that direction, but in a repeat of yesterday travelled too far. Again, amorphous boundaries didn’t assist Lonely Planet’s direction of ‘1.5km east of downtown’. Or maybe it’s just my sense of direction. A phone call to the hotel had me searching for the 100 kilometre post. “First on left after hospital” was a better guide, so I back-tracked. Signs out the front were in Thai only.

It seemed to be under renovation and there were few if any guests, and at 700 baht wasn’t comparative value. The first room I checked into was, on closer inspection, infested with ants. It’s funny how when you notice one ant all the others become obvious. The second room wasn’t exactly spotless, but consoled myself it was just for one night.

While investigating the facilities in the restaurant area overlooking the Mekong, one of the staff said that later in the dry season you could virtually walk across the river, and that locals played soccer on the exposed sand.

Waterfalls, caves and a hilltop monastery with views over the Mekong are among the things to see around Sangkhom. A friend had recommended the caves, but Dtoy didn’t think they were special and those I’d seen in the past hadn’t particularly impressed, so I decided to rule them out and save the extra forty kilometre ride.

The monastery sits on top of a hill overlooking Sangkhom, but to get there by road requires riding back toward Si Chiang Mai to a junction where a right turn takes you up and around to the temple, a distance of twenty k’s.

Like yesterday the weather was fine, the views sublime and the road quiet. At one point road-works required navigating before the highway rose and dipped in a curve down to Than Thong waterfall at the junction, my first stop.

Dry waterfall, Sangkhom

There was a lot of rubbish and stray dogs, but little water flowing over the falls at this time of year. Thais sat around on the rocks imbuing a strong drink or two. With the falls at full-bore it might be attractive as water cascaded into the Mekong below. Though, not far away were good views over the river (see yesterday’s account).

After the junction, the road branched away from the river for a few kilometres to another right turn where a sign pointed to a narrow, paved road winding through forest to the temple, Wat Pha Tak Sua.

Sangkhom, temple

And this magnificent view overlooking Sangkhom.

Mekong river, Sangkhom

From this elevation the island across from Bouy became evident. And sand bars were already being exposed in the river.

Mekong river, Sangkhom

This gong was donated by a Guesthouse that no longer exists (see yesterday for my theory about Sangkhom’s decline as a travel destination).

Temple gong

There were monks and volunteers tidying up the yard. One of the latter started up a conversation. To complete his Buddhist commitments he stayed overnight a couple of times a month, depending on phases of the moon and according to his astrological calendar. He was retired now and living in Si Chiangmai.

He asked the question that often preoccupied Thai men and women – did I have a Thai wife or girlfriend?

He also asked if I was Buddhist and said they had prayers in the hall at 4am and 8pm that I was welcome to attend.

Everything gets mixed up more than usual in Thailand: religion, sex, alcohol, romance, money, the conservative with the liberal.

He also said I could stay overnight if I asked the abbot.

According to Lonely Planet the monks trek down to Sangkhom every morning to collect alms, but he said they now went by minibus.

I had arrived earlier than expected, and didn’t wait around the three or four hours till sunset. Though it could be interesting to stay overnight in the temple at some point – file it for future reference.

So I returned, descending into the humid air along the river to Sangkhom.

Mekong river, Sangkhom

Back at the hotel, the shower wasn’t working. Scrubbed up with the trickle on offer.

What sounded like a heated argument could be heard from outside at ground level. A little later, I descended to a dark and empty restaurant. A group of Thai men and women sat on the grass nearby drinking whisky and beer. Whatever disagreement, if any, that had existed between them was settled, but they were in a boisterous mood. One approached, turned on the restaurant light and offered a smile that could’ve been interpreted as apologetic.

But I didn’t want to eat there, so hopped on the motorbike and rode off to a restaurant I’d seen earlier that also looked like it could have good coffee. Called Tantawan, it was perched on the edge of the river, which could be seen speeding past exposed by the restaurant lights. The dark outline of distant hills in Laos lined the opposite bank.

There were few customers, but I doubt Sangkhom ever gets busy restaurant trade. And they did sell freshly brewed coffee (B20) and even had WiFi! But now I settled for cold Singha and a spicy meal. Good food.

Sangkhom is a pretty village with a great setting, but it’s no party town. I liked that, actually – it narrowed the decision-making. You can have an early, lazy night without feeling you’re missing out on something.

Afterwards, I bought beer, ice cream and drinking water from a nearby shop, and rode back to Ruanmaithai, where I discovered the shower was now working (apparently, there’s a switch on the wall outside the room). Lacking a veranda to sit outside on, I just watched some telly – no English channels. Probably a Thai comedy soap. They can be amusing and disarmingly corny.

Tomorrow I would be completing the second half of the journey to Chiang Khan, a town famous among Thais for its traditional timber houses. I was looking forward to venturing off again into unknown territory along the Mekong.

Ice cream and beer consumed, but not at the same time, I soon called it a night. Wishful thinking. A cool blast buffeted my face from the air conditioner directly above the bed. There was no way to adjust the blades or fan speed, and there was no ceiling-fan alternative, so eventually I switched it off, lowered the mosquito net and opened the window.

Ruanmaithai. Maybe it should be called Ruinmynight.

Even paradise isn’t perfect.