Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Watching the River Flow

The Mekong River flows by me as I write, sitting at an outdoor table, where an (mostly unreliable) internet connection is conveniently located, at Mut Mee Garden Guest House in Nong Khai. The muddy water is fueled by heavy rains upstream. This is the end of the wet season in Thailand, and also in Laos across the wide river from me, my destination tomorrow. For the next ten days, the Mekong will remain in sight.

I've long had a fascination with the Mekong, one of the world’s great rivers, since first hearing its mysterious name during the American War (that's how the Vietnamese think of it). It was originally called Mae Nam Khong by the local Tai people, Mae Khong for short, which means Kong River or "Mother of all rivers" (“nam” is the Thai word for water). The headwaters are believed to be in China’s Qinghai province (Tibet?) and half of the river’s length is in that country. Leaving China, the Mekong passes through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Because of gorges, rapids and falls, much of the river is all but impassable to river traffic. There are several dams in China, which have concerned environmentalists, and a few bridges downstream, notably the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, built in 2004, that I will cross over tomorrow.

The broad river is tranquil here and appears to move as slow as molasses in front of the Mut Mee (which means, inexplicably, “got fleas,” according to the British woman who runs the Hornbill Bookstore next door). Legend has it that the river is populated by water dragons called “naga” who spew fireballs into the air every October at the end of the annual Buddhist Rains Retreat which coincides with the 15th waxing moon of the 11th lunar month. Whatever the scientific explanation for the phenomenon of small lights rising from the water may be, the event is a tourist bonanza. Unfortunately I will be back in Bangkok by October 26th when the next sighting is scheduled to take place.

I flew from Bangkok to Udon yesterday and took a van from the airport to Nong Khai an hour’s drive north. On the northeastern border of Thailand, in the land called Isan (for the Sanskrit Isana, the Mon-Khmer kingdom which flourished in the 9th century), Nong Khai is a major gateway to Laos. Mut Mee, owned by an Englishman named Julian, comes highly recommended by Lonely Planet (which was just sold to BBC Media in a multi-million-dollar deal). Rooms in several buildings and an outdoor restaurant overlook the Mekong, and the compound also includes, besides the bookstore, space for artists and yoga instructors. There is also a floating bar and restaurant, and a barge for evening cruises. I took one last night to enjoy the Mekong at sunset, drinking beer while watching the lights come on in both countries.

There is a small backpacker scene in Nong Khai with travelers stopping off here on their way to the fabled Vang Vien in Laos which, if reports are correct, sounds similar to Pai which I visited two years ago between Chiang Mai and the Burmese border: Dreadlocks, Banana pancakes and bars showing American films on DVDs. Guests at Mut Mee are given a book for their room in which to enter charges for food and drink. Coffee is free and this morning I had an omelet with “sexy stuffing” for breakfast. Bikes are available and if the rain does not materialize, I plan to ride across town to see a strange sculpture park that sounds like the Thai version of Watts Towers in LA. Yesterday I strolled through the small town, visiting a large market, noticing the unique and colorful tuk tuks, and seeing a variety of Buddhist temples, one with a very interesting Buddha situated on top, with a fine view of the Mekong. I even found a coffee house which served an excellent cappuccino.

Mostly I want to enjoy the time here and watch the river flow by.

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