Nong Khai sits at the very northeast of Thailand on the banks of the mighty Mekong River. Locally, it’s known as Naga City, after the mythical serpents said to inhabit the Mekong – the city is filled with literally hundreds of serpent images. Nong Khai is also known for its temples, rocket festivals and great balls of fire – the latter a natural phenomenon seemingly without any scientific explanation.
This city of 200,000 is the very essence of Isaan (pronounced “Esarn”). Isaan, or Isan, is the largest region of Thailand; a combination of 20 provinces half the size of Germany, heavily influenced by the ethnic Lao people. It shares a 1,800km border with Laos, marked with few exceptions by the Mekong. Here the river is more a conduit rather than a demarcation and merely facilitates the flow of people, goods, and various other goings on. Isaan and Nong Khai is Thailand and then it’s not really; with a character all its own.
Linguistically, ethnically and culturally it’s distinct from the rest of Thailand, much of which it can be said, look down on the people from this part of the country. The term "Isan" was derived from Isanapura, the capital of the Chenla Kingdom, which preceded the great Khmer Empire based at Angkor. The majority Lao speaking population of the region distinguish themselves not only from the Lao of Laos (the French added the “s”) but also from the central Thai by calling themselves khon Isaan or Thai Isaan. The locals even speak Lao albeit with Thai characters, while Thai soap operas are avidly followed and understood in Laos.
Not only is Isaan Thailand’s largest region; it’s the poorest, the most populous, hottest, driest, and geographically dominated by the Khorat Plateau, predominantly rural. It’s the rice bowl of Thailand. During times of drought, the ranks of the city bargirls fill with the rural poor looking to make ends meet. It’s also paradoxically, the fastest growing region in Thailand as industries seek to establish businesses due to all that cheap labour. Forty percent of the population is concentrated in the provinces of Khorat or Nakhon Ratchasima, Ubon Ratchathani, Udon Thani, and Khon Kaen, known as "big four of Isaan".
Politically, this is the land of the Red Shirts, Sinawatra country. The family from northern Thailand that has produced two prime ministers both duly elected, and then ejected in separate military coups. The Sinawatras gained power by politicising, really for the first time, the people of Isaan, an event not popular with Thailand’s traditional ruling elites.
This is old Thailand, traditional Thailand away from the traffic, crowds, and shopping malls of Bangkok. At its heart, Thailand is still very much a rural society. Bangkok and the tourist beaches aside, this is more like the real Thailand. The distinctive Isaan culture is a source of pride to those born into it. Most locals speak both Thai and the local dialect language.
The affinity between this part of Thailand and what is now the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) is almost indistinguishable and goes back centuries. War, invasion, drought, famine over time saw peoples move to and fro. It’s something the rest of Thailand views with some suspicion. Following the Siamese-Franco war of 1893 Nong Khai was ceded to France as part of the Laos Protectorate, and remained under French rule until 1932. The French were keen to expand their interests across the Mekong, and stir up anti-Siamese rhetoric. One spark for military action was Nong Khai expelling French merchants on suspicion of opium smuggling. Some French influence remains, principally examples of colonial architecture.
During the 20th century wars in Vietnam, Isaan and Nong Khai became home to many Lao, Chinese, and Vietnamese migrants and refugees. Many of whom were thought Vietminh sympathisers. This made Isaan even more suspicious in the eyes of Thailand’s then staunchly anti-communist dictators, keen to curry favour with the US. During this period Thailand experienced a communist insurgency of its own (1965-83). Thailand is a country where there is nearly always an insurgency boiling away; now it’s the Muslim south.
Nong Khai is the Thai city where Vientiane’s defeated and displaced citizens had been resettled in 1828 following the Lao rebellion and the razing of Vientiane by the forces of Siam. As a result today there are six million Lao living in Lao, along with almost 100 other ethnic groups, and three times that number living in Isaan.At the Friendship Bridge, the first bridge over the Mekong which opened 1994, the river is over 1km wide. When the water is lowest – the dry season in the Lower Mekong basin is November to April - sand bars appear, making the mighty waterway seem almost wadeable. When first opened the bridge was dubbed the “Bridge of AIDS”, as the ready access provided into once isolated Laos would see a stream of tourists with all the associated negativity associated with foreigners in Thailand.
It was near Nong Khai, the Hmong fled Lao in 1975, abandoned by their CIA masters who ran a private war in Laos dubbed the “Chaos in Lay-os” as Americans couldn’t make their mind up how to pronounce the name of the country designated officially neutral by international treaty. It was the Hmong that the CIA chose to aid the fight against the communist Pathet Lao and in the process made Laos the most bombed nation on Earth. Most of the bombing missions on Laos were launched from US bases in Isaan.Thailand also sent covert units chosen from among Thai Isaan to fight in Laos with the monarchists.
Thailand had twice as many covert operators in Lao during the US war in Vietnam, than it did troops on the ground in Vietnam. From the uplands of Xieng Khouang, near the “Plain of Jars” an area inhabited for over 4,000 years, the Hmong struggled down to the river carrying a few precious possessions with their babies on their backs. Below Vientiane they paddled, waded and swam to an indefinite exile. Some didn’t make it and were drowned. They then largely disappeared from view, their story briefly revisited by Hollywood in Clint Eastwood’s movie Gran Torino.
Nong Khai sits at the end of the rail line from Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok, a night’s journey by train. The sleeper trains of the Thai State Railways haven’t changed since I first boarded one over 20 years ago. There’s talk of new rolling stock, but like of lot of things here, nothing really ever comes of it.
Train travel in Thailand is not expensive, and there’s something about the sideways motion of a train that is infinitely preferable to the up and down of travel by road. The national rail network carries 44 million passengers annually on a network of just over 4,000kms. Train travel is a lot safer than travel by road, especially after dark. Thais are killed on the country’s roads at the rate of 80 a day, making Thailand second only in terms of road fatalities to war torn Libya. Safety regulations are often weakly enforced and crashes of speedboats operating between the popular southern tourist islands are also common.
My immediate companions were an elderly Thai couple travelling to Udon Thani, the last stop before Nong Khai. On the outskirts of Bangkok a farang boarded. He was the sort of oddball character often found in Southeast Asia. Not a tourist, or a traveller, more a drifter of no fixed abode and indeterminate means; a bag man. He was thin, carried a small hold-all which he nervously clung to. Even inside the carriage he wore aviators with reflective lenses, and a sort of paper fedora too large for his bald head. He cast furtive glances about like he was expecting trouble. Later I heard him warned by the Thai rail police about smoking after lights out.
The rail police dress as other officers do, in brown, complete with side arms. One had an automatic, another a revolver. The clipped all the tickets, and like train travel in Indonesia, a staffer then followed dutifully along to sweep up all the clippings.
A young Thai rail official then set about making up all the beds. Second class have no compartments – you’re all in there together. The toilets are industrial. I take my hat off to anyone who can maintain their balance on a steel squat toilet while bouncing about on a narrow gauge railway. At dawn the train approached Udon Thani, the last city before Nong Khai and one
of the four largest cities in Isaan.
I was the only passenger in the restaurant car where I was supplied with as much sweet coffee as I could consume. Behind me the three Thai rail police chatted away, their brown uniforms crisply pressed making me wonder if they’d slept at all. It was noisy, all the windows were in the dining car were open. Through the open windows Isaan was waking up. The train stops a short drive from the border with Lao.
The Mekong one of the world’s great waterways, passes through lands inhabited for thousands of years has its fair share of myths and mysteries. At Nong Khai are the naga fireballs also known as Mekong lights, and "bung fai paya nak" by the locals.
The lights vary in size, some like basketballs that rise up to 300m before disappearing, often being emitted from the river during the full moon at night at the end of the Buddhist Lent. Scientists struggle for an answer. They have been called one English newspaper, The Times, ‘one of the great natural mysteries of the world.’ Local legend has it fireballs are generated by the naga, a snake-like amphibious monster that personifies the Mekong to its Buddhist peoples, a kind of Mekong Lochness monster. In reality they maybe giant pythons like the one caught a photographed years ago and seen on many a postcard, about 8m long. Or they may be the Mekong Giant Catfish, the world’s largest freshwater fish, which can grow to almost 2m and are the size of a fattened pig.
The Rimkhong Guesthouse in Nong Khai is great value at 650 baht per night. Near new it affords great views of the river and is a stne’s throw from the riverside walkway, which features night markets and a string of restaurants and bars. A large part of the centre of town, including the river bank, has been made pedestrian-only. In the evening there are lanterns and market stalls. Women can be seen walking in various ethnic dress among the crowds.
A few expats can be found hereabouts settled into their regular seats in these mainly Anglophile islands watching rugby from the southern hemisphere and football from above the Equator. There was the usual demographic, males, mainly English. It’s an amazing trait of English males never to learn the local language to any degree and regardless of any woman they address other than their mother, from Oceania to Africa, is referred to with the suffix “Love”. “Giz a beer love”.
Across from the Rimkhong is the river pier Custom House. I walked through past the office where the brown-uniformed official wished me a “good morning” in English but otherwise paid me no attention. The river is reached down a series of wide concrete steps. At this time of the year it’s about 30 steps to the floating pontoon which the small river boats moor. To get freight off the boats and onto the trucks labourers carry each item up on their shoulders. Hot, heavy work. To get cargo down the steps two wooden slides worn smooth by years of use shoot bundles and boxes down the speed of a toboggan. One guy stands at the bottom ready, talking, smoking or on the phone and traps each item casually with the soul of his foot, with all the skill of a centre-forward from Issan’s Buriram United. One split second mistiming and it’s in the river. My presence meanwhile went barely noticed.
Down the road near the hospital is the Old Governor’s Mansion nearby Wat Hai Sok. The mansion looks like it belongs in colonial French Indochina. Set in grounds surrounded by manicured lawns and mature trees it resembles the set of a Somerset Maugham novel. Built around 1915 by a Vietnamese architect, Thailand’s late and much revered king, Bhumibol, stayed during his visit to Nakhon Phanom in the 1950s. Now it’s more of a historical house than a museum.
The Thai government is looking at establishing special economic zones or SEZs in Nong Khai and further east in Nakhon Phanom province, also bordering Laos. Thailand and Laos aim to boost bilateral trade to US$8 billion (or 250 billion Thai baht) by 2018, driven mainly by closer cooperation under ASEAN integration and the setting up of SEZs. Over their shoulder is the elephant in the region, China.
Thailand is also developing road and rail projects linking Thailand to neighbouring countries, including Laos and Cambodia. Along the river border there are 36 custom check points allowing passenger transportation between the two countries by international bus, train, car, or private hire van. The trend of passenger transportation has recently increased because of the rise of tourists and investors as well as the supporting promotion policy of both countries particularly for the passenger transportation business.
Much of this growth of can be attributed to Nong Khai province with its tourist attractions and destinations, food, culture and the natural environment.Rocket festivals usually occur mid-year in May, the sixth lunar month, in June, and sometimes July. On the ground there are crowds and good times. If you happen to be flying overhead by civilian aircraft, like I did one time from Pakse in southern Laos to Vientiane, the rockets present an alarming spectacle having the trajectory and speed approaching that of a surface-to-air missile.
More foreign tourists are stopping in Nong Khai. Thais like to visit too. There’s plenty to see and do including Sala Keaw Khu the almost surreal sculpture park; the enormously revered Luang Por Phra Sai Buddha, the most revered Buddha image in Nong Khai one of a set of triplets; Phu Phra Bat Historical Park with its unusual rock forms is within easy reach from Nong Khai; and the Thai-Lao Indochina Market called Tha Sadet Market along the banks of the Mekong.
The city and spirit of Isaan can ease you into Lao, probably the most laid back country in Southeast Asia, if you’re going that way, or back into Thailand if making the reverse trip.