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Published: November 14th 2009
In the rainy season the Mekong rises probably 50 feet or more above its current height. To compensate for that vast difference, there are long cement stairways that go from the riverbank to wherever the mighty river finds itself. We arrived in Thakhek Laos and our trusty guide and driver helped us lug our suitcases down the long stairway before saying our good-byes and we boarded the local ferryboat for the trip across the river and back into Thailand. We were the only falangs, but everyone smiled and said Sawasdee (if they were Thai) or Sabaidee (if they were Lao). Our new guide, Andy met us on the other side and with our new driver, Sunny, helped us lug or bags up corresponding cement stairs to Nakhon Phanom.
Meeting Andy and Sumontha
Andy turned out to be a delightful young man, 22 years old, and this was his first guiding job. Andy grew up in a town about an hour south of Nakhon Phanom, but had gone to high school there, as his mother felt he would get a better education in the larger town. After checking into the hotel, The Riverview, in which we had a beautiful riverfront
Clock Tower - Nakhon Phanom
Gift of Ho Chi Minh, who has a house near the town.
room with huge picture windows looking up and down the river, he took us to a restaurant for lunch. While we were eating Andy got a phone call from our hotel telling him that our friend was there and that she was coming over to where we were. The friend is Sumontha, who was one of the 3 Thai women that we had met in 1965; her sister had told us only that she would come to the hotel while we were there, but had not filled us in on when or what she was planning to do with us. Andy had just finished outlining the trip that we would be taking with him that afternoon, but when Sumontha arrived, we found that she had borrowed a car and driver from a friend and had planned to spend the afternoon driving us around. Of course we could not refuse her generosity, so we sent Andy on his way and off we went.
Searching for the Past
The first thing that we saw was the old clock tower, which you saw on my first blog. That block had changed very little since 1965, but that was the extent of
familiarity. What was, back then, a village where individual buildings sat amid palm trees and flowers, today the buildings that remain stand cheek-by-jowl with newer construction. We went out to the Air Base where Bruce was stationed, but almost nothing remained to suggest the huge presence the American forces had during the Vietnam War. The village has evolved into a thriving town with beautiful parks, a golf course, a university, and even the Mekong Fish Aquarium, where hundreds of squealing school children in their identical black pants or skirts and yellow or pink shirts (depending on the their school) ran from tank to tank.
South of the town the next day we visited one of the most holy wats, That Phanom. Andy helped us buy lotus blossoms, an incense stick and a square of gold leaf so that we could experience the rituals practiced daily in his culture. We laid the lotus blossom on the offering bench, lit the incense and stuck it in the sand, and applied our squares of gold leaf to the wat door. The faithful knelt in the Wat intoning prayers to the Buddha image within. In the market near the wat,
vendors were selling bags of live eels, fish, little turtles, and snails, and little cages with birds. The faithful buy these so that they can release them back into the wild and thus earn merit. In the wat complex they ring large heavy bells, beat on a giant drum, or clang on a huge gong to punctuate their prayers. They tie colorful scarves around a banyan tree, sacred because it is the type of tree under which Buddha sat when he received his enlightenment.
Vietnamese Dinner near Uncle Ho’s House
Sumontha invited us to have dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant that Andy suggested, so in the evening she picked us up again, but when we started out it was clear from the direction she turned that she did not know how to get there. She and the driver phoned someone and there was a vociferous exchange and the next thing we knew, Andy had pulled alongside us on his motorcycle. So he ended up joining us for dinner and ordering a wonderful assortment of Vietnamese fare, including giant prawns, hot and sour soup, squid with baby corn and asparagus, and deep-fried snapper balls. The restaurant was in the
Thai-Vietnamese Friendship Village, part of which is the home where Ho Chi Minh lived after fleeing from the French in the 1930's. It was he who donated the clock tower to the town.
Six Degrees of Separation
It turned out that our memories were not the only ones being revived by Sumontha. When we introduced Andy to her, Andy realized that Sumontha had been one of the teachers at his high school. The next day, after we were alone with him, he told us that he never knew her as a teacher, and had no idea that she taught English; what he remembered was that she was the school disciplinarian for tardiness. Because Andy lived so far away and arrived by public bus, he was often late for school. When he got there the morning exercises had already started in the school yard and he and his friends would climb over the fence, hoping to slip in unnoticed. Sumontha would be waiting in the bushes and would catch the ones who couldn't move fast enough, and then rap their palms with a big stick. She also would monitor their haircuts and if their hair was more than an
By buying the bags of fish, etc. and freeing them
inch long, she would cut it with her scissors. He was terrified of her. He said he and his friends called her “Rambo”. I think that it was important to Andy to join us for dinner so that he could show her that he survived her harsh treatment and that he had made something of himself. He also expressed that he was happy to see her as a mellowed woman, instead of remembering only the unpleasant.
Of Monks and Merit
The next morning we started off at 6 AM to take part in Tak Baht, the merit-making for the monks. It was interesting to see the difference between what we had observed in Luang Prabang and what they do in Nakhon Phanom. In LP the villagers offered predominately plain white rice - maybe because there are at least 200 monks that come by each morning. In NKP we went first to the market where we picked up all manner of goodies: sweet sticky rice packaged in banana leaf pyramids, squares of gelatinous sweets wrapped in cellophane, plastic bags of broth and veggies, sealed cups of water, and fruits. As each monk opened the lid of his alms pot
Most Important Temple in Northeast Thailand
we dropped in one item. The pots were already filled almost to the top with packages of food. In one instance the monk had turned the lid upside down to collect the overflow. They take their offerings back to the wat and pool them for their morning and noon-time meals. We had a couple of things left after two groups of monks passed by, and Andy told us that we should keep it - that we would be blessed by having given the monks the best of what we brought, and that we should eat what remained to give us good luck. I was glad that I had kept the packet of sticky rice that I had; I would hate to think of the bad karma I would have experienced if I'd given that one to a monk: amidst the sticky rice was a long black hair.........
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