Friday, June 6, 2014

Lao Trip 6.3 - Tha Khaek

Nakhon Phanom means ‘City of Mountains,” reads the 2008 edition of Lonely Planet: Thailand, “but the undulating sugarloaf peaks all lie across the river in Laos, so you’ll be admiring rather than climbing them.”

True enough, I got a good view of them the morning of Day 3. I was at the passenger ferry terminal when they opened and got on one of the first boats across. It turned out that I could not enter Lao this way and was turned back. My guidebook is either out-of-date or the information just wrong. That’s OK, I enjoyed crossing then recrossing the Mekong and had all day to get to Tha Khaek as a stamped-in visitor. Much later, when I told my wife about the mistake, she had a good laugh.

The only way to cross into Lao from Nakhon Phanom without an existing Lao visa is by bus, I learned. So, back at the passenger ferry terminal in Nakhon Phanom, I looked for a tuk-tuk driver to take me to the bus terminal. I don’t usually use the drivers who are right at populated areas, so I found one a little down the street, laying back in a makeshift hammock. I asked him how it cost to get to the bus station and he quoted me a price that I knew was four times as high as it should have been. I knew this both because I’d taken a tuk-tuk from the bus station to the Grand Hotel the day before and also because of useful information in the guidebook about how much such things should cost. I thanked him and declined, moving back to the front entrance of the terminal where I got a tuk-tuk driver to give me the standard rate (about $1.00 USD) and proceeded on.

Going the bus route was much more like cattle herding and not nearly as exotic as going over by boat, but Oh Well! From the Nakhon Phanom bus station, I took the bus to Tha Khaek, which stops at the Thai border crossing, goes over the bridge, and then stops at the Tha Khaek border crossing. It was a lot more convoluted than would have been the boat crossing, but I went through the process all in good humor. Fresh in my mind was how my fellow bus riders had responded to the air conditioning breakdown, the day before. Not that I felt it at all, but it’s important to note that throughout Asia, displaying anger or even obvious displeasure is considered a loss-of-face and embarrassing for the witnesses. So, don’t do it.

Again basing myself along the Mekong in Tha Khaek, I took up lodging at the Sooksomboon Hotel, which is actually a converted French colonial-era police station. There were cheaper digs in town and a bit nicer for about the same price, but, as I’ve told you before, I like to stay close to the center of where I consider the action to be, and definitely along the Mekong fits my style.

After washing the day's clothes, showering and then changing into clean clothes, I left the guesthouse (not really what I would call a “hotel”) and strolled along the road that runs along the upper bank of the Tha Khaek side of the Mekong River. Across the way, I could easily spot the ferry terminal in Nakhon Phanom and the Indochina Market, where I had been that morning.

 As the sun was setting over the Mekong, I sat down at one of the outdoor restaurants and had some chicken, sticky rice and cucumber with some Beer Lao. Watching the multitude of sparkling reflections of the sun on the Nam Khong, my mind drifted back to when I was a lifeguard for four summers, in the late 1960s, on the North Shore of Long Island, New York. Those were exciting times for a teenager going into his 20s and I couldn’t help but compare then to now. Was I happier then than now? I used to think my lifeguard summers were the happiest times of my life. As I’ve gotten older, helped raise sons of my ownand have a wonderful life partner, I view happiness as something deeper than just having fun and excitement. Not to take away from the great times of my youth and afterwards, but I love being retired in Thailand and I believe I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.

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