MOON OVER MEKONG
TRIP TO ISAN
Billy and Akaisha Kaderli
Concerns about flying PB Air quickly faded
when we saw the fifty seat jet sitting on the tarmac. This flight was to
take us across Thailand to Nakhon Phanom, a small town on the Mekong River
The corporate style jet touched down in a little over one hour, 17 Kilometers from town. After
paying a small price for a taxi, we settled into our guest house, a stone’s
throw from the river.
THE MOUNTAINS OF LAOS ACROSS THE MEKONG RIVER FROM
It is from here that we started our journey south, following
this ancient waterway, stopping at known trade routes, natural wonders,
and temples, ending at the eastern most point in Thailand, Khong Chiam.
Few foreign tourists pass through this area as is
evidenced by the lack of English spoken and menus only in Thai. We asked
while visiting a local school, when the last time they had seen “people
like us.” Three years ago was their answer.
CHI MINH'S DESK
This fact proved interesting, as our command of the Thai
language is poor at best. Last night at dinner when we asked for a
beer, they brought us two milkshakes, but at least we received the food we
Nakhom Phanom, according to local tradition, is the
oldest city in Thailand (said to be more than 2,000 years old), and was
visited by the Buddha. We expected to find a city filled with charm, rich
in custom and heritage. Instead, we discovered an uninspiring, gray,
almost faceless industrial metropolis.
Ho Chi Minh's House in Ban Na Jok is a point of
interest here, although many tourists do not know this attraction exists. Only five kilometers from the city center, in 1923, Ho Chi Minh and 200 soldiers
went underground for six years. Living with the Isan villagers, they planned
Vietnam’s liberation from the French colonialists. He earned his
income by growing betel nuts, rice and vegetables.
Many of the locals who are refugees from Vietnam were hesitant
to admit they were Vietnamese, for there was great negative sentiment
against them by the Thais. However their presence was considerable, as
evidenced by the Vietnamese writing on the town clock. It wasn’t until
recently that the governments of Vietnam and Thailand openly discussed the historical significance of this area.
As the leader of the Vietnamese nationalist
movement for nearly three decades, Ho was one of the prime movers of the
post-World War II anti-colonial movement in Asia, and one of the most
influential communist leaders of the 20th century. Founder of the
Indochina Communist Party (1930) and its successor, the Viet-Minh (1941),
he was president from 1945 to 1969 of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam
He is still very well respected in this
region of Thailand where many of the people are descendents of refugees.
Local sentiment has also relaxed, and now to say one is Vietnamese no
longer brings damaging consequences.
Next stop, an international trade route
through three countries!
BILLY & AKAISHA AT HO CHI MINH'S HOUSE
The map showed a bridge connecting Laos to
Thailand here. Not so. Only a sign was placed marking the future
OUR ROUTE ALONG THE MEKONG, NAKHON PHANOM, MUKDAHAN,
Our trip south to Mukdahan, 56 Baht on an air-con bus,
took two hours through many farming villages along the Mekong. Having
learned of the "proposed bridge," we spoke with the engineer in
charge of the project. He assured us that in two years this crossing would
We did notice many new
buildings on the Thai side of the border, and the new pier was
fantastic, but looking across to Laos we could not see any progress.
Once this connection is completed, both the topography of this city, as
well as the economics will be altered. Goods from Vietnam and Laos will
have easy access for delivery to Thailand, and to the larger city of
Bangkok to the south. However, for now, river ferries will have to
One of the reasons for stopping here
was the Indochine market. There were lots of goods at decent
prices, plus many unusual fabrics. Both solid colors and hand painted silks of
Thailand were offered, as well as exquisitely hand painted fabrics from Vietnam. Purses
simulating 18 karat gold with diamonds were more than eye catching and it
took discipline not to purchase one, merely to own it!
Something not to be missed in this area
of Thailand, is
the large fish caught from the Mekong River. They call them giant catfish,
and are seen everywhere in the food market. So for dinner we ordered Pla
Kratiem Prik Thai, Fried River Fish, with garlic and pepper. Succulent!
That evening, we couldn't overlook the opportunity to wander
through the night market where there were the usual CD stores, clothes,
and all kinds of food items for sale. Some we recognized, and others
well, the origins were questionable. However, the made to order banana
chocolate pancake was irresistible for dessert, and perfect for a finish
to our meal.
The next morning while strolling, we could see a large
tower in the distance. Although not mentioned or advertised
anywhere, we discovered the Mukdahan Tower, about two kilometers from
town. This monument is 213 feet high and was built in 1996, in honor of
the King of Thailand's 50th Anniversary of accession to the throne.
Taking the elevator to the top, we could see 360 degree
views of the city, and the flowing Mekong River. The vista was quite
impressive, showing rice fields, dirt paths and highways, hills, plains
and the neighboring country of Laos. In fact, we could see the
"future site" of the bridge!
The stem of the tower served as a place to collect and
display historic items and antiques of Mukdahan Province. There were the
traditional costumes of the eight tribes of Thailand, as well as old
paper money, and tools used by the villagers. Some
photos taken many decades ago showed that little has changed over the
The deep pearl shaped top of the tower is a Buddhist
shrine, with numerous sacred images made from silver. Many Thais pay
respect here, and the scent of flowers and incense was calming.
Well worth the ten Baht entry fee, the
tower should not be omitted if you’re in the area.
As luck would have it that evening, the immense full
moon rising over Laos and the Mekong was both elegant and timeless. We
could not help but spend time on the pier contemplating tomorrow’s
travel as we prepared to leave for the natural wonders of Khong Chiam.
CURIOUS CHILDREN GATHER AROUND
Wedged between the Moon and Mekong Rivers,
Khong Chiam is where the sun rises first on Siam, the eastern-most point
With all of its natural beauty, this community is
located in one of the more underprivileged areas of Thailand. You won’t
find internet, hot showers, or fine restaurants here. The people do not
have much materially compared to others, but they are rich with tradition
and smiles. The innocence and naivete here is difficult to put into words.
The sense is that most things have not changed for decades, perhaps
longer. We were warmly welcomed everywhere. They invited us to join them
and share their food on more than one occasion.
FISHERMAN CASTING HIS NET
The further south we traveled, language seemed to be
more of an issue. In Khong Chiam the tourists were mostly Thais, and not
for-eigners, so our accent was met with complete confusion.
Our speaking of words for common everyday
meals, was returned with puzzlement and blank stares. Fortunately,
the word for fish is easy to pronounce (pla), and is
in abundance here from the Mekong. That with some fresh vegetables, rice
and a beer, and we were all set. As is typical of undeveloped areas, there
didn’t seem to be much currency in circulation and even popular
restaurants had a hard time breaking larger bills.
We rented a boat and driver to take us to the Two
Colored River, the confluence of the Mekong and Moon Rivers. When these two rivers
collide, the different amounts of suspended
sand and silt in the waters cause this reaction, creating the two
THIS WOULD BE UNDER 8 FEET OF WATER!
The river trip was relaxing, a little hyped in our
opinion, but the landscape in this area is awesome. The story goes that
during the rainy season, these rivers surge, deepen, and the waterworn
island we were standing on would easily be sub-merged eight feet. Excellent
for the fishermen, but navigating these waters by boat could be
challenging with the many hidden islands.
Hiring a tuk tuk for half a day to take us
Taem Caves, and the Sao Chaliang mushroom rocks was ten bucks which
included a tip for good service.
WATER BUFFALO HERD
From the town center, we motored for an hour
in the open air through wooded areas viewing small collections of
homes on stilts, and a village here and there.
Reminiscent of the Midwest in autumn, the landscape
seemed familiar, yet it was a world away. Crossing a bridge, we saw a herd of long horned water buffalo lounging in the river below,
along with the Thai women who were guiding their way home.
Not far from here, our driver stopped at Sao
Chaliang. The collection of mushroom rocks created from millions of years
of differing erosion rates of the sandstone was dis-tinctive. Why they
haven’t yet fallen over was a mystery. After seeing these formations
while touring around, we started to notice them more and more in the
Finally arriving at the Pha
Taem Caves, we passed
through a visitor center with no charge, and received a map with
directions for a two hour walk. Then we descended steeply down the side of
the cliff, on a well marked but narrow, trail. Coming upon the prehistoric
cave paintings, our eyes widened.
PREHISTORIC CAVE PAINTINGS
We have never seen anything like this before;
a rare sight indeed. Sharply defined, still retaining the color of animal
blood and dirt from the surrounding area, were more than 300 images,
thousands of years old. Animals, geometrical designs and palm prints,
though basic, contained artistic merit, easily appreciated.
Opposite the paintings, throughout the entire
hike, you could see dramatic views of Laos and the Mekong River valley
through towering groves of bamboo.
Our trip to Eastern Thailand allowed us to experience
Thailand as it has been for centuries, raw and unspoiled from tourism. The
ancient waterway of the Mekong and viewing timeworn international trade
routes, studded with sculptured natural and man made marvels, both
captivated us and filled our minds with wonder.
Sa wa dee from Isan, Thailand!
Billy and Akaisha continue to journal and photograph their
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