"The capital of Thailand is
twice as far away from here as the capital of Vietnam. In less
than five hours, one can be basking under the socialist sun and taking a
crash course in Marxism."
Biking out of Nong Khai and heading east, following the Mekong, I
passed through only very small towns -- until I came to Nakhon Phanom.
All right, it's not as if Nakhon Phanom town is a metropolis. The
entire province of Nakhon Phanom boasts less than 700,000 people.
Nakhon Phanom just felt like it was more than a small town. You
could not compare it to a Koh Samui or a Phuket or a Chiang Mai.
In my few days here, I only encountered a handful of foreigners.
I believe a good share of the reason this provincial capital town felt
alive was its location. In all the previous Mekong towns I'd been
to in Thailand, the Lao town on the other side was some forgettable
place, so forgettable you couldn't even be sure the Thais knew the name
of the Lao town on the other side. Here, the increasingly
touristed Lao town of Tha Khaek, where I'd spent five days five years
earlier, looked back at me from the other side. Tha Khaek had
undergone some development from its barebone state in 2005. I
briefly saw it from a boat as I did a river cruise and the waterfront
had more hotels and more restaurants than I remember, although
it still appeared a different world from Nakhon Phanom.
Am I in
Nakhon Phanom or Ohio -- or both?
And then there's Vietnam, ever so close that the smell of
socialism drifts to one's nostrils as if the philosophy were
being stewed in the kitchen next door. Travel agencies
offer tours of three countries in three days. Uncle Ho
Chi Minh spent three years in
a village, Ban Nachok, just outside Nakhon Phanom
between 1928 and 1929 and that village, to this day, still
has a Vietnamese cultural center, cemetery, and street
signs. There is a bet that's yet unresolved as to
whether authentic Vietnamese pho soup can be found within 5
minutes walk of the cultural center.
of Nakhon Phanom (l to r): Ho Chi Minh's
solace of socialism; river cruises along the
Mekong; 23rd century digital hotels that have USB
ports in every electrical outlet
Nakhon Phanon town is small, welcoming, and easy to get around.
It ain't New York City for the eating scene, but small restaurants on
streets perpendicular to the Mekong offer basic Thai dishes like pad
thai, fried rice, and morning glory for prices one one can smile at.
During lunch, there's a vegetarian restaurant open to cater to those
with alternative diets.
I did bike out to Uncle Ho's home. I came across the
cultural center first and mistook this as Uncle Ho's home.
Outside, school kids were learning Vietnamese from a Thai teacher of
A 60-yr old Thai man wearing the traditional non la Vietnamese
conical hat approached me. He was not of Vietnamese ethnicity, but
spoke some Vietnamese and had taken trips there. He also spoke
some English. This man took me by bicycle to Uncle Ho's home,
looked after by the now elderly son of one of Uncle Ho's former
bodyguards. Afterwards, this Thai fellow fluent in multiple
languages showed me various health regimens he employed to keep his
arteries flushed of plaques. He pounded some fresh leaves into a
bucket in order to extract the ultra fresh chlorophyll and then he
prescribed I stay off the spicy foods, completely forgetting that Thai
food without the chilis ceases to remain Thai cuisine. Professors
at Thailand's Thammasat University have proven that if you take chilis
out of Thai food, even starving cats and dogs won't touch it.
At night, I took a cruise along the Mekong. The boat skirts the
edge of the Thai side, turns around, and then hugs the Lao coast so
close you could give a middle finger to a Laotian ashore and possibly
instigate a major Southeast Asian conflict.
Just north of Nakhon Phanom town is the Tha Uthen district, well known
in the province as the site of a temple,
Wat U Then, which celebrated a century in 2011. Thai kids from
this province begin their love affair with Buddha here.