Darkest Isan (where decent thais fear to tread), Part Ten.
The only backpacker town in the whole of Isan, Nong Khai is ideal for those who want to getaway from Thailand a bit and experience guest house life, tuk tuks on hand to ferry you to sightseeing locations, rows of hamburger and pizza shops, internet cafes, gift shops and bars full of foreigners drinking to pounding techno, all packed along a concrete Mekongside parade, a kind of Margate from home.
The town is the home of the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge 1 and for the last 20 years has made its living as the staging post between Lao and Thailand, anyone heading to Vientiane on a far banks of the Mekong hits this town either for a few hours or a day. Nong Khai is not devoid of places of interest in its own right. like most towns in this part of Isan the French influence can still be found, though not so much as earlier places I visited. The 1929 former governor’s mansion, now open to the public is the best reminder left. I was also pleased to see ferry boats still cross the river to Lao for those who prefer a more traditional crossing than the ugly bridge.
The main reason I came to stay in Nong Khai though is Sala Keoku, best described as a Buddhist Disneyworld, a veritable wonderland of surreal sculptures of gods, demons and mythical beasts from Buddhist and Hindu folk law. The park was built by Bunleua Sulilat in 1978, a Lao who had fled his own country and embarked on a colossal sculpture spree using donated cement and unskilled labour, thought mad by the locals his work has now become one of the main sources of income for the town.
Sala Keoku wasn’t the first such park he built, back in 1958 he had made an earlier one just outside Vientiane in neighboring Lao, which I had visited twice in the 90’s. Since then I had always been keen to visit the Thai one to make a comparison.
Sala Keoku lies just outside the town and an easy cycle ride if you want to give the tuk tuks a miss, this is a good idea as once you’ve finished at the park you can the head further up the road taking in the winding country lanes, farms, paddy fields, and explore the small villages you encounter.
My first impression of the park was, it would be nice if they gave the statues a clean, my second god this is big and my third that it’s on a such larger scale than its Lao neighbour any comparison would be unfair. There probably deserved to be a “what the !@#$” reaction in there too, but I missed that one out having been to the Lao park and had some experience in confronting 25 metre hydras. The park is more than just a spiritual lecture as Sulilat seeks to use his own imagery to make statements about how people should live life and how a country should be run. The excellent centre piece, the Wheel of Life, is more a philosophy book than a sculpture as he lectures the visitor on everything from the dangers of political corruption to the perils of our existential plight.
An existential plight I did discover at Sala Keoku, as a month before I had been in a Bangkok shopping centre and fancying a bowl of shaved ice entered a shop to discover it was 80 baht with a single topping, whereas beside the exit to Sala Keoku they are 10 baht with 12 toppings.
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