Author Archives: Paul Wilding

Buddha Park and Nong Khai

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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Ho Chi Mihn’s House in Thailand

Darkest Isan (where decent thais fear to tread), Part Nine

For the Americans reading is this blog, Ho Chi Minh is that damn pinko “grrr!” who as TV and Hollywood have proven on celluloid really didn’t kick the arse of the US army after all. For people in the rest of the world he was leader who fought to free his country from French, Japanese and US oppression. For we Londoners he’s a local boy done good. It’s not often a snow sweeper from Ealing goes on to found a country. This man lead a remarkable life , between 1923 and 1933 living in Hong Kong, Milan, Switzerland, Boston, New York, London, France, Russia and China, working as a cook’s assistant, waiter, pastry chef, co-founding the French Communist Party and writing for French magazines.

Ban Na Jok or the Thai Vietnam Friendship Village lies west of Meung Nakhon Phanong along the Sakhon Nakhon highway and was the residence of Ho Chi Mihn, or as the locals call him, Uncle Ho. Located a 30 minute bicycle ride from town centre, it’s an unmissable attraction, Uncle Ho himself walked from there to Sakhon Nakhon and then onto Udon Thani, so the so no excuses for not doing the short bike ride.

The Vietnamese and now Thai speaking as well village is a beautiful throwback into times of old, a devolved mixture of farmhouses, small freeholds and old wooden villas in their own grounds sprawling across erratic paddy fields, so different in style to Thai farmland you get a real sense of being in another country. Founded over 110 years ago with  most of the resident’s still today being Vietnamese,  it was an obvious place for Vietnamese migrants to settle in and Uncle Ho did for a time as he was building his movement to free Vietnam from colonialism back in ………. Well, there’s the first stumbling block. Exactly when Ho Chi Mihn lived in there is problematic, the high quality glossy brochure I got from the Ho Chi Mihn Museum tells us that Uncle Ho arrived at the house in 1923 and stayed for 7 years. However all biographies of Ho Chi Mihn I found say he only lived in the village between 1928 and 1929.

Whatever the real timing the house where Ho Chi Minh lived during the twenties gathering support for his campaign to free Vietnam is owned today by Mr Tiew and his energetic daughter Miss Kornkanok who speaks four languages and does her upmost to make you feel welcome, she lives in the house next to Uncle Ho’s and if your lucky may invite you in to chat to for ages.

While living in the house, Lung Ho(Thai) or Jin (Vietnamese) learnt Thai and supported himself by teaching  fishing to the locals, he also had a hand at forming the land around the village being a prolific gardener planting several coconut and areca tress that are still there today

The house has been changed little from when Uncle Ho lived there. I’ve seen a lot of old houses in Thailand preserved but they have been mansions and a lot of old peasant wooden houses not preserved, this is the first peasant house I’ve seen kept as it was in the early 20thcentury and apart from a collection of photos and memorabilia decorating the walls it gives a better experience at what a peasant’s life may have been like back then than anywhere else I have been in Thailand and is worth a visit for this alone. Also at the heart of the village is a new modern museum built with Vietnamese money celebrating the life of their former president. In the Communist spirit both Uncle Ho’s house and the museum are free to enter, donations appreciated.

Nakhon Phanom (City of Mountains)

Darkest Isan (where decent thais fear to tread), Part Eight

This sleepy little provincial town was once part of the Lan Xang Kingdom of Lao and later a picturesque retreat for French colonists. A mix of the old and new, or perhaps I should say old and new money as the affluent architecture of the past is joined by affluent architecture of the present.

The immaculate modern foreshore gives uninterrupted kilometre after kilometre of the most stunning views of the Mekong I’ve seen on either side of the river. The city of mountains is actually quite mountainless, sue the TAT not me, but has stunning views of the great limestone mountain range in Lao.

Nakhon Phanom retains much it’s French/Lao/Old Thai/Vietnamese culture today and barely feels like you are in Thailand, let alone Isan. A foreign tourist in this town is about as rare as cheap accommodation, the locals are both friendly and often tongued tied when they meet you. They may also be made of sterner stuff than other Thai as every second restaurant in town seems to be a steak house, no wussy vegetables or rice for them, just red meat.

There is surprisingly much to do in this town which doesn’t seem to have yet grasped the notion of entrance fees. When you have finally prised yourself away from the Mekong view and the stunning panorama of Lao mountains, there’s the former governor’s teak mansion, completely deserted and open to anyone who wanders in. The prison museum and park on the former site now has been turned into a waxworks warning all naughty Thais to reform. The TAT office is worth a visit, just to get to go inside the huge French colonial mansion that houses it, they were completely stunned to have a tourist and they don’t have a word of English but can still give you a great map of the town and province.

The centre of major fighting during the Vietnam War fortunately the stunning French colonial and traditional Thai architecture has survived and the highlight of any trip must be cycling north and losing yourself in the maze of side streets off the Mekong bank road where you are in a different world and era of French mansions, traditional Thai wooden buildings, modern villas all blending seamlessly. The town has quite miraculously avoided the Thai generic ugly concrete bloc syndrome, only around the major roads in the south does it succumb to this. My favourite place on my whole trip to Isan.

The Ban Song Khan Catholic Massacre Monument

Darkest Isan (where decent thais fear to tread), Part Seven

If I had a baht for every time, back home and in the far east, I’ve been told or read how Buddhism is different, it’s a religion of tolerance and enlightenment, I’d almost have the daily wage of a red shirt by now. The Shrine of the Seven Martyrs show that at times Buddhism is more than capable of lining up alongside its Abrahamic counterparts in the prejudice, fanaticism and murder department.

The small village of Ban Song Khan lies in the far north of Mukdahan Province near the Nakhon Phanom Border, better described as the middle of bloody nowhere, look Ray Mears would think twice about going there.  Deep in rice growing territory surrounded kilometres of paddy fields and scatterings small wooden villages, what made this tiny un-outstanding village different was at sometime in its history it had been visited by French missionaries from just across the river in Lao and many people in the area were Catholics.

History

In 1932 Thailand had a coup de tate and absolute monarchy ended. The coupers however fell out on how to run the country, and ultimately  the army seized control under a Mussolini admiring dictator. Thailand was a very devolved country of many cultures and languages with little sense of being a single people. The fascist government began to address this and using techniques that had worked for Mussolini in Italy, a program a centralisation and nationalism was initiated along with anti foreign propaganda. Though aimed mostly at Japanese and Chinese, all foreign ideas came under suspicion and one of these were the Catholic residents of  Ban Song Khan.

Xenophobia of foreign influences reached a height in 1940 as the imminent threat of Japanese invasion emerged and the government concerned with stamping out everything foreign tasked the police with the job of dealing with Ban Song Khan. The demand was simple; to show their loyalty the whole village was to convert from Catholicism to Buddhism immediately. To enforce this order police in September 1940  fell upon the village knocking on each door and firing their guns in the air and running the catholic priest out of town. Believing this shock to the system would be enough they departed. Anyone who had the misfortune of attending Catholic school such as I did will know just how dumb that last part is. Catholics just don’t see intimidation (they also don’t see reason, common sense or the other person’s point of view either, as a matter of fact) as a reason to back down.

Leaderless and frightened the villagers turned to a Philip Siphong who took on the role of headman and encouraged the villages to resist the demand. On the 16th of September he became the first of the Martyrs after receiving a letter inviting him to visit the local sheriff, as he was travelling through the forest; he was ambushed and murdered by the police.

Village leadership now fell on two nuns who ran the village convent Agnes Phila and Lucia Khambang. Police made more visits to the village firing guns in the air, but the villages would still not capitulate. On December the 25th Police Chief Lue of Songram visited the village personally meeting the nuns in the local church, where he quite categorically ordered them to convert to Buddhism or they would be killed. The nuns apparently refused on the spot and the next day he returned with a number of policemen. The police ordered the nuns and several children to the convent cemetery and lined them up in front of the gathered villagers. The line consisted of 3 nuns and 5 children, the father of one of the children interveined and was able to carry his daughter away despite protests. The rest were given a final offer by police Chief Lue at gunpoint to convert or die which they refused and the police opened fire. The 3 nuns and 3 of the children were killed, however a fourth child Sorn apparently covered in blood but not hit crawled out from under the bodies when the police had gone. She lived to the 1990’s  and retold the story frequently.

Eventually an investigation was called and Police Chief Lue found responsible and received transfer to another station as punishment.

Shrine of the Seven Martyrs

Done with typical Catholic hyperbole, the monument resides on the site of the now vanished Ban Song Khan or swamps it more like. I guess when the Catholic Church budgeted for it, they didn’t quite realise how cheap building is in this country, expecting a reasonable size statue they got a mini Mecca. Also the Catholic church doesn’t seem to understand the notion of overkill, as every inch of the postmodern glass church at the heart of the monument is filled by images, references, mock tombs and stories of the martyrs. It’s surrounded by a complex which then tells the story in stone murual. Beside the monument is the massive convent and school site again knee deep in statues, monuments graves and references to the martyrs.

I guess the moral of the story is if you’re a dictator of a backward third world country with low labour and building material costs, try to avoid massacres at small insignificant catholic convents, otherwise the Catholic Church will go completely mental and build a humungous monument on a pyramidic scale to embarrass you about to for centuries to come. But if this doesn’t discourage you from doing it, make sure you do it in the middle of bloody nowhere where even catholic overkill of this proportion can go unnoticed.

The place is well worth a visit. Not only for the stunning scenary around but just for the shock of finding something on this scale built in such an out the way place and the fact you know if this happened in the UK  it would simply get a plaque on the wall.

The monument got me thinking, if you build something on this scale for just 7 people who were murdered for their Catholic beliefs by the police. How big must the monument for many who were murdered by the police for their Communist beliefs? I guess Isan better start saving.

Mukdahan

Darkest Isan (where decent thais fear to tread), Part Six

I first hit Mukdahan 12 years ago, arrived at the bus station, took a tuk tuk through the town along Mekong road past the Indo-Chinese market, thought this looks interesting I must really visit this place someday, arrived at the ferry port and got on a boat to Savannaket in Lao. I’m sure on some planets in the cosmos 12 years counts as soon, so I’m back as promised.

Barely large enough to warrant the title town, this ragged little hamlet is best described as feeling like a seaside resort in the winter, the riverside markets and shops outnumbering the customers. Mukdahan is culturally and ethnically unique from the rest of Thailand and feels like a bordertown, which in my experience is very rare amongst bordertowns.  Unlike many small Thai towns Mukdahan still has a lot of character and has not yet succumbed to the grid of concrete building formula, especially near the banks of the Mekong where a lot the original wooden buildings survive.

The town is on a hub of trade a trade route between Lao, Thailand and Vietnam. Traditionally ferry boats from the town centre sedately shipped people back and forth across the Mekong, now they speed across the newly built Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge 2, 6 km upstream. which seems as if anything to make trade pass the town by, rather than help it, many traders complaining the place is nowadays is quieter if anything. since the bridge.

The town’s main draw is the Indochina market on the banks of the Mekong attracting legions of Thai bargain hunters to buy an amazing variety of goods at prices that would make a Chatuchak shopper cry. In fact you could buy here and resell on your stall at JJ and make a damn good profit, as I guess many are. Also if you listen carefully you can hear Thai, Lao, Vietnamese and several ancient dialects of Thai spoken as you wander through the Indochina Market.

For the non-shopper the town offers a host of act ivies, after pigging out in one of the town’s numerous Vietnamese restaurants, the only restaurants in town which don’t seem to a have a six page long insect section in their menu, the Mekongside road offers a rare experience. The road leaves the town to the north and just goes on for hundreds of kilometres, hugging the banks all the way. The road is old narrow and in poor repair and a brand new highways runs the same route nearby, so the old road is devoid of cars, offering an opportunity for tranquil cycling. Hiring a bicycle or motorcycle and taking a day trip up the road will offer the tourist about as good a trip into real Thailand as it is possible to get, as the road passes through farms, villages and spectacular scenery.

Ho Kaeo Mukdahan

Whoever thought of combining a viewing tower and ethnological museum obviously wasn’t thought a little weird by the people who let him build it and we should be grateful he wasn’t. Laying just a kilometre outside Muang Mukdahan, Ho Kaeo Mukdahan turned out to be something of a revelation and worth every moment of the lengthy time I spent there.

The tower is split into four levels. The ball at the top a shrine housing many Buddha images. Below a viewing tower offers a panarithic view of the lanscape around. To the to the east quite the best view of the Mekong there is anywhere in Thailand, to the north the town of Mukdahan, looking south the forestsand mountains of the national park and looking west the working paddyfields. Around the tower are comprehensive photomaps in English explaining every site you see as you look in that direction in detail

The first two floors are an ethnological museum of the unique people who make up the population of Mukdahan, who are Thai tribal rather than hill tribal. The museum houses tradional objects and displays of the tribes national costumes. A large wall display tells the history of the region, the unique local customs of the 8 Thai tribal groups and gives fascinating insights into the unique versions of Thai they each speak. A huge collection of original photos dating back from over century show just how unique Mukdahan is culturally from other Thais as they were still living a tribal lifestyle akin to what other Thai would have lived in the distant past. However most amazing of all the Museum houses all the original official documents from Mukdahan’s history which the visitor is free to handle and examine.

It took me 12 years to get back to Mukdahan, but it was really worth the wait.