The next part of our drive took us to Nong Khai on the Thai side of the river Mekong which forms a natural border between Thailand and Laos. We checked in at the Mekong Riverside guesthouse, which had been recommended to us. We explored a bit and found the Mut Mee guesthouse which was delightful – obviously very popular as it was full or we might have been tempted to stay there instead of the other guesthouse. Visitors are encouraged to use the facilities so we enjoyed a cooling drink while sitting in the gardens.
At 5pm we boarded the Nagarina for a sunset trip on the Mekong River.
We got talking to 3 Swiss guys who were travelling around. They live on the lake about 100km south of Chiang Rai. After the trip we ate dinner in the Vietnamese Daeng restaurant, where we ordered far too much food (by accident rather than by choice). We then went to look in the market near the guesthouse but it was closed. In fact it wasn’t the market at all as we discovered next morning. We ended up in one of the local bars. Inevitably one sometimes tunes in to other people’s conversations – someone was having a spot of bother and was hoping to enlist someone else’s help to sort it out. This is a border town with borderline people and it’s dangerous to get involved. Farangs (foreigners) have no rights whatsoever.
The next day we set off to look for the sculpture garden but took the wrong road (having first got ensnarled in the busy bus station area where we had to reverse the car out of the increasingly narrow streets). However, it was a pretty road with some nice houses. We managed to find the right road and the sculpture garden of Sala Kaeo Kou (aka Wat Khaek). “The temple was founded by the late Luang Phu Boonlua Surirat, an unconventional Thai holy man….Arrayed with pretty flowers and plants, the sculpture garden bristles with Buddhist, Hindu and secular figures, all executed in concrete with imaginative abandon by unskilled followers un Luang Phu’s direction….
The largest statue in the garden shows the familiar story of the kindly naga king, Muchalinda, sheltering the Buddha, who is lost in meditation, from the heavy rain and floods: here the Buddha has shrunk in significance and the seven-headed snake has grown to 25m, with fierce, gaping fangs and long tongues.
Many of the statues illustrate Thai proverbs. Near the entrance an elephant surrounded by a pack of dogs symbolises integrity “as the elephant is indifferent to the barking dogs”….In the corner furthest from the entrance, you enter the complex Circle of Life through a huge mouth representing the womb, inside which a hermit, a policeman, a monk, a rich man and a beggar, among others, represent different paths in life.” (RoughGuide).
The statues really were quite extraordinary. They are constructed initially in brick over which a metal framework was attached and then covered in cement.
We then drove along the 211, following the course of the Mekong river through rice fields and fruit plantations, it’s a very fertile area.
We went through the villages of Pakchom and Sanghkom (both very pretty and with plenty of holiday accommodation) as far as Chiang Kahn where we stopped for a drink before turning south towards Phru Rea. Laos is on the far side of the river.
We found the Chateau de Loei vineyard and tried to taste some of the wine but you could only taste the white wine and they only gave you a thimbleful per person. Roadside stalls were selling the wine together with golden bottle gourds which had a mouth carved into them and could therefore be used as piggy banks.
We drove back to Phru Rea to look for somewhere to stay and settled on the Phru Rhea resort where we had a very nice room and the grounds at the back of the hotel were beautiful.
Next morning I thought I was awaking to a jungle dawn chorus of hoots and screams but the reality proved much more prosaic when I opened the window – a very loud radio in one of the nearby chalets. We visited the Phru Rhea national park but there wasn’t much to see.
We then drove towards Dan Sai (lots of garden stalls along the road here and pampas grass 5m tall).
Then to Lom Sak and along the “green route”, highway 12, so called because it runs along the edges of so many national parks. We stopped for a beer at the Khae waterfalls, a popular picnic site for the Thais at weekends.
At 120 baht + 10 for the ice it was the most expensive beer so far! We got lost in Phitansulok because of the road works and all the road signs had been taken away. We found the right road after a frustrating three quarters of an hour. “Head for the hills” I told my husband and they loomed high ahead of us.