After the heat, dust and chaos of Nakhon Ratchasima, I needed a break. A place where I could lie in a hammock and watch life lazily pass by. I packed up my scant possessions and hopped the local train to Nong Khai.
Most trains in the Isaan region are the 3rd class non-air conditioned variety. No reservations are necessary and the slow, screeching train makes every stop along the way. Some have simple wooden benches; I lucked out with padded benches for the seven hour journey. We passed through fields and villages and cities. Most stations were immaculately groomed with cheery little colonial-style buildings and pots of decorative flowering shrubs. Some were no more than a flattened patch of grass and two benches in a field. The farmers were burning harvested fields along the way, so we opened the windows at the top only for air, but pulled down the slatted sun shades to keep out the debris. Some slivers of burnt plant material still managed to flake through, covering the seats in a light dust.
All types of people take the rural commuter train between Nakhon Ratchasima and Nong Khai. Families making short hops to shop or visit loved ones, children on weekend field trips with their teacher, the odd foreigner who sticks out like a sore thumb (though there were only two of us, me and a British bloke), and people hawking food up and down the aisles – entire roasted chickens splayed out and tied to a massive bamboo stick, bags of hard-boiled eggs (chicken and a smaller pock-marked bird variety), and bags of shelled peanuts.
About halfway through the journey a class of teenagers entered my carriage and two shy, giggling girls sat across from me. They were just as excited to be on the train, taking pictures with their phones, using the ubiquitous selfie stick, and shyly asking to pose with me. Once again, the farang was part of the attraction. I obliged with a smile.
Nong Khai itself is a working river city with not much to tempt the visitor, except the one reason everyone comes – to sit by the river in a hammock and relax. The city itself is a bustling network of roads, businesses, schools, temples, and hospitals that stretch along the Mekong River. A few touristy restaurants and cafes line the river walk, ensnaring the farangs for higher prices. I duck into streets away from the river and follow the lunch rush to find my meals. The food cart center across from the hospital is tasty, fresh, and cheap. I’ve savored my spicy Thai holy basil minced pork with a fried egg on top every day – Thai comfort food never gets old.
The other reason everyone comes here is the shopping. A warren of shops extend deep into the cavern of Thao Sadet market. Laotians are allowed to come to Nong Khai from across the river just to shop in the market, where they find clothing, household appliances, shoes, food treats, and leather bags at low prices.
As for me, I am content to sit by the wide, lazy Mekong River, watching the old rusted boats ferrying consumer goods from Thailand to Laos. The sun grows intensely hot by mid-afternoon, but the shade is sweet. I let go of my worries, especially about the political situation back at home, and watch them float one by one down the Mekong. Eventually I will have to re-engage with the realities of the world but for now I am here, recharging my spirit.