8 September 2014
Tha Uthen/Nakhon Pahnom
Tha Uthen is a small village on the Mekong about twenty-five kilometers north of Nakhon Pahnom in the northeastern area of Thailand that lies on the border with Laos. I’ll be here until February which will make it a bit over a half of a year and I plan on making the most of it, after spending ten years in Bangkok. This area has been known for two things: fighting off the communist insurgency in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and smuggling. What a charm to be living in a small village after escaping the jaws of Bangkok. You can actually have conversations with neighbors here.
Wanjan, the co-owner of the Siriporn Homestay where I stayed my first month regaled me one evening about growing up in this town in the fifties and sixties when the United States was working closely with Sarit Thanarat, Thailand’s notorious post War War II dictator, to stop communist aggression in Southeast Asia. I had no idea that route 212, that runs all along the northeast border of Thailand and the Mekong River was built with US money in the late fifties as part of the US Army’s infrastructure plan. The airfield in Nakhon Phanom was small yet big enough for F-4s to fly from during the Vietnam War. During the Vietnam War he saw US navy riverboats with big 50 caliber guns patrolling the river all the way north to Vientiene, Laos and saw B52’s bomb Laos across the river. Another interesting fact is that Ho Chi Min stayed in Nakhon Phanom between 1928-1931 and his house is still there.
In Nakhon Phanom there is a big border crossing between Laos and Thailand and thus the potential for transport of a lot of illegal things. Every year, cats, methamphetamine, marijuana, tigers, elephant ivory, and other exotic animals are smuggled either from Laos to Thailand or from Thailand to Laos to all points eastward to Vietnam or northward to China. Unfortunately there are bribes and kickbacks to the police and the army so much of these items gain easy access to their destinations. At night Wanjan told me the police and the army let their boats drift with no lights on the river trying to catch smugglers. The Thai Border Patrol is also on the riverbanks looking out and in cars all along route 212. Wanjan has said that he has seen the DEA shooting at smugglers from planes on the Lao side.
Tha Uthen is in a separate universe than Bangkok with its pollution, exhaust plumes, grit, grease, traffic, and overcrowded everything. In Bangkok everyone is going somewhere, working, making money, studying or iphoning at coffee shops, taking taxis, waiting for taxis, going home to their apartments or condos. Tha Uthen feels like Zen retreat in comparison with its simplicity.
An older woman asked me the other day about swimming in the Mekong. “Mai me crocahdie!”(there are no crocodiles). Not something I heard often on my bike in the traffic in Bangkok.
Bangkok-Tha Uthen. What a dialectic.