Fifty years ago, Boun Leua Sourirat fell into a hole in the ground in the Lao woodlands. This hole—a cave, in fact—contained a surprise that would forever alter the course of the young wanderer’s life: a hermit named Kaew Ku was living inside of it. Imagine Sourirat’s shock upon tumbling toward oblivion and, when he came to, realizing not only had he avoided injury, he had also landed in the spartan nest of a hirsute, hungry little man. What were the odds this strange forest creature would be a spiritual visionary, that the lessons he shared would re-define life and death for Sourirat?
After this chance encounter, Sourirat travelled, studied with a Hindu rishi in Vietnam, and moved down the river to the outskirts of Vientiane, where he set about building a series of elaborate monuments depicting the wheel of life as described by Kaew Ku. But this, the Buddha Park in Laos, was never truly completed. When the Communist Party took power, Sourirat fled under the assumption that his tradition-flouting imagery would draw the ire of officials (the more common Buddhist traditions were tolerated within Communist Laos). So he returned to the safety of his birth place, Nong Khai, and started over again. The rest of his days were dedicated to the construction of Sala Kaew Ku, a sculpture park fashioned from fantasy and named after his ascetic mentor.
At Sala Kaew Ku, sculptures stand stories high, surreal silhouettes against a skyline reflecting the artist’s odd ideology. Mucalinda, the fearsome serpent king, is frozen like a band of cobras with hoods puffed out and tongues flickering violently. Skeletal human figures reach up through the earth, grasping for salvation from the depths of hell. Shiva, Vishnu, and Ganesh stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Buddha, who is depicted in Mahayana and Theravada forms. The unusual figures are a hit with local schoolchildren and travellers with atypical itineraries, but their fame is relative. Like the town of Nong Khai, Sala Kaew Ku exemplifies that tired tourism slogan: Unseen Thailand.
As border towns tend to be, Nong Khai is a funny place. Sharing a proximity to Laos, Vietnam, and China, the community has been influenced by a wide variety of peoples and cultures. Food, religion, language, attire, and architecture speak to centuries of coming and going. Vendors at the Tha Sadej market along the riverside promenade, which is also called the Indochina Market, deal cheap goods brought in from abroad—Lao snacks, Vietnamese noodles and silverware, Chinese chintz and faux artefacts. Just outside the market, Dang Namneung, a popular restaurant with an industrial setting, serves authentic Vietnamese food from a vast menu that includes sausages, rolls, and dips. Further down a concrete pedestrian path tracing the river, San Jao Phu Ya, a colourful and immaculately kempt Mahayana Buddhist temple, originally built to cater to the Vietnamese and Chinese populations of Nong Khai, offers sanctuary from the heat and white noise of everyday life.
While San Jao Phu Ya just might be the most visually captivating of Nong Khai’s temples, it’s far from the only Buddhist attraction in town. In fact, the province claims to have the most temples per capita of any in Thailand, and they’re all a little different. At Wat Lam Duan, a massive seated Buddha looks over the river toward Laos from an open-air bot, as if mediating safe passage between nations by day and then meditating over the sunset at dusk. Further along the river path is the sunken chedi, or Wat Phra That Khlang Nam. Over 150 years ago, the temple slid into the river. All that remains visible now is the crumbling triangular top of the stupa, but only during dry season, when the river is low. Locals still wrap yellow banners around the pile of rubble in the brown water—that is, when they can reach it. A replica of the original temple occupies its former place on the riverbanks.
The holiest temple in town sits a little further back from these attractions. Wat Pho Chai, a couple of blocks inland, houses a large Buddha image bejewelled in gold, bronze, and rubies. Named Luang Po Phra Sai, the image has a history that dates back to the Lan Xang era in Laos. When Vientiane was pillaged in the 18th century, King Rama I’s troops took three Buddha images as part of their bounty. In the return trip, a storm sent one to the bottom of the Mekong, where it was left to appease the resident naga. The second travelled to Wat Pathum Wanaram in Bangkok. But the third Buddha image with a head made of gold only made it as far as Nong Khai, where the cart carrying it broke down, a sign that religious leaders took to mean it wanted to stay there. The figure itself is said to be the bearer of good fortune, so the temple gets lots of foot traffic from travelling Thai Buddhists.
Religion, tradition, and the river are woven into the fabric of society in Nong Khai. Often times, those three strands overlap. During Wan Ok Phansa, the naga believed to be living in the Mekong is said to spit fireballs into the night sky, an annual event called bung fai paya nak. Thousands of Thai and Lao Buddhists gather around the river to watch the lazy light climb into the air, as much a testament to the power of mysticism in Southeast Asia as it is the allure of the inscrutable phenomenon.
Each year, the Chinese community parades vibrant dragon puppets through town. Many locals don white face paint to resemble spirits, and others wear lion costumes. As is the case during most Chinese holidays, especially Chinese New Year, fireworks crackle and pop in the streets, and local players take part in dramas, songs, and dances. These sorts of festivities also occur during the annual dragon boat races, as teams of mostly fit men race long traditional rowboats down the Mekong.
In the age of guidebook travel and rapid transit, this sabai-sabai settlement has become an afterthought. Border towns are transitory places, so it isn’t much of a surprise that Nong Khai is a stop-over for visa-runners and long-term travellers heading to or from Vientiane. But the very dynamic that has kept the town from becoming a tourist hub has also helped preserve its heritage. Thai, Lao, mystics, and marauders, the tale of Nong Khai is rich with eccentric characters and curious twists of fate, from the extraordinary chance of its foundation to its present state of unruffled existence. While the wheel of life turns elsewhere, this town seems to have found its nirvana.
Photos by Megan Ferrera