After an initially humorous but ultimately annoying bus ride from Kohrat to Nang Rong, we had completed our day’s travels by the mid-afternoon. The buses, while pretty upscale and comfortable, were commuter buses that were decked out with rows of Pioneer speakers and a full entertainment system at the driver’s fingertips. The driver, a guy in his 20’s, had brought his mp3 player and was blasting Thai pop love ballads through the bus for the two hours, at a volume that would have voided any portable music and headset you might have brought. I tried to bear it despite the 128 kbps sound breakup and general awfulness of love ballads, but Maria was most annoyed by the sheer volume. No one else on the bus, young or old, seemed phased by it, so being the strangers we kept our mouths shut and dealt with it. When in Rome.
Arriving in Nang Rong without reservations left us at the mercy of our tuk-tuk driver. We had no bearings for the town, or any idea where a hotel might be. The driver wanted 60 Baht to take us to the hotel we’d requested. But we soon found out that he had no idea where we were going or for what we’d asked. This put me over the edge a bit. One thing that consistently bothered me about taxi and tuk-tuk drivers in Thailand was that they immediately want to talk about money – because they’re high-balling their rates. Then whenever you agree on a price, they have no idea what you’re even asking for or where you might want to actually go. Unless it’s a famous site, they do a lot of guessing, asking other drivers, and taking you many places you didn’t ask to go until you’re both frustrated and lost. It gets very annoying because it takes a lot of time, hassle, and of course, they’re trying to charge you a premium for this.
I soon found out that the 60 Baht I paid him was worth a 2 minute ride up the road to a hotel we hadn’t asked for (we carried our bags to the bus station the next day, it was that close.) The old lady who worked there – while certainly sweet – couldn’t communicate with us, and the hotel itself left many things to be desired. Like a towel, sheets, a bed that wasn’t just a piece of foam and a toilet that worked. A French guest at the hotel who’d been sitting in the common area mentioned to me that there were no other vacancies in town, and that staying was our best bet. So that was settled.
Another guy in the common area sporting dreads and a sleeveless shirt had stank the place out with his intense body odor, so we opted for walking into town. I cannot say it enough. I don’t care how in tune with the earth and nature you are, I don’t care how hard your travels have been and how far you’ve come, put some damned deodorant on. Nobody wants to smell your body stank, even if it is ‘natural.’
Body stank guy had been monopolizing the only computer with internet in the common area, so we decided to go for a walk and see what else could be found. We had to ensure reservations for our next destination near the national park, as resorts and the only options outside of a reservation were going to run steep.
I had read that Nang-Rong was a very average ‘work-a-day” town, where people come in, work, then leave. At night they rolled up the sidewalks and that was that. It was all true. We crossed a road, passed a few mechanic shops, walked around the bus station, and had seen the town. Three older white guys seated in a small restaurant had spotted us walking through the bus area and did a double take.
“What are you doing here?” They immediately asked us.
“We came to see Phanom Rung.”
“Ahhh. I’d say, there’s nothing else here.”
“Why are you here if you don’t mind my asking?”
“We live here. Well, not here, but outside of town, and we just come down here on Wednesdays for a drink.”
We spoke for a few minutes and they gave us the run-down of the area, which was nothing. It only confirmed everything we’d suspected for the last hour. Nang Rong? Nang WRONG!
A few food stands away we sat down for some pad thai, and Maria spied a skink as it ran under our table and through a small gap under a pull-down store gate next to us. It reminded me of a rat I’d seen dart across our path in Chiang Mai, that had come up against a car tire and spun around a bit before finding a way out of our path and disappearing into the back entrances of the food booths. I’ll take lizards over rats.
After so much excitement we headed back to the hotel and sat down with the French guy we’d briefly spoken to upon arrival. The other guy, Mr. Stank, had disappeared, so the common area was habitable once again.
I’m just going to come out and say that the French tourists that we’ve come across in India, Indonesia, Thailand and Laos are generally older, loud, obnoxious and often condescending douche-bags. Any bit of charm and mystique that Maria had once regarded the French with had slowly crumbled along our journeys, as their self-regard and righteous manner had become noxious. I’m aware of the sweeping generalization of saying this (hence the use of ‘generally’ at the start of this claim,) so I will gladly mention Sebastien, a French traveler who we met at this lonely hotel in this nowhere town.
Sebastien, quiet and unassuming yet social, had cycled from France to Thailand. I don’t need to link to a map, because you can imagine what that means. Through the Middle East, across Asia. He had done the trip with his girlfriend, but something had happened along the way and she had gone on her own. And so here he was in Thailand, still going, and acting like none of it was anything. I was still trying to wrap my mind around his journey, but he consistently played it down as if any old commuter on a rusty Shwinn could have done it. That’s what I liked about him. Maria had mentioned our previous encounters with French tourists and he just shook his head. “They were probably from Paris. I fucking hate them.”
Sebastien was from Brittany and thus, had the same disdain for city people that many in the countrysides of the world often do. We drank with him, went for some food, and drank some more, talking of travel and of our next stop, Khao Yai National Park. We were going to take two buses over three to four hours to get there the next day. He was going to go on his bike.
We shared the details of our reservation with him and encouraged him to do the same, since he was traveling on a far stricter budget than us. Then we called it a night.
In the AM Sebastien was already up and ready to start his journey while we awaited the ride we’d reserved to get to Phanom Rung. The site was atop an expired volcano several kilometers out of town, so the ride was essential if we wanted to see it. We’d requested a 6am departure. The park opened at 6, and I wanted to be there early to avoid throngs of package tourists who tend to unload from buses and swarm sites, and I wanted to make sure I could get the photos I had come to get. Phanom Rung faces east, toward its big brother Angkor Wat. The best light of the day was going to be at daybreak.
It had been a plan well made. When we’d arrived the only thing open was the park gates, and as we approached, a lone dog stood central atop the stairs, barking at us. Great, another angry dog. Maria was wary and I kept my tripod at grip (you know, just in case as with so many dogs before,) but it turned out to be nothing. The gate person was alarmed that anyone had shown up so early, and after paying our admission, found that we had the entire time we were there to enjoy the site completely to ourselves.
It really was incredible. These ruins, since restored, nearly a thousand years old – and we had as much time as we needed to explore the entire site in complete privacy. In no one’s way, with no one in our way, as we crawled over the entire grounds. As with the Taj Mahal, it really pays to visit these extraordinary sites as early as you can get in, before the grounds are overrun by clusters of people.
Next: Thailand / Laos Part X – Pak Chong and Khao Yai National Park