A Month In a Bucolic Paradise

So I spent about a month or so at Isara and Nong Khai, Thailand; I rolled into town near the end of March and stayed there until the end of April. I was just coming off about two weeks in Bangkok and Hua Hin — my first time in Thailand. Prior to that I had just completed my CELTA certification in neighboring Viet Nam, but that’s another story for some other time. Let it suffice to say that I had the basic tools in place, but I still really didn’t know what I was in for; I was still a noob filled with some sort of romantic ideal about what teaching English as a foreign language really means.

Before I get any further, I should give you some idea about the physicality of Nong Khai and where Isara was.

Nong Khai ThailandNong Khai, on the banks of the Mekong — the same river that starts in the Tibetan plateau and flows some 2,700 miles into the South China sea at Sai gon, Viet Nam, where I first saw it — Nong Khai is the eponymous capital of Nong Khai province; the district in which Nong Khai itself resides has about 48,000 people on 12.03 miles of land — thank you Wikipedia. It is pretty small and rural — sort of the Southeast Asian equivalent of Mayberry. Except for little pockets of nightlife here and there, they rolled up the sidewalks at night.

That may sound like a dig, but it isn’t; Nong Khai was rather idyllic, as I recall. It’s a far cry from Bangkok, that’s for sure, and not just the obvious. Isaan culture is the norm here, although I really didn’t understand what it meant just then; not sure I understand it any better now, but what the hell.

Isaan — written variously as Isan, Isarn, Issarn, Issan, Esan, Esarn, or Esaan  — occupies all of northeast Thailand. As a culture is it distinct from other parts of Thailand and has more in common with Laos and Khmer Cambodia than anything else, although I didn’t realize that until I was actually living in Thailand for awhile. Much of what I assumed was just Thai culture in general was actually Isaan culture in particular, though.

Take the mor’lam music festival, for one example? Isaan culture. Almost unheard of outside of Isaan —  except where large pockets of Isaan folk reside, perhaps — mor’lam is huge in Isaan; every weekend it seems there is one going on nearby. What is it? The nearest thing we have in the West is a rock music festival, but the entertainment, food and drink is purely Isaan — which isn’t akin to anything I can think of, East or West.

And the food! Again, much of what I thought of as Thai was actually Isaan food. Papaya salad — som tam in Thai — is actually tam mak hung in Laos where it originated. Larb is another staple of Isaan, sort of a shredded meat salad and the national dish of Laos. I didn’t know any of this in 2010 and newly arrived in Nong Khai,  however; I just new it was fucking kick ass good food — some of the best I had ever had, period — and equal in measure to anything I had had in Chengdu, China.

And of course I can’t mention Isaan without mentioning sticky rice. Love the sticky rice. Could do without the various bugs and insects that are popular in Isaan as a snack, but I admit grasshoppers aren’t too bad as bugs go.

Even the language is different and distinct from Thai; like the food it is closer to Laos. Most people from the Isaan region speak both the official Thai language and regional Isaan.

However I don’t want to get into the … cultural differences, lets say, between central Thailand and the people of Isaan —  usually rural folk of either Laotian descent or local hill tribes, or both — just now. I’ll save that for its own post for another time; it is bound to ruffle some feathers, I’ll warrant. But then I digress, as I am wont to do.

Back to Nong Khai and Isara

If you look above at the map of Nong Khai, Isara Foudation’s house was in the northeast corner of the map, a few miles east of downtown.
Isara house, Nong Khai, ThailandVolunteers who lived on site stayed upstairs; downstairs was the main classroom and computer center, as well as various smaller rooms. In the garage recyclables that Kirk the owner and various volunteers had collected were then sorted. He also kept various bicycles in the garage for volunteers’ use; I remember riding out for breakfast quite often a mile or two west to Mut Mee Guesthouse on the banks of the river.

Isara classroom, Nong Khai
Isara classroom, Nong Khai

Out back of the house was a little traditional gazebo-like arrangement, for lack of a better term, complete with a little pond.
Isara house, Nong Khai, ThailandOn the side of the house, just off the classroom and computer center, was a little play area.

Isara house, Nong Khai, Thailand Isara house, Nong Khai, ThailandIt had its own permanent residents, that pond.
eight-legged resident, Nong Khai, Thailandalt view: eight-legged resident, Nong Khai, ThailandBig Momma and her brood, Nong Khai, ThailandAnd no, I won’t forget the Gecko’s Bark namesakes:tokay gecko, Nong Khai, Thailandgecko, Nong Khai, Thailandgecko, Nong Khai, ThailandThe first one is a tokay gecko; this particular one was about a foot long and lived in the eaves of the house. He — probably a he, as they are larger and brighter colored, but I’m no expert — used to hang out and catch bugs attracted by the lights at night.

The others are just standard geckos found everywhere in Southeast Asia, including everywhere that isn’t permanently air conditioned. Jeez, I miss those little guys and their barking.

Nong Khai, despite the fact that it is seemingly in the middle of nowhere, is popular with foreigners doing visa runs given its proximity to Laos and Vientiane. I made the visit to Vientiane myself to get my work visa while I was there.tuk-tuk to Vientiane, Laos

Vientiane, LaosYou meet travelers of every stripe while hanging around a Thai embassy is a foreign country like Laos, including there three:
three guys in Vientiane, Laos
Of coarse I forget what there names are, but I did trade emails with the gentleman of the left. A good guy, he came here on vacation several years before and has been bumming around Southeast Asia ever since. I know what that’s like; it gets under your skin. Of course just then I was still enamored with Thailand and in a hurry to get back …
language in Vientiane, LaosOne thing I noticed later, though, while waiting for my visa, was the similarities of the written language of Thailand and Laos; both are based on a Khmer dialect. The above shot, taken with my phone for some reason I forget, was taken in Vientiane — notice the written script? Very similar to Thai writing.

Sala Keoku

One place in Nong Khai everyone should visit is Sala Keoku. A park containing giant statues made of concrete and influenced by Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, the largest statue is that of a seven-headed snake — as opposed to the more traditional naga, although naga are well represented here — that is six stories tall.

Sala Keoku, Nong Khai, ThailandThe park is the work of Bunleua Sulilat. Sulilat, a Nong Khai native, was an interesting character; some would call him merely eccentric while others would say he was insane. The mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism he espoused was nonetheless popular around Nong Khai; his followers gave him the title “Luang Pu,” usually reserved for monks. He died in 1996 at age 64, reportedly as the result of a fall from one of his statues. His remains are on display in the third floor of the Sala Keoku pavillion; photography is forbidden.

These photos of Sala Keoku — and some of the others — have appeared on here before; I’ve gathered the best and reprinted them, so to speak, in one place.

Those little dots on the snakes’ heads? Birds. …

Sala Keoku, Nong Khai, Thailand 2010-04-09_0001 2010-04-09_0009 2010-04-09_00152010-04-09_0003 2010-04-09_0013 2010-04-09_0002 2010-04-09_0005 2010-04-09_0004 2010-04-09_0012 2010-04-09_0007 2010-04-09_0008 2010-04-09_0017 2010-04-09_0016Props to Kirk and Ming for taking us for what for them must have been the one hundredth or so visit to Sala Keoku. Let us not forget the many trips into town to go to the night market, Tesco-Lotus, or just picking up tasty Thai food, either.

So that exhausts my meager supply of photos of Nong Khai and Isara. Again, Kirk and Ming were the greatest; they always had time for us volunteers and they offered a professional learning center that was free to everyone who wanted learn, from children to adults. And Isara was truly free for everyone, including us volunteers.

Of my experience teaching there, I taught adults and teenagers, as I was still thinking that children would be more difficult. What I realized later on was that of the three groups, children would not only be the easiest of the three, but also the quickest learners. Teenagers, on the other hand …

Unfortunately I have no photos of students while in Nong Khai, for whatever reason. So I’ll leave you with gravel spreading in the garden …

spreading gravel, Isara, Nong Khai, Thailandspreading gravel, Isara, Nong Khai, Thailand… and a few shots of Songkran:

2010-04-13_0002 2010-04-13_0003 Songkran, Isara, Nong Khai, ThailandSongkran was great fun. Never want to do it again, though. Especially being a foreigner … sabai dee phi mai krab indeed.

Sala Keoku: the Need for a Polarizing Filter

Yep, the Sky Could Use Some Detail

Ah well, hindsight is 20/20. And it was pretty hazy that day; not sure a polarizing filter would have helped bring out much detail in the sky. I was half tempted to see if I could add a worthy cloud-filled blue sky in Photoshop, but I’m still kinda dopey with this cold and couldn’t be arsed today.

Only one more photo from Sala Keoku after this one.

On Buddhist Pond: Sala Keoku, outside Nong Khai, Thailand

And here’s a closeup of one of these statues by the pond:

On Buddhist Pond: Sala Keoku, outside Nong Khai, Thailand

Sala Keoku: an Asura

A Buddhist Demigod at Sala Keoku

It’s strange to me, given my Western layman’s understanding of Buddhism, that Buddhism has various gods and demigods — a veritable cosmology, much of which it shares with Hinduism, naturally. Even here, where Theravada Buddhism is practiced, one sees evidence of this in temples and people’s beliefs.

But then as noted here before — and I’m certainly not the first — Buddhism is mixed with older beliefs and traditions (as are most, if not all religious traditions).

Anyway, this is an Asura pictured below at Sala Keoku, a three-headed demigod. I’m still struggling with this cold, and the meds and lack of sleep are making me dopey, so I’ll refer you to Wikipedia’s entry on Asura specifically and Buddhist cosmology generally. Enjoy.

An Asura, a Buddhist demigod, as depicted at Sala Keoku, in Nong Khai, Thailand

Down and Out with a Head Cold

Cold in My Head is Kicking My Ass

Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I’m functioning, but not at full capacity. Hence the two day gap in ye olde Photo a Day project. Seem to be on the road to recovery though. So here’s yet more of Sala Keoku.

As always, clicken to embiggen the photographs.

Sala Keoku sculpture park, Nong Khai, Thailand

And a detailed/closeup shot.

Sala Keoku sculpture park, Nong Khai, Thailand

You Just Can’t Have Enough Giant Snakes

Yep, More Giant Snakes at Sala Keoku

Not sure what’s going on here. I’m sure it references the story of Mucalinda and the Buddha. In any event, there are many giant snakes there of various descriptions and sizes here.

For more info on this place outside Nong Khai, Thailand, here is the link once again to Sala Keoku at Wikipedia.

For more images from Sala Keoku here at the Gecko’s Bark, follow that second link.

P.S. I hope no one interprets this headline as being disrespectful; I don’t intend it to be. In fact if it’s meant to make fun of anything, it would be my own ignorance. I do know that according to Buddhist lore it was a serpent — a naga — that protected the Buddha while he achieved enlightenment, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge when it comes the depictions represented by the statuary at Sala Keoku.

Yet another sculpture with a giant snake at Sala Keoku, Nong Khai, Thailand.

I’ve always found it interesting, in terms of comparative religion, that serpents are and important positive aspect of Hinduism and Buddhism, among other belief systems in this part of the world. Whereas in other religions, namely Christianity, the snake is held in a much more negative light, to say the least.


If a Tree Growing Out of a Buddha’s Head Falls …

And There is No One There to Hear It,
Does It Make a Sound?

Just out of curiosity — because this is how my mind works — I Googled “tree growing out of a buddha.” The results were interesting, and surprisingly, a Wikipedia entry was only no. 9. in the first 10 results. The first result was a Guardian (UK) story about an orchard in China that grows pears in the shape of the Buddha.

The story contains a pun so bad that even I wouldn’t go there, and I love a bad pun:

A pear grown in the shape of one of the world’s most important spiritual teachers? You Buddha believe it.

That … pained me. Have you no shame, Leon Watson?

Oh, and there’s a Buddha Tree salon in Washington D.C.

Of course the Buddha achieved enlightenment while sitting under a fig tree (see the aforementioned Wikipedia entry on the Bodhi Tree). Confused about old school and new school varieties of Buddhism and the various gradations in between? This article titled The Dharma Tree will help.

All of this is just a lead in to my next two pictures from Sala Keoku in Nong Khai, Thailand. I suppose after all that jabber above, they require no further expanation. For more photos from Sala Keoku, follow that link. Click the images to make big, as usual.

A Buddha with a tree growing out of its head: Sala Keoku, Nong Khai, Thailand

A Buddha with a tree growing out of its head: Sala Keoku, Nong Khai, Thailand

Sala Keoku: Seven Heads Better than One

Especially When We’re Talking About Giant Statues

Argh. Effing hot season has ended, which means we’re back to hot season. Finally. Always glad to see April and May pass by in this part of the world. Of course with regular hot season approaching — I don’t care what you read on Wikipedia or Lonely Planet; there are two seasons in Southeast Asia: hot season and f@#%ing hot season. At the beginning of regular hot season — now — it rains to beat hell seemingly every day.

That plays hell with photographic efforts (not to mention Bangkok traffic). So here’s still more from the archives of Sala Keoku. I may just go ahead and run these from here on in until I go through them all, since they haven’t seen the light of day before. Unless, of course, I come up with some interesting shots in the interim.

Seven headed snake and the Buddha at Sala Keoku, Nong Khai, Thailand

Anyway, I don’t recall any seven-headed snake gods in Buddhist philosophy or teachings, but then the cultures in this part of the world are so old and beliefs so ingrained, often new ideas get hopelessly intertwined with older ones.  For example, Buddhism may be 2,500 years old and then some — predating Christianity and Islam, I might add — but animism and belief in spirits are much older still, and all three exist happily side by side here in Thailand.

Obviously Hinduism and Buddhism are intertwined with one another in this part of the world as well. Gautama Buddha became enlightened while a prince on the Indian subcontinent, where the founding beliefs and traditions that became what we know today as Hinduism were already ancient in his day — hence the statues of Sala Keoku, with their mix of Buddhist and Hindu inspirations.

Have I mentioned these are, to put it in the vernacular, some big-ass statues, at Sala Keoku? See the little blob to the left of the snake head farthest to the left in the above photo? That’s a bird — and not a finch. You can spy another one sitting on the top of the second head from the left.

The photo below will give you a little more idea of the scale. You can also see this statue in the background of the photo posted earlier.

Seven headed snake and the Buddha at Sala Keoku, Nong Khai, Thailand

Looking at these photos makes me want to take a trip up to Nong Khai again. …

And Yet Still More Sala Keoku

That’s Right: I’m Koo-Koo for Sala Keoku … Puffs

Not really, but Sala Keoku  is a unique place, and as explained before, I have a bunch of photos taken there in 2010 that I never put up online anywhere. So here ‘s more from Sala Keoku. 

Yep still more from the religious sculpture park outside Nong Khai, Thailand: Sala Keoku

And here’s a detail crop:

Yep still more from the religious sculpture park outside Nong Khai, Thailand: Sala Keoku

Not the bit of color noise. Shot this with my old Canon Rebel; looking at these old photos, you can really see the difference  the new image sensor makes. More on this later. …





An Indiana Jones Set Piece: Sala Keoku

Yet More from the Archives and Sala Keoku

Yesterday was a day from hell. I love my apartment in Bangkok, but sometimes the commute during peak hours is just … effing evil. I waited an hour for a bus that never came, because traffic was so freaking bad. And there was no taxi to be had. So I had to retreat to a cafe and wait for another hour and catch the 10 p.m. bus back to Bangplad. Argh.

By the time I got home, I was in a “screw everything” frame of mind, and drowned my sorrows in a bag of chips and Venture Brothers reruns. At least effing hot season is over, now that the rainy season is here. I thought about getting a photo a day entry together, but “screw it” one the day. So I’m backdating this. Because I can.

Anyway, more from Sala Keoku in Nong Khai, Thailand. Seriously, it looks like the set from some Indiana Jones movie. More Sala Keoku photos are here.

This is Sala Keoku in Nong Khai, Thailand -- not the back lot set from an old Indian Jones movie.

You know, once I posted this, I decided the white balance is perhaps a little bit off. Just a bit too warm. So …

This is Sala Keoku in Nong Khai, Thailand -- with a blue filter to the rescue.

 Ah, that’s better.


More from Sala Keoku

Sala Keoku Sculptures to Scale

Dipping into the archives once again for the Photo a Day with one more from Nong Khai, Thailand’s Sala Keoku. Many pictures of Sala Keoku don’t really convey just how big these concrete sculptures are. Well here’s a photo of two of said sculptures taken from a balcony/terrace inside the museum/mausoleum on the park grounds; below that is an alternate crop with a man walking by the base of the statue. No, he’s not a wee Thai fairy; he’s a full-grown dude and the statues are that big.

More sculpture from Sala Keoku, in Nong Khai, Thailand

More sculpture from Sala Keoku, in Nong Khai, Thailand

I’m not a big tourist/see the sights kind of person, but Sala Keoku is a must see, if you ever find yourself in Nong Khai. And while Nong Khai may not be the bustling hub of nighlife that people expect to find in Thailand, it’s a lovely little town on the border of the Mekong, and I really enjoyed the month I spent there.

Of course, if you visit Nong Khai, you should also visit Isara.