I left Bangkok behind me with a sigh of relief, and got really excited for the first time when I got on the night train to Nong Khai. This journey would take me close to the border with Lao, as Nong Khai is directly across the river from Vientiane. I felt pulled Northeast, full of unarticulated expectation of what I might find there.
The train was everything I loved about developing country travel: rusted metal with chipped paint, creaky, open doors you can lean out of, tired and utilitarian – but for £9 you get a sleeper berth complete with fresh sheets, a pillow and a blanket.
You begin the journey in one of 2 seats facing each other, but at around 10pm the attendant comes through and folds the seats down to make one bed, and folds down a compartment from the ceiling to make another. There is a dining car with karaoke where you can buy fresh, home-cooked thai food, and the windows are wide open.
In retrospect I can see this trip was made by the people I met, as opposed to the sights I saw. Although in Bangkok I craved solitude and time to do whatever I pleased, by the time I boarded the train at Nong Khai I was ready to have some human company – and luckily I was seated across the way from Chris – an American ESL teacher on break from working in Korea.
If it was conversation that I wanted, conversation is what I got. By the time we were shooed out of the restaurant car and forced to go to bed at 11pm, Chris and I had been talking for 5 hours. We had covered sex tourism, US politics, race in the United States, race and racism in Korea, Korean food, fashion, language, Spanish and latino minorities in the United States, language acquisition, living in Europe and the UK, higher education, expat lifestyle, Thailand, Laos and many other things I can’t remember.
Eventually we were told by the train steward that we had to sleep, and in the morning when we arrived we said a quick goodbye before we got in tuk-tuks heading to separate destinations. It can be frustrating how fleeting some of the connections you make are on these trips. I was off to Mut Mee Guesthouse to chill for a few days, while Chris got in a tuk-tuk and headed for the border. I thought I would follow him the next day, but that was before I realised what a seductive temptress Mut Mee was, and that I wouldn’t be going anywhere for 4 more days.
Mut Mee doesn’t force people to check out. Ever, really. Once you get a room, you can stay as long as you want. Arriving at 8am, I was told I was in a queue for a room, but nothing was guaranteed until after 11 when they knew who was checking out or not. Luckily there were giant hammocks, and after eating my first banana pancake of the trip, I fell asleep next to the Mekong with stray cats purring at my feet and geckos squawking above me.
I was eventually offered a double, and I offered to share with another girl, a Belgian named Vee who was also waiting and then settled into our routine over the next few days: breakfast in the garden, reading in the hammocks, a quick jaunt to seven 11 for whatever or other necessities, lunch along the Mekong, and a bottle of ssamsong rum and mixer to go with evening festivities. I began to relax and remember why I enjoyed travelling in the first place.
But there was trouble brewing in paradise, as within minutes of meeting, a short American man named Gregory introduced himself and though we didn’t know it at the time, Ve and I would never be quite the same again.