A North Eastern Oasis
At first, we thought we were placed in Nakhon Pathom. We were wrong. Our city was Nakhon Phanom, which is located in far North East Thailand, along the border of Laos. The confusion between the names is understandable, but nothing could be more different than these two cities. Nakhon Phanom is about as far North East as you can go and Nakhon Pathom is a suburb of Thailand’s epicenter, Bangkok. Once we began to research our actual city, we found it harder than anticipated because North East Thailand is little trafficked by Western travelers and bloggers. For the first times in our lives, we really weren’t sure what to expect. We could only wait and see what our town was like.
Our first sight of the city was early in the morning. We arrived groggily on an overnight bus to the small station. About ten minutes after we arrived, a bus filled with our coordinator and a few fellow teachers pulled up to transport us to our accommodations. Looking back on it is strange. Driving through the streets of a city for the first time is overwhelming. We were so disoriented. I could not have retraced the steps of our short drive. Even though our city isn’t very large, we were lost.
Once we settled in, the next step was to venture out of the apartment. This is when we actually began to experience Nakhon Phanom, but it wasn’t until we left that we truly were able to appreciate our city. We made a day trip to Sakon Nakhon, which I’ve already posted on the blog, and the trip made us tremendously grateful for our neat, quiet city. The simplicity of our city is the result of the size and speed of Nakhon Phanom. We travel on one road every day, leading from our apartment, to school, and eventually, to the river.
We weren’t certain what to expect from our apartment. We had seen pictures of what the standard studios looked like in the area, but if the internet has taught us anything, it has taught us pictures can be misleading. Once we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised. It was very clean and very simple. We have a small balcony on which we can do laundry and dry our clothes. The bathroom is neat, and we have both a shower and a Western toilet. While we don’t have a kitchen, we have a mini fridge, which the Thai people have perfected. Somehow they have managed to put a fully functioning freezer into their units. The Thai are apparently ahead of Americans in mini fridge development. The rest of our apartment is made up of a small closet, a desk, and our bed. While it may not be much by American standards, it is our neat, little home. We’ve hung pictures and designed a lighting system to avoid the harsh fluorescent bulbs, which we were generously provided.
The apartment is overseen by a sassy, old Thai woman named Nit. She is a firecracker. Whenever we see her, she is always telling us a new Thai word to help us learn the language. She is like our Thai mom. She’s always snooping on what is in our trash and looks through our laundry when we bring it down to wash. It’s truly bizarre to have your Thai mom snooping uncomfortably on all your dirty underwear. Privacy is a bit different in Thailand. We appreciate the way she looks after us, even though it has taken us some time to warm up to her antics.
Our school is only a 10 minute walk from our apartment. Once we exit our alley and get to the main road, we only have to take one right turn and then head straight. We do have to watch out for one street dog that doesn’t like us. He lives in our alley, and we have to yell at him to keep him away. Most of the dogs are pretty tame and even friendly, but this one always barks and confronts us. As we became more aggressive with him, we’ve grown in mutual respect and the encounters have shifted from fearful encounters to reluctant acknowledgments. On the other hand, there is another local street dog we pass every day who we have affectionately named Sausage. He loves everybody and greets us with the wag of his tail. He is a lover, not a fighter. When it is too hot he lays under a small brick bench that his little belly barely fits under. He looks adorable wedged under it. Sausage is our local weatherman because we know when he is laying under the bench that it is too hot.
The main road we ride to school is lined with shops, street dogs, and locals. Some locals we’ve grown quite familiar with. They regularly greet us as we commute to school. It’s a simple, uneventful road, but it’s grown to be our familiar place. We know where all the bumps are. The simple ride to school can make you feel like BMX rider in the X games. We’ve also learned exactly how long it takes us to get to school if we are riding fast because we may have been running late once or twice.
Turning right at the first main road will take you to our school. It is on this road where the afternoon vendors will establish their open-air market. They claim the place and it becomes a veritable festival. Each day they are there without fail. We’ve become such consistent customers with certain vendors that they often reward our loyalty with a free item or two. We are slowly learning our vendor's names and beginning to have simple conversations. This is one of our favorite parts of our day. We’ve just finished work and stock up on dinner for later. The fresh, cheap food is some of the best we’ve found, and we love participating in the local culture alongside our students and fellow co-workers.
If you bike past this road and head straight, you will be at the river in a few minutes. As you approach the water, the buildings begin to fade, the trees sprout from the earth, and you are struck by the jutting mounds of the Laos mountains. I say jutting mounds because to describe them as crags or pinnacles would be inaccurate. The mountains of Laos are different than those in the US. Laotian “peaks” are lower in altitude, none towering over 7,000 feet. What they lack in height, they make up for with sheer geometric diversity. Some are low lying, like a long stretch of hills, others stick out like large growths from the earth, looking like a gigantic, unearthed bulb. The diversity of their “crags” is, nonetheless, a remarkable and beautiful sight.
It is in the sight of this unique landscape that we enjoy our picnic dinners. We eat, read, and rest each evening. There is even a running and exercise community at the river. A bike lane lines the water and many runners crowd the path. Along this track, are sporadic groupings of public workout machines. Some of them seems to capitalize on body momentum more than any discernible muscle group, but the Thai seem unbothered and can routinely be seen breaking a sweat on them. Despite their sweat, we actually enjoy cooler weather by there river and find it a place of excellent rest after a long day of teaching. We are tremendously grateful for the river oasis.
This is our a life now. One long street stretching from home, to work, to relaxation. All of it on the same, straight road. The simplicity is overwhelming at times. I step back and think, “wait I don’t have to change lanes? There are no exits? What about interchanges? Do I need to be looking for the next freeway? What if I miss my next turn?” In this life, there is no missing your exit. We leave our apartment and are soon at work. It takes less than 10 minutes. The simplicity affords us time for reflection, something I’ve never had in such abundance. Time to think. Time to rest. Time to read. Back in Southern California, we needed to make war for these things and at our best scraped out a little time. Here, it is present in abundance. Now, I don’t say this to paint some unrealistic, utopian reality. There are all sorts of other discomforts and difficulties. We have to carry all of our groceries in backpacks back from the store in ridiculous heat. That’s a massive inconvenience that makes me miss my truck. Instead, I share it to say that simplicity does exist. It isn’t a unicorn. Something we see on children t-shirts and in movies, but know to be a fictitious invention. Simplicity, time, space, they are more like a rare species of elephant hunted by poachers. Something real, but rarely seen, and a reality we seriously risk losing. I think we prefer to think of simplicity as a unicorn because then we are relieved of any opportunity to fight for it. We do not like to think of it as an endangered elephant because then we have an obligation to respond, to fight the poachers of our time, and defend the very simplicity we desperately need. If we do not fight for it, it will be lost, and simplicity may very well become extinct. We must protect our endangered friend because the simplicity of one street is a powerful thing.
Nakhon Phanom is more than one street, but this road is the embodiment of our life in this new city. That is why we love our city. We love the size. We love the pace. We love the simplicity of it all. The beauty and slowness of this place is a gift we greatly appreciate.