Laos loomed across the vast Mekong River as our motorbike hummed west. Water buffaloes, straw-hatted farmers and forest monks moved slowly in the heat. We detoured to viewpoints, temples, waterfalls and villages, entranced by the relaxed pace of life. But the best part about motorbiking the riverside road from Nong Khai to Sangkhom was the sense of freedom.
Known for its markets, riverside promenade, jaw-dropping sculpture park and the original Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge, Nong Khai is probably the most popular travel destination in Isaan, or Northeastern Thailand. The capital is certainly worth a visit, but a 90-kilometre adventure to the tiny village of Sangkhom was our highlight of Nong Khai province.
We were already waiting when the motorbike rental man rolled up to his stand across from Siri Guesthouse in the morning. After a hearty breakfast at the excellent German Bakery in the centre of Nong Khai, we spun back towards the river and headed west along Kaew Woravut Road.
Passing straight under the Friendship Bridge on the way out of town, this scenic side road runs alongside the Mekong until it meets Route 211 in the obscure town of Tha Bo, some 30 kilometres west of the provincial capital. Though busy in a few places, 211 is mostly a smooth two-lane highway that rolls over hills and along the river, all the way into mountainous Loei province.
Just after a snack of sticky-rice-and-garlic-fried-chicken at one of Tha Bo's bustling markets, a blue sign pointed us to Wat Ong Tue, one of Nong Khai province's most important temples. Cast from an alloy of gold, silver and bronze in the mid-1500s, the four-metre-high seated Buddha is topped with an exquisite headdress carved from solid gold.
We rolled through the low-key riverside town of Sri Chiang Mai, best known as the spring roll wrapper capital of Thailand. As if that's not exciting enough, the town's riverside walkway affords views straight across to Vientiane's far livelier riverfront. Local kids who rarely see foreigners giggled at us while, at the same moment, hundreds of foreign tourists sipped espressos in the almost-visible cafes across the border.
The next stop was Wat Hin Mak Peng, a large forest temple founded by the late meditation-master monk, Ajahn Thate. The temple was named after an outcrop of huge boulders that hang over a narrow stretch of the Mekong and serve as an ideal meditation spot. Easy to locate off the main road, the temple is a peaceful place for a few breaths beside the river and maybe a stroll under the teak trees.
A crossroads forced a quick decision: right towards Sangkhom or straight inland to a mountaintop "tiger temple". We pulled off the road to decide, only to realise that we'd arrived at the parking area for Than Thong Waterfall. The falls were more of a trickle thanks to the drought, but that didn't stop us from enjoying a moment under the riverside banyan trees.
Back on the road, we took care to go around the many dogs that napped on the pavement as though passing vehicles were singing them lullabies. Jungle-shrouded hills gave way to bright green patches of papaya, corn and tobacco in the fertile flats near the river bank. Countless temples came and went.
Consisting of a few riverside eateries and markets, a school, a couple of modest resorts and side lanes that tangle their way towards the mountains, Sangkhom comes and goes in the blink of an eye if you're not looking for it. Yet something about this place made us want to stick around -- even after we'd stopped crying from the fiery Isaan salads endured on Tantawan's riverside terrace.
Maybe it was the welcoming locals, or magnificent Mekong scenery, or the rusty green buses that putter through a few times a day. Perhaps it was the ever-flowing Mekhong brand whiskey and endless supply of fresh-caught river fish. Sangkhom is the sort of place that we would daydream about when picturing quintessential rural Isaan on dark and snowy days back home.
Even if you don't stick around for an overnight, be sure to stop by 25-year-old Buoy Guesthouse -- one of the friendliest we've ever come across. The flower-draped hill with a few flower-covered bungalows and hammocks perched over the Mekong is the perfect place to let the laidback air seep into your every cell.
Exploring the lush hills west of Sangkhom, we arrived at Than Thip Waterfall to find a deserted visitor centre; only birdsong and a few critters accompanied us along the trail. The first tier is gorgeous, and the second is an angelic stripe of whitewater that churns over a 30-metre-high cliff into a deep, crystal-clear pool draped in bamboo trees. Nam tok than thip translates as something like "water falling from the heavens". That just about nails it.
On the way back towards Nong Khai, a stone that we'd left unturned earlier spurred us to race against the late-afternoon sun. Wat Pha Tak Seua and its mountaintop where tigers once roamed was just another 15 kilometres away down a side road. Here in the cooler air we found a simple, secluded temple that the Buddha himself would have been proud of. A few novices swept as their brown-robed elders sat in meditation. We may have disturbed them with a "wow" or two while taking in the view.
Thailand has loads of great motorbiking (or driving) routes: the offbeat northern loop, the spectacular road from Pai, the road to Sangkhlaburi and coastal routes in Chanthaburi and Trat, to name just a handful. Yet nothing says freedom quite like cruising past Isaan's endless villages and farms as the timeless Mekong stretches out before you.
Our little day trip out of Nong Khai was just a taste of the motorbiking possibilities in Thailand's least-travelled region. Next time, maybe we'll set off from Mukdahan and make our way north through Nakhon Phanom en route to Loei over the course of several days. One thing's for sure: we'll be stopping in Sangkhom.
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