Originally Written for OneCityRoad, January 2017
Border towns generally have a well-earned reputation as being brash, unfriendly and often grubby places, with little to keep tourists there beyond a perfunctory border crossing. Nong Khai, on the Thailand-Laos border, is the textbook exception to that rule. The warm and open nature of the Isan people is primarily what drew us to the banks of the Mekong on a warm and lazy Saturday evening.
We’d heard numerous reports of the exceptional street side eating to be had here, even on Thai standards, but the milling, giggling families and endless intriguing trinket stalls momentarily distracted us from what we were really there for. Walking through the winding streets felt like a strange mix of Arabic Souk and London’s Camden market, with each stall offering something largely unique. Further along the river, the stalls started to change slowly from clothes and curios, to food vendors peddling their various specialities. It was the smells that wafted over the early evening breeze that led us first to a street side BBQ, offering everything from grilled whole chickens on lemongrass skewers, to pork belly and chilli kebabs. Keen for us to try her cooking, our beaming host handed us sample after sample, before sending us on our way laden with a selection of goodies for just 50 Thai Bhat (around £1.20). Ducking between stalls and heading for the river, we found an oasis of calm on the riverbank as groups of friends and couples gazed on at yet another wondrous Mekong sunset.
Our meaty goodie bag, still piping hot having left the charcoals just minutes earlier, delivered a wonderfully fragrant punch of chilli and lime over juicy hunks of meat. Taste buds alight, I left my partner to guard our spot and ventured back into the throng, only to emerge minutes later armed with Chicken Satay skewers (the length of the queue suggested this was a local favourite), and a selection of what can only be described as spherical pancakes with an odd, gooey filling. All delicious, if not to this day somewhat of a mystery.
Whiling away the evening on the river bank was almost cinematically perfect, with the soundtrack provided by a faint tannoy system playing a mixture of music and what we assumed to be news or information. The mood changed suddenly when a piece of music was announced slightly louder than the rest, and the whole scene immediately froze and everyone stood respectively still until the tune changed. We could only assume that this was to do with the recent passing of Thailand’s king, with signs of respect still peppering everyday life.
With the sun then well below the horizon, the festivities outlasted our stamina, and we exited stage left, allowing another gaggle of hungry customers to take our place.