At 6:15 we gave Tang what turned out to be a wake-up call. He said he thought we’d said “between 6 and 7.” He said he had to shower and he’d be right over. He came a half-hour later. I realized that although I’d asked if the car would hold up, I forgot to ask if it had seatbelts. It did not. We told him to drive to Prasat Phnom Rung 2 1/2 hours east by the Cambodian border. When we got there, he said, go slow, you take your time, I sleep.
Phanom Rung is Khmer for “Big Hill” (Phnom means “mount”), and it’s on an extinct volcanic cone. The Angkor temple (Prasat; a “Prasada” is a South-Indian pyramid temple) was built between the 10th and 13th centuries, but the bulk of it was during the reign of King Suriyavarman II in the mid-12th century. He was a great Khmer ruler whose reign seems to have left the best architecture (he also built Angkor Wat in Cambodia). This one was incredible. You walk up this massive staircase, past a long promenade, past pillars with lotus-bud tops, then over a naga (multiheaded serpent associated with water, fertility and creation) bridge, to get to the huge cone-shaped prasat (temple) made out of laterite and sandstone. The temple had amazing sculpture, including the Phra Narai lintel (the block over the entrance across the door pillars) which shows the reclining Vishnu, surrounded by heads of Kala, the god of time and death; he’s asleep on the milky sea of eternity, represented by a naga (he’s reclining on his right side on the back of the naga). Growing from Vishnu’s navel is a lotus that branches into several blossoms, on one of which sits the creator god Brahma Above the lintel is a Shiva Nataraja (Dancing Shiva) relief. There was also a lintel showing a divinity seated over a kala (a demon commanded to devour itself, commonly sculpted over a temple entrance as guardian).
After Phanom Rung, we went 5km south to Prasat Muang Tam. This one was from the late 10th century. It was in many ways equally stunning, especially as it was surrounded by four L-shaped ponds. Each pond was surrounded by nagas whose tails meet to form low gates leading down to the water. There were kalas everywhere. The temple was dedicated to Shiva, but Vishnu was also worshipped there. When we got out a few men were watching playing on some musical instruments and walking and laughing. We loved it.
We were done by noon and we said, OK, let’s go to Khao Phra Vihan (Preah Vihear in Cambodian), three hours east. His jaw dropped and he said, no good idea, you stay here and rest, we’ll never make it, it closes at 4:30. He said, let’s see it tomorrow. Now I’d heard about Thais being lazy but we were hiring him for the day and we’d said it would be hard, and there was no way we were going to stop at noon. He said, you’re crazy! and laughed hysterically, and said, OK, you’re the boss, and drove.
He was driving and he started to sweat. It was very hot in the car, but he was not looking well at all. Sweat was running down his face in waterfalls. I offered him water. He was very happy. I offered to stop for cigarettes and coffee and whatever he needed. He was very happy but looking worse and worse. We stopped by the side of the road where there was a thatched covered hut and a woman cooking. We offered him lunch but he refused, saying he wanted a vita-drink. The vita-drink is basically sugar water, a B complex, and caffeine. Cos could not eat any of what the woman was making. Cos could not eat any Thai food at all, which was becoming a bit of a pain. So Elif asked the woman if Elif could cook Cos some food. The woman looked surprised but said OK, and Elif cut up some vegetables and made Cos some fried rice and egg. We looked around for our driver but he had disappeared. When he came back, he looked better than I’d ever seen him. Must be the vita-drink, I thought.
We got to Phra Vihan at around 3:30 and we were stopped by border guards. Phra Vihan is closed. Apparently the Thais and the Cambodians are in a border tiff. The Thais have a sign posted saying that due to factionalism among the Cambodian security forces and due to Cambodian villagers polluting Thai streams, they have to close the site to protect the safety of all Thai guests. There’s always been a dispute about the site – the World Court awarded it to Cambodia in 1963, but the Thais are still unhappy. It closed during the 1993-7 Phnom Penh offensive against the Khmer Rouge, but when Pol Pot died in 1998, it reopened, and now it’s closed due to this stupid pissing match. Another rule to remember when visiting a border ruin or area: call ahead. (Not like I have a phone number). Although the Thai military wouldn’t let us in, they were glad to take our money to let us see it from the Pha Maw I Daeng cliff a half-km away. We went up and could barely make out Phra Vihan, but the view of the valley below was lovely, and the sounds of the cannonfire (BOOM! – puff of smoke) were heartpounding.
From there we made Taeng drive 2 1/2 hours north to Khong Jiam, on the Laotian border and right near the Pha Taem rock paintings, which we wanted to see the next morning. Taeng calls someone on his cel phone and says that he’s sorry to disappoint us but his best friend is coming from Singapore the day after tomorrow and staying with him in Bangkok for nine days, so tomorrow he’ll drop us in Khon Kaen, where his brother may have a car and can drive us the rest of the way. I’m thinking that we should end up in Udon Thani tomorrow night because it’s bigger and we can rent a car or find someone else in case his brother doesn’t come through.
But for now, Taeng is a trooper. He drives us to Khong Jiam and takes us to a guesthouse of a friend of his. He’s getting a kickback but it’s getting late, and the place is nice. We’ll pay for his room, even though he said he’d sleep in the car, and the owners give us half-price on his room. We go out for a walk on the Mekong River. Nice views of Laos. Taeng takes us to a restaurant on the river and we offer him dinner. He says no thanks and says he’s going for a smoke. We say he can smoke with us, but he says no and goes down by the river. He’s clearly an opium-head. I don’t care as long as he drives alright and takes us where we want to go. He doesn’t eat anything though. He has very bad teeth. Dinner was in an outdoor restaurant. The owner was Japanese and told us about the horrors of MSG and how it clots blood and decreases sexual appetite. The Thais add it to everything, for the taste. We stayed until the winds came and it started raining tamarinds. A tamarind fell that was the size of my arm. You could kill someone with that tamarind. We covered our heads and ran to the hotel.
We saw Pha Taem first thing in the morning when it was only 95 degrees outside. It’s a tall stone clif with prehistoric paintings over 3000 years old – paintings of turtles and elephants and hands and geometric designs that looked like labyrinths. The hands were the most interesting, as some were dipped in paint and applied to the surface, whereas others were outlines, as if someone spit paint at the hands on the wall. Right on the road there we saw Sao Chaliang, which were lots of mushroom-shaped rock formations that we could climb on.
We headed west and then northwest. On the way we saw some wats. Wat Tham Hew Sin Chai, near Ubon Ratchathani, would have been a nice cave temple with water cascading over it to make a waterfall over the entrance. I say “would have been” because it was the dry season, and because of a very nasty scene. There was a starving, bloody black dog inside, near the Buddha image. It was very, very hot outside. Some other wats had cats walking around and on the Buddha shrines, no problem, but here, a woman sweeping up started beating the dog with her broom. The dog was too tired and weak to go, and she kept beating it, and I went up to her and puffed out my chest and bellowed “HEY!” I was saying “very bad, very bad” in Thai. Elif pointed to the Buddha, and then acted out in pantomime that the Buddha would slit her throat if he saw her beating that dog. To which the woman smiled and held up the crucifix dangling from her neck, as if to say, I’m a Christian, what do I care about Buddha, Jesus would approve of me beating this helpless animal! We stayed in her face until she left the dog. So we didn’t get to see Thai dancing in Bangkok, but we got to see a live play of Buddha’s teaching that life is suffering, acted out in canine. There was more humanity in the prostitutes of Patpong than at this mountain temple.
We drove north to Khon Kaen, and Taeng told us his brother wasn’t going to be available to be our driver tomorrow after all. He took us to some nice wats along the way, including a very peaceful and lovely Laotian one near Yasothon. By the time we got to Khon Kaen it was late and started to rain. Looking at the map, Udon Thani north of there was where we were headed, and it was far larger (and more likely to find a new driver). I did the math and figured we’d take a bus immediately and then at Udon take a taxi to a hotel, but we may not have been able to catch one that late, and I said to Taeng if you drive us north to Udon we’ll pay you some extra. Taeng looked exhausted and his windshield wipers were barely working; he laughed and rolled his eyes and said you crazy, and then kept on driving. We got to Udon and checked into the Royal Mekong Hotel; it was pricey ($20 a night) but we all wanted some luxury. I checked in, came out and sat down next to him in the taxi, and said, “There’s no more single rooms available, so rather than going to another hotel, I thought you might like THIS instead,” and I fanned out six 500-baht bills in front of him, two more than we’d agreed on, and his face looked up like a Christmas tree and he bowed and made the praying gesture with his hands, and we took his picture and went inside. They gave us a complimentary cocktail, a fruity concoction with as much alcohol as there is vermouth in James Bond’s martini, and the waitress hovered over us hoping for another order. It was Cos’s birthday so we bought him an expensive black russian cocktail with about as much alcohol as there is vermouth in James Bond’s martini. There was a lounge singer with huge fake breasts singing out of tune to a pianist who could not play the piano.