Between Nakhon Sawan and Luang Prabang

[This is the third and final post about my commutes between my favourite flight hub of Bangkok and my pied à terre in Luang Prabang. The others are Train no. 211 from Bangkok and (My) life in Nakhon Sawan. They’re memories of travels impossible and places unreachable in Covid-times.]

From Nakhon Sawan it’s a boring bus ride to Phitsanulok. I often passed through the city starting out as a tour leader in Thailand in the 1990’s, and enjoyed visits to the Buddha Casting Foundry with its traditional production methods. These days I don’t get into town, just stay overnight across the road from the bus terminal east of the city, where there is one of those clean and bright no-frills hotels  found in Thai provincial towns. The family that runs it is none too outgoing. But there is always a nod of recognition, or an ’it’s-been-a-while’ .

Nearby at an intersection is this sign:

Now this is a bit grand. No car or truck from Malaysia, China or Vietnam ever passes by. But Phitsanulok is a major domestic traffic hub. Straight west the road leads to the Myanmar border at Mae Sot, straight east to the Lao border at Mukdahan. Buses run south to Bangkok and north to each and all of the northern provinces.

Beyond Phitsanulok there are several possible routes to Luang Prabang, shown on the map below. I usually continue to Loei, and move on to Luang Prabang the next day. It is fastest and, well, cheapest.

But the route through Nan province also makes for interesting travel. This goes: bus from Phitsanulok to Nan; minivan to the Thai-Lao border at Moeng Nguen; a walk through no-man’s-land; finding some or other vehicle to Pakbeng on the Mekong; a boat down river to Luang Prabang.

I haven’t yet traveled the Uttaradit – Paklay stretch myself. Bucket list!

Text continues below map.

A geographical appendix

Each of these routes at some point must cross the divide between the Mekong and Chao Phraya basins. Interested in everything Mekong I try to figure out where exactly this divide runs, both by trying to work out the lie of the land while on the road, and by studying the unsurpassed Google Earth and following streams and rivers on its satellite images.

(Incidentally: how great an escape is Google Earth in times of lockdown. It allows me virtual travel, transports me to faraway places I’d rather be.)

It must be then that the Thai-Lao border follows the Mekong-Chao Phraya divide in the north of Thailand’s Nan Province, and the east of its Uttaradit Province.

The divide must run inside Thailand between the towns of Phitsanulok and Loei. But while traveling there, it is difficult to determine its course as there are several longer climbs and descends along the way. Google Earth also doesn’t provide a clear answer, so in this case the marking on the map is just an educated guess.

You may also be interested in an older post, describing my commutes from Luang Prabang to Bangkok in the opposite direction:

(my) life in Nakhon Sawan

[This is the second of three posts about my commutes between my favourite flight hub of Bangkok and my pied à terre in Luang Prabang. Memories of travels impossible and places unreachable in Covid-times.]

Nakhon Sawan is a busy nondescript provincial town. Nothing really goes on, but life itself. People get to and from work, to and from school, to and from shops and takeaways. There are no so-called ‘things to see’, no obligatory tourist attractions. There is nothing idyllic about it. I never see foreigners there, other than the groups of Korean golfers in my hotel. I liked it right away.

I stay for a few days, sometimes a week. Coming from travels in China I relax. Coming from Holland I try to get rid of my jet lag.

I turn right out of the hotel and a 15 minute walk gets me to Big C, the common man’s shopping mall. In the second floor supermarket I buy bread, fruit, yoghurt, peanut butter. And some small cans of Chang beer, provided I didn’t yet again forget no alcohol is being sold in Thai shops before 5.00 p.m. In which case later in the day I hop into one of the 7-Eleven stores, omnipresent in Thailand.

I turn left and after 10 minutes I get to the confluence of the Ping and the Nan Rivers. From here on they combine to be the Chao Phraya, the river that irrigates Thailand’s fertile central lowlands and flows along the past and present capitals of Ayutthaya and Bangkok. It is the kind of place that fascinates me. Such geographical significance.

I walk along the river bank. I walk the streets. I see characteristically Chinese shops. Around Chinese New Year large dragons decorate the centre of town. A sizeable part of the people must be ethnic Chinese. But I can pick out few by their features. I never hear anyone speak Mandarin. They are not part of the wave of newcomers from China that now rolls across the world, but descend from immigrants that settled here generations or even centuries back. They have long since integrated in Thai society.

I love my hotel. Rooms are large and white and brightly lit and functional. Thankfully no effort has been made to make them somehow atmospheric or cosy.

The desk stretches forever along the wall. On one end, next to the fridge, is a tray with glasses. Next comes some of my food, fruit, biscuits; then my clean folded laundry. I sit at the other end with my laptop, near the door to the balcony, in the comfortable office chair. When coming from China I spread out tickets, receipts, invoices and keep my accounts. I spread out my notebooks, maps, hotels’ and drivers’ name cards and type out the travel info gathered on this trip.

Laundry I hang out to dry in the open closet in the small hallway. When there is not enough space I spread out the rest on the plastic sofa.

I prefer high hotel floors, always stay on the fifth or sixth here. A couple of times a day I walk down to the lobby to make my instant coffee, tea or Milo – provided for free as is the custom in provincial Thai hotels.

For dinner I go to the local eateries that spill out onto the pavement. Food isn’t as good as usual in Thailand though, and sometimes I end up in one of Big C’s chain restaurants.

The town’s songthaews can be spotted from far away, coming in bright colours that correspond with their routes. I get on Yellow for the bus station, when I feel it’s time to move on.