Nong Khai reminds me of Newburyport, a city built along the edge of a river. Nong Khai nestles along the Mekong, which is wide and swift and deep. It feels almost like a beach town without all that decadence. Just barges laid out in the river as restaurants and bars, lights glimmering in reflection morning coffee on terraces looking out on slow-moving water.
All the good things about the beach minus the sand. Here we hit songkran full blast and it bowled us over. People who don’t understand songkran, the Thai water festival at the time of the lunar New Year, somehow don’t think it’s possible. You go around with a super soaker and it’s okay to shoot cops and old ladies. Cops and old ladies dump buckets of ice-cold water on your head in return. You are soaked from head to toe, all the way to the inside of your underclothes. You wander the streets and borrow buckets of water from families to heave at pickup trucks, their backs filled with entire families. Thai families offer you food from their roadside dinners as you walk.
It’s a mind-bending experience, a beautiful celebration of the hottest point of the year, when all you want is to have water heaved at you. After it was over, we walked past a lady watering her garden from her driveway. I wish it was still songkran, I said. Then I’d be able to be splashed by water every day. We celebrated in and around the Mutmee Guesthouse, with a vibrant group of expatriates, a surprise in what I thought would be a backwater town—German-Turks and Filipinas and Brits and Guinea-Portugese travelers or “work vacationers” as they call themselves, people who had lived there for years sometimes, teaching or doing development work.
Here I watch, for the first time, the Buddha procession, where people splash Buddha statues and priests with flower-scented water. Yes, even them. Statue after statue parades down the street, some hundreds of years old, on the backs of pickup trucks or strapped to the tops of cars, decorated with flowers and garlands, with laughing prepubescent priests alongside, throwing water down on us as if it were rain.