"No, ten dollars."
"How about twelve?"
This is a familiar dialogue to anyone who has traveled in SE Asia, with one difference--the motorcycle driver was the one who insisted that I pay him eight dollars for our forthcoming trip to the 100 Column Temple area outside of Kratie, while I was the one venturing into twelve dollar territory. At that point we both cracked up, as my traveling companion shook her head and said "I never thought I'd see this kind of role reversal," or words to that effect.
Welcome to Kratie, a town that is as close to heaven as I am ever going to get and a place I've dreamed of almost every night since returning to Bangkok. It's a place where traffic consists of expensive, well-kept cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and pony carts (driven by men who stand upright, like surfers) that haul freight, not tourists.
The Mekong is generously revealed in Kratie. Development lies across the street--the river is bordered by a long pedestrian walkway and a wall wide enough to sit on--even for broad barang bottoms. At night beer stalls with tables spring up on the walkway and a small cluster of food vendors at its far end feed people all day.
There are hotels that probably are "luxurious" with aircon and hot water--I will probably never know. I was thoroughly happy with the reasonable pleasures of the U Hong II guesthouse--a clean room with a river view, two fans and a coldwater shower with enough water pressure to spray-clean a battleship. An open-air cafe provided great coffee, a baguette and fresh fruit every morning--and a splendid view of a Kratie street waking up.
It is wonderful to spend time in a place that accepts travelers without disrupting its patterns for them. The Kratie market is for residents--souvenirs have yet to raise their ubiquitous heads, although beautiful fabric could easily have stripped me of every cent I possess. Yet when I needed a pair of shoes that would let me explore the area in comfort, a woman went to another stall to find my over-sized 38 rubber soles--customer service that stateside department stores would envy. My traveling companion found industrial-strength sunscreen at one little stall when the vendor plunged into a large, dusty carton and emerged triumphantly with it in hand.
Dolphins are the tourist attraction and I had mixed feelings about viewing them, but drawn by the chance to be on the Mekong, I went. Our driver frequently turned off the boat's engine and let us drift silently down the river, spotting the occasional fin or dolphin back, but the main enchantment was the Daliesque clumps of islands that floated past on a calm pewter ribbon of leisurely current. I long to go back in a couple of months, when the rains bring the Mekong high above its present banks and the tips of trees are all that can be seen of the sandbar islands that dominate the riverscape now.
kratie is dauntingly picturesque, but I found myself trying to take snapshots of silence and tranquility, as well as of the more conventional snapshot subjects. As someone who grew up in very rural Alaska, living without the comforts of 20th century life, I was completely amazed to find myself at home near a river that is light-years from the Kenai or Anchor rivers that I grew up watching and loving, or the Yukon that was my benchmark for great rivers--until I saw the Mekong.
You can, as a relative recently remarked, take a woman out of Alaska but...unless of course she finds what she loved about Alaska in SE Asia...I'm lucky. I have.