I arrived at Nakhon Phanom town and was picked up by Ms Au Aoody, a resident. After an overnight bus journey, it was a refreshing early morning as we drove past the riverside. I tried to get the views of the beautiful mountains that were being kissed by dense clouds. A thin layer of mist hovered above the Mekong, which separates Lao from Thailand.
Au filled me with some introduction to the town. "Nakhon Phanom is a busy city centre famous for trade and export businesses. It is because of its location bordering China, Vietnam and Laos countries. Durian is exported in large quantities to China from here. Of all the bordering towns touching Vietnam and Laos, Nakhon Phanom has been a prominent town for an extended period. "
She continued to tell me how she had moved to Nakhon Phanom five years ago to stay in Nathon, the village that would be my base. She had moved from Bangkok seeking peaceful countryside life by the Mekong. Looking at the beauty of the Mekong that quietly welcomed the morning, flanked by green fields, I thought how lucky she is.
I checked in to the homestay, where I met Toy our energetic village guide and my friend Prae. We got ready in a while, and a tram waited for us outside. An open car with seats, it would be our private double-decker open bus like a vehicle for our escorts.
On the way, Toy briefed us about Nathon, and here I present you some interesting facts about this village.
- Nathon got its name from one of the trees that grow abundantly here. Nathon is one of the forty villages in Nakhon Phanom Province with a rich history dating back to the 12th century.
- The people belong to the Tai Guan community. Guan means plains surrounded by mountains.
- Their ancestors migrated from Southern China to different regions in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, due to the fertile plains, abundant natural resources and ecosystem supported by the Mekong Basin. They have their own distinct culture, dialect and customs.
- Tai Guan people worship spirits as well as practice Buddhism.
- People wear yellow and black during festivals and momentous occasions. These are the symbolic colours of the community.
We got down at Wat Srimongkol, a temple, for the welcome ceremony. There were drumrolls and dance, and sweet-smelling Jasmine garlanded us. The enchanting music had my attention until Fumi - a charming 11-year-old stole our hearts with her cute smile and a confident welcome speech.
Then we went inside the complex for the rituals. The chief started by offering different things - each symbolising elements like peace, prosperity, health, love, wealth and happiness. We lit incense and prayed. Next, the chief summoned the spirits to seek a welcome for us into the village and to protect us throughout our stay, by tying white sacred thread. A few elders also followed and tied the strands around my wrist. I could feel the serenity, and positive vibes felt soothing!
A unique feature of the ritual was a giant tortoise among the instrument players, who kept walking. It symbolises that no matter, whatever happens, keep walking, even if they are baby steps - words of wisdom! I tried getting in, too and had fun.
Night Welcome Ceremony
After a day of fun-filled exploration in the village, another ceremonial welcome awaited us at night. We all gathered around to lit a lamp to signify the start of the ritual. After chanting prayers, the chief offered prayers and performed a ceremony to invoke 32 spirits back to our bodies.
The people in Nathon village believes that there are about 32 spirits in our bodies, those that protect us, bestow health and prosperity. When people leave town and go faraway in their journeys in life, some of their spirits might move away with time, weakening body and soul. So when someone returns to the village, this ceremony of invoking the spirits back is held. After seeking protection and welcome in the morning, we prayed for all the souls to stand by us. Men and women tied sacred threads around my wrist, giving their blessings.
Next, traditional dance performances began. Elegantly dressed lovely ladies put steps in rhythm to the folklore music that described Nathon province, its people, and the art of smithing - a signature skill of Tai Guan people. Lavish dinner serving local cuisine arrived. For me, the showstopper was barbequed frogs! I saw a few frog and insect delicacies, along with sticky rice, traditional salads and soups.
I joined into the tunes after dinner to last few songs, and enjoyed every bit of it, despite standing out oddly for my mismatched steps!
In a single day, the people of Nathon showed how a grand welcome looked like. They not only did welcome me into their town but into their hearts with love, warmth, and hospitality. I hadn't imagined this at all, but it turned out to be a great way to kickstart my village story - a humbling and enchanting experience!