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A Walk around steamy Nong Khai

IT'S worth getting up early in Nong Khai - before 6 - not only for the relative coolness, but also to see the hundreds of Buddhist monks gliding along the streets in their saffron-dyed robes, as the townspeople offer them breakfast. Shopkeepers set out special tables, and their whole families join in. The monks with their copper bowls don't stop long at each table. A steady stream of them passes silently through the gray dawn, each one receiving a little rice in his bowl. To the families who give it, this shared breakfast is an honor and a joy. By noon, I begin to wonder how they all stand the heat. But in fact, everyone in Nong Khai seems to thrive on it. Looms clack and shuttles fly at the Village Weavers' cooperative, where women weave cotton and silk in traditional patterns. Shops spill their goods onto the sidewalks: television sets, electric fans, rattan furniture, or thick, fluffy doormats - mown forests of brightly colored cotton strips. The music playing on radios is a synthesis of Western pop and classic Asian cadences.

On the ground in front of the movie theater a man is painting a huge poster to announce the next film. The faces are rather garish to Western eyes, because they're so big, the colors are so strong, and, apparently, the story in the movie is so dramatic. It looks like a Thai combination of ``Rambo'' and ``The Young and the Restless.''

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The woman sitting on the sidewalk next to the movie house doesn't look young and restless. She is making lunch, presumably for the man painting the poster, the box office attendant, and herself. In a small, perfectly round wooden bowl, she chops a mixture of vegetables with a short-handled, round-bladed knife. She has added a liquid - oil? vinegar? - and her knife makes a pleasantly steady, moist chopping sound. She laughs when a photographer takes her picture.

Of all the people in Nong Khai, perhaps the sam long drivers are the toughest. Their legs are the engines for the city's principal form of public transportation - tricycle rickshaws with little hoods that protect the passengers from the sun. Some of the drivers wear hats, but by no means all. They often carry two adults and several children in the two-seat space behind them. By 3 o'clock in the afternoon, it seems too hot to keep pedaling, but they do.

The town has slowed down considerably by then. We move through the heat as if under water. The streets are quiet: Shopkeepers are inside taking naps, and televisions are turned down low. The streets are almost deserted.

Suddenly we come upon a wat compound, a large space enclosed by ancient walls, with gilded temples, old wooden buildings, and huge, gnarled trees spreading overhead. This is where the monks live. Some of their robes, from nut brown to golden to orange-red, are hanging on a line to dry. One of the monks is kicking a ball around with a small boy. It's the hottest moment of the day, during the hottest time of the year, but neither of them seems to mind.

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