For thousands of Laotians who fled their country's Communist government, the refugee camp here was supposed to be a temporary haven on the road to resettlement in a friendly land. More and more it looks to them like a dead end.
The years have slipped by and relatively few - about one in four - have made the best of it. Under grass and tin roofs, they have constructed restaurants, grocery stores, silversmith shops, drug stores and even a beauty parlor with electric hair dryers.
There is a hospital for the sick and a soccer field for the young, but for all 37,000 refugees in this camp there is mostly boredom and frustration and the growing sense that Nongkhai may be the end of the road.
They are among the 165,000 refugees who fled overland into Thailand from Laos and Cambodia. With the world rescue effort centered on the dramatic flight of Vietnamese "boat people," the land people in Thailand have been virtually forgotten.
Pat Luongsinyota came here with her husband and four children. They have known no home here but the one-room shack - the size of a small American bedroom - that they share with another family. They want to go to the United States and were interviewed by immigration officials two years ago but have heard nothing since. She doubts that they will ever go.
The statistics are against them. The resettlement rate for Laotians is 26 percent, compared to 59 percent for Cambodians and 72 percent for Vietnamese boat people who have landed on the southern Thai coast.
One reason is that comparatively few Laotians have ever wroked for the U.S. government or have relatives in America, the qualifications that have enabled Vietnamese to be resettled there in far larger numbers.
Another reason appears to be the slow pace of U.S. immigration interviews in the camps. Because of the big backlog, the average Laotian waits a year to be interviewed on his background and preferences. One refugee, Nouthak Nakhavanit, said he has a brother living in suburban Washington who works for the federal government. But he has been in the camp eight months and never interviewed.
The slow pace of resettlement has angered the Thai government and some observers fear it may someday force the Laotians back home to an uncertain fate, just as it forced about 45,000 Cambodians to leave in mid-June.
Prime Minister Kriangsak Chamanan has complained that the international community ignores the land refugees in its new urgency to take care of Vietnamese who risk drowning to escape in small boats.
Kriangsak told Newsweek magazine last week the refugees pose a "threatening situation" for his country and are a source of "increased political instability in our region."
The camps here in northeastern Thailand, not far from Laos, were visited today by a U.S. congressional delegation led by Rep. Banjamin Rosenthal (D-N.Y.).
One member of the delegation, Rep. Thomas Downey (D-N.Y.), visited a camp of 36,000 Hmong tribesmen from Laos and found them "without hope...just languishing, waiting to be moved in conditions you have to see to believe.
"They haven't received the attention from the media and the State Department that the boat people have," he added. "The State Department seems to be much more conscious of the boat people."
Years after the Pathet Lao consolidated control, refugees still are fleeing Laos, most by swimming or rowing rafts across the broad Mekong River. Typically they hide in forests along the river bank to avoid guards and cross in the night.
Many are killed or captured en route. In one recent incident, according to U.S. sources who interviewed witnesses, more than 100 Laotians were killed by their government's soldiers when they were trapped on a small island halfway across the Mekong.
The escapees had reached the island only to be warned by Thai guards not to come across the river. Then Laotian guards appeared on the Laos side and opened fire with automatic rifles and rockets.
In interviews today, several refugees said they had fled because they were forced to leave their villages and attend political education seminars in remote areas.
Luongsinyota said she and her husband were separated from their four small children and sent to a distant political education camp. They escaped, returned to pick up their children and came across the Mekong in a boat four years ago.
She and other refugees claimed that their children were given too little food and are still suffering from malnutrition despite years in the camp.
Thai officials who supervise the camp said drugs have become a problem and detoxification centers have been established for those addicted to heroin. CAPTION: Picture, Rep. Robert Drinan, D-Mass., visits a refugee camp in northeast Thailand. UPI