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Monthly Archives: February 2012

Thailand / Laos Part XI.b: Bangkok (second time around)

I should preface this post with an NSFW (Not Safe For Work) since some of the photos will be of scantily clad women…

Our timing had worked out and we were back in Bangkok a couple of days before our flight. We’d wanted to do some shopping since it’s near-impossible to shop on Jeju Island, where we live. For Maria, the largest size shoes to be found on Jeju are at least two sizes too small for her. For myself, the largest size shirt I can find on Jeju is still about the size of an American small. In North America I wear a large-sized shirt. In South Korea I wear XXL, which no one ever carries. Which is kind of ridiculous since there are plenty of tall Korean men.

We went to a few places and found a few things, and I bought a new computer from the IT mall. I’d been in need of a new laptop for some time, but could never get one in Korea because the operating system would be in Korean, and to get one in English would mean to order from outside the country, where I would pay ridiculous amounts in duty to have it imported.

Overall, shopping in Bangkok is fantastic. Allow yourself lots of time, and you will find many interesting vintage and unique items. Or if you prefer, you also have the option of shopping in the designer stores that many metropolitan cities and duty frees usually offer.

We also found some time to re-visit the Chatuchak Weekend Market because we’d loved it so much the first time. A local busker and budding hustler:

We’d returned to Bangkok earlier to leave time to visit the Grand Palace, but as it turned out, the only morning we could have seen it, the Palace was closed to tourists for some special prayer time. Maria was pissed that we’d been thwarted twice. I guess we have to go back one day…

Encore: The Cabaret

We’d seen the show in Chiang Mai, and so we wondered how a Cabaret show in Bangkok would measure up. It was definitely a higher production value and a much more formal show, but we still loved the Chiang Mai show the most. In Chiang Mai the show had seemed like a passion project for those involved (there had been no cover charge so I don’t know how they made any money.) In Bangkok, the tickets were $40 a head, and while you could see that in the production value, it definitely didn’t have the same spirit as the Chiang Mai event. Regardless, we had a great time.





















A Final Note on Hotels

Because it was the end of our trip, I figured we could pay a bit more for a little bit of luxury. The first couple of places we looked at were abysmal – they had the charm of mental hospital rooms circa 1960. We got tired of looking, and settled on a place that was old and smelled of last decade’s cigarettes, with a yellow lampshade. The lampshade had a large burn hole on a side that had been turned toward the wall. Charming. For all the attention paid to perfectly folded sheets and towels, would it have killed them to have bought another lampshade? We stayed for the night but decided for the price we could find something considerably better the next day.

In the morning I went for a walk and saw a place that looked great. A great big fancy hotel for grown-ups. The New World City Hotel. I entered off a canal and found the concierge. I asked if I could see their rooms, and she showed me a pamphlet. Super fancy. I put down the card and booked two nights.

I collected Maria and the bags and we went to our room, only to find that it too, was very old and looked nothing like the brochure she’d showed me. Always check the rooms first. What was with our luck with hotels? Was this consistent across Thailand? It had been in our experience. Clearly we were paying for the size of the room, it was huge, but still felt like the 1960’s. At least we had a view of the canal.

Maria showered and came out scratching her chest. “Something bit me right here.” She had pulled a small bug off her skin and found it painful to remove. I’d just assumed that the bug had come from anywhere we had been that morning (perhaps even the previous hotel,) and decided to have a shower also. As I came out of the shower, I found my leg itchy and looked down to find something also eating its way into my skin. Unbelievable. I pulled it off with a large chunk of skin, and then Maria and I inspected each other like a couple of monkeys to see if there were any bugs anywhere else on us. She found yet another one was eating its way into my back, and removed it as well. The bugs hadn’t come from outside, they had come from the shower in this hotel room.

I got dressed and went to the hotel desk. When I told the clerk what had happened, there were no apologies of any kind. She checked her computer terminal and said “we’ll put you in another room.”

We moved our bags into a room the next floor down, to find we’d been given a nice view of the hundreds of air conditioning units tucked between two buildings. When I was at the desk later, I mentioned that I really hadn’t been happy with the hotel and they asked why.

“Insect infestations, for one. The lack of a view [the only redeeming quality of the hotel,] and the room itself is nothing like what you showed me in the brochure before I checked in.

She promptly grabbed the brochure and opened it. “Well this is the [super fancy] lounge. And this picture is our [high end] Suite room.

Despite my discontent, the hotel made no further accommodation. They’d had no other rooms on the canal side, so asked me to come back and check the next day.

So there you have it. Avoid the New World City Hotel in Bangkok. When I’d arrived home and looked up the hotel on Trip Advisor, I found that several other travelers as far back as 2007 had gone on to complain about bed bug and cockroach infestations. Once again, here was something in Thailand that had overvalued itself and been spoiled by the wealth of tourism. Even in large hotels, where you would expect the basic cordiality that the hospitality industry is supposed to offer, we found the staff unfriendly and borderline rude. Spend your money as you will in Thailand, but don’t expect a land of smiles. Stick with smaller hotel operations (guesthouses) if you can, but always inspect the rooms beforehand. A great example is the guesthouse I loved in Chiang Mai.

Wrap up

We’ve been home for a couple of weeks now. I ran into someone yesterday who asked me “how was Thailand?”

“It was all right. I liked Laos better.”

“Yeah, I hear that a lot.”

And that pretty much sums up our trip. Thailand was fun, the food was great, but it seems like another place overrun and spoiled by tourism. Thailand is called “the land of smiles,” which seemed profound to me. There were hardly smiles anywhere, even when we were handing over money. There were plenty of smiles in Laos, where people seemed happy to do business.

I would recommend Thailand to anyone who wants to visit. The food is great, the culture is broad and compelling. We stayed in both the cities and off the beaten path, and found people in general were helpful but not necessarily friendly. Which is fine. As I had been told before I left, if you’re going to make it to Thailand, you might as well make it to Laos too. Any bit of magic that might have gone missing from Thailand might still be found in Laos. But as with all travel experiences, my trip will be very different from any you might take. The best thing to do is just go, do your best to avoid bullshit, don’t reward bullshit, and have a good time.

Here are some remaining pictures from our time in Bangkok:













Durians stink like rotted fruit farts.


Maria tries on a vintage coat that was in some bad need of repair

Hippie child abuse. Give your kid bath, a haircut and no more clown clothes.


hi

That’s my lady!

And finally, the end.

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Posted by on February 26, 2012 in Life Abroad

 

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Thailand / Laos Part XI.a: Bangkok (first time around)

Maria had planned our arrival in Bangkok for the late afternoon, which would give us plenty of time to get to our hotel and go out that evening. We’d known that we should walk out of range of the official airport taxis and to the outdoor taxi platform, where a metered taxi was said to be far less expensive. But as we tried to figure this out, the sign for the skytrain caught our attention and we thought we’d give it a try.

We asked the ticket agent how we could get ‘downtown’, and he told us to just take the train to the end of the line. Easy enough. We caught the train shortly after and were headed into the city with a view of the sunset.

At the last station we hauled our bags down the stairs onto the street and found ourselves amid a hustle of traffic. We needed to get to the Democracy monument, which was at some kind of roundabout, and as best we could tell, there was a large roundabout some distance up the street. So with all of our bags in tow, we thought we would give it a try.

An hour later we still had no idea where we were. We’d tried to hail several taxis and tell them where we were going, but none of them spoke English. We tried to show them the map to where we were going, figuring they would recognize the city structure and at least narrow it down to the area we’d wanted to go, but this too saw no success. A map in English was no good to us, the drivers just looked and scratched their head, one after another before finally giving up and coasting off.

We’d finally managed to tell one driver where we wanted to go, and after our bags were packed into the trunk he told us the fare would be 300 Baht. We were new to the city, but not stupid, and already knew this was a ridiculous overcharge. “Use the meter” I said, but he refused, as drivers mostly do with tourists. Then he stopped the car and made us get out because we wouldn’t agree to his fare. I know that most people in this situation would cave to get where they were going, but I’m too stubborn to let people take advantage like that, and more, to let them think they can take advantage like that. It was the beginning of a long trip dealing with or trying to avoid drivers-for-hire. So many of them are crooks and they’re to be avoided if possible. Even the locals we watched would negotiate with a driver and most of the time, let them drive away because their prices were too high.

As we tried to examine a map we’d found on the side of a closed tourist booth, a woman came and helped us get a taxi. She dealt with him in Thai, and all arrangements were made to get to our hotel for 100 Baht. Wow, finally someone with reason. As it turned out, we weren’t even that far from our hotel, so it was a good thing we hadn’t taken the other cab or I might have had a few words for him after the 5 minute drive.

I was already beginning to feel flustered and frustrated by Bangkok, and then arrived at our hotel to find that our reservations did not exist.

“I made a reservation online for three nights, but I canceled one night.”

“Our records show that you had made a reservation but then canceled them.”

“No, I canceled one night and was still charged for two nights.” I had examined the receipts carefully before I left, because I had been charged $20 CAD just to cancel one night’s accommodation. In that email had been a verification for the remaining two nights.

The reservation had been made through a third party booking site, so the hotel clerk checked us in anyway and assured me that they would take care of the problem with the third party.

My mistake was not printing a copy of the revised email, but in the end it didn’t matter.

If you must book online, ALWAYS try to book directly with the hotel. I would even advise using Skype to call them ahead of time and make your reservation by phone. Booking through third party websites that charge a premium for their shady services can be such bullshit.

The room itself was nice, but as with most online reservations, was overvalued. We settled in and I got online to check in with a couple of friends who were staying in Bangkok. We made plans to meet later at a blues bar.

As it turns out, we walked for kilometers in the completely wrong direction, and ended up way down in Chinatown. We hadn’t eaten so we found some street food, then headed back to our hotel – which of course, didn’t come without a hard haggle with an overcharging tuk-tuk driver.

We got back to the hotel and I got on the phone with my friend. We were two hours late, so he spoke with the hotel clerk who’d written down directions in Thai for a taxi driver. Then she called and got an honest driver for us, who picked us up and took us right there for about 60 Baht. It really had been just around the corner, in the opposite direction we’d gone. One friend who had been waiting for us had already gone home. Sorry Eoin. :/

That night we drank, ate frog’s legs at a roadside restaurant, then drank some more. We ended up in a packed club with live music, and Maria had noticed a few people giving me strange looks because of my t-shirt. I was wearing a Superman: Red Son shirt, but without realizing that Thai’s don’t take kindly to Socialist symbolism. No serious trouble came of it though, and a good night was had by all.


Trashed.

The second day, we visited the weekend market outside of the city centre, which turned out to be one of the best markets I have ever seen. You could find just about anything you might be looking for, and many items were originals, designed by local artisans. There were lots of vintage items too. We walked around for hours and only wished that we could visit this place more frequently.

Cold tea made with condensed milk. Highly recommended.

Ice cream with young coconut








We’d hoped to visit the Grand Palace, but as we arrived later in the day, found it had closed and wasn’t open the next day. We were leaving the morning after that, so we had lost the chance to see it. Later we’d decide to return to Bangkok a couple of days before our departure, to give us more time.

Tuesday morning we made it to the train station with just a few minutes to spare. We were off to 6 hour ride to Phitsanoluk, where we would have to transfer to a bus to go onto Sukhothai.

Various shots from around Bangkok:



The Golden Buddha







The Reclining Buddha

In the back of a taxi


Next: Thailand / Laos Part XI.b: Bangkok (last time around)

 
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Posted by on February 23, 2012 in Life Abroad

 

Thailand / Laos Part X – Pak Chong and Khao Yai National Park

After two more loud bus rides to Pak Chong, we stood on a sidewalk trying to figure out where to go from there. There was a restaurant nearby where a manager helped us contact the place where we’d made our reservations, and within minutes the covered pick-up truck taxi was there to take us. We’d been much further from the place than we’d anticipated, so we were grateful to arrive with ease and find out that we didn’t even have to pay for the taxi. Our new host had it covered.

The place was as we should have expected. A restaurant and seating area next to the parking lot and road, and winding back, way back through the kitchen storage area, some clotheslines, a few rooms and a garden, we found our room in a motor-inn type building. A line of doors leading into a room that was really just a bed and a bathroom. There wasn’t even a table, it was about as barebones as we’d seen so far. I guess this is why, when there is an option, we prefer to pay the ten dollars more per night for a room with just a few more amenities.

We dropped our bags and went back to the front, and took a seat at one of the crude wooden cafeteria-style tables. We’d just ordered a beer and some food when Sebastien cruised in on his bike, all his gear packed down on either side of it.

“Wow you made it! The whole way!” He said he would try to at least get to Kohrat in the morning before the real heat set in. But he had pushed on through the mid-day sun and gotten to Pakchong at almost the same time as us. He shrugged and took care of his accommodation, then joined us for some food and drink.

We spoke with the owner of the place and reserved a tour of Khao Yai Park the next day. It would depart at 9am and return at about 5 or 6. Lunch was provided, with a basic itinerary of what we would be doing.

Sebastien found the 1,200 Baht fee a bit steep for the tour (approximately $50 CAD) – and by Thai standards it was a bit expensive. He was going to take his bike in and camp in the park the next day, but for us, it was really the only option to get a tour of the park we had come to see.

In the morning we departed with a small cluster of tourists in two ‘buses’. Again, the pick-up truck with benches in a covered back. It was good for sight-seeing since the sides were open, and it was easy enough to hop out of the back in a moment’s notice.

Our guides had been part of the family that was running our ‘hotel’. Some young guys in their twenties who had probably grown up in the park, and could spot things that none of us foreigners would have given a second glance. He’d identified horn-bills, eagles, giant squirrels, gibbons and camouflaged lizards, all obscure and near-impossible to spot with our foreign eyes, even after he had pointed them out. For the sake of our tour, they’d brought along high-powered binoculars on tripods, and with lightening accuracy had fixed on the animals they’d spotted so that the tourists could get a large, crisp view of them from afar. Fortunately, my camera lens was able to get most things within reasonable range.













Lunch was included, a home-made Tupperware-packed affair of some kind of curry and browned cabbage salad, with sticky rice wrapped in a leaf.

The last part of the day had been spent trying to spot elephants in the park, who were notoriously elusive and could only be spotted on certain days when they’d wandered along the road or into open grass areas. Maria and I were both more or less over elephants at this point. Our truck coasted up and down the same road several times as our guides searched for fresh dung, and finally we happened upon one just as it had left the road and stood hesitantly in the trees. Some guy from Quebec next to us had been shooting with his iphone camera all day, and thought he was going to just charge into the forest because he couldn’t quite get the photo he wanted. The guide quickly reprimanded him. “These are wild and dangerous animals. Do NOT go near them.”

By the end of the day we’d grown a little tired of our tour companions, specifically one American girl in particular who hadn’t stopped talking all day and was capping off the last hour by singing gospel songs. Ah yes, package tours and the strangers you meet.

We’d returned to our lodgings at dusk, had some dinner and drinks and called it a night. There was a shuttle into town and the bus stop the next morning at 9am. We were almost at the end of our trip. Since we’d left Bangkok after only 2 days and decided that we’d really wanted to spend more time there, we had made sure to leave a couple of extra days on the end of our trip.

Next: Thailand / Laos Part XI.a – Bangkok (first time around)

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2012 in Life Abroad

 

Thailand / Laos Part IX: Nang Rong and Phanom Rung

After an initially humorous but ultimately annoying bus ride from Kohrat to Nang Rong, we had completed our day’s travels by the mid-afternoon. The buses, while pretty upscale and comfortable, were commuter buses that were decked out with rows of Pioneer speakers and a full entertainment system at the driver’s fingertips. The driver, a guy in his 20’s, had brought his mp3 player and was blasting Thai pop love ballads through the bus for the two hours, at a volume that would have voided any portable music and headset you might have brought. I tried to bear it despite the 128 kbps sound breakup and general awfulness of love ballads, but Maria was most annoyed by the sheer volume. No one else on the bus, young or old, seemed phased by it, so being the strangers we kept our mouths shut and dealt with it. When in Rome.

Arriving in Nang Rong without reservations left us at the mercy of our tuk-tuk driver. We had no bearings for the town, or any idea where a hotel might be. The driver wanted 60 Baht to take us to the hotel we’d requested. But we soon found out that he had no idea where we were going or for what we’d asked. This put me over the edge a bit. One thing that consistently bothered me about taxi and tuk-tuk drivers in Thailand was that they immediately want to talk about money – because they’re high-balling their rates. Then whenever you agree on a price, they have no idea what you’re even asking for or where you might want to actually go. Unless it’s a famous site, they do a lot of guessing, asking other drivers, and taking you many places you didn’t ask to go until you’re both frustrated and lost. It gets very annoying because it takes a lot of time, hassle, and of course, they’re trying to charge you a premium for this.

I soon found out that the 60 Baht I paid him was worth a 2 minute ride up the road to a hotel we hadn’t asked for (we carried our bags to the bus station the next day, it was that close.) The old lady who worked there – while certainly sweet – couldn’t communicate with us, and the hotel itself left many things to be desired. Like a towel, sheets, a bed that wasn’t just a piece of foam and a toilet that worked. A French guest at the hotel who’d been sitting in the common area mentioned to me that there were no other vacancies in town, and that staying was our best bet. So that was settled.

Another guy in the common area sporting dreads and a sleeveless shirt had stank the place out with his intense body odor, so we opted for walking into town. I cannot say it enough. I don’t care how in tune with the earth and nature you are, I don’t care how hard your travels have been and how far you’ve come, put some damned deodorant on. Nobody wants to smell your body stank, even if it is ‘natural.’

Body stank guy had been monopolizing the only computer with internet in the common area, so we decided to go for a walk and see what else could be found. We had to ensure reservations for our next destination near the national park, as resorts and the only options outside of a reservation were going to run steep.

I had read that Nang-Rong was a very average ‘work-a-day” town, where people come in, work, then leave. At night they rolled up the sidewalks and that was that. It was all true. We crossed a road, passed a few mechanic shops, walked around the bus station, and had seen the town. Three older white guys seated in a small restaurant had spotted us walking through the bus area and did a double take.

“What are you doing here?” They immediately asked us.

“We came to see Phanom Rung.”

“Ahhh. I’d say, there’s nothing else here.”

“Why are you here if you don’t mind my asking?”

“We live here. Well, not here, but outside of town, and we just come down here on Wednesdays for a drink.”

We spoke for a few minutes and they gave us the run-down of the area, which was nothing. It only confirmed everything we’d suspected for the last hour. Nang Rong? Nang WRONG!

A few food stands away we sat down for some pad thai, and Maria spied a skink as it ran under our table and through a small gap under a pull-down store gate next to us. It reminded me of a rat I’d seen dart across our path in Chiang Mai, that had come up against a car tire and spun around a bit before finding a way out of our path and disappearing into the back entrances of the food booths. I’ll take lizards over rats.

After so much excitement we headed back to the hotel and sat down with the French guy we’d briefly spoken to upon arrival. The other guy, Mr. Stank, had disappeared, so the common area was habitable once again.

I’m just going to come out and say that the French tourists that we’ve come across in India, Indonesia, Thailand and Laos are generally older, loud, obnoxious and often condescending douche-bags. Any bit of charm and mystique that Maria had once regarded the French with had slowly crumbled along our journeys, as their self-regard and righteous manner had become noxious. I’m aware of the sweeping generalization of saying this (hence the use of ‘generally’ at the start of this claim,) so I will gladly mention Sebastien, a French traveler who we met at this lonely hotel in this nowhere town.

Sebastien, quiet and unassuming yet social, had cycled from France to Thailand. I don’t need to link to a map, because you can imagine what that means. Through the Middle East, across Asia. He had done the trip with his girlfriend, but something had happened along the way and she had gone on her own. And so here he was in Thailand, still going, and acting like none of it was anything. I was still trying to wrap my mind around his journey, but he consistently played it down as if any old commuter on a rusty Shwinn could have done it. That’s what I liked about him. Maria had mentioned our previous encounters with French tourists and he just shook his head. “They were probably from Paris. I fucking hate them.”

Sebastien was from Brittany and thus, had the same disdain for city people that many in the countrysides of the world often do. We drank with him, went for some food, and drank some more, talking of travel and of our next stop, Khao Yai National Park. We were going to take two buses over three to four hours to get there the next day. He was going to go on his bike.

We shared the details of our reservation with him and encouraged him to do the same, since he was traveling on a far stricter budget than us. Then we called it a night.

In the AM Sebastien was already up and ready to start his journey while we awaited the ride we’d reserved to get to Phanom Rung. The site was atop an expired volcano several kilometers out of town, so the ride was essential if we wanted to see it. We’d requested a 6am departure. The park opened at 6, and I wanted to be there early to avoid throngs of package tourists who tend to unload from buses and swarm sites, and I wanted to make sure I could get the photos I had come to get. Phanom Rung faces east, toward its big brother Angkor Wat. The best light of the day was going to be at daybreak.

It had been a plan well made. When we’d arrived the only thing open was the park gates, and as we approached, a lone dog stood central atop the stairs, barking at us. Great, another angry dog. Maria was wary and I kept my tripod at grip (you know, just in case as with so many dogs before,) but it turned out to be nothing. The gate person was alarmed that anyone had shown up so early, and after paying our admission, found that we had the entire time we were there to enjoy the site completely to ourselves.

It really was incredible. These ruins, since restored, nearly a thousand years old – and we had as much time as we needed to explore the entire site in complete privacy. In no one’s way, with no one in our way, as we crawled over the entire grounds. As with the Taj Mahal, it really pays to visit these extraordinary sites as early as you can get in, before the grounds are overrun by clusters of people.

the circular metal barrier at bottom left marks the centre of the
dead volcano’s crater.


click for larger





click for larger

This is why it’s best to arrive early. Otherwise you face dozens
of tourists who stand in front of things for photos. Why do
people always have to stand in front of something and take their photo?





We were finished at the site and headed back to the hotel by 9am, and were at the bus stop to leave town before noon.

 Next: Thailand / Laos Part X – Pak Chong and Khao Yai National Park

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2012 in Life Abroad

 

Thailand / Laos Part VIII: Nong Khai

Not much to say here. I was still recovering from illness so we checked in and I pretty much spent the day sleeping since I hadn’t the night before. I managed to get some plain brown rice into me that night, and called it a day.



As you can see, the place where we stayed was pretty cozy. A nice cabin-like room with a veranda overlooking the Mekong River. A great way to spend an afternoon if you can’t do much else. The room itself was pretty basic, but had a bed covered by mosquito net. Bliss. I also loved the bathroom.

After a very long sleep I woke at daybreak the next day to have a walk around and take a few photos before breakfast.







Still a bit weak but considerably better, we decided to visit what was considered to be one of Nong Khai’s only sites (other than the riverside.) Mut Mee is a large park built by a Laotian who had fled his country, and the start of a similar project he had been building there. For twenty years he had laboured to build Mut Mee in Thailand, a strange garden of deity sculptures. As you walk through, you can’t help but feel you’ve fallen into some drifter’s strange dream.







Once again, Maria was a celebrity with local school kids.

Our driver studies English phrases while he waits.

We asked our driver to drop us off in town, where we had coffee and floated through the market there. Pretty standard market fare, with the localized exceptions, of course. As we wandered out onto a main street and passed a salon, I remembered that I’d been wanting to get my hair cut for a few days. The women inside didn’t look very busy, and they said they’d cut men’s hair, so Maria decided to get a manicure while I got my hair cut.

Whenever I have walked into a random salon to get my hair cut, there’s always some group of women around and of course, the one I usually get seems to be the older one who wants to ask all the details of my life. As she’s cutting my hair, I’m looking at all the pretty other stylists who aren’t cutting my hair. Well today was my day. Today I got the pretty one. She couldn’t speak a lick of English and we had to communicate through her co-worker, but I won’t deny that I had realized that I had finally gotten the pretty stylist.

Behind me, Maria was soaking her nails for her manicure, and I watched in the mirror. She didn’t look very excited. I waited until later to ask her what was what, and it turns out that she hadn’t been very happy with the job they’d done. Shortly after we’d arrived at the salon, a local woman had wandered in and wanted the full shebang. The women in the room then rushed to finish everything so they could tend to her, hastily finishing Maria’s nails before, it seemed, they’d even started. She was in and out in less than half the time it took for me to get my hair cut. Which really wasn’t long.

“Worst manicure ever!” She told me after. Ah, our first world problems. 🙂





As we lazed on the veranda we had a visitor who wished to share the couch.

I hadn’t been too ambitious about food that day either, but managed to eat a few small things. We were planning a departure by train early the next morning, headed to Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat,) where we would then switch to a bus and head east to Nang Rong. Outside of Nang Rong was a large Khmer temple built facing Angkor Wat. Since we weren’t going to make it to Cambodia on this trip, we definitely wanted to see Phanom Rung.

We enjoyed a fantastic dinner that night in a restaurant that was moored on the River, my first real meal in two days.

In the morning we had woken before sunrise to get to the train station for an early train, only to find it was late. As we waited out the chilly daybreak, we were reminded of India, where we had done a similar thing for a train that had ended up being delayed by seven hours. Thankfully, things were considerably different on this day. The weather was a little warmer, there was far less of a sketch-factor, and the train was only delayed an hour.





Next: Thailand / Laos Part IX: Nang Rong and Phanom Rung

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2012 in Life Abroad

 

Thailand / Laos Part VII: Vientiane


Luang Prabang had marked the halfway point of our trip, and we had managed to cover a lot of ground in just under two weeks. There had been a lot of moving with trains, buses, and boats, and all of them had seemed to have taken a long time to get from one point to another. As we began our journey back to the south with a visit to the capital city of Vientiane, we were staring down an approximate 10 hour bus ride over Laos’ questionable roads.

Considering our remaining time and wanting to ensure we stayed on schedule, we opted to forgo the long bus haul and instead flew from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, which took all of about 40 minutes.

Both airports were relics right out of something you might have seen behind the set of Casablanca – without changes or upgrades. Thankfully, the plane was a little more modern. Vientiane airport was especially dated with its yellow walls and luggage carousel that protruded from a hole, out in a straight line. It was the only luggage carousel in the airport (which was really just a small room,) and was just a 15 metre-long old-school conveyer belt. “I guess this airport doesn’t see a lot of action,” Maria noted. I wanted to take photos, but whipping out my camera and taking pictures in a socialist capital’s tiny airport might not get me where I was going any faster.

We’d made a reservation ahead of time, and gave the name of the hotel to the taxi desk. They wrote up a chit and like that it was done. The hotel had wanted to charge us $15 USD for pickup. The airport taxi was $7.

Not far from the airport he brought us down a potholed back alley and through the gates of the hotel villa. It was old, but with a certain Laotian charm. Checking in, we were shown to our room and found it as we had always found pre-booked hotel rooms. Acceptable, but in no way exceptional. I think the biggest factor for me was that the door didn’t quite fit the frame. Both the top and the sides were askew, and I had to stuff the gaps to keep the swarm of mosquitoes out. Once that had been done, I went to work killing at least a dozen mogies that had found their way in.

I hate mosquitoes.

It should be said that I really, really hate mosquitoes. I haven’t mentioned it until this point, but who can stand being woken up in the middle of the night by the buzzing of mosquitoes as they try to get you in your sleep? My adrenaline starts pumping and I can’t get back to sleep, then I’m not sure if I should just get up, turn the lights on and hunt it down. Plus, they carry malaria and other diseases. And then the itchy part. So I would much rather stay in a room that has at least taken some preventative measures against them – screens, mosquito net over the bed, anything that can ensure I will actually get to sleep. Many places on our trip hadn’t bother to consider these things, and just shrugged off the mosquitoes as a part of the picture.

Our savior that night was a ceiling fan at the foot of the bed, between us and the door. I left it on all night and the air current barrier it created had served as a guardian from any mosquitoes that might have been left in the room.

Vientiane

We had been about a 15 minute walk outside of the city centre. It didn’t take us long to find it, through a seemingly sketchy area. I don’t know enough about it and probably never found any bad neighbourhoods, but I never felt unsafe in Laos. The same was for Thailand, except for our first night in Bangkok where I felt vulnerable in the crowded streets with the balance of our bags on our backs.

We knew we had found the city centre when we saw street after street with restaurants and tourist hotels. Having a quick glance around, it was quickly decided that we would be switching hotels the next day, in order to be closer to the action.

The city definitely had a different feeling than Luang Prabang. More urban. It was hard to see much since we were on foot and many things were closed down and metal-gated, but we would have a chance to explore the next day. There was a slew of restaurants on either side of us, and we opted for a place that had a small balcony overlooking the street. It was operated by a French ex-pat (surprise! Most of the tourists we saw in Laos were French) and it wasn’t priced on the cheap side, but again we didn’t really care.




Maria’s beloved sticky rice


Most of touristic Laos was not very cheap at all. Sure it’s cheaper than you might find in North America, but certainly not any cheaper than Thailand (perhaps more expensive,) and definitely not cheaper than South Korea – prices we have since become accustomed to. In Laos, most supplies have to be imported, so you are going to pay for that. Don’t go to Laos or Thailand expecting to pay dirt cheap prices unless you want to literally sleep in the dirt. If you want to travel and have any kinds of standards for where you want to stay you will find things are fair (if you’re not booking online.) They’re not really expensive, but it’s not cheap. (Okay food from a street cart is still cheap.) You can certainly always pay more for fancy hotels if you like. And with online booking, it must be said again, that you are paying for the reassurance that you have somewhere to stay when you arrive. Nothing more.

After dinner we did some enquiring at a few hotels and found, for the same price, places that were extraordinarily better. First thing in the morning, we grabbed our bags and sorted out the new room. Availability was low, so we upgraded a bit to the nicest room we’d had yet. Which was to serve me well later that night.

We rented bikes and decided to explore with a city map. My bike was a real hotrod. As I began to peddle I could feel the left side sticking a bit, and assumed it was a bent pedal shaft. Maria noted shortly after that my rear tire was completely warped, wobbling all over the road as we cycled around all day.

We’d decided to take a break from temple visits. It had been all temples all the time time since we’d arrived, so at least for this stop we’d decided to give it a break. Here’s what else we found:




We had lunch in a sketchy food court,
where this poster warned us of the dangers of opium.

The museum, no photos allowed inside.




The night before, I had spotted this intriguing antique and curiosity shop with a sign that read “coffee house” on the side. As we passed it in the day and saw its doors open, I figured it was a good time to get off the bikes. What treasure we found inside.


Jina Vanida, princess and hostess, tends to the details

Two offerings for Maria. Jina’s favourite bracelet, and a drawing of Maria.
Perfect eyes!

The best coffee I have ever had. A liquid truffle.


click for larger

Maria’s dreams come true – real cheese!

We’d bought some melon juice in a bottle the first night we were in Luang Prabang, which had been about 3 nights before. It had not been refrigerated after the first day. I figured I might as well get rid of it since we’ve been carrying around. So I mixed into a drink, and found that there were chunks of melon in it. By the time I finished it, I had forgotten that I hadn’t mean to swallow the fruit, but it was too late. Oh well.

I woke that night at about 3am with a throbbing in my stomach. I was hoping it would pass, but knowing it had been bad enough to wake me up wasn’t a good sign. Within a few minutes I was in the bathroom enjoying all the symptoms of food poisoning. I’d had an attack at 3, and another at about 5. For good measure I threw up again around 8.

I’d hoped that would be it, and that I would be okay to travel. We had already planned to check out early and get the 9am bus to Nong Khai, Thailand, which would have meant exiting at Laos customs and re-entering Thailand. The bus ride was only about 25km, but everything in between would require a certain amount of physical strength.

There was no way I was going to make the 9am bus. There was another one at 11, and I figured as long as I had a couple of extra hours to wait out my stomach, that I could probably make the trip. I’d never had food poisoning before, and was so grateful to have had Maria there to help. If it hadn’t been for her, no doubt I would have had to stay an extra day to recover. She packed our things and all I had to do was get dressed and drag my bags to a tuk-tuk, who took us to the bus station for some price I gladly paid.

In hindsight I can’t believe I made it to Nong Khai. We filled out our paperwork and shuffled through a line to exit Laos, re-boarded the bus, drove a few meters down the road to Thai immigration, and unloaded (with our bags, for possible inspection) to do it all again. Any other day it would have been a simple ninety minutes at best, but this day it took every bit of measured strength I could muster. By the time we had arrived in Nong Khai. I was better enough to regain my stubbornness and walk out of range of the bus stop and overpriced tuk-tuks with my luggage, until we found one that took us to our hotel for a more reasonable rate. The smells of street food however, were testing my will not to vomit with every step I took.

Next: Thailand / Laos Part VIII – Nong Khai

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2012 in Life Abroad

 

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Thailand / Laos Part VI: Luang Prabang

That last post was a bit high on the whine about obnoxious tourists, but I’m not going to spend any more time on that for the rest of these posts. It’s out of my system and there’s too many other things to mention.

We arrived in Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site as the sun set, and bolted from the crowd lingering for their luggage at the boat. There was a road that paralleled the river, and we decided to follow the string of hotels lining it.

The charm was immediately obvious. Laos had once been colonized by the French, and as a result, their architecture was largely in the French colonial style of the early 20th Century. Even now, where there was much new construction underway throughout the hotel district (ensuring an early rise every day,) all new buildings maintained the style of the old, giving the city a distinctively Asian-European feel.


Wood buildings, slatted window shutters, patio cafes, and a view of the river as it rolled on by gave the first impression of a place where we were going to get cozy very fast. There had been plenty of development for tourism, but it wasn’t overt and in your face like it had been in Chiang Mai. There was definitely a different feel here.

We hadn’t made reservations so we checked in with a few of the hotels further down the strip, but they were booked. We found one that offered us a special rate, but would only be available for that night. The room was elegant, and we took it. It was completely dark due to the wood walls, with a desk, vanity, tv, fridge, closet, safe, and a modern bathroom with a shower stall instead of just a bathroom with a showerhead inside it, as most of Asia seems to use. It was really a nice room.

We cleaned up and went on a wander for dinner, and found a place nearby that was clearly on the upper end for Luang Prabang. After the last few days we’d decided to treat ourselves a bit between the room and the meal. I tried the local pineapple whisky. Not bad. A bit sweeter than I usually like, but still good.

We wandered around after dinner and found the night market. While similar in style to the Thai night markets, this one was markedly different. There were many more handmade goods such as blankets, scarves, duvet covers, pillow cases, and anything else that could be sewn by hand. A lot of these things were not just rammed together in a factory somewhere else. These vendors had been making blankets etc. for a long time, and you could see the workmanship just by examining it closely. Before we left a few days later, we had bought a blanket from this market. My grandmother and my mother have been making quilts and blankets for years, and I have grown up seeing the kind of work that goes into them. I recognized the worth of what I was seeing and made sure we got one before we left.

We bought our blanket from her, similar to the ones on the right.





We also found a lot of silver shops in Luang Prabang. Really beautiful and ornate work, made locally in Hmong villages and elsewhere. Maria finally convinced herself to get a silver dragon bracelet that caught her eye. She never caves to purchases on our travels like I do. It was nice to see her finally get herself something that she really liked.

Our first night in Luang Prabang showed us that we really had happened on something quite different and somehow authentic that I hadn’t felt yet on the trip. Other than perhaps the weekend market in Bangkok (which I will come to in the last post.)

The next day we rented bicycles and toured the outer ring of the city, having a look at where the people of the city lived beyond the tourist area where we had located ourselves. Lumber yards, roadside food stands, a scooter loaded with a chicken on one side, a live goose on the other. A dusty stadium where two young girls combed the grounds, collecting garbage with scrunched faces under the mid-day sun. As we circled back around and re-approached the city centre, we spotted a temple on a nearby hill that caught our attention.

I met a young monk here who had told me of his interest in studying English. I took the opportunity to ask him questions I’d had about the young monks you see everywhere in Thailand and especially in Laos. He explained how there were junior monks and senior monks, and how the junior monks are assigned all of the general chores for the grounds. The monks his age had been doing some construction on the site, pouring new concrete for the past couple of months. The job was half finished.

“I’ve been thinking about leaving to go study.”

“So how does that work?”

“Well, you just tell them you want to leave, then you leave.”



So being a monk was completely voluntary, and though not all young men did it, it was considered highly esteemed to have done it. Similar to Thailand, where I had heard that most young men spend some time studying as a monk. It can’t be a bad thing to spend time as a student of spirituality, as opposed to a mandatory term in the military. Maybe that’s what lends to the generally laid-back attitude in both countries.

We had intended to stay for at least a day, but considering how much effort we had made to get there and what we had found, we stayed for three days. I would have stayed for longer had we the time. Luang Prabang really did feel like a Shangri-La deep in the heart of the country, a city in a forest and holding true to a laid-back river lifestyle.

On one of our days there, we were walking by a temple complex and saw a series of black cars pulling up and a lot of security getting out quickly. Something was up. A guy was headed into one of the temples, flanked by serious people, so we waited to see who it was. The Laotians had gathered and were all waiting for glimpse of him. When he emerged a few minutes later, he stopped for photos and a bit of glad-handing before disappearing with his entourage again. I got a few photos of him before he was gone. Turns out it was Thaksin Shinawatra, a highly controversial ex-Prime Minister from Thailand who was ousted by military coup a few years back.




There’s not much more to say, so here are some images.










Typography FAIL. Curls AND comic sans on one banner.

Mint Lime smoothie












We arose early one morning to watch the monks collect their alms.



And we also spent an afternoon at the museum (former royal residence) and surrounding temples. We weren’t allowed to take photos in the royal residence.






Here are some larger panoramas (click for larger.)

From Phu Si hill facing south-west with the Mekong River.


From Phu Si hill facing north-east.


If you are in the region of Thailand and Laos, go to Luang Prabang. Especially before “things change,” as I keep hearing they will due to the continual choking of the river upstream in China for damming projects. Or before Laos is further developed and spoiled by tourism as Thailand might be.

Next: Thailand / Laos Part VII – Vientiane

 
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Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Life Abroad

 

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