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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This post runs a little long, so if you’re just looking for information about whether or not to do it – the short version is don’t do it unless you’re the type of person who would enjoy being stuck on a floating frat party for 2 days.
This was something I’d been looking forward to for the whole trip. Upon the insistence of two separate friends, we had decided to take the slow boat from the north of Thailand across Laos, into the city of Luang Prabang. I’d heard only good things about Laos, specifically that it was as Thailand might have been 20 years ago before being overrun by tourists. We were certainly tired of feeling like so many things we had seen were like store fronts meant to showcase and collect money from passing tourists, so the further we went on our journey, the more I had anticipated our journey into Laos.
We arrived in Chiang Khong after dark, and found our accommodation a half kilometer down the road. It was nice. A wooden complex of rooms joined by a series of porches that looked out over the Mekong River. It was so dark out that it was hard to see anything, but a hotel across the river was having a party, the music wafting directly across at us. The lights of the hotel shimmered off the river, the only indication that the river was there at all.
We took care of business and finally got online for a few minutes. That is one part of travel I really enjoy. At home I am usually online most of the day in one form or another, and living a large part of my life through the interface of a computer screen. On vacation it’s great to be able to ‘get off the grid,’ so to speak, for days at a time.
We ordered some dinner (coconut-based curry again!) and were prepared to settle in when we realized something was niggling at us during the whole meal. Nearby was a table with a few other travelers, but one in particular, a young American woman, was dominating the conversation with her experiences in Thailand and abroad. At first we paid no mind; it was a generic travel conversation that you hear anywhere on the road. But then we realized she wasn’t stopping, and that the other three people she sat with didn’t speak the whole time. The more she spoke, the more Maria and I just looked at each other. Here was another 22 year old who had traveled out into the world, learned some things, then had to share it with everyone they met as though what they had done was entirely exclusive and everyone just had to hear about it.
Half bemused and half annoyed, we jotted down a quick list over dinner of all the tourist faux pas we’d witnessed while on vacation. Not just on this trip, but also from recent trips to Indonesia and India. Because we were there with time to kill, we made this entry about how not to be a terrible tourist.
The next morning we were ready to go. We’d booked the boat and all details of getting to the boat with our host, which made a few minor complicated matters of ferries and taxis very easy. I really liked the guesthouse except for the pillow, which had been too big and had messed my back up over the course of the night. The way I go on about hotels – it probably makes me sound like the princess and the pea, but I’ve got two four inch pins in my spine that pretty much keep me together. 99.9% of the time I am fine, but I have to be cautious about the kind of bed I sleep on and these kinds of things. Otherwise I face chronic, throbbing back pain for days on end, and if you’ve ever experienced that, you know it’s something to be avoided. Especially on vacation.
Unfortunately I woke up with that back pain, but otherwise I really liked that place. The view in the morning of the river was so beautiful and peaceful, I had risen before anyone else so I could get a photo of it at first light.
Soon enough everyone was up, and we had seated ourselves for breakfast when a plume of cigarette smoke wafted across my face. Ugh, not what I want to smell first thing in the morning before breakfast. We moved across the deck, and little did I know that this was to be the first of many incidences with the young woman who was enjoying her pre-breakfast cigarette.
Soon her gaggle of friends showed up, and they were all a chatter about this and that. So they were going to be on the boat with us. Ah well, it was a fairly big boat. I’m sure what they did in their seating area would have no effect on us wherever we had decided to sit.
Piling into our hosts pickup truck, Maria and I took shotgun while the clan piled into the back. They were on a mission to get some food and beer in town for the ride, which our host quite willingly obliged. Maria and I had bought packed lunches from her in the morning, so we were set to go. As we sat in the truck, we watched them flail about town like a bunch of chickens scared out of coop as they hunted down snacks, a Styrofoam beer cooler, ice, and of course, beer.
I still thought little of it.
After a short ferry ride across the river into Huay Xai, Laos and a crowded, chaotic hustle through immigration, we came away with our Laos Visas and some Kip (Laotian currency.) Based on a sticker our host had put on our shirts, a tour operator picked us out and told us to wait for our ride to the slow boat. As we waited, we noticed that our chatty, smoky travel companions all proudly sported Canadian flags at the top of their backpacks. I hadn’t realized people still did that sort of thing.
Soon we were off in another truck, and shortly came to the docking area for a slew of slow boats that traverse the Mekong River. We had been given seating assignments and realized our host had given us seating halfway down the boat from the Canadians. Bless her heart. But our seats had been occupied by a group of English guys and Canadian girls decked out in hipster summer gear, blasting over-played British pop songs from the 90’s through some ratty little ipod speakers. The boat operator asked them to move to their proper seats, but they put on their whingy faces and said “aww does it really matter?”
“It’s fine,” I said. “We’ll just sit back here [away from them.]”
The Mekong River. Snaking down between Myanmar and Laos, then bordering Laos and Thailand, dipping down through Cambodia and finally ending in Vietnam. A river of much life and history. Here we were on a slow boat cruising down the river for two days, into the heart of Laos and what I was pretending would be some kind of Shangri-La. Surely anyone who would want to sit on a slow boat for two days was thinking the same thing as me; a nice relaxing and scenic view on an idyllic riverboat ride… enjoying the sights and sounds of the countryside and villages.
But why would you want that when you can pound beers and hard liquor all day and blast shitty pop music through tinny, treble speakers that you bought at some night market? Why would anyone on the boat want to relax when there was hard partying to be done?
The boat departed at about 12:30, and by 1:00 the party contingent had begun to merge. A pocket in the back, a pocket in the middle, and the rest of front. They had the boat covered. They only made up for a third of the people on the boat, but that didn’t matter.
Perhaps you’re thinking “aw come on. You’re on a boat, on vacation, you might as well have a good time.” Sure, there’s nothing wrong with that. I love having a beer and hanging out with friends. Sometimes I even like to meet new people. But I also consider when I have fun that I shouldn’t do it at the expense of others. It’s like the right to smoke. Yes, you have the right to put that into your body if you choose. But you don’t have the right to make me breath it in too. You have the right to jump off a cliff if you want. You don’t have the right to take me with you. Your rights don’t trump mine or anyone else’s.
I wouldn’t care if they were sitting there having some drinks and talking to each other, but it wasn’t the case. The partiers converged and turned the boat into Spring Break ’12, despite two thirds of the boat doing whatever they could to ignore them at best, or glaring with overt resentment at worst. They were shouting, playing music, splashing river water up over the side of the boat at anyone sitting behind them, spilling beer all over the boat floor, leaving bottles strewn about the floor, and generally treating the whole boat as it was the wing of their dormitory. When asked several times not to sit on the edge of the boat for matters of safety, everyone looked at the boat operators and shrugged. It’s okay, if one of you falls in we’ll all come back for you. One guy who was about 60 and loosely resembled Donald Sutherland had spent the day trying his hardest to mingle and be accepted by the 20-somethings. I remembered him from immigration, pushing and fussing his way up through the line. Another woman, “old enough to be your mother,” wanted to show that she was a still a gal who could have a good time, and often led the party charge with screams of “WOOOOO HOOOOO PARTY ON!” Wow, you go, mom.
Classy party mom holds a beer between her toes while she romances a cigarette.
At one point I went to the back to use the toilet and saw a few of the revelers passed out cold, dead drunk, their bodies strewn throughout the boat operator’s family quarters amid the matriarchs and children. Classy move, guys. Party on.
I’ll make a departure from my complaint to highlight the better side of the boat ride.
She wants no part of a haggle.
Village kids from the hills try to sell scarves to boat tourists.
The OTHER slowboat.
The boat stops for the night in Pakbeng, an interesting little town that serves as a major trade route for shipping goods inland. A few touts lined the bank, as I had hoped, and we took the first room that seemed reasonable. Actually, we just took the first room available.
After dinner and a very short walk around the corner to the end of the town, we headed to bed and prepared for an early rise. With a sore back after such a long day, and knowing tomorrow would be another long day as well, I was so ready for a nice deep sleep.
Rooster call right outside of our room. I checked my watch. Mother@#_&!. Usually they don’t start until at least 4 or 5. Not to worry. I’ll try to get back to sleep.
Two roosters calls, again outside of the room.
Welcome to rooster town, population you and 10 roosters from near to far.
Well, that chicken you eat has to come from somewhere. It comes from right next door.
When I finally got up for breakfast and saw a big, ugly rooster strutting up the road, I had half a mind to grab it by the neck and strangle it to death. Small river towns are going to have chickens and roosters, it completely makes sense, but it didn’t make me want to spare that rooster any less. And so this trip has taught me that I am not a vegetarian because I have to help save the world from these obnoxious fuckers by eating them.
The next plan was simple; get on the boat as early as possible because there was NO WAY that any of yesterday’s partiers were going to haul their hungover asses out of bed in time for the first boat. That’s right, I forgot to mention that there were two slowboats. The other had been passed and then passed us yesterday when we had broken down. Both times we saw the boat, we saw how sedate and relaxed everyone on the other boat had been, just enjoying the ride and watching the scenery. At breakfast we had talked to a group of young Brits who laughed when they heard we had been on that ‘other’ boat.
“Was that the boat with the Canadians?”
“Yes. You heard about the Canadians?”
“Ahahaha yes, we heard all about the Canadians.”
My nationalistic pride flared red like a giant flag sewn onto a backpack.
“I want to be on your boat.”
“No problem mate, it’s not assigned seating, it’s just first come first serve.”
Oh how I longed to be on that other boat. Today I would make that happen.
We got ourselves down to the river bank and were the first people on the first boat. No messing around. We could see everyone else winding their way down the hill towards the boat, and would have had first glimpse and alert of any one of yesterday’s Spring Breakers.
The boat was filling up fast with old people. It was looking really good.
“HEY JO DO YOU HAVE THE ROOM KEYS?”
“NO I NEVER HAD ONE.”
Here came the Canadians. They crept modestly onto the boat and sat at the front again. We were sitting only a few rows back from the front to avoid the noise of the engine room and the stink of the toilet. Surely if they were going to be on our boat again, today they would be hungover and mostly silent. Victory would be mine. Oh yes.
The boat filled up more. We were totally winning.
Here came ‘the Austalian.’ Okay, he was only one more. No problem.
Next came the second group of Canadians that had been with the British guys the day before. They weren’t together anymore. Uh oh, maybe some drama there from last night.
“One of those girls totally slept with one of the guys and now it’s just awkward” Maria said.
But they too, were clearly hungover and would not get out of hand.
We were still kind of winning. And the boat was mostly full. I could feel the glee approaching as I noticed people starting to load the other boat.
Party mom and her companion wound down the hill and onto our boat. Surely party mom was partied out.
Finally the British guys who had been with the Canadians yesterday wound their way down the hill. They looked the most hungover of all (they had drank two bottles of hard liquor on the boat the day before,) and went onto the other boat. Then they came onto our boat, avoided the girls, and went straight to the back.
We had totally lost. ALL of the idiots from yesterday’s boat were on our boat again. Even creepy old Donald Sutherland guy had slunk aboard somehow. I stayed optimistic. It was 9am. They were all hungover. The full coolers that everyone had brought the day before were emptied and gone. Today was going to be a good day.
The Canadians had gone to the back and bought their first round of beers from the boat staff. Ten AM! By noon everyone was well on their way to Spring Break Part 2, Party Mom included. By one o’clock, all of the scattered partiers had reassembled in power formation, all at the front of the boat, all 2 meters in front of us. We hadn’t just lost, we were set adrift on a river of loss, en route to Loserville.
Two of the Canadian Superstars were girls named Annie and Willow. Annie was a ‘CSR’ (A customer service rep – a waitress) from Vancouver, and Willow was a freshly-single late starter who was tied down in a relationship since she was 19 and now she was 29, also from Vancouver. (“My ex is totally hot, I would totally do him anytime anywhere except it would mess with his head.”) She’d been tied down for her entire twenties, and now had a lot of catching up to do. How do I know so many things (and more) about them? Because they were telegraphing all of their personal information over the boat for two days and I had nowhere else to run.
You know what else Willow was telegraphing all over the boat that day? Her disgusting pimply ass. Maria, considerate as she is, even told her “your dress! Your butt is hanging out of your [too short] dress!” To which her friend Annie shrugged and says “that’s what she does.”
That’s what she does. Hey your pimply ass and unwashed, brown bathing suit are on display for the whole disgusted boat to see. But that’s just what she does.
What more can I say about it that I haven’t yet explained in unnecessary detail? Nothing. I suspect that the two friends who so heavily recommended this boat ride to me had taken it in the off-season when there are less tourists. I really had enjoyed the ride for the few minutes that I could depart myself from Spring Break Boat Party ’12, but I could not recommend it to anyone who might end up in the same predicament. If you ever do take the slow boat to Luang Prabang, try to avoid these types of tourists if at all possible. Your trip will be much more relaxing and enjoyable.
We arrived in Luang Prabang that evening just before sunset, and I was so thoroughly delighted to be there. It could be nothing short of my own personal Shangri-La after getting off that boat and away from everyone. I was soon to find out that two long days of nonsense were about to pay off beautifully.
After another leg on the bus (and learning to avoid sitting at the back if you want to keep your tailbone from repetitive hammering,) we came into Chiang Rai late in the day, due to my unwillingness to rush. The guide book listed two hotels directly in the vicinity of the bus depot, which was perfect. I wasn’t necessarily in the mood to deal with more tuk-tuk drivers.
From the bus I could see a fairly clean looking hotel directly across from the platform. But it was fully booked. We wandered around the block looking for the other one, lugging our bags again with no specific direction. We finally found a pocket of hotels along one street, but one after another, they all told us they were full. Great.
Down the road I spied a mega hotel called the “Wang Come,” the kind that package tourists and higher-financed travelers tend to prefer. We didn’t really have many options left, so we strolled into the grand lobby and were surprised to find the rates were a little higher, but still reasonable. We threw down the card and booked it. As I signed in, Maria noted some of the other guests in the lobby, namely, older European tourists who glanced at us up and down with a non-subtle disdain. Ah European tourists. Specifically, French tourists. We were in jeans and t-shirts, carrying a mid-sized backpack and another small pack each, so I guess we looked like any average traveler in our average age group. Except we tend to prefer backpacks that we can carry, to suitcases that need to be lugged (hence the term ‘luggage.’)
I don’t really care what other people think about me, sometimes to a fault. If I sense that someone is giving me that look, I might be provoked to do something to further earn their disdain. I wasn’t in the mood that night, since I just wanted to check in and get settled. “Don’t worry about them, we’ll get cleaned up upstairs and get our other clothes on then sit next to them at the bar and have a grand old laugh.”
When we got to the room she also mentioned the way the hotel staff had treated us. You normally find people who work in the hospitality industry to be courteous and helpful, since that’s really the essence of their industry. But the women at the concierge of this hotel were curt, and hadn’t really made any effort at all to be welcoming. I guess I hadn’t thought much of it, because I generally find people who work for large companies to never be particularly impressive in their manner. They work some job for some faceless corporation, and as long as they’re functioning in their position and collecting money on behalf of someone else, where is the joy? “They probably don’t feel the particular need to impress the two of us, and this is probably just another day at work for them.” I really didn’t care, the room was the nicest (if not dated) room we’d been in on the trip. But again, it was a room that was overvalued, at least in perception.
At one time it had been a grand hotel, but that time was 30 years ago, and now it was beginning to feel a bit like the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s “The Shining.” At the side of the bed was a 1970’s-looking gold-plated control panel for the TV, lights, A/C, etc. When I pushed a button, the whole plate fell off. The bathroom door, as with many of the hotels we stayed in, had open slats so that you could share your private moments with anyone else in the hotel room. I was bemused by the whole place, the pomp and assumed value under which so many hotels classify themselves, but still found it comfortable and a nice change from our standards thus far.
We cleaned ourselves up, put on some nicer clothes, and held our heads high as we walked out of the lobby.
The first thing we did was book another hotel, up the road for the next night. We had started to realize it might be best to book a day or two ahead for popular destinations if we could, despite my preference for the opposite.
We found the night market, which was a few small blocks from the hotel and adjacent to the bus station, and in the night market, a large square filled with tables and seats. At one end, a stage with live music, and to the left and right of the stage, a long wall of booths serving anything you might want to eat. Cockles, fried squid, grilled shrimp, grilled fish… any seafood you could imagine. Chicken, pork, beef. The opposite side seemed to favour fried insects to seafood. Grasshoppers, cockroaches, beetles, and grubs. And every creepy crawly thing in between. I was a little put off and don’t even have a photo of it, even though we saw this is many towns on our travels.
You’re likely thinking the same thing as me; GROSS! But when you think about it, it is a perfectly viable source of protein. It’s far more sustainable than herding livestock (proven to be a huge detriment to our ecosystem and diets,) they are in great abundance even in poor countries, and incredibly inexpensive compared to a steak. If I had to, I would have tried the grasshoppers. They looked crunchy, and I bet they didn’t even taste that bad. I wasn’t so sure about the cockroaches or beetles. They just looked nasty. But… in the future, if we want to sustain this kind of population on our planet, we are going to have to seriously reconsider our dietary choices to something less destructive as feeding on large-bodied mammals. (For the record, I am not a vegetarian so this applies to me as well.) Thailand was not the first place I’ve seen this. But living in Asia has shown me that this can be done.
We opted for seafood. We had cockles and shrimp, and as we ate, we noticed that everyone in or vicinity had fired clay pots on their table, filled with some kind of broth that was steaming and looking kind of delicious. We ordered that next.
The entertainment went back and forth between live music and a troupe of ladyboys who spoke quickly in their native language, keeping the audience in laughs as they told jokes, lip-synced and danced to pop songs. It was an interesting thing to see, so many families out in a town square on a Saturday evening, having some food and watching the local ladyboy show. I’m not sure the same thing would go over so well in North America in a town of the same size.
The next day we had intended to get up early and check out. We didn’t have a working clock since our phones had stopped working. Outside of our service areas, the time zones and everything got all messed up, and we couldn’t even find a TV station with the time on it. So when we woke up in the morning, the heavy curtains had kept the room entirely black, except for a small sliver of light that blasted through the top. The bed had been massive and comfortable enough that I slept deep and had some pretty intense dreams. We both had fairly intense dreams on the whole trip. It’s something that happens to me frequently when I travel. A woman in Greece once told me that the reason it happens is that you are breaking from the routine of your lifestyle at home, and as you are away from your life and normal responsibilities such as work, your body is coping with anxiety and adjusting to the change. It makes sense. Different foods, different environment, beds, lifestyle, sleeping patterns, it all has to have an impact somewhere.
We got out of bed quickly and packed our things; as best we could figure out it was about 10:30. Our complimentary breakfast expired at 10, and we didn’t want to waste it. We took our bags downstairs and checked out, where the concierge pointed us toward the dining room.
“Is there time for breakfast?”
We entered the dining room – DEFINITELY shades of the Overlook Hotel – and seated ourselves, scouring the buffet-style breakfast choices. Wholly unimpressive again, considering the self-styled ranking of the hotel. It turned out to be 8:30am. We took our time.
Chiang Saen / Golden Triangle
Checking into the new place early, we had the whole day to get to Chiang Saen and visit the Golden Triangle region, once the notorious harvesting grounds of some of the world’s most dangerous drugs. More here.
Once in Chiang Saen, we rented a scooter (no special deals for only three hours of use – full day rate only,) and had to push it down the road to a petrol station just to put enough gas in it to get it started. Really? First time I’ve ever rented a scooter anywhere without at least enough gas to get it to a station for a refill. I filled it up and when we had returned it later, the needle hadn’t moved off full. I suggested she leave at least a little in there for the next person so they didn’t have to push the bike down the road. But it was probably siphoned empty when we left.
Lunch on the road side in Chiang Saen
I’m always apprehensive about renting scooters since I’ve had near-death experiences on them on previous vacations. And I’m doubly apprehensive when I know Maria is going to be on back. But it was a new bike and was an incredibly smooth ride, so we were headed up the 1290 to have a look at Laos and Myanmar (Burma.)
We stopped at the tourist site marking the triangle, and had our look out at the place where Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos meet.
Then we got back on the bike and ventured further north following the highway until we found a fork in the road that led off into a small community. We traveled further in and saw no one except for a few dogs sleeping in the road that paid no mind to the scooter speeding past them. Just a scooter. They only get up and move out of the way for cars.
The road forked again and we stayed left, rounding a corner where the road ended at a small temple. The dirt here was intensely red, like rust. It reminded me of the colour of the soil in Prince Edward Island, or the Red Valley of New Mexico / Arizona, here on the other side of the world. Iron oxide, Maria had told me.
We got back on the bike and took the other turn in the last fork, and discovered a large ornate gate, and beyond it, a building that housed some monks and further beyond that, some temples. In the distant background were the mountains of Myanmar, and we stayed for a while just staring out at the vista around us. Not a soul around. To the right in the distance, a golden Buddha shone from a hill.
After an hour or so we noted the sun had begun to descend, and didn’t want to have the bike out after dark. So we headed back toward Chiang Saen.
We were back in Chiang Rai after dark, just in time for the night market and most important- the food market. We had dinner and walked around for a while – seeing mostly the same things we’d seen further south, but with a more northern twist. There is definitely a more Chinese influence in the north of Thailand, and in Laos. I bought a cheap digital watch so we weren’t without time again. We were checking out the next day and heading to Nang Khong in the afternoon, where we would cross over into Huay Xai, Laos, to get the slow boat to Luang Prabang. I’d made sure to make a reservation ahead of time so we were certain of our accommodation and the ability to get to the boat early the morning after.
Though we didn’t actually spend much time there, Chiang Rai was definitely more laid back than Chiang Mai. Not only because of the size difference, but because the people in general – including the tourists, were much lower key than Chiang Mai. I wouldn’t recommend one over the other as both were good for different reasons, so I’d suggest visiting both. As I’ve learned from the advice of friends (and much of it was offered,) no suggestion on where to go or what to see and do is ever guaranteed to be bad, good, or accurate based on your own tastes. Including my own. It’s best to take all suggestions with a grain of salt, then just go and do whatever you want.
I should preface this entry with something I forgot to mention in the first and second entry. It’s an itinerary of things Maria or I wanted to do on this trip. It is as follows:
1. Watch Muay Thai boxing
2. See a Ladyboy Cabaret
3. Ride an elephant (Maria never got to do it in India.)
4. Eat as many coconut-based meals as possible.
5. Maria wanted a Thai massage.
Yes, nothing extraordinary, and mostly touristy, but fun nonetheless.
We pulled into Chiang Mai sometime midday and were met with the usual gang of tuk-tuk drivers trying to grab the newbs off the bus. I am not known for my patience in dealing with drivers, more specifically, aggressive drivers who are clearly trying to rip tourists off. But we had made no reservations, and only had a few references from our guide book from which to follow leads for a place to stay.
Generally speaking, when you see a hotel listing on a map in a guide book, you can almost guarantee there will be a host of other hotels / guest houses in the direct vicinity. If the one listed is full (because it’s in the guidebook and everyone goes there,) then generally you are going to find another one in proximity. This is often the better option, because you’re not going to a hotel that’s sitting on the laurels of being in a popular guidebook, while charging a premium for so-so or even terrible accommodation. It’s that fine line between a guide book being a great accessory, and how the same book can narrow your vision of what you might see or experience. When you travel, a guide book can be a useful thing to have, but you shouldn’t plan your whole trip out of it.
We found a reasonable driver and told him where we were going.
“Do you have a reservation there?”
“Let me take you to my friend’s hotel. If you like it, you stay. If you don’t, I take you to your hotel.”
[he gets a commission for bringing guests to his ‘friend’s’ hotel.]
We pull up to a place whose name I can’t even remember, and Maria stayed in the tuk-tuk while I went to look at the room. The hotel is large, with a concierge and a pool, and I take a quick look at the room and see some amenities that make a room look good. So we pay the driver, check in, and Maria begins to question my choice. With less haste I look around the room. It is old, it doesn’t smell entirely fresh, the AC smells like Humphrey Bogart’s 60 year old cigarettes, the ceiling fan doesn’t work, and just about everything is some shade of yellow. The bed feels heavily used.
“Well, it’s not great, but we can just find a place tonight and check in tomorrow.” The other beauty of not having made reservations or paying for multiple nights; you can always find a better place when you’ve bought yourself some time.
There was a guy in the lobby selling tickets to all sorts of events, including Muay Thai boxing. We had skipped it in Bangkok because the good seats were in the range of $70 CAD, and were told that Chiang Mai also had some. Here it was. VIP was about $20 CAD. From the poster, it seemed to be exactly what I wanted. Some old arena with wooden seats, yellowed by years of cigarette abuse and spilled beer, fighters that should have quit a long time ago even though they were only 20 years old, toothless old Thai men betting on the side, and fluorescent lighting that scantly lit anything but the ring.
It was still early in the day, so we held off on the ticket purchase in favour of walking around town and looking for another hotel for the next day. The plan had been to spend 4 days in Chiang Mai (“you really need a week,” rang the words of one friend,) so we wanted to be comfortable.
The first afternoon and evening were spent walking around the city, having a look, trying the street food. In Thailand the food is reasonably inexpensive if you don’t go to a fancy restaurant, and you pay on average about $2-$4 CAD per meal. (Double with a large beer.) The portions are smaller than you would expect in the West, but Maria insisted that the portions were “actually normal sized portions.” Pfft. It was a moot point anyway, since we frequently ate two dinners a day. One at about 5-6pm, and one around 9pm.
In Chiang Mai we finally tried the street pad thai and found it almost the same as back in Canada, but with much more oil. The beer at these street stands was really the best place in the cities to get beer, because they all used coolers with ice and ice water, keeping the beer colder than any fridge in any restaurant. Beer lovers, you know what I’m saying. When you want that shit to be ice cold, there is no better thing than beer submerged in ice water for hours.
We found one large hotel that seemed very new and strangely vacant except for a few retirees wandering the halls. In my travels I have come to appreciate the retirees you see everywhere. They don’t party, they don’t make noise, they don’t talk at a volume suitable for addressing the room, and they generally make themselves scarce at a certain hour. They’re chill, which is exactly what I want to do when I’m on vacation. It’s the college-age twenty-somethings that should be avoided. Too often it’s like someone let them out on day pass from their fraternities and sororities, and now they’re going all spring break in some exotic part of the world. The world is their oyster, and you’re stuck in the shell with them. More on this later.
As we strolled, we found a ticket booth with a young guy named Nicky who was incredibly anxious to sell us Muay Thai tickets. He had tickets for two different events. One was just further down the road, the other was back the way we had come. We asked which was better, and he recommend the larger one (same price.) Since we were so close to the other, we thought we’d have a look at the smaller one first. Sure enough it was a ring inside a square of shops and bars, and there were a few people training as we walked in. A young man skipped rope at the back of the ring. Another young man laid flat in the ring, his mid-section being pounded by a dwarf with a pad on his hands. Arranging the tables and chairs at ringside, a conspicuously tall ladyboy with a lot of makeup. Now this was exactly the place I could hang out.
The ladyboy came and talked to us, giving us an overview of the nightly entertainment. Weekend shows featured a ladyboy show at the half-time break, and Maria asked if she would be involved in the show. ‘Mmmhmmm.’ But it was midweek. We opted to get tickets for the other fight, on the thought we could always come to this one on the weekend.
Revisiting Nicky, we asked for tickets to the other show. He was so anxious to sell, he gave us ringside VIP’s for 500 Baht, a 100 Baht discount each. So we bought the tickets and went on our way, and I was so excited it was pretty much all I could think about for the next three hours.
So excited that we showed up an hour before the event just to get the ringside seat I wanted. I had my camera gear ready to go, and if I can reserve the ideal seat for myself at the cost of an extra hour, I’m there. They were barely open when we arrived, so I had lots of time to examine the site and get a few photos. So far, it was everything I had hoped for.
The more people piled in, the more I realized this was clearly an event staged for tourists. Of course it was. I just hoped that the fights would be entertaining, and that we weren’t about to watch something akin to American-style TV wrestling.
The fights began with two teenage boys. I really didn’t have any exposure to Muay Thai other than some fighting styles from UFC, and I quickly began to see how Muay Thai fighting was different. Much more technical, with the ref intervening any time a dramatic strike or take down occurred. It was a very controlled fight, which didn’t make it seem tame by any sense, but more that the refs were there to make sure that no serious injury came to either fighter. The fight was more about art and technicality than sheer brutality.
I tried to limit the photos I took since I was using my speedlight and small softbox, and didn’t want to blind the fighters with constant flashes while they were getting kicked in the face.
The best fight of the night by far was two young women who were clearly not holding back. They went the full five rounds and didn’t let up the whole time.
There was one part of the night that was clearly ridiculous. Several men went into the ring, and were then all blindfolded, left to swing blindly at each other. Even the ref took a few swats. It was mostly silly and there as campy entertainment, but for the most part, I left completely satisfied with the night, even if it was largely put on for tourists.
The next day we checked out of the yellow hotel, and on our way to the new hotel we had found the day before, came upon a small, tidy place run by a French ex-pat. After a few minutes of conversation and a look at the room, we decided to check in. Wow, what a find. It was small and comfortable, and dead silent in the middle of the night. It turned out to be my favourite accommodation on the entire trip. We stayed for two nights and I wish we could have stayed for longer.
On the second day, we did a walking tour of the temples.
A temple set apart from the rest – built using teak.
Next, Maria got a full body massage, and though I wasn’t interested, she talked me into getting a foot massage (we’d been walking for days, so it was an easy sell.) It cost something like ten dollars for both of us.
She really enjoyed the massage, I thought it was kind of overrated. I’m sure she did a great job, I just didn’t care. And much of the time, the prodding and pulling didn’t feel that good to me at all. Toward the end, she had her elbows digging into my back and shoulders, which Maria tells me was some kind of ‘bonus’. It didn’t feel like any kind of bonus to me, I was just waiting for it to end. I didn’t find anything comfortable about the whole experience. Some people go for that massage thing, but I didn’t get it.
A few walking around photos:
“I have scarves, I give you lucky price.”
We found a large night market that Maria had wanted to see. Night markets are very popular in Thailand and Laos. It seems consistent in what we’ve seen of Asia. Asians in general do not like the sun, something we had noticed first in Korea. Koreans will go to great lengths to stay as white as possible, and will even use whitening creams on their skin. It seems in Asia that there is some lower-class association with being dark. And if you think my observation is a little harsh, you might change your mind by the end of this entry.
It’s understandable how Thais and Laos and most people in Southern Asia approaching the equator would want to avoid the hot mid-day sun. It’s just intense, even in the winter months. It’s easier to live and work when the sun starts to go down, so you might not see as much life during the day. At dusk, markets will begin to set up and people will come out until about 11pm. Things are pretty much finished by 12. In Laos there is actually a curfew at midnight, so most bars and restaurants close at 11:30 to allow everyone, even staff, time to get home in time for curfew. I will come back to that a little later in the Laos entries.
The night markets sell anything you could possibly imagine from locally made crafts, to made-in-China plastic trinkets. But really it seems that half the stalls are selling the same LED lights or t-shirts for tourists. Another country, another different dozen types of beer logo t-shirts. As we wandered through the Chiang Mai night market, we found a colourful troupe of ladyboys decked out in elaborate costumes, enticing tourists to come watch the show that would happen in a bar behind them. No-brainer. We were seated toward the back of the small room (I had my camera ready, so our host seated us accordingly and said ‘you’ll get the best pictures here’) and for a second night in Chiang Mai, I could barely anticipate what was about to happen.
And what a show. I will write nothing more, but let these images and videos speak for themselves.
We had wanted to get to Pai north-west of Thailand to visit an elephant camp there, but despite the seemingly short distance, the bus ride was five hours. It was just too long to get there, stay a night or two, then get back. There were “elephant tours” listed everywhere in Chiang Mai… actually there were tours listed every single place we went in Chiang Mai. The biggest, most heavily advertised one everywhere we turned was “Flight of the Gibbon,” where you pay something like $100 CAD to zip line through some trees and hope to see some Gibbon monkeys hanging around. “Flight of the Gibbon” came to symbolize everything we hated about tourism in Thailand. We constantly referenced it whenever we wanted to imply something to avoid.
Having said that, we decided on visiting an elephant camp on the mountain overlooking Chiang Mail. We weren’t going to make it to Pai, and we weren’t sure what our options would be in Chiang Rai. So we paid a tuk-tuk driver to bring us there early in the morning, and after a long, slow climb up the mountain, we came to the elephant camp and realized immediately what kind of mistake we had made. It was the usual long strip of tourist shops skirting the entrance, where we were told it would cost about ten dollars admission each, and for a 30 minute elephant ride it would be $45 each. Or $55 for an hour. (Dramatically more than our host had informed us.) I had already regretted the whole thing and couldn’t make a choice. We had come all this way but I just couldn’t imagine paying that kind of money for what clearly was an elephant amusement park for tourists. I don’t know what I thought it was going to be, but just seeing the place made me regret having opted to do it at all. Flight of the Gibbon on an elephant’s back. I paid the ridiculous amount of nearly 3000 Baht for a half hour inside and what was a completely ridiculous ride on an elephant’s back.
If you’ve ever been at an amusement park, standing on a rollercoaster platform waiting for your turn, it was pretty much the same thing. There’s a yard full of elephants and their mahouts (drivers) standing around. They pull up to the loading dock, you climb into a box-seat on the elephant’s back, and they walk over a hill and down a hill in a circle. Your view is of a yard seating dozens of tourists who clap and cheer as elephants swing their trunks around, stand up on hind legs, and paint pictures of flowers that you can buy in the shops. Circus side-show acts.
You can pay extra to buy things to feed the elephant. It was humiliating somehow for me, but mostly for the elephant who clearly didn’t want to do any of it and had to be pounded with a hooked-stick on the head numerous times to just walk the course. For me, it was the most regrettable part of the trip and I will never do anything like it ever again. I would NOT recommend it to anyone. You don’t need to ride an elephant bad enough to pay that amount and then experience the animal going through that. Another tell-tale sign was the hole in the elephant’s ear, an indication the elephant had been punished for bad behavior.
As much fun as we’d had in Chiang Mai, walking around the city for two days made it seem that there were two Westerners for every Thai, and the more Western-style restaurants we saw, the more we realized how developed the city had become and how it wasn’t quite what we’d hoped for. I definitely had expected a lot of tourists (and it’s no surprise that as we went to tourist sites, we saw tourists,) but I didn’t realize that the city had been so inhabited by them. Clearly, many of the people we had seen were not passing through. They were living there. Many of the business owners, restaurant owners, and hotel owners were Western. The realization had crept up on us that Chiang Mai was really an overstuffed hub for Western ex-pats. We had planned for four days there, but had done so much that we decided to leave after two (three if you count the day we had arrived.) There were many stops left on our trip, and not knowing how much we might like another place and wishing we had more time, we decided we could sacrifice a day in Chiang Mai for something potentially more… Thai.
Having completely enjoyed our time in the city, we decided to duck out before it felt as though it was getting to be too much. I am certain there was a great deal of things we failed to see in such a short time, but I know also that Maria and I are planning to do our CELTA certification (to teach English abroad) in Chiang Mai, so we will be back in that city one day and hope to discover more than just the dominant Western population.
1. Watch Muay Thai boxing
2. See a Ladyboy Cabaret
3. Ride an elephant (Maria never got to do it in India.)
4. Eat as many coconut-based meals as possible. (ongoing)
5. She also wanted a Thai massage.