A Travellerspoint blog

Luang Prabang

semi-overcast -28 °C
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A Lao Airlines flight got us to Luang Prabang in 40 minutes in a wee ATR72 prop airplane, you definitely feel a lot more in the little plane but the flight was great and couldn't fault Lao Airlines. A hell of a lot better than a 12 hour bus journey would have been methinks.
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LP is a great little town, very pretty. Lots and lots of temples and monks roaming about, but it seemed the tourists outnumbered them. Every shape and size tourist too, from your backpacker types to old Australian lesbian types, very odd. The food is nowhere near as good as Vientiane however.

The tourist trail included one of the oldest (and biggest) temples in town which had the most amazing mosaics I've ever seen. Loads of ideas I'll be stealing when I get home!
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The following day we were feeling unusually energetic and decided to climb Phu Si. Now it's only a 100m (I think the guidebook lies I really want to get and altimeter!) hill in the middle of the town, but it was tough, particularly on my little unfit legs (which were still hurting two days after). The view from the top was worth it.
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That evening we went to dinner at Lao Lao Garden and had an especially good feed shabu shabu style where we cooked our meat over our own mini barbecue. The waiters were kind enough to give us our first taste of Lao Lao, a whiskey made from sticky rice. Surprisingly quite nice but very sweet as with most things in this part of the world.
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We also made it to the former Royal Palace where the most impressive thing to be seen were the collection of presents that were given to the royals over the years before they were shoved out by the Commies. So you could see China had given them an impressive dinner set, Japan gave them cut crystal, for some reason the Danes gave them a silver ice bucket and the Australians gave them a boomerang. The most interesting was presented by Nixon on behalf of the United States and included a miniature of the Lunar Module alongside a plaque containing a Lao flag that had been flown in the LM to the moon and back (bit random I know, who knows if it actually happened or not) as well as a few fragments of moon rock (unfortunately we weren't allowed any cameras in the building). A very impressive gift from Nixon...just unfortunate for it to have gone to the Communists in the end!

On our last day, we signed up for a tour to the Pak Ou caves and Kuang Xi watefalls (I know I know more waterfalls!). The caves we reached by boat, our fist boat outing of the trip surprisingly so it was good to be out on the Mekong again. By the end of it we decided the boat journey was slightly more enjoyable than the caves them selves. There are two caves to be explored one lower cave and an upper one, and by upper I mean up at least a couple hundred steps. I really don't know why these people insist in putting temples and shrines in such inconvenient spots and I swear the locals take pleasure in seeing a sweaty white girl panting and wheezing her way to the top.

Anyway, the lower one isn't that impressive it's very small and filled with a billion buddhas. The upper one is worth the climb, it's bigger and in pitch darkness, they give you a torch in return for a donation for the upkeep on the caves (what the maintenance costs are like on a cave I'm not too sure). It's nice and spooky in there with buddha statues in every nook and cranny and we were lucky enough to be in there on our own. Other than that, not sure the caves are that impressive, the area is certainly pretty but an accurate description would be a poor man's Halong Bay. The most interesting thing perhaps was that we discovered Neil Houlihan's Lao doppelganger, our boat captain..
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You would think that we would be all waterfalled (waterfell?) out but Kuang Xi waterfalls are amazing. They are particularly large and have several tiers that fall into gorgeous little pools suitable for swimming in. I didn't have a change of clothes with me and the water was a bit murky for my liking but Will went in for a paddle, until he saw a dead scorpion and scampered on back to shore.
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On our last night in Luang Prabang, and our last night in Laos, we decided to check out a local hilltribe fashion show we had heard about in a shop where I bought a rather pretty silver necklace. The fashion show used models from the local area who are members of these particular hilll tribes (not sure if that's the correct term as I don't think any of these communities actually have a chief and therefore can't be tribes as such but whatever) and displayed various traditional dress associated with them. Very impressive set up in a very cool bar. They were followed by a group of local kids who had some very impressive breakdancing skills.

We ended up drinking with a bloke from Tokyo who had left Japan because he had broken up with his girlfriend (downer), a lovely bloke from Finglas who had caught dengue fever in Chiang Mai (only and Irishman can make dengue sound glamourous - his hospital room was better than his hostel and he spent all his time surrounded by adoring Thai nurses who even said hello to his mammy on Skype!), and an Aussie copper whose nickname was Hacksaw. A good night was had until the barman says he's shutting up shop at 11.30 as a result of the Lao government curfew - the theory is that you should be where you are registered to be at midnight each night, Lao Communists could learn a thing or two from the Cubans. It was probably a blessing in disguise as we were moving on the following day to somewhere completely different - Koh Samui. Two flights will get us there, one to Bangkok and from there to Samui. We're expecting a lot of tourist tat but hoping for some nice beach action.

Posted by suzebert 23:53 Archived in Laos Tagged laos luang_prabang Comments (0)

Vientiane

sunny 34 °C

Door to door from our guesthouse in Nong Khai to another in Vientiane in two hours. Now that's what I call an efficient border crossing! It began with a tuk-tuk to the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge where we were stamped out of Thailand followed by a 20 Baht (50c) bus ride across the bridge and into Laos customs and immigration. Here we filled out the obligatory forms and got, and this is clearly the best part of travelling, a nice big visa and another stamp in the passport. Welcome to Laos!

A €2 minivan ride covering the 24km to our guesthouse and we were in Vientiane. It was crawling with western tourists and ex pats and I suspect a good amount of NGO types on a break from places such as East Timor. I did wonder where all the Lao people were, apart from those serving me food. Ah, the food, Vientiane is a foodie's heaven, French and Lao restaurants on every corner alongside patisseries full of lovely cakes that have since settled on my hips.
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We have found Laos slightly pricier than Thailand, it's a bit harder to dine out on a fiver here. I would estimate we're spending about a third more than what we were in Thailand. The currency doesn't help, with €1 equal to roughly K11,000 (kip) which made for a tough first few days where we were forced to do math in our heads. There are just too many 0's!

So despite the searing heat (it was mid thirties most of the time) and the tempting notion of spending all our time in cafes stuffing our faces with cake, we did manage to get out and do some sightseeing. First up was Pha That Luang, Laos's national monument, a huge golden stupa and for fear of typing out exactly what the Lonely Planet says I'll just post a picture instead. Pretty!
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We then made our sweaty way to Patuxai, the Lao equivalent, or thereabouts, of L'Arc de Triomphe. The story goes that the US bought some cement and donated it to Laos so they could build a new airport, how lovely of them, but the Lao government thought better and decided an arch instead. Hence, it's sometimes referred to, by who I don't know, as the 'vertical runway'. Not the prettiest looking thing when you're up close and even the Lao think so from reading the sign on it, they say 'From a closer distance, it appears even less impressive, like a monster of concrete' - someone should explain the marketing concept perhaps.
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The following day we made it out to Buddha Park, the sister park to Sala Keuw Ku in Nong Khai. This one wasn't as big and not as impressive, but it's hard to beat a dead guy in a bubble surrounded by Christmas lights. There was one exception. A huge pumpkin shaped sculpture which had three internal levels to it, each one representing hell, earth and heaven, and a huge tree like sculpture on top thrown in for good measure. It was extremely creepy inside with a huge amount of quite ill-maintained statues and an uncomfortable number of quite large thick cobwebs. Very Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom but impressive none the less.
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The usual route through Laos taken by travellers involves Vientiane to Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. Vang Vieng lies somewhat in the middle of the two so it's a logical stopoff. We will be skipping this spot and flying with Laos Airlines straight to LP. There are several reasons for this, mainly concerning the typical boozey gap year student haven that Vang Vieng has apparently turned into involving lots of alcohol, drugs, tubing down the Mekong River (because that's exactly what you should do when you're drunk and high!) and strangely a large amount of Friends reruns in bars and guesthouses in the town. Throw in a 6 hour bus journey either side, where sick bags are passed around for the incredibly windy and bumpy roads, and we decided a nice 40 minute flight sounds much more civilised. We must be getting old but I'm not sure we care.

So onward to Luang Prabang, the jewel in Laos's crown we're told and UNESCO world heritage site (the second one for us on this trip).

Posted by suzebert 23:11 Archived in Laos Tagged laos vientiane border_crossing Comments (0)

Nong Khai

Last stop before Laos

sunny 34 °C

After spending a few days relaxing, eating well, shopping in Bangkok we took an overnight train to Nong Khai, a tiny border town in the North East of Thailand. The overnight train was relatively comfortable. We splashed out on first class tickets and got ourselves a two person cabin which came with a little hand basin and room service from a lovely Thai woman who refused to take no for an answer when asked did we want a beer - it would be rude to refuse right? Despite the odd mini cockroach (not as bad as the Hué to Hanoi overnighter taken last year) and the neighbours coughing their lungs up, the beds were comfy, the beer was cold and the train trundled along at a comfortable speed throughout the twelve hour journey north.
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Arriving in Nong Khai our fears of entering a typical dodgy border town disappeared. The town itself is relatively sleepy and sits on the Mekong river with Laos across the water. We were lucky enough to arrive in the middle of the annual Thai-Lao boat race so the promenade along the riverside was packed with locals cheering on the boys on the water while commentary was blaring on huge speakers along the riverside and it made for a fantastic atmosphere. Here's a link to a video Will took.

The races along with one of the most spectacular sunsets I've seen made for a nice introduction to the town. We did, however, find it slightly difficult to find anything else to do and in hindsight a three night stay may have been a bit much. The riverside in my opinion is hugely underdeveloped and is crying out for some nice bars and restaurants. Also, everything seemed to close at 8pm! Even the street food failed to inspire (despite the brief excitement surrounding the discovery of fried potato chips sprinkled with your seasoning of choice - yum).

Nong Khai is worth the visit however, not only for the easy border crossing over the Friendship Bridge to Vientiane, but for Sala Keo Ku - a park full of massive sculptures inspired by both Hinduism and Buddhism. You can read all about it here (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sala_Keoku) if you like but the most impressive piece was the immense seven headed Naga snake. Very cool and to top it all off the creator of the park (who was this Laotian guru type dude but had to leave the country after the Communists took control) is entombed in this plastic bubble surrounded by Christmas lights....very strange. The same guy also created a similar park just outside Vientiane and we'll be off to investigate when we cross the border.
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Onward to our first new country of the trip and more passport stamps!!!!!

Posted by suzebert 23:08 Archived in Thailand Tagged train thailand laos border_crossing nong_khai Comments (0)

Kanchanaburi & The River Kwai

sunny 32 °C
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A long day's travel. Six hours on a train, we splurged on the air conditioned second class seats which were great, if a little uncomfortable on the arse, but the windows had this film on them so the sun couldn't come in and bake you. As a result you didn't get to see much of the countryside passing by. This is probably best as I spent most of the time sleeping anyway. On a side note, I've determined that Thai people must have arses of steel. We have got to the stage where we rejoice when we find the luxury that is cushioned seats. On the bus, on the train, on scooters, on elephants, in restaurants and bars, we have, on many occasions, left with rather sore behinds which results in a little groan each time we sit down for at least 24 hours afterwards (or in the case of the elephant, about three days). I did consider writing a whole post on just this topic, an ode to a cushion if you will, but I doubt it would have been appreciated.

So we arrived in Kanchanaburi by bus from Bangkok (after the train journey from Phitsanulok) having broken a golden rule...never book accommodation in anywhere with the word 'resort' in it. We were tempted by the good reviews but instead got a location THB60 out of town (ok so it's €1.50 but every penny counts) and a completely dozy staff with no personality. We have been really spoiled/lucky with some of the guesthouses we've stayed in with great friendly staff so the bar is set high when we move somewhere new. It was clean which is what matters most so I'll stop moaning. We had a little bungalow to stay in which was nice too.

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The town itself seems to be split in two, one end that is purely tourist orientated and another for the local Thai population. We unfortunately were stuck in the touristy end and never got to explore the other end as we were only there for three nights. To avoid the tourist horde, on the second day we chose the 06.05am train from the River Kwai Bridge to Nam Tok, the last station on this stretch of track. When it was first built, it crossed the Burmese border but that has since been ripped up after WWII. This particular stretch of track is one of the most scenic in Thailand, according to seat61.com (http://seat61.com/Kwai.htm) and I can't argue with it. The Death Railway is so-called as they say for each sleeper laid a person lost their life in the building of the track. Something that I didn't know was that there were more Asian labourers in the camps than there were POWs - labourers that were recruited by the Japanese on the promise of high wages and good working conditions.

From Nam Tok we took a taxi to the Hellfire Pass - named by the POWs because it was a part of the track that cut through a mountain and when the labourers were working at night the light from the fires resembled the fires of hell. There's a fantastic museum there established by the Australian government with a trail leading along the bed of the old railway track and a stunning contemplation deck looking over the valley. It included a great audio tour as well with stories from Aussie POWs, some with particularly admirable views on the Japanese officers that treated them so brutally. The Japanese looked upon the POWs with disgust as they believed death and suicide was more honourable than living as a captive in enemy hands, hence the sub-human treatment that was inflicted.
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On a more frivolous note, we found a brilliant bar! Run by Nong a local guitar teacher who was giving lessons to a guy from Manchester who kept a nice little collection of guitars in the bar. One beer led to another and Will, Nong and Phil from Manchester had formed their own little band in this little bar on the side of the road.
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After this brief sojourn in Kanchanaburi we are Bangkok bound again for a few days of rancho relaxo and a restock of supplies before heading on an overnight train to Nong Khai and onward into Laos, a whole new country!!!!

Posted by suzebert 23:44 Archived in Thailand Tagged thailand river kanchanaburi kwai Comments (0)

Sukhothai & Phitsanulok

sunny 34 °C
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We finally got out of Chiang Mai. There was a distinct danger of running out of money in a few months and realising we hadn't left the town. We got ourselves to the bus station after a long goodbye with Sawasdee Guesthouse and Sam and piled on to a rather fetching pink and purple bus to Sukhothai, the old imperial capital of Thailand (before Ayutthaya). It was a rather comfortable 6 hour journey. I've learned that when getting on a bus in Thailand you must choose your seat astronomically - you'll often find that the locals will sit on one specific side so as to avoid the baking sun in the windows which makes for a very sweaty trip as the air conditioning is more akin to someone sitting five feet away from you and blowing really hard toward your face. So my tip is, before getting on a bus, consider which direction it is going in, what time of day it is and where the sun will be.
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We were picked up in Sukhothai by the Flemish owner of the guesthouse we were staying in for two nights, a guy called Luc who co-ran the place with a Thai woman called Poo who also ran Poo's Restaurant down the road (by the end of our 48 hour stay the joke did eventually get old even when faced with the Poo special breakfast). We happened to be in town for Luc's 50th birthday and so were invited to the party. We weren't sure what to expect but it took us about five minutes of Poo pestering us to eat something to get over the awkwardness of being sat at a huge table with enormous amounts of amazing food laid out in a room full of Belgians and Thai locals. A good night was had and we only had to pay for the beer!

The guesthouse was in the new city of Sukhothai and therefore there wasn't much happening in the town. It seemed to be the converging point of all the noisiest birds in the country who perched on electric wires come dusk. Thankfully they were nice enough to miss my clothes when they shat on me (it's good luck right?). We took the local bus to the old city early one morning, and by bus I mean converted pick up truck with two wooden benches at the back, a good way to travel but by no means comfy after about 25 minutes.
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The old city was stunning. We rented bicycles to get around and found it much more impressive than Ayutthaya which we visited last year and to which it is often compared. Most of the action is within the old city walls, it's filled with ancient crumbling temples and large ponds of water. Thankfully, it is also full of very large trees under which we had to shelter from the sun after about 11am.
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Two nights I think was just right for Sukhothai as the old city is easily done in one day. So the decision was made to make our way to Phitsanulok, an hour east by bus, to join up with the railway line going south to Bangkok (about a 6 hour train journey) where we can get a bus to Kanchanaburi (approx. 3 hours). That sounds like a lot doesn't it, which is why we settled on staying a night in Phi'lok. A pretty uneventful night at that, the town from what we can tell isn't much to write home about, although to be honest we didn't see much of it. The only things of note were an unusual amount of people in what seemed to be an aerobics class in a park by the Nan River and joggers were out in force - the first time we've seen that anywhere - and a nice night market.

Onward to Kanchanaburi and the River Kwai *whistles*
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83bmsluWHZc

Posted by suzebert 19:37 Archived in Thailand Tagged bus thailand sukhothai phitsanulok Comments (0)

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