Updated August 16, 2007

home Steve Paylor

Southeast Asia Trip

Two months of travels

April 2 to June 4, 2007

 

Thailand: a bit touristy but great food and lots to do

Cambodia: not much besides Angkor Wat, but thatís enough for now

Vietnam: great food and coffee, lots to do and see, but hassled

Laos: good food and coffee, great scenery, very laid back and quiet

 

Photo Highlights 12 favorites. Others available below in manageable chunks

 

Places visited:

Bangkok, Thailand

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Obligatory temples and palaces

Chumponburi

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Homestay, elephant show, ruins

Siem Reap, Cambodia

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Angkor Wat

Phnom Penh

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Sick, Khmer Rouge museum

Saigon, Vietnam

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Mekong Delta, War/Propaganda Museum

Hanoi

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Halong Bay, museums

Hoi An

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Beach, Olde City

Hue

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Tombs along the Perfume River

Savannakhet, Laos

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Sick

Vientiane

Quiet capital

Luang Prabang

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Indochina capital, waterfall

Muang Ngoi Neua

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Trek to minority villages

Udomxai

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Transit stop

Muang Sing

Bike to minority villages

Luang Nam Tha

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Kayaking

Bokoa

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Gibbon Experience

Huay Xai

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Transit stop

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Sick, mediatation

Pai

Nothing

Mae Hong Son

Read book

Mae Sot

Base for Myanmar/Burma day trip

Kamphang Phet

Rained out trip to ruins

Bangkok

 

Museum, homestay

 

 

 

Detailed journal

Great flight over, plenty of empty seats. Stopped in Incheon for real Korean food at a restaurant during a layover.

 

Bangkok, Thailand

When my pre-arranged ride to a hostel failed to materialize, I found a guy from Holland also interested in taking the slower less inconvenient (but cheaper and more authentic-experience) public bus from the airport. We waited an hour in the bus terminal but saved ten dollars. We went on to share a hotel room and save some more money. The hotel was a great find, good price and not at all touristy, away from the crowded and notorious Khao San Road.

The next couple days I checked out some local sites (Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, Teak Mansion complex, Golden Mount, Great Swing, Chinatown) and got acclimated to the area. When it was possible three showers a day helped with the heat. The guidebook says the locals do that as well. Bought me some three dollar knock-off Crocs, very comfy and easy on-easy off for the no shoes-indoor rules here. Remarkably similar to the ones sold in the West.

 

Chumponburi

My next stop was the best part of Thailand, a homestay. A friend of mineís brother and his Thai wife were in Thailand at this time and we got connected and I was invited to stay with them. This got me into the section of Thailand that isnít visited by tourists and plenty of chances to see how people actually live. I had great food throughout because, not only is it homecooked Thai food, the man happened to be a chef. My second day I was surprised with a local elephant show (one other Westerner there) where I got up close and personal with some elephants and watched them take shots on a soccer goal, basketball hoop, paint, throw darts, and all sorts of fun activities. After that we spent the afternoon at some Khmer ruins. The next day we went fishing.

 

Siem Reap, Cambodia

I left soon after that for Cambodia. I took buses to the border where I experienced the taxi mafia for the first time. This border crossing was close as the crow flies, but it offers no public transportation whatsoever. So I crossed the border where there was one taxi waiting for me and a driver quite willing to take just me to my destination for the small fee of one hundred dollars. I donít even think I gave a counteroffer, just waved it off and started to walk to town. A tout, sicíed on me by some well-meaning German expat, offered to Ďhelpí me to the town, such as it was, so I could see there was no other option. Then a taxi from somewhere appeared with three other people in it and I tried to get a good price from it. I had no chance of that, of course, because my friendly tout was shouting all sorts of things to him in Khmer warning him away. Thank you very much, Herr German Expat. So at a price somewhere between the guidebookís estimate and the original offer, I was taken to Siem Reap along the rough dirt road. Once I got to town, I found a hostel and planned the next day at the Temples of Angkor, the large collection of Khmer ruins from the same era as the one I saw the other day.

I ended up getting a weekís pass for plenty of time there, and stayed four days. My first day at the ruins was interesting as I biked in a downpour and got to Angkor Wat before the crowds. So I had plenty of time to see the temples, and got out one day on a hired tuk-tuk to three of the notable remote temples (Banteay Srei, Kbal Spean and Beng Mealea), one in original pre-restored condition.

I switched guesthouses to get closer to the center of town and had a bed bug experience. I woke up after sleeping about an hour bothered by bugs and after turning on the lights, decided that there were never just a dozen or so bugs that you could kill and move on. I had to be adamant at the checkout desk, and several clerks successively up the line were woken up, but I got another room and back to sleep. Later in the trip I would meet someone with a nasty patch of welts she blamed on bed bugs so Iím really lucky to have gotten out of that.

 

Phnom Penh

I got into town and saw a few of the sights were turned out to be less than inspiring and started to get the blahs. Things improved with a sunset river cruise and some antics from little kids while I was reading my book (a very depressing work on the Pol Pot era, First They Killed My Father). But early the next day I became sick, I suppose from that innocent looking breakfast. I didnít get out too much after that, but did see the S21 Torture Museum, a school that had been turned into a torture facility during the Khmer Rouge era and the National Museum. There wasnít a whole lot more there to see except the Killing Fields and I wasnít sure I needed to go there.

My visa for Vietnam is delayed an extra day because the Cambodian staff decided to take an extra day for a national holiday.

 

Ho Chi Minh City / Saigon, Vietnam

Here are two things that happened to me in the first hour that tell a lot about Vietnam. As I disembarked from the bus, a motorcycle driver latched onto me as my taxi to a bank and the guesthouse. Despite my saying No about seven million times and briskly walking away (he just followed me). Yes, I was looking for rocks and wondering about a punch to the nose. But later, after he finally gave up, I did hail down a motorcycle to get a ride to the guesthouse. I was taken there by two locals who were not professional taxi drivers and who refused any payment. Nearly all of the people a tourist has to deal with in Vietnam are rude and aggressive, but regular people are friendly. I donít plan to ever return to Vietnam, but if I had to, I would be sure to stay away from any place known for tourism. Forget the sights and cities. In fact, I think the way to go, perhaps for an entire SE Asia trip, would be to buy and ride a motorcycle around, getting to back roads and small towns.

I went to the War Remnants Museum. Have you heard the phrase ďwinners write history?Ē Keep that in mind as you read about the saintly behavior of the Vietcong and the atrocities committed by the Americans.

I took a one day tour to the Mekong Delta and saw some floating markets and the manufacture of rice candy. The story for this day is the lunch. I turned out to be the lead bicyclist as we rode from the boat to the restaurant. I was told to turn right after the bridge. It turned out that no one was ahead of me and no one was at the restaurant to wave us in. So I kept riding, with people behind me, way past the turnoff. I got to a T intersection and stopped to wait for the leader, who I thought was behind me (turned out to be a Korean tourist in the group) and was waved to the left by an old man standing there who must see this happen twice a day. So I biked for a while there and finally stopped, this is way too far. Yep. We started back, at this point just two of us, and were finally overtaken by the tour leader on a motorbike. We made it back in time to still eat and it was a great lunch too.

On this trip, I met a Welsh couple who had horrible stories to tell about Vietnam. I tried to learn from their experiences, so maybe they wouldnít happen to me. I donít know where to begin. They were overcharged at restaurants, problems at hotels with their rooms, problems with hired transportÖ A link to their blog is at the bottom of this page.

I took a cyclo to the Reunification Palace as well. This is from where the last people were evacuated as the VC formally took over the South. It was full of schoolkids on tour, and a group of them surprised me with a resounding ďhelloĒ in unison. So I learned from this and totally disrupted a hallway of kids later with a loud cheerful ďhello.Ē Very hard to keep discipline after that. The Palace was mostly kept as it was during the war, as a 1970 era headquarters.

 

Hanoi

For the first and only time in my trip, I had trouble finding a room. I broke the rule of always finding accommodation first to have dinner at a sidewalk vendorís shop and the girl next to me found me a spot with a phone call to some place where she had stayed earlier. She was from Germany and with a group of kids working in Hanoi as part of their university degree. I took in a Water Puppet show that night.

I also want to say that the Old Quarter in Hanoi, where all of the budget accommodation is located, is a pretty horrible spot. Narrow lanes, the noisy traffic that is all over Vietnam, and loads of tourism-related shops. Itís kind of an unpleasant spot that no one would really want to visit.

At the Museum of Ethnology I saw an exhibit on life during communism and I was really surprised. They won the war, so to speak, but in 1980, when Americans were buying the TRS-80, the Vietnamese were dreaming of enough rice to eat and owning an electric fan. One exhibit reproduced the apartment of a doctor who, like many others, found it necessary to raise farm animals in the bathroom of his apartment to make ends meet. Nice victory!

I signed up with a tour for a 3-day/2-night trip to Halong Bay, a scenic spot with islands rising up steeply out of the water. We rode about on a junk and visited some caves in the area. The caves were the kind that have paved trails inside and colorful lighting (which was done to nice effect). Then we stopped at a beach and had the chance to swim or kayak. I kayaked, being careful not to get too much of the water on me. All of us were shocked at how dirty the water was in the Bay. Sort of a scum that would accumulate where the tides werenít active. By the way, in Cambodia and Vietnam there is a huge problem with trash and my widely-accepted theory is that their habits havenít changed since the advent of plastics so all of a sudden itís a problem.

Also something we got to see was the phosphorescence in the water. (We were invited to swim by the guide who seemed to not notice the condition of the water.) The second day we went to an island and saw another cave, this one less developed. Some of us actually went spelunking (none of us had proper gear so it must have been spelunking and not caving) down a narrow tunnel to see some formations. Another cave treat was the music that the guide could create by rapping rocks on some of the formations. Itís amazing what you can do when you disregard all of the Western conventions of what to do inside a cave.

After checking into the hotel, we took a second boat over to Monkey Island. Some of us clambered over some sharp rocks to a beach on the other side, that was a pleasant swim as the water was clean there. And there were plenty of monkeys as we got back. I suppose they know when the tourists are there for the show. On the ride back, the boat broke down. We just started spinning about a bay, sometimes close to the cliff, while the guide and the captain stayed up in the bridge not telling us what was happening. I saw it as more time in the water and less time in the hotel room, but the ones who were seasick didnít appreciate it. After some attempts to fix the craft, we were towed back by another boat.

I try to leave Hanoi for the following day, but another holiday has appeared and all of the public transportation is full, even the tourist busses. But I luck into a train ticket for the following night so all is well.

With my last day in Hanoi, I visit the Ho Chi Minh amusement park, a complex of his figure embalmed ŗ la Lenin, a house where he used to live, one of his cars, and a museum dedicated in his honor and the glory of Vietnam in general. After that I find a nice quiet spot for a great cup of coffee. Just some hole in the wall spot that I found while lost that I couldnít tell anyone else to find. I drank it outside the restaurant in a little park overlooking the lake. Ahh.

A Buddhist monk was in town on a speaking tour. He was well known among Buddhists, but now that I am home I am unable to figure out who he was. But on the streets and in the vegetarian restaurants such as the one where I ate dinner, there were plenty of his supporters. He later came to Chiang Mai.

Had a little trouble staying awake until the overnight train to Hue but I managed. I shared the compartment with three girls from Ireland and somehow they were able to sleep the entire trip. A good rest, but I saw some great scenery.

 

Hue (1)

I had a brief stay in Hue because I managed to get a bus ticket to Hoi An for that day. Who do I see in Hue, walking down the street with a guidebook, but the same girl I met in Hanoi who found me the hotel room. That sort of serendipity is something magical about traveling. We walk about a bit and share a lunch and espresso. The one time that we do not check the price of the meal before ordering we get ripped off. They asked for about four times as much as it should cost, but she held her ground and only paid twice as much.

 

Hoi An

Hoi An was never bombed during the war and has retained a historic section with many colorful temples. In fact there is a Heritage ticket for entry to the Old Town and often motor vehicles are banned from the streets. I stayed here a few days, staying extra time for their full moon festival, that was actually muted due to rain.

I started the official walking tour but stopped in the middle with someone from the hostel where I was staying invited me for a trip to China Beach. We saw that briefly and then the Marble Mountain, oh, what to call it. Tourist Trap, I guess. Udi, the guy from the hostel, asked for directions often along the way and each local asked him whether he was going to MM, said she lived there, etc. We had lunch at the beach and then the tout returned magically to escort us there. He bought some marble carvings and then while we were there, we hiked up to the temples and caves in the Mountain. We stopped in Danang for a dinner and then rode back, going past the scene of a recent fatal motorbike accident. Although the traffic appears to move with magical efficiency, hardly anyone wears helmets and the accident rates are climbing steadily. You can imagine what can happen when you have the whole family on a motorbike and there is a collision.

I finished up the walking tour the next day and then ran into a couple from the Halong Bay trip and went to the beach with them. It was nice to go with other people but on the other hand, I was there earlier than I planned and turned pretty red. It was also nice to keep running into people I knew from other towns. Vietnam is sort of a circuit so itís easy to see people from other cities.

Banana pancakes and ice cream for dinner. Itís such a hard life.

I saw someone the next day who had taught in China and has enjoyed his time there, appendicitis operation notwithstanding. Before I could duck into a cafť for breakfast, there was some commotion as a cyclo race went by. These are taxis powered by a bicycle and this was an actual race with highly decorated cyclos to celebrate some sort of event.

I took a boat taxi over to a nearby island to see something new, enjoy more Vietnamese coffee and learn more about the two tier system in which foreigners must pay more than locals. It cost me 10,000 dong to get over on the ferry, suspiciously expensive but some other people on the boat backed up the ticket taker. On the way back (after a scenic if hot walk around the island to see people threshing rice), I asked a guy on the ferry with a bicycle how much he paid to bring a bike. One thousand for me and five hundred for the bike was the answer and he showed me a sign with the prices. So I was obstinate about paying just one thousand dong for my return trip and the ticket taker wasnít about to bargain either. At one point he motioned that he was going to throw me overboard. After we landed we went through another show of them yelling things in Vietnamese, me offering pay 1000 dong and them refusing. The Vietnamese guy with the bike (also staying at my hotel) even gave me exact change for me to try to give them and they refused that too. They would rather curse at me and let me ride for free than accept the posted fare. I talked with this guy a bit more, I think he felt sorry for what had happened and bought me lunch. He was born in Saigon and escaped to Paris, only to finally return now as a tourist.

Despite the rain, I still got to see a couple sights, like a giant Chinese checker game and eat some new foods.

 

Hue (2)

Then a return to Hue. I found a good hotel (still cheap but nice management), wandered around lost on foot and then rented a bike so I could really get lost. I found a spot with terrific fruit shakes and filled up a table with empty glasses with a couple fromÖ Iím not even sure but they were fluent in English. Avocado shakes were nice, but something called a Ďyapí with peanut butter and all sorts of stuff was even better. These shakes were 3000 dong each, about twenty cents. It canít be right to justify what you eat by the price, but boy does that sound nice. That night I went to a full-moon party at the Citadel, with folk music, those crazy lion costume dances and historical games. A pretty nice night.

Then off on the Perfume River for a trip to the tombs. The price of the boat ride was deceptively cheap because lunch is extra and some of the tombs require transportation once the boat docks. At the first one of these, I sort of snapped. Frustration had built up with the Vietnamese as I described earlier, when you are enjoying a beautiful morning, and when you smile at the vendor on the sidewalk or in a store you get ďhello you buy something!Ē in response. I also had enormous problems with the motorbike taxi drivers because I would walk around for hours and instead of looking where I was, at each street corner had to say No at least once to each of the drivers (they chant ďmo-to-bikeĒ until you acknowledge them). So what happened this time is that someone actually grabbed my arm to pull me over to the motorbikes. This was too much. I was very glad I was leaving early the next day, just couldnít stand it anymore. I ended up escaping the motorbike mafia. I was pursued by a relentless driver for about three hundred yards down the road, as I considered walking to the destination. I really did want to smack this guy and even wondered if I would break my hand with the combined impact of my swing and his momentum from the scooter. It turned out to not be quite so far to the tomb as the guide claimed, but I learned this after finding a motorbike driver who wasnít in the mafia, for half their price. I saw the tomb, a nice place, but a nice place in which to relax. Itís impossible to relax in this place when you have a tight deadline to return to the boat, although it turned out that for each tomb, not even the guide returned on time. The conscientious tourists, myself included, did but no one else. There were two more tombs and a temple. I skipped the temple and one of the tombs. Instead of the temple, I watched a Buddhist ceremony take place on another of the river boats, something being sacrificed into the water, mostly paper. And instead of the tomb, I laid in a hammock and talked with someone who survived the war and had a great cup of coffee with someone else who opted out of the tomb. No regrets.

In the evening, I used up most of my money on more postcards and some more delicious food.

 

Savannakhet, Lao PDR

I had some trouble at the border, but this was my favorite country.

I met up with some Westerners taking the bus from Hue to Savannakhet. BTW, another fun part of taking busses in Vietnam is that while they conveniently pick you up from your hotel, they show up late and you have to wait for them, ready to leave in an instant.

We rode up to the border and then switched busses. Here the guy from SF had a great point, we might be stranded here, with no bus on the other side. I could accept this, because it at least there were options on the other side and it wouldnít be like my trip into Cambodia. And there were people to greet us. Moneychangers. SE Asian women donít like the effects of the sun on their skin, so they protect themselves with dust masks and gloves that go all the way up to their armpits. Having half of a dozen race up to you in such a manner can be a little disconcerting because they appear like bank robbers. And robbers they were. The rates they offered were about half of the ones youíd see in the paper. I still had some Vietnamese money to change, and had been warned that it couldnít be exchanged once you left, but held on it. I really wish I had researched the dong-kip exchange rate, but had an idea from the guidebook. We were then helped at the border by the tout. I was upset about this for a while, and I think it is because I could have prevented this. Unlike in Cambodia when I paid too much for a visa to a guy in a uniform here the tout took our money. I was the last of our group to fill out the forms and since we had a native Vietnamese speaker with us, I acted a bit like a sheep. But this was a Vietnamese who had never left her country and had no idea what to do. So why didnít I just hand in my visa form directly the clerk instead of arguing fruitlessly with the tout about the price of the visa. I only knew my guidebookís price and hadnít looked that up with the exchange rate. So in the end, I paid $38 and while later Internet research said the price was $35, other Americans told me they paid $30 at more honest border checkpoints. Itís quite possible that paying directly would have been the same price, because Iím pretty sure itís a racket and not the individual tout pocketing the money. That thought bothered me a lot after hearing people on the bus tell me that with their university education they earned $50/month and that wasnít enough to really get by. Later the tout/moneychanger offered better rates on the dong-kip and I exchanged the rest of my money. I exchanged $3 of dong as carefully as if it were $300 of course. I also wanted to tell her that if she ever visited my country she would pay the same price as the locals, not get overcharged on her visa nor pay bad rates to convert her money. Not that I really know what the experience is like for Vietnamese visiting the USA.

But after that unpleasant experience, Laos was great. People offered us the craziest things on sticks at bus stops, like bugs-on-a-stick, some sort of hard-boiled-eggs on a stick. And some decent scenery (it would get a lot better).

I had the lightest pack of the bunch (the guy from SF, a Brit and his Vietnamese girlfriend Ė and by the way, I donít think I ever saw anyone else with a pack as small as mine, finally I am the light-weight hiker) so I opted to walk the 2km from the bus station to the hostels. And it was great. People obviously selling things ignored you. I was able to walk out of bus station without any hassles from tuk-tuk drivers. Bought some baked banana and found a great deal on a room in a colonial building.

Walking around later, I found some tourists who advised me to leave the next day as there was nothing to do in town. What about the dinosaur museum? Only a five minute experience. I canít remember anything else I thought was there, but figured Iíd just relax a bit, maybe check out the trekking. I ate a meal that the traveler recommended, found the others from the bus trip at the same restaurant, and went to bed early.

Then I woke up sick. I got to the trekking spot, but just wasnít ready to backtrack 180km to trek, gambling that I would be healthy the following day. So hard to be sad about that when there are pineapple pancakes for breakfast. I did find something fun to do in the town, in that serendipity vein again, with a chance meeting with an NGO worker also from Philadelphia. Now I had an invitation to a party with locals. I was exhausted throughout the party but made a good appearance and had some good conversations.

And the next day I felt great and was ready to get on the bus to Vientiane, with two guys from France.

 

Vientiane

Under construction. Not this site, the city. A main road was torn up and that made getting around town fun. Donít forget that the ubiquitous Asian sandals arenít as good as tromping through mud as boots! This is the capital of the Lao PDR and has only a quarter of a million people. If there is an antithesis to Bangkok in SE Asia, this must be it.

Indian food for dinner sickens one of the Frenchmen and the election of Sarkozy takes care of the other.

Most of us are ďwat-ted outĒ from seeing so many temples, but the guidebook recommended Wat Si Saket, known for itís thousands images of Buddha in niches in the walls. I check it out, but, well I am wat-ted out after all. The city also has an ďArc de TriompheĒ, Patuxai, that is described by its own plaque as ďa monster of concrete.Ē

Here (the city not the Arc) I went to an herbal sauna and massage affiliated with one of the Buddhist temples, surely a great way to spend a rainy day anywhere.

Some chores were taken care of here, I traded two books and $1 for The Three Musketeers, hit the countryís only ATM machine twice, and asked around about malaria treatment. I started hearing that many tourists were taking medicine to prevent malaria and I had none. I made the decision to not take anything and to just be on my guard for the symptoms. Hitting the ATM was a strategic decision as itís possible that itís the only ATM machine in the country that will accept a foreign bank card.

Saw some group aerobics as we went over to the river for sunset. Itís not much of a river in the dry season, but it sounds nice though. Ran into a drunken ex-refugee who escaped to Vancouver when the communists took over. He was interesting to talk to for a few minutes, itís a shame we couldnít have talked more, since his English was so good, but he lost interest.

 

Luang Prabang

Iím glad we didnít take the night bus to LP. I suggested it because the ride from Savannakhet to Vientiane just took so long, but the scenery was spectacular. I think I took thirty pictures from the bus window, and the better scenery was always on the other (left) side as well. We did get into LP in the wee hours, but managed to still get budget accommodation in a room for three people. The scenery was so good that I only read forty pages in ten hours. I helped put a motorcycle on the roof of the bus for transport. One of the passengers carried an AK-47 and one of the French guys dared take a photo of it as the owner was sleeping.

The next day I walked around and was a little disappointed in the town. I donít know, it was built up so much for me by other travelers and then just looked like expensive restaurants. I got back to the hotel in the middle of the day and found out the water was turned off so instead of a shower I decided to go ahead and take the trip to the waterfall. The power was cut as well so others also had the same idea. I found a really good price (lucky, the tourist agent managing the trips said his rides were full, but I could go with a friend of his for a discounted price) to go out on one of the trucks with like-minded tourists. The waterfall was nice, and a refreshing swim, but also not very Lao. Just a vacation from the vacation. I also got to see on the site a caged tiger and bears that had been rescued from poachers.

The next day I biked around the area, making the mistake of going out in the heat of the day, but had a delightful time with some school kids, who rode with me (and on the back of my bike) to no place in particular where we throw sticks at mangoes until they fell and we ate them. One the way back, I had a haircut where they throw in a shoulder massage. I mentioned to my barber back home, but he didnít feel like trying out a new business model.

Checked out some restaurants. One had great coffee in a perfect setting, a restored building with period furniture. But then the prices were in dollars, guess how many locals were there. I did meet someone fromÖ Andorra there. Thatís a once in a lifetime experience for most of us. I also had a splendid fruit shake on the river for a sunset. This was a real river, not like in Vientiane, btw. Later, went to a do-it-yourself b-b-q place with Line, from Denmark. At the time I was annoyed that there wasnít free water there, but on the other hand, we were the only tourists there and none of the locals got free water either. We got some later at a pub over fruitshakes.

Had an easy experience getting the tuktuk to the bus station; there was a driver hanging out in the lobby and he took me there for a fair price.

Oh, to keep you up to date; one French guy got sick on the Indian food in Vientiane and the other was sick here in LPB. There was also a German guy at the hostel, very sick, almost went to the hospital.

 

 

 

Muang Ngoi Neua

I didnít expect to get here in one day, but followed the others. We rode out in a very full săwngthăew (the pickup truck with two narrow benches in the back for passengers), carrying ten extra people. The people at the bus station liked me so they told me to show up an hour early and I got a seat on the bench. Two other tourists were not so lucky and they shared time squatting in the floor of the truck. The woman who did this for a couple hours and wasnít used to it was sore and unable to do anything the next day. Given the option, I would have preferred to just stand on the bumper and hang on to the roof rack for dear life like four others did.

Oh, and luck would have it, the next bus was fairly empty and an actual bus with seats, not a pickup truck with two benches in the back.

Anyhow, we got to Nong Khiaw and found out that (a) it in itself was more lame than quiet and (b) we could still catch the boat upriver to the next destination, Muang Ngoi Neua. So we did. I had initially wanted to take the scenic boat ride from Luang Prabang to here and was told that it wasnít available (unless I rent the whole boat, $100) but this boat ride turned out to be just as scenic and a whole lot easier to bear. Not very comfortable, squatting in a narrow boat with a low roof. I arrived with my bag soaked as well, but no real damage. I was grouchy, but recognized that I was, so I stopped trying to find the best place in town and just hired a room so I could eat and relax.

This town has no cars and just one path that could be considered a road. No motorbikes. The noise is pretty much just the roosters. There are plenty of bungalows for $1.50 a night with a hammock and a view of the river, and plenty of restaurants ready to serve you halfway decent food. There was also self-guided tours to the minority villages. Since I was here, bloom where you are planted, I decided to go ahead and take the time for this trek even if it took time away from the place where I really wanted to trek later. And Iím really glad I did.

I was inspired to do this by a group of people who met whilst trekking and had wonderful stories. At one spot, there were about eight of them, and the village chieftain had a party in their honor, including killing a chicken for their dinner. This group had split up a little bit since, but six of them had just bought a boat from the locals in this town and were planning to float it down to Luang Prabang themselves. They made me a map of the villages, I found myself a hiking partner and I was all set to do it.

Well my hiking partner bailed on me, but she had valid excuses of not having a pack. We hiked together for a hour or two and then I headed off to a village, well perhaps the village, I was actually lost and these delinquent-looking kids claimed the village was in their direction. So I followed the kids and she went to another village for a look-see. There were paths all over this cow pasture and it was hard to tell which was yours. The kids were, despite throwing stones at cows, entirely trustworthy, took me right to the village, stopping only once to retrieve some mangoes (how mangoes stay in a tree long enough to ripen I donít know, there seem to be eager kids everywhere). I had an expensive lunch at this village, since I wasnít sure about the next meals and wanted to support my local Hmong village anyhow. Then got my directions and sort of made my way to the next village. I have to say, I wasnít always sure I was going the right way, but I was lucky and whenever there was a serious fork in the path, there was someone who happened to be there to give me the proper directions. And no one ever gave me bad directions, well not really.

I made it to the destination, Nam Tap, in early afternoon (this was an accomplishment thought impossible by the ones who wrote me a map and I love a challenge) and wasnít quite sure what to do. I was told with hand signals that I could stay there and sleep there, etc., but where exactly? No real spot in this village to sit. I walked around, found the stoned dude with the opium pipe, and finally some kids beckoned to where I should go. A boy took me to a hut that I assumed was for storage and backpackers and made me a snack of honey and cooked bamboo shoots. I took note of the fact that he conscientiously washed his hands before handling the food. Then we both napped. It turned out that this storage hut is his house, oops. Sometimes itís a good thing that you canít speak a word of Hmong and thus canít put your foot in your mouth.

Now Iíve been to villages in Africa and Chile, but this was a bit of a shock to me as far as hygiene. Itís a dirt floor, theyíre all barefoot, Dad is spitting on the floor, they cut vegetables on the floor, dogs eat off the floor, chickens sneak in, and there is no toilet. One just goes outside, anywhere. From what I hear, your feces are quickly eaten by the animals. Playing with a calf was cool until I started to count the ticks. But I survived and there were little or no vermin in the bedding. Dad showed up after our naps and we bonded the best we could without any words in common, then some of the other kids, some of whom never seemed to stop crying. Dinner was also less exciting than a chicken, more like rice and bamboo shoots. I think the honey was not something we were supposed to eat because Dad tried to sell the bottles later and one seemed a bit short. Oops. Fortunately, I paid them five times the going rate for a nightís lodging and three meals ($5 instead of $1) so I think their honey losses were made up.

I should move on the next day, but Iíll also add that the kids read their study books voraciously. I think they contained propaganda about the Thai integration, judging from an illustration whose details currently elude me. Later I would find a place that sold kidsí books to tourists for distribution (better than candy) but hadnít seen them yet.

So I hiked on, found some tasty spring water that I just had to drink, and did get misdirected once. But by an angry-looking peasant woman. I didnít go far going back before I ran into a family out hunting with a home-made rifle and they corrected my path and there were no turns after that, just a great path through beautiful scenery. I took many pictures through here, looking for that lonely cabin along in the folds of the mountain. Often the pictures would include the fields newly burnt for rice harvesting that isnít as picturesque, but authentic of course. This was just touristy enough that there is a place to stay without being touristy enough that it is easy to find oneís way. I made it through the other villages, including one with a satellite dish (yes, but there is no terrestrial TV, so itís satellite or nothing. Where the electricity itself comes from, I donít know, perhaps a generator thatís only run at night) and back to town in time for that strong Lao coffee and a nice meal. I think it was banana pancakes. Oh, the coffee was a great treat in this town, but it was odd to notice that they heat your water on a wood fire. Almost feel guilty that itís too much trouble for one cup of coffee.

One of the guys here, a German named Felix, had his iPod stolen from his bungaloo while he was out trekking. He got the impression that everyone knew who did it, but decided in the end not to do anything about it. He took it very well.

I later met someone who spent four days in this village, just reading in a hammock and eating in his guesthouse. Really, itís how to relax.

I left the next day with some others. Itís odd, the Westerners all show up plenty early for the boat ride, and board promptly, the boat sits there, fifteen minutes later some locals show up and then the boat leaves.

I strategically did not get on the boat first so my bag stayed dry (wasnít at the bottom of the stack where water leaks in).

I found out that the girl I was talking to from the States is a niece of one of my neighbors in Ardmore.

Three of us were going to Udomxai and knew that the bus left soon after the boat arrived, got a little nervous when the boat was late, but the bus was late as well. But, hey, itís just three people for the bus, so unless we buy all of the seats, the bus stays where it is. Seasoned traveler Steve throws out option B instantly, and we ride the local truck out to a junction point. The others change their minds and head back to Luang Prabang to rush to the Thai border that way, so I am alone at the junction.

They point to the truck, that I am to get in it, and then say it leaves in an hour. A bit confused, a prank? So I head over to eat lunch with my hour, meet a couple of bicyclists going around the country. Iím back and am still the only passenger. I lack the English to say ďyou want to leave at two oíclock but only leave with ten passengers, okay, do you expect other passengers to arrive soon?Ē After all, we all learned with the boat that the locals arrive late. The driver and his cohort seem to be insistent that I need to pay for all of the seats, but thatís breaking the rules, so I wander off to look for other options. I canít find a cargo truck or anything thatís going my direction and canít hire a scooter to take me. Finally, I hear the good news that there is a bus later that night that is sure to stop here. Relief. And just that minute, a bus that looks oddly like the one I left behind a couple hours ago, pulls up with an ďUdomxaiĒ sign in the window. Only one seat left too. So I ride along, next to a worker for some of humanitarian organization. I hope for the offer to stay at his house, but it doesnít happen. He does tell me how hard it is to raise his family on $50/month.

 

Udomxai

Not much happening in town, but Laos is not all fireworks and roller coasters. I find a place to stay for a good price, walk around, watch the sun set from a high vantage point over the street, and since I am really close to the Chinese border, try a Chinese dinner. I should have ordered more exotic I guess, it was just a simple meal. I make a phone call over Skype to Mom for Motherís Day and then to bed.

 

Muang Sing

My introduction to the town was a group of three women dressed in authentic native outfits that tried to sell me trinkets as I came into town. Then one walked really close to me (scary close, could be a pickpocket sort of concern) and tried to sell me opium. And wouldnít take no for an answer! Such persistence. I took their picture.

I found out that I would need to pay twice the rate for trekking with 2 people at uh, whattamacallit, trekking store, and declined. It looked pretty much like what I had just done for free.

I kind of thought of leaving the town the same day, it being the dead period of tourist season (nice that itís not crowded, but the previous paragraph teaches that solo travelers in dead season cannot count on getting into trips that require groups), and not much to do. A street lined with restaurants and hotels and not much going on.

Eventually people did show up. One of the restaurants did turn out to have a great menu and became the Westerner hangout, with someone there just about all the time.

I walked around to the minority villages nearby, and saw monks in the saffron robes playing volleyball. One gets used to the monks being regular people after a while; they smoke cigarettes and use cell phones too.

The next day I mountain biked to the more distant villages, having a splendid time. It was great scenery. I biked until the trail became really challenging singletrack (a hiking path) and stayed in that village. The first such village was show-and-tell, kids and adults interested in the bike as if it was one the first they had seen, and practicing riding it downhill. Most had trouble with the height of the seat though, just as well, I think I was expected to return that bike. I photographed things that seemed odd and then turned out to be the spirit gate and other things that made this a village of the Akha tribe.

The next village was even better. I was waved up into one of the huts by someone and since he wasnít smoking an opium pipe I went up and ended up having lunch with him and his family. How cool was that. Of course we had no words in common.

I biked back to town and found the restaurant full of Westerners drinking beer and having snacks. No contrast there. I found out that had I been there the day before, I could have gotten on a trek with a large group, but it sounded like all they did was hike and arrive in the village too late to do anything except for the guy from California who bought up the village alcohol supply and drank it. The groupís guide did not approve. I went over to check out the local museum and the guy from California went up to his room with some others to smoke pot. The museumís first floor was full of mannequins dressed in traditional tribal garb. On the second floor I found the grim portrait of the townís founder and a video about the tribes. I found this especially interesting. Many of the tribes are moving closer to towns so their kids can be educated, but they are giving up their lands in the mountains for this. I think, canít quite remember. There was something in the videos about their beliefs that no one gets sick up in the mountains but the most striking belief was that of twins. If you have twins, you must have done something really bad. So the twins are killed and the parents driven from the village. Fortunately, this belief is slowly changing. There was also a good bit in the film about opium addiction and recovery. Itís a drug that is readily available, traditionally used in moderation and easy to abuse.

It started to rain while I was in the museum, but I decided to head out towards to Chinese border and hope it would stop. It did for a little while, but yeah, I got soaked. It was worth it. Here I took a photo of some rice paddies that everyone likes. And the skies were amazing too. I found the village that is promoted in town as the place to go to see traditional garb and I saw some, butÖ Well, as I got into town, I heard this loud ruckus in one of the buildings and eagerly went up to seeÖ a chicken fight? I had no idea. It turned out to be some sort of bar. Perhaps the restaurant that I was told about, but it was full of local tribal people getting smashed. I tried to duck out but was invited over for shots of their lao lao whiskey. Fortunately, no one gets angry when I refuse. And yes, thatís what itís called. There was BeerLao which was the national beer and lao lao was their whiskey.

 

Luang Nam Tha

I left the next morning, with four Akha (with golden teeth) and an AK-47 owner on the săwngthăew. I explored about LNT for a bit checking out the outdoors activities, as it known for that, being so close to some wilderness areas and got my hotel room. I went for a walk about with a map from the bicycle rental store (who wouldnít cut me a deal on a Ĺ day rental so I opted for a foot tour) into some villages. Here I walked through a earthquake and barely knew it. I heard some noise, looked up to try to see thunder and noticed the trees shaking, but I assumed it was from wind. Had I looked at the huts, I would have noticed them shaking. It was a big deal locally as little happens there, but no damage. Not much to see in these villages that I havenít seen already. I learned not to walk through rice paddies; I got lost and it was the shortest distance between two villages, but itís a damned maze. You have to walk on this narrow piece between the flooded areas, which means you watch your step constantly, but you also have to look up a lot to route yourself strategically to the other side. I did get some curious looks, but no problems.

Found a great little restaurant here and spent a few meals here. The cookís husband works for NGO groups and speaks pretty good English, although the only conversation I remember is their campaign to get people to use brown rice, which is associated with poverty in the area despite its nutritional advantages.

I noticed that a group had signed up for kayaking but decided not to go at the time (since a group was going the price was affordable). I lay in bed and decided that I really wanted to do that, but when I walked past the outfitters they were not only closed but displayed a sign that they didnít accept additional people on a trip in the mornings. Well, it wasnít meant to be.

Or was it? I walked past them again after breakfast and they were open and willing to take new people. So my day would be more than just bumming around on a bike hoping to see something new. I was so happy.

It turned out that the kayaking was in 2-person inflatable kayaks, and all of us were disappointed. It was three Swedes and myself and two guides. It was as scenic as you could want, and then we stopped in some villages. Beautiful cool ride, out of the heat of the town. Well part of that was from the rain. I thought I had seen it all, but I saw a kid with a bee on a string. Yes. Iím not sure how it is done, or why. We got to play with some of the kids at one village where a bunch were out swimming by the dock. I got a really bad sunburn on my legs. And we had a great lunch, provided by one of the gourmet restaurants out of town. It rained a lot, but really only as we left. Our truck bested the mud on the road home and we saw a big rainbow at one point.

At the morning market in this town, I saw bats, grilled rats on sticks, live frogs and roasted frogs.

I also met James here (mentioned earlier as the guy who hammocked for four days in Muang Ngoi Neua), who was out for eighteen months so far. He would read a lot and didnít go on expensive trips like kayaking, so his expenses were really low. I kind of like the idea of doing that. A link to his blog is at the bottom of this page.

 

The Gibbon Experience

In a packed bus, I set off west for the Gibbon Experience. Two others on the bus were going on the same trip and also stopping in the small town along the way. We could take the bus all of the way to the Thai border where the outfitter for the GE is located, but thatís a lot of extra time in the bus and not much time at this tiny outpost on the road.

It wasnít a town as much as some buildings along the road, but there were also some farms about. We walked around and encountered some shy kids who followed us until we turned out to notice them and then they fled.

So not a whole lot to do, and some rain outside, but we managed to get some coffee out of the bed & breakfast. Make your own with hot water, a jar of coffee and a filter that made out of old linen and a piece of wire. We were in heaven. An old man appeared and requested Ovaltine, we had some fun showing him a digital camera. Some other kids showed up, but the Ovaltine requests (on our tab, we supposed) didnít get out of hand.

Had a good nightís sleep despite a large spider who lived inside my mosquito net. He wasnít so hungry that he had to attack me.

The next morning we found out that our coffee tab was more than the price for lodging or meals. Ha! Starting to look like we drink too much. I guess I expected a bulk discount since it was make-your-own.

Now Kirsten had investigated the Gibbon Experience thoroughly on the Internet and found the remark, ďdisorganized and donít expect to get your moneyís worthĒ or something to that effect. That turned out to be sage advice.

A Land Cruiser showed up full people who were pleasantly surprised to see that they would have to make room for two more. But we only drove about another twenty meters to a stream crossing which had turned into a river crossing. We would have to continue on foot. I had a grievance here because the one hour hike just turned into an all-day hike but the two of us who just joined werenít told until about 30 min into the hike when it was far too late to buy more water for the trip. Kind of slipped the severely hung-over mind of our Australian guide. This hike had its ups and downs. The up was the nice jungle shortcut; the down was the sticky clay from the road-walking that added several pounds to your shoes.

We made it to a small village, the original destination for the Land Cruiser, when we found out that our food was back in the Land Cruiser.

I was getting a little cranky by the time I got to the town. I had gotten some mud in my Chacoís straps so the abrasion was starting to be a problem. I switched to the Crocs but they had no traction, so I ended up barefoot. I slipped a few times. But a bit of water picked up my spirits like a wilting plant.

After they barely managed to scrape together some water for us to drink, the last thing we wanted to hear was that there was no dinner. We were promised leftovers from the last group and told that it was too late to send out the horses to fetch the food. There were no radios or even cell phones, yes there was service here somehow, that the company could have used to communicate this problem. And also take note that there were also no communications in case of an emergency (assuming you donít consider famine an emergency).

And it sure would have been nice to have a horse-drawn cart waiting for you on the other side of that river, but this is the second part of the warning, donít expect to get $150 treatment for your $150. We tried to figure that one out, we were told our money went to support the armed rangers who patrol a small portion of the wilderness, but it was hard to account for all of the money that comes in every day.

But some of that money was justified as soon as we got to the kitchen. Our guide was somehow the first one there and was already eating in front of the fire. Well you need a well-fed guide to show you around, pity there wasnít any food for the rest of us and good thing none of us got lost on the way.

But thatís not what I meant about the justification. As I was getting my harness on for the zip-line (aka flying fox for you British readers), this animal crawled past me. A pig, I thought. No, a dog. Well it was an Asiatic black bear cub. That was extremely cool and not in the brochure at all.

The first zip over was pretty cool too.

Oh, I should have give some background. This is a three day two night stay in tree houses in a nature preserve in Bokeo Province. We stay in tree houses some 120í above the ground, accessible only by zip lines. There is a network of zip lines that take you around the area, largely to other tree houses. The idea is to see the reclusive gibbons in their own environment, but as you might have suspected, the experience gets far more younger tourists than wildlife aficionados. I saw it as a wildlife experience with the zip lines thrown in for fun. And it was good to spend time with other Americans, they were in short supply in Laos. And Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand actually.

Since we were late, we only had time for a trip out to next tree house, which involved spectacular zip lines through gorges. One was long enough to stop at this giant tree in the middle for a switchover. Weíd call this a circuit of the zip lines, since the other lines were to enter tree houses that were down long trails from here. We all crowded into one tree house and had a dinner that was pretty good. The tree houses were well equipped with a small kitchen and a bathroom, but we were overcrowding it so it wasnít really comfortable (9 in the space for 6, supposedly since we arrived late, but also because no other treehouse was ready to receive guests).

The next day was pretty much just spent on the zip lines. It rained in the morning so there wasnít any point in a hike with the guides to try to hear the gibbons, so we just went on the zip lines. This is when I learned that a wet zip line sprays grease on oneís shirt. Good thing I didnít change into clean clothes. I have a picture of me at the end of the experience with a shirt I would later throw out.

I went down to the kitchen for my bear experience, great fun to play with him. He was just getting big enough to be a nuisance, biting a bit more than youíd like and not knowing when to stop playing.

In the evening three of us chose to go to another tree house, seeking peace and quiet from the crowd. And this tree house was worth the leechy walk through the woods with its great views and feeling of being even more remote (no noise from the kitchen). Oh, it was filthy btw, remember that remark about not expecting your moneyís worth; the food and muddy linens had been left out from the last time it was used.

Anyhow, three of the people we were trying to avoid decided to make a social call, so after some failed attempts at reading, I left and found that the middle tree I mentioned earlier was a great spot to relax. You can keep your safety engaged to the cable and just sit and watch the clouds. Except for the cables, you are in a tall tree in the middle of the jungle, not a bad place to meditate. I zipped around some more when the bugs found me and caught up with some others who were trying to make a zip line video worthy of You Tube and then it was dusk and time to return to the tree house.

Dinner that night was poisonous. Several of us came down with diarrhea, but survived.

The next morning we did hear the gibbons singing. A bit strange, the staff started to arrive to the hut while we were there. The man took a shower, drank tea and sang to us (even though I think we would have all preferred to just soak up jungle noises) while they women fetched the linens and did actual work. After we were more awake, we did some farewell tours on the zip line. I declined breakfast. Just a long crowded uneventful ride to the border town Huay Xai.

 

Huay Xai

Not much going on here. I enjoyed a $3 hour massage that benefited the Red Cross and me and caught up on some sleep. Still sick. I stayed with Kerstin, from the Gibbon Experience.

The next morning we crossed over to Thailand. I had so much kip left over to exchange that the guy had to dip into his own pocket to complete the transaction. I also caught him short-changing me a couple dollars, a minor victory.

 

Chiang Mai, Thailand

From the border town on the Thai side, we took a minivan into Chiang Mai. Kerstin and I rejoined Hans from the Gibbon Experience. We were the three who chose to move out to the other tree house so it made since for us to share a room in CM. I also met James there at the hostel; so it did seem like the place to be.

Although I didnít think that much of Chiang Mai. I was still sick so I didnít want anything too adventurous. CM has a Starbucks and is full of tourist restaurants. According to the guidebook, many tourists head here directly from the Bangkok airport. I had had plans to get into Myanmar/Burma for a few days in the Golden Triangle, but I didnít want to try that the way I felt then. Saw some temples and a funeral. Temples have great bathrooms, the best of my trip. You get all kind of travelerís insider knowledge from this journal, huh?

I did get invited to a meditation session and tried that. I had trouble keeping my mind clear, but thatís the point I think, working on that.

I left about the time I got over the diarrhea. I did break down and eat some pizza there. It wasnít very good, but I craved it so I ate it.

 

Pai

Pronounce this town ďbuyĒ if you are speaking to a Thai or ďpieĒ if you are speaking to a foreigner.

The point of this town is just a quiet place to relax. Itís said to be full of hippies and I met one. Mostly that just meant that the conversation was about how to live off of the grid when the oil runs out. And the expatriate life there seemed a bit boring for me. I asked one expat what they did there and the response was ďnothingĒ which really meant loaf about and then spend a couple hours drinking tea with the other expats. I guess one manís relaxation is anotherís boredom. I stayed for one night in a little hut out across a bamboo bridge across the river, with some great scenery there, even if a lot of it was clouds.

For a town that was so touristy, it was also short on free water, probably the worst town for that in Thailand. In places like CM and Bangkok, there are machines on the sidewalk that dispense a liter of water for one baht (about three cents). Many other spots, including Laotian hostels, give out free water from the large containers they use, sort of like a water cooler. Part of the explanation is that they are a small town and I think the other part is that they prefer to sell you bottled water.

Had dinner with some other tourists (one from France and the other from where else, Montana) and shared our negative experiences in Vietnam.

 

Mae Hong Son

The ride to this town was in a wonderful old bus, with wooden plank floors and a lot of open windows. Very cheap, great scenery and just Thais as passengers. This route is along the mountainous border with Myanmar.

I got into town in the hot part of the day and settled into a teak hostel just in sight of the lake. This was going to be another slow day in a small town without tourist attractions. I was glad to get away from the touristy places like Pai and Chiang Mai, but it was still a bit quiet. I got into the mode of my trip when it was ďbeing in AsiaĒ rather than doing specific things. I also realized that while I knew I needed to get some more baht out of the bank, I was only spending about six dollars a day at this point, well below my budget of twenty.

I spent a couple hours in a travel agency. After looking at the offerings (guided trips to minority villages, especially those where the women wear multiple rings around their necks that appear to stretch the neck (they actually push the shoulder blades down). Since you paid admission to the villages, I decided not to go. It might have been an interesting experience, especially if I rented a motorbike to drive, but I felt like staying in town. I spent the time watching a movie with the travel agent Ė who spoke no English Ė and ate some fruit (not lychee but similar, maybe rambutan?) that his wife brought from the market.

I climbed up to the Buddhist monastery, a steep climb with great views and a gift shop at the top.

I also found a restaurant with a large library and put a deposit down to borrow a book and read it. I wasnít sure if this was crossing the line into too much isolation from the trip since I normally just read on the bus, but went with it.

At night I had a dinner along the lake at the night market and then checked up on email and Skype.

I had a good time at the morning market as well, finding a tea shop. I forgot that the coffee was just Nescafť, but drank it just the same, and just tried to be still and let myself be absorbed into what was going on. And I took a picture of the giant spider on the wall, that was sort of a break from -- well anytime you pull out a camera itís a break from being still, but it was as I left.

Met a sort-of bitter woman who aspired to work in a refugee camp in the area. She had just arrived from a month in Myanmar.

 

Mae Sot

This was a long ride. I was assured that if I took the early bus I could make it in one day. And I did. The bus dropped me off in Mae Sariang where I found the pickup truck that was going to Mae Sot. None of us (some Thais and myself) were able to rouse the guy who sold tickets though. I found out that it left in about an hour so I settled into some lunch during the hot part of the day. I was a little confused about the truck because when I went over, there was a crowd of people under some shelter from the sun and they all pointed to the truck as if I should go ahead and get in, but I was in no hurry to be the first one, when I could stand in the shade. Well it turned out that I was the only passenger, so they were actually ready to leave right then. No extra charge, like my experience in Laos. We picked up occasional passengers but it was pretty much just the two of us.

Passed by a refugee camp of Burmese who escaped Myanmar for sanctuary here. More of them later. Apart from the fence, it looked like any town, actually kind of nice. Not like the ones in the movies that look like prisons. The fence wasnít very secure and the gate didnít seem terribly guarded; people were coming and going at will it seemed.

At some point I got transferred to another truck (with a vomiting baby) and into town. It was a little hard to find the road with the hostels, usually one can ask a local and heíll know, or it will be obvious, but I managed and then walked about thirty miles, or so it seemed, to the hostel.

Not a bad place, the management was low-key and only one person spoke English, but it was cheap and I was the only one staying there, so it was also quiet. Just a long walk from everything else.

I wanted to volunteer at a refugee camp, but only for a day. I thought perhaps my IT skills would come in handy, but the problem is finding the contact person to get in. The guidebook gave me the impression that one could easily find that sort of arrangement by going to the right restaurant, but that restaurant closed and then the replacement was sold or burned down during a tornado or something. So I bailed pretty quickly on that idea, and went with attraction#2 of Mae Sot, which is its proximity to an international border crossing with Myanmar.

 

I hoped to walk over, but it was so far that I needed to catch a ride. ďWalked to BurmaĒ had a ring to it.

As I was told, on the walk over the bridge, you are approached by a Ďvolunteer translator.í At first I thought they were government agents who watched over you and made sure you didnít cause trouble in their dictatorship, but now I think they are just people who speak English and need the money. Anyhow, I declined his services and made my way to a tea shop.

People were very friendly inside and it was somehow different than Thailand. Itís hard to say why, a little more rustic, a little more different. But I felt at home. I thought someone bought me a drink, but it turns out that the weak tea is free and itís the strong tea, with condensed milk, that one pays for (very cheap, even itís a Westerner using Thai money). So I stayed there a while, soaking up the culture and then moved on to breakfast.

Breakfast was okay, the food was nothing to rave about, but okay. A little more expensive than I would have thought, given the low price of the tea and what I would have guessed the meal would have cost in Thailand, but thatís okay.

I walked around and found a temple. I didnít have much of a plan because I didnít know much about the town. I walked around the temple and then made my way to the market. I had read about markets in Myanmar (is it Myanmar or Burma? I have no idea which term is better; Myanmar is the new, non- or anti-colonial name and Burmese describes some but not all of an ethnic group in Myanmar), offering all sorts of parts of endangered species, but this one didnít seem that different. Of course, itís not like anything was labeled in English.

I didnít try the stuff they chew, some sort of drug that might contain tobacco. Itís interesting and traditional, all wrapped up in a leaf, but I just wasnít sure I needed to try it. I stuck with their tea. I found an outdoor tea Ďhouseí outside the market and became popular there quickly.

I wrote a letter while I was there and found the post office to mail it. People were friendly once again. I was surprised that a few people didnít know where it was, but I got there after someone took me on his motorbike. Isnít that cool, dropping what you are doing to give someone a lift to where he is going? Mailed the letter to the States for six baht, thatís about fifteen cents, pretty cheap, although I havenít gotten confirmation that it arrived. Then hired a bicycle taxi to show me the town, in case I missed some parts. I didnít miss much, but was glad to see more and know I had seen it. In fact, although I hired him for an hour, he stopped after about 40 min. because he was finished. A monk interpreted what was going on for me, so I paid him almost all of the money for an hour, and ended up with someone else who learned English and wanted to show me a temple. Not a bad temple and I enjoyed the conversation. Was he the true government agent? He told me that he plans to sneak into Thailand to work in a Bangkok restaurant. Itís expensive to get over unless you Ďclimb the mountain.í I got the feeling that you could pay a large amount of money (10000 baht or $300) to get false papers to get you through the checkpoints on the roads, which means a comfy bus takes you to the city, or you can bushwhack your way out of the area. We saw the temple, which was interesting, and then kind of rushed back. I was puzzled a bit by all of the clocks I saw vs. the clock in my camera and then realized that Myanmar is on its own time zone, 30 minutes different from Thailand. Still, I figured it would be bad to be late to the border crossing and fast walked like a Westerner. And made it without any problems. The Myanmar border patrol had kept my passport for my stay, but it was there and then I was off to Thailand. The border guard there wasnít very eager to stamp me back in, had never heard of my Hostel and I didnít know itís address. I pointed out that I had never come close to using up the time granted me by my prior Thai visas and showed her my return ticket to the States and then she granted me another thirty day visa. Iím really not sure what would have happened if Thailand didnít let me back in, since Myanmar doesnít let me leave that border town. Oh, I know, I told pictures of it. If you donít want to use the bridge and the customs and red tape associated with that, you can just take a boat or swim across the river. I saw people doing just that.

While taking pictures on the bridge, I noticed that my camera was making protest noises when extending the lens. I saw some dust on the telescoping parts are tried to wipe it off, as if it would solve the problem. I feared my camera didnít have long to live.

 

That night I ran into some Westerners in one of the restaurants and caught up on my English conversations. These were English teachers, actually, so they were good at that sort of thing. Apparently they can do pretty well for themselves here, maybe not save a lot of money, but afford apartments and a pretty good lifestyle on their earnings, especially if they get into private tutoring. One of the teachers had deliberately left that to come out here away from the big city because the income gap was bothering him. I did get to hear bluegrass music for the first time in Asia. I tried again for contacts into the refugee camps and came up with nothing, so I decided to leave the next day, and find some intermediary spot to break up the trip to Bangkok. There were plenty of overnight busses to Bangkok, but I didnít want to get to town at 4 am, especially since I planned to stay with Mick from back in Surin Province.

 

Before I left, I had some samosas and tea in the market, the townís #3 attraction.

 

Kamphaeng Phet

You know, sometimes you think youíve got a cheap comfortable ride to your destination and then it turns out that you really are just going halfway there. But no problem, transferred easily enough from the van to the pickup truck in Tak. At each spot, which doesnít seem to get many Western passengers, someone had to be fetched to guide me to the right spot, even if I had my destination written out, sort of like a child with a ďmy name is billy, if I am lost take me to 123 elm stĒ tag around his neck.

The ride from Tak to KP was kind of interesting because I almost died, other than that it was the same as anything else. I was reading my book when there was a noise and we skidded to a stop. I thought it was just a flat tire, had seen plenty of those in the past few weeks, and finished my paragraph but the others got out of the truck as if it were on fire. It looked like the tie-rod broke, but it turned out that a suspension part failed. At any rate the tire was askew at a pretty dramatic angle and the weight of the truck on that side was on the suspension and not the tire. I took the last pictures of the trip of that tire.

It got confusing here. From the cell phone activity, I assumed we waited for the next truck, either the next one scheduled or a replacement. But the others negotiated a ride with another pickup truck, not a taxi, just one that stopped. It might have stopped because it was a friend who had been called by a passenger, or might have been hired on the spot. I never found out, but it took us to the next town. I didnít know what to do here. Some of the passengers disappeared and I couldnít tell if the others were coming with me to my destination or elsewhere. I was hungry and it was hot out. I found some snacks to eat, but nothing filling. Finally, after I happened to meet someone who spoke English (sort of, we had a round of, ďwhere are you goingĒ ďkamphaeng phetĒ ďno, thatís where you are from, where are you goingĒ) I found out that busses stopped here on their way from Mae Sot heading to Bangkok and I was able to buy a ticket to take me from that store to KP. Although the bus was so comfortable, with air conditioning and a stewardess, that I was tempted to just go to Bangkok!

But I got off at KP. I made use of my phone card to call the local hostel for the free pickup and waited around in the heat and flies. Here was a spot that needed thirty cent fruit shakes, but this is what happens when you get off the tourist path. KP had some ruins that appealed to me a bit, but wasnít anything special as far as anything else, and thatís sort of why I went. Also, it was about halfway between Mae Sot and Bangkok, although I think the travel time ended up about the same for each of my trips compared to those fast overnight busses. Oh, another thing, if anyone out there knows why tiny Mae Sot has such frequent bus service from the capital, please let me know. It canít be all of those illegal immigrants working in restaurants, can it?

I found the hostel to be much more expensive than most of my earlier lodging but also more luxurious and pretty much the only spot in town. Despite being the only one there, I wasnít able to cut a deal for free bicycle rental so I went off on foot to find the ruins. I didnít have much luck finding them, even with a barefoot guide who managed to be casual about always having to keep one hand on his shorts to keep them from falling down. Part of me wanted to buy him new clothes, but there wasnít an opportunity for that. He did try to show me a shortcut where you bypass the front gate of the ruins by sneaking right past Ė get this Ė the prison and crossing a stream without a bridge. Yeah, let me sneak in to the park with a reminder of a prison next to me, Iím sure no one is looking my direction.

It wasnít long before it started to rain and since all of the ruins are outside and spread out over many kilometers, I sought shelter. Fortunately, I had finished my fried ice cream at this point.

In the first shelter, there had been something going on, tables set up, people sitting around, but I found a spot and was approached by a little kid with her pet bird in a tiny cage. I played with the cage until I released the bird and made an oops face. I mostly did this because it didnít seem right for little kids to capture birds and keep them in tiny cages. But it turned out that it is common for people to buy these birds to release them after saying prayers. The bird escaping out of the cage (like a shot out of a cannon) is supposed to be evocative of the personís feelings after the prayer. Or something like that. We wonít follow it through to the little kids snagging the birds out of trees with a net and the bird returning to a prison.

In the second shelter, I just laid down on a bench in some sort of portico and tried to nap to the sounds of the rain. Some kids on motorbikes pulled up a few minutes later and we chatted somehow with five words of English or something like that. It struck me how important these motorbikes would be to a teenager, such freedom to whiz about town, see and be seen. And these kids gave me a ride back to the hostel, just to do a good deed. The rain didnít stop for a long while, so that was appreciated.

By the time it did stop, I was ready to go out for dinner and I got lost once again trying to find the restaurant part of town. I wasnít starving yet so I had a mission to find their local delicacy, but asking for it only got me sent all over the place. Iím not sure if they thought I was asking for a restaurant by name rather by menu item. But after I was given a ride someplace I decided to just eat what was available, and found something to eat. I then walked to a market I saw on the ride over and snacked there and then, getting past the attack dogs at the tourist information center, got directions to the night market, which was where I should have gone in the first place. Not just the produce/meat market that I crossed through first, but a big enclosed place full of people and restaurant stalls. I walked about to see all they had and then settled on something. Spied a small kitten who was adapting to the noise and commotion of the market at a young age and ate as much as I could with my reduced appetite. I also got some very cheap freshly squeezed orange juice, but didnít make it home without drinking it all.

When I got back, I was pretty tired, but the owner was there and he wanted to talk. Although he works in a bank, his passion seems to be hostelry and he showed me all of the pictures of the places he is building on some land in the country. He was able to answer all of the questions I had about Thailand so far (the prayer birds for example), which was nice. He also told me about the tiger temple.

Breakfast was pretty expensive though. I like to know about the prices when someone asks ďoh, would you like some fresh fruit and yogurtĒ so it that plate doesnít cost as much as, well I canít remember, but it seemed expensive at the time.

I did kind of want to try out one more Thai massage before I left town, but it turns out that I arrived in Bangkok late enough. One of the delays was interesting. The bus stopped, apparently so someone who left some important papers behind could have them run out to him. No explanation given, not even to the other passengers. But when I have air conditioning, water, snacks and a book I can be patient. I only investigated because I am tourist and supposed to be curious.

At the bus station I had the friendly taxi driver who runs up to Westerners tell me that there is no public bus service to the largest university in town (right, I believe that one), but there were several more honest people there. And a cat which managed to sleep in the middle of a very busy hallway. I saw bugs for sale in the snack market, but ate fried banana instead. As I write this, I sort of regret that choice. After waiting a generous amount of time for my bus to arrive, I found out that oh, that is the direct bus to the university, but it isnít running anymore. Finally I got some alternative busses, at the point where I was about to just get that taxi. Iím glad I did too. It took a long time to get there, but Iíd rather wait in an almost free bus than in a taxi with a running meter. And despite the delays, unlike in Vietnam, the ticket taker had not forgotten about me and told me where to get off. Er, you know what I mean.

So I made it to the bustle of Bangkok and I liked it. I didnít like Bangkok all that much when I left it last time, but perhaps it is the bustle around the university, where there arenít any tourists or touristy things, that was different. I thought I found a landmark place to call and meet Mick, but he was having trouble understanding, so I just motioned a passerby over who just happened to be fluent in Thai, and she was able to tell Mick what he needed to know.

I was looking forward to see the university and staying in a foreign dorm, but it turns out that he lives off-campus in an apartment. We didnít leave that apartment for the rest of the night either. After I got settled we had, surprise, pizza and ice cream for dinner. At US prices. I was a bit shocked at this expenditure; this was about two days of spending for me, but just accepted it. Iím not used to someone making a fuss over me, but just resigned myself to letting him spend a fortune on me. Later we rented three movies, despite his need and my understanding that we were going to sleep soon.

Oh, this one bedroom apartment was shared by Mick with a friend of his. It wasnít a bad amount of space for one person, but I can see it being cramped with two.

I think we were all pretty tired the next morning. I took a bus into town to see the Jim Thompson house, now a museum of the collected antique furniture and artwork of an eccentric American businessman who disappeared as an eccentric should, in a mysterious Malaysian jungle. Hereís something I found about that for you on Wikipedia. I spent as much time here as I could, and was one of the very few who returns after the tour to look at things in more detail (with a chaperone). I found that, in all of those antiques, there was one novelty coffee mug which we couldnít quite read. I am sure that the mug holds the clue to the whereabouts of Jim Thompson and the buried treasure.

I had accidentally left my guidebook at the apartment, but at least my pack was now five pounds lighter. Although this was my last day in town, I thought I remembered enough of what I wanted to see today that I didnít need to break down and ask another tourist to see his copy. I found a wonderful food vendor who sold great coffee at local prices. And I thought this country drank only Nescafť. Happy with this find, I wandered to an iconic hotel whose name I have forgotten (Atlanta) and a bus to get back to the university. I think I spent 3-4 hours on these busses; Bangkok traffic is really bad. But if you are in a good mood and there are new things to see out the window that youíll never see again it can be time well spent.

I asked for Thai food as my last meal (trying to pre-empt a trip to Burger King), and even offered to just grab the cheap eats downstairs, but naturally we took a taxi out to a restaurant and had food there. And it was delicious. I can see how locals would eschew cheap eats for the real thing if they lived there and became more discriminating, just as I wouldnít take someone from out of town to a lunch truck in Philly.

Then it was to the airport, all of us. They had never been there before, but we found our way there and then Mick took some pictures of us. (My camera hadnít given up the ghost yet, but I had decided to only take A-level pictures like broken down trucks and not B-level pictures like little girls with captive birds to conserve the camera life. Epilogue, I was able to send it back to Canon and they sent me a new one.)

I thought it was interesting as I waited for my plane to board that I met two people who had very different ideas of their trip. One had come to volunteer as a teacher and was disgusted with cultural misunderstandings and had decided to leave the school and come home. Another had a blast volunteering at an elephant wildlife center.

 

I watched five movies between Seoul and New York City. It was a late connection though, so I had to run through JFK Airport (you can make great time running on the moving sidewalks) to find out that my flight to Philly was significantly delayed. It was also interesting to find out that someone with a military backpack and two monthsí growth of beard can run through an airport without causing a scene in post 9-11 America.

 

It was a good trip, but itís good to be home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blogs of people I met on the trip

http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog/gonetilwhenever/round_the_world/tpod.html

http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog/mrconfused/long_way_round/tpod.html