Serenity in Don Khon

image

I’ll begin with a heartfelt thank-you for everyone’s comments and e-mails regarding the accident. Normally, I respond personally, but this time I would be saying almost exactly the same thing. So…to save all of you (and me) from hearing my voice over and over again: Thank you all so very much for your concern and advice and caring sentiments. It means a great deal to us.

The experience and the images still linger, but we’re left with a fresh appreciation for how lucky we are.

We could not have arrived in a better place to calm down and rest. Don Khon is one of the 4000 islands of the Mekong archipelago that sits just north of the Cambodian border. Four thousand is an approximate number, and that includes tiny sandbars and islets big enough for nesting ground birds. Tributaries wind their way through, as do fishing boats and longboats, making this part of Laos deliciously serene and sleepy. Of the few islands that are inhabited, just three cater to tourists, and of the twin islands, Don Det and Don Khon – we took a pass on the former for its hippy, happy-snack crowd and chose the latter for its peacefulness and rice paddy landscape.

 

We have discovered we need regular breaks from travelling. We need the recharge of staying put for a few days with no agenda. Don Khon has given us exactly that – relaxation bordering on downright laziness.

The boat landed at Don Det, where the vast majority of visitors stay.

image

 

We could not find a boat to carry us on to neighbouring Don Khon. As luck would have it, a young man called out to us that he could take us by “tuk-tuk” down the island and across the bridge. His tuk-tuk turned out to be a utility truck with two milk cartons for seats, and he demanded the money up front (he had to refill with gas first). Away we went – bumping down the back roads (we suspect he didn’t want the legit tuk-tuk drivers to see him on the main road), and eventually arrived at our destination.

image

We were excited to see that our hotel resembled its online photos – clean and bright, with wooden bannisters and shiny tile floors and best of all – our huge room and balcony overlooking the Mekong. We’re the third room in from the left on the second floor.

image

Hot showers (rarer than you might think), followed by lunch and beer on the patio – we were starting to feel human again.

There is a boat dock right by our hotel, and we’ve amused ourselves by watching the various and inventive craft transporting tourists.

image

This premium boat offers seats and life jackets.

image

We are most definitely in the south again – the comfy days and cool evenings of Vientiane have been replaced with sweltering, sweaty temps – only mad dogs and white-skinned Englishmen are out in the midday sun.

image

Don Khon has three main roads – one that skirts the west coast, one that follows the east coast, and one straight down the middle. Water features are the big attraction – waterfalls, a broad port and a pool that is home to the endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins.

image

According to one of our lunch table mates, the pod has shrunk to four dolphins, and chasing after them by boat seems designed to put another peg in their “near-extinction,” so we decided to stick to cycling as our main form of entertainment.

image

While the rental bikes are rough and ready, they come with a basket and a bell and the price is right – about $1.50 a day. For each of the past three days, we’ve set out in the morning to explore, and what a glorious time it has been. We’ve seen heritage homes turned into fancy hotels.

image

We’ve seen modest, welcoming homes out on dusty roads.

image

There are few island vehicles –  utility tuk-tuks, motorcycles, scooters and bicycles. This makes cycling a dream, and getting lost a pleasure. We rode across rice paddies, through temple grounds, past homes and small settlements, beside the river and through bamboo stands. We watched kids play soccer, and dodged cows, dogs and chickens in the road. Life on Don Khon feels quite untouched by civilization.

image

There is no ATM, police, or medical services here, wifi is spotty and refreshingly, cellphone sightings are less common than elsewhere.  It is poor here, but without pathos. As is similar to life on many small islands everywhere, the sense of community is strong. People are relaxed and friendly and you can spot the characters after being here for a while. There is no gas station on the island, so bottles of gasoline are dispensed at stand like this one.

image

Waterfalls are a common feature everywhere we have been so far, but since it is well into the dry season, many of them are but a trickle. Not so the waterfalls of Don Khon – they are impressive and majestic. If they are mighty now, what they must be like in November?

As we approached Khone Pa Soi waterfalls, we were warned by a couple of women, in that understated way that Brits are famous for, that the wooden bridges were a bit “perilous.”

image
The suspension bridge was a little sketchy, but looked as though it might hold up. Up a path we went to get to the top of the falls.

We headed over to the smaller waterfall, and came face-to-face with the “perilous” bridges – we took our chances on the thin layers of bamboo and lath and made it safely across.

image

The second falls we visited – the Li Phi Falls – were massive. They are one of Asia’s largest waterfalls by volume – so named as they are meant to catch bad spirits as they wash down the river. We paid heed to the dozens of “Dangerous” signs, not wanting to join the bad spirits.

image

Our photos cannot capture the scope and volume of water in this waterfall – what must this look like in the rainy season?

image

 

At the end of our hike, Stephen stopped to cool off his feet in the pool – still the Mekong, but clean, clear, fast water.

image

On our way home, we rode through one of the temples to discover a small herd of cows all cozied up together.

image

Further along, three young novices were busy making bricks. They greeted us with a smile and allowed us to take photos.

image

 

A perfect break in the travels, and a memorable way to end our time in Laos. Tomorrow we are in for an early start and a trip by boat, minibus, and bus to get us across the border into Cambodia and to our first destination, Siem Reap.

Life and Death in Laos

There have been many a time while travelling over the  past few years when a situation felt a little dodgy or unsafe or uncomfortable, and I coped by repeating a silent mantra to myself,”Nothing bad will happen today.” Since bad things happen every day, my mantra was more a delusional self-soothe than a fact-based reality, but it worked for me.

Yesterday, my mantra was shattered, but I will get to that later.  I want to tell you about the life we have been experiencing in Laos, and how varied it has been as we’ve travelled the country from north to south.

We spent two days in Vientiane, the country’s capitol, referred to by some as a dustier, less charming version of Luang Prabang. We were advised to give it a miss, but since it was a hub for our travels, and also Laos’ capital city, we wanted to see for ourselves.

It has its own Arc de Triomphe, unkindly referred to as a “concrete landing pad.”

image

Vientiane lacks the polish and lustre of Luang Prabang – the word “crumbling” comes to mind. The French colonial style of architecture is still evident, but not as well-maintained and not in as great numbers – you have to wander the streets a bit to find the charm.

image
The French influence on food is strongly felt – patisseries are authentic, and the butter croissants make a great change from white bread toast in the morning.

The promenade along the Mekong is a huge draw for tourists and locals alike. People start to gather around 4:30 or 5:00, to walk along the river, check out the night market or take in some exercise. We watched a zumba class, but the music was boring, and so were the moves. The aerobics class was quite spirited – I was (almost) tempted to join in.

image

We ran into this curiosity – the travelling manicure ladies. At least three or four women called out to me,” Manicure, madam?”  I might have taken them up on the offer if it hadn’t felt so strange to perch on a tiny plastic stool out in public, and have my nails done under questionable hygienic circumstances.

image

We actually enjoyed our time in Vientiane very much – it felt more Laotian and less touristy.  We were tripping over temples, and wandered through a few of them. This sign caught our attention, and I was curious as to how many people had smoked on the grounds of a sacred place.

image

There are definite signs of affluence here – we saw a mint-condition vintage white Jaguar parked outside a hotel, and a Rolls-Royce tucked on the grounds of an exclusive art gallery. There are bangin’ big Toyota trucks, and Lexus SUVs, and many, many Range Rovers. Cranes dominate parts of the city – foreign investment has hit.

The riches are not available to everyone. This is the first place in Laos where we encountered begging. These women and children passed us and asked for money, and then one of the women squatted down on the city street, hoisted her skirt and peed; a thick stream of urine running down the sidewalk. It was shocking to see the utter absence of basic decorum; her rules (and life) so different from mine.

image

A highlight was a visit to the COPE Visitor Centre – part of the rehabilitation centre for people who have lost limbs with UXOs (unexploded ordinances). Laos was the most heavily bombed country in the world: between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. dropped over 270 million bombs and 80 million of them failed to explode. Forty-four years later, at least one person every day is killed or injured by unexploded ordinances – many of them children. There is a market for scrap metal, and dealers will send out kids to retrieve metal for a small profit to them – and the risk is all theirs. The COPE centre is excellent – very well laid-out, with many displays and short videos. All donations go to prosthetics and ongoing treatment.

image

This sculpture was made of 500 kg. of UXO, including cluster bombs, “in memory of those who have been injured, killed or lost loves ones from UXO.” – Anousone Vong Aphay – local artist – 2008.

image

Among the many excellent displays is the list of countries who have signed the CCM (Convention on Cluster Munitions) International Treaty. Among countries notably absent from the list is the United States.

Moving on to the slightly absurd – we visited the Buddha Park, a monument to concrete craziness, about an hour out of town. It is far from being a sacred site – more of an Asian theme park – with themes of lust, sex, domination and excess – all enjoyed with flute music wafting over the bamboo fence.

The Big Giant Pumpkin greeted us first –  we had to squat down and squeeze through the gaping mouth to climb inside, walk around three levels and finally reach the top. Safety was at no time a consideration in the building of this monstrosity, but…it made a grand spot for endless selfies.

image
Lots of fun wandering around the park for about an hour.

image

And then…our reality took a bit of a shift. We wanted to head south from Vientiane to Pakse,  enroute to the 4000 islands. The only affordable travel option was a sleeper bus leaving Vientiane at 8:00 pm, arriving in Pakse at 7:00 am. The bus consists of two levels of bunks, and if you are not intimately associated with your sleeping partner before the ride, you will be after, as the bunks are cozy. We got a lower bunk, two pillows and two blankets. I tried not to think about bed bugs, head lice and long-living bacteria. Armed with our sandwiches and water, we settled in, and surprisingly, we slept quite well.

image
The next morning, we transferred to a regular bus for our three-hour ride to the 4000 islands, and that is when tragedy struck.  Our bus driver had been driving carefully and we were about 10 km. away from our final destination. Suddenly the driver hit the horn, hit the brakes and swerved, but could not avoid the motorcycle that pulled out in front of him.

Our bus slid sideways down the hillside, but came to a stop at quite an angle without tipping over. One of the passengers broke the back window and climbed out, followed by two or three others. The front door was jammed so it was a bit intense, but they managed to pry it open. Slowly we made our way out.  Our first reaction was relief  at being off the bus safely, but then we began to realize how serious the accident was.

A man carried the body of a small child, and three men carried the lifeless and bleeding body of a woman and put both of them in the back of a truck. Apparently the motorcycle came up from a side road and just drove across the highway without looking.The driver was pinned under the front of the bus – one of his feet was severed. A couple of passengers were trying to administer CPR, but it was pointless. Someone brought a blanket and put it over his head.

There was a house with several people standing outside, and we felt they must have been related. One of the women was shrieking with the most raw grief and anguish – I will never forget that sound.

We were all in shock  as we began to understand the severity of the accident. It will take a  long time to process.  I will remember the cracked windshield, the pools of blood, the little hat on the road. There is no sense to be made of this – no lesson learned.

 

The Laos work-around

We left Luang Prabang with very good memories, but for one small detail: on our last day  Stephen exchanged $200US to Laos Kip (currently trading at about 5700 k to $1 CAD). The lady counted out 1 million, 600,000 kip, Stephen made a joke about being a millionaire, she laughed, and that was the end of it. About 8:30 that night, Stephen re-counted the  money and realized he had been short-changed about $20 US. He kicked himself for not counting it at the counter, but it seemed right at the time and…lesson learned. Except he couldn’t let it go. So he headed back up to the main street and another lady was just closing up. Stephen explained there had been a mistake, and after a bit of conversation, she believed him and handed over the missing cash! Amazingly, this very thing happened to another person who was staying at our hotel, and he also got his money back. It’s a nice little scam – when confronted, they simply hand back the money – it must be a profitable side business. Aside from being astounded that we got our money back, we have no hard feelings. It falls to us to be aware.

The next day, we headed out on our six-hour mountain bus trip from Luang Prabang south
to Vang Vieng. Almost immediately, the scenery grabbed us.

image

The switchbacks were a little hairy, but our driver was (mainly) safe, and the road was (mainly) in good condition, so we just enjoyed the view.

image

Laos is struggling to pull itself out of a state of truly dire poverty, and we saw some desperately poor houses in some of the mountain villages.  I was struck by the message on this house, on so many levels.

image

In other villages, we would see a little more prosperity and comfort.

image

A ball game of some sort was in full swing as we drove by.

image

And then this happened. We came around a corner to find a tanker stuck in the middle of the road; its axle broken and the brakes gone. The driver had positioned rocks behind the wheels and could not be persuaded to let the truck roll back enough to allow other vehicles to get by (which may have been a spectacularly bad idea anyway). Much consultation ensued – our bus driver and the tanker driver walked back and forth and measured out the distance. Several other men joined in the discussion, and the decision was made: Our guy would try and squeeze through. He inched along, inched along and then stopped.

image

The guardrail would have to be removed, which we’re quite sure is not legal. At first one piece came off, then two, then one of the posts, and again, each time our driver attempted to come forward, he was encouraged by a half dozen swampers, waving this way and that, yelling out encouragement.

image

This entire endeavour took about two hours, but we all got to know each other a bit better, shared our banana chips, and generally took it in good humour. When all else fails, there are sun salutations.

image

Stephen captured it on film – this will give you a better idea of how little wiggle room our driver had to get through. The big trucks in line behind us may still be stuck up there.

We were a pretty giddy lot by the time we got going, and when we arrived in Vang Vieng, it was almost dark. A short story about the hotel we booked – the Green View Resort. We saw it online, it was a tiny bit more than we wanted to pay, but situated on a lake, with swimming and kayaking and we were sold. After we had booked our non-refundable room, we realized too late that it was not even in Vang Vieng – it was 20 km. south. We would have to pay a $30 tuk-tuk fare to get there, and once there, we would be trapped. We were annoyed with ourselves, but decided to make the best of it.  A couple of days of R&R would be perfect.
Then…the fun began.  At the bus station, we told the tuk-tuk driver our hotel’s name and that it was far out of town, but that seemed okay to him, so we hopped in. After an hour of dropping off all the other passengers, our driver suddenly realized he did  not have the foggiest idea where we were going. He returned to the bus depot to settle the day and consult with his fellow drivers. He then went looking for a car (instead of driving all that distance in a tuk-tuk). The car was nowhere to be found, and after watching him on his cellphone, we pleaded to just get out there in the tuk-tuk.   He phoned our hotel owner for directions and set off, stopping at one point at a creek to pour water over his overheating radiator. He then almost ran out of gas. Stephen insisted that we stop to buy beer before we got to the hotel. Once there, he called our hotel again, and within a few minutes we had left the highway and bumped along a narrow rocky road in the pitch black for another ten minutes. We could see steep embankments on either side.

Finally, we arrived -we saw our hotel owner coming down the hill with a flashlight – I could have wept. He took us to our beautiful bungalow, we had showers and came back up to join a few loquacious French tourists for a delicious dinner. All was right again.

The view from our dining room. In the rainy season, all those islands are underwater.
image

The view from just around the corner from our hotel.

image

We spent yesterday in total relaxation mode. First we walked back up the road to the small village – about 30 minutes – to pick up some beer and snacks. We were a big hit with these little girls, who called out “hello”, then burst out giggling, then “what is your name?”, then more giggles. The driver of this contraption, Natalie, could not have been more than 10 or 11.

image

We waved at a woman fishing from the banks on the way back. In the rainy season, the water rises almost to the top of the banks.

image

We took out a two-man heavy plastic kayak for a spin around the islands. We were trying to find Monkey Island, although we were advised by the owner not to get out of the kayak, as the monkeys are very aggressive, and we didn’t want to get bitten. Duly noted – but we didn’t see any sign of monkeys on any of the islands we paddled past. We met up with lots of fishing boats and several fishing nets.

image
We turned the corner and saw our very first water buffalo – a small herd of them were grazing on one of the islands. As we approached, they started to come down the hill toward the water’s edge, so we moved in as close as possible. This big male was giving us the hard stare, and started to paw the ground a little, so we conceded his territory and moved on.

image

Back on dry land!

image

Time to head back to our cabin and enjoy the view from our balcony, with a nice cold Beerlao – Laos’ fabulous homebrew, apparently courtesy of a German brewmaster.

image

 

Finding the heart of Laos in Luang Prabang

Since Luang Prabang was our first stop, referring to it as Lao’s “heart” may not be accurate – who knows what lies ahead as we travel through the country. But honestly, if we didn’t see another thing, we would leave Laos with rich and heartwarming images. Luang Prabang has a command post on the banks of the Mekong and the Nam Khan rivers, with postcard views at every corner. This is a city made for sunrises and sunsets.

image

It is also a city made for walking. Leafy streets, river vistas and French colonial buildings make it really easy to lose a few hours wandering around.

image
Our hotel is across the street from the Mekong – this is one of our views.

image

Luang Prabang delivers on its promise of fabulous food (French croissants and Laotian barbecue), Indochinese mansions, positively lush tropical gardens, and curving streets and alleys for biking or walking. Here, a high-end hotel with automobile to match.

image
An older building receiving a facelift. You see the odd crumbling home, but mainly, these French colonial treasures are being restored and beautifully maintained.

image
Luang Prabang is a UNESCO city, so named in part because of the 33 temples here. It may feel like a sacrilege, but we did not visit one temple our entire time. We passed by them, walked through the grounds, and took a few photos, but for the time being, we have become temple-saturated. I think when one begins to think, “Oh, another golden Buddha. Meh!”, it is time to concentrate on other attractions. So, for now and possibly until Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, we are taking a temple rest. The monks are a very large part of life here, and their 6:00 a.m. procession to receive alms has become a huge tourist attraction and in some cases, a disrespectful photo-op. We did not take part in the ritual, but we did snap own version of the “monk walk.”

image
Speaking of respect, we are finding that Laotians are conservative and quietly insistent about their cultural norms being adhered to. We removed our shoes at the front door of our hotel, and many stores and restaurants appreciate the same thing – there will be signs or proprietors will point to your feet if they want you to remove footwear. Equally important is the wearing of appropriate attire – we have seen this sign at a number of locations – the waterfall we visited, the bus station and outside a park. Seeing a woman in a bikini or cropped top (away from the beach) is akin to seeing her in her underwear – it is offensive to Laotians.  I have never understood why  men  walk shirtless on any city street. Keep Luang Prabang beautiful, I say.

image
We had the opportunity to watch the 1925 documentary movie, Chang, by the directors of King Kong. They lived with a Laotian family in their jungle home for 18 months to film their challenges as they battled encroaching vegetation, monsoons, crop loss and livestock loss from tigers and leopards. The final straw was a rampaging mother elephant, come to rescue her captured baby…and she brought back-up. The film was jerky and a bit hokey, as you might expect, but lots of fun to sit at an outdoor theatre, and be entertained by the soundtrack of Laotian drums.

image

There is a price tag attached to all this grace and beauty. Luang Prabang is solidly on the map for older ($$$) travellers, and the restaurants, cafes and boutique hotels that are catering to that market have driven up the $15 guesthouses and the $4 noodle dishes. We have overshot our daily budget by at least 20%, but it will all even out in the end. For those with a bit more to spend, Luang Prabang is still an incredible deal for the quality of food and accommodation. This luxury hotel would cost well under $100 a night.

image

Since our Internet connectivity at our hotel was only dependable for five-minute intervals, we discovered Saffron, a fantastic coffeehouse and fair trade enterprise. Laotian coffee is really delicious (no Nescafe), and we got our fix (caffeine and daily news) courtesy of an Australian manager and his thoughtful crew. One of the coffees available is civet coffee – beans that have been ingested (and yes, harvested and cleaned) after they have passed through the civet (a cat/weasel-like creature). Since only a couple of kilograms are collected, this unique coffee is offered at $15 a brewed cup, or $50 for under a 3 oz. bag.

image
One of the must-do walks here is to trek out to the end of the peninsula, cross over on a bamboo bridge (that washes out every rainy season and is rebuilt each year), then walk a couple of kilometres on the other side and cross back again – this time on a motorcycle and pedestrian-only bridge. The view looking down to the bamboo bridge:

image
After a hot, dusty walk on the other side, we came to the motorcycle and pedestrian only bridge. The two are mercifully separated, but the pedestrian lane feels none too safe – thin, wobbly dry boards, with great gaping views of the river below.

image
Meanwhile, streams of bikes flew by beside us – schoolgirls riding sidesaddle, workers carrying materials, little families – a parade of daily life blasting by.

We decided to make the Wat Phou Si pilgrimage, which  is set on a mid-city mountain. It is accessible by  climbing hundreds of steps up to the top where the faithful gather to watch the sunset every night. At the base, it is possible to purchase bamboo cages with two tiny birds inside – the idea being to carry them to the top and set them free as the sun sets. We declined, but there were a few takers.  We walked up with a healthy crowd, with more people pouring up every minute until we reached critical mass. Girlfriends were climbing on boyfriends’ shoulders for better views, and people were climbing up on the stupa ledges. As the sun began to descend behind the mountains, a flurry of cameras and cellphones took over.

image

It was so hilarious – the sunset took a back seat to the crowd, which had become its own show. We’ve never seen anything like it. Good sunset though.

image

One of the big attractions outside of Luang Prabang is the many-tiered waterfall with its menthol-green/blue pools. We were skeptical – waterfalls this time of year can be underwhelming, and the convoy of minibuses and tuk-tuks meant it would be a crowd scene with nothing to do but take photos and buy food. (We did both in abundance.) However, the waterfall far exceeded our expectations. It cascades down over four  distinct pool areas – two are safe for swimming – and while the crowds were substantial, we were alone on the paths climbing up and had plenty of space in the pools.
image
That water is every bit as cold as it looks, although we both agreed that if it was Clark Bay, it would be “a 3.” (Insider knowledge for those of us who swam in the ocean off Gabriola Island.)

On the way up to the waterfall, we passed by a bear enclosure. These smallish moon bears have been rescued from the fate of poachers who capture them, keep them in tiny cages, and intubate them for their bile, for use in medicines. They have freedom to roam through a number of large enclosures, and they were all very playful and active while we were there.

image

We could have spent a lot longer in Luang Prubang – it would be an ideal holiday if time was limited, and you wanted everything to be perfect.

Sorry for the late posting on this one – internet was an issue.  We will check in again soon.

Slow Boat to Laos

As with many things in life, you tell yourself what you want to hear. The idea of a two-day, 15-hour boat trip down the Mekong could be mind-numbingly boring or darkly romantic, so we chose to go with the latter. Two long days, one night and many, many emotions later we arrived in Luang Prabang, the French colonial crown jewel of Laos, and our first few glimpses of this UNESCO city melted the boat trip away.

image

We began our trip armed with a few survival tips. One can stay the night either in Thailand or Laos – the twin border towns face off across the river, and the boats do not depart until 11 a.m. each morning, ostensibly giving all travellers plenty of time. We decided to take the bus from Thailand straight over the river to Laos and spend the night there; thereby getting all border stuff out of the way the day before, and leaving plenty of time to get to the boat line-up early.

We had heard horror stories of chaotic Laos border crossings – officials tossing about mitt-fuls of passports and documents, with mobs of backpackers queuing up and fervently hoping to be reunited with their correct papers again. Ours was a sedate experience – our bus pulled in on the Thai side – we relinquished our departure cards, had our passports stamped, jumped back on the bus, drove over the bridge to the Lao border crossing, handed in our papers, and voila – in less than 15 minutes all 25 of us were processed and through. We spent the night in Huay Xai, and watched the sun set behind the Thai mountains.

image

The next morning, armed with our baguette lunches, we hit the pier by 9:30 (for an 11:30 departure). The configuration of the boat is thus: the front of the boat is lined with seats facing sideways, and then the next several rows face frontwards. We bought our tickets the night before, and were assured our seats were front-facing (I told the English-speaking ticket seller about Stephen’s motion sickness issues – he was suitably concerned).

We arrived to discover our assigned seats were in fact side-facing, and since the numbering was done with pieces of paper laid out on each seat, and we were among the very first to arrive, we merely changed a few of the numbers, and chose the second row back. Some confusion ensued as the boat started to fill up, but we kept our eyes averted and an uncomprehending smile on our faces.

This, the unruly front section. A few hours later, OD’d on potato chips, the kids were quietly reading.

image

The Mekong is the arterial highway that connects hundreds of small communities and slow boats were designed to move Laotians and cargo with a minimum of fuss. Comfort and safety are not priorities (we counted two lifejackets), and seats are reclaimed automobile bench seats. The influx of tourists who have set upon these boats with such enthusiasm pay for their authentic experience with sore backsides and carb overloads. Anyone taller than six feet cannot stand up straight. A two-day passage costs just $30 US, to cram 150 people into such small quarters. The luxury cruise, with plush seating, food and drink provided, and a select guest list of just 30, costs $130 US pp. Since we are on a fairly tight budget, the cattle car it was.

This slow boat ride has wildly varying reviews – some love it, others less so.  One woman described it as being, “an unchanging scene of green with brown in the middle.” While I was hoping for more dramatic views over those many hours, we did enjoy a serene and subtly-changing landscape.

image

Cattle, pigs, goats, dogs and kids cooling off in the river – river life takes on many forms.

image

The Mekong, like so many big important rivers, has a strong personality and can be quite tumultuous – with whirlpools, waves, rapids and a treacherous current  in the middle. The water closest to shore, by contrast, is often as calm as a millpond.

image

As we made our way along, people would often wave and call to us from shore, or from other boats. This boatload of people stared back at us; we didn’t even get a wave from one of the kids.

image

We stopped a number of times, to let people off, or to pick up cargo. At one of the stops, there was a pile of very heavy bags filled with food, waiting to be boarded. We watched two men grimace and struggle to bring them to the door, and then watched in awe as one of our crew members singlehandedly lifted each bag, hoisted it up to his shoulders and humped it all the way to the back; returning for each bag and repeating the same feats of strength.
image

We approached our overnight stop – the small town of Pak Beng, to grab a bite to eat, sleep for the night, and do it all over again the next day. The crew began to unload backpacks, and the crowd thinned, until not one bag was left. Where was my bag – my anxiety levels were going through the roof. I insisted my bag was still in the hold and they insisted just as strongly that they were done and wanted to put the planks back down. Finally, the young man went down again – this time with a flashlight – and emerged with my bag.  We walked up the gangplank as a sunset on the water ushered us in.

image

Next morning, we were at the ferry dock by 8:00 for a 9:00 launch, and this time, it was a different boat.

image

Our new friends Sylvie and Michel from France, had saved us good seats. They were fortunate enough to see two wild elephants drinking from the river at 7:00 am, from their hotel balcony, and they were still so excited about the rare chance to have such a sighting. Plus, we were surrounded by a group of very funny Germans who kept us all well entertained for the first couple of hours. Once we were settled in, Stephen went back up the hill for snack reinforcements – coffee and chips!

image

Many Laotians gather around the boats, seemingly just to watch the activities.

image

We noticed a young man, his wife and small child on their motorbike, which had incredibly been brought down the steep hill, over the rocks and onto the pier. Amazingly, this bike went onto the front of the boat; no big deal to the crew who are accustomed to loading all sorts of cargo.

image

As our boat loaded up, a long lineup of backpackers was making its way down the hill. For some strange reason, they waited for at least a half hour before loading them onto the adjacent boat ; possibly they were hoping they could all fit on with us.

image

We discovered that your boat mates can be crucial to your enjoyment of the trip. There were a couple of groups that could have derailed the trip. Four men who were old enough to know better began drinking before the boat ride even started,  but they stayed to the back of the boat, with the bar and the smoking section. Another couple made their presence felt – he of the wiry body, ropy arms, thin grey braids, and non-stop cigarettes; she of the hard face and swastika sticker on her phone. They were not people to be messed with, but it was very shocking to see the Nazi symbol so aggressively displayed.We’re all a little sensitive these days, and it had quite a chilling effect on us and others.  Luckily, they also stayed in the back of the boat the entire time.

On the first boat, our luggage had been put in a hold; this time, all our bags were tossed onto a platform at the back, beside the engine. People then sat, walked on or slept on the pile – our bags emerged unscathed at the end.

image
I must tell you about the toilet. One toilet for 140 people.  Bucket of water to one side to flush contents (I’m assuming right into the river). Wet floor. Big bag to hold used toilet paper. A woman I met in Mexico last year said to me, “When I can no longer squat, I can no longer travel.”  This room to be used for emergencies only.

image

If you haven’t already equipped yourself with hand sanitizer and wet wipes, this experience would do it for you. (I’m imagining my mother gagging as she reads this.)

But not to leave you with a filthy toilet as your last impression. We landed in Luang Prabang – about 10 km. from town. Since we were all a bit confused, the boat captain snapped us back to reality and yelled, “Get Off!” Dutifully, we trooped off, up the hill and into the arms of the waiting tuk-tuk drivers. Apparently a few years ago, an arrangement was made to switch piers, to create jobs for the taxis and tuk-tuks. No matter – it added one last and funny element to our travels.
The folks just ahead of us – a mirror of us and our luggage.

image

We arrived at our lovely hotel, had quick showers and headed down the street for dinner and a cold Beerlao. Finally, the two-day ride was over.

image

So…would we recommend this trip? With reservations – yes. It is quite the experience, and if you want to get a feel for what it is like to travel in Lao – this would be a good bet. Not clean, not comfortable, and probably not safe, but we’re glad we did it.

Would we do this again? NEVER!!!

From hell to heaven: benediction at Chiang Rai.

If I told you that I thought I might have come down with dengue fever, you could be forgiven for considering that diagnosis over-the-top. Still, since we are so far away from home, and I just spent three days and nights alternating between sweats and chills, and drifting in and out of sleep for 20 out of 24 hours, the thought crossed my mind. I was able to  reassure myself, as apparently the dengue headache is mindblowingly painful, (mine was medium, but constant) and the fever is referred to as “bone break” for a reason. As much as I love a good story, it would appear that so far I have escaped a tropical ailment; just caught the good old-fashioned flu. Woke up this morning, “It’s a miracle! I’m alive!”

It began four days ago, on our travel day from Pai to Chiang Rai. First the three-hour mountain road (762 curves – someone has counted) to Chiang Mai. Then a three-hour wait in the bus station, where we both fell asleep upstairs in the waiting room on bus seats that were so dirty I normally would not have sat on them. Then, a three-hour bus ride to Chiang Rai with no air-conditioning. At one point, I was sweating and shaking and feeling so sick, I didn’t know how I was going to last. I asked our hostess to please turn on the air-conditioning and she walked down the bus, reaching for the vents and frowning; a small sea of hands began waving in front of their vents. She appeared encouraged to find the faintest little “pfff” coming from our vents, but nothing improved. I believe it was either faulty or deliberately turned very low to save on fuel. We finally rolled into Chiang Rai, grabbed a songtaew and made it to our hotel, where I have spent most of the last 48 hours in bed.
Briefly, I did get outside for short walks with Stephen, but until today, he has been on his own. Yesterday, he ventured into town for a bit of sightseeing and first came upon came upon this portly golden Buddha.

image
A bit further down the street, he discovered Wat Phra Kaew, unbeknownst to him, but the more important temple in Chiang Rai; site of the original Emerald Buddha.
In 1434, a bolt of lightning struck the chedi to reveal the original Buddha hidden inside (made of jade, not emerald, as was first thought). This treasure was moved about until it found its final place in Bangkok’s Grand Palace. Over 500 years later, A new Buddha was commissioned for Thailand’s Princess Mother’s 90th birthday in 1990, using jade imported from Canada (maybe Jade City, BC?)

Our country’s contribution to Thailand’s history:

image

The city of Chiang Rai has been described as being more liveable than touristy and that is an accurate assessment. Although it is packed with temples, it is more a launching spot for hill treks, trips to the Golden Triangle, and in our case, the last stop before we leave for Laos.
We’re staying at the Chiang Rai Condotel, which offers large condo studio suites with kitchenette, seating, a balcony and use of a very large and welcome pool – for $25 a night. We were originally booked for just two nights, but extended our stay by another two, to let me get better before we took on our two-day boat trip down the Mekong.

We found these very curious mannequins in a local shop two nights ago. I have seen laughing mannequins just once before – in a hat shop in New Orleans – and now here they were in all their garish glory in a nondescript dress store in Chiang Rai. I have Googled them, would love to know if there is any significance to them – let me know if you’ve heard of them.  Stephen grabbed this shot with the proprietor proudly sitting beside them.

image

There are a number of innovative motorcycle-driven vehicles to travel around Thailand, but we thought the old-fashioned rickshaw had largely disappeared.  Stephen grabbed a photo of this driver, asleep. I could not imagine how we would feel sitting in the cab, watching his frail back as he cycled us along in the heat.

image

They say if you do one thing in Chiang Rai you should visit the White Temple, so we headed out this morning, hoping to beat the heat and the crowds. We were largely successful on both counts; by the time we left, tourists were being herded across the bridge by bullhorn-ed directions,”Keep moving, please. Don’t stop on the bridge, please.” Ours was a far more leisurely and zen-like experience.

The White Temple has to be seen to be believed – our pictures cannot capture the excess,the sugar-froth confection, and the forces of good battling evil, that is the brainchild of visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat.

image

Self-described as a devout Buddhist, the Buddhist church would have kicked him out but for the support and admiration of the late King, who bought a number of his paintings. That patronage has helped to make the artist a very wealthy man, and his themes of moving from hell and damnation to nirvana by means of eschewing all earthly desires may be suspect. Cardboard cutouts of the artist portray a more bon vivant pitchman than humble holy man.

image

Walking up the bridge toward the temple, one must first pass by hundreds of hands, reaching and begging for help; a reflection of human suffering.

image

Other frightening symbols from the dark side.

image

The Gate of Heaven is guarded by monstrous creatures, who will decide our fate. This one does not show one speck of benevolence.

image
And then…over the bridge, and we have crossed to nirvana. We entered the temple (no photos allowed) – rather simple, but for the pop culture and superhero images inside. Apparently Keanu Reeves’ image is in there somewhere – I did not notice it.

The rest of the park is all about the details – surreal and outlandish as they may be. The artist covered the temple in pure white plaster to reflect the purity of Buddha and in embedded mirrors to reflect His glory.

image

I loved this tree and its gnarly vines – there were a number of big, older trees like this on the property, as well as bromeliad orchids.

image

Everyone was lining up to have their photo taken with this fellow, so I did as well.

image

We leave Thailand by sending out good wishes to all of you. Seriously – we bought a silver leaf for 30 baht (just over $1), and wrote on one side “Health and happiness to our families”and on the other side “Health and happiness to our friends.” That silver leaf hangs on the tree, preceded by thousands of others on other trees and rafters. We are confident it will work. See you again in a few days.

image

West invades East; but you can’t beat the scenery

You may wonder if you’re still in Thailand when you pop into a store on Pai’s main walking street, and see a Frida Kahlo bag for sale.

img_7208

And the food…if you’re looking for a burger or an Irish breakfast, or a brownie (chocolate and otherwise), there are no end of food stalls and restaurants catering to tourists looking for a break from noodles and rice.

img_7160
Pai is set in a valley ringed by mountains, with a river running through it, but the town is not all that pretty, and not the reason tourists flock here in droves. A few very walkable streets form a grid downtown; seeing all the town has to offer can be done in a day. We stopped for a coffee at a riverside resort and enjoyed the people-watching and the view.
image
We crossed over the bamboo bridge and followed a path on the other side for a while. We were watching a young boy spear-fishing by the bridge;  the 36 degree heat was almost enough to entice us to follow him into the river. It looked clean enough, but the only humans you ever see in these rivers are young Thai boys, and they may have a natural immunity to whatever travels through here.

image
The main walking street in Pai is wide open to traffic during the day, but by late afternoon, the stalls come out, and the night market begins to take shape. The food stalls are so exciting – it is like being at a food trade show in North America, where you can’t decide so you have sushi and curry and sausage and a smoothie – all at the same time. We have paid for such indiscretions with little tummy upsets, but it is hard to resist. The food is so fresh and made to order and ridiculously inexpensive – a big bowl of noodle soup costs just over a dollar.
img_7141

Alcohol is a different matter. Wine is very expensive in Thailand, and often improperly stored in hot stores, so we have limited ourselves to beer, which suits the food and temperature better. Whisky in buckets is a thing here, but the idea of drinking quantities of cheap whiskey in the heat has been very easy to resist – even for the sake of research. So, we are drinking very little and not missing it – quite cheering on both counts. Not everyone is abstaining, of course – Pai’s streets are lined with bars, including this one that aptly captures Pai’s “anything goes”approach to life.
img_7161

Tattoo artists, especially ones with bamboo needles, are another attraction in Pai. With our hepatitis shots up to date, we might have considered bringing home a Thai souvenir, but something tells me a tattoo virgin should never consider the first ink while away on vacation.
img_7151

So…on to the real reason Pai is such a popular destination – the surrounding countryside. We signed up for an all-day excursion, taking 12 of us to a cave, bamboo rafting, hot springs, and a sunset at a local canyon. It was an absolute deal – with lunch, water, fruit, tour guide and air-conditioned transportation provided for just $20. They delivered beautifully, but for a small let-down with our transport. We did not travel in a comfortable minibus (as suggested); instead we travelled all day on hairpin turns at breakneck speed in a songtaew (which is inarguably air-conditioned). Posing in front of our songtaew is one of our guides and his little buddy who came along to hand out water.

image

This mightily uncomfortable vehicle forces one to sit sideways on a brutally hard bench and hang on to the overhead bars for dear life. We travelled out for an hour to the cave, with Stephen feeling very queasy. On our way to the hot springs, Stephen’s feeling of queasiness grew until he threw up. At this point, the driver pulled over and brought Stephen into the front seat, where he was allowed to remain for the duration of the trip.

image

Our first stop was Tham Lod – a gigantic cave divided into three distinct chambers. It is compulsory to enter with a guide – this cave is very basic – no lights, not even pathways, and pitch black. Our group was divided into four groups – three to a guide, so Stephen and I were accompanied by Georges, a very French gentleman now living in Corsica. Our young guide carried a lantern and led the way, carefully watching for us. She spoke little English, but somehow we managed to understand a few things she was pointing out. After I bashed my head into a low-hanging formation, she giggled. She also said,”many steps”, and giggled again as she watched us look up and contemplate a few flights of rickety stairs.

image

There were two immediate impressions of being in the cave – a smell of bat guano and a humid claustrophobia that comes from being in the absolute dark. Both impressions faded as we made our way through – a journey that took over an hour.

After our guide pointed out the remains of teak coffins that had been brought in over 1400 years ago (no bodies), we hopped onto bamboo rafts for the rest of the trip. The river that runs through the cave is swarming with really huge whisker-y fish (like carp) so they were almost as entertaining to watch as our gaslit voyage.

image

For the last 15 minutes or so, the sound of squeaking bats really intensified; the ground and stair railings are covered in guano. A recommended way to visit the cave is to come late afternoon, and be at the entrance to the cave as thousands of bats and swifts leave en masse.

We had lunch with our group after that very enjoyable visit – Nick and Jenny in front (newly married from England, taking 18 months to travel the world before they settle down), and Molly and Steve from Oregon, travelling and trying to digest the fact that Trump is their president.

image

On to the hot springs, which we were all skeptical about, since we were hot enough already. They were in fact warm springs, with crystal clear water and a therapeutic mud we rubbed on our faces. I doubt an expensive spa gives better results.

image

And, the piece de resistance – a gorgeous sunset over Pai Canyon. Pai Canyon is place that really should be visited twice – once early in the day to hike before it gets too hot,and again for the sunset. The canyon trail can be dangerous, as the ledges are narrow in spots and the drop is hundreds of feet below. Since there were so many people gathered, we felt quite unwilling to walk along the ledges amongst such a crowd.

image

And speaking of crowds, a small sampling of people waiting for the magic moment. There was enough room for everyone to have their own little spot; it all added to the moment.

 

image

The last bright glimpse of the sun setting for another day.

image

And…the afterglow.  A  fitting and memorable last day in Pai.

imageAnd now, we are on the move for a few days. Tomorrow we take two three-hour buses – one back down to Chiang Mai, then another back north to Chiang Rai. We’re in Chiang Rai for two nights, which will mark the end of our time in Thailand.

We will cross the border into Lao and begin a two-day slow boat journey on the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. Our next blog will be full of details about our boat trip – see you in a few days.

Geezers in Pai-radise

Pai is a sweet little town in the northern mountains of Thailand, accessible by a three-hour minibus ride from Chiang Mai that warns you ahead of time of the 762 hairpin turns it takes to get there. Gravol is recommended. After  miming driving a bus, swaying back and forth and then throwing up, the laughing clerk at 7-11 pointed me in the right direction, and armed me with two small packets of anti-nausea meds. I knew we had to avoid sitting in the back, so if I ever had any manners, they are now gone, as I pushed and elbowed and maneuvered to grab a good seat. It was worth it, as our drive up was quite scenic and otherwise uneventful.

img_7049
We had heard great things about Pai. Good food, good music, a solid hippie healing scene, and a natural springboard to all sorts of natural attractions – caves, waterfalls, hiking trails, small villages, rafting, etc. We had also heard it was a young and loud party scene, and based on that wisdom (cheek-by-jowl hostels, happy hour bars), we chose a place just 1 km. out of town – Pai Vintage Garden. We were delighted to find a little oasis an easy 15-minute walk from the action.

img_7167
We headed back into town for dinner and our first look around, and the first thing we noticed was that the young-uns outnumbered us by about 90-1.  Fit, tanned, bikini-ready and with every imaginable hairstyle, tattoo and body adornment on parade. The few older folks we saw looked as though they fell off the side of the earth a couple of decades back.    It was hard not to feel like we were party-crashers, and badly-dressed ones at that. Soon enough though, we had an ebullient fellow beckoning us over to his beer bar, and with two giant Changs in hand, we were made to feel welcome and not-so-old.

image

Stephen has been keen to rent a scooter ever since we arrived in Thailand, and the first thing we did was arrange a rental with our hotel, for a walloping $6 a day. The only one our host had left was called Scooby – Pepto-Bismol pink, with bright red lips on the side. I say it takes a real man to hop on one of these babies and act as though he’s on a Harley. I think we were over-sold on the power of the engine, but it was still lots of fun.

img_7096

You actually have to rent a scooter or motorbike here, as so many of the attractions are several kilometres out of town, and there is very little public transport.  The alarming thing about this is that the town and roads are absolutely clogged with people who have never ridden a bike before. Rental places are taking five minutes to explain operations, and then tossing out scores of young people onto the roads; the results have not been pretty. We saw at least four people with bike-related injuries, ranging from scrapes to broken legs. We were starting to feel a little cocky about our own (Stephen’s) experience, when…dang. Down he went. It happened near here.

img_7098

We had been riding along this pretty country road, on our way to a waterfall. This time of year the waterfall has subsided to a trickle – but it gave us a reason to walk across a rickety bamboo bridge and stick our feet in cold water. We were back in the parking lot, getting ready to climb a hill on our way to a rice paddy when it happened. I was standing to one side so Stephen could position the bike properly and he miscalculated. He started it too far up the hill; the bike rolled back, slid out on the sand, and went over the side.  Stephen did a perfect tuck and roll down the hill (two somersaults) before landing safely and getting back on his feet. Two young people ran right over, to help lift the bike up the hill and tend to Stephen’s scraped elbow. Much to our relief, both man and bike were intact, although Stephen felt embarrassed – again, the old guy.  We took off down the road to our next attraction – elephants! This little guy is five years old.

img_7076

You can’t come to Thailand without seeing elephants, even if the only sighting is a statue or carving. Elephant “parks” are everywhere. There is much controversy about the way elephants are handled and trained, and whether or not they should be ridden. We decided before we came here that we would not go on a riding trip, but we were curious to see them in a sanctuary setting. One-day visits are quite costly ( about $200 a person), and we were considering it, when we drove right by one of the camps and stopped by for a look. I’ve never  been a fan of zoos or animal camps of any kind – but it was still a thrill to see these monstrous beasts up close, so I’m hoping they have a good situation. This elephant is 25 years old.

img_7075

Big baskets of fruit were on sale to feed the elephants, and after tentatively handing pieces of banana to the elephant’s trunk, the handler told me to pop it right in his mouth. He called out a command, and the elephant lifted his trunk to reveal a huge, slobbery tongue. Then, the handler told me to move in and the elephant would give me a “hug”. Who knew it would be so much fun to hang out with these endearing guys?

After our elephant encounter, we stopped at a very unusual tourist attraction called The Land Split. Apparently, in 2008, without any warning, a farmer woke up to discover his land had cracked open, with a fissure 11 metres deep and two metres wide.

img_7127
Although his soy bean crop was no longer viable, hibiscus flowers had been growing wild, and the farmer developed a smart business plan. He harvested the flowers to make juice and jam, and marketed this new development as a quirk of nature. I wish I had asked his name – he is a wonderful, generous man.

img_7117
He draws in scores of tourists, and serves them fresh roselle juice and small plates of fruit; asking only for a donation.  Here, we had sweet potato with salt, tamarind, passionfruit, peanuts and banana chips with hibiscus jam.
You can tour his property before or after your feast.

img_7116

As we rode back to town, we passed one idyllic scene after another.

img_7168

Constructing bamboo rafts – a staple of river travel here.

img_7088
Today, we went out sightseeing again, but the tumble from the day before had taken its toll on Stephen. He woke up feeling very stiff and sore, so we limited our riding to half a day, and then handed back the keys this evening.  We may tackle a scooter again in northern Laos. We went to the most curious tourist attraction – the Chinese Village, about a half-hour’s ride from Pai. It is in fact populated by real Chinese families, who fled Mao’s regime and settled here. In the middle of their village, they have constructed the oddest assortment of buildings and scenes – quite tacky. Small children were being led around in the blistering sun on a couple of rather listless ponies, and selfie-sticks were in full force as tourists (mainly Chinese) posed in front of a mock-up of The Great Wall of China or a pagoda. One could dress up in period costume or buy trinkets or tea, or…jump onto a 4-seater Ferris wheel and scream while being hoisted about 20 feet in the air.


After all that excitement, we rode further up the road to the viewpoint – worth the drive.

image
img_7180
Much more to come, including more of the town’s sights – we’re here for another three days. I’ll leave you with a sign that sums up the Pai attitude:

img_7154

 

 

 

 

 

Chiang Mai – just a few temples (I promise)

There is no shortage of temples in Chiang Mai, and you can feel duty-bound to visit them  all. Mainly, they look the same – pagoda roofs, dragons, Buddhas – but each one has its own distinct features. They are interesting until they’re not, and at that point, you call it a day and go for a beer. To save you, dear reader, I’ll just include some highlights – quirks and observations, and spare you pointless identification and details that you’re not likely interested in anyway. To begin, a massive gold chedi:

img_6915

A long line of people, both Thai and foreign,  who with flowers and prayers in hand, walk the circumference of the chedi. For tourists, it can be a rite of passage; for the observant, it is deeply moving and solemn.

image

Young girls in costume position themselves on the stairs leading up to this mountaintop temple.  People take photos, the girls run over to their parents with the cash, and then resume position. We had no idea what the significance of the costume is, but found the whole thing upsetting.

img_6946
This almost life-sized elephant offered a quiet spot for a couple of the local dogs.

img_6937

While most of the temples are golden and jewel-encrusted (well, coloured-glass
encrusted), we found this pretty little teak temple  that outwardly, was far more modest.

img_6775
Inside, another story. A donation box the size of a bank safe was prominently situated.

img_6865
On the opposite side of the temple was  a line-up of donation slots, according to the day of our birth.  The sign promised that a donation would ensure a better life and fate. Naturally, the Mother Goose rhyme “Monday’s child” lodged itself in my brain. (I’m Saturday – “Works hard for a living”, and Stephen is Thursday – “Has far to go”).

img_6780
We marvelled at the wealth of the temples in contrast to the poverty of the faithful, and how the constant outreached hand for donations, alms, flowers, candles, incense and monk support must put a financial burden on the country’s neediest inhabitants.

The temples do provide a serene and contemplative setting, even for the tourists who simply want to admire their surroundings, and find a break from the street.

img_6860
This magnificent carved structure held a command post overlooking the whole city. Each column was carved in great detail and we noticed the symbols of the Thai zodiac, which is similar to Chinese. An interesting observation – the Thai (or Buddhist) calendar is different from ours – we noticed that with a hotel receipt, the year was marked 2560!

img_6941-1
There have been so many unusual signs at the temples – sometimes a case of lost in translation, like the one below:

img_6986
This sign was actually bearing itself out as we entered the grounds. We could hear a dog barking rather fiercely, and then giving a couple of final little “woofs”, as dogs are wont to do, before circling back and lying in the shade – his guard duties complete. Presumably, he has given chase in the past.

img_6987
And finally – the no-go zone for women – monk territory.

img_6990

 Often, we notice locals wearing T-shirts with messages that are either inappropriate or so Western that the connection can’t possibly mean anything.  We loved this one, and so did its owner -he proudly posed for me. Whether he is being deliberately ironic or is simply the recipient of a nice shirt, we have no idea.

img_6885
A couple of days ago, we were walking through a museum just behind a very scholarly-looking young Chinese couple. The girl had on a shirt that read, “Rollin’ with my Homies”. It didn’t quite seem to fit her personality and style, but – one should never judge.

This sign, outside a Thai (non-western) restaurant, is missing a verb. Very clever – it got our attention.

img_6995

Last night, the main street just down the road from our hotel, transformed into a pedestrian-only night market. We ignored the advice of the hotel owner, who advised us to go early because of the crowds, but crowds and all it was a lot of fun. First, we ate:

img_6969
Then, we shopped around – there was some really lovely stuff. I bought a blouse and dress that are suited to this climate – light cotton  – about $11 for both. Many other things were calling out, but we had to walk by.

img_6965

This little girl took great care to stack and present her soaps properly.

img_6976
The evening’s excitement proved to be a bit much for this lady.

image
Musicians and entertainers were everywhere. This group of (mainly) farangs swung by in their robes, chanting “Hare Krishna. Hare Krishna.” It took me back about 40 years, and then suddenly this lovely young woman swung toward me, (feeling my energy, I’m sure). For one awful moment, I thought she was going to pull me in, but they moved on.

img_6974
We stopped to listen to these musicians – Eastern instruments, Western fedoras.

We have had a really wonderful time in Chiang Mai – it has been a highlight so far. Tomorrow we head up north to Pai, now billed as being Full Moon Party central, without the beach. We’ll see how we do! We know we want to investigate some hill trekking, and some caving, and enjoy the time in the mountains.

Stephen has been chomping at the bit to ride a motorbike (or scooter), and so far I’ve resisted, since the city traffic is so scary. Up north, we may just go for it. I’ll leave you with a final photo of Stephen checking out the merchandise.

img_6985

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chiang Mai: How I Imagined Thailand

You know how you imagine a place you’ve never visited before, and then, when you arrive, it is nothing like the pictures you had in your head? Thailand has been like that for us. It has been very different from anything we’ve seen before. However, as soon as we drove into Chiang Mai, the images in our heads were lining up with what was unfolding in front of our eyes. Now you’re talking – this is the Thailand we had imagined.

img_6735

Chiang Mai is a fairly large and modern city, but the downtown area where tourists congregate is old and charming. Contained within moats and stone walls, the core has easy and picturesque walking distance to everything – temples, markets and street life.

img_6754

Chiang Mai has become extremely popular with tourists of all ages. It has a pleasing combination of traditional old-world Thai and new-agey kombucha bars. Yoga features prominently, as does buttery croissants. This is the city where ex-pats came for a visit and stayed for a decade. The streets and narrow lanes are full of unexpected little scenes, like this one – someone’s dainties hanging out to dry in full view of passers-by.

img_6718

Restaurants cater to locals and tourists, with everything on offer from fried morning glories to Belgian beer. The food is pretty much guaranteed to be great, whatever you eat and wherever you eat it. Street food is a bonanza of choice and flavour – if you are tired of Pad Thai, you can try fried pig intestine.

Thai coconut soup – so fresh and delicious.

img_6729

Local fruit and local yogurt.

img_6730

There are Thai cooking schools on every corner – we met new friends here (from Nanaimo!) who spent yesterday learning how to make chili paste, spring rolls and chicken with cashews. It was tempting to consider, but by the time we have a kitchen again, my newfound Thai cooking knowledge will likely be long gone.

Another service we will not be taking advantage of – custom-made suits or dresses. Tailor shops and massage parlours have cropped up like mushrooms after a rain to meet the demand of farangs (tourists, or foreigners) who are in the market for a $100 suit or a $10 massage. In Bangkok and Hua Hin we were chased by aggressive sales people; here in Chiang Mai their marketing approach is far more mellow – this store has simply posted written testimonials from satisfied customers.

img_6755
What I did try was the fish pedicure – much hilarity ensued. We have walked past a number of these shops, with tanks of tiny fish just waiting to nibble the dead skin from tourist feet. Yesterday I decided to give it a try. First, I was instructed to rinse my feet in a tub of clean water. Then, I hoisted myself up on the bench, swung my legs around and dipped my feet in. Well! It was not the tentative little nibbles I had anticipated – a GANG of fish swooped in on my feet and just went to town. The sensation was almost unbearable at first – an intense combination of tickling, almost electric, kind of annoying and quite relentless. These fish were going after my dead skin like it was their life’s work. After five minutes or so I got used to it, but 15 minutes was more than enough.

We’ve had a wonderful time mixing it up – visiting a few temples and then just wandering the streets. We turned a corner and came upon this universal scene – children feeding (and chasing) pigeons.

image

More pigeon fans.

img_6748

The architecture of Chiang Mai is an intriguing mix of new and old. The traditional old teakhouses are still around; many in varying degrees of decrepitude. We wonder how much longer before they start to disappear, or if there is a movement to restore them.

img_6733

img_6871

Some of the newer buildings are replicating the teakhouse style,
but in a more upscale fashion.

img_6799

I always love to discover the street art in any city, and while Chiang Mai does have some great examples, you have to look a bit. What else would you expect to find here but elephants?

img_6713

Northern Thailand is famous for its hill tribes, especially the Long-necked women, and there is considerable controversy about whether popping by their villages for a photo op helps or hurts them. When we walked past this image, I was struck by the art – the work looked very familiar. Sure enough, I Googled Facteon, and discovered he is a Mexican artist – we had seen his work in the Yucatan. Here is a link to his FB page for more examples of his incredible art : https://www.facebook.com/facteone/

img_6848

On one of our walks, we came across the Police Station with this attention-getting statue. So open to interpretation – I wonder if the body in his arms is just unconscious.

image

We’re in Chiang Mai for another day before we continue our way north. I have a few more images to send your way about this area – just way too much to include in one blog. Blog part 2 in a day or two. There’ll be temples…this is one of them. I wanted to leave you with an orange Buddha and a sleeping dog who appears to be obeying the sign.

img_6796