A Travellerspoint blog

January 2012

Luang Prabang

Cultures, customs and curiosity

semi-overcast 24 °C
View Footloose in Laos 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

This morning we set out on foot to explore the UNESCO Heritage site that is Luang Prabang, starting with one of its newest museums, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Museum. The museum is a private non-profit organisation which promotes Laos’s cultural history and traditions by dealing directly with the villagers, and explaining the history behind each item obtained. In the small gift shop (where 50% of the profits go back to the original artists), we bought a wooden mask for our collection, and it came complete with an explanation of its creation and uses.

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An even newer museum – so new in fact that Khamseng (our guide) had not been there before – is the Project Space exhibition displaying a variety of modern art from local artists. My favourite was the huge bank note that the artist had painted using his own blood.

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A quick walk through Dala Market (mostly Chinese tourist tat, but also some beautiful Lao fashions) took us down to the Nam Khan River. Along the way we stopped to see the dying craft of stencilling – once used a lot on the temple decorations; an exhibition of ethnic clothes; and some beautiful French colonial architecture. Khamseng is a very good guide and makes it so much more interesting by pointing out the various fruits, trees, flowers, architectural details and other things we would have undoubtedly missed on our own.

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Dala Market
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Stencils
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Ethnic clothing exhibition

Wat Xieng Thong – the Temple of the Golden City - is one of the most important temples in Laos, and displays the last king's enormous funeral cask. It is currently being restored with the help of UNESCO funding. Built around 1560, legend tell of a betel merchant who built a palace on this site, making himself the first king of the new capital, and founded the temple here. It was the royal temple until 1975, and used as the place where kings were crowned & granted power.

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Wat Xieng Thong

Big Brother Mouse is a locally owned non-profit organisation who strive to make learning and reading fun for all children in Laos, and they design and publish their own books. Most Lao children outside the towns have never owned a book, so we bought a couple of dozen different ones to see about changing that for at least a few of the country's poorer children.

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Big Brother Mouse Shop

Khamseng took us to a very nice restaurant in the old city for lunch, and also suggested some local dishes for us to try. My favourites were crispy fried river weed with a spicy buffalo-skin dip; and river fish in coconut milk soup.

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Crispy fried river weed with buffalo skin dip.

This afternoon we headed out of town to the countryside, stopping first in a Lao Loum village, one of the many ethnic minorities here in Laos. 400 people live in the village, and they mostly grow rice, and cotton, which they weave into beautiful cloths. At one of the houses we were invited in to join them in some Lao Lao (the local rice 'whisky') to celebrate the birth of a new baby.

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The village next door is populated by the Hmong people, and is much smaller with only 32 families. Despite their obvious poverty, there was no resentment or begging going on, and they seemed totally happy for us to explore their village and homes, and show off their speciality craft – embroidery. Khamseng explained that normally we would give the books we'd brought to the local school, but the villagers told him that in the past the teacher had sold the books to the pupils, keeping the money for himself, so we decided to give the books directly to the children. The joy and pride on their faces made it all worthwhile, and seeing a father read to his son; as well as a couple of little girls sharing a book and reading out loud in unison; made my heart melt.

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At Ban San Khong village we saw the paper making process from the bark of the mulberry tree, as well as how they make the natural dyes for the cloths and paper. We also popped in to Wat Xangkhong Temple to listen to the monks' daily chants.

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Hand made paper

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Natural dyes

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Monks chanting

The Baci Ceremony is an important Lao cultural and spiritual ceremony invoking the 32 kwan or spirits that make up the components of the soul. The ceremony is held for all special occasions, such as the birth of a baby, a wedding, new year, or in our case, travellers arriving from afar and is very special, with half the village is invited to take part. The local shaman leads the 'prayers' and after the spirits have been called back into your soul, each of the elders present tie a white thread (symbolising purity) around your wrist for peace, harmony, good fortune, good health and human warmth and community. You must wear them for three days at least, preferably until they fall off.

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Baci Ceremony

After the ceremony, the hosts laid on a beautiful spread of local foods, with plenty of Lao Lao and Beer Lao, inviting the locals to eat with us. It was a beautiful evening with a great insight into the Lao culture and customs.

Posted by Grete Howard 07:13 Archived in Laos Comments (3)

Pakbeng - Khoken - Pak Ou - Luang Prabeng

Slow boating is now getting a little tedious...

overcast 25 °C
View Footloose in Laos 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Having seen the sunrise as a large orange ball in the sky yesterday, I set my alarm for 06:00 to find the river was shrouded in mist. By 07:50, we were all back on the Luangsay river boat for the next leg of our journey.

At Khoken we stopped to have a look at the village and become sitting ducks for the sales people with their scarves and other materials. A scamper up the sandy bank brought us to a cluster of houses, mostly built from wood and straw, although we did see some brick making. Yet again I was disappointed with my fellow tourists, clambering all over the temple mount to take their photos without asking if it would cause offence. To be quite honest, there wasn't much to see and what we did see wasn't all that interesting.

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Brick making
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Lunch on board the Luangsay

After a delicious lunch on board we made a stop at the famous Pak Ou caves – one of the main reasons for our trip here. The caves were converted to a Buddhist monastery in the 15th century, and now hold over 4000 old and broken Buddha statues. 93 steep steps take you to the lower caves and a further 225 steps to the top cave. The lower cave was claustrophobically crowded with tourists (and a few devotees – this is still a working temple) as several boats arrived at the same time. Once the majority had departed, we had the place almost to ourselves. Quite magical.

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Another couple of hours saw us arrive in Luang Prabang and the end of our river cruise.

Once a royal palace, the Villa Maly in Luang Prabang is now a luxury boutique hotel, and we are staying in the building where the king's grandson once lived. A strange mix of old world charm and modern comfort, we have an enormous four poster bed and the most gorgeous wash basin in the bathroom.

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Korean style BBQs are very popular in Laos, and we thought we'd try one out tonight. A slate table surrounds an electric grill plate around which is a soup 'trough'. Two waiters brought a selection of meats and vegetables for us to cook ourselves on the grill, although in reality they did most of the work for us. Beef, pork, chicken, pork fat, mushrooms, noodles, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, some green leaves that we couldn't quite determine what were and the staff didn't know what they were called in English, as well as whole eggs in their shells. All served with a dipping sauce (which tasted very much like plum and ginger) plus small dishes of garlic and chilli. With the beautifully lit swimming pool in the background, friendly, attentive staff and a few beers, it all made for a fun and unusual evening, followed by sharing travel stories in the bar with some American tour operators.

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Posted by Grete Howard 07:36 Archived in Laos Comments (2)

Chiang Rai – Chiang Khrong – Huay Xai – Pakbeng

Slow boat on the Mekong

24 °C
View Footloose in Laos 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Having left our lovely hotel in Chiang Rai at 06:30 this morning, we arrived at the border town of Chiang Khrong to find a long vehicle queue. The whole scene was very well orchestrated though, with porters grabbing our bags and hostesses giving us badges to denote which cruise boat we were on. Passengers lined up for Thai immigration and payment of a fine for those who have overstayed their visas – which seems to be quite a few, holding up the already slow moving queue. We follow the porters with our luggage to ensure the bags end up on the same longboat as us for the river crossing. The boats are very basic with a low roof and even lower seats: just planks of wood some 10 cms above the floor. Fortunately the journey across to the Lao side of the river takes just a few minutes.

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The boats crossing the border

More porters carry our bags to the Luangsay Cruise office where we are given forms to complete for the immigration formalities. One queue for visa applications, then wait to be called to the next window to pay for it. One person grabs your passport and form to be checked before passing them to another official in the back of the room who processes the visas. A third employee grabs a handful of of the completed passports and hands them to a fourth person who holds the passport up at the window, hoping you will recognise your own photo.

At this stage the two queues merge into one, with at least 50 people thronging into a small space. What started as an orderly queue soon disintegrates into a melee of confusion as there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the order in which the passports are processed. At least you do get a pretty visa glued in your passport to show for it.

Eventually, after a couple of hours of waiting around for the immigration, all 33 Luangsay passengers have their passports and visas returned and we're on our way to the boat at the slow boat dock a couple of kilometres outside town. People's selfishness at leaving their bags on one seat inside and actually sitting in another place outside, means that there initially doesn't appear to be enough room for everyone. The guide manages to rearrange passengers though so that we can all sit with our original travel companions.

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Our boat, the Luangsay

The low water levels slowing the journey down considerably and the fact that we left one and a half hours late because of the chaos at immigration, means we are unable to make the planned stop at a local village this morning. It does mean, however, that with seven hours of cruising, I can catch up on some much needed sleep after having been fully awake at 03:00 every morning so far on this trip.

The scenery along the side of the Mekong is somewhat of a surprise – I expected to see the cultivation and jungle with the buffalo, cows and occasional boar, as well as the people fishing, washing and playing in the water, but the two things that surprised me most were the rock formations and perfectly formed sand dunes. Jagged boulders of slate and sandstone litter the edges of the river, sometimes spilling into the middle of the stream, leaving only a narrow channel for navigation. With the shallow water being as low as just two metres in places, the captain has his work cut out as there is not much room for error.

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Thankfully we encountered no pirates on our journey, having read an article in the paper in Bangkok about how some boat owners have stopped using the Mekong after numerous attacks on their vessels.

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The newspaper article

Even though the sun was out and the temperatures were in the high 20s, it got rather cold on the boat this morning, especially with the wind and at times even the water spraying over the bow of the boat. Although not quite as exciting as the white water rafting in India last November, we did shoot a few rapids on this river too.

The sun was just setting as we arrived at the Pakbeng lodge. With individual teak villas spread along the hillside, the lodge is cosy and rustic, with all mod cons and perfect service. Some local children (and adults) put on a bit of a classic dance show before dinner, and more entertainment followed after we went to bed, with two of our fellow guests having a very public row forgetting that sound carries very well in the jungle...

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Our room

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Young dancers

For a country who have eaten most of their wildlife, there was an amazing amount of noise in the night – crickets, cicadas, frogs and geckos could all be heard, and added to the charm of the experience.

Posted by Grete Howard 04:25 Archived in Laos Comments (2)

Bangkok - Chiang Rai

Carnations, clock towers, cabbages and condoms.

sunny 36 °C
View Footloose in Laos 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Time to leave the hustle and bustle of Bangkok behind and head for the airport for a flight to Chiang Rai in the north of Thailand.

Chiang Rai

Our hotel, the Legend, is a sprawling resort on the banks of the river, some distance from the town itself. Very well laid out with great attention to detail, it was a shame that we weren't to spend much time here. Two hours after checking in (a quick re-pack for the next couple of days and a wander around the hotel grounds to take some photos) we grabbed a couple of cycle rickshaws and headed to the clock tower.

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Having missed our friends Jen and Simon by five hours in Nairobi last July and by 200 miles in India in November, we were hoping to finally be in the same place at the same time in Chiang Rai. In an email arranging the get-together, Jen jokingly mentioned that Simon wanted to wear a red carnation and carry a copy of the Times, so we packed a couple of plastic flowers and a newspaper. With times being hard (pun intended), we opted for a copy of the free Nailsea, Clevedon and Portishead Times rather than the more expensive national paper.

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As Jen and Simon didn't know where they would be staying in Chiang Rai, the logical place to arrange to meet them seemed to be by the clock tower in the middle of town. Built in 2008 to honour king Bhumibol Adulyadej, the clock tower is an architectural delight or a grotesque monstrosity, depending on how you look at it. Three times each evening a sound and light show lasting seven minutes is put on for tourists.

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Having been here for a couple of days already, Jen and Simon had checked the place out and found a suitable restaurant for us, Cabbages and Condoms where the food is guaranteed to not make you pregnant. The food was excellent, the décor surreal with life-sized statues made from condoms, but the service left a little to be desired. All the food was brought to the table, but no plates, which we had to ask for twice before one arrived, and then ask again for another. Still only two of us had cutlery, and another request only brought one more set. Finally we had a complete collection of plates, cutlery and food. As is typical of Thailand, starters and main course dishes were brought out all at the same time.

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Posted by Grete Howard 08:18 Archived in Thailand Comments (1)

Bangkok

A day with a difference

overcast 30 °C
View Footloose in Laos 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Damn jetlag! I've been wide awake since 03:00 this morning, and the 24 hour free WiFi went off at 04:00. As I really didn't fancy getting dressed and going downstairs to get today's log in details and password from reception at that time in the morning, I had little choice but to stay unconnected. Much as I love the internet and the way it has opened up the world, I am not sure how healthy it is to be this dependent on staying in touch with the current affairs and your friends whilst travelling – it felt like my right hand had been cut off!

Songram Niyomsane Forensic Medicine Museum
My main reason for adding an extra couple of days in Bangkok on this trip was to see the Forensic Museum, having stumbled across photos of some of its grizzly exhibits on the internet. We caught a river bus right outside the hotel to take us along the river and across to the opposite bank where the hospital is located. The museum is full of embalmed bodies (mostly babies in various stages of deformity) , wax filled remains and exhibits of ghastly deaths – a curious mix of gruesome intrigue and the surreal. It has to be one of more unusual museums we've been to. I found it hard to come to terms with the fact that these were not wax models, they were actual preserved human bodies. I am really not sure how I would feel if it was my loved one who'd died and was now being exhibited for tourists to gawp at! No photos allowed inside, but it appears that my hand must have accidentally rested on the shutter button at some stage....

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Jim Thompson House
A tuk tuk ride took us across the busy streets of Bangkok to Jim Thompson House. Jim was an American entrepreneur who settled in Bangkok and brought his love for architecture with him – purchasing several old teak houses from different places in Thailand and having them lovingly re-built as one large mansion in a small oasis in the middle of the city. Filled with antiques and curios from his various shopping trips in and around the country, Jim Thompson wanted to help preserve the local customs and culture. The house is now a beautiful fusion of different styles with elements of traditional Thai, European, Chinese and Buddhist architecture. Entry to the house is by guided tour only, although you can wander around the grounds at your own leisure.

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Jim Thompson built his home on the river side, and we walked along the somewhat scruffy canal-side path for a while, until we came to a pier. Jumping on the first boat that arrived, we had no idea if it was even going in the right direction, let alone to 'our' landing stage. The driver didn't speak any English (which is also the extent of my Thai), and didn't seem to have heard of the Navalai Resort. Hoping that we'd recognise the pier we wanted when we approached it, we found ourselves on the boat until we reached the end stop and everyone had to get off.
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As soon as we reached the road, we were approached by a tuk tuk driver who was offering some sort of deal for some gasoline vouchers, but as we had no idea what he was talking about and it sounded too much like a scam, we decided to walk along a little further. Trying to find our bearings not knowing whether we were east, south, north or west of the hotel, we were looking intently at the map when we were approached by a very nice local chap who spoke excellent English. Explaining about a government sponsorship this week to try and increase tourism and trade in Bangkok whereby the tuk tuk drivers get vouchers for gasoline for each tourist they bring to certain government shops, our new found friend negotiated a deal of 40 Baht (less than £1) for the two of us for a guided tour of the city and then onwards to our hotel provided we also visited to the approved shops.

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POST SCRIPT
I have been reading on the internet since returning home about this Petrol Coupon 'scam' and the outrage it is causing some people. Surely it is only a scam if you don't get what you expect? We knew what we were letting ourselves in for - the driver gets a reward (be it vouchers or cash) for taking us to shops. We then have a choice whether we accept his offer, and also whether we buy something at the stores (we did not).

Today is a Buddhist holiday, and our first stop was to see the Lucky Buddha where locals come to pray for success and good luck. We met a chap from Phuket who had also benefited from the government drive to increase tourism and trade in Thailand in the form of a free trip to Sydney, Australia with his family! Can't be bad!

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At the Wat Indharavihal Temple I was dismayed to see western tourists showing complete lack of respect for the Buddhist religion – whatever makes young girls think that walking around in a pair of skimpy shorts so minimalistic they were almost obscene and a strappy top with a deep, plunging neck-line is acceptable to wear in a place of worship? That kind of attitude makes me ashamed and embarrassed to be a tourist.

The temple is famous for its 32 metre high standing Buddha, which is covered in gold tiles and is very striking.

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Now it was time for us to fulfil our end of the bargain by visiting the participating stores. Not being the least bit interested in shopping we made each of the visits short and financially painless.

Back in the hotel I went for a wonderful Thai massage and reflexology while David checked in on line for our flight tomorrow and arranged transport to get us to the airport. The problem with a massage when you are suffering from jet lag is that it is all too easy to fall asleep...

Today's finale was the Calypso Ladyboy Cabaret, and what a show it was. Humour, tragedy, glamour, talent – it was a breathtaking extravaganza that had me looking at the performers in a way I never have. The ladyboys in Thailand are known as katoyes, they dress and live as women, and are largely accepted into society as a whole. Thais believe being a katoey is a result of transgressions in past lives and that they deserve pity rather than blame.

The show featured performers at every stage of their transformation from boys to ladies. They undergo hormone replacement therapy but some shows don't allow them to perform after the final op, as technically no longer ladyboys. There is no way however that some of those performers in some of those outfits were able to disguise their masculinity! These are some of the most beautiful women around.

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Posted by Grete Howard 03:14 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

Bristol - London - Bangkok

It's been a long day...

semi-overcast 31 °C
View Footloose in Laos 2012 on Grete Howard's travel map.

We deliberately booked the Thai Airways flight over cheaper alternatives because of the promise of longer legroom but I can't say I was that impressed with the space in the cabin. There was a box under the seat in front of me preventing me from stretching my legs out. Eleven hours on a cramped plane is never comfortable unless you are travelling business or first class (which unfortunately my budget does not stretch to), and having a bad sinus infection does not help matters.

Arrival in Bangkok was smooth and easy (although I have never before been asked about my salary for an arrivals card), and we spotted the ladyboy with our name on a sing as soon as we excited the customs hall. She/he was an agent for several transfer companies and directed three groups to different waiting vehicles. We didn't expect a 13-seater minibus for the two of us for the airport transfer to the hotel.

The Navalai River Resort came recommended to us by my good friend Homer and it has certainly lived up to expectations. The room is spacious and overlooks the river, with a busy river bus stop right outside. Feeling a little weary, we decided to have dinner on the terrace of the hotel tonight, and the food was excellent. Shame you couldn't say the same about the service. When we arrived, the staff were super-friendly and falling over themselves to help/serve us; but unfortunately there seemed to be a changeover of staff half way through the evening and the service went from one extreme to another after that. We were totally ignored, even when asking for the bill. It would have bee incredibly easy to walk out without paying, as even when we got up to leave, no-one came over or tried to stop us at the door. The guy on the tills seemed equally disinterested when we said we wanted to pay. Needless to say we didn't leave a tip!

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We thoroughly enjoyed seeing the various craft plying the river outside the hotel though, from tugs towing four huge barges to luxury dinner cruise ships lit up like Christmas trees.

Posted by Grete Howard 06:12 Archived in Thailand Comments (4)

Almost time for the next trip

Thailand and Laos here we come

One of the disadvantages of doing a private tour rather than joining a organised group tour, is the amount of paperwork it seems to generate. I do like to pre-book as much as I can before we leave the UK, as it saves time and hassle when we get there. Our travel time is so limited (once because of work schedules, now as a result of family commitments) so I want to ensure we maximise our time in the destination doing what we want to do, rather than spending valuable time looking for hotels or trying to arrange transport.

With five flights, eleven hotels, one cruise, various transfers and other arrangements, I seem to have a folder full of tickets, vouchers and schedules. paper weighs so heavy too.

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The folder full of paperwork.

Posted by Grete Howard 04:09 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (0)

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