A Travellerspoint blog

Thailand - Chiang Mai

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I could write about differences in culture, architecture and weather in my attempt to describe Chiang Mai, however that's not what sets it apart from the other cities I've visited on this trip. What sets it apart is its blatant sex scene... though I heard this is peanuts comparing to Bangkok. My first evening here, I went out to dinner with a male fellow traveler, and he took me by one of the more 'happening' streets in that sense. I've never seen anything like this. Of course, in many other places one can see traces of the 'industry', and in other places in Asia, I've come across the specific kind of tourism. But here, it's set on a totally different scale. As we walked down the street, with me a couple of steps behind my friend, bar girls were continuously grabbing him, no doubt finding him a better option than many of the rather mature gentlemen who frequented the establishments. Sometimes, they would pull away when they would realize he wasn't alone; other times, they didn't seem to mind me altogether. Yes, Thailand is a very friendly country, but there is a particular kind of 'friendly' that only male tourists get to experience here.

Moving on to other subjects... Chiang Mai does have a lot to do, and here you really don't have to seek it out, it finds you -- tour operator offices are abundant, as is marketing for events such as Muay Thai (Thai boxing). I wouldn't rank Chiang Mai as a top hit for its must-see spots, though it could be because I'm a bit worn-out by the sightseeing. However, I do think it takes the top spot as a base for exploring.

One of the things I tried here was a half-day cooking class (dad, I hope I made you proud!). It was a lot of fun, largely due to a very colorful instructor we had. There were 12 people in the class, and each of us made individually chosen and individually sized variations of stir fry, curry made from scratch, and soup. We were all given the establishment's own cookbook providing recipes for all of the dishes we were choosing from. In addition to enjoying the experience, I picked up some broadly useful cooking tips, and intend to put that cookbook to a good use back home.

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Today, I did a daytrip to the elephant camp. I have to say, I debated between one that had elephant rides, and the other one that was known to be more natural and had no rides or shows. I ended up choosing the one with the ride, as I've never done it. The best part proved to actually not be the ride, but rather an experience at the end of an elephant show. All the other elephants went scouring for banana handouts, quickly moving their trunks from one visitor to the next, however one came over to me and even though I had no more bananas left, put her trunk on my lap, lowering her head. She just stayed there resting for a while, with me petting her trunk, the only one to stand still. That was a great experience. The ride itself was ok, though given the smacking that the elephant received continuously from the mahout it certainly wasn't a bonding experience, and one that I wouldn't do again.

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Tomorrow, I'm flying South to Ko Samui, starting my island hopping.

Posted by kgbgirl11 07:50 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Thailand - first impressions and Golden Triangle trip

Back-to-civilization culture shock sums up my first hours in Thailand. Landing into Chiang Mai, I was baffled by planned suburban developments I saw under the plane's wing. Upon landing, I got myself a local SIM card (those who want to reach me can do so at +66-866-488-152), and was told that additional funds can be deposited at a 7-Eleven convenience store. Confused by a reference to this iconic American establishment, I wondered whether I should deposit as much money onto the account as possible then, rather than go looking for the elusive 7-Eleven in Thailand. Well, as I quickly found out, Thailand may as well change its national flag to the 7-Eleven green-red-and-orange colors, as there is a store every 100 meters, it seemed like. Having looked into it since, I learned that the country is the third largest market, out of 16 countries that the company operates, by number of franchises, and outpacing the US by density (I also learned that the company is actually owned by the Japanese, which was a rather surprising discovery).

Straight from the airport, I was picked up by the driver and my travel companion for this portion of the trip. We headed for the Golden Triangle, but only after stopping at a very modern supermarket to pick up lunch of delectable yogurt which tasted heavenly after a month in dairy-deprived SE Asia, accompanied by the exact same 'indy' granola that I used to buy in NYC. Many a 7-Eleven store were passed on the way to Chiang Dao, a serene mountainous town where we stopped for the night:

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We stopped by the ethnic market in Chiang Dao before heading Northeast to the Thai-Lao-Burmese border. The main reason for the drive past Chiang Rai was the Hall of Opium museum. Located in the land of the former opium producing stronghold, this rather new sprawling museum, established by the royal family, provides a very insightful and richly presented history of opium trade and through it, the region. Though the government outlawed opium in 1959, its production in the region was going strong until recently, and as late as 1990s the government performed large-scale operations to eradicate opium fields. Ironic that while the West introduced opium to Asia, it is now Asia aggressively feeding opium to the West.

The city of Chiang Rai, where we stayed overnight, is really nothing special, it's the surrounding mountainous countryside that's attracting adventurous tourists to the region. On the drive back to Chiang Mai, however, we did have a couple of notable stops. The first one was the White Temple, which is very new (and not even finished yet), and is a nice diversion for a 'templed-out' traveler like myself. While construction began in 1997, the project is far from over, and I got to witness the architect/artist who designed it working on painting some of its unusual murals. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed inside, so here are a few shots from the outside:

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The second notable stop was advertised as 'hot springs', and yes, there is a stream of hot water, now neatly enclosed in a concrete canal, that runs through its grounds where one can soak their feet or boil some eggs, or both. However, much more impressive, to me, was the geyser that was part of the complex. Though not quite the Old Faithful, it is the biggest geyser in Thailand, and was a rather fascinating display:

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I'm spending the next three days in Chiang Mai, more on that towards the end of the stay.

Posted by kgbgirl11 03:42 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Laos - Luang Prabang

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The photo above is by far the best part of the drive from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang. Without dwelling on the full experience, for the benefit of those who come after me (and myself, shall I return), I want to say that roads in Laos are truly horrific. Imagine provincial Russian roads, add mountainous landscape, and you have a recipe for some serious stomach churning. Naively, Google estimates that the distance, 217km in total, should be covered in under 3 hours. In reality, we were 'flying' at speed that's well above safe one, having come very close to a head-on collision with a truck at one of the myriad of blind curves, and we covered the distance in just over 6 hours... yeah, that's an average pace of 35km/hr! I also had the misfortune of sitting next to a very smelly guy who reeked of that unmistakable concoction of old sweat and stale cigarette smoke... that was, so far, the most trying day of the trip. So, for those considering visiting Laos, if you don't have nerves, and stomach, of steel, you may be better served paying the steep price and flying between your destinations, or alternatively, a private chauffeured minivan can be hired for ~$100/day where you can dictate the speed you go at (and control for the stinkiness of your neighbors) -- a great solution for small groups.

The journey's destination, Luang Prabang, is on the World Heritage list. As such, I was expecting something spectacular. What I found instead was something very charming, rather than spectacular. It's a town where colonial architecture mixes with traditional Lao style. Given its 'classic' charm, the town attracts a significant number of older travelers, most of who, I noticed, are from France (and they keep on attempting to speak French to locals and tourists alike, perhaps not having gotten the memo that Indochina is no longer!). Without exaggeration, tourists here outnumber the locals. So popular is the town with tourists, that 'booked up' might be an appropriate term for it -- having figured out back in Ventiane that tourist trail destinations will need to be booked in advance, I arrived here armed with a prepaid reservation for the entire stay. Those of the people who were traveling on the same route who didn't ended up having a tough time finding a midrange place to stay (though backpacker options are available). The same situation we encountered with massages (unheard-of situation in SE Asia!) and even restaurants on the main drag were fully booked by tour groups.

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The climb to the Mount Phou Si provides some interesting views of Buddha statues along its route, as well as wonderful scenery of the surrounding area:

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Pace of life is very measured here (even by Lao standards), perhaps set by the numerous monasteries dotting the town. I have been struggling with photographing inside monasteries, as it just seems grossly inappropriate to disrupt monks' activities by pointing cameras at them point-blank, or worse, sticking the camera into the prayer hall during the evening chanting and letting the blinding flash go off in the monks' faces, something that a few stately French tourists had no problem doing, as I observed from a distance. As a result, most of my shots are 'stolen' from a distance.

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I also did a day trip out of town to the Kuang Si waterfall, joining up with several people I met here. The waterfall is quite scenic, and the plunge pool below was a welcome way to cool off after the hike to the top:

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This is the end of my Lao adventure, I'm flying to Chiang Mai shortly and will spend the rest of my time in Thailand (at least that's the plan at this point). My thoughts on Laos, in a nutshell, are that this is a naturally beautiful country. I would like to explore its nature more fully, for example in Phonsavan area, as well the four thousand islands south of Pakse. The people here are very relaxed and tourism didn't seem to have corrupted them yet. That makes for a wonderful atmosphere to kick back, though service-wise it translates to less eagerness to please, compared to countries like Vietnam. Given this relaxed mindset, and the deplorable condition of roads here, the country is best explored with time to spare, it's possible to 'check it off one's list' by doing a one-city stop in Luang Prabang or Vientiane, but attempting to get around on a limited timeframe might be tiresome.

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Posted by kgbgirl11 18:45 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Laos - Vang Vieng 2

I ultimately decided to stay here for 5 nights, the longest of any single place I've stayed in so far. I do really like it here, and find the place very peaceful, construction noise of this quickly growing town notwithstanding. I also felt that I could use a few days to regroup and to just be, as the constant moving of a blitz tour was starting to feel tiresome.

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I did go tubing one of the past three days. Tubing, for those unaware, consists of floating down a 3km stretch of the river on a tube from a tractor tire, with that amazing limestone karst scenery from my previous pics as a backdrop. This, I was informed, is accompanied by drinking (no, legal liability hasn't found its way to Laos yet). I wasn't sure whether this was going to be my cup of tea, expecting the barely-legal scene of college fraternities. And sure enough, the first bar, at the dropoff point, was exactly that -- beer pong central. Once I started the float down, though, I was in for some pleasant surprises! Many of them have figured out that to attract customers, they need to offer more than booze, and so they sported swings from which you jump into the river, water slides, floating bouncy pads that you jump onto, etc... basically an adult water park. The bars 'fish out' floater-bys by by throwing them a rope; it's your decision whether to accept the invitation, and for how long to stay. As soon as you get enough of one place, you grab a tube and float down to the next spot. This actually proved a lot of fun! I didn't take my camera so I only have one pic of my own to include, but here is Google's collection of pics for this:

http://www.google.com/search?q=vang+vieng+tubing+pictures&hl=en&client=safari&rls=en&prmd=imvns&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=N-TETu6sH8jXrQev19XYCw&ved=0CB8QsAQ&biw=1272&bih=638&sei=YObETprHFISrrAeJxujTCw

The other two days I spent taking it easy, enjoying the scenery, reading, napping... Here are a few pics.

I flagged down a fruit peddler to get my lunch:

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The town's toll bridge -- I was surprised to encounter this concept here; apparently enterprising locals provide such capital investments since the government doesn't, and then charge everyone who want to cross. Note what the post on the right is made of... such recycling is common in the region:

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Modesty code frowns upon bikinis, and local women bathe wrapped in a sarong, similarly to how western women may wrap a bath towel around coming out of the shower. However, kids routinely swim butt naked:

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Some views:

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Tomorrow, I take a long bus ride to Luang Prabang, my last stop before Thailand.

Posted by kgbgirl11 01:42 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Laos - Vang Vieng

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It didn't take much to convince me that Vang Vieng is worth visiting for its natural beauty -- dramatic karsts, covered in virgin jungle, surrounding this valley in the footsteps of a mountain range that ultimately becomes the Himalayas. However, I was aware of the fact that this is hardly an undiscovered spot at this point, an since it was opened up to tourists in 1999, the place has gone from a bohemian chill-out to an international young party zone, complete with the annoyances that brings, noise being the biggest one. Hoping to mitigate the mayhem, I booked a place on the edge of the town, a new but rather basic guesthouse, where I get to shower over the toilet, however it does come with the splendid view, above, from its balcony. After surveying the town, I was happy to discover that its reputation as a rave haven is overdone, or at least that was not the only experience one can have here. Here are a couple more shots:

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I found the town and its surroundings to be idyllic. Now in the beginning of the dry season, weather is my definition of perfect -- air is relatively dry (a welcome change from Southern Vietnam and Cambodia!) daytime temperatures reach 30C, and drop off to the high teens at night. Though certainly a tourist town, it still retains a lot of local flavor -- most of those who live here are actually from here; majority of the restaurants, including the 'Sababa' place I ate at lats night, are an extension of the host family's living room. Across from my guesthouse is an elementary school, where young kids wearing 'pionerskiye galstuki' (the red tie that children is Soviet Russia used to wear) line up for 'linejka' before classes in the morning. Though originally unsure whether I would want to stay for more than a couple of days, I decided to linger here a little longer -- 3, 4 or 5 days, I guess we will see.

Though tubing (floating down the local river on a giant tractor tube, often only half-conscious) is the activity this town is most known for externally, I opted to spend my first full day here differently. I was able to arrange for a private bicycle tour of the 35km loop to the West of the town:

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The route took me to a popular cave, where I negotiated claustrophobia to see some of its intricate formations inside:

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It's very fortuitous that the Blue Lagoon, this wonderful deep reservoir with glacier-blue water, is located right at the base of the climb to the cave. After the steep climb, diving into its waters off of the tree pictured in the photo below was just what the doctor ordered!

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We spent a good 3 hours in late afternoon conquering this semblance of a road (I'm happy to say, the guide got tired before I did!), while stopping for plenty of photo opportunities. The landscape here is quite amazing -- rice fields (no longer 'paddies', as the water is gone), some already harvested, and some still standing strong... here and there you see a conical hat of a field worker... rice hay stacks... farm animals passing by... and all this set against the incredible backdrop of steep lush mountains piercing through. This may have been the most incredible natural landscape I've seen on this trip (probably only rivaled by the Halong Bay), and certainly most incredible in terms of 'beauty for the money' -- the whole trip, including the guide, the bike, the lunch, and some tolls and admission fees, cost me $25.

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Posted by kgbgirl11 04:45 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

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