Day 7: Pakbeng – Pak Ou – Luang Prabang

This morning Pati and BeeBee packed and left their cabin early, so that they could access the internet from the main reception area of Luang Say Lodge. After breakfast, they walked down to the boat for the second day of travel. As before, their larger luggage was carried to the boat by two strong young women.

Before 8:30 am, everyone was on board and the boat set off down the Mekong River again. Several hours later, they had a buffet lunch, and soon after that,  the boat stopped for a short  visit to a hill tribe village. Every woman in the village, it seemed, had laid out their handmade scarfs for sale on either side of the path that the tour group had to follow.  Since they all used the same type of equipment and thread, their products were remarkably similar (identical, even). A man of the village had a primative still set up, and the group watched the traditional process of Lao whiskey production. While the women sold a good number of scarves, the man also did a brisk business selling small bottles of Lao rice whiskey.

This day was colder than the day before, and everyone on the boat was soon cold from the wind and from the spray of water coming over the sides of the boad. The guide handed out colorful ponchos, and everyone huddled inside them. One of the ladies at Pati and BeeBee’s table had brought her Bananagram game, and she taught Pati, BeeBee, and another lady at the table how to play. This provided entertainment for the players and onlookers and diverted their attention a little from the cold. Everyone also consumed many cups of hot Laotian coffee .

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cave of a thousand Buddhas

The boat continued on to Pak Ou village at the mouth of the Nam Ou River. Here they climbed hundreds of irregular steps to visit the Tam Thing Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.

After this stop, the boat continued for several hours, arriving at Luang Prabang pier before sunset. Here again, there were steep steps from the river to the higher street level, and male porters carried the heavier bags  BeeBee noticed that these men seemed to find their job harder than the young women at Luang Say Lodge, who walked much farther on a more difficult surface. Perhaps they were just showing off for tips.

Pati and BeeBee’s new guide was waiting for them at the top of the steps. After stowing their luggage in the new van, the driver took them all to their new hotel, where the guide assisted in the check in process.

Since it was still daylight, Pati and BeeBee walked to the large Night Market, where they looked at the merchandise for sale (again, many duplicate offerings) and had dinner at a restaurant nearby. Walking back to the hotel after dark, they took advantage of the free wifi in their room and spent some quality internet time before sleep.

Day 6: Chiang Rai – Houei Say – Pekbeng – overnight on Luang Say Cruise

This morning Pati and BeeBee got up at 5 am for a 6 am breakfast and 6:30 am checkout from their hotel. Their guide and driver were waiting to take them on the two hour drive to the border with Laos, at Friendship Bridge 4. As they had spent so much time together, Pati and BeeBee were sorry to leave their new friends. The guide introduced them to the tour guides for their next adventure, and accompanied  them as far as she could on the Thai side before sending them on their way. (Thank you, Ms Bam. We will remember you fondly.)

Before passing through passport control on the Thai side of the border, they were given blank visa forms and entry/exit forms from the tour staff. Now, Pati had already prepared the visa application forms before leaving home, but the tour staff stapled the visa pictures onto the new forms to be filled out again.  They then boarded a bus for the Laotian side. On the bus, BeeBee hurridly worked on the new forms.

Exiting the bus, unfinished forms in hand, they joined the end of the very long Visa on Arrival line. As slowly as the line moved, they had plenty of time to finish the forms. As they all stood restlessly in line, they became aware of a second window under a sign Visa Payment. After each person handed in their passport and visa application at the first window, they joined the ever-growing crowd around the second window. Gradually, it became clearer what was happening. The young man who collected the application passed it to another young man, who handed it to the women who did the actual work unseen between the two windows.  Each passport, with visa pasted inside, eventually was handed to the young woman behind the second window. She opened the passport to the photo page and held the photo up to the window. That person would walk to the window, hand in the correct amount of money, and collect the passport. The passports arrived at the second window in roughly the same order that they were handed in at the first window, so the crowd converged upon the window at roughly the right time. That was important, because it was almost impossible to see the passport picture being presented unless you were near the window. BeeBee remembered who was ahead of them in the first line, and watched to see when they were “called'” Their passports actually came out of order, at least three passports earlier than expected. Jackpot! The passport process took around an hour, and then they boarded a minibus with six other members of their new tour group.

This bus eventually arrived at the slow boat pier, where the Luang Say boat was waiting to take them down the Mekong River. Porters carried their luggage onboard, and they found two seats together at a table. While there was not much choice of seats when they boarded (other tour members had spend the previous night closer to the departure point and had taken what appeared to be the best seats), the seats turned out to be very good. They were protected from spray from the river, and the other people at the table were good travel companions.

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Luang Say boat

The boat left the pier soon afterward and made good time. After an hour or so, a very good buffet lunch was served onboard. The boat made a stop to observe rural life along the Mekong River at Ban Houy Phalam; a Kamu village. The boat arrived at Luang Say Lodge before sunset for an overnight stay.

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long-tail boat

The tour members had to walk through sand and climb quite a way from the river to the lodge. Fortunately, porters (strong young women, mostly) carried all the heavy luggage.

While the Lodge provided free wifi, it was available only in the main reception area. Consequently, most of the tour members returned to this area after checking in to reconnect with their normal lives.

A buffet dinner was served on the terrace overlooking the Mekong River. Before dinner, the tour members were treated to a performance of traditional music and dance by a group of local school chrildren in tribal costumes. Their ages ranged from early grade school to late high school. The most sincere performer was one of the youngest, and the least serious performer was a typical inattentive teenager.

Pati and BeeBee were assigned to lodge #8, a very-well appointed “cabin” a long walk from the main reception and dinner area. Tall louvered windows opened on three sides of the main area of the cabin, each with a spectacular view of the river and hills beyond.

After dinner, they spend a few minutes on the internet before returning to their cabin, where the mosquito nets had already been arranged around the poster bed, ready for a good night’s sleep.

Day 5: Chiang Mai – Chiang Rai – Golden Triangle – Mae Sai – Akha

This morning, Pati and BeeBee left their hotel in Chiang Mai at 7:15 am for a very long day of sightseeing.. Their first stop was at a hot spring, where they soaked their feet in one non-boiling part of the springs. This stop is very popular with tourists, and many shops and food stalls surround the main attraction. Then they continued their drive through the countryside, passing rice paddy fields and mountains.

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White Temple

Next they visited Wat Rong Khun, known as the White Temple, a unique Buddist temple designed and built by a local artist, Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat,  with his own money. It is no exaggeration to say that he is a modern-day Gaudi. The most emotionally-charged parts of the temple are the murals in the monastery, where cameras are prohibited. Most of the murals illustrate the peace of Buddha, but the most striking wall of murals depicts the demon and the evil in the world. The artist decided what to paint on that wall only after 9/11, and the depiction of two planes flying into the Twin Towers is prominent, along with a hose and nozzle dripping oil. The eyes of the demon have George Bush and Bin Laden inside them, in order to caution them both. The mouth of the demon encircles the door, so that people leave the demon behind when they walk out. BeeBee regrets that they could not take pictures to capture the stunning murals. Readers of this blog may want to Google the White Temple. (BeeBee has not had sufficient internet access to do so.)

While walking around the temple grounds, they saw a young couple carrying a very realistic doll. The guide described the odd behavior. The doll is a haunted doll that brings its owners good luck if they treat it well. They feed it well, buy it airline seats when they travel, and do everything for it that they would do for a real child. They claim that it is their religious belief. This has become a very real problem for restaurants, because the “parents” of the doll take advantage of children-eat-free policies to raid the buffet for piles of food for the doll; this food is, of course, not eaten, but wasted. Restaurants have begun to implement policies that require people to pay for what they have not eaten.

As they were about to leave the temple, their guide spotted the owner/artist of the temple and asked for his picture with Pati and BeeBee. He graciously agreed (other people were doing the same) and said “Have a nice day” in perfect English as he walked away.

Leaving the temple, they drove to visit Mae Sai Border, an international border with Myanmar (Burma). Pati, BeeBee, and their guide crossed the bridge into Burma and shopped at the market there..  Current movies, such as The Martian, were selling for around 100 Baht for 4 movies ($3 USD).

Returning to Thailand, they stopped at the Golden Triangle in Chiang Sean, where the three borders of Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand meet, separated by the Mekong river. A casino was visible on the Laotian side of the river; this casino is popular with Thai people and also the Chinese. China is only a few hundred kilometers to the north.

 

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Beautiful Yao Villager

Finally, they visited the Akha and Yao hilltribe villages. The Akha villagers came from Burma originally, while the Yao came from China.  The Yao lady pictured above is 80 years young, about 4 1/2 feet tall, and deaf but spry. The other ladies of the village are trying to teach her not to beg for money while they are trying to sell their hand-made products to visitors, but it doesn’t seem to be working. Pati and BeeBee were enchanted by her.

After that, they drove to their next hotel in Chiang Rai, which they checked into at about 7:45 pm.

 

 

Day 4: Chiang Mai – Flight of the Gibbon Ziplines

This morning, Pati and BeeBee joined another tour for the Flight of the Gibbon ziplines in Mae Kampong, a village 55 minutes from their hotel. There were 6 other adventurers in their group: two young Chinese couples and a middle-aged couple (Australian and Philippine).

The zipline company describes their tour as an “extreme adventure” that soars “through lush, ancient rainforest recognized as the most beautiful in all of Thailand.” Features of their course include:

  • 5 km of ziplines deep in the Thai rainforest
  • The longest 800 meter (1/2 mile) zipline in Asia
  • 33 different platform stations
  • 3 hanging sky bridges and 2 rappel descents
  • Education about wildlife and vegetation along the course
  • Two sky ranger guides per group
  • Detailed safety briefing & personal equipment fitting

 

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Female Gibbon

After traversing several ziplines, the guide pointed out a pair of gibbons high in a tree. He was quite excited that the group could see this, since not every tour was as lucky.

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Lovers Leap

After the zipline course came a traditional Thai lunch, which included black rice, chicken soup, and many vegetable dishes.

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Kampong Falls

After lunch, the group was driven to the Kampong Falls, where many more photos were taken.

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Rock Me Original burger

Returning to Chaing Mai, Pati and BeeBee walked to the Night Market again for a last look before eating dinner at the hotel’s restaurant. They each had a beef hamburger, fries, and a huge onion ring that were indistinguishable from any available in the US, except that the burger came with a sweet pickle instead of the usual hamburger pickle.

Day 3 extra: No Durians

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No Durians

The hotel where Pati and BeeBee are staying has a peculiar sign posted at the entrance to the restaurant and beside the elevator doors on the ground floor. They have seen similar signs in India. These signs say “No Durians” in bold red letters.

The musang king durian is known as the king of fruit in Malasia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand. According to Pati and BeeBee’s guide, it has a green spiky outer skin, a large inner pit, and flesh similar to, but creamier than, that of the avocado. The taste has been described as similar to an overripe banana.  It is popular in other countries also, and is especially prized by the Chinese.

The problem with the durian, according to Smithsonian Magazine, is that the durian smells like “turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock.”  Others say it smells like dead rat. It is banned on some trains and in some airports, as well as in hotels in south-east Asia.

The guide described an instance in her experience where a guest at a hotel brought in a durian. The staff said they would keep it for her, wrapped up tightly. If she wanted to eat it, she would have to go out in the nearby field to do so.

As with kimchi, the durian is beginning to have followers, even in the UK. Pati and BeeBee will probably forego this fad.

Day 3 extra: les voyages forment la jeunesse

On Day 3, Pati and BeeBee were walking through a shop with artisans who would hand paint small images onto phone cases, purses, whatever you had with you. Above a beautiful large painting of a Thai countryside, hanging on the wall, was a simple sign in script:

les voyages forment la jeunesse

BeeBee’s French is not as good as it could be, although she recognized the words for “travel” and “youth.” The guide had taken French in high school, a long time ago, so she also could not translate. She asked the ladies in the shop what the sign said. None of them knew.

Back at the hotel, BeeBee searched the internet for the answer and found the idiom:

Travel broadens the mind.

It certainly does.

Day 3: Chiang Mai – Doi Suthep Temple & Meo Hill tribe Village -Sankhampang – Kantoke Dinner

This morning, Pati and BeeBee got up at 6 am to get ready for their first official day of touring.  After breakfast at their hotel, their tour guide, a very pleasant young woman,  picked them up and they drove out of the city and above it on a very steep, narrow and winding road. Their climb took them past one of the residences of the King, who was not there at the time; however, the area was swarming with tourists and their cars, busses, and motorcycles. About a mile beyond the residence, they saw a small red bus, with about 6 passengers still inside, tipped into a ditch. Apparently, the driver had misjudged where the edge of the road was when he backed down a side road to turn the bus around.

The first stop on the tour was to visit the Meo Hill tribe village, where the guide pointed out the various types of items the villagers made for sale as she explained the tribe’s way of life and the improvements to the village that the King had made for their benefit.

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They then drove back the winding road to visit Doi Suthep Temple, one of the most sacred temples in Chiang Mai.  Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep was built in Thai style and contains holy relics of Lord Buddha. The panoramic view of the Chiang Mai, including the airport where Pati and BeeBee landed just before midnight on Sunday, was stunning despite the haze over the city. The guide’s explaination of the temple and of Buddihism in general was quite interesting. BeeBee was especially happy that the steep trip up and down the hill between the carpark and the temple on top could be accomplished by a modern funicular.

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Afterward, they drove to the east side of the city for lunch at a local restaurant. The guide helped them choose dishes and ate with them; over lunch, they had a good discussion on various topics, including the many varieties of spoken English.

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Thai silk fabric looms

They then visited a handicrafts center and watched local people make paper umbrellas, Thai silk cloth, and paper from mulberry tree bark. They also visited a large local market, all under one roof, where the locals can buy just about anything. The guide bought coconut candy, a rose apple, and oranges for Pati and BeeBee to sample.

After that, they returned to the hotel for a break before the evening’s festivities.

At 7:15 pm, they left the hotel to enjoy a Khantoke Dinner, known as the Northern welcome dinner. The guide accompanied Pati and BeeBee to their table and explained the dishes before leaving to wait with the driver in the carpark. The entertainment included traditional hill tribe dancing performed by eight beautifully costumed young women and sword manipulation by two young men.

After the performance, Pati and BeeBee were returned to their hotel for the night.