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On April 5, 1996, we left Bangkok on a train heading north. The AC rapid express was full, so we took the half-speed train, finding springy, reclined, second-class seats, and paying for the upgrade from third class, a real necessity on any ride longer than four hours. We soon passed the airport and Bang Pa-In Palace, starting the nine-hour journey north through the fertile plains covered in rice paddies, with herds of cattle in the fields.
Typical Asian shacks and villages, but beautiful, gilded and glittering temples, with the occasional 10m-tall (31 ft), sitting Buddha, in gold or white at ground level or up on a hill. The water in the fields and streams did nothing to cool the parching wind cutting into the huge, open windows. We both napped often, especially after eating the delicious sweet, sticky rice with black beans, that is cooked and sold in bamboo tubes. Arriving in the small town of Phitsanalok (peat-sahn-ah-loke), we got on a bus and stood in the back for the one-hour ride to our next destination.
A pleasant little town with friendly and smiling people, Sukhothai (sook-oh-tie) reminded us of Solo in Java, Indonesia -- even the train ride was similar. We checked into a family-run guesthouse called Yupa, one of the better places in Thailand. The owner even gave us long-overdue language lessons. That evening before dinner, a pastel-orange moon hung over the river like a Christmas-tree bulb, later turning to a bright, ivory cue ball high in the sky. It was a good thing we had train tickets onward as we could have easily overstayed our visa.
It wasn't easy getting to sleep with the nearby sounds of squealing pigs around midnight. The next morning we read a quote in the guestbook that explained everything, "While you are dreaming, the cows and pigs are screaming!" We were next door to a slaughterhouse, and can personally vouch for the freshness of the meat and poultry sold in the market every morning.
After a fulfilling breakfast of pancakes and pieces of mango and lamoot (sapodilla) over yoghurt, which beat all standards, we walked around the Buddhist Temple and through a market, then biked to Old Sukhothai Historical Park.
The 14th century park covers 45 square-km (17 square-miles) is surrounded by the old city walls and has many Buddhas of all sizes, some standing 8m (25 ft) tall. There were Khmer stupas with plenty of bricks and chedi cones, reminiscent of Egyptian architecture due to the building layout and statue sizes, with columns and rows of broken roof pillars. Our favorite temple was Wat Sorasek, a large chedi cone, with thirty-six large, white elephants sculpted into a square base.
We couldn't help wondering what would become of this nice town when the airport opened a week later and started delivering the masses. We were going to head west to Mae Sot, and follow the Burmese border to Mae Saron and Mae Hong Son, then Pai, but too dangerous and time consuming. We decided to make the northeast a separate trip for the future, when the weather is better.
The train was an hour late leaving Phitsanalok, giving us time to stock up on food for the ride. We settled into the comfortable seats, immediately attacking the crispy, garlic-fried chicken, sticky rice, and mangos, then read and slept. It was hot and we didn't get any relief until the sun fell behind the mountain, in a fiery-orange ball due to the smoke from the burning-off of the rice fields. The evening air was cool and full of the smells of Asia. The rhythmic sound of the train on the tracks was hypnotic. It was like a marching band, with the rest of the orchestra picking-up once in a while, as we rattled across a bridge or other irregularity in the tracks.
At the end of the railroad track sits Thailand's second largest city, with a population of 250,000; a small Bangkok. Chiang Mai (chayng my) was hot and hazy, but we still strolled around, not forgetting to gorge ourselves on our last meals of good Thai food.
We visited Chiang Mai University where we met Brian, an exchange student from MSU who had lived there for two years, giving him some insights to Thai culture. He was impressed by the way we dress and explained that the Thais are offended by foreign travellers who dress in shorts, the way poor farmers do, and especially by those who don't bathe often. He would be graduating in March 1997, but would not receive his diploma until January 1998 when the King of Thailand was scheduled to personally hand them out to the students.
We boarded a bus for the three-hour ride along dry, brown, burnt ricefields, orange clay fields, and through the heavy haze, stopping in Chiang Rai. At the station, we noticed many buses had been splashed by other vehicles with white, chalky water. After lunch, we jumped on another bus heading northeast.
It was 38°C (100°F), and as soon as the bus started to move, everyone started closing the windows. Not 10m (31 ft) down the road, we realized why, as the first bucket of talcum-laced water came splashing through the open doors, sending everyone cringing for cover. The fun-loving Northerners had started the Songkran New Year's Water Festival three days early.
The bus driver and conductor left the doors open for the entire three-hour ride, and the first five minutes were full of one soaking after another, water flying in the doors, drenching those in the front and back. We could predict the next assault since we could see the telltale pools of water on the street ahead, where small groups of all ages were happily waiting in front of homes and businesses with hoses, waterguns, and plastic buckets in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Motorcycles slowed so it wouldn't hurt.
We were glad we hadn't put the backpacks on the roof, nor on the floor in the back. We had stopped putting the bags on seats back in August in Indonesia, but kept them inside this time due to dust. We were also lucky to have chosen one of the few dry spots in the center left of the bus. Between villages, a young man in fatigues and a crew cut fell asleep in the rear left seat, until a few liters of water came through the back door, leaving him dripping from head to toe. Eventually the conductor moved his container closer to the door and started pelting pedestrians, and passengers in other vehicles, with buckets of ice-cold water, which must have been quite a shock in the heat.
We arrived at dusk and were surprised that there was no water-bearing welcoming committee in this tiny town on the Mekong (may-kong) River bordering Laos. We had dinner at a small, open-air, riverside restaurant with a view of the few scattered lights in Laos, only 500m (1550 ft) across the river. The next morning we checked out at immigration and took a minibus to the pier, where a longtail took us one minute across the river.
Looking back, Thailand is best described as fertile and prosperous. From the moment we arrived, we knew the country wasn't struggling to survive. Their relaxed, friendly attitude belies a security and pride not seen before, especially since they were never colonized. It has the history and feel of an ancient and thriving kingdom, as well as being an adult playground. Like many long-term travellers in Southeast Asia, we left with a nagging feeling about the country, which we couldn't pinpoint with words. Hope to return someday, better prepared and with more money. Starting to see why many view it as just a cheap place to fly to in order to get to other places in Asia.
Lao People's Democratic Republic
Crossing the Mekong River, we landed on the beach, then climbed the embankment to the Huay Xai (hway sigh) immigration office. We didn't know what to expect in our first Communist country, but upon arrival we immediately realized it was different. We quickly noticed that everyone was shy, but kept an eye on us without really staring. The people act differently, are noticeably quieter, and still looked at us with curiosity. The women wear beautiful, woven sarongs, and many welcomed us with plenty of smiles and a "Sabaidee." There are very few vehicles, most people walk or use bicycles, and this was also the first place we'd been to in eight months where cars are driven on the right. It was the only time we ever wanted a video camera.
We asked a man for directions to the slowboat pier, and were pleasantly surprised that he spoke fluent English. He was a Mechanical Engineer who had studied in the Czech Republic, worked as a Mining Engineer, and was now in the travel business. We sat and talked for awhile and he gave us many tips on travelling north. He likes the slow, quiet life here.
Moving on, we walked by the Arimid Guesthouse construction site. We couldn't stop ourselves from talking to Singkham Chitaly, the smiling man who we didn't know was also the owner of the travel agency we'd just left. He was proud of the new and upscale bungalows he was close to finishing, and happy to show them to us. He spoke Thai and Chinese, had been a French teacher with the Mission Catholic, and spoke some English, so between the three of us, we were able to understand everything and have a nice conversation. We also met his lovely wife La Arimid at her shop in town.
Arriving at the pier, we discovered that the slowboat had left early in the morning, and that we would either have to wait until the next day, or catch a speedboat at the other end of town. We registered at the army checkpost, then descended the 30m (93 ft) cliff to the river. As soon as we got in the speedboat, it roared off with only four passengers. It sounded like a drag-racing car, rode like a ski-boat, and looked like the Thai boats in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun.
They were 5m-long (15 ft), 110cm-wide (2.3 ft), flat-bottomed, with half-meter-high (1.5 ft) sides, and very low to the water -- basically a large surfboard with an engine. We sat side-by-side on the bottom, with our knees bent and backs against the straight, wooden slats separating the seats, less than a meter apart. Our bags were strapped onto the front of the boat, probably for stability. As soon as we got moving we realized why we were given helmets as we were practically flying along at 80kph (50mph) on a thin sheath of air above the glassy-smooth surface of the silty Mekong River.
Small villages, with a few white, pink, and black buffalo dotted the beautiful, misty Mekong. The mountains around were relatively bare and hazy from all the burning of the soon-to-be-replanted fields. All along the river we dodged the villagers netting fish from their large dugout canoes. The river was at its lowest level, leaving the rocks high and dry on both banks. As the boat went around bends, the tail slid into the turn. The thin cushions provided no relief as we bounced and rattled over the occasional ripple.
We later heard about a Thai tourist who died in 1992, and a Chinese tourist who died a few weeks prior in crashes. Zooming by the slowboat, we made several stops along the way to sign-in at army checkposts as we crossed into new provinces. We used these as opportunities to stretch our cramped legs and to put our sweaters on after the sun sank behind the mountains, as the air on the shaded Mekong cooled down quickly.
We arrived at 5:30pm at the small, floating fuel shack Pak Beng (pock bayng). There were a few speedboats tied up, and some lumber barges along and under the cliffs. We clambered up the steep, rocky cliff to the one-road town, and the hotel, a wooden box on the cliff. We walked for 100m (305 ft) along the line of shacks that sell basic goods, reaching the end of the street, then returning to the hotel area for dinner at a 'restaurant', basically an open living-room. Back in the room, we had just enough time to get ready for bed before the generators and the town shut down at 10:00pm. A few kids knocked at the door, trying to get us to open up for our ceremonial dousing, but we pretended to be asleep.
Determined not to submit our aching bodies to another ride on the speedboat, we set out early the next morning in search of the slowboat, which docks here for the night. The slowboat dock was nowhere to be seen when we inquired about the time of departure with the help of our phrasebook, we got answers ranging from "Already gone" to "Eight o'clock" to "No slowboat today." We decided to join a group of people on the cliff who appeared to be waiting for something to happen.
We talked with one guy for awhile, until an old man walked over, smiled, and said hello. When Karin turned around, he was surprised, pulling the front of his shirt outward to make the international sign for breasts, and saying, "poon ying," which means woman. He kept doing this and pointing back and forth at Karin and a Lao woman, meaning "same-same." Everybody had a good laugh, except for the embarrassed Lao woman. Since Lao women have long hair and wear colorful blouses, sarongs, and sandals, we don't think he had ever seen anyone like Karin, with her hair pinned-up, wearing a plain shirt, long pants, hiking boots, and carrying a backpack.
Moments later, we saw a plume of smoke, then the slowboat pulling out from below the cliff. There was no way we were going to spend another night, let alone a whole day here, so we scurried down the cliff and were sentenced to another long, grueling, three-hour ride on a speedboat. This ride was worse than the first, as we were now in a more turbulent section of the river and even flew over a few shallow rapids, our kidneys and spines succumbing to endless vibrations. It would take us two days to recover from these rides. Nothing lasts forever, and we did survive to coast into the speedboat 'port', a sandy beach at the bottom of a 25m (78 ft) cliff.
If you ever consider going down the lovely Mekong, take the slowboat downstream from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang and/or the one from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, especially if you are a photographer. Even better, are the views from the inexpensive airplanes that fly these routes, since you can still take short boat-trips on the Mekong from Luang Prabang. Andy Carvin took the same trip, but in the opposite direction. You might want to visit his Southeast Asia Diary: Tales of Cambodia, Laos and Thailand to see some photos.
Luang Prabang (loo-ahng pah-bahng) has a population of only 20,000, but is a major UNESCO Heritage Site, due to all the old French Colonial Indochinese buildings and ancient Buddhist temples. Only recently opened to free-roaming tourists, there were rumors that the government was once again preparing to reinstitute the 'area permit system', limiting travel to certain areas. We would never have considered this place had it not been for Larry, our friend in Berkeley, who impressed us with his description of the city and begged us not to deprive ourselves of a visit here.
Being in Laos felt like we had taken a ride in a time-machine back to the 19th century. It had only been unified since 1975, even though the French defined the borders in the 1890s. Everyone was smiling and happy, as if they were on a Sunday stroll. The bicyclists looked like they were competing for the most relaxed and graceful pace. No ambitious pushing or shoving, nor stress from high expectations. The men weren't insecure, didn't have huge egos, and were very comfortable around each other. There was an underlying harmony and self-control.
Traffic was very calm and quiet, no honking, and nobody racing their engines nor speeding. They also didn't feel the need to go out of their way to speak English with foreigners, and it was comforting to hear people saying "Sabaidee" instead of "Hello." Since the Thai and Lao languages are so similar, we had a head start, and welcomed the opportunity to practice what little language skills we had. We didn't miss the polite "ka" and "krap" gender-attachments placed at the end of Thai sentences.
The goal of the last two days of hard travel was to make it here in time for Pimai (Lao for New Year), and the five days of Songkran (song-cron) festivities, and we arrived the day before it started. We were lucky to find a room since most places were full. Many travellers had been sleeping on the floors in large rooms, and on the roofs.
Our old French Colonial hotel had a large patio out front where we spent plenty of time enjoying life around us, watching the small, amazingly-dressed Hmong tribespeople streaming in from their mountain-top villages to sell colorfully-woven ikat and songket textiles in the busy marketplace. There were thousands of people walking through the streets wearing their best and carrying small buckets of water, and meter-long (3 ft) sticks with paintings on paper streaming from the end. It took a few days for us to realize that this small road was the main street into town.
We also took delight in the daily waterwars. The owner kept buckets of water out front at all times so he could douse those passing by. Hardly anyone could escape his accuracy, and rickshaw drivers, their passengers, bicyclists, and motorcycle riders could only brace for the onslaught, or speed up and hope for the best. Some pedestrians would walk at their regular pace, not establishing eye contact, others would run by as he was reloading, or cross the street and hope they were out of range. Those who were well-dressed were spared, but everyone else was fair game, foreign tourists being their favorite targets. Once, we were splashed by some kids who decided to retaliate at the hotel owner. Everyone was in a festive mood and no one got angry, not even the tourists.
The evenings were very pleasant, and we could hear people next door singing, and watch them through the trees, swaying with the rhythm. On the sidewalk the children played what we like to call "Tag with a Challenge," a game of hop-tag where the one chasing the others has to hop around on one foot. Some kids were very skilled, able to hop large distances, and over obstacles and trenches. We also saw them playing with a makeshift 'emergency vehicle' toy, which they had constructed from a can, a bent piece of wire, an empty spool of thread, a stick, and a candle. It was intriguing seeing ingenuity at work.
We rented bikes for a tour of the city, visiting Wat Xieng Thong Temple, and avoiding the sections of the street with large puddles. We biked along the Mekong, and stopped at a bridge across the Nam Khan river, walking out to watch people swimming, playing, and washing in the river.
On the first day of Songkran, we followed the children along the Nam Khan River and up the street, stopping to rest on the steps of a house on a corner. Continuous streams of people and quite a few vehicles were going by towards Wat Xieng Thong Temple at the top of the peninsula, for the 2:00pm start of the Songkran Parade, some stopping to say hello in French. Not everybody had such good intentions -- an older Japanese man in a tour bus smiled from his open window, then blasted us with his watergun.
The parade arrived with a guy wearing a grass skirt and a big, hideous mask, leading a procession of monks under umbrellas who were being 'cleansed' with water by the onlookers. Next, a line of beautiful women leading the way for the float carrying the new Miss Luang Prabang, who was sitting on a huge box with a peacock feather backdrop made of wood.
Large crowds followed behind, being splashed and powdered. We trailed behind for awhile until we were approached by a guy who wished us, "Happy Lao New Year," then dusted our cheeks with talcum powder! On our way back up our street, two little girls smiled and gave us a break by not splashing us with their bowls of water, only to see us drenched by a deluge of water gushing from a passing bus.
On the last night we went to the main temple, Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, where hundreds of people were paying homage to the Pha Bang, a golden statue of Buddha. They brought water in gold and silver tureens to pour into one of the two aqueducts that ran down and onto the statue, to 'cleanse' it. We had a close look at the meter-tall statue, in a glass case, surrounded by beautiful, colorful flowers, food, and money. The mood was calm, with some groups singing, on what is probably the happiest day of the year for them.
Unable to resist the bargain airfare on Lao Aviation, which would make it possible for us to bypass the exciting river rides and bumpy roads, we caught a flight to Udomxai (oo-dumm-sigh, also called Muang Xai). We had planned to fly to Luang Nam Tha (lou-ahng nam tah), but all flights were sold out and we opted for the next closest landing strip. Buffalo grazing alongside the runway was a novel sight as we took off. Excellent bird's eye view of Luang Prabang before climbing into the clouds. It was heavily overcast, so we didn't get to see much except an occasional glimpse of fields and mountains.
Udomxai (Muang Xai)
Twenty minutes later, we dropped down below the clouds and landed on a gravel runway in a green valley, got stamped-in at the army post, and found a place to call home for the night. The town is known for being a crossroads of the area, so we had high hopes for the market and surroundings. We were disappointed the next morning when we loaded up and went to find breakfast and a bus to our next destination. We managed to get a tasty bowl of vegetable noodle soup from a friendly woman at one of the three food stalls, after striking out at the other two. A quick look through the market confirmed that there was no reason to stay, so we stamped-out at the army post.
While waiting for the bus to fill, we watched the songthaews arrive. The brightly dressed hilltribe women would converge on them and emerge a few minutes later with goods for sale. They then assembled around a tarp on the ground to redistribute and bag the stuff, then sell it or save it for taking back to their village later. There were piles of mushrooms, various kinds of tea, and brown stuff we figured could be just about anything, as this area is famous for its opium farmers.
We were approached by a Lao man from Pakse (pock-say) who thought Marc was Portuguese -- must be the moustache. He had lived in Madrid as a refugee for twelve years, spoke Spanish fluently, had travelled throughout Spain, Portugal, and France during his yearly vacations, and made the time fly with many stories about his experiences there. We said, "Adios" and boarded the songthaew. This was our worst ride ever, a torturous four and a half hours in the back of a bouncing and overloaded pickup, sitting on tiny benches, over an old road so potholed, that it looked like it had been bombed.
Luang Nam Tha
This was an Air America base during the Vietnam War, and was also used to smuggle opium. Opium production has been cut back drastically, and now this small town is mainly a trading center for local villagers, and for businessmen flying in from Vientiane to catch a bus to China.
We could have used a hot shower and a massage, but this was not to be, as the only 'hotel' in town was a wooden shack full of rooms. We met an Englishman there who had travelled through China enough to set us at ease about the border crossing and the country. We stopped by the army headquarters to get our visa extensions and signed into the province, then secured seats in the cab of the next truck heading northwest.
Another two hours in the back seat of a big truck on better roads, through a beautiful rainforest, with shear cliffs dropping rocks and dirt. More small villages along the way. Some men hunt with AK-47's instead of the ancient muskets common in this area.
This town was so small that we were surprised when they told us we had arrived at our destination. It is just a few wooden structures along the road, housing the workers for the rice fields filling this small valley. We were in the far upper northwest territory, 12km (7 miles) from China. Many of the tribal people from North Thailand and Southern China have moved here now that things have calmed down again.
One of the reasons this place is so popular is the ease at which tourists can see a variety of tribal styles without doing anything but getting up at 6:00am. Before dawn, hilltribe women carrying loads of produce on their head, or on shoulder poles, could be seen speed-walking past the hotel to the market. Men and women on bicycles, their loads carefully balanced, passed them by. Chinese tractors, loud contraptions that sound like giant outboard motors, loaded down with passengers and more produce went by.
The tribal women wasted no time getting set up with their bamboo shoots, tubers, mushrooms, tomatoes, bananas, herbs, tofu, and a myriad of produce we didn't recognize. In the rear of the market men were selling all the body-parts from livestock. We always got there early for the fried donut-like ba-tan-gho.
The Bun Ban Fai Rocket Festival is celebrated as part of the New Year, and marks the beginning of the rainy season. Everyone in the area showed up for the carnival held in a huge ricefield. It was very overcast, but comfortable, with the cloudy mountains providing a wonderful backdrop. There were game vendors from China, Lao women selling food, and finally the central area, where women in traditional silk sarongs, bright shirts, and sunhats were dancing with men, or together in lines. There was loud music, gongs, and bongo drums.
Under a canopy, the rocket makers were celebrating with food and lao-lao, a strong, distilled spirit. We had to keep our distance or they would insist on us joining them. Then they started launching the rockets to bring on the monsoon.
The rockets were 7m- to 14m-long (22-44 ft) bamboo poles, with gunpowder boosters wrapped around the top, basically large bottle-rockets. They were leaned up against a large tower and lit. Some blew up on the pad, others veered off, and one went out 300m (930 ft), nearly hitting some grazing buffalo. They worked too well, and it started pouring.
An obnoxious photographer and his entourage of camera-toting assistants seized a group of Akha tribespeople, including a very stately-dressed man who appeared to be a chief or high-ranking member of the group. They were parading around as if the festival was a production put on for their sake. At one point the man was dragged away from the group and made to stand on a rock wall and pose. Everyone was staring at him and he was obviously uncomfortable about the whole affair, but was commanded to "Look relaxed."
Next, a woman and child were placed alongside -- they looked like prisoners lined up for the firing squad. The photographer was not smiling nor talking to anyone but his crew, just 'doing his job'. They made a poor attempt at compensating the man by giving him a Polaroid photo. His pride was intact and he was showing others his photo, so later we gave him a plastic bag to protect it from the rain.
National Geographic had recently been through, so we expect this place to be overrun shortly, and become commercialized like the tribal areas of Northern Thailand. We wonder if the people will stop dressing in their traditional clothes in order to avoid the exploiting cameras being stuck in their face, or if they will just start charging for photos and admission to the village.
Our visas were due to expire the next day, so we reluctantly checked out and walked to the market to catch a bus in the rain. As we had expected, the road was washed out in one section, but our driver went down to the riverbed on an old dirt road to bypass it. Back in Luang Nam Tha, we changed money and found a songthaew to the border post at Boten (baw-ten), where we cleared immigration and customs without the hassles others had warned us about. Five more minutes and we were in Mohan, the Chinese border post.
The eight Lao people we travelled from Luang Nam Tha to the border with, had chartered a small bus and waited for us. We followed a good, tree-lined road along a small river to their 'safe' hotel in Mengla (moong-LAH), then had dinner with them. They gave us their addresses and invited us to visit, making us want to return to Laos immediately!
Laos seemed to attract the most fascinating travellers we've met. It is a mountainous country of small villages, with no large-scale industries. Travel can be very hard at times, and most had the runs while they were there. This might have to do with the communal eating habits, the rural lifestyle, and the basic sanitary fact that they don't use soap on the dishes, but just rinse with water. Nonetheless, it is the place we have the fondest memories of. We're sorry to say that we expect it to change drastically and quickly since it is wedged between China, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar (Burma), all of whom want to transport goods through Laos.
Marc & Karin
November 19, 1996
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