A Travellerspoint blog

Day 12 Chiang Khon to Pak Ben

Sunday 11th November 2012

sunny 30 °C

The alarm goes off at 6.30 am as we have another early start. Breakfast is rather disappointing with Nescafé instead of real coffee and some pancakes. Tony put a large dollop of mayonnaise and syrup on top of his! Yum.
Adisak the man I booked the tour with is waiting for us in reception - always a relief when people show up as promised. He drove us along with another couple who we later find out are Swiss about half a mile to the Thai border where they took our photographs and our exit visa. We then got into some rather rickety long boats for the crossing over to Laos. Once on the other side of the river in Houayxai it was very chaotic as there were hoards of people and we had to give in our passports, photos and completed visa forms. Then once the passport had been stamped we had to queue again to pay for the visa. The price we paid depended on our nationality. For some reason the Canadian's had to pay the most followed by the Brits and the Americans. The Swiss didn't have to pay anything! They didn't even have to queue but were just waved on. We paid 36 American dollars each. Eventually we met our guide and other passengers. There are 10 of us :a Swiss couple from Zurich, ourselves, a German couple and a Thai\German family of four. The boat can hold up to 40 so there will be plenty of room for us to spread out. We get in a minibus and drive through the town to where our boat is moored. We are pleased as it is very nice with comfortable seats and most important a toilet! Also there is a captain, mate, guide, his wife and baby and cook on board. Our guide speaks good English and explains that today we will be travelling 137 kilometres with a stop at a Hmong tribal village before having lunch on board the boat. The scenery is grandiose with green hills tumbling down into the browny red coloured river with occasional sandbars, beaches and rocks.
After a couple of hours we stop at the village. We are met by a dozen or so children holding the little purses and bracelets they all seem to make. We have to climb up a steep hill to get to the village. Tony sadly turns back half way as he is worried about the walk although I think he would have been ok although it is very hot.We see how they make an alcoholic drink a bit like schnapps out of rice and then go to the shop where I buy a great big pack of exercise books and hand them out to the kids. The German family buy huge packs of crisps and give out those as you can imagine I am not impressed! Actually I find the whole experience rather uncomfortable and probably would have preferred not to visit. Back on the boat we have lunch. Three different types of curry, rice, fried fish followed by pineapple. It all tastes really good. Apart from the occasional shack or cluster of houses there are no signs of civilisation. We know however there must be people living in the hills as we occasionally see children playing playing on the beaches, and fishing nets laid out in wait to catch the fish. Sadly the river looks pretty murky.
At about 5pm we arrived at our hotel. We are fortunate as we should have stayed in a simple hotel in the village of Pak Ben instead we stay at the Luang Say Lodge which consists of a collection of wooden grass roofed huts in beautiful gardens and jungle overlooking the Mekong. The hotel employs local people and grows all its own vegetables and has its own farm with chickens and pigs. At 6.30 the local children give a demonstration of local dances and then we have a delicious meal.
When we get back to our room the mosquito nets have been placed over our beds and we can hear very clearly the sounds of the jungle. It all seems so exotic. Although it is only about 9.15 we both fall asleep immediately.

Posted by MichP 04:26 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Day 10 Chiang Rai

Friday 9th November 2012

sunny 30 °C

As we weren't driving so far today we didn't have to meet Charlie until 9am. First we drive to the white temple which is still being built. It is the brain child of Thailand's most famous contemporary artist (I am ashamed to say I can't remember his name). He bought the land and started working on it 25 years ago it will be finally finished in 2070. He has already got young people trained up to continue his work after his death. It is quite extraordinary. Not sure whether it is ghastly or beautiful - it glistens in the sunlight and is actually made up of tiny mosaic of mirror tiles on a whitewashed surface. The gallery in the grounds showed some of his paintings. There was a striking one of George Bush and Osama Bin Ladin seated on rockets going up into the sky!
We then had a quick trip to the food market. The variety of fresh fruit and vegetables was quite astonishing. All sorts of roots and pods and green leaves we had never seen before, live turtles and various fish in large bowls and even live quail in tiny little wicker baskets. Charlie picked up some things including mangosteen as I said I had never tried one for our lunch as he is cooking for us today.
Next we visit the Buddha cave where the locals hid rockets from the Japanese during the Second World War. After this we drive for about an hour into the hills, occasionally catching glimpses of the river and at one point we stop and walk through jungle for a while eventually arriving at a lovely waterfall with plunge pool. we then drive on for a few more miles past an elephant camp and more remote villages. Eventually we come to a stop and we see the bamboo raft we are going to drift down the river on. Two men who Charlie tells us are from the Karen tribe prepare the boat for us, laying out a carpet and cushions for us to sit on. Charlie gets out from the back of the car the food and an odd collection of pots and pans. Everything is finally on board and the men cast off, guiding the boat down the river easily negotiating currents and rapids. The river after the summer rains is flowing fast and high but the bamboo raft stays very stable. This turned out to be the most magical, relaxing and fabulous afternoon. Amazingly Charlie cooked us a delicious meal using a few twigs in a bucket with a few bricks to hold them in place. Firstly he lay some whole Chinese leaves onto a steamer, then he placed coriander, lemon grass, ginger and lime and finally a whole fish on top then placed a lid on top. He then started chopping lots of vegetables and finally some pork. His mother in law had prepared the rice and a hot sauce. When the fish was cooked he used a metal pan to stir fry the veg and meat over the bucket. The food was all delicious. The peace and quiet was only occasionally disturbed when a long boat drove past. After a couple of hours we moored and went to visit another hill tribe - the Lahu tribe. This time the villagers did not seem to take as much care of their surroundings and there was quite a lot of discarded plastic and litter around. The main crop was wild rice and they were busy harvesting it and drying it out in the sun. I also walked along a suspension bridge that spanned the river. It seemed very unstable but we had seen scooters driving over it so I knew it was ok but Tony didn't risk it. We then drifted for another hour before visiting some hot springs. Tony wasn't terribly keen but I got in so he followed suit. The mineral waters made us both feel good and the cold shower afterwards cooled us off. The water came out of the ground boiling and had to be cooled down with cold water. Even so it felt pretty hot. The last part of the river cruise went all too quickly and before we knew it we could see our driver waiting for us to disembark. The drive back to Chiang Rai took about three quarters of an hour.
We had a rest for a while in the hotel and then went for a coffee (and free wifi) and a massage before going to a restaurant Charlie had recommended slightly out of town but overlooking the river. We had a really nice meal and a long chat with the owner who used to work on the Princess cruise liners. He knew Southampton, Liverpool and Glasgow well but he said it was very hard living away from home for ten months at a time without eating any Thai food and having to cope with our weather. However he did enjoy the Caribbean!
Got back to hotel to find wifi working in our room!

Posted by MichP 07:51 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Day 9 Chiang Rai

Thursday 8th November 2012

sunny 29 °C

F0E8B6512219AC681767E777846CC4C5.jpgF0FE6B972219AC6817B4595C49E4089C.jpgF1132A442219AC68173DEE881D011686.jpgF12779792219AC68177689201CAE8ABB.jpgWe get up at 6.30 as the guide we had booked was coming to collect us at 8.00. Rather a shock system! The large dining room is full of people already and 5 large coaches are waiting in the car park. Charlie our guide is waiting for us. He is a very smiley young man aged 31. His story is amazing - he was born into the Lahu hill tribe, and lived in a mud hat with no running water. His family grew opium and his father still smokes it every day. He could see that education was going to be his only wait out and went to school from 8 to 15 when he got into trouble but as a bright student he was lucky enough to get a scholarship to go to boarding school where he studied Thai, English including Shakespeare and appeared in Hamlet! He spoke really good English and knew a lot about our history and current affairs, was mad on English soccer and was a really interesting guy to spend the day with.
We left Chiang Rai which is situated in a river valley and started climbing eventually turning off the main road onto a dirt track and came across a group of wooden shacks. This was the first of the two hill tribes we visited today. The way they lived was completely humbling although there were beautiful views. One of the women proudly showed us her kitchen which consisted of mud floor and 2 metal bowls. There was some kindling to one side and a grate where she cooked. I did not take photos with the iPad as it felt too flash in these humble surroundings. We bought some embroidered bracelets and a bag one of the girls had embroidered. There was a shop that sold a few simple items but basically most things they grew themselves. There was a list of rules on the side of one of the houses and although their life must be incredibly hard going there on a lovely sunny day you couldn't help thinking there were attractive sides to it. The second hill tribe we visited had electricity and one of the houses had a simple tv so they are not cut off from the outside world.
Our next stop was Mae Salong where the hillsides were covered with either coffee or tea plants. This is a town like no other in Thailand. Until the 1980's when the road was built it was virtually cut off from the outside world. The people are all of Chinese descent and until relatively recently relied solely on opium growing for income. This of course has now been banned by the Thai authorities so the king supported projects for coffee and tea growing instead. We had a coffee in a simple coffee shop overlooking the steep hillsides. Coffee was delicious and we could hear gibbons calling to each other. Our next stop was a tea tasting area. We tried 4 different teas and bought some herbal tea that promised to reduced blood pressure, high cholesterol, cure diabetes and cancer! We are gullible! We then stopped at the side of the road so our guide could buy fresh vegetables and wild herbs for his mother in law whom he lives with (along with his second wife and son!). We then had lunch in a simple roadside eating place(restaurant it was not!) but the food was good. We are yet to have a bad meal here. The next stop was the Queen Mother's summer villa and Doi Tung the garden project she started to encourage the locals to stop growing opium and to grow a wide variety of plants such as rubber trees, teak, and various flowers. The views were spectacular of the nearby Burmese mountains. On the other side of which we were told opium poppies are still being cultivated. Hence the regular police checkpoints to try and control movement of opium and heroin.The villa was a mixture of Thai Lanna style and Swiss chalet as the family also lived in Lausanne! The queen didn't have to negotiate the twisty roads as there was also a helicopter pad.
Next stop was the golden triangle. It was quite awe inspiring to finally see the mighty Mekong river where the countries of Burma, Laos and Thailand meet. We visited an opium museum where we learnt about how it originated from Cyprus and saw how the locals cultivated it. The fields are certainly beautiful when in flower. Lastly we visited Mai Saen and its ancient temples dating back to the first century.
We got back to the hotel at 6pm - it had been a long but interesting day. We treated ourselves to a foot massage and then had a simple meal where wifi was on offer.

Posted by MichP 03:06 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Day 8 Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai

Wednesday 7th November 2012

sunny 28 °C

No rush this morning so we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. We then go back to our room and pack our bags. Tony goes to have another foot massage. I was going to have one too but there was no one free so I leave Tony and go to take some more photos of the old town. Although Tony's foot is better he still finds it difficult just to wander around for pleasure so it is quite nice for me to just amble around. There are so many lovely little lanes with wooden buildings covered with exotic climbers and lots of coffee shops and restaurants and every so often another temple squeezed into a gap. This is a lovely city and we have really enjoyed our few days here. We then check out of the hotel and get a tuktuk to the bus station. Our bus arrives early -everything is very efficient. We had booked the front two seats and although we are separated from the driver by a door we still have a bit more legroom and window than other rows which is nice and the seats are very comfortable. Before the coach starts the steward in a smart uniform comes round with complimentary bottles of cold water and a sort of soft sweet roll with a slice of ham inside. The driver wears a uniform similar to an airline pilot with gold epaulettes! The journey to Chiang Rai takes just over three hours. We drive through rice farms, mountains and coffee plantations. The road is very good but goes through very few villages. The bus station in Chiang Rai is right in the centre of town and as we get off the bus I recognise the roofline of our hotel from its website so we are able to walk to it easily. The hotel is sort of 70s style but quite comfortable with a nice pool and lobby area. Unusually there is no wifi in the rooms so after unpacking we go to have a coffee in a coffee shop nearby and make contact with the outside world. Coffee as you would expect is delicious. We learn that Obama has won the presidential elections so that is a great relief. Chiang Rai during daylight hours looks rather down at heel and scruffy but at night you don't see the peeling paintwork and the lights make it look much smarter. We walk to a restaurant about 10 minutes away that is recommended in Lonely Planet. Unusually we are the only non Thais and we have yet another delicious meal. Tony is delighted because as a starter we choose northern Thai sausage which even I find delicious. We walk back with the intention of walking round the night market but by now Tony's feet and back are hurting again so we decide to go straight back to the hotel. We are able to watch BBC world so can catch up on news.C3DFCCAA2219AC68171DFF29AD758F67.jpg

Posted by MichP 06:11 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Day 7 Chiang Mai

Tuesday 6th November 2012

semi-overcast 28 °C

We were slightly unlucky today as we had booked a taxi to take us to the Temple at Doi Suthep the mountain that dominates the town. It is 1,600 metres high and today sadly it was in the clouds so when we were at the top we could not see the 'wonderful' views promised. The drive there though was interesting as we drove through parts of Chiang Mai we hadnt seen. Chiang Mai university, a very wealthy looking campus with fabulous gardens was a high point and the vegetation generally was very lush with exotic looking huge flowers on many of the trees. Trip Adviser and Lonely planet list this temple as a 'must see' but we found it very crowded and disappointing. Unfortunately we had to take our shoes off right at the entrance and this caused Tony some pain. We were then taken to see a silk factory which was interesting but after that we said we wanted to go back to the hotel but the driver asked if we would mind going to the silver factory, the painted umbrella factory, the leather factory and the carpet factory so that he could get a stamp at each! For every car load of tourists he gets a stamp and after ten stamps he gets something special! We were unable to find out what!! We had to pretend to look interested and by then were rather bored. We went back to the hotel and Tony had a swim in the tiny pool. It was freezing apparently so I didn't bother. I decided to go off and explore Chinatown and the flower market while Tony had another massage. This time he just went round the corner from the hotel. It was really hot in town but it is not at all threatening and I felt very safe wandering around by myself.
This evening we went to the night market and had food in one of the very busy restaurants called Ping Ping. There was a good mix of Thais and tourists eating and a good atmosphere. 5D829F272219AC6817B98702E4F0ADA8.jpg5D8F92472219AC68176780D1D410AF4D.jpg5DAD12DF2219AC6817CB3E409EE764BC.jpg

Posted by MichP 06:52 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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