We arrived in Sukhothai mid-afternoon and found our guest house relatively quickly. Traveling in Thailand at this time of the year is pretty nice, because it’s considered the “low season” due to the rain and extreme heat. But if you can handle rain and humidity, you can visit many sites without hordes of tourists.
(New) Sukhothai is located about 10km from the ruins of the ancient city of Sukhothai, which was the Thai capital during the 13th Century A.D. Our plan was to rent bicycles and bike out to the ruins, and on a second day, we would take a bus to Si Satchanalai, a just as nice, but less touristy area with ruins. However, when we arrived at the guest house we met a nice man, Wonchai, who suggested that we do the trip in one day by renting a motorbike. We decided to follow his advice, and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening talking to our new friend. Wonchai is a 53 year old Pharmacist who likes hanging out at the guest house (run by his nieces/nephews) so he can practice his English. He spends a lot of money traveling to Hong Kong for fun, and was in the process of trying to plan a visit to Holland. Adam and I helped him correct his English in the emails he wrote to travelers he had previously met at the guest house. He even took us out for dinner that night at an authentic Thai restaurant.
For dinner, Wonchai took us to an open air restaurant just outside the small city. He told us that Thai people in this area generally like to eat fish, and that he would order some authentic food for us to try. We ended up with a great meal consisting of four plates: two appetizers, a fish dish, and some fried rice. Before we started, Wonchai told us that Thai’s don’t generally eat more than one dish at a time, although they order more than they can eat. The first appetizer was fried fish cakes with a chili spice sauce. It actually tasted pretty good, although the texture of the fish cake was slightly jelly/tofu-y which took some getting used to. The second appetizer was 1,000 year old egg cooked with some julienned veggies. The 1,000 year old egg isn’t that old, it’s actually a duck egg preserved in a different style. It’s used a lot in Chinese cooking, and tastes VERY strongly of rotten egg. In this dish however, the veggies were very spicy and sour, which made the egg taste delicious. The fish that we had was grilled and served with another chili type sauce on it, as well as an assortment of raw veggies that are eaten with the meat. Wonchai made sure that we tried the fish cheeks, which are apparently the best part of the fish. Adam was very impressed with this dish even though he usually doesn’t like fish at all, and really enjoyed this one. Lastly was the fried rice, which was just as you would have expected: fried rice. After our dinner, we were stuffed and tired from the busy day, so we were off to an early sleep.
The morning we traveled in Vientiane, it was overcast and cloudy. We have grown to like this weather because it means that it’s not excruciatingly hot. However, as luck would have it, we stepped off the bus and it began to pour. The rain tends to only last for twenty minutes or so during the day before quitting, when the sun comes out. However, if it rains at night, it will pour long and hard – practically all night! It’s actually very strange.
We finally found a cheap guesthouse after a few hours of searching, and found a restaurant to relax and plan our time in Laos’ capital city. Vientiane is the largest city in Laos, with 200,000 people, so instead of feeling like a city, it actually feels like a large town. Since it’s so small, we decided to do our own walking tour to see the sites. Our first stop was Patuxai, which basically looks like a replica of France’s Arc de Triomphe. It was built to commemorate the Laos people who died in pre-revolutionary wars using cement donated from the USA intended for a new airport construction. The roads leading to and from Patuxai are beautifully manicured with streetlights and grass down the centre of the road. We climbed seven stories to the top of the monument, but there wasn’t much of a view from the top.
It was an extremely hot day, so before continuing our walking tour, we found a small ice cream parlour. For only 3,000 kip a scoop (about 30 cents), we had the best tasting and creamiest ice cream we’ve had in months. It was so hot out that as soon as we got the cones, there was an instant cloud of mist around the cone from melting so fast! As soon as we had cooled down, we walked further to Pha That Luang, a HUGE golden stupa surrounded by a few wats. This stupa, a symbol of the Buddhist religion and Lao sovereignty, is the most important national monument in Laos. It even appears on the national seal. Unfortunately, after our two hour walk, we arrived just after the doors to the stupa had closed. We walked around the monument before grabbing a tuk tuk back to our guesthouse for dinner, and then we went to sleep.
By the time we arrived in Phonsavan, we were incredibly worn down and tired! The “air-conditioned” (fans blowing air) bus ride from Luang Prabang took 9 hours, and although the scenery was incredible, as we drove along huge mountains and through beautiful valleys, we were never in our seats for more than a few moments before swaying back and forth again. These roads were definately the most windy we have ever driven on, and it took a toll on us as well as the locals. A few of them were even sick and had to keep spitting out the windows! However, the closer we got to Phonsavan, the more the scenery morphed into flat rolling hills.
The area around Phonsavan is one of the most heavily bombed regions in the most heavily bombed country in history. In the ’60s and ’70s, as part of the Vietnam war, the US dropped over 2 million tons of bombs, most of which were anti personnel bombs, without the knowledge of congress or the general public. Today, the effects are still visible in the surrounding landscape, and there are still hundreds if not thousands of unexploded bombs (bombies) present which cause damage and take lives each year. Many of the farmers in the area are extremely poor and are hesitant to expand their crop production because of these unexploded ordnances (UXOs), but have to anyway to survive. More than 12 000 people, many of them children, have been killed or injured by bombies or other unexploded ordnance (weapons) in the past three decades. The area is also known for the mysterious Plain Of Jars, large stone vessels believed to be ancient funerary urns. The jars were our main reason for visiting Phonsavan.
When we arrived at our guesthouse late in the afternoon, we were greeted by a handful of Lao men sitting around a table, and were instantly invited to hang out with them. It turns out that this is a regular occurance for these guys. We sat down, and were offered shots of Lao Lao. Tara refused the drinks from the start, but Adam decided to have some. The problem with drinking Lao Lao with locals, is that they like to drink until the alcohol is gone, and Lao Lao is bought in liter bags! We were also taught how to serve shots like a local. The host will pour himself a shot, tost his friends and then drink it. He or she then pours a shot for everyone else in a clockwise direction. This continues until everyone at the table has had some Lao Lao, and then it is the next persons turn. The entire process basically ends when the whole liter of Lao Lao is gone.
Luang Prabang, the original capital city of Laos, is a beautiful city set along the Mekong River with fantastic views. It felt more like a large town than a city, which made it a very peaceful place to spend a few days exploring the area. There are scores of temples sprinkled throughout the older part of town, and a huge night market which is set up and taken down each day. The French influence in Luang Prabang is immediately apparent in the beautiful, colonial architecture with wrap-around balconies and 19th century shuttered windows, remnants of Indochina.
During our first afternoon in the city, we decided to take a walk down the main road toward the Mekong river, and continued our stroll riverside. Along the way, we were bombarded with numerous vendors selling fruit, fruit shakes, delicious chicken sandwiches, and of course incessant tuk-tuk drivers trying to take us to the local attractions: waterfalls and caves. We were pretty tired from the bus ride, so we spent the rest of the evening relaxing.
After sleeping in the next morning, something we haven’t been able to do for a few days, we grabbed a chicken sandwich and were off to try and hitch a ride to Kuang Si Falls, a large multi-stage waterfall located about 30km outside of the city. We ran into two Dutchmen and an Englishman trying to do the same, and so we shared the tuk-tuk together. The waterfalls were better than we had imagined. After arriving and paying our entrance fee, we followed a trail through the forest which passed by two separate cages: one for a family of bears, and one for a tiger which was “sleeping” that day. As we walked further into the forest, the path finally opened up to reveal a large pool of water, which was at the lower end of a series of tiered pools. The water was bright baby blue, and was so inviting that we immediately jumped in for a cool-down. This pool was only about 15 m wide, and in the middle we were not able to touch the bottom. After climbing the small waterfall and jumping off, we decided to continue our adventure further through the forest and up to the other tiers.
The bus back to Luang Nam Tha turned out to be similar to a Thailand songthaew which was quickly packed full of people and bags of rice or grain. Along the way and older western man brought out a bag of candy. A local woman sitting on the floor of our ride quickly snatched it out of his hands and took it upon herself to spread the wealth. Little did the man know, she fully intended to distribute all of the candy. She gave a few rounds of candy to her friends sitting around her, and then some to everyone sitting towards the front of the truck. Tara and I each received a generous three pieces. Then she scooped about 3 full handfuls for herself, and the poor man was left with about five pieces, but it didn’t seem to bother him. He probably had a few more bags of candy with him.
We arrived in Luang Nam Tha about two hours later and found a guest house for the night. This gave us a chance to do some laundry. There are plenty of trekking opportunities in Luang Nam Tha as well as kayaking and bicycling, but during the two days we stayed there, it was extremely hot. We made an attempt to walk to a hill top pagoda, but ended up lost and had to turn back. We spent the rest of the time reading and drinking fruit shakes or beer. The last morning in Nam Tha, Tara ordered a banana pancake which turned out to be a small cake cooked in a pan with bananas. It was thick and delicious! We then took a local taxi to a long distance bus station which was 10 km out of town.
Signs at our guest house said that the bus times to the next city, Oudomxai, left at: 8:30, 9:30, 11:00, 12:00, 13:00. We arrived at 7:45 and bought our tickets for the first bus. It was a full two hours later that we realized two vertical lines written on our paper that might mean the bus doesn’t leave until 11. We ended up leaving at 12:20 when the bus was full. The bus this time was a proper bus, but looked like it had gone through a tough 25 years in China before being donated to Laos. It was in rough shape with everything falling apart. Three hours later we arrived in the empty town of Oudomxai. Although our guidebook deemed this town under-rated, we decided to skip it and checked into a guest house across from the bus station.
The next morning we woke up early to try to catch the first bus possible since none seemed to follow any sort of schedule. We bought our tickets for a bus to Muang Khoua. Since we had been some of the last to buy our tickets, all the seats where taken and we had to sit on small plastic lawn chairs in the aisle. We had to brace ourselves on every twist and turn to keep from sliding or toppling over. During the ride we ate breakfast purchased from a vendor in the bus station. We each had two freshly baked, small baguettes and a fried piece of dough that tasted more like bread than a dough nut. Another popular option was sticky rice cooked with coconut and packaged in a thin piece of bamboo. Three hours and one security checkpoint later we arrived in Muang Khoua.
The only thing interesting about Mengla was the brothel across from our hotel. In fact, our hotel may have once been a brothel because in our bathroom was a tile with a picture of a nude woman, which was spray painted over at one point, but someone had curiously scratched the paint away. We caught the first mini-bus out of Mengla the following morning, and Adam sat next to two monks in the backseat. One of the monks had the newest Canon camera and was taking hundreds of pictures out the window as our bus drove towards the border.
Our driver stopped along the way to deliver several packages, a theme common in Asia (especially China and Vietnam). We forgot to mention in our post about the rice terraces in Vietnam that the minivan we took to get to Sapa was fairly empty. We started off and arrived 10 minutes later at a brewery. Every last bit of breathing room was filled with kegs of beer and some sort of bagged snack food. Of course, the goods were delivered before we arrived in Sapa which added on quite a bit of travel time with no discount in price. The road we took towards the border with Laos winded along hills and was bumpy despite being paved in most sections. We jumped onto a nice highway for a good 20 minutes, but then suddenly jumped back off onto another dirt road. Again, 20 minutes later we took a dirt ramp back onto the highway, enjoyed the luxury, and then jumped off again. It quickly became obvious that makeshift, dirt ramps had been constructed by the locals allowing us to use sections of the highway while avoiding the tolls!
We arrived at the Chinese Immigration building and were immediately swamped by money changers. One woman actually gave us a really good rate compared to what we had researched on the internet, but she then proceeded to use every trick possible to try to screw us into a bad deal. The money changer women first handed us stacks of 2000, and 5000 bills (some of the lowest denominations). To their astonishment, we proceeded to count all the bills, and check for damaged ones. More than a handful of bills from each stack were torn down the middle and taped back together. The women were very reluctant to trade them for good ones. The older women were angry, but we did catch a younger money changer laughing to herself. Since we were asking for upwards of 3 million Kip, it didn’t make sense to collect stacks of 1, 2, and 5 thousand denominations. When we asked for the larger denominations, the older women were angry. They wanted to unload all of their crappy, small bills on us. Luckily, the younger money changer handed us a few piles of larger bills. It seemed as though all of the women worked together. When we were still owed 250 000 Kip, they tried one final trick in giving us only 25 000, which is a fairly large difference. Once that was quickly sorted out, we walked away happy, and probably with more than a few fake bills. Luckily, we are in Laos, and these will probably be accepted everywhere anyway. The ladies were not impressed to see that we weren’t going to accept their rushed trade. More than a few times, they tried to quickly hand us all of the stacks of money and walk away.
We arrived at the mountain town of Zhongdian, also known as Shangrila, to find that it was cold and raining. Government officials declared the town and county Shangrila after britissh writer Jame Hilton’s novel The Lost Horizon to increase tourism. The funny thing is that it has actually worked. We were hoping to find a town that not many people visit, but found everything from Chinese tour buses to backpackers. The old portion of town resembled that of Dali or Lijiang, and the massive influx of government support was evident in the rapid construction of new buildings everywhere. We spent a while walking in the rain to find a cheap enough hostel or guesthouse. Unlike everywhere else in China, the hostels and guesthouses where were not willing to bargain. We walked out of the old town area, away from the inflated prices, and finally found a hotel. At this point it was fairly cold with a temperature which had to be near 5 degrees celcius. Unfortunately, no buildings in the town seemed to use central heating; not even our hotel room!
We awoke the next morning to snow, and we certainly were not prepared for it. Tara wore 3 shirts, a sweater, two pairs of socks, and her rain jacket. Looks like we didn’t miss our winter after all. We went to a cafe for brunch and to wait for better weather. The cafe was not heated, but had a iron stove in the middle. The stove had a circular tube which held cylindrical, pressed chunks of charcoal, each about the size of a mini-soccer ball and with holes throughout to help it burn. Placed on top of the circular tube was a thin, flat stovetop which conducted heat. Unfotunately, the stove did not radiate much heat. Instead, the waitress placed a bucket of hot coals next to our table. The snow eventually turned to rain, but the weather did not warm up by the time we had finished our lunch and hot chocolates. We were forced to see the town despite the rain.
We caught an early bus to Qiaotou. We had been riding for about 3 hours when all of a sudden the bus driver told us to get off and buy tickets to the “park.” A frantic woman with an Austrailian accent ran up to us from out of nowhere and quickly told us that it was 50 Yuan per person or half off if you can prove that you’re a student. We later found out that this woman was the infamous Margo who runs the Gorged Tiger Cafe that we had read about in our Lonely Planet. After purchasing our foreigner tickets for the walk, we walked into Margo’s cafe and saw about six other backpackers leaving for the trek. We decided to have lunch and each had the “tomato cheese melt.” For a pita with some cheese, chunks of tomato, and a sprinkle of oregano cooked in the microwave, it wasn’t too bad. Margo was a bit flustered or scatter brained, but she had good advice about the trek and the surrounding area. We left our big bags at the cafe and set off with a change of clothes and our rain gear. We could safely pack this light because guesthouses are scattered along the trail.
After arriving in Lijiang early in the afternoon and quickly finding our hotel, we began to explore the old town and surroundings. While Dali was the old capital of the Yunnan province and has more history, Lijiang has had more success in attracting tourists. This is due mainly to the cobblestone streets and small waterways that wind their way through town. Most of the walkways, too narrow for vehicles, are lined with storefronts in traditional architecture. The streams that used to provide the townspeople with fresh water are still used today for cleaning the storefronts and washing clothes.
We quickly found out that we had arrived in Dali in time for the first day of a week long festival dedicated to the third lunar month. Dali’s streets are lined with shops sporting traditional chinese architecture, and city is walled with four main gates on either side. There were probably even more tourists than usual because of the festival, and at times it was hard to avoid getting hit in the head by the many sun umbrellas. Despite the large number of chinese tourists who constantly snapped photos of us, there were still a relatively small number of western tourists here. In the middle of the town we found “foreigner” street which is lined with cafes serving pizza, banana pancakes, and other western food.
We made our way towards the west gate because we were told that this is where the main festivities were located. After fighting our way through the crowds, we walked through the gate which opened up to a larger area filled with carnival rides and games. A massive, temporary market lined a large street sloping up toward the surrounding Zhonghe mountain. We decided to walk shoulder to shoulder with the crowd through this market, while being smacked in the head with even more umbrellas. There were tons of food stalls selling hot dogs on a stick, chinese food, and ice cream. Many shops also sold clothing for really low prices: 10 Yuan belts, 35 Yuan shoes, 15 Yuan shirts, etc… Most of these shops had speakers blasting a recording of what we guessed to be their special deals, or a man on a ladder waving people into his store.