We arrived in San Francisco late in the evening, and the first taste of North America we received was the customs official yelling at people to fill the immigration lines. There was no please, or thank-you, and he was harsh and loud. We quickly figured out how to take the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), and took it to downtown. The BART system was much older, louder and dirtier than what we were used to. It was also run by an actual person, and not by a computer. At one point the conductor came on the loudspeaker and started yelling at someone standing in the doorway of one of the cars. This was a big contrast to the ultra modern system in Hong Kong or Singapore, where everything was fully automated, smooth, silent, and which also used the wind generated from movement for ventilation. The San Francisco subway lines were stuffy and hot.
Well, it’s been a while since we’ve been back, but we never actually finished the story. Here are the last two entries.
Hong Kong is a city composed of many islands, mainly Hong Kong Island, and Kowloon Island. It is a financial and architectural metropolis located just off the East cost of mainland China. We left Singapore early in the afternoon, and arrived in Hong Kong in the evening, just after dusk. As soon as we arrived at the airport, we picked up our bags, and purchased an airport express ticket and an â€œoctopusâ€ card. The octopus card is a multi-purpose card that can be used for almost all forms of public transport including the ultra modern MTR subway, buses, tram cars, as well as at stores such as 7-11 and KFC. It only cost 7HKD (1 USD) with a 50 HKD refundable deposit. If more money was put on the card and not used before returning the card, there is a full refund issued. The airport express ticket was good for a single trip into the city on a modern subway/train with few stops.
We pictured Kanchanaburi to be a small village along a river in the middle of some jungle, but it was actually quite a large city since it is the capital of its province. Although it’s a big city, it does have close and convenient access to national parks and waterfalls, but we were here mostly to visit the bridge on the river kwai and a tiger temple.
The bridge on the river kwai, made famous by the movie, was basically the start of what became known as “The Death Railway.” The Japanese occupied Thailand and much of South East Asia during WWII, and decided that it was necessary to build a railway into Burma in order to occupy Burma, and cut off important supply routes to China. The railway was constructed by tens of thousands of POWs, many of which died from disease, malnutrition, fatigue, and the commanding Japanese themselves.
We stepped off the bus and were immediately greeted by the usual touts. This time we decided to listen to one of them; perhaps because we are at the end of our trip and don’t really care to hunt for a better bargain. The woman led us to a driver that was going to take us to the guest house for 80 baht each. When we started to walk away, he eventually lowered his price to 40 baht total. He took us to what turned out to be a really nice guest house called “Jolly Frog.” It looked like this place would be quite popular in the busy season since it had nice rooms, a nice courtyard with hammocks, and a massive restaurant with reasonable prices. After checking into our room, we decided to go for a walk towards the bridge.
Literally 15 minutes into the walk, we made a detour to an air conditioned internet cafe. The heat was unbearable. This was the first time in our trip that we had to stop walking, even in the shade, and get out of the heat. We stayed in the cafe surfing the web for at least two hours until it was around 3pm and the temperature had started to cool down. At this point, we were able to finish the walk, which turned out to only be a few minutes more to the bridge. Along the way, we noticed that a woman lost her hat as she drove by on her friend’s motorbike. An old man driving the opposite way slowed down and picked up the hat. Both of us were thinking that it was nice to see such generosity by the old man. However, instead of turning around and giving the hat back, he simply dove away slowly as if he would stop if someone complained. No one complained and he simply puttered down the road after stealing the hat. We still joke about the “nice old man.”
We arrived late Friday evening in Chiang Mai and were too late to pick up our Buddha statue from the Fine Arts Department. In order to kill time we decided to visit the zoo on Saturday. We rented a motorbike and drove through some serious traffic to reach the zoo which was only about 20 minutes from the city centre. The zoo was pretty small, but somehow we managed to spend the entire afternoon there watching monkeys, lions, tigers, and giant pandas. On Sunday we slept in and strolled through the city for the day. In the evening, the Sunday Night market was set-up along a long walking street. The market stretched for about a kilometer along a cobbled stone street with vendors along either side, some even spilling into side streets and open wats. Buskers in the middle of the street kept everything entertaining, and there were plenty of food stalls. There was even a live performance of dancers and breakdancers. Although the market was very touristy, it seemed as though a large number of local people frequented it as well. It was easily one of the best market experiences out of the hundreds that we have had.
The bus ride to Pai was one of the most scenic rides in all of Thailand. The roads winded through the mountains, and it felt like we were back in Laos again. As we pulled into the bus station, a man was walking across the street with a shirt that said “Do nothing in Pai.” This pretty much explains the town in a nutshell. Pai is a small little tourist town in the North-West area of Thailand which for some reason has turned into a backpacker hangout. There are no real attractions, except for the scenery, which can include riding elephants through the jungle to view numerous caves and waterfalls. The town itself is relatively calm, with Western style restaurants everywhere you turn. There are also plenty of motorbike rental places lining the small, narrow streets.
We decided to take a hint from the hordes of westerners riding motorbikes, and rent one ourselves the next day. We began the day riding a few kilometers outside the town to a wat located at the top of a small hill. This wat was not spectacular by itself, but the view from the hill was great. Unfortunately, since it is almost the rainy season, most of the farmers were burning their fields to create fertilizer. While this may be great for future crops, the haze in the sky blocks the beautiful scenery.
We continued our tour past a few of the elephants used for trekking in the area, but decided not to stop to ride one. Most of the elephants looked very old and tired. We did stop further down the road at a hot springs site. It was relatively expensive to get in, so we were expecting huge pools of heated spring water to bathe in. However, when we got in, all there was to see were a few 80 degree Celsius pools. A small stream ran across the pools, but it wasn’t too much fun to wade only up to our ankles in the hot water. We suspect that this spring is much better during the rainy season when the stream probably turns into a river, and the cold rain water would make the heated water bearable. The rest of the day, we spent riding around the area taking in the scenery and enjoying our time in what felt like the middle of nowhere, surrounded by jungle, and just us and a motorbike.
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.