A Travellerspoint blog

French Connection

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When the tsongkaeo driver dropped us off in the city centre of Vientiane, I asked him what street we were on, seeing as street signs in Laos are generally in Lao. He looked at me like I was stupid and pointed to the sign. Which was in French, a lot easier to understand than Lao.

There is more evidence of its French past than the road signs. Grand presidential style buildings with wide tree-lined streets. Mixed in with a number of Buddhist temples and nowadays, Thai-style concrete boxes.



Apart from wandering the streets, I went to visit “Buddha Park”, a park of stone Buddhas 20k out of town. Getting there was an experience in itself. The easy part was catching a local bus to the Thai border checkpoint. I then joined a tsongkaeo to the park. Over one of the roughest stretches of road I have been on. Rutted and pot-holed dirt, it was bone-rattling and suspension-destroying. Vehicles both ways drove wherever on the road looked least rough. It was only about 8k but more than enough. A good business in Central/Southern Laos would be suspension and shock absorbers. And at some point, road engineering.


Posted by grasshopper 19:25 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Epic on a Bus

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Today was a Not So Hot Day. In other words, a Wet Day. Hosed down overnight.

It was also the day I moved on from Luang Prabang to the capital Vientiane. In the absence of the now-deceased boat service, I caught the bus. It was one of those 2-level buses common in North America and, I imagine, Europe. A couple of minutes down the road I decided it wasn't really suited to the narrow Laos roads. Not really balanced right. If I only knew.

It is about 400km from Luang Prabang to Vientiane by road and it took a tick or two under 12 hours. Almost half of that time over a 140km hill range. Spectacular scenery. Very green like New Zealand with the addition of jungle foliage. Interesting rock-hill formations on the tops. Constant winding roads, similar to the Coromandel over a vastly extended distance. The tops may have been at 1500m or so, at a wild guess. There's is not a whole lot of traffic that goes over the hill, and most of it big. Semi's pulling full-sized shipping containers. Vehicle transporters with SUV's or similar. A truck pulling an earthworks vehicle on a trailer. A couple of trucks of motorcycles and a few buses. Passing on narrow roads cut into the sides of steep hills. And then it rained. We went up into the clouds, then we looked down on clouds. It was surreal seeing the hills shrouded in cloud and driving though semi-jungle.


Eventually we came down, and Flatland has never looked so good. Through the one-time party central town of Vang Vieng, and onwards through greener-than-green rice paddies, then through flooded rice fields. The kind that makes frogs happier than pigs in slop. Tractors I had never seen before, like a motor on two wheels with a long steering wheel pulling a 2 wheel trailer. Trailers pulled by motorcycles. Those peaked flax-straw hats all over the place.


Landscape on the way to Vang Vieng

Landscape on the way to Vang Vieng

I don't begrudge the driver taking 3 hours over time. God only knows how he was meant to do the trip in the advertised 9 hours in that bus on those roads.

We pulled into the capital in the dark. Then a $3 tsongkaeo ride into town jolting over bumpy roads in the pouring rain. Dropped us off right on the corner of the street I was wanting to find. An hour later I had a bed for the night and was eating my $2 plate of spicy rice.

Posted by grasshopper 22:47 Archived in Laos Comments (1)

Swimming With Elephants

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When I went to the Singapore Zoo they had elephant rides. I didn’t bother with the queues but thought it would be neat to ride an elephant.

Here in Luang Prabang there is an array of tour offices offering a selection of tour options. Elephant riding and bathing caught my eye. I wasn’t quite sure what the bathing was about but it ended up being the most fun.

We drove out of town about 40 minutes to a small village on the river - dirt roads and wooden houses. They had a small number of elephants there and we were given a ride around the village for about half an hour or so. I thought that part was pretty neat.


Then we got down and went with the elephants down to the river. The “mahouts” - elephant trainers - give instructions in Lao and the elephants are amazingly responsive and reliable.

We had the chance to climb on with the normal seat, sitting on the elephant’s neck, and waded into the river. At first I thought she didn’t like me sitting on here because she kept spraying me with her trunk then chucking me off into the river. It turned out the mahouts were playing games with us and doing it on purpose. Way more fun than a lame walk around a small enclosure in the Singapore Zoo.


Posted by grasshopper 22:45 Archived in Laos Comments (4)

Luang Prabang

sunny 35 °C
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Luang Prabang is at the end of line, metaphorically speaking when it comes to long-distance public boat transport in Laos. The service down to the capital Vientiane ended just last year and south of Vientiane sometime before that.

My first impression of Luang Prabang was of missing the village of Pakbeng as here is significantly bigger. But it quickly grew on me. It is possibly the main tourist centre of Laos and has cafes and guesthouses overlooking the river. A night bazaar with a vast array of clothes and crafts for sale, and cheap food markets.

Laos has 2 seasons, Hot Dry and Hot Wet. Now is in theory Hot Wet, except there hasn’t been much Wet and a fair amount of Hot. Cycling in the heat yesterday was a little intense at times. It is not uncommon to see local Lao walking in the sun with an umbrella. It is not uncommon to see them riding motorcycles with an umbrella. No helmet.

There seems to me to be a lot of Western tourists and backpackers here. Even so, being low season, there is an obvious oversupply of cafes restaurants, guesthouses, tour offices and goods for sale. I see some cafe managers slumped over their table having a snooze ...

I understand that in high season pretty much every bed is taken. Which means a *lot* of tourists … The local town is gearing up for it too. I see brick pavement being laid like crazy, which makes me wonder how long some of the town has been here. Buildings grow faster than trees in this part of the world.


Sitting on a deck looking out at the Mekong flow lazily by, it gets hard to want to move ...


Posted by grasshopper 22:43 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

The Mighty Mekong

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The days of local commuter transport on the Mekong are coming to an end, as new roads are built. Today I caught the “Slow Boat” from Huay Xai down to Pakbeng, a small town whose main income is probably from tourists. Most of the boat was Western backpackers with a handful of Lao who were dropped off at various points along the way, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Once we cleared the border crossing towns, most of the river banks were unpopulated, much of it jungle and much of it hilly.

The term “Slow” is relevant. It went at a decent clip but slow compared to the “Fast Boat” which is like a long, sleek speed boat apparently reaching speeds of 70 km/hr. And I’ve heard they have a safety record to match. Although they did look like a lot fun when I saw them fly past.

Pakbeng, apart from the restaurants and guest houses, is quite poor. I walked as far as the turn-off from the main road. Most of the houses are wooden, some raised with wooden floors, some I suspect with dirt floors. People here are quite friendly.

One guy stopped and (I imagine) rehearsed his English repertoire: Where was I going, where was I from, where was I staying. Reminded me of when I used to experience that all the time travelling through Indonesia in my early 20’s. I also had a couple of hello’s and smiles. I’ve also learned my second word of Lao - for hello.


Posted by grasshopper 22:51 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Other Side of the River, Other Side of the Road

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One of the little adventures I was looking forward to, was crossing the Thai-Laos border, the Mekong river, by long boat. Perhaps by being too smart for my own good, it didn’t happen.

I got the local bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong, the Thai border town. With 4km to go to Chiang Khong, I saw a turnoff to Border Control and figured I needed to get off there.

After Thai immigration, there were no boats, only a shuttle over the “Freedom Bridge IV” to the Laos immigration. Major letdown.

After getting the local Tsongkaeo into Huay Xai I did see the longboat landing and another Laos immigration. There are several border crossings, only a few of which are open to Westerners. So whether I could have had my adventure if I’d stayed on the bus, or if that option is now closed, I do not know.

Since we’re on the other side of the river, people drive on the other side of the road. Logical I guess. I know it’s a cliche, but my first impression is that Lao are quite friendly.



Posted by grasshopper 22:02 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

The Night Bazaar

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A fellow guest at the City Home Guest House described Chiang Rai as more liveable than visitable. A bit harsh I thought - I enjoyed the night I had there.

There’s a cool Night Bazaar centred around a large courtyard-style open air restaurant area. A stage area, polished wooden tables and a large high-pitched wooden roof.

On stage was a variety of traditional Thai dance routines and Thai renditions of 70’s pop songs (think Carpenters).


Posted by grasshopper 21:59 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

On the Cutting Edge of Relaxation

30 °C
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One of my brother’s favourite phrases for his days off work in Chiang Mai. Last Sunday we drove out to Chiang Dao, then off the main road to a laid-back resort called “The Nest” for a coffee. Looked like a great place to do absolutely nothing.

On Thursday, we repeated the exercise. This time to the Sala Cafe at the foot of Doi Sethep, I think the second highness mountain in Thailand. Really there is nothing to do there, except sit and relax. Perhaps that is the whole attraction. Something the Thai do well is ambience and style.



Posted by grasshopper 21:56 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Medical Tourist

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Just before I came to Chiang Mai 2 years ago, I chipped my tooth. I simply had no time to see a dentist before I left. So I saw one in Chiang Mai. About $NZ15 later, the chip was filled.

So I haven't bothered to get a check-up until my return. They found 3 small "abrasions" near my gum line. All done for less than $100. Being on a roll, I got a second opinion on vaccinations and anti-malarial treatment and bought my military-grade insect repellent as back-up to the milder version I bought from NZ.

I rounded that off with 2 traditional Thai massages for around $5 each. I may have almost covered my plane ticket.

Posted by grasshopper 22:31 Archived in Thailand Comments (2)

Hot! Damn Hot!!!

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There's a silly combo on this blog for me to select the temperature.

I arrived in Chiang Mai in, officially, the Rainy Season. Except it wasn't raining. So in other words, HOT. I know there are other places hotter than the mid-high 30's but right now, that is hot enough for me.



Posted by grasshopper 22:30 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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