Day 1 on the Mekong

Hannah and I rise early to catch the sunrise.  There are too many clouds for it to be spectacular but the serene calmness of the town before its inhabitants awake is priceless.  The air is still apart from the crowing of roosters.   The mountains on the Lao side of the Khong River are shrouded in mist, revealing themselves slowly as the sky lightens and the sun begins to rise.

After breakfast we head for the border.  At the border we are stamped out of Thailand before boarding a bus over the Friendship Bridge to the Laos border.  Here, we pay USD30 for our Laos visas and exchange our Thai Baht into something more useful.

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Back on the minibuses again before, a short way down the road we realise that the second bus picked up the wrong group of people.  Passengers rectified, we move on to the longboat dock.

Along the waters edge, brightly coloured longboats patiently wait for their human cargo to board.  Our bags are loaded into the front section of our private boat, while we carefully board and remove our shoes.  With everyone settled onboard and the driver installed at his car seat, the boat begins chugging and we are off.  The boat is a decent size for us.  Just behind the driver are 4 daybeds, 2 on each side along the side of the boat.  Next are a bunch of tables and chairs, a dining area, kitchen and toilets.  Beyond that I can’t tell without being nosy but I’m told most families live aboard their boats too.

Gold thread curtains line the windows.  The wooden floors creak and groan as we pad back and forth across them.  We leave the daybeds for the older couples and seat ourselves at the tables.

Outside the boat, granite outcrops, fishing poles, small long boats, sticks and other assorted flotsam adorn the waterway.  Onboard is the captain, what I assume is his wife and a second mate.

Noticing that no-one has taken advantage of the daybeds, Hannah, Erin, Dan and his Mum and I wander up the front of the boat to enjoy them, cracking open our beers and snacks.

The Mekong stretches lazily for over 4,000km and spans all the way from Tibet to Vietnam, with the lions share of it making its home in Laos.  In each of the countries it runs through, it is called something different – River of the Nine Dragons in Vietnam, Khong (Mother of the Waters) in Laos and Water of the Rocks in Tibet.

Late in the afternoon we arrive at Pakbeng, where we will be spending the night.  Our bags are loaded into a small lorry as we trudge up the hill to our guesthouse.  Pakbeng is a small town which probably only exists for its location as a halfway point between Chiang Khong and Luang Prabang.  Shops and guesthouses line the single road.

An attempt to visit the local markets ends with a downpour of rain.  Very few stalls remain open but we get to taste fresh tamarind and watch the local kids huddle from the rain.

Dinner is at the guesthouse restaurant but we head out for drinks a couple of doors down.  We call it a day when the Magoo’s rock up.

Sar’s Surprise

Today we leave Chiang Mai early for a long day on the road to Chiang Khong.  Chiang Khong is a border town between Thailand and Laos and is where we will begin our two day cruise down the Mekong River.  I’m a little nervous about what to expect, not being a fan of boats, but I know the shoreline will be in sight at all times, so fingers crossed.

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One thing I had always wanted to see in Thailand was the glorious White Temple.  “Where’s the White Temple Sar?”  I asked during the train journey to Chiang Mai.  “On the way to Chiang Khong” he answered.  Today, while telling us about the day’s program, Sar admits “White Temple, we go there”. I look at him “Do we actually visit there?” trying not to get my hopes up.  “Yep, we go to White Temple”.  OMG YES!  I am beyond excited to hear this news.  The friggin White Temple!!!  Woohoo!

We have about three hours of driving to do before then.  Plenty of time to listen to Mrs Magoo berate Mr Magoo for everything and nothing in particular.  ‘Take a photo Dennis”, “no, don’t take a photo of THAT!”  Oh, I haven’t told you about the Magoo’s yet.  They are an older couple that we have dubbed with this name, simply because they fumble about, arguing with each other and asking questions about things that Sar has literally just told us.  All, the, time.  Mr Magoo, or Dennis, seems like a genuinely nice guy, but he is constantly lugging around Mrs Magoo’s bags and generally being berated for doing the wrong thing.  Mrs Magoo, never, ever smiles.  Everything seems to be an utter disappointment to her and I’m really not quite sure why she left the comfort of home to come to Asia, but they are here and part of our big happy tour group.

Thankfully the bickering is put on hold with a stop at a cashew nut factory.  Everyone stops here.  Yes it’s touristy, but cashews are awesome and they make some fantastic cashew snacks here including these coffee soaked ones that I picked up.  Besides, where else do you learn why cashews are so expensive?

But finally, we arrive in Chiang Rai.  Home to the White Temple.  The White Temple deserves its own gallery, which I will post,  but let me just show you the toilets, yes the toilets…

The White Temple, or Wat Rong Khun as it is rightly known is the masterpiece of Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat and he’s spent 18 years on this labour of love.  He created the temple with his own funds and small contributions so that he could retain total creative freedom.

“I want to be the only artist in the world who can create anything with utmost freedom; I do not want to work under anybody’s influence or thought processes.  No one in the world can order me to do their forebidding, because I do not accept any monetary donations from sources including government officers, politicians or millionaires.  Money can give the donors power to influence the takers, much like many artists who work as employees.  I, then, need to find funding to build the temple by myself”.

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There is so much incredible detail and building in this temple it’s hard to take your eyes off it.  I wanted to photograph every inch of it.  I would have slept here overnight if I could have.  Sunset at this temple would have been a gift from the heavens.  Inside the temple are incredible mural paintings of dragons, skulls and buddhas not to mention Superman, the dude in the black coat from the Matrix, George Dubbya, a minion and much more.  It’s insane.  And unfortunately, not photographable.  You should definitely go see it to believe it.

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On site there is also a gallery where you can see the artist’s other works.  I am so glad we stopped here, though if you ask Mrs Magoo (actually she’ll tell you even if you didn’t) she can’t understand why anyone would want to see this ridiculous building and what the hell was the artist thinking when he created this, this thing.  Tut.

More hours later, we arrive in Chiang Khong.  It’s a very quiet little town about 4km from the border, so there’s not much to do except for wander down to the riverbank to soak up the feel of the town and watch the locals enjoy their evening.

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We share a group dinner, because there’s not really much option in Chiang Khong, but Hannah and I leave early to try and track down the sweet man we saw peddling his wares earlier, which we do without much effort.  We purchase a selection of the sweets and rush back to our balcony seating to enjoy them.

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Well, not quite, because they are – and I’m so sorry to say this – gross.  We pretty much spit them out and then wash them down with the cheap wine coolers (also gross) we bought from the convenience store.  An early night it is for us then.  Probably not for the Magoo’s though as I hear they are still at the restaurant fighting over the bill.

Because it’s Ladies Night…

Breakfast!  I’m starving because, as I knew I would, I was dreaming about that Khao Soi Chicken all night!  Luckily, not far from the hotel is a cute little bakery with a breakfast to satisfy even the hungriest of people.  In fact, the breakfast consisted of so much food, that Erin and I needed two tables to put it all on!  Juice, coffee, fresh bread with jam and butter, scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, ham and salad.  Whoa!

IMG_20161105_080515Just as well today is a free day and Hannah, Erin and I have decided to hire bikes to explore the old town and work off some of that breakfast.  We hook ourselves up with some bikes from a bikeshop down the road and head for the Old Town.  Here, there are lots of little alleyways with cool street art and funky cafes and the streets are relatively quiet to cycle around.

The Old City is still bounded by the remains of a 600 year old moat and fragments of the old city walls, which give it a unique atmosphere to explore.  Many old cities in Thailand were walled, however Chiang Mai’s is one of the only ones remaining.

After cycling around for most of the morning, it’s time for a rest.  So what better than to stop for a massage by ex-Prison Ladies.  I must admit I was sceptical at first, but it had been a while since I’d ridden and a massage would be brilliant right about now, as well as offering a chance to get out of the heat.

Set up by a former director of Chiang Mai’s Women’s Prison, Lila Thai Massage provides employment opportunities for women that would otherwise find it hard to work elsewhere, with discrimination against former prisoners rife, as it is in most societies.  Once the women leave prison, they are screened and put through an intensive training program.  There are a couple of centres like this in town, so if you rock up at one and told that you have to wait, or they are full for the day, try another.

An hour’s worth of foot massage and reflexology under the cool of a circulating fan and I’m feeling good as new.

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After lunch nearby with Hannah, I’ve had enough cycling for one day, my pants are sticking to me like glue and I need a shower.  An afternoon nap may even be in store.

Dinner is back at Anusan, I wonder why?  Cause we gotta try the Khao San Pork!  And of course the mango and sticky rice, which is also a favourite of Chiang Mai.  Verdict?  The pork is good, but it’s winner, winner, chicken dinner!  The mango is great, but I’m not a huge fan of putting it with rice.  I was glad to give it a go though.

Now for the moment we’ve all been waiting for…Cabaret Night!  This is where Chiang Mai’s prettiest ladies (or rather ladyboys) come to shine.  The makeup is done to perfection and the costumes are fabulous.  Girls parade the stage, belting out tunes from Arianna Grande, Rihanna, Gloria Gaynor and more.  Some are better at lip-syncing than others but it’s a brilliant show full of colour and dazzle.  Even the guys from the audience that get ‘dragged’ up on stage end up loving it.  You definitely should not miss this if you are in town.

My First Muoy Thai Match

I awake as we pull into a small station about a half hour from Chiang Mai.  Dogs, cats, chicken and geese roam along the tracks and platform.  Tropical plantlife surrounds the station.  It’s peaceful and quaint.

Chiang Mai station is possibly the loveliest station I’ve ever disembarked at with its spotless platform and it’s lovely thai garden.  Outside the station, bright red songteows line the parking lot and touts parade around hassling new arrivals for a ride.  Pamphlets are being handed out for tonight’s Muoy Thai match.

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We jump into our minibus and head to town.  Our hotel is the People’s Place 2.  It has simple rooms and is situated behind the Anusan markets, which become alive in the evenings with people drinking, dining, shopping or enjoying the biggest drawcard of the market – the ladyboy shows.

After settling in we jump in a minibus bound for Mount Doi Suthep where the shimmering gold temples of Wat Phra That sit against the bright blue sky.  Wat Phra That was built in 1383 and is still a working monastery today.  To get to the monastery, you can climb the 300 steps of the Nagan Serpent Staircase or you can take the lift.  At the top, birds are chirping and bells are ringing gently through the air.  There are a number of shrines and temples you can explore and you can choose to have your fortune told by Joss stick.  Note, take your shoes off before you go to return your bad fortune or you’ll risk being chased by a monk.

From Doi Suthep, you get a magnificent view of the city below.  It’s peaceful here.  Outside, however the streets are lined with stalls and hawkers and songteows waiting to ferry tourists back to their hotels.

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Driving back to town, we weave through the streets of Chiang Mai, giving us our first glimpse of the streets.  An explosion of colour with fruits, vegetables, flowers and signs.  It’s buzzing, but in a more laid back kind of way than Bangkok.

Unloading from the minibus, we go on the hunt for snacks and beers.  Sar guides us down the end of the which our hotel is on, and through a gap in the fence into the back of Anusan Markets.  We wind through the markets to the food hall.  The whole group stands in front of the same stall, umming and ahhing over the choices and then moves en masse to the next stall.  Feeling kind of awkward about this, Erin and I head decide to eat here and we are rewarded with the most amazing dish.  Khao Soi Chicken is the specialty of Chiang Mai – chicken, or pork, in coconut milk with tumeric, tamarind and coriander flavours intermingling and a stack of crispy noodles in the middle for good measure.  Our tastebuds are tingling with joy at the discovery of this delight and I know I will go to bed dreaming about this meal.

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There is a staggering amount of dishes to try at Anusan and I’ll bet there’s a hundred dishes that will get your tastebuds smiling, so it can be a big decision.  Most menus are in English and there are pictures on the signboards, so you shouldn’t end up with something you don’t want.

After dinner, everyone separates to do their own thing for the night.  A small group of us decide to head to the muoy thai.  Arriving at the venue, we discover a ring set in the middle of a pavillion, with bars set up around the outside and plastic seating in between.  There are about five bouts, both men and women and the showstopper is a bout between three blindfolded contestants.  Their poor guide constantly dodges misguided swings while trying to help the fighters find each other instead.

 

The real contenders are tough.  I can only imagine the bruises and aches they will go home with tonight.  At one point you can see the UK contender’s heart actually being in his chest.  The crowd laps up this event and I have to admit that although I don’t like seeing people beat the crap out of each other, I’ve really enjoyed it too.

Reclining Buddha and the Golden Showers

Erin recalls a little cart down near Rambuttri where she had a breakfast of dumplings for the bargain price of 20 baht yesterday.  Sounds like a good idea, so off we head.

All along the main road there are food stalls setting up for the day’s trade.  We find the dumpling lady and order a mixed serve each, wandering the streets while we chomp away.  The dumplings are delicious.

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Today is our only day to explore Bangkok as tonight we leave for our next destination.  So Sar leads us through the streets to catch a bus to our first stop of the day, Way Pho.   The trick to catching the bus is to haul it to a stop and then scamper up the massive stairs before it takes off.   The bus is a massive bulk of a thing with wooden floors and old school style bench seats.  It bellows out smoke as it makes its way through the streets.

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We change buses at the grounds of the Grand Palace, which is crowded with people.  This is where the King is currently lying in state.  Many are camping out here from outlying provinces and makeshift facilities have been set up to cater for this.

A short ride later, we arrive at Wat Pho, also know as the home of the reclining Buddha.  The Buddha lays inside the wat, which is an elaborate building, covered in gold decorative carving, surrounded by colourful mosaic stupas and fragrant temple trees (frangipanis).  

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Another type of tree can also be found in the temple grounds – Thailand’s national flower, the Flower of Rarchaphraek.  Sar shows us a first glimpse of his wicked sense of humour as he chuckled over their national flower being more commonly known as ‘golden showers’.  Even funnier, he thinks, is how the Thai accent makes it sound like ‘cemen’ was used to build the temple.

Wat next?  We head down past numerous stalls and through the back of some markets to the river.  From here we’ll be boarding a long tail boat for a ride through the khlongs.  About six of us board each of the colourful boats.  Getting in the boats proves a task not for the faint hearted, but soon we are bumping over the waves towards the khlongs.

Wooden homes in various degrees of decay line the banks.  Every now and again we reach a loch gate and we have to sit and wait our turn to pass through and continue our journey.  The massive gates open ever so slowly to let us through.

Soon we arrive at a dock near to Rambuttri, so we disembark.  It’s free time for the afternoon and to get ready to depart Bangkok this evening for Chiang Mai.

Several of us opt for lunch first.  We stop by ‘Magic Thai’ and at 40 baht, my Pad Thai was not only much, much cheaper than last night’s meal (which came in at 180 baht), but also delicious.

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Then we go our separate ways to prepare for this evening, buying snacks, spending some time by the rooftop pool, packing and even time for a cocktail or two.

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At the designated time, we load our bags into a couple of minivans and head for the train station.  We arrive with enough time to grab a quick dinner – this time rice, Thai omelette and a beer for 110 baht – I’m getting better at this!  We still have a bit of time left to wait, so a couple of us decide to get our fortunes read by the fortune telling machine (yes, that should ring alarm bells).  I’m not sure exactly what it means when you are given your fortune and this happens….

Eek!  No time to dwell on that because it’s time to board our train.  We are traveling by sleeper carriage and will be arriving into Chiang Mai in the early morning.  The journey takes between 12 and 15 hours depending on how many stops are made.  The carriages consist of four beds, bunk style, with a small table under the window sill.  We’ve been advised to use the toilets early on as they get filthy pretty early on in the journey.  People chat, read, listen to music or play cards to while away the time and at around 8.30pm, staff come through the train to make up the beds.

Struggling to keep warm even with my zip up hoody on, I finally fall asleep, but throughout most of the night I’m aware of some part of me or another being cold.

Why Am I Doing This NOW?

I’m out of work at the moment.  For two months now, there’s not been a single day of work available.  I wish I was back in Melbourne.  My dollars are dwindling – I just didn’t see the absolute lack of work coming and then my beloved kitty Lili died unexpectedly (cue $$$ vet bill).  So it seems like such a stupid time to go on a holiday but that’s exactly what I’m about to do.  Truth be told, the trip was booked a long time ago (in true Michelle fashion) and I would now lose money by not going.  In a way it’s a good thing I did book everything so far away because I shouldn’t have to fork out much on the road.

I think about all the travel I’ve done over the past couple of years and wonder if I shouldn’t have gone to so many places or travelled a bit less, but at the end of the day?… no, I wouldn’t take that back.  Looking back through my blog at all those incredible experiences, amazing places and breathtaking views, there’s not a single trip I regret.

But maybe this is just what I need to pull my despondent ass together and regroup.  Travel re-sets me.  So I haul my backpack out the door once more and try to forget my money woes.

At 3.15pm I arrive into Bangkok.  My driver isn’t keen to talk.  Is it the “heavy one hour drive” ahead of us?  I’m not sure but it suits me fine, talking to others is not my strong point.

Giant signboards with peeling Samsung Galaxy 7 posters dominate the freeway, above a patchwork of grey metal sheeting from disused looking buildings and amongst a mass of grey concrete flyovers.

It’s a fairly grey afternoon but the air is warm. No was last here 8 years ago for a day or so after my trip through Cambodia and it doesn’t seem to have changed much.  It’s not my favourite destination, just a pass-through point to somewhere else.  But I’m keen to give it another chance.

Banana and other assorted tropical looking trees now begin to dominate the landscape.  These give way to new constructions and elegant mosques, homes and showrooms.  Tall pines interspersed with what looks like, but surely can’t be, massive marijuana plants.

Suddenly we hit the traffic.  It’s peak hour and school’s just let out for the day.  The driver tuts at the stream of cars in front of us.  A man stands outside a school gate with his cart, grilling after school snacks – tiny little children lining up for their turn.  Leis of flowers (gajra) are being peddled from car to car in the unmoving traffic.  Tributes to Thailand’s recently deceased and much beloved King appear here and there.  Elaborately framed photos, black ribbons and bouquets are everywhere.

Now the driver decides to talk.  And he talks loads.  About the parents picking their kids up from school, about his son (24, lazy, constantly lends him money), his divorce and finally about the King and how accomplished he was.

Outside the Nouvo City Hotel, we say goodbye and the delightfully helpful staff check me in.  My roommate has already arrived but isn’t in the room at the moment.  I dump my stuff on the unoccupied bed and freshen up a little.  I’d kill for a Jack Daniels right now but I can’t make myself leave the hotel so I decide to just chill in a way that doesn’t include being squashed up against the side of an airplane window and wait for group meeting time.

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6pm arrives and I head to the lobby to meet our Thai tour guide, Sar.  Formalities aside, some of us head to Rambuttri St for dinner.  It doesn’t take long to realise that the restaurant Sat has guided us to is quite expensive and despite the nice outdoor area, which we aren’t seated in, the food was not brilliant.  Back out on the street, all sorts of food carts emanating delicious smells and sometimes an unusual range of food, have us feeling perhaps a little ripped off.

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My roommate, Erin, spies some guy she met at the airport yesterday, so we head to a bar/restaurant for some much needed drinks.  Erin is from Newcastle and we seem to get along fairly well.  The others are an odd bunch at first glance (do we have to put in for the tip kitty?) and I’m not sure how this is all going to go (flashbacks to the tour group in Europe – oh gosh).

But that is Day 1 over, so we’ll see what tomorrow brings.  On the way back to the hotel we stop in at the convenience store to stock up on drinks and snacks.  For some reason, I decide a packet of silk worms would be a great snack.  Unless you like the taste of ash in your mouth, it was not.