Saturday, June 13, 2009

ONE DAY THREE COUNTRIES

1. At about 9, 10 June (Day 45), we began our journey to Huay Xai in NE Laos, 520 km away, to take a ferry to Chiang Khong, Thailand. We had chosen this crossing point because of its proximity to North Thailand, which was where were heading next. It also gave us a chance to explore the NE Laos. We had to first back track along route 11 to Udomxai, 200 km away, and head further NE for 100 km to Nuidui (or Na Toei) where it then forks, one to Boten, the border crossing to Yunnan 30-40 km away and the other to Huay Xai.

2. At Udomxai we had lunch at a restaurant run by a Chinese from Yunnan. He came to Udomxai 10 years ago to start up a education business teaching Chinese to largely huachiaw before opening the restaurant. He had 2 busloads of tourists from Yunnan each day lunching at his restaurant, providing the base load for his restaurant business. He told us that theres a Chinese city about 300 m up the road and Udomxai had a large Chinese population. He cited a figure of 200-300 thousands which we could not believe since Lonely Planet put the population of Udomxai to be 80 000.

3. The road from Udomxai to Nuidui was even worse than the stretch from Luang Prabang to Udomxai. Its in a state of disrepair, with many potholes. Nuidui was hardly a town but we were pleasantly surprised with the quality of the road from here onwards. It was much better than other roads that we had travelled in Laos. The picture on the right showed the road ahead to Boten and a right turn to Huay Xai. The road to Huay Xai, Highway 3, is a high quality road, one lane either way, sealed with proper markings and shoulders, as good as highways in Thailand or Malaysia. However, we could see signs of earlier landslides and work in progress to repair them. For the first 120 km, this was not a major problem, and travel speed was still good, averaging 70-80 km per hour. Here you see me smiling as I was enjoying the drive along this road. There were more areas under repair than proper sealed road in the last 80 km to Huay Xai but travel speed was still not bad, averaging 50-60 km per hr, as efforts were made to smooth out the road so that travel speed was not too badly affected. However, minority villages still lined the road in many places and we had to be careful with animals, children and etc. This slowed us down somewhat. Quality wise this is a good road, potentially of highway standard (esp when the repair work is finished) but the adjacent villages limit the speed of travel on this road. One important observation: there was no petrol station over the 200 km between Nuidui and Huay Xai.

5. We encountered more trucks than cars along this road. With the vehicle crossing point at Chiang Khong/Huay Xai and the quality of road to Yunnan, Chiang Khong/Huay Xai is now the main crossing point for trucks in Northern Thailand heading for Yunnan in China.
Visitors travelling from N Thailand could cross to Huay Xai and take a slow boat or speed boat to Luang Prabang. We saw many falangs in Huay Xai. Chiang Khong/Huay Xai crossing point had now become one of the favourite backpackers trails.

6. We were happy that we were doing good speed along Highway 3 and we decided to press on to Huay Xai. Got there at about 8 pm and after checking couple of hotels checked into Thanomsuv Hotel for 400 bahts. Had dinner at a river side restaurant next to the Mekong and had an enforced early rest as hotel did not have internet. Next morning we took a walk in the morning market hoping to see if we could buy the BBQ/steamboat utensils. Saw one but decided against buying because we thought the depth of the utensil was too shallow.

7. After checking out, we proceeded to look for the vehicle ferry point, not quite sure about the immigration arrangements as there was a separate passenger crossing point about 2 km away. Following the sign that says "Barge Point", we found the ferry point. After referring us from building to building, we eventually found the customs office. After promptly stamping the Carnet, the customs officer referred us to an office down the slope next to the water to get the document signed. Eventually we found customs post. They were located in a shed next to the loading point. The officer asked to see the Pajero and Sunny proceeded to drive the car down. He continued to study Carnet document. We were relieved when he filled up the details and endorsed the Carnet document accordingly.

8. We were told to get immigration done a the passenger boarding point about 2 km away. We got there quickly in the Pajero. Immigration was straightforward. After the passports were stamped, we returned to the ferry point in our Pajero. Sunny bought the ferry ticket for 1000 bahts. We did not have to wait long to board the ferry and be on the way to Chiang Khong. All this while, our passports and Carnet had been stamped for exit and we were running around in Huay Xai. Over time, the Laos authorities may have to regularise the locations of the ferry and immigration points.

9. The 400-500 m trip on the Mekong was over very quickly and we landed on Chiang Khong. A very friendly Thai customs officer gestured us to wait to allow the trucks to pass first. He then asked us to clear immigration at the jetty before seeing him. When done, he asked us to get into the car and follow him in his motorbike to the customs office (can see him in his motorbike on the right) about 1 km away. When we entered the customs office next to the Mekong we were greeted by a customs officer who looked like the person in charge there in Chinese. We replied in Chinese but was quick to tell him that we were Singaporeans and was there to sort out the vehicle entry into Thailand. I passed him the Carnet, passport, vehicle log card and international driving licence, and he immediately had one of the lady staff to work on it. The officer was an impressive chap. Speaking fluently in Chinese and English, he said that he earlier worked in Sadao and had the chance to meet many Singaporeans. He had good rapport with his staff and interacted with them easily. Although I had the Carnet, the lady officer keyed in the details, like what was done earlier when I entered at Sadao, and produced a computer print out. This way, I supposed the details could be tracked easily by the customs network anywhere in Thailand. She also had the Carnet completed and kept the counterfoil. We were done by 10.30 am, in record time. I was impressed with the professionalism and service quality of the staff at this Chiang Khong customs office.

10. We next went into town to see if we could buy an insurance for the car. After some time, we tracked one down an agent for Liberty Insurance and paid 300 bahts for 3 mths, providing for coverage against personal injuries, not damage to cars. Soon, we were on the road to Chiang Rai, hoping to make it for lunch there. About 70 km away, with good road, we were there at about 2 pm and with the help of Miss G (GPS), we had a steam boat lunch at Hotpot, 179 bahts per person, eat as much as you like; great value.

11. At lunch, after discussing various options, we decided to head for Tachileik, Myanmar, and spend the night there. It was about 3 pm and the border crossing was 60 km away, we reckoned we could still make it in good time. As we already had the visa for Myanmar, we felt it would be great to get a glimpse of Myanmar now that we were so close. Once decided, we got going very quickly and reached Mae Sai, the border town on the Thai side, at about 4 pm. Left the car at Wang Thong Hotel carpark, just next to the border crossing, for overnight parking and with a backpack each we proceeded to enter Myanmar.

12. Immigration on Thai side, as expected, was easy; just stamped and go. Heres a arch for tourists to take a picture to say that they have been to the Northernmost point of Thailand. On the Myanmar side, we were shown to a room that says "foreigners". The first officer at the desk next to the door looked at our passport and very briefly look at the visa and lifting his head he asked if we like Myanmar. Speaking in no uncertain tone, I said yes and thats the reason we were coming to see Myanmar. Next he said we needed to pay 500 bahts processing fee for entry to Myanmar. After paying, he gave us a card and asked us to proceed to the officer at the 2nd desk with a computer. The officer keyed in the relevant details into his computer and the printer automatically filled up the card. With the completed card and the passport we went back to the first officer. After confirming that we were spending 1 night in Tachileik, he stamped on the card accordingly, tore out a portion of the card and gave to me and gestured that its done. I asked him what about my passport. He said that it would be kept by them and would only be returned to us on our way out. The portion of the card would be our ID while in Tachileik. This is the first time I had my passport kept by the immigration authority of a country.

13. Walking down the road out of the immigration building we came to a circle with a sign that says, "The City of Golden Triangle". Very soon, we were soon hounded by touts. A few of them showed a card with various attractions, including temples, and offered the service of their tuk-tuks. Another one asked if I want boom boom. Sunny and I were puzzled and then had a good laugh. They probably meant "bang bang" but here in Tachileik they said boom boom. Another asked if I need Viagra. I suppose I looked old enough to need one. We turned right at the main road and after a short walk saw a sign that says 6 Star Hotel. Following it, we were soon in a very buzzy area with many street stalls selling all kinds of things. We were soon hounded by kids selling cigarettes. We kept walking and after checking a couple of hotels, checked into Riverside Hotel for 900 bahts. There arent too many hotels in Tachileik, so we settled for it without further delay. Hotel was located next to the river (more like canal) that separated Thailand and Myanmar. It had not a bad view of the river. River is about 20 metres wide, very shallow as we could see kids playing and walking in the river. From where we were seated, we could practically look into the home of the Thai family on the other side. In fact, we could hear them playing pool.

14. When we checked into the hotel, the reception staff required that the ID card issued by the Myanmar immigration be kept by them and returned to us when we checked out of the hotel. This meant we were without proper ID when we moved around Tachileik. And if either party lost the passport or ID card, we would be stuck in Tachileik until the mess was sorted out.

15. At about 6.30 pm, we took a walk to the town to look for dinner. Tachileik is half an hour behind Mae Sai. It was getting dark, but we were shocked to see the stalls all gone and the streets empty when it was so buzzy a couple of hours ago. As many Thais came over on day trip to shop and return before dark, I suppose there was no reason to keep the stalls open. There werent too many options for food based on what we could see. Eventually settled chicken fried rice at a stall run by a Muslim lady who spoke very good Chinese. This stall was located next to a mosque with Chinese words on its pillars. Many Muslims in white robes and caps walked past the shop. After dinner, we walked back along the dark street near the road leading to the immigration facility. Some shops were still open, eg. medical shops, an outlet providing English tuition etc. At the road leading to the immigration facility, we bought a durian with the help of a couple who spoke excellent Mandarin. We wanted to be sure its the ripe durian that we were buying. After durian and a cup of goat milk, we headed back to the hotel and found some locals playing snooker nearby. Played a game (20 baht a game) before we had an early night. No internet again.







16. This is a very unique day for us. We had breakfast in Huay Xai in Laos, lunch in Chiang Rai in Thailand and dinner in Tachileik in Myanmar. We were in the Golden Triangle, an area straddling the 3 countries of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

LUANG PRABANG

1. We stayed 8 and 9 June in Luang Prabang; 3 nights 2 days, with half a day taken up to repair the punctured tyre. We will depart 10 June morning for Huay Xai, to cross over to Chiang Khong, Thailand the day after. We will make a night stop before Huay Xai if we cannot cover the entire distance of 520 km in one day.

2. For hundreds of years, Luang Prabang (at various times known as Muang Sua and Xieng Dong Xieng Thong) was the capital of Laos until 1560 when the capital was moved to present day Vientiane. It derived its name from the celebrated Buddha image, the Pha Bang, a gift from the Khmer monarchy. The city came to be known as Luang (Great or Royal) Phabang or Prabang. Over the centuries, with Buddhism becoming the official religion, many temples were built. Today, there are 32 temples in Luang Prabang. Together with the many faded but fairly well preserved french colonial buildings, Luang Prabang town exudes a tranquil and calming atmosphere, while maintaining its authentic charm. Many of the preserved buildings had been converted into charming boutique hotels. It is today the tourism jewel of Laos, a popular tourist destination. At height of 700 m, it is located at the confluence of the Mekong River and Nam Khong and has a population of about 100 000. It was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1995.

3. For Sunny and I this was the first visit to Luang Prabang. Our hotel was centrally located, next to the Royal Palace Museum and just off Sisavangvong, Luang Prabang's main street. It was an easy stroll to Sisavangvong. From afar, we could see that Sisavangvong was brightly lit up as 200 m of the road was closed for night market along the stretch that tourists would pass to get to the restaurant belt. The night market operates every night, up to about 9.30 pm. The stall below was where Sunny and I bought our Laos T-shirts.

3. We walked down Sisavangvong absorbing the atmosphere and looking for restaurants serving local food. Sisavangvong was busy. It was a street for tourists. There were many falangs, mostly backpackers, eating and drinking. They also filled the internet cafes. On one side were travel agencies, where falangs could book tours and air tickets. As we walked further North, we were distracted and ended up on the bank of Nam Khon. There were restaurants along the bank. We selected a BBQ restaurant, opposite Upsara Hotel, where a number of locals were having their dinner. Between Sunny and I we believe in going where the locals eat and we will find great food. Placed over a charcoal stove, the container was something we had never seen before. It has the BBQ grill at its crown and a steamboat channel around the container; quite cleverly designed, serving 2 purposes at one time. We agreed that if we see one we would buy one for home.

4. Early next morning, I discovered that one of the rear tyres was flat. It was slightly deflated when we left Dien Bian Phu but was not a problem throughout the trip to Luang Prabang. But now its flat. After breakfast, we quickly got to work and swapped the punctured tyre with the spare tyre in 40 mins. We thought we would take longer. The orientation at the Mitsubishi workshop in Singapore was clearly useful. We consulted staff of one of the petrol stations and he pointed us to a tyre shop further up the road. The workers at the tyre repair shop could not understand English but our gestures were enough to get our messages through. They found 3 nails in the tyre and 2 of them penetrated the tyre. They took off the tyre from the rim and carefully repaired the holes from inside of the tyre. We got them to switch the spare tyre with the repaired tyre, also checked the other rear tyre. The other rear tyre was all right. All in, we paid 50 000 kips for the 45 mins job. They were a nice bunch. As a thank you gesture, we gave each worker a Merlion key chain and happily took a picture together.

5. After the tyre was repaired we went back to the petrol station to get the car washed. It was real dirty and muddy after the 2 days of travel from Tay Trang to Luang Prabang. We didnt like to get into a dirty car each day. For 50 000 kips (US$6) we were happy to have the car looking new again. With the tyre repaired and the car cleaned, we are all set to go on the road again.

6. After lunch, we began our tour of Luang Prabang. Our first stop was the Royal Palace Museum. Completed in 1904 during the early french colonial rule, its the residence of King Sisavang Vong and his family. Designed with a blend of traditional Lao motif and french style, the building reminded me of the Palace built by Emperor Bao Dai in Da Lat. As a Palace, it was functional, not lavish. On the right are some pictures of the palace compound, including one taken from the adjacent hill and a statue of King Sisavang Vong. Overall, the building, the many rooms and private chambers of the royal family were well preserved since the 1975 when the royal family was forced into exile by Pathet Lao. Like the murals on the wall of the king's reception room. Done in 1930 by a french artist, depicting temples and daily scenes, they were intended to be best viewed at different time in the day. They are beautiful. I found the mosaic on the wall of the throne room most interesting and somewhat puzzling. The coloured glass pieces were beautifully put together to tell various stories. A number of scenes include gruesome details of soldiers beheaded in the battle field, with their heads rolling off. From their head gears, they looked to me as Thai and Vietnamese soldiers. Seemed odd for good diplomacy. The Buddha Pha Bang after which the city is named is displayed at one end of the building. One account said that this is a replica and the actual one is stored safely in Vientiane. Unfortunately, no camera is allowed inside the palace.

7. Exiting the palace ground and across the road we started our climb to the top of Phu Si. Like one brochure says, "as with all good things, it comes with a price, in this case a climb of some 328 steps". We can verify this. It was exhausting to get to the top. Half way up, signage gives you hope that there are not many steps to go. At more than 100 m high, it has an excellent view of Luang Prabang, including the palace ground. On its peak is the 20 m high Vat Chamsi Stupa. Built in 1804, the stupa is beautifully lighted up at night. I could see it 24 hrs a day from my hotel room. Around the peak and down the Northwestern slope are the ruins of Wat Pha Phutthabaht, which was built on the site of Buddha footprint. Along the slope are many Buddhas (including Sunday Buddha, Monday Buddha etc. Wondered if theres a Buddha for each day of the week), including a reclining Buddha, leading to Buddha footprint. At the foothills are 2 other unrestored temples.

8. We woke up at 5+ the next day, 9 June, to watch monks in long procession collecting alms. At 5.15 each day, the temple adjacent to our hotel will beat the slow drum; so we had no difficulty waking up early. Soon after, processions of monks in their yellow saffron robes will walk the street to collect alms. In front of Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham, next to our hotel along Sisavongrang, devotees dressed in their best knelt down to give their offerings; sticky rice and other food stuff, placing into the baskets of the monks as they walked past them. Included here is a short video which I took. video

After the event, the devotees gravitated to the temple compound and put in small bits sticky rice to the crevices of the stupas and along the compound walls. They then gathered for phototaking, much like a festive celebration.

9. A lady approached Sunny and I to buy some sticky rice as alms to be offered to the monks. Sunny gave some money and asked the lady to offer it on our behalf. A book which I read later strongly recommended that we should only offer food that we know as good. Apparently, monks were known to get sick after eating some of this food.

10. Next to our hotel is the morning market. At about 4.30 stalls started to move in and by 6 am the 2 lanes were already steaming with locals doing their marketing. They will be there up to about 11 each day. Very colourful, selling all that you need for the day- rice, vegetables, meat, fresh fish that were still alive, cooked food, snakes, legs of iguana, fruits etc. A must visit for visitors to Luang Prabang.

11. After breakfast, at about 8 am, we proceeded to bank of the Mekong to catch a boat tour. The tour included a visit to a minority village and Pak Ou caves, about 25 km North of Luang Prabang. We had a bad experience with a tout who conned us into buying a ticket for 85 000 kips (US$10) each which we later found out cost only 50 000 kips (US$6) just before we boarded the boat. He called himself Pisa and now we are convinced is not his real name. As we lacked the details, we decided to let the bad experience passed other than just feeling lousy about it. Lesson learnt: avoid middle man, buy at source. See the product before making payment.

12. The half day boat was interesting and worth doing. The joy was just simply relaxing in the long thin boat which can seat 12 people or so, read a book and enjoyed the scenery on both shores. We brought our honey water and some cucumbers to fill our tummies as we expected a late lunch. The 15 mins stop at the minority village of Ban Xang Hai was like those included in many group tours. It was really a merchandising stop. In a shelter at the top of the slope a local in T-shirt and short explained to us how rice whisky was made there. There was the usual tasting and you could buy some if you like it. Fortunately, there was no hard selling. Further in, an old women was weaving using a good old hand loom. I bought a scarf from her for 12 000 kips (US$1.5).

13. Another 15 mins ride or so we were at Pak Ou caves. This is a well known Buddhist site and a place for pilgrimage. There are some 4000 Buddhas in 2 caves, the lower cave housing some 2 500. Apparently this cave was already a place of worship in the 6th century but after Buddhism was adopted as the official religion it had become a major place of worship for Buddha devotees. A long flight of steps led us to the upper cave. When we reached there, we were exhausted and sweaty. Dark inside the cave but we could see Buddha statues placed in every conceivable place. Entrance to the cave were 2 huge majestic wooden doors, but in state of disrepair.

14. After our return and a quick lunch we were off to visit Vat Xieng Thong, reputed to be the most beautiful in Luang Prabang and possibly the whole of Laos. Central in this temple complex is the sim, with its long sloping roof to the ground, a traditional Lao temple architecture, and beautiful mosaic on its external walls. Inside are elaborately decorated wooden columns supporting the ceiling stenciled in gold. Inside it, there was a feeling of calmness and serenity. Beside the sim is the beautiful Red Chapel which contains a very beautiful reclining Buddha in a unique posture with the right hand gracefully supporting the Buddha head. At the far end of the complex is the Funeral Carriage House. It contains a huge gold carriage used for royal funeral.

15. We had a wonderful 2 day stay in this beautiful town of Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is not just about temples, although they are attractions in their own right. Its the whole town that is charming. Most important, the people are friendly and polite. The touts leave a bad taste but there again touts are not unique to Luang Prabang. Its not a buzzy party town, but its a quiet and serene place to relax for a few days to enjoy Laos culture and people.