Posts Tagged ‘Chiang Mai’

Mekong slow boat

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Our journey in Laos started with the usual hurry up and wait that is the staple of travel in south-east Asia. Eventually we were across the Mekong with Joe, Phoebe, Renee, Sophie, Louisa, Vasili, Kiril and Becca and on the slow boat for the journey to Luang Prabang. The guide who met us when we stepped off the ferry boat across the river warned us that the slow boats sometimes didn’t always make it to Pakbeng on the first night. In dry season when the river is low and slow moving the boats don’t always make good time. They only go until it gets dark and if that happened we’d have to sleep on the boat. Here’s the way it works if you’ve bought a package from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang:

  • You pay the agency and get a voucher in return. The voucher gets you on the bus and into your accommodation at Chiang Khong.
  • The guest house at Chiang Khong buys your ticket across the Mekong and gives you another voucher for the slow boat.
  • A guide meets you on the Laos side, herds you though immigration and tries to persuade you to buy a bus ticket or fast boat ticket at extra expense rather than take the slow boat.
  • The guide takes your passport and buys ticket for the boat, returns your passport with ticket.
  • You find your own accommodation in Pakbeng on the first night.
  • Your ticket gets you back on the slow boat the next day.
  • If the Loatians try to pack more on the boat than will fit, mutiny and occupy another boat. So long as enough people mutiny and refuse to budge they’ll run the second boat.

Most of our gang ended up at the back of the boat near the very noisy engine while me and Hannah were near the front. We met some new friends, Marcel and Clare near the end of a westward round-the-world ticket, and Mark and Stacy also near the end of a westward round the world ticket. I picked up some useful tips for Cambodia, Vietnam, New Zealand and China.

The Mekong was brown and wide (100-300metres across) with strong undertows evident in places. The scenery on both sides was sandy beaches, rocky cliffs, green jungle and occasional villages. We stopped after an hour at a village on the Laos side where they pulled the good old marketing ploy of sending the kids onto the boat to sell snacks and drinks. We had stocked up well before boarding so had no trouble resisting the cute looking kids and their wares. We played Scrabble, read, chatted, watched the scenery go by. I guestimated the boat was making about ten knots but didn’t know how many miles it was to Pakbeng so couldn’t judge if we’d make it before dark. Actually we arrived at Pakbeng before 18:00 – an hour or so before dark. At random points along the river the boat pulled into one bank or the other to let the locals off.

We ignored the crowd of waiting touts and found our own accommodation. Joe and Phoebe, Renee and the Russians came with us. We went out for dinner and were hassled by touts outside every restaurant. They all had pretty much the same menu and all offered identical incentives – free (Lao) whiskey, free rice, discounted prices (yeah, right). We picked one at random. The Lao whiskey was so bad even the Russians wouldn’t drink it. There was nothing to do after dinner so it was an early night all round.

Next morning we were at the pier at 08:30 to find a smaller boat waiting for us. Marcel and Clare had saved us seats about half way along the boat. Anyone who turned up after about 08:45 found they had no seat. A mutiny was staged, a second boat occupied and eventually at about 09:30 – when there were still people strolling slowly down the hill to the boats – ours departed. The scenery was much the same as the first day, perhaps a bit more jungly. Again the boat stopped in random places to drop off locals. We reached Luang Prabang at about 17:00, an hour earlier than we expected.

Chiang Mai to Laos

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

We had just one day in Chiang Mai after our trek and found it rather disappointing. We’d heard about a beautiful city. After a late breakfast we walked into the city and wandered around the south east corner. We covered about a quarter of the city and found a couple of temples and lots of knackered looking concrete buildings. Combined with the little we’d seen of the city outside the moat on the night before our trek the effect was to wonder if we’d come to the same Chiang Mai that other people had raved about.

Easily the best thing about the city for me was a visit to Green Bamboo massage for a full body oil massage. The surroundings were lovely and the staff very attentive. The massage was a bargain too by UK standards – a full hour for just £5.

Based on what we saw in the city and on our trek I think probably the surrounding areas are worth spending a lot more time in, and Chiang Mai itself deserves just a fleeting visit.

Next morning we were picked up in a minibus for the journey to Chiang Khong on the Thai side of the Mekong river border with Laos. On the way we stopped at Wat Rong Khun, also known as the White Temple. Unique amongst the temples in Thailand it is covered in white or silver bling and is a striking sight. The decoration is also unique, reflecting the views of the artist who conceived the temple and directs its construction and maintenance. Photos at Flickr.

Chiang Khong is very sleepy and has nothing to recommend it beyond being a border crossing point. We met some new friends at the guesthouse in Chiang Kong. The guesthouse was OK but the manager was a miserable dragon. When we arrived she was arguing with a guest who was refusing to stay there. Thais have a reputation for being non-confrontational and not liking shouting. The manager apparently didn’t know that. She was still Miss Grumpy Shouty when we saw her again a couple of hours later at dinner time and again the next morning when she shooed us away after breakfast to the border crossing point.

In the jungle

Saturday, April 30th, 2011

The plan was to have a day in Chiang Mai before going trekking but when we arrived at BMP Residence they were keen for us to join the group leaving the next morning. Two nights and a day in relatively comfy accommodation after the trek sounded appealing so we agreed. We just had time to drop our bags in our room before the briefing meeting with our guide, Joshua, and our trek mates Julian, Chiraz, Renee and Chiara.

On Thursday morning we checked out, left some laundry at reception, put our bags in the store room, ate breakfast and set off in the back of a pickup for our trek. On the way out of Chiang Mai we passed a big Tesco Lotus store and a Makro. The road gradually got narrower as we left the city and reached the countryside. First stop was a market to buy any last minute essentials. A poncho seemed like it might be useful. A couple of hours after leaving we were definitely in the countryside bumping down a single track road with fields both sides. We passed a handful of low lying rice paddies under irrigation with young rice growing. Most of the paddies won’t have rice in until the rainy season starts in a few weeks time. There were lots of orchards but I couldn’t tell what kind of trees they were. Suddenly the air was full of yellow tissue paper. A few fluttered through the pickup – butterflies!

About two and a half hours after leaving the hotel we reached the start of the trail we’d be trekking. We set off under the full midday sun, following and frequently crossing the path of a small stream. After about half an hour or so we stopped for lunch at a small farm. Cows surrounded our lunch table after we sat down and stared at us inquisitively. It felt like we were the animals in the zoo and they’d come to look at us. One of the calves sucked and licked the salt from a rucksack strap.

After lunch the going got a little harder. Still mostly level but the jungle was a little thicker. A long way from impenetrable rain forest but thick enough to require a bit of concentration on where to place feet or duck branches. Walk or look at the scenery or take photos but not more than one of these safely at a time.

A couple of hours later we were going more uphill with thunder rumbling in the distance and continued that way until we reached the Karen hill tribe village where we’d be spending the night. Big spiders and big plants were the theme for the day so far as I could tell. There are some photos in my RTW2011 set on Flickr. Our accommodation was a dormitory hut on stilts with room for twelve people. Soon after we arrived the rain started and fell for an hour or more. Compare and contrast the accommodation for our hosts and the crazy foreigners: close fitting wood planks and galvanised steel roof versus draughty bamboo walls and leaky leaf roof. The floor in the hut was bamboo matting over bamboo joists. Holes in the matting made some parts of the hut unusable. Actually the roof only leaked in a couple of places, one of them just happened to be directly over Hannah’s sleeping mat. The mosquito nets were doubles so we moved our mats under a free net where the roof wasn’t leaking. Later we discovered the net wasn’t actually big enough to properly enclose two mats so we moved back to our original position and hoped for no more rain. The weather gods were kind and the night stayed dry.

Next morning we did a lot of sitting around twiddling our thumbs before finally setting off at about 10:30, or “9:00-9:30” Thai time. Some of us thought it would have been sensible to leave earlier and not be walking during the hottest part of the day but never mind. We spent the morning going uphill and in the early afternoon we heard the rumble of thunder in the distance. Joshua picked up the pace a bit which made it a bit too fast for some but was fine for me. We crested the ridge we had been climbing and started downhill, quite steep and a bit slippery in places. The theme for the day was even bigger spiders and waterfalls. We arrived at our overnight stop – a Karen farm – at about 16:00 and it still wasn’t raining. There was a hut where the farmer lived, a dormitory hut for about a dozen people, five huts for two people each and a toilet hut. Hmmm, no shower. But wait! Joshua hurried us into swimming costumes and a hundred metres further along the river to bathe under the waterfall we could hear roaring but hadn’t yet seen. He was keen for us to use the waterfall before the rain started and the river turned muddy. We hadn’t expected that when we set off in the morning. The water was a little cold at first but OK once we got used to it. It was very picturesque and a real pleasure to be in our own little paradise splashing around under the waterfall. We hauled ourselves out to dry out on the warm rocks. Dinner was excellent just as it had been the night before. The weather gods continued to smile on us and there was no rain except a light shower overnight, but it was delivered with a lot of lightning and the rumble of thunder.

On our final morning we set off again after a filling breakfast of boiled eggs, a mountain of toast, butter, jam and tea. Only an hour and a half of walking brought us to a waiting pickup truck and we were ferried to our lunch stop where we were joined by a couple of Brit girls and an American guy. After lunch we did an elephant ride and went bamboo rafting. Two people per elephant and three per raft. Our elephant or it’s mahout seemed to have a bit of an independent mind. While the others stuck to the gentle slopes ours liked to show off how steep a hill it could manage. Songkran was still in the locals’ minds and there was lots of splashing as we passed them on the banks and on rafts. This time we could join in so it was much more fun. Soaked after the rafting we dried off and took about an hour in the pickup to return to Chiang Mai.