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IndochinaFrom Sun to Snow & Country Comparison

On 25 November 2008 from Rotterdam, Netherlands | comments closed

My flight from Bangkok to Düsseldorf on Monday 24 November was delayed by 2 hours because of the snowfall in Düsseldorf. From 30 degrees and sun to 0 degrees and snow, the difference could not be much larger. And what happened to global warming with snow in the Netherlands in November?

Time for a trip review:

Mission accomplished.

Would I do anything different next time? Maybe take the advice of some people to fit less countries in a 5-week trip. I should have left Vietnam out, as 6 days there was too short. About 3 weeks would be better. But I knew that in advance, and therefore skipped the North entirely (in favour of South Laos), and my initial research indicated that the border crossing between Cambodia and Laos would be difficult, something which proved not to be the case (Laos visa needs to be obtained in advance, Cambodia visa is issued at the border). But when that came to light we already had a visa for Vietnam and not using it would be a waste. The main reason for visiting less countries is spending less hours in the bus or train, as now it was sometimes 7 hours in the bus on consecutive days. Visiting less places would allow to stay longer in certain places, thus avoiding long bus travel every day. But then again, many places were only interesting for a half or full day, staying longer would only allow me to read more books (which is something I can do at home as well, although I do not seem to get around to it there).

Some comments on each country:

IndochinaBoating like Bond & Biking in Bangkok

On 23 November 2008 from Bangkok, Thailand | comments closed

Friday 21 November Patricia went back to Railay Beach and I joined a daytour to Phang Nga Bay and James Bond Island. After the usual minibus drive the boat took us through spectacular Phang Nga Bay to Phing Kan Island, from where James Bond Island can be seen (featured in “The Man with the Golden Gun”). Unfortunately it was a very cloudy day, so the photos are not what I was hoping for. Next stop was Hong Island, where Thai guides were paddling the other passengers in sea canoes around the island and through the caves. Because I needed some exercise, I got my own sea canoe, so I could paddle myself. At Panak Island I did get a Thai guide to paddle me through the narrow caves, and at the last stop I swam from the boat to the island, so I got some more exercise there.

After the diving, canoeing and swimming of the last couple of days I decided to take it easy on Saturday. As it was still cloudy I could not be bothered to lay on the beach, but instead I sorted and geotagged my photos, and got a massage before having a flight back to Bangkok in the evening.

Sunday morning I got up real early (again) and used the Skytrain and a taxi to get to the hotel where Co’s bikes were stored. Bikes, indeed, as I booked a biking tour with Co van Kessel. Tukata and May were the guides for our group of nine. The first street we took was a market street in Chinatown, where it was basically impossible to bike. But that was only the first street. From there we took the backstreets of Chinatown, past meat cutters, open kitchens, temples and many small houses (often only one room). We crossed the river by ferry, biked some more and took a longboat through the canals, where houses were literally built in the water. We then biked through some of Bangkok’s padang fields on narrow concrete paths. This really was a completely different side of the city, especially compared to the buzzing commerce centre of Siam. After lunch and another longboat ride through the canals and across the river, we biked back to the hotel. In the afternoon I went up Baiyoke Tower 2 to enjoy the view from the highest tower of Bangkok, had a sushi dinner at Siam and relaxed a bit at the guesthouse. After all, I am getting back home on Monday evening and starting work again on Tuesday.

IndochinaDiving Similan Islands & Richelieu Rock

On 20 November 2008 from Phuket, Thailand | comments closed

Sunday 16 November early in the morning I arrived back in Bangkok. I took the Skytrain to my guesthouse and wrote and mailed a few postcards, before going back into the city. I tried to do some shopping at the large shopping malls in the centre (Siam), but could not find what I was looking for. So the Skytrain took me to Chatuchak Market, where I was unsuccessful at first as well, but could finally get all the items on my shopping list. Another Skytrain ride brought me to Lumphini Park, where I watched some aerobics classes. The Skytrain really is my favourite means of transportation in Bangkok: fast, frequent, air-conditioned and pretty good value with the daypass. It brought me back to my guesthouse as well.

After a schema-time flight with Air Asia to Phuket on Monday and a smooth drive with the chauffeur from the hotel, I arrived at my hotel in Karon. Spent most of the day sorting out photos and walking along the beach. When Patricia arrived in the evening we got the instructions for the diving liveaboard and had some dinner.

Early Tuesday morning we were picked up for a 2-hour minibus drive to the port. From there a 1-hour 15-minute speedboat ride took us to Somboon 4, our liveaboard boat for the next 3 days. After boat and dive briefings we jumped into the Andaman Sea for the first dive. Altogether we did 11 dives in 3 days, including 1 night dive. We saw a few turtles, many lionfish, a porcupine ray, a zebra shark, a blue-spotted ray, a few moray eel, an octopus and many other fish. The quality of the dive sites varied: we were not very impressed with the first and last dives around the Similan Islands, although some other dives around the Similan Islands were good. But the best dives were on the second day: Richelieu Rock, Koh Tachai and Koh Bon. That came to no surprise, as Richelieu Rock was a top 10 dive site. Was, as it seems to have dropped out of the top 10.

So, since there are many lists of top 10 dive sites (here is another one), and the list I always used keeps changing, I decided to enter them on my blog as well. Below is the list of top 10 dive sites as of 1 January 2008, and the year I dived there:

  1. Yongala, QLD, Australia – 2004
  2. Blue Corner Wall, Palau, Micronesia
  3. Thistlegorm, Red Sea, Egypt – 2006
  4. Barracuda Point, Sipadan Island, Malaysia
  5. Shark and Yolanda Reef, Red Sea, Egypt – 2006
  6. Navy Pier, WA, Australia – 2004
  7. Manta Ray Night Dive, Kailua Kona, Hawaii, USA
  8. Elphinstone Reef, Red Sea, Egypt
  9. Richelieu Rock, Thailand – 2008
  10. Great Blue Hole, Belize

IndochinaTrekking, Temples & Ticking Off

On 15 November 2008 from Chiang Mai, Thailand | comments closed

Tuesday 11 November an older Swiss couple, myself, our guide and our ranger left Luang Nam Tha for a 2-day trekking in the Nam Tha NPA (National Protected Area). We stopped on the brand new Chinese-built road to Huay Xai and wandered off into the forest. Jungle would be a better word, as our ranger made good use of his machete to cut a path for us. It certainly was the least used trail I ever walked on and it was very slippery at times. I wore clean beige trekking pants, but after a few hours they were muddier than ever (seriously, childhood included). We had our lunch of sticky rice with vegetables (I passed on the fish) in the forest on a makeshift table of large palm leaves. After crossing the river (only knee-deep) we arrived at the village where we would spend the night. It was really back-to-basic: no electricity and no running water (except the river and one pump). They did have the new sealed road running through the village though, and a few houses had a small solar panel to power a light in the evening. And there was mobile phone coverage (as pretty much everywhere in South-East Asia), but that is of little use to the villagers when there is no electricity to charge the phones. Since our hosts were still working, I took a refreshing swim in the river. Afterwards I got acquainted to the duck we would have for dinner (it was resting in its fate), and we walked around the village. A few villagers were eager to show their homes as potential sleeping places, thus making some extra money. It seemed it was one of the first times tourists went to this village, because our guide talked to the village chief and wrote down the important figures (about 400 men and 200 women living there). The villagers were very friendly and open, even though oral communication was basically impossible (and our guide was not always around to translate). But the kids are always a lot of fun, especially showing them digital photos of themselves, which results in enthousiastic yelling. I went to bed early that evening, tired from the trekking and swimming.

Roosters, always those darned roosters. Almost everywhere in Laos roosters are roaming around the house, waking everyone around 05:00. I guess that is why Lao go to bed so early, because they know they are woken up early as well. At least I had been warm that night in my clothes, silk sleeping bag and under two blankets on the thin mattrass on the floor of the house. Breakfast was once again sticky rice, but this time with scrambled eggs. With that in our stomachs we set off on another 6 hours of trekking in the jungle. For the first half of that a villager with a shovel came along, who could create some steps at places where the trail was too steep or narrow. Along the way we passed some large old trees and primitive animal traps. Lunch was (not surprisingly) sticky rice with vegetables. We got back to Luang Nam Tha late afternoon, and I enjoyed a nice hot shower in the guesthouse and fries instead of sticky rice for dinner.

Thursday morning, right when I was about to get a tuk-tuk to the bus station, a minibus driver came up to me and offered the drive to Huay Xai for the same price as the bus + tuk-tuk. Since I knew the minibus would be much faster, it was a no-brainer. I just wish they would not have taken the Lao standing at the roadside, because he obviously could not handle the fast driving on the winding road and threw up constantly. With his head out of the window, luckily. But he also was our saviour at a customs checkpoint, where the driver could not find the requested document. After 10 minutes the young customs official could no longer bear the smell and released us. So after only 3 hours I was in Huay Xai, exited Laos, got the boat across the river to Thailand, and entered Thailand. I was not quite sure if I should go to Chiang Rai first or directly to Chiang Mai, but the decision was made for me, as I just missed the virtually last minibus to Chiang Mai. So I got to Chiang Rai, found a nice guesthouse, and went to see a temple and the hilltribe museum. In the evening there was a large parade, ending at a field filled with shopping and food stalls. For a moment I thought the stars had turned yellow/orange in Chiang Rai, before I realised they were not stars, but large lampions with a fire burning underneath.

Friday I could not resist the temptation to tick off another country on my list. From Chiang Rai it was only 1,5 hours to Mae Sai, where I could cross the bridge into Myanmar (aka Burma). I hired a tuk-tuk driver and went to some temples and the large golden stupa, where an old lady showed me how to perform the prayer for good luck. It involved knowing the day I was born (Friday), flowers, incense sticks, ringing bells, and obviously many Buddhas. After spending 1,5 hours in Myanmar, I retrieved my stamped passport at the border, re-entered Thailand and got a bus to Chiang Mai. In the last guesthouse the lady had already said it would be very difficult to get a sleeper train to Bangkok on Saturday night, so my first stop was the train station. The lady there said the trains were full, but I noticed a one between all the zeros on her screen, and then she said there was still one bed in first class. I booked it and realised the advantage of travelling by myself.

Saturday morning I took things slowly and just as I was about to walk into the city, I met Emmy and we decided to visit some temples together. On the way to Wat Doi Suthep we met Julie, and we spent the rest of the afternoon together, until I had to get to the train station for the night train to Bangkok.

IndochinaBussing from South to North Laos

On 10 November 2008 from Luang Nam Tha, Laos | comments closed

When booking the night bus to Vientiane for Wednesday 5 November nobody mentioned the fact that the beds were designed for Lao people. That means the beds were no longer than 1,70m, which is really too short for this 1,88m Dutchman. Only two beds in the middle of the bus would fit me, as I could put my feet in the aisle there, and luckily one of them was still available and I was allowed to sleep there, so I could get some decent sleep that night.

Thursday morning Joyce (who I met on the night bus) and I took another bus to Vang Vieng and we checked out this backpacker-overtaken town in the afternoon. Friday we went on a tour to some nearby caves, one of which was half under water, so we navigated it in a tube (inflated truck tire), which was pretty cool. After lunch we joined the proper tubing that Vang Vieng is infamous for. This means going down the river in a tube, stopping at bars along the way. Since bars are all competing for the backpacker kip (Lao money), they come up with the craziest things. Swinging on a rope over the river has become commonplace (but still fun), so one place put up a giant waterslide (great fun), and another mud-volleyball. The latter made me feel a tad embarrased of Western “civilization” though, when seeing (mainly) English backpackers slide in the mud, something a local would never do (and even frowns upon). I guess that is why all the bars are located a fair distance from the town.

Saturday morning Joyce and I biked to another cave, before I took a bus to Luang Prabang. What Siem Reap is for Cambodia, Luang Prabang is for Laos. (Package) tourists that only visit one city in the country, visit Luang Prabang. As a result, the prices have become at least double the going rate in Laos (renting a bicycle for a day was 30.000 kip, compared to 10.000 in the rest of Laos), and the city has lost its soul, being completely overtaken by tourists. It simply did not feel like Laos anymore. This is exactly the reason why I wanted to visit as much of Laos as possible on this trip, because I was thinking Laos would change the most the following years. For Luang Prabang it is already too late. Let me illustrate this with an example. Every morning directly after sunrise dozens of monks traditionally go around the city for alms. When tourists gave them bad food (sold by street vendors) and some monks got ill, the monks no longer wanted to go around for alms. The government told them that if they did not, actors in orange robes would do it, just to make sure the tourists dollars kept coming in.

Needless to say, I did not want to spend too much time in Luang Prabang. On Sunday I enjoyed a good breakfast and visited some temples. I also spent quite a lot of time fighting a virus on my laptop that I got in an internet café Saturday evening. In the end I won and w32.autosky is gone (from my laptop at least).

Monday morning I got up early to see the (real) monks go around the city for alms, and look at some more temples. I arrived at the bus station early to secure a seat on the bus to Luang Nam Tha. It turned out the bus was not even one quarter full, so there was plenty of space, but at least I had unlimited legroom for the 10-hour scenic journey through the forested mountains. Upon arrival in Luang Nam Tha I immediately arranged a 2-day trekking in the Nam Tha NPA.

IndochinaRelaxing & Riding in Southern Laos

On 5 November 2008 from Pakse, Laos | comments closed

We asked three times: “is it a direct bus to Savannakhet?”. “Yes, direct bus” was the answer, three times. At least the first 1,5 hours on Friday 31 October it was a bus, but then we got crammed into a minivan for the 2-hour trip to the Laos border. After crossing the border it got even worse: an old local bus where benches would fit 3 people (where 2 would be considered the maximum in any somewhat developed country) and the overhead luggage storage was only hanging on to the roof of the bus with some iron wire. After enduring the bus ride for 5,5 hours, it suddenly stopped and the bus driver yelled “Pakse, Pakse”, pointing to a bus on the other side of the road. By that time we had almost given up on the idea of getting to Pakse the same day, so we hurried to grab our bags and run to the Pakse-bound bus. As it turns out, that was completely unnecessary, because the bus had been standing there for about an hour, getting repaired. Our luck turned though, because it got fixed in 15 minutes and we arrived in Pakse before 20:30, after 14 hours of travelling.

On Saturday Patricia took a bus to Thailand (to the boyfriend she was missing), and I continued South in a sawngthaew to Champasak. There I rented a bike to ride through the village and fields to Wat Phu Champasak, a beautifully located temple.

Sunday morning I met Maaike on the ferry over the Mekong. Since we were both heading to Don Khon in Si Phan Don (four thousand islands), we travelled there together by bus, sawngthaew and boat. Besides exploring the islands of Don Det and Don Khon by foot and bike, there was not a great deal to do. Therefore I spent some quality time in a hammock, reading and relaxing.

Come Monday evening I had finished all the magazines and books I brought, so Tuesday morning it was time to move on. I got a boat and sawngthaew back to Pakse, where I rented a moped (100cc Honda) to travel the Bolaven Plateau. First stop was the gas station (you get a rental with an empty tank here, allowing them to make an extra profit when you return it with fuel left in it). Second stop a nice waterfall. However, the sky was turning pretty dark, and it did not take long before the heavens opened. Patricia had borrowed me her big red poncho and this came in really handy. Many locals were turning their heads when a big red bird on a moped was passing by. I reached Tadlo just before sunset, and really enjoyed the hot shower and food here.

Wednesday morning I got up early for a short hike to two waterfalls, before riding an elephant for 1,5 hours. From my elevated position I crossed through forest, pools and a village (where the chilis were drying next to the satellite dish). Then it was time to hit the road again, as it was about 110km back to Pakse, a ride of about 3 hours with 25km of the road unsealed. 60km/h was about the maximum speed of the moped anyway, and that was good as I had to share the road with some locals (overtaking them all) and many kids, cows, dogs, chickens and the occasional buffalo. I visited two more waterfalls on the way back, and had a nice swim on top of one of them. Pakse was reached mid-afternoon, so I had plenty of time to get organised for the night bus to Vientiane.