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:
- Did I see everything that I wanted to see (Angkor, Cu Chi, Luang Prabang, Chiang Mai)? – Yes, and more.
- Did I do everything that I wanted to do (diving, hiking, biking, tubing)? – Yes.
- Did I go everywhere where I wanted to go (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos)? – Yes, even Myanmar.
- Did I have fun? – Yes.
- Did I get bored anywhere? – No.
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:
- Thailand: the most touristy, the best developed (excl. Singapore and Malaysia) and the friendliest country of South-East Asia. Still my favourite. The right level of customer service, not too pushy (as in Vietnam), not too uninterested (as in Laos). It seems every time I only visit for a short time (10 days in 2003, 12 days now), and I always leave places to visit next time (Kanchanaburi, Surin elephant round-up in November, islands like Ko Tao, Ko Phi Phi). And I do like Bangkok (aside from the political mess at the moment) for the fact that it is so varied: the ultra-capitalistic commercial area around Siam, sensory-overload Chinatown, quiet padang fields West of the river and backpacker-central Khao San Road (although I did not visit the area this time). And traffic is not really an issue when using the Skytrain, MRT and river boats.
- Cambodia: the strangest country to travel in. People are either really poor (the large majority) or really rich (I have not seen so many Lexus SUVs before). If nothing else, visit Angkor, it was the highlight of my trip. Just realise that Siem Reap is not representative of the country. I do not claim to have seen all of Cambodia in 6 days, but I think I got a good impression.
- Vietnam: most touristy and best developed after Thailand. Very proud people, a bit pushy, but at least that results in good customer service. If you do not like busy cities, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) is not for you, as crossing the road is already a challenge. No problem once you understand the informal road rules (no hesitation!). You also need to like people, as there are 85 million, resulting in houses along the road everywhere. As already mentioned, 6 days is not nearly enough, and I am wondering how my parents will like Dalat and the North.
- Laos: most laid-back country I have ever been to. Non-existent customer service. Expensive transportation. Cheap accommodation. Good beer. My expectations were quite high, as everybody who has been there raved about it. I guess they were too high. I spent 13 days there and got a good impression of the country, visiting almost all the highlights. The real Laos is in the South and the North, not in Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng. If you think about visiting only those two places, I would recommend not visiting Laos at all.
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.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:
- Yongala, QLD, Australia – 2004
- Blue Corner Wall, Palau, Micronesia
- Thistlegorm, Red Sea, Egypt – 2006
- Barracuda Point, Sipadan Island, Malaysia
- Shark and Yolanda Reef, Red Sea, Egypt – 2006
- Navy Pier, WA, Australia – 2004
- Manta Ray Night Dive, Kailua Kona, Hawaii, USA
- Elphinstone Reef, Red Sea, Egypt
- Richelieu Rock, Thailand – 2008
- Great Blue Hole, Belize
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.