Monday, October 25, 2010

Slow Boat on the Mekong River from Thailand to Laos

To get from northern Thailand to Laos, there is boat that cruises, ever so slowly, down the Mekong River. The trip takes one day by bus and two days by boat, so it is not necessarily the most convenient mode of transportation, but the slow boat affords many scenic views and has become somewhat of a necessary thing to do among the backpacker set.

Starting off from Chiang Mai, the first day was spent in a minivan/bus that heads to the Thailand border city of Chiang Khong. We stayed the night at the border, then the next morning crossed into Laos and got onto the boat.

View Across the Mekong to Laos

The first day of the slow boat trip was very enjoyable because we had a lot of new things to see, new people to meet, and the weather wasn't too hot (at least for Southeast Asia in the summer). The group of people we met on the slow boat was one of the best of our trip and we bumped into several of them in different cities as we worked our way from north to south through Laos. The boat itself consisted of row after row of hard, wooden benches, which we often abandoned to sit on the floor and play cards. Most of the people on the boat were westerners, making the slow boat somewhat of a tourist affair, but there were a few Laotian people coming on board to sell things or traveling shorter stretches on the river.

Cruising on the Slow Boat

Pit Stop at the Local Convenience Store

A Young Entrepreneur Selling Booze and Smokes

We really enjoyed the river scenes, with people tending their fishing poles and nets, locals cruising on the long and slender boats typical of Laos, and kids playing in the water. The pristine countryside was really amazing, with nothing but blue skies and green hills the whole trip.

The Mighty Mekong

The Local Bus

 Fishing Poles

Blue Skies and Green Hills

More Green Hills and Blues Skies

Playing on Rocks

Water Buffalo Cooling Off

After the first day on the river, we stopped in a small town called Pakbeng to stay the night. Like most of the cities in Laos, Pakbeng is a one street town and doesn't have too much going on. However, at night with a clear sky and few lights on in town, it all paid off when I saw more stars than I have seen in many years after living in polluted China.

Arriving in Pakbeng

One Street Town 

Local Market

 Wes Melting in Southeast Asian Heat

The second day of the boat trip was kind of miserable. It was much hotter the second day and the trip lasted a lot longer as well. After the novelty had worn off and the views started to blend together, everyone just wanted to the trip to be done. Finally at the end of the day, we arrived at our destination, Luang Prabang.

A lot of people call Thailand the "Land of Smiles", but for me I will always remember Thailand as the land of scams. I think the true "Land of Smiles" is Laos. I don't think I've ever been in a country as happy, friendly, and smiling as Laos. The slow boat was just a taste of that and we were able to enjoy it for our three weeks in Laos.

Locals Eating Laos Style Sticky Rice with Food on Banana Leaf

A Smiling Laotian

Another Smiling Laotian

The Winner of Worst English on a T-Shirt: "Sell the Kids for Food"

For more pictures of the slow boat trip, see picasa:

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Northwest Thailand Hill Tribe Eco-Trek

In the Chiang Mai area there are lots of treks you can do into the undeveloped and rural areas in northwest Thailand. Most of the tours involve some kind of interaction with elephants and visiting some villages. We went with a two-day trip where we would be able to spend the night in a village and mingle with the laid-back country folk.

The first part of our trip involved an hour or so of elephant riding. They grouped us by twos and threw us on the backs of elephants with a guide sitting on the broad head of the elephant. For the most part, the elephants barely seemed to notice our presence and they would wander around eating plants as they wished. The elephant we rode was the only male and he definitely seemed to have a mind of his own, venturing off the established path to get a choice plant that caught his eye. It was all a bit touristy, but still quite a bit of fun.

 Elephant Camp

How to Board an Elephant


The Proper Way to Ride an Elephant

Our Elephant

After the elephant ride, we hiked up into the hills and through the jungle to the Lahu village. Our two Thai guides had westernized names, specifically Woody Woodpecker and Johnny Walker. Despite such original names, they were really great guides and provided interesting information about Thai village life.

Jungle and Mountains

Profile of the Legendary Johnny Walker

Hill Tribe Worker

Arriving at Lahu Village

After arriving in the village, we spent the evening meeting several of the villagers, eating a homemade meal, and playing games with all the little kids running around. This was the beginning of many chances on our trip to meet a lot of friendly people in small villages. We liked to show the kids how our cameras worked, videos and pictures from earlier times on our trips, and teach them games. They were all curious to learn and seemed to really enjoy it. We also walked around the village being tourists and snapping pictures of all the beautiful countryside and village scenes. There are too many interesting pictures to post all of them here, so check out the picasa link at the end to see more pictures.

Our Sleeping Quarters with Mosquito Nets

Preparing Dinner

Villagers Keeping Us Company

View from Village

Huts on Hillside

Lone Hut with Great View

 Flowers in Village

Solar Panels! 

Old Woman Smoking Stogy and Helping Slice Up Tree

The Best Way to Bathe a Baby

 Kids Up to No Good

Our Trekking Group of Dutch, Turkish, Norwegian, French, and American People

Sunset Over Valley 

Johnny Walker Managing Dinner Preparations

After dinner, all the kids from the village did a performance of village songs. After they sang, they asked our trekking group to sing a song for the kids. Someone suggested doing the Macarena, which somehow ended up being a huge hit and proving that the song has universal appeal.

Kids Singing

The next day, we hiked out of the hills, stopping at a waterfall along the way. We also did some "whitewater" rafting down a pretty calm stretch of river.

Fog in the Morning 

Wes with Bananas

Playing in Waterfall 

Morning Shower

After hiking out, our trek was done, as was our stay in Thailand. The next day we headed off for Laos, so stay tuned for that.

For more pictures, see:

Friday, October 8, 2010

Chiang Mai

The next stop on our trip was Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Phil was actually born in Chiang Mai, where his Dad was working as a young doctor. He had never been back to Chiang Mai since those early days, so it was a nice homecoming of sorts for him. There are still some family friends of his living there, so we were able to get a local's guide and perspective on the city. After arriving, we visited some of Phil's family haunts, such as the house he lived, the hospital where he was born, and where his parents worked.

Phil's Early Childhood Home

International School Where Phil's Mom Worked

Chiang Mai has an old walled part of the city with a lot of temples and unique places to see. Within the walled area, there are lots of restaurants, cafes, bars, and other things to do, but because of the protests and the low season because of the rains, most everything was empty when we visited. Walking around the city, we immediately liked Chiang Mai more than Bangkok. Chiang Mai seemed smaller and more charming, with less pollution and more green areas. There were very few, if any, skyscrapers and everything seemed more laid back. We also felt like things were less touristy, with the temples being free to enter and real monks living there. 

Old City Walls 

Monks in Temples 

Golden Temple

Tangle of Power Lines Seen Everywhere in Thailand

Old City Wall at Night

One of the nights in Chiang Mai, we visited a walking street with vendors selling food and miscellaneous trinkets. Despite having seen many streets like this before, the one in Chiang Mai was really cool and had more interesting things to see than others. There were several groups of blind guys playing nice music on the street and it added a nice atmosphere. For food, you could buy Pad Thai, Satay, or other Thai delicacies and we enjoyed the opportunity to sample several new things. There was also a Night Bazaar in the old city area and we went there to check out the wares and also catch some of the World Cup soccer games being played on TVs in the area.

Walking Street 

Blind Musicians

Pad Thai Noodles Straight from the Source 

Thai Satay

Outdoor Restaurant

Wanna Buy Some Elephant T-Shirts?

On our last night in Chiang Mai, we went to Phil's family friends' restaurant called The Gallery. It's a really nice restaurant on the river and has had some pretty swanky guests in the past, such as Hillary Clinton back when Bill was the President. Since the couple is part Swiss and part Thai, the restaurant has some interesting fusions of German and Asian cuisine, my favorite being the mango strudel.

Mango Strudel

Myrtha, Phil, and Wes

The Whole Group at The Gallery 

The Gallery

We really enjoyed our time in Chiang Mai and northern Thailand. We also did a two day eco-tour trip to some hill tribe villages in the Chiang Mai area, which I will write about in the next post. I highly recommend getting up to Chiang Mai and spending some time relaxing in the city.