Saturday, September 29, 2012

Mekong cruise

It takes time two days to travel on a slow boat from Houay Xay to Luang Prabang. I went with a first-class cruise that stopped at a number of villages, all very simple affairs made from woven bamboo and wood on stilts, with children and animals running around on the dusty paths. The river is winding its way between green hills, making it more scenic than the delta. The Mekong is also much narrow here and flows faster. There is almost no sign of human activity; just an occasional boat at the shore, and fishing rods perched on the rocks in the water. The few villages have no road access, their life focuses on the river. It's all very tranquil and simple. The delta, in comparison, is buzzing with small and large boats.

Friday, September 28, 2012

For one euro to Laos

Two hours in a very authentic local bus brought me to Chiang Khong this morning. Not much to do there: one street, no traffic lights, two monasteries. Small wooden longboats ferry passengers across the Mekong river to Houay Xay in Laos, for one euro, where it takes a few minutes to "check in" to Laos. Houay Xay is a small village as well, but more scenic with a small hill with - what else - a monastery on top. It feels poorer but friendlier than the Thai side. First I had a light lunch, paying fifty thousand kip. One of those currencies with way too many zeroes.

There's a local volunteer aid program for local villages in Houay Xay, called Project Kajsiab Laos. (See Facebook.) They operate a guesthouse and restaurant, and I went to their communal dinner and chatted with the volunteers until late.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Golden Triangle

Last stop in Thailand: Chiang Rai is a smaller version of Chiang Mai without the traffic. It's at the south end of the Golden Triangle in the border area between Thailand (check), Myanmar (check), and Laos, where I'll be tomorrow. The attraction here is nature, with waterfalls, forests, mountains, and rivers, but this time it's just a convenient stop on the way to Chiang Khong at the border.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Chiang Mai

It's a long train ride from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, over 14 hours - in part because the tracks were damaged during the monsoon season this year. The first-class sleeper ticket was a good investment. Chiang Mai is Thailand's second-largest city, after Bangkok, which is fifty times larger by population. The center is a square of nearly 4 km^2, enclosed by a moat and some remains of the old city wall. Main streets are busy and unattractive, but the numerous curving side streets instantly teleport the visitor to tranquil and green village life. Of course, buddhist temples with their golden shrines abound, including the enormous ruined stupa in the photo. A picture of the revered King of Thailand is always near. People are much more open and friendly than in busy Bangkok. The big thing here is trekking to hill tribe villages, river rafting, elephant riding, paragliding, and other adventure sports, but I had done much of that during two previous visits so I took it easy this time.

Sunday, September 23, 2012


<p dir=ltr>Back in Thailand. After a brief visit to Bangkok I went on down the coast to Pattaya. This town has a reputation for tourism gone wild, like Palma de Mallorca, Cancun, Vang Vieng, or Las Vegas, so I have always avoided it in the past. Time to change that. It's true, the town has an unusual density of hotels, restaurants, bars, and massage parlors (follow the cries of "massaaaaage sir"), and it does have a few tourist zoos like the eponymously named Walking Street with its garish flickering billboards and gogo bars. A gogo bar is basically a brothel masquerading as a bar. But apart from those it's a large, busy, and unusually unattractive town with too much traffic and out-of-control highrise development projects.</p>
<p dir=ltr>I went there not to gawk at pole dancers, but to go scuba diving. Not bad, they have some nice corals and wrecks around beautiful islands in the Gulf of Thailand, but it can't touch Indonesia. The corals aren't as colorful, there are fewer fish, and recent rain has reduced visibility in the water to less than ten meters. In a few places it felt like swimming in pea soup, making it hard to stay oriented. But diving is always fun even if there's no mantas gliding by.</p>