34. From Laos (Jewel of the Mekong) to Chiang Mai (Rose of Thailand's North)

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February 13th 2008
Published: March 2nd 2008
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Nick lends a helping hand...Nick lends a helping hand...Nick lends a helping hand...

not realising quite how heavy it would be! Luang Prabang
(P) Vang Vieng was still cloudy as we departed on the bus to Luang Prabang, not so far in distance but took over 6 hours due to winding mountain roads through the most scenic views we've encountered in Laos, across lush valleys dotted only with the occasional hillside dwelling dwarfed by its surroundings.
Luang Prabang (LP), 700 metres above sea level and surrounded by rolling mountains, is a commercial hub between Thailand and China but what most strikes you is the beauty and dare-I-say quaintness of the place - almost like a model town, no big tour buses and easy to walk around. UNESCO granted it World Heritage status in 1995 and as the former royal capital it is arguably the most charming city in Laos.
Whilst Nick installed himself in a cafe I trotted off to find a place to lay our hats for a night or few. Our usual plan d'action of calling to book a room in advance has fallen by the wayside in Laos - several times we have done so and the room has been given to someone else and left us miffed over the wasted pence (every penny counts with us now!) spent telephoning ahead and the extra time spent running around a new town trying to find an alternative. On my initial jaunt around LP, the main street was lined with pretty French-style shop fronts and guesthouses (full!) and I passed the Royal Palace complex and a wat (temple) topped with layered roofs in typical LP style, the last roof finishing not far off the ground.
Unpacked, fed and watered, we wandered through the Night Market with the neatest and cleanest stalls I've ever seen selling tasteful paintings and handicrafts from nearby villages. Sellers were so patient and polite we felt it would have been rude to barter!
An early night was called for before arising at dawn to give alms (rice and bananas in our case) to monks from the various 'villages' around the city. The monks converge and walk in a line down the main street every dawn to receive their daily bread from devout locals. They form a continuous stream of near to one hundred figures in saffron orange robes, but we thought they must take it in turns to be first because after a while the crowd of givers diminishes considerably, meaning that those at the back won't get as
Wat Xieng ThongWat Xieng ThongWat Xieng Thong

Luang Prabang
much food as those first off the starting blocks! We felt quite cosmopolitan as we indulged in a Lao coffee at a smart cafe to try and offset the early morning shock to our bodies. The town is perfectly walkable and in criss-crossing the peninsula between the Mekong and Khon rivers we encountered the oldest temple from 1560, Wat Xieng Thong which houses a graceful reclining Buddha statue that travelled as far as the Paris Exhibition in 1931. At our lunch pit stop the fresh fruit used to make our papaya shakes was restocked by a restaurant employee banging on the tree to make another fruit fall down (no popping to the supermarket here).

After lunch, we met some monks on their lunch break from a maths lesson, then watched others at Wat Xieng Muan being trained in temple maintenance such as carving and painting Buddha images. While we stood by, without warning a mango fell down from a tree, through the (rotting) wooden roof and had a near miss with my head!! Close one. The practice of teaching the monks had been stopped in 1975 (when the communist Pathet Lao took control of the country) but begun again in 2000 with funding from the New Zealand government.
Wat Mai Sawannaphumaham (I think I've spelt that right) had gilded interior walls and a 5-tiered sweeping roof in typical Luang Prabang style. The longest racing boats I have seen were stored outside; they are used for races at Lao New Year (April!) and the Water Festival (October) and hold up to 50 rowers each. Whilst there, the sound of a booming drum and clashing cymbals started up in the grounds and we followed the noise to find a band of 3 novice monks belting a giant drum and 2 cymbals (bass and soprano, maybe?) - in fact it was quite tuneful (see video).
Had a vegetarian buffet on a street corner then we went for drinks with Anna and Jacob from Sweden, who we first met on our China trip last October and bumped into in the street! Nick was happy to locate the recommended local palm beer on the menu, but I guess he wasn't too impressed with it since he was soon back lining the Beerlao coffers.
Wat Wisunarat's interesting point was its stupa (tower housing sacred Buddhist artifacts) the shape of a watermelon, but we found another when we bumped into a monk there carrying a HUGE piece of sponge cake and looking very pleased with himself (bearing in mind novices are only allowed to eat twice a day, at 8 and 11 a.m. and fully-fledged monks only once a day!). Wat Monolom was where we met the monk with the best English, Savai, who went out of his way to find the key to open the main hall for us to see. He eventually located the key on a roof beam where it had inadvertently landed in a game...! We took photos with them and took back prints to them the next day which they seemed very pleased with!
Kuang Si Waterfall is well worth making the trip out of town for, preferably for a day; we hiked up (only a few minutes!), paddled across pools at the top and walked down the other side, and the pools at its base are very inviting for a refreshing swim. The waterfall is set in a lovely wooded area, housing a tiger and a bear sanctuary giving a home to the animals fortunate enough to be rescued from poachers.
The following day, after lunching on the local specialty of Mekong river moss (does seaweed sound better?!) served with buffalo skin and chilli paste washed down with a mangosteen shake, we sailed all of a few minutes across the river to hunt out another two temples (I know, I know, but there are a plethora of them in Luang Prabang; you'll pass one about every five minutes, whichever direction you walk). Nick's chivalry overtook common sense when he volunteered to carry a villager's two baskets on a bamboo pole across the shoulders (I'm sure there's a more technical name). We interrupted her as she started on her merry way, full of smiles but she happily accepted Nick's offer. Pleasantly warmed by his own generosity* (see footnote) for the first few steps, after a few more Nick understood her willingness! I had a go at the end and it must have weighed about 15kg!
In town there was a signboard entitled: Lao P.D.R. Peace Independence Democracy Unity Prosperity and encouraging recycling: Build a swing or make a flower pot out of old tyres; Use plastic bottles to grow plants and store things. Impressively forward-looking I thought, seeing as hot running water is considered a luxury in these parts.
As we proceeded
Abandoned-looking temple Wat Chom PhetAbandoned-looking temple Wat Chom PhetAbandoned-looking temple Wat Chom Phet

Across the water from Luang Prabang
along a dirt road, we checked with the only soul we encountered whether we were going the right way: she was fairly elderly yet still carrying her version of the baskets-on-a-pole in the relentless heat. As she chatted away to us in Laos to inform us we were barking up the wrong track, we noticed her wearing a DKNY T-shirt. Very hip.
At Wat Long Khun, where the king spent several days in retreat before ascending the throne, we were 2.5p short of the entrance fee so they wouldn't let us both in! Nick paid his 25p, took pictures and told me about it afterwards. Financial resources dwindling at 22.5p, we approached Wat Chom Phet, charging 25p admission, with little hope of getting in. However, a 7-year old girl was in charge of the ticket booth and after a quick discussion with her not much older sister, they accepted our offer and let me in (without a ticket, mind, hiding the money under the cash box...). I left Nick there and trundled up the thigh-blasting steps to find the temple at two crumbling brick stupas outside. The main building housing the Buddha statue looked long-abandoned (in stark contrast to most if not all other temples we've seen, which are so dazzlingly decorated you need sunglasses to look at them) but still there were flower and incense offerings dutifully placed inside and out. From my vantage point I had sweeping views across the river and, since I was the only visitor, peace and quiet also. As I descended, the girls had Nick munching on fresh papaya, perhaps bought using my "entrance fee" money. (Astute minds, huh?)
Back in the city, the place to have a few beers after the 11p.m. curfew (imposed by the government) is the bowling alley: we had to check it out and I'm proud to say I held my own with Nick and I drew with him in games 1-1.

On our last morning we ascended 100 metre-high Phusi Hill, whose Golden Stupa (see video) on top can be seen from afar and from which the New Year's procession starts. We enjoyed meandering around several (more) temples on its slopes displaying varying sizes of Buddha, a Buddha 'footprint' and a Russian-made anti-aircraft cannon. A monk at the temple on our way down had made his way up the one of the garden's palm trees and was
Rather rotund BuddhaRather rotund BuddhaRather rotund Buddha

Phusi Hill, Luang Prabang
shaking down coconuts from the top! Across the road was our final sight, the Royal Palace Museum set in a tropical garden with steps of Italian marble and gold and red furniture in the main reception rooms. Here was the royal family's residence until they were exiled in 1975 and since then it became a museum; the former Royals' simple but elegant living quarters left just as they were. There was a sizeable display room of gifts from foreign dignitaries: from President Nixon was Laos flag that had been taken to the moon and brought back along with a piece of the moon's surface (Nick informs me the U.S. did that for many countries). The items were ordered according to whether there we received from Communist or non-Communist countries...

The lengthy process of buying a bus ticket and eventually reaching Thailand
(Of course we were tempted by the direct flight, but at $130 it was deemed far too much of an extravagance!) In LP, we thought we'd save some time haggling for transport at the border so bought a bus ticket all the way through to Chiang Mai in Thailand. However, we were a little worried in case no-one was on the other side to collect us. The travel agent said, rather convincingly I might add, "Don't worry, I have been doing this for 5 years. Here is my mobile number and my friend's who will collect you in case you have any problem." Fair enough. We had read that the local bus could be a free-for-all due to no seat reservations but he called his friend (another one, working for the bus company) there and then and assured us that we had seats 24 and 25 secured. Sorted. The next day (of departure) we went to his office as agreed to pay the balance, but it was shut. Five times we tried in total before noon, but to no avail. We asked a girl at a stall if we could use her mobile and pay for yet another call to him: first she called to check her credit, then let us use her phone! Eventually when he answered his phone he simply said he'd been busy, but to save us returning a sixth time he'd scooter on down to where we were having lunch and collect our money. As so he did.

When our tuk-tuk driver got
Nick and his dinnerNick and his dinnerNick and his dinner

Laos sausage sushi and Beerlao Dark
us to the right bus station (second time lucky and after a refuelling stop) I dived onto the bus while Nick took care of the bags. What a surprise: no seat numbers to be found! After some negotiating around fellow passengers, we settled down into two proper seats (others had to make do with plastic seats in the aisle) for the 12-hour overnight journey to the border. 5.30p.m. scheduled departure, 6p.m. actual departure, 6.30p.m. lights went out, 6.32p.m. until 4a.m.ish sentimental love songs (at a guess), whined loudly from speakers throughout the bus (I guess since the driver wanted to listen to the music, then we were listening too). A fitful night's sleep behind us, the sun rose to reveal a dramatically improved road surface and when we pulled in to Huay Xai (border town) bus station we had our transfer ticket all ready to wave and be whisked off in our charter...but alas, no-one was there to whisk us. Nick prompty called the 'friend' (more money...), who said he used to work with our travel agent but no longer...Next we called the ticket seller but from his phone, no answer...A little dejected and a shade tired, we had to pay again for a tuk-tuk ride to the ferry (okay, narrow wooden canoe) terminal where, lo-and-behold, a man took one look at our tickets, gladly exchanged them for boat and bus ones and refunded the tuk-tuk money. HOORAY!! After being stung for 30p each at Laos departures (officials' Weekend Overtime Fee!) the boat took us all of two minutes across the Mekong (most likely our last glimpse of it; we first saw it in Vietnam way back in December) to the smooth-running (and FREE!) Thailand arrivals booth. Finally, we were ushered into a - joy of joys - smart, spacious and air-conditioned minibus along fully tarmacked road and disposed of in the Rose of Thailand's North, Chiang Mai. Total journey time: 24 hours.

We warmed to Chiang Mai straight away: we stayed within the large square enclosed by the still intact city walls and moat and were just in time for the Saturday Walking Street a short walk away. Chiang Mai is Thailand's handicraft centre so there were many crafts such as incense boxes, stone and wood carvings, paper lanterns, scarves, jewellery (most unusual was a helmet covered in a jigsaw?!). All around were the enticing aromas of Thai
City WallsCity WallsCity Walls

Chiang Mai
cooking such as fried bananas, tiny fried (quails') eggs and waffles (we managed to convince ourselves they wouldn't taste as good as they smelled, but did indulge in some fresh passion fruit juice). In recent years elephants have been brought to some cities to work; we saw one led by his master strolling down the market street with a flashing light on his tail, so that traffic could see him!
The daily Night Bazaar was thriving later on and it was the same for the Sunday Walking Market the next evening. At times, I'm not a huge market fan but honestly I could've meandered around for hours and not be bored. Some people busk in the market street, even blind people just clanging a cymbal or singing a capella but at least trying to make a living by entertaining passers-by. A big crowd gathered round a blind quartet sitting in a row singing and playing guitar, bass, harmonica and cymbal (a biscuit tin!) and drum (upturned plastic bucket!). Boy, they sung like angels. The next day we heard the same music playing on a parked tuk-tuk's radio; we intend to complement our music selection back home with some of these tunes...so we asked the driver who was standing chatting to his friends drinking whisky and coke at a roadside bar, who happily told us and seemed very pleased that we liked Thai music. (I have to say that since then, the Thai popular music we have been subjected to on buses and in open-air bars has not been of the same standard and rather hard on the ear. But each nation to their own.)

We were happy we made the effort to venture to a club/bar complex, Warm Up, a little out of town. Despite an iffy start when the first bar had no large, ice cold beer in stock for Nick, the evening was successfully redeemed by the exclusive-looking New Age Lounge Bar with a friendly, mostly Thai crowd and excellent beats that drew us to the dance floor. Another night we caught a jam session at North Gate Jazz Bar, conveniently located inside the north gate of the city walls.

Yummy brunch was consumed at the recommended Art Cafe, where met an American couple on holiday who have been living in China for the past 12 years! Chiang Mai is recommended for both its Thai massage and cookery schools. Also at Art Cafe we spotted a flyer advertising a half-day course in head and neck massage (more below): we booked that and enrolled in a day-long cookery course at the excellent Baan Thai (Thai home) Cookery School (more below).

The next day I woke up in a state of shock, realising only 3 weeks until we go home! Once recovered, we completed a few chores before breakfast including putting in the laundry: a weekly-ish jaunt of ours is to spot the most competitively-priced laundry in town - sometimes we end up saving 20p/kilo! No laundromats with tumble driers around here, but many families offer a laundry service from their house with a sign out front. It is funny to walk through lanes around town and see your own clothes (bloomers and all) drying in the sun on racks in the front garden!

A walking tour took in the following sights:
Wat Chedi Luang:
It's huge brick chedi (like a stupa) decorated with some original life-size elephant statues was half-fallen down from heavy rains and an earthquake.
Unnerving lifesize waxworks of a few monks revered for their dedication and for motivating novices loomed in satellite halls.
The temple offers a "Monk Chat" time when anyone can go and talk to the monks about anything; of the monks we befriended, one was from Cambodia and the other asked us to send him a postcard of snow from England!

Wat Phan Tao
Teak-panelled temple (where plentiful offerings including cotton buds, popcorn and toilet roll) were placed around the Buddha statue.

Believe it or not, the Women's Prison has a massage school for inmates to learn the trade to use after release. When we passed it was closed since the Princess was due to make a visit, but the lady recommended an alternative shop nearby (staffed by ex-inmates).

The head and neck massage course Namo (recommended) was quite challenging, but we chose thinking it could help with neck strain from using computers and sitting at a desk. It was interesting to learn just how essential to health Thais consider massage to be: from what I can see it's more kneading (with elbows and knees) and stretching muscles than rubbing the skin. Since we were both beginners, I hope Nick won't mind if I say at one point when he was 'massaging' my head, it felt more like it was in a clamp!!

Baan Thai (Thai home) Cookery School.
Our guide book refers to Thai food as "currently the pin-up of international cuisine" and food is everywhere in Thailand. One of the most common greetings is "Have you consumed rice yet?", so central is rice to Thai food culture. It is customary at the start of a meal to eat a mouthful of plain rice first to recognise that it is the most important part of the meal. Fork and spoon are often used, but the fork is used like a knife to cut and push food onto the spoon that goes in the mouth. I haven't found out why but apparently Thais think putting a fork into your mouth is just plain strange.
First we were led to the local market to buy ingredient for the dishes ahead: we learned about essential ingredients in Thai cooking such as the ginger family, chillies (fresh green make spicier curry paste than dried bigger red ones). Our purchases included elephant ear mushrooms (a bit rubbery, not pleasant to the touch), lemongrass, ginger, galangal (ginger’s sister) and fresh coconut.
Back at the ranch as we munched on seasonal fruits (dragon fruit, jack fruit and mango) fresh from the market to energise us for antics in the kitchen, our teacher produced a plate known as Thai Welcome Snack. We all had screwed-up faces by the end of her explanation of it (ginger, sliced lime, shallots, peanuts, toasted coconut, chillies and syrup wrapped in a betel leaf and eaten whole to release the flavours all at once) showing we had the same thoughts: "I don't think I'd feel welcome if someone served me that" But when in Rome. Contrary to expectations the majority of us admitted it was pretty tasty stuff. Down to work as we mashed and massaged coconut flesh to produce cream (see video of Nick), pestle and mortared numerous ingredients to make our own chilli paste. As we moved to the stoves, we were instructed to fry our cashew nuts until golden brown (not golden black!) and that smiling as we worked would certainly make the end result taste better! The proof of the pudding was that we would have been satisfied to be served our wares in a restaurant. Watch out you back home...

We were sorry to leave Chiang Mai after four days - Nick enjoyed it so much
Culinary creation #1: Chicken in Coconut Soup Culinary creation #1: Chicken in Coconut Soup Culinary creation #1: Chicken in Coconut Soup

Baan Thai Cookery School, Chiang Mai
he was envisaging an expat life there for a couple of years! The city had all the conveniences to make modern life comfortable with interesting sights to boot, yet appeared to hold on effortlessly to its cultural roots.
The bus journey and associated transfers to our next stop, Sukhothai, were significantly easier that a few days beforehand but Nick tricked me on the way by saying that they were coming down the aisle with doughnuts and hot chocolate, when they were just checking tickets. Humph.

A good example of the nation's laid-backness: 12th February was the day Thailand's smoking ban in clubs and bars officially came into force, the Bangkok Post informed us, but it added that police shall not enforce the ban until June...

* This was a phrase that Nick challenged Paula to get into her blog!


Additional photos below
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Giving alms to the monksGiving alms to the monks
Giving alms to the monks

Early morning, Luang Prabang

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