Saturday, October 22, 2011

Laos Part 2 - Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong

So, I wasn’t sure where to start this part, but decided to begin with the trip that encompasses the itinerary arranged by Adisak, of the ‘Nagi of Mekong’. Let me just say how prompt Adisak was with all correspondence and arrangements prior to the trip as well as confirming all details prior to my departure. Note: Though this is part 2 of the saga that will be the reports of my Laos trip that included Chiang Mai, Laos and onto Kuala Lumpur, it actually is the first one to be written. Stay tuned for part 1 and the onward journey to down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng and Vientiane.
We were met at Chiang Rai by a driver in a modern mini van. Adisak had booked the VIP bus tickets from Chiang Mai for us and advised us to get off at the first bus stop / terminal in Chiang Rai (quick word about the VIP bus – all I can say is that I wish airline travel was as luxurious and comfortable). The slap of the hot sun after that cool transfer stung my Melbourne-winter-white skin. Our driver (sorry – can’t recall his name) was looking out for us so we didn’t have to suffer the hot smart of sun for very long. Though he didn’t speak much English, he was courteous and helpful, carrying our bags and ushering us into the cool air-conditioning of the van. He opened a little esky (to all you non-aussies, a coolie bin or ice box) and motioned for us to help ourselves to a cold drink. As we sipped our drinks, I noticed he was on the phone. Next thing, he’s handing the phone to me. ‘Adisak’, he nodded, handing the phone over his shoulder to me.

“Hello Miss K how was your bus trip?” He chatted to me for a few minutes about the weather, the boat arrangements, and where his driver was going to take us. It was a great relief to know everything was under control. First stop was the White Temple. I had glimpsed it a few kilometres out of Chiang Rai, with its crowded car park full of big buses, and mirrored mosaics. Looked amazing...

So, it was a tourist trap – sure – why not? But my word, it was spectacular. A perfect blue sky framed the white, shiny facade, ornate and gaudy, ringed by its shallow moat. Concrete dragons swam in the water beside fountains along the walkway that lead to the entrance. Any illusion of a sacred, quiet place of reflection was quickly spoiled by the little guy at the end of the bridge leading to the temple holding a megaphone, sitting under a tattered umbrella, shouting, “Do not stop on the bridge! Do not touch ANYTHING! Lady! Do not touch! You,man! Do not touch! Walk quickly!” Between shouts to us tourists, he fiddled with his mobile phone and talked with the bus and minivan drivers across the road.

At the start of the bridge was a mass of sculptured hands; wretched and grasping, reaching up from the dark realms, symbolising hell. You must go through the hells of samsara before finding the ‘heaven’ of enlightenment. Along the whole length of the bright white bridge, tiny mirror tiles cast blinding rays, challenging the tint of my sunglasses. At the end, the dazzling luminous temple with its multi-layered gables, sculptured and ornate, beckoned.

Quickly slipping off my thongs (flip flops to the non-aussies), I stepped in to the slightly cooler interior and was surprised. Not by the modest white Buddha statue surrounded by a gold-gilded Buddha painting at the alter (well, in comparison to the many huge, gold, bejewelled, Buddhas often found in Thai temples). But by the murals. Initially, I didn’t know whether to be offended or not. But the more I looked, the more I found myself in absolute awe of how wonderfully the artists had captured samsara in all its guises: The massive Yama (lord of death) painted around the entrance doorway; 9/11 towers – one flaming and covered in smoke with a jet about to impact the second, satellites and spaceships, aliens and cyborg clones, Mr. Anderson 'al la' Matrix and 'The Terminator', ex-President Bush riding a rocket with Osama Bin Laden riding pillion; galaxies swirling, space shuttles launching, while gods, mythical beasts and asuras look on keeping company of comic book heros and modern day superstars.After many minutes examining the murals (with so many little details you really have to search for), I walked through to the rear buildings and around to the exit. Though I took a hundred photos, I was amazed and appalled by an ordained monk, taking photos of ‘the gold toilet’, which as far as I could tell -was the ladies toilet with some decoration (sorry I didn’t see the big deal – maybe I missed something). It looked a little – well – wrong; swathed in saffron robes, pointing the lens towards the women’s amenities, as ladies washed their hands... I should have taken a photo of him!
We probably spent over an hour there.

 After the temple, I took a few dozen more photos, used the afore mentioned golden toilet (which was clean and free with paper – but apparently the ones near the car park were not), and explored the few little shops and ‘cafes’. I bought a few postcards, the obligatory fridge magnet (and if you saw my fridge you’d know what I mean), and an iced tea. There are a few touristy souvenirs shops and places to eat. Our friendly driver was waiting with the cool, air conditioned van.

Next, we drove to Chiang Saen, or through Chiang Saen, to Sob Ruak – the Golden Triangle. It took maybe an hour from the White Temple. That first glimpse of the Mekong as you turn left at the intersection heading north-west-ish was so exciting. Within twenty minutes along a badly maintained road with a washed out bridge from the earlier seasonal floods, we were there. Yeap. Here we are. Another car park. A row of shops all selling the same tourist tee-shirts with that good old catch cry of the stall-holders, “Madam, look my shop”.
The main focus of the little town was the massive (I mean huge-a-mongous) Buddha. We paid the few bhat entrance fee and walked up the stairs to the observation point where you could look over the river to both Laos and Burma (Myanmar). I do know there was more to see in Sob Ruak, like the opium museum etc, but I was beginning to feel guilty about letting our poor driver sit there as we walked about. So we only looked around for a little while. I had long ago dreamt of the golden triangle being an outpost town, full of oriental drug lords and western outlaws, dusty laneways with working woman earning a living as deals went down in the shadows. Turns out, it was totally nothing like that – maybe I should have visited a few hundred years ago.

So after buying the obligatory tee shirt (still unworn in my bottom drawer), we drove back to Chiang Saen. Though our smiling driver didn’t speak much English, I managed just enough broken Thai and sign language to indicate that I wanted to see Wat Phra That Chedi Luang – a 13th century UNSECO heritage world heritage site with a 58 metre chedi (or stupa). Our driver parked beside the crumbling wall of the ancient temple. By now it was mid afternoon and the shade of the large trees was very welcome. The humidity was relentless despite the respite from the scorching sun. No other farangs (foreigners) were there. It felt a little ‘Indiana Jones’ exploring an ancient city.
The main prayer hall was open on the sides with a low sweeping roof. Wonderful huge gongs stood at the entrance, which I struck with the heavy mallet (bliss-emptiness resounding in the ten directions of space) producing a deep resonating hummmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. The stall keepers looked up, clearly un-amused by the peace-shattering bang I had caused. My thongs again quickly off my feet, I said my prayers and my meek three refuges, before I explored the little shrines and statues within.

Outside, there were a few tiny stalls and a local school’s art studio, with a few older boys at the entrance keen to practise the few words of English they knew. “Halo. How are you? Fine, Tank you”. We walked around the back where a monk was giving a Dharma lesson to a group of young children. Unfortunately for us, the lessons seemed to be taking place around some ruins of other old temple buildings, so we didn’t want to interrupt them by barging through. We walked among slightly overgrown gardens toward the old chedi, where a number of men were dangling from rickety bamboo, scaffolds surrounding the old monument. A few shouts of ‘Oi’ and ‘Halo’, followed by laughs and what I guess was mused bantering that went something like (in Thai): ‘What are these foreigners doing here? Do they know what this is? Let’s wave at them. Hope they go away and leave us to our work”. I understand that the chedi housed, or had once housed, a relic of the Buddha and he may have wondered in the same green garden I was standing in 2500 years ago. I waved back, friendly smile, admiring the work they were doing on this holy stupa. This is a piece of Buddhist history. I said a quick prayer of gratitude and rejoiced in their good work and effort, and we returned to the artificial, but welcome, cold air of the van.

From Chiang Saen, we drove though some gorgeous country-side, stopping at “Huaisai view point’ that gave a beautiful, rural vista of the Mekong River snaking its way along the Thai-Laos border. But even before that stop, there were a hundred scenic lookouts, all with breath-taking views of rolling hills and rural villages.

Arriving in Chiang Khong was almost an anti-climax. Here was my dusty frontier town. A main road running parallel to the mighty flow of the Mekong, dotted with guest houses and shops. I eagerly looked out, thinking that a Thai Clint Eastwood, resplendent in spurs and poncho, would appear out of the shadows, as small children ran quickly indoors to their worried mothers, with the ethereal whistle from ‘The good, the bad and the ugly’ eching in the background. I loved it immediately. This border town. I had no doubt that stuff happened here that was beyond ‘Border patrol’.

We stayed at the Namkhong Riverside guesthouse (review already posted on with photos which was fine. Ok, maybe not so fine. We arrived, a little tired, ready for a relaxing beer to watch the sun set, only be told that the entire restaurant was booked out by a number of large parties, and we could not eat or drink at their restaurant (which – by the way – had a great vista of the river and sunset). Not even buy a beer or soft drink from the bar – nothing. Not to worry.

Bags dropped, toilet visited, face washed, and hair re-brushed, off I went to find a cool spot for a refreshing beer and food. Along the dusty, dirt road, there were signs in the distance to the left. It was maybe 4 or 5 o’clock with the deep orange sun sitting like a golden orb over my shoulder. I knew one thing, I had to find shade (and food - that’s two things... and beer that’s three – well you know, it was a long day). A guesthouse here, a local eating place there, little convenience store, roller doors of closed stalls, and nothing that seemed welcome to a hot, tied, washed out farang. A faded sign pointed down an even dustier side alley, stating there was cool beer and clean rooms. That’ll do.
On arrival, it seemed as though we had interrupted the owner’s afternoon sleep or something. But we were welcomed with a ‘sawasdee’, wai and a warm smile. I picked a shaded table close to the balcony overlooking the river. “Sawng chaing” (two beers) I ordered without looking at the menu, which were quickly provided. I didn’t see anything I wanted on the menu (mainly because there was nothing vegetarian) so we just ordered some freshly fried cashews with chilli and some fries. Perfect beer food.
A large group of Thai (or maybe Laos) men arrived to stay at the guesthouse. They were shouting and laughing with each other as they sorted out their rooms and who was sharing with whom. One waitress looked on amused by their comic display as she lazily sprawled on a chair with her legs dangling over the side. A younger girl, probably the first waitress’ sister, was talking loudly on her mobile phone below the balcony beside the river. A little further downstream, a large family with their two dogs had arrived for a late afternoon splash. The Mekong’s banks are lined with large sand banks that resemble beaches. The younger children were attempting to build sand castles while the older ones splashed each other playing tag. After playing with their masters, the dogs collapsed into the water to cool off. It was such a nice family scene as the sun bathing everything in gold rays.

Now that the brutal sun was below the rooftops, I was ready to walk. After being cramped up in the van (and the 3 hour bus from Chiang Mai before that) my legs were restless. I like walking. I walk a lot. People call me the walking freak. Readers of my previous trip reports (and those who will read the reports to come) will hear about my walking. I find it the best way to really get the feel of a new town or city.

A wide paved path ran along the river. Lots of little dirt paths and stone steps ran off to the side providing access to the brownish-yellow water of the Mekong. Old boats, weather beaten and neglected, dotted the grassy banks. Random chickens darted in and out, scratching and pecking for bugs and scraps. Locals rode their small motor scooters between the riverside path and the main road, buying fresh veggies and meat for dinner. We walked up and down and found that there were quite a few restaurants along the riverbank, unlike the main road. A larger one with tables almost on the path was earmarked for dinner. But first, a quick return to the hotel room to lacquer myself in industrial strength deet insect repellent. I never take anti-malarials and prefer the option of covering up and making myself as unappealing and unavailable to the blood sucking mosquitoes as possible. They carry dengue and other nasty diseases not just malaria, which you can not protect yourself against. Prevention is the only option.

The one thing I didn’t do on this trip was note the names of all the restaurants I patroned, and this one shall remain nameless. All I can tell you is that it was towards to outer edge of town, not far from ‘The Elephant Crossing’ hotel, down at river level with tables both at lower level and further back on a balcony, toward the kitchen. The hostess was friendly and I practised my thai with her (not very well as she didn’t understand me but laughed once she figured out what I was trying to say). The food; forgettable. There was nothing specifically vegetarian on the menu so I asked them to make a stir-fry of just veggies with some spices etc. But though it didn’t have any meat, it was swimming in chicken stock. I picked out a few bits that didn’t seem too drowned, but stuck with the plain rice, thankful for the yummy nuts and fries I’d had earlier.

By now, it was pretty much pitch black. The sun sets fast up here, unlike the lingering sunsets and twilight of home. After another beer, we set off back to the main road to see if the town had livened up any. Certainly, the lights of the motorbikes on the dark road gave the appearance of more traffic. Naked light-globes hung from shop porches. A few more stalls were open and roller doors had been rolled up revealing little shops or local eateries. Backpackers were wondering around, consulting their ‘Lonely Planet’ guides. Local children were running between shops trying to sweet talk the adults to give them some treats or money. Each passing motorbike stirred up the road dust, leaving swirling clouds that were illuminated by the next bike. Any light omitted by the weak shop light-globes was quickly consumed by the blackness of the night.

After buying some snacks at the mini mart, amusing ourselves with the antics of some drunken English backpackers who were trying to figure out what flavour each of the brightly coloured packet of potato crisps were, it was time for a last beer. We had an early start the next morning, with an 8am pick up to cross the border to start our two day trip down the Mekong into Laos.

Just a few steps from our hotel was one of the only ‘bars’ in town. It was run by a Belgium guy who had a Thai wife. It was a typical, generic, concrete box shop, with a small pool table where the shop floor would normally be and a simple timber bar in the far corner. A few local teenagers were trying to impress each other with their pool shots as the tired Thai wife ran back and forth with drink orders. Out the front, in the open dark night air, a couple of rows of outdoor furniture provided a spot to sit down and enjoy a cold drink. Before long, we were chatting to most people in the bar. One beer turned into a few. The drunken backpackers staggered in. A few older Slovenian flash packers were talking with the owner about the logistics and politics of having a Thai wife and business. The air had cooled slightly. My eyes were now too tired. It was maybe just on 9:30pm, and the Chiang Khong seemed to have only just woken up. But for me, it was time to sleep.

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