Monday, May 31, 2010

white room

The Big Important Thing that you're supposed to see in Chiang Rai is the White Temple, Wat Rong Khun.


It is pretty spectacular.



As you cross the bridge to the temple, you first pass over these hands reaching up from hell. There's one painted red fingernail there; my camera didn't do so well.



Visitors aren't allowed to take pictures inside, but the inside has murals depicting good and evil. The evil side has images from popular culture and the news, like the World Trade Center towers and Darth Vader and Spiderman. People were painting the inside walls when I visited, so the mural changes. Today, it also has Jake from Avatar.



Drinking is bad.

Smoking is bad.

My pictures don't convey the way that this temple glistens. It's made of plaster and sparkling glass mirrors. I'm sure it's lovely on any day, but in the sun on this day it was fantastic.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Newspaper taxis appear on the shore

After two whole days on boats, I looked forward to some overland travel (no I didn't! I looked forward to someplace pretty where I could stay for a few days and *not* be on a bus or a boat or a train or any other seat for hours at a time.) I had to get to Thailand, either way.

The ferry from Huaey Sai, Laos to Chiang Khong, Thailand takes maybe five minutes. It just crosses the Mekong.


Thai immigration guy: why did you put my entry stamp on the right side of a brand new page halfway through my passport? It would have looked so clean if you had put it below my Lao entry stamp.

When I arrived in Chiang Khong, I took a tuk-tuk to the bus station to catch a bus to Chiang Rai.


This is the beautiful, shiny, majestic public bus from Chiang Khong to Chiang Rai. It's near the most beautiful bus I've ever seen, I'd say.

I listened to some Elton John on the bus. "Your Song" reminded me of karaoke with Alan, and "I Guess That's Why They Call it the Blues" is kind of my favorite karaoke song (even though I've only sung it twice,) stolen from Annie.

But then.

"Tiny Dancer." It was perfect.

This could have happened,

but didn't.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Picture yourself in a boat on a river.

I do a lot of things so that I might look back one day and say, "I endured that." This is one of those things. Isn't it romantic to take the slow boat up the Mekong from Luang Prabang to Thailand? For awhile there, the water level was too low for the slow boats and they stopped the service altogether. I was quite pleased to learn that the boats were running when I wanted to leave Luang Prabang. I had heard horror stories about wooden benches with no cushions, so I was prepared to endure.

This was my first glimpse of boat 008, which would take me from Luang Prabang to Pakbeng.

But can you imagine my delight when I saw that instead of hard wooden benches, I would get to sit on a re-purposed bus seat?

This is a luxury riverboat if ever there was one. It looks like a shiny new camper or something. I can sit for 8 hours in a car seat. I've done that plenty over the last few weeks.

The water level is still quite low, and there are some nifty rock formations visible poking out of the water, like this:

And other, invisible ones scraping the bottom of the boat. The boat chugged along, though, slowing to a crawl as it navigated up rapids and taking me all the way to Pakbeng.

(I like to think that this is a family who decided to build their house on a barge, just because. And then they adopted a baby elephant for each of their children, and when they're not taking things up the bank of the Mekong, the elephants run and play on the barge like it's their own big backyard.)

It was not a eight hour ride. It might be eight hours downstream, or eight hours when the water level is higher. Today, it was not eight hours. Today, I was very ready to get off of the boat after ten hours.

Pakbeng is where the boat stops and you have to find a guesthouse. As usual, there are representatives from various guesthouses at the dock, or the top of the rocks you climb up when you get out of the boat.

There is nothing else in Pakbeng. There is no Internet. There are no karaoke bars. There are no bookshops. And the only way out in either direction is 10 hours of death. (Death is a boat, Guildenstern!)

The boat out of Pakbeng was this:

Here were the wooden benches with strict, tall backs.

Early in the ride most people abandoned the benches and built nests on the floor with backpacks, stolen cushions, and (thank you, Past Emily) travel pillows.


Maybe it was the different speeds that the water, land and clouds were moving, or maybe it was the fact that I had had my face buried in a book most of the day, or maybe it was that I had been dead for two whole days, but my eyes started playing tricks on me and the planks of the boat started moving. I didn't feel remotely nauseated, but I was pleased for my sanity to arrive in Huaey Sai, at sunset on the second day.

The ferry to Thailand wasn't running anymore, so I stayed the night and woke up bright and early to come back "home" to Thailand.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

who's buying?

The night market in Luang Prabang is open every night from about 5:00 pm until 10:00 pm. They sell things.






Another thing that starts with a P, too, but of which I didn't take a picture, probably!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

velvet darkness

Not more pictures of a river and mountains? Just one, to show a boat similar to the slow boat that I was on when I took the picture.

It's a very long, narrow thing with two rows of chairs facing forward. There were seven passengers on ours, which meant that the captain had to sit to one side so the boat didn't tilt too much.


It was an hour and a half ride, give or take, until I saw this:


Inside the cave are thousands of Buddha statues.


And...crap, I lied. More river and mountain. But this time it's from a cave!


Pak Ou has two caves, and the other one is up a long set of steps. The upper cave has this beautiful gate at the front


And a darkness at the back that rendered my camera useless.

Monday, May 24, 2010

There is no mountain, then there is.

There is a mountain in the middle of Luang Prabang called Phousi. It's a very civilized mountain, which is right for such a civilized city. Even though it's covered in jungle, it has pretty brick steps all the way to the temple on the top.

This looks just like one of those oversaturated stereograph cards that I used to own... when I owned things.


Such a civilized mountain!


This tree is a gift from India, for the Buddha's 2500th birthday. How old is the tree?


Luang Prabang


And this lizard looks like it's cast in luminous bronze.


Friday, May 21, 2010

You say "lovely"

I was sold on the guesthouse by a man at the bus station and it's the loveliest guesthouse I've stayed in, and only $10 a night. It is not even the twentieth-loveliest guesthouse on the street though. Luang Prabang is overwhelming with the lovely.


This is the view from my balcony.


It's a very civilized loveliness, appropriate to colonialism. There's no shortage of greenery or butterflies and the sidewalks are wide and made of pretty red bricks.


I sat at a sidewalk cafe on the river which is sufficiently picturesque. They're all about equally picturesque, really. They all look out over something like this:


Thursday, May 20, 2010

It's my birthday, too!

(It's not my birthday anymore; that was on the 15th. But I had a lot of blog posts scheduled in the meantime.)

If they exist, the travel fairies gave me a birthday present they knew I would appreciate (and I'm not being facetious.)

I had breakfast in Phonsavan with three Danish girls that I met at the Plain of Jars. They asked where I was going next, and I said "I'm taking a minibus Luang Prabang at 8:30" and they shared that they were leaving for Luang Prabang on a minibus at 8:30 too! What a silly assumption it would be if you thought we'd all be on the SAME minibus at 8:30 (I'm sure theirs was less of an adventure.)

After checking out from our guesthouse, we ventured to the travel place. The fella there said that the three Danish girls would go on one bus, but I would go with that guy over there. So I went with that guy. I briefly feared that I might be making this 8 hour journey in a songthaew, but his songthaew just took me down the street to the bus station.

I got in the minibus as instructed and waited. A nice lady came by and said, "you are the only one on this bus going to Luang Prabang, so they will take you half way and then you will get on another minibus and this bus will go to Vang Vieng." This will be an adventure!

I settled down with my book and waited. There was a little boy running in between the minibuses (I had the door open, since it was hot) and generally being a little boy and thus causing me irritation, but soon, soon I would be off!

The driver got into the bus, and made it a family outing as his wife, daughter, and the little boy got on too!

Mama is really nice, but she turned on Lao music really loud and would frequently burst into sing-along with it throughout the ride. Unfortunately, loud Lao music was disruptive for my attempts to read. Little girl was inoffensive except that twice on the windy road she had to vomit into a plastic bag and then throw it out the window. Little boy was my mortal enemy. He kept...moving and making noises and touching things. And I gave him dirty looks. We had fun.

Well we wound along mountain roads for a bit until Mama noticed that there was a bamboo shack by the side of the road with a woman selling... what I can only assume was firewood impregnated with fragrant resin? It looked like bacon. But she's a very discriminating buyer and purchased a bundle only after some conversation. There were four stands all visible from the first stand, about 100m apart. And they stopped at all of them. They only purchased from the first.

We drove some more, and Mama burst out in song and Little Boy threw random pieces of garbage out the window and Little Girl was quiet when she wasn't puking.

And four hours later we came to a crossroads. It was kind of an Old West town with a guesthouse and a market and a man in a uniform directing the traffic of buses and minibuses as they came from the three streets (I guess that means it's not a crossroads, really, it's a roundabout with three legs. Or something.) We all got out of the bus. Papa went and sat in the roundabout, and Mama said she was going to go find out which bus I needed.

I waited. I bought some banana fritters. They were soggy.

Mama came back and conferred with Papa and Papa got in the minibus and drove away, while Mama and I waited in the roundabout and she asked each passing bus if they were going to Luang Prabang. After a number of no's, she gave up and went and bought some long beans. Then she came back, and I got my bus! And my bus, the first bus passing through Podunk, Laos for Luang Prabang, was a super awesome VIP bus with more leg room than I've ever had in my LIFE and so few people that I got TWO SEATS. Where was this bus on that 16-hour trip from Rayong to Nong Khai?

I took this picture of my old mini-bus, from the plush seat of my new VIP bus. The lady in red appears to be buying soggy banana fritters.


I sat on my awesome new bus, and the music was quiet enough that I could drown it out with Donovan on my ipod (Wear Your Love Like Heaven!) and four hours later, I was at the Luang Prabang bus station!

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

their bombs and their guns

Unfortunately, the wicked awesome mysterious history of the Plain of Jars is intertwined with the horrifying history of the Secret War in Laos. Other tourist areas have a lot of evidence of the war (one of the ceremonial bells at the Elephant Cave in Vang Vieng is made out of an old bomb shell) but Phonsavan is famous for two things: jars and bombs. There are a couple of UXO information centers in town with more information about the effort to clear mines.

Before entering the Plain of Jars sites, there are signs indicating, basically, to stay on the trails to avoid being blown to smithereens. Good advice.


Many of the jars are damaged by bombs and there are bomb craters labeled alongside the jars. The Lao army used this cave (next to Jars site 1) during the Secret War.



The standard tourist circuit in town also includes a visit to an old Russian tank left rusting in the forest, and the tourist information center itself greets visitors with this:


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

whisky in the jar?

I came to Phonsavan to see the Plain of Jars, and that's exactly what I did. No one knows who built them or for what reason, but my pet theory is that giants used them to serve a ceremonial cocktail made from Lao-Lao and human blood.

Site 1 is also home to the biggest jar in the world and I had my picture taken with it. Oh, yeah.


Site 1 also has a jar with a lid! The only giant stone jar with a lid in the world.


I like to think that this one is full of cats.

Site 2 is a little smaller and more secluded, and this tree decided that it was perfectly acceptable to carry out lewd acts with stone jars as if no one was looking. For shame!


No witnesses, indeed!


And site 3 could be anywhere in the world.


But is, in fact, in Laos. Just like the other two.


Monday, May 17, 2010

the next whisky bar

Lao-Lao is rice whisky distilled in rural Laos. I visited a distillery shed where someone had set up a still and tried some. At eleven in the morning.

This simple still is made partially from a war plane.



Here's Emily before a shot of Lao-Lao


And after:


It's not exactly good, but it is flammable.