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Northern Thailand & Laos, January 2008

We left "Arctracer" at anchor in Phuket in early January 2008 and spent three weeks traveling to northern Thailand and Laos. We revisited Bangkok, then went up to the old Thai capitals of Ayuthaya and Sukothai. We spent several days in the Chiang Mai area, seeing temples, traditional craftsmen at work, and Thailand's highest mountain. Then we took a short boat trip on the Kok River to Chiang Rai before crossing into Laos for a two-day boat trip down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. Then we rode buses to Vang Vieng and the capital Vientiene before crossing back into Thailand and returning to "Arctracer." It was an excellent trip which helped us understand much more about the region's culture and history. Below is more detail on where we went and what we saw. Many of the facts related here came from our Lonely Planet guidebooks, brochures, and other publications. You can find additional information on these places and topics by searching the Internet.

The Start

We left "Arctracer" on the eastern side of Ao Chalong. This anchorage is very good in the northeast monsoon season. We hired a taxi (250 baht = $7.50) to get to the Phuket main bus station where we bought tickets for a 7-hour ride to Chumphon (320 baht each = $9.70). This bus had comfortable seats and air conditioning. Whenever the sun shone into windows, all the Thais on the sunny side closed the window curtains, which may have helped control the temperature but interfered with sightseeing. We got used to this happening on all buses and trains and soon learned to sit on the side away from the sun whenever possible. Past Ranong our route crossed the Isthmus of Kra, the narrow part of the Malay Peninsula which has often been considered for a canal which would make long voyages around the tip of the peninsula unnecessary. Creating a canal over or through those hills seems a formidable task, and it is not surprising that the project has not been started. Arriving in Chumphon in the evening, we found a reasonable hotel room and had supper in the hotel dining room. The next morning we walked around the town, through the market, and then to the train station where we boarded a train for a 7-hour trip to Bangkok (480 baht each = $14.50). The land along the way was quite flat, and much of it was covered by rice fields. Although this was the "dry" season, many fields were green with new crops. We enjoyed seeing water buffalo, cattle, cattle egrets, flycatchers, and flocks of storks. At every stop vendors came aboard and walked through the cars selling food and drinks. We tried crunchy slices of green papaya with salt and chili powder - surprisingly good.

Bangkok

At the Hualamphong train station we were met by Sunny, a young Thai who was once an exchange student staying in our daughter's house in the USA. He had been very helpful to us on a previous visit to Bangkok, and it was comforting to have him help us again. We got a room near the train station at the Krung Kasem Sri Krung Hotel (650 baht/night = $20) on the edge of Chinatown. We took Sunny out for dinner to celebrate his graduation from University. Chinatown in the evening had numerous sidewalk vendors selling food, some with tables and chairs. Street traffic made these very noisy, so we opted for a restaurant inside closed doors where we could hold a conversation. This was the most expensive meal of our whole trip, but one which he very much deserved. He showed us the King's Arch, erected in honor of the current King in the center of a traffic circle. Under the very center of the arch is a "power spot" believed by some Thais to provide a little extra something to a person who stands there. The benefits sounded a bit like those obtainable by kissing the Blarney Stone, but Jerry stood there for a moment anyhow. In the morning we took the subway to the Huai Khwang station and then a local bus to the Laotian Embassy. We received visas in an hour for $50 each. These visas were good for three months from the day we obtained them. We returned to Chinatown and walked to see the solid gold Buddha in Wat Traimit. Then we wandered through narrow "Sampeng Lane" where solid streams of people moved past innumerable vendors and all sorts of merchandise. We finally escaped to the slightly less crowded streets and walked as far as the Memorial Bridge before returning to the hotel for dinner. There we ordered a bottle of Thailand's "Sangsom" rum because it cost much less than a bottle of wine. The rum was fine, and lasted us several days, though we noticed Asians at a nearby table drinking large quantities of the stuff. The next morning we caught a train going north. This train was a real "local" with wooden seats and open windows instead of air conditioning. We actually preferred this since it enabled us to take photos, and on our 2-hour ride to Ayuthaya the seats did not become too uncomfortable.

(view Bangkok photos)

Ayuthaya

Ayuthaya is about 50 miles north of Bangkok on an island surrounded by rivers which were improved with dams and canals to make the city a natural fortress with good transportation by water. It was named "Ayodhya", (Sanskrit for "undefeatable"), after the home of Rama in the Indian epic "Ramayana." It was the Siamese capital from 1350 to 1767 and 33 kings ruled there. During that time the Siamese kingdom attained its greatest size, and this capital city of more than a million people became probably the richest city in the world. Its rulers traded with European and other ships which came up the Chao Praya River from the Gulf of Thailand. There were more than 500 temples in the city. Building a temple was one way Buddhists believed they could gain merit. The Burmese destroyed the city so completely in 1767 that the Thais built an entirely new capital in Bangkok. The ruins which remain are still impressive, and UNESCO has declared this a World Heritage Site.

From the train station we walked a couple blocks, then took a small ferry to the island and walked around looking for a guesthouse. On the way we witnessed an accident when two motorbikes bumped each other. One was knocked over and the two people on it slid quite far along the pavement but didn't appear too badly hurt. This happened near a sign that said "Bang Pain," which seemed appropriate. We found a delightful room (350 baht/night = $10.50) in the "Amporn Floatel" a four-room house floating on the river. We spent two nights there, and were the only guests. Our room on the river was far from street noises and we were able to watch ferrymen cross the river by paddling or using longtail engines. We noticed that the river was tidal, even this far from the sea. We left our clothes in our room so our packs were much easier to carry, and walked around to start seeing the ruins. Our first stop was at the Chantrakasem National Museum, a palace built in 1577, destroyed in 1767, rebuilt by Rama IV, and proclaimed a national museum in 1936. One building held a collection of Rama IV furniture and his personal items from the 1860s. Another building had many paintings by the present King Rama IX, including several portraits of his wife. Then we went further to some old ruins near the big Chinese shrine. They were largely unrestored, but were still interesting in their antiquity. Several ruined Buddhas were there, wrapped in golden cloth. A local showed Nina a little door near the back of a shabby old building which opened onto a room with many old Buddha images which were evidently still venerated. It was not on the usual tourist route, but gave us a sense of how much the Thais care about all their old Buddhas. The Chinese shrine was relatively new and very well-maintained. We liked its elephant topiary, a large golden Buddha sitting under a tree, and turtles in its pond. Across a road was the 400-year-old unrestored Wat Suwannawat with a large piece of a wall around a dooorway through which a fairly large unrestored Buddha was seen. As the afternoon wore on, taking pictures from the west side of the ancient monuments became more favored, so we walked down the western (back) sides of Wat Rachaburana and Wat Mahathat. There were many monuments with red bricks which were once covered by stucco but the stucco was destroyed so the old bricks glowed softly in the afternoon light. We strolled through the center of the park, past ponds and canals on nice walkways, discovering a sculpture we later understood to be Mae Thoranee, Goddess of the Earth. We continued a roundabout walk past the ruined Royal Palace and Wat Phra San Si Sanphet whose trio of chedis (towers with very pointed tops) form one of Ayuthaya's most frequently seen images. By this time it was getting dark and we were getting hungry so we walked along the Old Lopburi River to the night market and had soup, papaya salad and a snapper for dinner overlooking the river. The wines were ridiculously expensive, so we bought a bottle of cheap Thai rum and some ice. This was good, and there was plenty left in the bottle to take back to our "floatel" for other nights. We looked a little at the night market stuff, but nothing struck us as particularly unique or cheap. Our quiet room provided a peaceful night's sleep.

For a full day in Ayuthaya we rented bicycles so we could get around more quickly and visit sites a bit further away than we wanted to walk. One-speeds with baskets and locks rented for 30 baht apiece(less than $1) and although they didn't fit us perfectly they were okay. We rode first to Wat Rachaburana, whose tall prang (Khmer-style tower with somewhat rounded top) dates back to the 15th century. It contained a three-level vault opened in 1957 first by thieves and then by the government Fine Arts Department. Many valuable votive tablets, Buddha images and jewelry from this vault are now in museums. There is restoration going on, with the primary objective (probably) to increase tourism. The stucco decorations on the brick towers and the images which stood in niches of the prang were destroyed in 1767, but now they are being recreated. Our next stop was at Wat Mahathat, built in the 14th century. This royal monastery was the most important temple of ancient Ayuthaya. Relics of the Buddha were enshrined there, and it was the residence of the Sangaraja (leader of the Kamivasi Sect Buddhist monks). Its main prang collapsed in the early 17th century but was rebuilt even higher. It was restored in the early 18th century, but was burned in 1767 and still remains in ruins. One of the most photographed items in Ayuthaya is a sculpted head which somehow got entangled by tree roots here after the city was abandoned. We rode on to Wat Thammikarat whose main buildings are in ruins but still interested us. The tall brick pillars give some idea of how magnificent the Wat must have been. A nearby broken chedi is wrapped with gold cloth and surrounded by broken lion sculptures. An old Reclining Buddha in another building attracts most of the tourists and worshippers today. We rode across a bridge from the city island's western side to reach Wat Chai Wattanaram, a monastery built in 1630. It is reminiscent of Angkor, perhaps because the King who had it built had just conquered the Khmers. Jerry climbed the steep stairs of the central prang and was bothered by acrophobia on the way back down. There are some remarkable Buddhas in this Wat and it has a nice setting near the river across from the southwest corner of the old city island. On our way back we stopped by Wat Kasatthirat, a newer Wat in good condition and crowded with worshippers. Back on Ayuthaya's island we rode beside and then across the Old Lopburi River to Wat Phra Meru where there seemed to be an obsession with roosters. We rode through some of the main streets to the eastern bridge which leads to the train station and then "home" to turn in our bikes and relax at our floating house. A bit later we went to the night market and got soup for supper. It was a good day. We decided that we had seen enough of this old capital and were ready to move on.

(view Ayuthaya photos)

Sukhothai

We took a taxi to the Ayuthaya train station (50 baht = $1.50)and bought tickets (168 baht each = $5) on a "third class" car with wooden seats and no air conditioning. We thought it was fine, and enjoyed fresh air through open windows from 8:35 until we got off in Phitsanulok at 14:00. (Can't pronounce that name? Think what a locksmith does after a lock breaks: "Fits a new lock" of course.) It was another ride through flat rice-growing land with plenty of water even during the "dry" season. During the rainy season this land really gets soaked. Floods are common, and villagers often have to leave their homes to seek employment in drier places. The annual deluge brings nutrients to the fields too, and is one of the reasons for this area's bountiful harvests for hundreds of years. Now dams are planned to reduce flooding, especially to protect Bangkok. We didn't stay long in Phitsanulok, birthplace of King Naresuan the Great. We took a local bus (9 baht each = $.25) from the train station to the central bus station, and immediately boarded a posh bus (60 baht each = $2) for the hour and a half ride to Sukothai. We stayed on the bus when it stopped in New Sukhothai which has many facilities for tourists but is a half-hour songthaew ride from the old city where the ruins are. There were two guesthouses in Old Sukhothai, and we got a room right beside the Historical Park, another UNESCO World Heritage site. We had time before sunset to walk a bit in the park, and again enjoyed the afternoon light on old bricks. There were several restaurants beside each other on the main street of this small town, and we found one which served decent Thai food (including our first fried Morning Glorys) before retiring for the night.

Before Sukhothai became the Thai capital it was an important Khmer city. Several of the major Wats were built by the Khmers in the 12th century as Hindu temples. Sukhothai was the original capital of the first Thai kingdom from the early 13th to the late 14th century. This is considered the "golden age" of Thai religious art and architecture. In the early 14th century the Lanka Wangsa order of Buddhism spread into Sukhothai and a great number of Buddha images and temples were built. The Kingdom of Sukhothai was finally annexed to the Kingdom of Ayuthaya. The Historical Park has about 45 square kilometers (17 square miles) of ruins. The main part of the city was surrounded by three concentric walls and two moats, with gates in each side. There are 21 historical sites within the walls and 70 more within a 5 km (3 mile) radius. After a nice breakfast of muesli, yogurt, juice and coffee, we rented one-speed bicycles for the day (20 baht each =$.60) and bought passes (160 baht each = $4.85) to all the sites. It was very pleasant in Sukhothai because it was a small town, not overrun by crowds, and the Historical Park really was a quiet park without noisy traffic. It was a great place to walk, ride bikes and learn about Thai history and Buddhism.

We began with Wat Mahathat, built in the 13th century. It is surrounded by brick walls 200 meters on each side plus a moat, said to represent the outer wall of the universe and the cosmic ocean respectively. With 198 chedis and much sculpture, this was the spiritual center of the city. From there we wandered around inside the city walls for a while, then out the old southwest gate to see smaller ruins in the countryside. Beyond the walls were rice fields, and we rode up into the western hills to several sites in the woods. We found the countryside as interesting as the ruins. We came back towards the walls from Wat Saphaan Hin, whose monumental Standing Buddha looks down on the old city from the northwest, then detoured north to see the huge Sitting Budda of Wat Si Chum. We stopped at an isolated food stand for drinks and ate a delicious papaya salad made for us from scratch by an old woman. After Wat Phra Pai Luang on the north side, we entered the city through its north gate and spent some time at the Ramkhamhaeng National Museum. The Thai Department of Fine Arts started construction of this complex in 1960 and it was completed in 1963. We saw Sangkhalok Chinaware at the museum, plus a bronze Buddha in the gesture of walking which is considered one of the most beautiful metal sculptures and shows the high level of metal craftwork in molding and casting which existed during the Sukhothai Age. There were many Buddha images and other items which helped us to understand more about Thai art and religion. We rode out the east gate to see Wat Chang Lom, a large bell-shaped chedi with 36 elephants sculpted into its base. Just before dark we dashed through the south gate towards Wat Chedi Si Hong. Jerry turned off the road towards the Wat into fairly tall grass without noticing a little wire fence in his way. He stopped quickly, but the fence needed repair. Fortunately the farmer was nearby and seemed to think the incident amusing. Jerry insisted on taking a photo of the Wat, and then hurrying to get back on his bike he managed to bend something. We returned the bike making a noise on every revolution of the pedals, but the rental people didn't seem to mind. After a full day we had another relaxing dinner. Then Jerry checked our mail at an email cafe and was helped by our landlord to recharge his camera battery.

(view Sukhothai photos)

Chiang Mai

We woke up at 5:50 with roosters crowing outside our window. Nina went to the market at 6:15 and bought cucumbers, tomatoes and tangerines to eat on the way to Chiang Mai. We ate breakfast again at the "Coffee Shop" which had become our favorite eating place in Sukhothai. At 7:45 we stood across the road from our guest house and flagged down a bus to Chiang Mai. We paid for our tickets on board (234 baht each = $7). We went through the hills to Tak, then up Route 1 to Lampang and from there to Chaing Mai's Arcade Bus Station on the northeast side of the city. We arrived at 13:00. A songthaew took us into the main part of the city, dropping us off near the Nawarat Bridge on Tha Phae Road. We wandered a few side streets until we found the Ban Mae Tong Mourn Guest House at 69 Khampangdin Soi 1. The room cost us 300 baht/night ($9) and we appreciated being in a quiet area within easy walking distance of the night market and the city center. An unexpected benefit of this guesthouse was the presence of another boarder, Thierry, a French expatriot who spoke Thai, had a Thai wife, and had lived more than 20 years in the area. He provided good information and advice, and helped us communicate with our landlady.

Chiang Mai is Thailand's second largest city, and has been an important center for centuries. It was a Mon settlement, ruled by the Burmese of Bagan in the 11th century. It was one of the earliest cities to be ruled by Thais when King Mengrai took it over in 1296 and built the original walls. In the 14th and 15th centuries it was part of the Lan Na Thai (literally "million Thai rice fields") kingdom which extended north to Luang Prabang in today's Laos and south beyond Sukhothai. During this time the city became an important cultural and religious center. Caravans from China passed through on their way to Burmese seaports. They carried silk, opium, tea, dried fruit, lacquerware, musk, ponies and mules. Returning north they carried gold, copper, cotton, edible bird's nests, betel nut, tobacco and ivory. The Burmese captured the city in 1556 and controlled it until it was recaptured in 1775 by the Thais. In 1800 massive brick walls were built to protect the city. It then expanded outward and became a very prosperous trading center with over 300 temples, 121 inside the city limits. The railroad from Bangkok reached Chaing Mai in 1921. This improved export capability enabled handicraft manufacturing to prosper, and that is still the second biggest part of its economy. Tourism is now the main source of income. Although 700 km (435 miles) northwest of Bangkok, Chaing Mai is still in the flat land of central Thailand which often floods in the rainy seasons. Only a couple years before our visit there was water above street level for several days.

We had a good lunch at our guesthouse, discovering that our landlady was a very good cook. Then we set out for a short walk towards the city center. We came to old Wat Phan Tao and had to stop. This was a large wooden temple which looked wonderful. It was made of teak panels supported by 28 gargantuan teak pillars and was busy with monks preparing for a celebration. Then we walked to nearby Wat Chedi Luang and admired the huge old stupa which once held the "Emerald Buddha." At dusk we went back to our room and relaxed for a while before going to the night market. This was certainly the largest we had ever seen, with double rows of stalls on both sides of a busy street plus several huge side areas filled with vendors. We meandered with hordes of other potential customers, stopping occasionally when something caught our eye. The vendors were very skillful in displaying, touting and bartering, and most tourists had no chance of knowing whether they got a good deal or were totally ripped off. Nina was patient, and with bartering skills developed through Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, made some deals which she believed were pretty good. She was usually able to get prices down to one-half or one-third of the initial prices quoted. We took time out for supper in a food court which had young Thais demonstrating traditional dances. Then we walked around until we tired and went back to our room to sleep.

The next morning we gave some laundry to the guest house staff, and they washed and dried it during the day for 30 baht per kg ($1). We ate breakfast at the guesthouse, and then walked through the city. The city walls and moat are still interesting, and we stopped briefly at several Wats. Just outside the city's northwest corner we hired a taxi for a trip to Doi Suthep, a 1676m (5447 feet) high mountain 16 km (10 miles) to the northwest. There is a large area of parkland with hiking trails and considerable wildlife, but like most tourists we came only to see two sites. We stopped first at the Phu Ping Gardens and Bhubing Palace. The palace, built in 1961, is the royal winter residence where the king's family stays during seasonal visits to the area. The upper floor of the Palace is the royal residential area while the ground floor houses the royal entourage. A "Log Cabin" on the grounds is the seasonal residence of Princess Chulabhorn. The palace is not open to tourists and its exterior is quite plain in comparison to the elaborately decorated Royal Palaces in Bangkok, but the flower gardens are extensive and make a visit worthwhile. Our second stop was at Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, established in 1383 and now one of northern Thailand's most sacred temples. We walked up the long staircase to the Wat and spent a while admiring the Buddhas, the various buildings and the elaborate decorations. This was a very busy place, with many worshippers as well as camera-toting tourists.

(view Doi Suthep photos)

We had our taxi driver take us back past the main city to the famous workshops down Sankampaeng Road to the east. He had done tours there before, and took us to workshops of silk, silver, umbrellas, and lacquerware. The silk place had a small demonstration room where we didn't learn anything new and a large store too. (We learned much about making silk in Cambodia.) The silver workshop was more interesting. We watched people hammering intricate patterns and pictures into containers and plaques. One large silver piece was a battle scene which was hollow but still weighed 30kg (66 pounds) and took more than a year to make. The lacquerware workshop covered bamboo forms with many layers of lacquer, and finished them sometimes with bits of eggshell. The umbrella factory in Baw Sang (known as "The Umbrella Village") glued paper onto bamboo frames of various sizes and then painted them to make what we call "parasols." Back in the city Nina looked at betelnut containers in an antique shop, and then we went back to our guesthouse for supper. We made arrangements through our landlady, Prawnee, to go in a minivan to Doi Inthanon National Park the next day (1200 baht each = $36).

(view Chiang Mai photos)

We were finished with breakfast by 8:00, waiting for our minivan tour to Thailand's highest mountain. After we were picked up it took almost another hour to finish collecting our group from various hotels. We didn't arrive at the park entrance until 10:30 and it was only about a 40 mile trip. On the ride we met Marion and Simon from Sydney and Galvin and Daphne from Singapore. At 10:30 our guide paid our park entrance fees (the 400 baht each was one-third of the amount we'd paid for the trip). Our first stop in the Park was at the Wachiratarn Waterfall where we walked up and down stairways to see every angle. Then we visited a Karen Hill Tribe village of about 90 people where Nina bought a hand-woven top made out of two scarves. This tribe seemed quite poor, growing a little rice on tiny hillside terraces and obtaining other products from the forest. Hmong Hill Tribe villages also exist in the park but we did not stop at any of those. Next we saw the Siriphun Waterfall high above the Royal Gardens - a King's project with lots of vegetables and flowers. This project helped the local people develop an economy based on something besides opium, their mainstay for many years. We stopped for a prearranged lunch near the Park Headquarters. Then we went the rest of the way to the mountaintop where we walked on forest trails over the 2595 meter high (8434 feet) summit. Sometimes in mid-winter this high mountain gets frost on the grass, but we were there on a very pleasant day when a long-sleeved shirt was sufficient for Jerry and Nina needed no extra clothing. There were orchids and a few rhododendrons in bloom, and some wonderful craggy trees, but we saw none of the park's abundant wildlife. We were surprised not to see any soaring birds at all. Back down the mountain a little way we saw the King and Queen's Pagodas, large stupas with good views set in lovely gardens. Then we headed back to Chaing Mai, arriving in the night market area about 5:30.

(view Doi Inthanon Park photos)

Nina bought a Myanmar betelnut storage container as a souvenir of our visit to northern Thailand. At the night market she did more bartering and bought a few useful items. She needed sunglasses and most vendors would not go below 600 baht per pair, but she finally bought two pair (fake name brands) for a total of 300 baht, which may give an idea of the night market vendor costs and profits. Khao Soi Soup is a northern Thai specialty famous for very hot spices, so we looked for a place which served it. When we inquired at the "Sugar Shack Pub and Restaurant" they offered to go get some for us from another restaurant, so we ate it there.

The next day we got baht at an ATM machine which we hoped would be enough for the rest of our trip. We did not expect to find any ATMs or places which would accept credit cards in Laos. Jerry's sandals had broken, so we walked around looking for new ones. He finally bought a good new pair at a huge Tesco-Lotus store (a chain similar to Wal-Mart). He checked our email via a computer at our guesthouse which permitted access to the Internet for 20 minutes when a 10-baht ($0.30) coin was inserted. The computer was in the room of a teenaged Burmese girl who fled her country and now works at the guesthouse for room and board plus 350 baht ($11) per month. We felt sorry for her, and knew there were huge numbers of people even worse off. Nina read more about northern Thailand and planned our next moves. We ate a mediocre dinner at a nearby restaurant that evening.

Tha Ton & Longtail on Kok River

The next morning we walked to the tuk-tuk waiting area near the Nawarat Bridge and got a ride to the bus station on the north side of Chiang Mai. Buses left about once per hour from this station to Tha Ton, our next destination. The bus ride took about 4 hours and the cost was 90 baht ($2.75) each. Tha Ton is a small town nestled at the base of the mountains which separate Thailand from Myanmar. From the bus stop we walked away from the main road about 200 yards to the Garden Guesthouse and took a room for 200 baht ($6). In the room next to ours was Nadia, an Italian woman traveling after completing a Master's Degree in Art History. She was also planning to take a longtail to Chiang Rai the next day, and we discussed the options. By road to Chiang Rai it was 92km (57 miles) but the trip by longtail down the river was much shorter and took only 3 hours and 30 minutes. The "public boat" left just once per day at 12:30 and cost 350 baht, but other boats could be chartered for private parties at (perhaps) 2200 baht per boatload. We eventually purchased tickets on the "public boat." That evening we ate in a small restaurant on the main road, and retired to our quiet room for a good night's sleep.

It was a little chilly the next morning when we awoke, so Jerry put on his long-sleeved shirt for a while. Some locals were so bundled up that they looked almost prepared for skiing. After breakfast, Jerry hiked up the hill to the big Chinese shrine and new Wat which overlooks Tha Ton. There were some interesting sculptures and good views across the valley. Nina relaxed at the boat landing where there were several Akha Hill Tribe women. The Akha people came originally from Tibet, and now live in hills and mountains of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and China too. They are among the poorest of Thailand's ethnic minorities and tend to resist assimilation into the Thai mainstream. They often grow opium for their own consumption, and have their own language, customs, religion and distinctive colorful headdresses with beads, feathers and dangling silver ornaments. We saw them in Phuket and Chiang Mai too, where the women were very persistent in making sales, often approaching tourists while stroking the backs of wooden frogs to produce a croaking noise. As soon as Nina indicated a little interest in their woven and decorated items, she was surrounded by half-a-dozen women and young girls all bartering simultaneously. It was somewhat overwhelming, but Nina kept her cool and wound up with several small glasses cases at reasonable prices, spreading her purchases among the "Frog Ladies."

The longtail boat ride down the Kok River was a delightful experience. This river has its source in the high mountains of Myanmar and is about 200 km (120 miles) long. Going south from Tha Ton it passes several hill tribe and rural Thai villages, then Chiang Rai, to finally join the Mekong River. At the start there were only Nadia, ourselves, and Murray from Brooklyn, New York aboard with our very experienced (22 years on this river) driver. We picked up a few more passengers downstream. We went through rice fields and through hills covered by fruit groves, bamboo, and trees. We saw little wildlife except a few kingfishers and other birds. We got many glimpses of local life, seeing fishermen and farmers going about their ordinary business. The river is not very big, with some sections of swift currents and many shoals and rocks. We were very impressed with the skill of our driver in maneuvering his boat through all hazards.

(view Tha Ton & Boating on Kok River photos)

Chiang Rai & Chiang Khong

The landing at Chiang Rai was some distance from the center of town, so we all rode together in a tuk-tuk to a recommended guesthouse. Nina and I didn't stay there, but walked into the city center and found a room at the "City Home" for 200 baht. This was in the middle of the small city's nightlife, with the night market and many bars and restaurants nearby. We ate good soup in a cheap Chinese restaurant, and briefly browsed the night market before going to bed.

The next morning we walked to the city's most famous temple, Wat Phra Kaew. According to legend, in 1434 lightning struck the temple's chedi, and it fell apart to reveal the "Emerald Buddha" ("Phra Kaew Morokot" in Thai). For some reason we do not understand, this small Buddha image made of jade is extraordinarily important to the people of Thailand and nearby countries. Perhaps it was carved in India, but it has traveled to Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Ayuthaya, Lawo (another ancient Thai city), Kampang (south of Sukhothai), Chiang Rai 1391-1436, Lampang (between Sukothai and Chiang Rai) 1436-1468, Chiang Mai 1468-1553, Vientiane 1553-1778, and since then it has resided in Bangkok. In most of these places it still has a temple named after it, and many of those now display replicas. Chiang Rai had its replica commissioned in 1990 and it now resides in this Wat where the original was 600 years ago.

We took a three-hour bus ride to Chiang Khong, a small town on the Mekong River. This has long been an important town, with trade routes on the river stretching up to China and down to Cambodia. It was an important crossing point for caravans through Laos. At one time this was the capital of a small kingdom which stretched across today's Laos to Yunnan Province in China. There is still a steady flow of goods through here to and from China. Thailand sends its dried and processed foods, beverages, cosmetics, machinery, spare parts and agro-industrial supplies up through here. Local fishermen catch a few of the rare Giant Mekong Catfish (Plaa Beuk) with nets in the Spring as they swim upriver to spawn. These are the largest freshwater fish in the world, reaching 10 feet in length and over 600 pounds, and they are an extremely expensive delicacy on the menus of a few Bangkok and Chiang Mai restaurants. We walked through the town but didn't see enough to warrant staying overnight so continued walking to the border. Checking out with the Thai officials was easy. We gave them a paper from the Phuket Immigration which they filled out and returned proving that we did leave the country. Then we walked through the "Gate to Indo-China" to the ferry landing. A "ferry" is usually a boat of considerable size, but in this case it was a fairly small longtail. We sat single-file for the short trip across the Mekong River to Laos.

(view Chiang Rai & Chiang Khong photos)

Mekong River Cruise

Laos was our first Communist country, and we wondered if our American passports would raise any eyebrows at the Immigration office. The officials were polite and quickly stamped our passports valid until March 20, sixty days away. We walked further up the riverbank to the village of Huay Xai, a small town with quite a few new guesthouses due to the popular cruises on the Mekong River to and from Luang Prabang. After inquiring at a few, we took a nice room for 350 baht. Laotian currency is "kip" which is not useful in any other country. The exchange rate was about 9100 kip per US$1 or 270 kip per baht. Because the kip is worth so little and fluctuates so much in value, Laotians prefer US dollars or Thai baht. Kip are useful for small transactions like buying lunch, and we made sure to spend all our kip before leaving the country. We tried to learn a few phrases in their language, and discovered "Hello" was "Sabaidee," almost the same as in Thai. "Thank You" was something like "Khob chai." Many of the people we met had some English, so we never had any real communication breakdowns. We walked through the town to the longboat landing at the north end, up to the Wat on top of the hill and back down to a restaurant for dinner. This restaurant was offering a "Barbecue Special" and we chose a Lao Shrimp BBQ (40,000 kip for two people = $4.) It involved cooking our own food on a charcoal-fired stove that was set into a hole in the center of the table. We fried the shrimp and made vegetable soup. The shrimp were frozen and weren't very good, but the soup came out OK. Then we strolled under a full moon back to our room.

We got up fairly early and had breakfast at our guesthouse before walking to the longboat landing. We bought our tickets at the ticket office (730 baht each = $22), had our passports checked by an official, and were among the first passengers to board our boat. This enabled us to claim two of the very few cushy seats at the front of the boat near the helm. The boat gradually filled up with tourists and a few locals, and didn't leave until 11:30. This gave Jerry a chance to wander around looking for photo opportunities. It was a busy place, with longboats, barges and truck ferries plus vehicles loading and unloading passengers and cargo.

(view Huay Xai photos)

Once headed downriver we spent our time watching the passing scene. It was constantly changing and often quite interesting. We had ringside seats for watching the captain and crew. Steering was with a wheel which pulled steel cables running on top of "running boards" outside on both sides of the boat to the rudder in back. The eight-cylinder diesel was controlled by a couple of levers for shifting forward/neutral/reverse but we never understood exactly how they worked. The throttle was a funny little lever in front of the wheel which pulled a wire. There were no other controls or instruments except voices, bamboo poles and strong arms. The Mekong changes its level as much as 40 feet between rainy and dry seasons. For the captain this presented a tremendous challenge. He had to know where all the potentially hazardous rocks were and how deep the muddy water was over those rocks with the depths different on every trip. In addition, the river ran swiftly through narrow channels, across shoals and through rapids with whirlpools and eddies. Steering our long skinny boat through all this cannot be simple, but our captain made it look easy. We were often glad that he had the responsibility and not us. He even had time to joke with the crew and pay some playful attention to a little boy who spent much of the trip beside him, occasionally moving the throttle unexpectedly. Perhaps he was a grandson? With our zoom lens we got some photos revealing what the people were doing both on the river and ashore. Many passengers seemed to get bored quickly, and turned to reading, playing cards or sleeping, but we stayed interested the whole six hours to Pakbeng.

Pakbeng was a small town whose main business was taking care of people stopping for the night. The Mekong was much too dangerous to navigate at night, so all boats tied to shore during hours of darkness. Business in Pakbeng must have been good because there were several new guesthouses and more under construction. We found a new room for 150 baht, and ate dinner at the same place for 70,000 kip. At dinner we met an elderly English couple, Hilary and Norman, with a major problem: They had no useful money. They had assumed they would be able to use a credit card, an ATM or at least some of their English Pound notes, but Pakbeng didn't offer those options. We gave them baht in exchange for a 20 Pound note so they could buy food and lodging until they reached Thailand where they could get useful money. Pakbeng is not on any electrical grid, so generators were turned on for a few hours each night. Our guesthouse happened to be opposite the generator which supplied electricity to the streetlights, so we fell asleep listening to its constant noise.

We had to get up early the next morning because our longboat was scheduled to leave at 8:30. We ate breakfast at our guesthouse, and Nina made a trip to the village market to get fruit and vegetables to eat on the river. The market was a poor one with very little available even at 7:00. At the river we discovered that our boat was different from the one we rode on from Huay Xai. The new boat was a bit smaller, had a six-cylinder diesel, and (most important) had a different captain and crew. The new captain was an expert in navigating the next section of river, and our old captain probably went back upriver through the section he knew well. Nina thought the biggest difference was that the new boat had no cushy seats - nothing but hard wooden benches which were often too close together. Since we were among the first passengers aboard, Nina rearranged a few benches so we had some legroom. Some of the last passengers to find seats had so little legroom that they sat sideways with their feet on their benches. There was also less room aboard to stow luggage, so great piles were constructed just behind the helm and way in the back. For the crew to move to or from the helm area, they had to climb out the windows and walk along the side "running boards."

Our boat finally pushed off from Pakbeng at 9:45. This second day on the river was much like the first, and we started to tire of the same scenes, though they were still quite lovely. This section of the river was not quite as difficult, and there seemed to be fewer rapids and dangerous places. In fact, our captain let his understudy steer most of the way. This part of the Mekong is not on the Thai border, but is entirely inside Laos. There are rugged hills, and the villages we passed looked poor and isolated until we neared Luang Prabang. About 25 km (15 miles) before Luang Prabang we passed the Pak Ou Caves. These are limestone caves which have so many Buddha images that some brochures speak of the "Cave of 1000 Buddhas." We didn't stop, but large and small boats brought tourists here every day. At 5:30 we reached Luang Prabang with the last daylight. Jerry took sunset photos as Nina waited for her small backpack to be retrieved from the lower hold.

(view Slow Boat photos)

(view more Slow Boat photos)

Luang Prabang

The Luang Prabang area has been inhabited for a very long time, but its rugged terrain has been a barrier keeping villages relatively poor and isolated. Early Thai-Lao city-states established themselves in the high river valleys along the Mekong River and its major tributaries between the 8th and 13th centuries. Rice farming was the main occupation, even though there were no large level areas like southern Laos or central Thailand. The Khmers supported the first Lao king, who established his capital here in the 1350s. The capital was moved to Vientiane in 1545 but Luang Prabang remained the main source of the king's power until 1694 when the kingdom became fragmented. After that Luang Prabang paid tribute at times to the Siamese, Burmese and Vietnamese. After the Chinese Black Flag Haw sacked the city in 1887, the French established a Commissariat and provided protection, but allowed the monarchy to continue. In 1975 the Pathet Lao eliminated the monarchy and a Communist government has ruled all of Laos since then. The heart of the old city sits on a peninsula between the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. It remains relatively well-preserved and has been listed by the UN as a World Heritage Site eligible for preservation funds. Very old temples are mixed with French colonial buildings from the early 1900s and newer guesthouses. It still seems like a pleasant place to live, but in our estimation, the rapid growth of tourism is beginning to overshadow everything.

We walked around on our first evening looking for a guesthouse. There were many, but some were full and all were asking higher prices than we were used to paying. We finally chose the Koun Savan for $10 US per night. It wasn't as good as cheaper rooms in Thailand, but prices just seemed higher in Laos. Back downtown we found an ATM machine which could provide up to 700,000 kip ($77) per transaction. We ate Khao Xai Soup with limes and greens on the side, plus water, for 10,000 kip. We bought a bottle of red wine for 95,000 kip ($10)and homemade yogurt for the next morning. We got some sleep and prepared to explore the city more thoroughly.

Nina ate breakfast the next morning at our guesthouse, and had them do laundry for us. A baguette and two boiled eggs cost 12,000 kip ($1.32) and two cups of strong black cafe Lao cost 8,000 kip ($0.88). The cooks left before Jerry got to breakfast so we ate breakfast at a Chinese restaurant on the street from then on. We started our serious tourist business by visiting the old Royal Palace Museum. It has a large collection of valuable and interesting stuff. There were paintings showing the legend of Prince Wetsantara, considered the penultimate incarnation of Buddha. He was born a Prince, but had a habit of giving things away, a Buddhist way of gaining merit. The King finally disowned him when he gave away a sacred white elephant and he became a hermit. He continued his habit, giving away his two children and finally even his wife. A God then appeared to give his wife back and grant eight wishes. He was reunited with his children and his parents, and had a happy reign as King. The museum had a collection of palm-leaf manuscripts, and large amounts of stuff which was once used by the royal family and their staff. We later learned that it has the city's most prized Buddha image, the Pha Bang, in a separate room which we missed. Oh well, it's impossible to see everything. We walked along the main streets, visited Wats, browsed in a few shops, and got to know the place. We bought Mekong seaweed with dried tomato, onions, garlic and sesame seeds for 10,000 kip and brought it back to our boat to use in soups. A little girl sold Nina two 2 wooden-bead bracelets for 5,000 kip. We saw (and sampled) rice cakes dried in the sun. We walked around the peninsula, seeing both rivers from the town above. We snacked on Mekong seaweed fried in oil for 20,000 kip and a mango shake for 7,000 kip. We spent quite a while at Wat Xieng Thong, the town's most magnificent temple. It was built in 1560 and remained under royal patronage until 1975. It overlooks the Mekong River and is one of two Wats that the Black Flag Haw from China didn't damage when they sacked the city in 1887. We had a nice dinner overlooking the Mekong River for 54,000 kip. Later we browsed in the extensive night market. Nina wanted a Laotian silk skirt but the lowest price she could barter was 150,000 kip which seemed too high. She did buy a cotton Laotian skirt for 50,000 kip. Tired and footsore, we went back to our room for the night.

It was eggs and baguettes with Lao coffee again for breakfast the next morning. We do appreciate places which produce decent baguettes and coffee! We both went into Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham. It was the other Wat that wasn't sacked in 1887. Jerry went to Wat Thammothayalan on Phu Si Hill, and down the other side through several religious sites. Nina walked up some of the stairs but decided not to pay to go to the top of the hill. She talked with kids selling trinkets and bought 2 rust-colored wooden bracelets. The kids tried to sell her "stones from the Mekong River." Some precious stones are found in the area, but these might have been made with layers of plastic and epoxy. We changed the 20 pound note from Hilary and Norman for about what we had given them in baht. We looked at a "Floating Buddha" photography exhibit, which didn't impress us. Jerry went to an email cafe to check our mail. We relaxed with wine back in our room, and then walked down to the same restaurant as the night before. This was overlooking the Mekong River, opposite the Vane Chalearn Guest House. The owners of this guest house ran the restaurant with Mom cooking and the "kids" helping. The "Lao mixed vegetable salad" was delicious with a peanut sauce. We liked the food very much, and bought one of their "sticky rice" baskets as a souvenir. We browsed in the night market again, and again Nina failed to find a Laotian silk skirt at an acceptable price. It was another good day, and we decided we were ready to move on.

(view Luang Prabang photos)

Vang Vieng

We started with breakfast at our usual place in Luang Prabang, then took a tuk-tuk to the bus station. A "VIP" bus was about to leave, so we took the last two seats (not together) for 450 baht each ($14) and the bus immediately got underway. This bus had air-conditioning and comfortable seats, and after a few hours we appreciated its luxury. The road was an amazing two lanes, paved, and constantly twisting as it wound up and down through fairly high mountains with spectacular scenery. This was the only road, and there were many big trucks on it as well as other buses, vans, farm tractors, pedestrians, and everything else. There were very few stretches straight enough to see if it was safe to pass. Our driver simply honked his horn and overtook other vehicles, often on curves. We were glad we weren't sitting too near the front. Twice our bus and an oncoming truck both had to stop and back away from near-collisions. We stopped briefly at a little mountain village where the bus got some cooling water, and longer at a restaurant for lunch (included in the fare). Almost all the villages we passed were poor farming communities, and there was almost no level ground so the farmers grew crops on steep hillsides using hand tools. In the largest village we saw a "World Vision" building with a big, shiny tractor in its yard and wondered if this Christian poverty-fighting organization understood the difficulty of using a tractor in this extremely rugged terrain. The total distance from Luang Prabang was 223 km (140 miles) and our fast bus required six hours. Nina sat beside Angie from Nashville who had lived in Sumatra for a few years and was now travelling in China and teaching English as a Second Language there for 6 months. Jerry's seatmate was very quiet. Arriving in Vang Vieng about 3:15, we walked across the almost-never-used airstrip built by Americans during the Vietnam War and got a room at "Pan's Place" for 60,000 kip ($6.60) per night. We walked around town a little, and then relaxed in armchairs outside our room while eating food we brought from Luang Prabang. We tried two kinds of Laotian wine, and discovered that both were sweet fruit wines.

Vang Vieng is a small town on the Nam Song River which has become a tourist destination because of the numerous caves in the limestone karst formations on the west side of the river. There are many guesthouses, restaurants and other businesses catering to tourists. At our guesthouse in the morning we ate breakfast while watching the US Presidential Primary results for North Carolina on CNN. We refilled our plastic water bottles with free bottled water, and bought a local map. We rented bicycles for a full day of exploring the area. We could have chosen cheap single-speed bikes, but we opted for bicycles with gears at 20,000 kip ($2.20) each. This was more expensive than in Thailand but still very affordable. We started by crossing the toll bridge over the river, paying 6000 kip ($0.65) each including bikes. The streets of the town were paved, but we rode out to the west where the surface was rough and rocky dirt. It was slow riding, but we kept going all the way to the Poukham Cave. The admission fee of 10,000 kip each did not include a guide. We rented a strong headlamp for another 10,000 kip to supplement our small flashlight. We parked our bikes and climbed the rugged trail over jagged limestone rocks to the cave entrance. The cave was enormous and unlighted. We walked down past the Reclining Buddha shrine into the passages beyond. There were some interesting limestone formations, but as we progressed we began to wonder if we would be able to find our way back out. We met two guys whose headlamp had died, stranding them in total darkness until another explorer happened their way and helped them out. We stayed inside for only an hour, not penetrating far into the miles of passages. Coming out we took wrong turns a couple times, but finally escaped and scrambled back down the steep path to our bikes. The lagoon at the parking lot looked inviting after our hot and dusty excursion, but we had no bathing suits so just rode away. On the way back to town we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant where a narrow wooden bridge crosses a stream. An nice old woman took our order, and then took a very long time to fix the food. We eventually got a green papaya salad with some fishy-flavored sauce which made it taste terrible, plus an ordinary fried vegetable dish. Then we rode back towards town, but instead of recrossing the toll bridge we took smaller paths through rice fields along the river, and then rode a nice trail through woods to the Lusi Cave. We had done enough caving for one day so didn't go in, but the ride there and back was lovely. We saw four women just finishing a tubing trip on the river, and they said it was boring. The water was shallow and the current was so slow that they had to paddle with their hands most of the way. They were very cold after staying in the water for several hours. We returned the bicycles and walked to the Nisha Indian Restaurant for something different. The Spinach Aloo was delicious, and their other food was good too.

(view Vang Vieng photos)

Vientiane

In Vang Vieng we got up early, bought breakfast (fried eggs, baguettes and coffee) on the street, and carried everything to the bus station. We got there just in time to board the 7:00 local bus to Vientiane (25,000 kip each = $2.75). This was very different from a "VIP" bus. It was low-powered and had no air-conditioning. We enjoyed the open windows which brought in the cool morning breeze. We passed a big cement factory just south of Vang Vieng, but most of the way was through agricultural areas. The bus paused whenever more passengers wanted to board, and made a "comfort stop" after a couple hours so people could relieve themselves in the bushes. The air was very smoky (as it was everywhere in Laos) because almost everyone used wood or charcoal for cooking. Some passengers brought big suitcases and cardboard boxes, and one guy put three big bundles of meter-long bamboo in the aisle. The population density increased as we approached the capital, and our full bus arrived at 11:00. We walked around until 1:00 looking for a room and finally took one for 240 baht ($7.30). This room was one of the two we stayed in on this trip which did not have its own bathroom but shared toilets and showers down the hall. This guesthouse was right downtown on the opposite side of the "Black Stupa" from the fortified American Embassy. (The automatic weapons of those embassy guards were the only ones we saw in Laos. We never saw any resentment, but the Laotians knew that during the Vietnam War more bombs per capita were dropped on their country than on any other nation in the history of warfare. It will probably be hundreds of years before all the cluster bombs and other unexploded bombs are finally cleaned up so farmers and children will no longer be killed and maimed. The bombs were often released by B52s over civilian areas, while the guerillas were holed up in caves in the mountains.) We walked around the city, seeing some of the main sights. Then we ate dinner at a cheap local restaurant near our guesthouse. That night neither of us felt well, and Nina's stomach kept her running down the hall to the toilet. It was bad night to have no toilet in our room!

Nina did not feel like walking around the city at all the next morning, so stayed at our room while Jerry went out to see a few of the main attractions. The Presidential Palace was built for the French Colonial Governor and is now used only to house visiting dignitaries. The sculptures were interesting at Haw Phra Kaew, now a museum but once a royal temple built in 1565 to house the "Emerald Buddha." Also interesting was Wat Si Saket built in 1818 and probably the oldest temple still standing in Vientiane. It was restored by the French in 1924 and again in 1930, but the murals on the interior walls were not restored and are crumbling into obscurity. There are a remarkable number of Buddha images in this Wat (6840 by one count), many in small niches which honeycomb the interior walls. The Communist government has modified Buddhist teaching in the country to insure no conflicts with their Marxist philosophy. We got the impression that Buddhism was not as powerful an influence on the Laotian people as it was on the people in Thailand. However, the government seal included the image of Pha That Luang, the most sacred Buddhist monument in Laos. This golden stupa was on the outskirts of Vientiane, and we were rare tourists who did not go to see it. Jerry did walk to see the Patuxai, or "Arch of Triumph," built in the 1960s with US-purchased cement intended for an airport runway. This monument is a bit like the "Arc de Triomphe" in Paris, but the Laotian one has arches in all four sides.

(view Vientiane photos)

Return to "Arctracer"

At 11:30 we took a tuk-tuk to the "Friendship Bridge" 20 km (12 miles) from Vientiane. There we spent our last few kip on bottles of water and snacks, and got our passports stamped by Laos Immigration. A bus took us quickly across this Mekong River bridge. It was 1174 meters (about three-quarters of a mile) long and was financed by the Australian government. It opened in 1994 and was still the only bridge between the two countries. In Thailand we had our passports stamped again with 30-day visas. After some haggling to get a reasonable price, we rode in a tuk-tuk to the central bus station of Nong Khai. We immediately got on a big air-conditioned bus to Bangkok (370 baht each = $11.25). Both of us were still feeling poorly, and were not eating much at all, so we just relaxed and dozed during the long ride. We stopped a few times, but the bus mostly rolled right along on Thailand's good highways. We completed the 615 km (381 miles) about 1:30 am at Bangkok's northern bus terminal.

In the middle of the night the only way to get around Bangkok was by taxi. We took one to the southern bus terminal where we could catch a bus to Phuket. Thailand had many private bus companies in addition to the national bus company. As soon as we arrived at the southern bus terminal we were approached by women who wanted us to ride on their "VIP" bus to Phuket for 850 baht each. We thought that was high, and decided to wait for the regular ticket office to open. The same women approached us a bit later with an offer of 600 baht each, obviously having trouble filling their big bus. We talked to three Swedish guys who had just arrived in Thailand and were happy with their "VIP" tickets. We heard that private bus companies sometimes substituted a minivan for a big bus when there were few passengers, and wonder if that happened in this case. When the regular ticket office opened they had trouble with their ticket-printing equipment, but we waited for nearly an hour until we finally got them for 528 baht each ($16). When Jerry finally had the tickets in his hand he heard the bus station muzak system playing the "Going Home" melody from Dvorak's "New World Symphony" - most appropriate!

We boarded our bus at 6:00 and again relaxed and dozed as it rolled over roads we had traveled before. It was 915 km (567 miles) from Bangkok to Phuket. We arrived in Phuket about dusk and walked to the central market to stock up on fruit and vegetables. Jerry took a wrong turn, so this walk was much longer than necessary, and we really didn't need the extra exercise at that time. A taxi took us and all our bags back to the beach, and we rowed to our boat about 8:00. Everything seemed normal aboard. The strongest gust of wind recorded by our anemometer while we were away was 24 knots, so there were no storms. It was good to be back in our comfortable bed. The guesthouse beds were all so hard, both in Thailand and Laos, that our extra firm foam mattress seemed very cushy. We rested a lot in the next days to get over our stomach problems. We were soon eating regular meals and enjoying life aboard.

(view Bus photo)

(view Souvenirs photo)

(view Ao Chalong Sunset photo)

Costs

Our costs were very reasonable. We used buses and trains on the long segments and mostly walked or rode bicycles in towns, so our total transportation cost including "tours" was $352. We stayed in guesthouses frequented by backpackers, so our total cost for lodging was $198 (about $9 per night). We ate local food in inexpensive restaurants and bought only a few souvenirs which we could carry.

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