Last day in Bangkok

I checked into the New Siam Palace Ville Hotel last night which I chose mainly for its swimming pool and its excellent location not too far from the Royal Palace and from Koh San Road.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the place but it strikes me as somewhat cold. Maybe it’s the architecture or the design or the reception. I don’t know. I guess it’s good value for money.

So I got up this morning early and looked around the neighborhood which I liked very much.

When I first arrived in Bangkok, the neighborhood was not very interesting but this neighborhood is much more enticing with lots of little shops and restaurants along pedestrian streets.

My goal is to visit the Royal Palace which was closed on my last visit. My first choice would have been to visit the national museum but unfortunately it was closed today. At least I did get to see the room containing the golden chariots used to transport the urn containing the King’s ashes.

So reception told me I could actually walk to the Royal Palace which turned out to be more or less true. Actually it was kind of a long hot walk and it was not at all clear where the entrance to the Palace was.

I finally found the entrance because there were millions of people swarming around the palace and waiting to get in. I knew that this was not going to be a good experience and it wasn’t. I got an audio guide to help explain matters but as it turned out, it was so noisy inside that I could hardly even hear what the audio guide was saying. It’s really funny that they go on and on about covering shoulders and covering knees and so forth but the Chinese tour guides are screaming at the top of their lungs and the whole thing is just bedlam inside. Not to mention that it was confusing to figure out where everything was. It was really tourism at its worst.

It was just overwhelmingly awful even though certainly the temples inside and the emerald Buddha were impressive.

Actually the most impressive part was the incredible mural depicting the story of the Ramayana.

Somehow I managed to take about 3 hours to get through it all and I was just pretty much finished after that. There wasn’t any question of trying to see the other famous temple in the region. I was touristed out. So I went back to the hotel, cooled off and did some shopping along Khao San Road. It was also pleasant to stroll the neighborhood again in the late afternoon.

As the sun set, I headed back to the hotel and took a refreshing swim in the pool. I changed and grabbed a Pad Thai in the neighborhood. I had arranged for a minivan transfer to the airport which was much cheaper than the taxi I took on my arrival.


Farewell to Luang Prabang

I got up early and biked around the riverbanks. It was great to do it before the sun was in full force. The riverbanks are just enchanting.

I decided that I had to do the “must do” in Luang Prabang and so I climbed Phoussi Hill. It’s historically important but I really didn’t see what the big fuss was. Fortunately it was cool enough  to climb up the 300 some steps so that wasn’t too arduous but it was also overcast when I finally got to the top.

Since it wasn’t sunset it wasn’t  overcrowded but as there wasn’t much space up there I could imagine that with more than a couple of dozen people it would get unpleasant indeed. I think that climbing this hill could easily make it onto a “most overrated tourist attractions” list.

I took my time getting back to the hotel where I had a noodle soup at my favorite restaurant down the street. The breakfast in the hotel is really not very good but the noodle shop was fabulous.

After packing up, checking out and leaving my luggage at reception I decided I wanted to cross to the other side of the river even though it was getting near midday and the sun was burning again. Nevertheless I walked over  wooden bamboo bridge that crossed  the Nam Khan river.

I can see why my guidebook recommended that the trip be done early or late in the day. Midday I found the sun and the heat quite unpleasant and there didn’t seem to be anything particularly interesting to do. Fortunately I ran into the two Swedish ladies who were in my cooking class yesterday and we had a very lovely lunch at a restaurant overlooking the river. I tried a buffalo stew with a very unusual spice that the restaurant said came from the forests of Northern Laos.

I took a last look at the river and made my way back to the hotel to get ready for my departure.

Before leaving the Thavisouk Guesthouse, a word must be said about Kim, the manager of the place. She was Vietnamese and clearly very sharp and very energetic. Although charming and friendly and professional in every way, she got really irritated few days ago when I said that I had booked another excursion to the Kuang SI waterfalls. Her eyes were blazing and if she could have thrown daggers from them she would have. But her professionalism won out and she remained calm , with an effort. Clearly she lost out of commission and it was clear that amassing money was part of her life goal for herself, her husband and her young boy that ran around in a Superman costume. It’s not to be critical at all. It was just clear that she had a very lively commercial sense. Which I actually respect. We bonded a little bit over the ballerina bun which I showed her how to do and she was pleased with that. she was a young woman on the move.

The flight from Luang Prabang left about a half an hour late but was otherwise uneventful. I was worried that I would have a problem getting into Thailand because there was less than 6 months left on my passport but apparently Thai immigration doesn’t take this  seriously. Fortunately!


Luang Prabang: Back to School

Cooking school, that is. 12 of us gathered at Bamboo Tree restaurant at 9 this morning. Over coffee and tea we scanned the little recipe book that the restaurant had provided us. We were all happy and excited to begin learning how to make these wonderful Laotian dishes.

We selected a total of 6 dishes including spring rolls fried and fresh, fish in banana leaves, stuffed bamboo shoots, stuffed lemongrass, and of course sticky rice.

After the selection we all piled into minivans and a tuk-tuk and headed for the local market.

Linda, our teacher and Chef for the day, was a delightful and personable young woman with excellent English.

Going through the market was a revelation. We discovered baby eggplant In two sizes, one no larger than peas.

We learned that Thai Basil and Laotian basil are two completely different herbs! There was also a vegetable called water grass which was not in any of our dishes but which I had seen on various menus.

We we saw a number of items that were not to be used in our dishes such as dried fish, and dried rat.

After the market we headed back to the restaurant where the shopping and preparation started. As I had never done a cooking class I didn’t know what to expect.

The first job was peeling a tomato so that the peel came off in one continuous strip. The idea was to then arrange it into a sort of flower shape. I failed miserably. It was a strange kind of knife to be working with I suppose.

Then we did a lot of other preparation slicing carrots into matchsticks eyes, slicing potatoes into matchsticks eyes, chopping garlic, and thinly sliced chicken lemongrass. There was also a procedure with lemongrass that involved making small vertical strips along the bottom portion and that was to be stuffed.

We also worked with bamboo which apparently needs to be soaked for several days. To be honest, I couldn’t quite tell the difference in taste between the bamboo that they had soaked and the bamboo that I had gotten from Asiana already pre-packaged. So that’s good news.

There was also a lot of mortar and pestle work in which chili, lemongrass, and I believe shallots for all mesh together. I could see that this cuisine was quite labor-intensive.

One of our dishes was steamed local catfish in banana leaf. But the banana leaf had to be folded in a particular way and this was  tricky to pull off.

Another project was to work with rice paper and roll it into spring rolls to be either fried or fresh. It was a good technique to learn. The rice paper needs to be rolled and tucked so that there are no air pockets which will create bubbles when it’s fried. Other than that it’s actually quite easy.

It was all a lot of fun as we were talking and laughing throughout and Linda was giving us explanations of Laotian customs.

It was well organized. We were arranged around a long table; Linda was at one end and one of her helpers was at the other to help correct our many mistakes.

Then it was time for the cooking. A gas table top stove with several burners and walks on top were heated up and we started cooking the spring rolls ourselves. We also cooked the stuffed bamboo shoots and the stuffed lemongrass. All of which needed to be fried. So this took quite a bit of time but we took our turn doing it.

Finally it was all ready and we set ourselves down at the table they were quite a lot of servers around set the table and arrange the food. By this time we were all pretty hungry it was about 1:30 and we attack the food vigorously. It was all absolutely delightful and the crowd was a lot of fun.

Several of the people had made a habit of cooking classes I think at least partly for the convivial atmosphere. Basically I had a ball. We finished at about 3 p.m. And it’s something I would definitely do it again. We also got a certificate at the end which I thought was a nice touch. I am now officially certified to cook Laotian food for friends and family but not Linda specified, to open a restaurant.

After this delightful experience I got back on my bike and pedalled along the Nam Khan riverside which was great.

So then some people that I had met yesterday on the trip to the caves approached me in the restaurant and suggested that we meet this evening for a cinema experience. It turns out that the showing was at the Victoria Hotel and it was a 1927 black and white movie filmed in the jungles of Northern Siam, as they put it. The movie was called Chang and it was really dazzling. It combined small dramas such as tiger attacks and leopard chases with a family drama. Basically it recounted the struggle to survive of a Laotian family in the jungle in 1927. I have no idea how they did it. I have no idea how they managed to stage extremely realistic looking elephant stampedes in the days before animal trainers. There was also a monkey for comic relief but particularly striking was the footage of leopards and tigers that I think pretty much don’t exist anymore in the jungles of Northern Thailand. It managed to be both and anthropological documentary, a wildlife documentary, a family drama.


Luang Prabang: Of Monks and Caves

The day started at 5 a.m. which of course is not my preferred time to start anything. But the procession of the monks is one of the highlights of Luang Prabang and the monks start it early.

It was dark and quiet as I made my way to the night market which was of course closed but that’s where the monks make their procession. It’s a tradition here and elsewhere that bumps leave the temple at dawn and local worshippers give them alms, mainly sticky rice.

The only people out that early were people who sold sticky rice that you could give to the monks as well as a few other treats. Little plastic stools were placed along the route so worshipers could sit down and wait for the monks to come along.

It was nice being out on the cool, dark, quiet streets. Soon  the streets begin to fill up, mostly with tourists. Unfortunately the procession although a local tradition has become kind of a tourist spectacle.

I noticed outside of a number of temples there were signs posted asking people to please respect the tradition and to not make noise and should not use flash. It is permitted to give something to the monks but only if it is “meaningful”. I decided that since I wasn’t Buddhist it wasn’t meaningful to me so I did not pick up any sticky rice.

It has to be said that as the streets gradually filled up waiting for the monks, tourists outnumbered locals by about 4 to 1. It kind of makes sense because not too many locals live in the historic centre anymore so I wouldn’t expect that they would be out in force. So it about 6 the monks in their orange robes began filing out and those who had things to offer them gave a slight bow and put their sticky rice or whatever in the baskets that the monks were carrying. It was all very solemn. I was impressed with have the monks managed to stay focused, walked quickly and were not distracted by all of the cameras going off. There were maybe about 100 of them  and the procession lasted for a while. The monks ranged in age the youngest seem to be maybe 9 or 10. There weren’t so many old ones. When I got up close it seemed to me that some were, how to put it politely, perhaps not the brightest bulbs. After passing out of view of the alms-givers, the monks threw away the sticky rice.

By about 6:30 it was all over and most had already returned to the temple. It was nice but I preferred the one in Champasak because it was so unexpected.

Then I headed back to the hotel to get a bowl of noodle soup at the wonderful noodle shop down the street and begin my excursion of the day. This excursion was to the Pak Ou caves.

We boarded the boat at about 9 and headed up stream in a very beautiful ride to the famous caves.


Along the way we passed several tiny little fishing villages where fishermen seem to used baskets for fishing. They were conical baskets and hung up in the garden. The scenery was spectacular as the region around the river was quite hilly and the hills were lush and green. There were other boats on the river, mostly commercial boats going to the same caves we were, but also boats that clearly belonged to some local people. We stopped along the way at a village of weavers that was unfortunately much too short to stop to really appreciate. It was kind of a shame for the people that so many tourists came through with so little time to actually buy anything. I would be angry if I were them.

Then we continued our leisurely boat ride up the river until we got to the famous caves.

So in these caves people had been donating statues of Buddha for many years. Apparently it began as an animist place of devotion. It was believed that a River Spirit lives there.

It was okay but it was really really crowded. The lower cave had more visible Buddhists and it was actually quite interesting once the crowds emptied out to head to the upper cave. I was the last to leave and of course it took me a while to climb the 200 steps to the upper cave. Along the way I thought thank god this is my last Temple that I’ll have to climb up to. I can’t say that it was really worth it as the upper cave was very dark and although you could get flashlights at the entrance the flash lights were kind of weak. Even the cell phone flashlights didn’t illuminate very much.

It was really not enough time to appreciate the spot. Not enough time at all actually. It was really they trip up there that was the best part particularly since there weren’t that many people in the boat. If the boat was full up I think it would not have been very agreeable at all.

I spent most of the afternoon napping and recuperating in the hotel and left this evening for dinner once again at Bamboo Tree. I had no idea that red rice could be sticky rice.

I was delighted to learn that they give a cooking course which I signed up for and I’m looking forward to it tomorrow.

After dinner I returned  to the hotel along the Nam Khan River. I had explored the banks of the Mekong but this river was smaller and more intimate. I realize that all of the tourist stuff that they insist you do here is really not the best part of Luang Prabang. The best part is the simple geography of the place as the old town is a little peninsula sandwiched between these two rivers. Strolling the riverbanks at night is endlessly delightful.


Luang Prabang Waterfalls

Whether Asian or Western the breakfast here is terrible. No matter.

I set out early for Wat Xieng Thong, the richest and most elaborate temple in Luang Prabang. It took a half an hour to get there not the 10 minutes that the hotel manager, Kim assured me. It didn’t matter. It was a pleasant walk along the riverfront.

The the main Temple was begun in the 16th century but other parts of the temple complex were built later. It was every bit a royal Temple. In addition to the gilded wood on the exterior I was also amazed by the mosaic in Japanese glass. It was the style that I had seen yesterday in the Royal Palace but never anywhere else.

The temple is still very much a place of worship. In the chapel of the sleeping Buddha, also called the red Chapel, there were gifts of Buddhas from the villagers in addition to the ancient sleeping Buddha. There was also the Chapel of the Sacred Buddha that had a mosaic with a tree outside which represented the tree of Illumination. On the inside there was a long trough that serve to bring the grand Buddha out on the occasion of the new year. And then there was another Chapel dedicated to the funeral procession of a king. That was built in 1960 and contains an enormous funeral carriage. The style of this temple was so very different from other temples that I had seen in, for example, Taiwan and China.

And then this Laotian lady too stylish not to photograph.

I took a tuk tuk back to the town center to begin the highlight excursion of the day; a trip to Tad Kuanxi Si waterfalls.

It took about 45 minutes to get out there in the minivan and the ride passed through some of the Laotian countryside. Villages were sparse and so were tall trees. It was obvious to me that huge patches of land had been more or less deforested. I surmised that because the vegetation in the Park contained a number of majestic trees, none of which were obvious just outside of the park.

Despite the hordes of tourists descending upon it, the park was magnificent. It was extremely well laid out and well sign posted. The short walk up the Falls began with a visit to a bear sanctuary. The small black bears were mostly sleeping in hammocks or dozing on platforms but they looked extremely well cared for. Signs explained who they were, that is each individual bear had a name and certain habits in the personality which I liked very much. The purpose of the sanctuary was to sensitize tourists to the plight of the black bear which of course is losing habitat and is in danger of disappearing.

Next we began our walk up to The Falls. You start with very tiny Falls and continue up a path along the river to get to the highest level which was really magnificent.

In addition it was even possible to swim! Which I of course did. There was a large swimming area that was also rather crowded so I chose the quieter swimming area upstream a little bit. The water was cold but not as cold as the Roya River ! Also the current was surprisingly strong even in the safe swimming area. Not to say it wasn’t safe. It certainly was.

The only annoying thing about the whole experience was the Chinese tourists who swarm over everything doing nothing but taking pictures. I think that social media has in a certain sense ruined travel. Everyone is trying to be queen of Instagram.

We got back at about 3 which was perfect. I stopped back at the hotel and then was going to make a climb to the other “must see” which was the top of Mont Phousi.

I was standing around the Temple of the Golden Buddha across the street and a couple of Americans stopped behind me and she was red-faced and tired. She said there are so many people up there it’s so hot and so crowded with people. I said could it be Asian tourists snapping pictures? And she said yes exactly. So I watched as dozens and dozens of people continued climbing up the stone steps and decided I had had pretty much enough of crowds of camara happy Asian tourists for the day. Why do I have to climb up there? Just one of those things that all the guidebooks tell you you have to do that turns out to be of course not very pleasant because everyone else has received the same instructions. The hell with it.

Instead I took a walk through the historic quarter, which was surprisingly calm. I stopped at some travel agencies to find out whether it might be possible to arrange a tour of the outlying villages but nothing seems that definite.

One agency called White Elephant offered a 20 km track through the jungle and then an overnight in a Hmong village but frankly I don’t think I could make it. Not in this heat.

Then I fell into conversation with another young couple who had taken the boat ride along the Mekong which frankly sounds fabulous. It was the slow boat and they said it was surprisingly comfortable with bar that sold cold drinks, a toilet and enough space to move around. I so wish I had time to do it. Next time!

I browsed some boutiques and bought a wonderful pair of silk pants and then went for dinner at Bamboo Tree which turned out to be excellent. It was a big splurge that came to a total of $11 but at the food was fabulous. I particularly loved red sticky rice and then the main dish was local catfish with lemongrass and vegetables and I think galangal. They offer cooking classes so that might be another idea for my free day here.


Luang Prabang

The aggravation of the day before soon dissipated and I fell under the spell of Luang Prabang.

My first stop was the morning Market which I actually liked a lot more than the night market previously. This was much more local. They were practically no tourists whatsoever. Women sat next to their tables displaying spices, teas, fish, fresh vegetables, herbs, jungle honey. It was really laid-back.

Now I naturally gravitate to the river. The stroll along the river was peaceful and relaxing. There were very few cars. The road was lined with a lot of guest houses on one side and  a few people selling local snacks and fruit drinks on the other . The banks of the river were lush and it was easy to walk even though there was no Promenade. I walked along for a while past boat docks where boats leave on various excursions including a Sunset Cruise that I intend to do at some point.

I was considering whether I should take the slow boat to Pakbeng. The problem was that it takes 7 hours to get there and 7 hours to get back. So essentially I would lose two days out of the trip in order to cruise down the Mekong River. I inquired at various travel agencies and the tourist information center whether there was an alternative. It would be to take a bus back but that seemed complicated because I actually would have to take two buses back and it would still be 7 hours. So I decided not to do that. It seemed to me that there are plenty of things to do in Luang Prabang.

After strolling for awhile along the river I turned up into the Historical Center. First I made a stop at a temple, Wat Mueng. It was closed but I enjoyed walking around the grounds.

Pretty much no one was there. Then I penetrated Into the heart of the historical district which was one very wide boulevard lined with low houses. It was pretty much 100% tourists, guest houses, travel agencies, souvenir shops. I don’t think that there was one single Laotian living there. It was kind of like the Dubrovnik of Southeast Asia. I was glad to be staying in a more authentic area. My guest house is in an area where Laotians live and work and shop and eat.

It’s ironic that Pakse was so authentic that it was kind of boring.

After taking care of various chores involving my cell phone, buying an air ticket, and booking an excursion to the waterfalls for tomorrow, I return to my Guesthouse to rest a bit cool off and charge my phone. Then I had some wonderful noodle soup in a tiny Place recommended to me by the manager of the guest house next door. It’s interesting to note that both guest houses are run by Vietnamese and I suspect are Vietnamese owned as well.

After lunch I went to the Royal Palace which is a must-see of course. It was interesting roaming the rooms of the palace which was actually built at the beginning of the 20th century when Laos was under French Colonial rule.

Unfortunately I was not allowed to bring my guidebook or any material inside anything into the palace as all bags cameras phones Etc had to be left in a locker outside. So no interior pictures.

Enough sightseeing for the day! I meandered back to the river And found a beautiful place to watch the sunset at the Riverside Restaurant I believe it was called. I walked around a bit more ; it is just so pleasant to explore the various neighborhoods. It’s a really laid-back vibe.

Troy truly relaxed vibe, I finished off the evening at the famous Utopia Bar Cafe Restaurant Garden. It’s a truly enchanting and romantic place of jungle Landscaping intersected by gravel paths, places to gather round wooden tables, lie around on mats, drink at the bar. There’s even a volleyball court. Plus of course drinks and tables on the terrace overlooking the river. The lighting is soft and hazy and the vibe was young kind of hippyish. It’s a great place but not such a great place to come to alone. I felt a little out of place even though one of the servers started talking to me to practice his English.

One of the things I noticed as I was walking around today is just how much beautiful wood is being used to construct these guest houses. It’s amazing. From cheap hostels to Luxurious guest houses they are all using the finest quality dark and lustrous wood. You can say that Laotian forests are being cut down to tantalize guests at Luang Prabang.


Pakse to Luang Prabang

I decided not to take the excursion to the Bolaven plateau because it seemed like too much time on the road and a very foreshortened trip since I had to be back to take the plane. Instead the plan was to rent a bike get started early in the morning bike around a little bit, come back for lunch and a shower and to cool off and then relax in the afternoon before heading to the airport at 3.

It didn’t work out that way. I got on the bike that I rented from the hotel and peddled happily for about 20 minutes along the river before I noticed that it was not just a flat tire but the whole rear wheel had basically come apart. Boy was I angry. I had to  drag the bike back to the hotel in the sun all of which took about a half an hour out of the morning. I gave the hotel rental agency hell about the whole thing but I didn’t really feel like renting another bike. Number one I no longer trusted them to rent me a bike that wasn’t going to fall apart and number to losing that much time meant that I would be pedaling back In the heat of the day. I felt like I was spending a lot of time battling the heat and humidity.

So instead I just hung around slightly bored and irritated. Maybe I should have taken the excursion after all.

I had initially thought I might buy one of the skirts that are ubiquitous in Laos.

But in fact, to get one in raw silk is relatively pricey and, outside of Laos, would I actually wear it?

I had lunch at the cafe at the end of the street. I walked to the shopping center again and found nothing. But at least I did relax in my air-conditioned room for a while so I was fresh when I got to the airport.

My run of bad luck however followed me to Luang Prabang. I arrived at Thavisouk Guesthouse and the young woman who managed the place informed me that she didn’t really have room for me and gave me some story about a woman who wouldn’t leave the room because she fell etc. In other words she had overbooked.

It was a long tralala but essentially she works with a guest house next door so she put me up there for the night and made it up to me by upgrading me to a family room for the rest of my stay in Luang Prabang.

She was incredibly charming, nice and apologetic and so was her colleague next door in the other guesthouse. Couldn’t have been nicer. However the other guest house next door was not quite at the same level. I didn’t really like my room but it was okay for a night.

At least I did get to see a little bit of Luang Prabang. I got a ride to the night market and took a look at that. It was so strange to see so many tourists after coming from Pakse where there were really very few. The night market was jammed and seem to go on forever. There were extremely long aisles selling all kinds of fabric, handmade wallets, tote bags, and metal jewelry. Particularly interesting was the jewelry made from bombs that had been dropped by The Americans during the secret War which was an adjunct to our misbegotten campaign in Vietnam. There was also an extremely crowded street where sellers where ladling out, spicy stews, stir-fried vegetables, soups, fried treats.

It was lively. In fact it was a little too lively for my mood.

It was difficult to get a sense of the city at night. I unwound over a beer in a restaurant in the night market. I had some noodle soup which was mediocre and eventually headed back to the hotel.


Pakse

Today was a day of ups and downs. I was really sorry to leave Champasak this morning, particularly as the day started off with such a beautiful tableau of monks receiving alms from the villagers. I especially liked that the dogs were there first, waiting for the monks to appear. Right outside my window!

I got a minivan at 8:45 which took me directly to the Hotel Pakse in Pakse.

It was a pleasure just walking into the hotel, graced with a spacious and stylish Art Deco Lobby.

I was also pleased with my room with a view.

Finding something interesting to do in Pakse however, turned out to be a challenge.

Since the hotel was next to the river, I headed down there first thinking that there would be a walk or something to see but no luck. There was nothing there.

Buy now of course it was getting hot so I decided to take a tuk-tuk to go to the Don Huang Market.

Compared to busy town such as Phnom Penh or Siem Reap, Pakse is relatively quiet. It was an important port town during the French Colonial period And there are a number of crumbling colonial buildings and wide boulevards. Even the newer buildings are often built in French colonial style.

The market was a vast place but I got there too late to catch all of the morning activity. Still there was enough to keep me busy for an hour or so.

I was a little disappointed with the shopping. I thought there would be more to buy but in fact the colorful skirts that Laotian women wear are quite expensive when they are made with good raw silk.

In fact Laotian women dress with a remarkable uniformity of style. Pretty much the same style skirt is everywhere.

This usually means that they are clinging to Traditional Values as well. Cambodian women were typically dressed in a more modern way with mini skirts and shorts Etc.

After the market I walked back along the river which fortunately is in the process of being redeveloped to include a Promenade. If ever a town needed a Promenade this is the one. It was really a shame that it was just dirt and road next to such a beautiful River.

One is not overburdened with things to do in this town. I reflected on whether I should accept the hotels idea that I should hire it tuk-tuk and go to the Bolaven plateau tomorrow. The problem was that it was quite a distance and the trip would necessarily be rushed one because I had to be at the airport at 3 p.m. for my flight to Luang Prabang. I was just not feeling it. So I decided against it.

The best part of the day was the rooftop restaurant cafe in this hotel. It was really an extraordinary view over town and they have a happy hour that offered two drinks for the price of one between five and six pm. Great!

Watching the sunset from the rooftop Terrace is really one of the high points of staying in Pakse and certainly at this hotel.

The other high point of the day was the wonderful meal they served in the hotel rooftop restaurant. I had a Thai spicy chicken dish that had fresh green peppercorns which I’ve never tasted before. Basically it looks like a black fusilli on the plate and then you bite into it and it’s crispy like a nut and then it explodes with green peppercorn flavor. Wow!

I have to say that I was extraordinarily pleased with the service level of the hotel. There was a lot of staff and they couldn’t be friendlier or more helpful. The breakfast was also terrific. It was a breakfast buffet.


Champasak

Today I was able to fully appreciate what a magical place Champasak is. In the morning I took a tuk-tuk to the temple Vat Phou, spectacularly situated against the backdrop of high mountains.

The Vat Phou Temple is older than Angkor Wat. In fact it was the earliest of the Khmer temples and was dedicated to the god Shiva. As noted by UNESCO: Wat Phu “was shaped to express the Hindu vision of the relationship between nature and humanity, using an axis from mountain top to river bank to lay out a geometric pattern of temples, shrines and waterworks extending over some 10 km.”

The setting is extraordinary. The crumbling stone structures are tucked between the mountain and a vast plain that stretches off to the horizon.

There were far fewer tourists than Angkor Wat but I would not say that it was deserted.

It was a steep climb to get to the inner sanctuary. The steps were narrow and high. This is the easy part:

Everyone was huffing and puffing, plus it was sunny and hot. I’m glad that I did not follow the hotel’s advice which was to take a bike for the 10 km. I would not have had any legs left for the climb! Before reaching the sanctuary, there are the remains of a palace. Probably a palace. Its function remains uncertain.

In addition to the finely sculpted figures from Hindu mythology, there was also a spring and outlines of three elephants carved into a rock.

I spent about two and a half hours there and then headed back to the hotel for lunch in a rest. The road that led to the temple passed villages and a number of interesting sites that I decided to explore later by bike.

 

The bike ride at the end of the afternoon was simply enchanting. I had a better bike today, without a flat tire that is to say, so biking was a lot easier. I passed the typical Laotian houses which are In wood and on stilts. Underneath the living quarters is always a large space between the stilts, which is where locals live when it gets too hot. There are often tables, wooden platforms that could be used as beds, hammocks. People smiled at me and said hello as I bite down the road which did get some trucks rolling through but traffic was light enough that they were long quiet stretches. The houses were interspersed with rice patties, fields where water buffalo and cows were grazing, plus temples. Every so often I caught a whiff of incense or the sweet perfume of a Frangipani tree.

There was a school outside of which was perhaps the most beautiful and soulful tree I’ve ever seen; its branches spread for at least 50m end to end.

There were a few spots to contemplate the Mekong River but not too many.

In a way, life here is both too easy and too hard. It’s easy in the sense that there is plentiful food and water. The villagers can grow their own rice, pick fruit from the trees, keep flocks of chicken and eat their eggs, keep cattle for meat. You have pretty much everything you need to live but the problem is that there is little to no health care. Children are short, and you see very few old people. I don’t know what the life expectancy is here but I suspect that it’s not very high.

It was just beautiful biking at the end of the afternoon when the heat of the day had passed and people were busying themselves with tending to their stalls and their shops,gathering rice, grilling meat, children playing.The road was quiet with only an occasional motorcycle.

It’s amazing  the kind of things that can go wrong in a developing country. Way back in Siem Reap last week I returned to my room and discovered that my key had broken off in the door. You can say it was a very cheap and thin key. Then just a few days ago I was taking a shower in Don Khone and the shower head simply broke off. I told the manager about it but then let it go. So today I inadvertently shut the door and locked the key in the room which you would not think would be a problem. It turns out that was a problem because the wife of this husband-wife team couldn’t find the key. She wound up getting into the room using a long knife which was sensible and afterwards made very clear that was her husband’s fault. “He’s always taking keys”, she says “and he puts it in his pocket or puts it any old place and then I can’t find the keys.  I’m on my own here! I run the place and he needs to do things to make it easier for me!” I couldn’t agree more. The husband is a big Belgian guy that was probably good looking in a very Nick Nolte way when he was younger. He swoops in from time to time and is very charming with the guests and very solicitous. He’s very interested in knowing how things are going: did I like the meal (the meals here are absolutely fabulous by the way), what am I doing next,  can he help etc. But his Laotian wife clearly seems to run the place or at least thinks she does! It’s quite funny.

Except tonight when I went down at about 8:30 to have a bite to eat and a beer and found that the entire place was shut up completely. All was dark, the garden was fenced off and it was not even possible to get out because the outer gate was locked.

I finally found Jack was relaxing in his quarters watching TV, and politely asked him to please open the gate so I could stroll down the road and find a place to eat.

It worked out well because it was a beautiful walk with hardly any cars or motorcycles on the road.  It was breezy and cool, there was a full moon and all was quiet. The only place open was the appropriately named Riverside Restaurant where I got a plate of noodles and a beer as I watched the stars over the Mekong River.


From Don Khone to Champasak

It poured rain in buckets last night and the streets were still wet today. The skies were grey and overcast with a dubious forecast so I decided to pack up and leave. Janna, my Danish neighbor raved about the beauties of Champasak.”So nice”, she kept saying. Why not check it out?

The Laotian Way?

I bought a ticket that was to take me straight through to Champasak. The plan was to board a boat to go to Nakasong whereupon a minibus would take us to Muang whereupon we would board another small boat that would take us to Champasak.

Things started off well. The boat ride along the Mekong was gorgeous and lasted for a good half-hour which gave us time to appreciate the lush greenery of the 4000 or so islands and islets.

 

Nakasong

When we got to Nakasong, a ramshackle village on the river, there was some confusion and negotiation about the minivans. We waited for it all to be sorted out and I was placed into one minivan that already had some people in it while the rest of the small group was placed in another.

We traveled along for about an hour and a half and then the minivan stopped on the main road. The driver pointed to me and told me to get out. He took out my luggage and that was it. I said where is the boat? He pointed to a road that stretched into the distance and said it’s at the end of that road. I said how long is it? He said about one kilometer. I started trudging along and after about a hundred meters realized that this was going to be a bit more than one kilometer because the road was stretching as far as I could see.

Uh-oh. There were no tuk-tuks in sight and I didn’t see how I and my luggage would fit onto one of the few motorcycles parked here and there.

A SUV cruised up behind me and I flagged it down. I said where is the boat to Champasak? He pointed in the complete other direction. Just then another minivan stopped and said no that it was at the end of the road. I said about how many kilometers. He said about 4. I said well you’re going to take me there. He said no I’m full. I said well I’m not going to walk 4 kilometers so you’ll have to take me. So he agreed and I jumped in and saw that it was the other small group that had left with me this morning. Clearly they had oversold the minivan trip and stuck me on some local minivan. Boy was I angry. I’m taking it up with my hotel there and of course TripAdvisor.

We hopped on yet another small boat which took us across the river to a muddy embankment. Fortunately someone showed up and I told him that I was going to the Nakorn Guesthouse. He called them and then offered to take me on his motorcycle Then just up the road we saw that there was a tuk-tuk which did take me to the guest house.

All’s well that ends well.

The Nakorn Cafe and Guesthouse

Although this guesthouse offered a transfer they did not get my arrival info because the internet was out.

The Nakorn Guesthouse is quite an estate, with gardens and terraces, a restaurant- cafe and beautifully outfitted rooms.

As in other places, the quality of wood in the rooms is just outstanding. It’s all hardwood on the walls and floors, clearly cut from local trees. I know that Cambodia is famous for the quality of it’s wood and I suppose Laos is the same. Basically they are cutting down their forests to make gorgeous wood for guest houses.

My room faced a temple.

After an excellent lunch of Thai chicken with cashews, I took a rest and set out to explore the town. The bike was a little bit better than the one in Don Khone but not by much. It’s still quite tiring to ride as the bike is heavy, has no gears and is exceedingly uncomfortable. I wondered why this guest house which invested so much money in elaborate rooms and careful landscaping could not invest in some better bikes.

It’s an example of a rather strange lack of business sense. For example, in Don Krone they were selling a pile of those exceedingly practical conical straw hats that are typical of Southeast Asia. The problem is that they had no chin strap to attach them to your head. So they were completely unusable.

In the little of that I saw of Champasak, I could see why Janna and whoever wrote the Guide Routard fell in love with a place. The road is paved and lined with a variety of houses from crumbling Colonial mansions to more typical Laotian structures on stilts. There were local shops selling a variety of household items, glittering temples, a few shops catering to tourists, and food sellers grilling chicken or meat by the side of the road.

And of course the majestic Mekong River glimpsed just beyond the buildings and thick tropical foliage.

 

There was also a very obviously upscale shop selling silk and woven goods from all over Laos. It was run by a French woman who I discovered had relatives on the French Riviera. I didn’t get the impression that she really needed to make a lot of money from her rather expensive scarves and stuff. In another odd business choice, all of her fabric was neatly folded but you couldn’t really tell what it was from looking at it. Scarves? Shawls?Tablecloths? You had to unfold something to find out what it was. Odd.

Anyway, I’m looking forward to exploring the temple tomorrow and perhaps taking a long walk or bike ride. I hope the weather holds out. I also hope that the Wi-Fi connection is reestablished. Apparently the signal was lost after the storm last night.