Thailand, Laos and Cambodia Part 1 E-mail

Thailand has been a tourism haven for the last 40 years, and whether your interest is a lick of sun, a cultural expedition into the wilderness, shopping till you drop or enjoying the less reputable offerings of Bangkok and elsewhere, Thailand can satisfy your every need.  However, since I had already seen a bit of Thailand earlier this year, I felt like moving on, to the less visited northern areas, crossing the border to Laos and then on to Cambodia.  So this is how that went...

 

Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is a fairly uninteresting city surrounded by rather more interesting landscape.  Doi Sutep and Pai are remarkable places to visit, but alas, having been in Chiang Mai two times already I have yet to visit these well-known areas of natural beauty and drunk backpackers.  My friend and I needed to break the mold, so we took our bicycles north and found fields of oranges, coffee and other local produce. 

While the south of Thailand offers heat and beaches, the north offers rolling hills, shades of green and blue and a fairly comfortable temperature somewhat below the smothering heat of the south.  Tourism up north seems to be a dying phenomenon with the occasional exceptions around Chiang Mai, making the north more relaxed and pleasurable than the busy south.

 

In addition to the decline of the tourism industry up north you will also note the occasional closed down textile factory.  It seems Thailand has become too rich for such mundane travail, and the production has moved to Laos and Cambodia, where labor is decidedly cheaper.

The one thing that doesn’t stop to fascinate me is the Thai’s fascination with over-dimensioned statues either of Buddha or of dinosaurs.  I have no idea what the connection is, but in the middle of nowhere you will come upon a huge 10 meter head of a Buddha.   From a photographic perspective scale is often a challenge, so an easy way to show what you’re talking about is simply to put yourself in the picture as I did.   By no means a great portrait, but the scale comes through.
Abandoned textile weaving factory in northern Thailand

Thailand and Laos are separated by the famous Mekong river.  For Americans the Mekong probably brings memories of war, but to me it has always been one of the grand rivers of the world, one of those “I have to see it before I die”.  While it’s muddy waters may not be the most inviting, we hit upon it three times on our  trip.  From Huay Xai just across the border you can take a boat along the river to Luang Prabang, which you can either do slowly (2 days) or quickly (6 hours).   All guide books will tell you not to go on the “fast boat” as they are inherently unsafe.  How could we possibly resist choosing the fast boat under such circumstances?

We chartered one of the small speedboats and after our two bicycles were securely and safely strapped on top of the boat off we sped down the Mekong.   I have always been very preoccupied with safety, so the fact that we were given 20 year old life vests and cracked helmets was most reassuring, I knew they were taking their passengers lives seriously.


The trip down the Mekong is indeed one of those remarkable experiences where you come to wonder why on earth you’re stuck in your silly day-job and haven’t gone into travel journalism long ago.  Surrounded by lush green mountains and muddy banks filled with shabby dogs and people wrestling to subsist on a shifting surface of mud you can’t help but wonder whether its time to enjoy that sandwhich you bought in Huay Xai from the shop up to the left from the port, yes, the guy who has a big cardboard sign he waves at you, your very first experience of Laos as you clear the annoying tourists at the visa office who can’t seem to just do as they’re told and move on.

One of the great differences between Thailand and Laos are indeed the baguettes.   Since Thailand (formerly Siam), was never occupied by the French (or anyone else for that matter), the French baguette never arrived in Thailand.  Laos, on the other hand, was occupied, and that is precisely why this country offers great European quality baguettes, sandwiches and pastries (in the larger cities).  So do bring a picnic along on your safe trip down the river if you do happen to come by Huay Xai.

Halfway to Luang Prabang you are treated, whether on the slow or fast boat, to the grand experience of a stop at Pak Beng.   We had a hard time finding out how to fill 20 minutes there, so I have no idea how the slow-boat passengers survive a whole evening and night.  Well, actually I do know.  Like everywhere else in southeast-asia, the way to pass time in such situations is of course to inhale large amounts of beer, be it Lao Beer  or Tiger Beer, which are basically your only choices in Laos.

One of the things you’ll note when you’re sitting on the boat is that Laos is not southern Thailand.  It gets cold here.  Not Scandinavian cold, but Mediterranean cold, where a jacket or sweater will do the trick in the shade or when it’s overcast.   When you’re on a speed boat the effect is enhanced tenfold of course, but then, finally after hours of fantastic suffering, you finally reach the shores of Luang Prabang, and somehow it has all been worth it, for now you can do like the colonials and live in luxurious accommodation and eat your breakfast on the veranda overlooking the Mekong.


Luang Prabang is, according to UNESCO,  the city with the best preserved colonial architecture in southeast asia, which apparently makes it worthy of the UNESCO world heritage stamp.  I’m not sure if it should be in the same category as Dubrovnik in Croatia or Angkor in Cambodia, but there it is.  If you want to feel the wind of old colonial times under your arms this is the place for you.  Again you’ll be able to enjoy fine bakeries and plenty of good food.  However, apart from the great view from the holy mountain (Phou Si) in the middle of the city, you will probably find that the pleasures of the city lie in the subdued, like a visit to a still operational traditional weaving cottage or a visit to the local Red Cross where you can enjoy the company of 20 others cramped into a steam sauna no larger than 3 square meters (yes, it you're stuffed in like tuna, if you have a private zone of more than 1 cm this is not for you).  If you follow the cramped sauna with an expert soothing massage you will find that you are well prepared for the evening chill and your dinner at one of the fine restaurants that abound.

(The second part of this article will take us from Luang Prabang to Vientiane (capital of Laos) and onwards to Cambodia and Bangkok...coming up...god knows when).

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