Spring Break Travel: Laos

As you already know if you read last week’s entry, Jenia and I spent the majority of our spring break in Thailand.  But there was one day when we went elsewhere: Laos.

Laos is, if you didn’t know, the landlocked country between Thailand and Vietnam.  The capital is called Vientiane (Vee-en-tyan, or perhaps Ven-shun, or some variation, depending on who you speak with), and the prefecture has a population of roughly 780,000 people, or more than a tenth of the country’s population.  The Mekong River separates northeastern Thailand from Laos, and to get to Laos, we had to cross the Friendship Bridge, an unimposing structure which is currently celebrating it’s 20th anniversary.  Previously, people were ferried across the river from the Vientiane area to Nong Khai, Thailand.

We went through Thai immigration, crossed the Friendship Bridge on a large passenger bus which cost 15 baht each, and then purchased visas upon arrival in Laos on the other side.  The Laotian visas set us back $35 each, and we stood around outside while the border guards stamped our passports and such.  Incidentally, when you enter the country, you’re supposed to supply a passport-sized photo, but we didn’t have any, and they simply used the pictures they snapped of us at the immigration counter anyway.  Immigration would take any of three currencies: American dollars, Thai baht, or their own Laotian kip.  As luck would have it, we were low on baht, and I had to use the ATM right nearby and withdraw some kip, since it was the only currency the machine dispensed.  I took out 1,000,000 kip, and parted with 980,000 of it to get our visas.  It was nice to be a millionaire, if only for a few minutes.

I did not realize, which shows my lack of preparation, that Laos was a communist country until we were in the bus, rolling over the Friendship Bridge, and I saw the red, white, and blue Laotian flag alternated with red and yellow hammer and sickle flags.  In fact, as I soon found out, the history of the country is fascinating: it was a major part of French Indochina all the way up until 1954, when it gained more or less complete independence.  During the Vietnam conflict, the North Vietnamese Army invaded and occupied Laotian territory, and there was a major bombing campaign by the United States to try to expel the invaders.  The 1970s were a bracing time of war, and in 1975, the government was overthrown by Pathet Lao, who allied Laos with Vietnam.

Lao Flag

Until I visited the area, I confess that I’d been quite unaware that the Vietnam conflict took place partly on Laotian soil.  To this day, the conflict’s legacy is marked by undetonated explosives, and it’s not unusual to hear a story from an expat about innocent kids playing in a field and getting a limb blown off as they happened upon an unexploded ordnance.

Lao Monk

The first thing I noticed about Laos was that it seemed poorer than Thailand.  And Thailand, to be sure, doesn’t exactly strike me as the most cosmopolitan place in the world.  Laos is a rung or two down the socio-economic ladder from its more popular neighbor.  A short drive, taking perhaps 20 minutes, into the capital city made quite a difference.  Vientiane has an interesting multi-national flavor, but it is obviously dominated by its own culture (which makes it remarkably different from Abu Dhabi, where we live).  There were lots of temples and buddhist monks wearing orange walking on the sidewalk.  There didn’t seem to be a single American chain restaurant in town.  The city itself had a charmingly small feel, although the roads did get crowded sometimes.  I’d have never guessed the population is as high as the statistics say it is (I’ve seen others say the city has about 250,000 residents, but Wikipedia lists it much higher).

Street Scene

We had a friend acting as our guide, and she showed us around various areas, though she was much constrained by the brief tenure of our stay–a mere 26 hours.  We saw a college, where undergraduate students worked in neat-looking 2 storey buildings, a classroom on each floor, which had only benches inside and the wooden shuttered windows were wide-open, since there was no air conditioning.  We drove past a few nice looking, large, new buildings in the city, “The Japanese government paid for that; the Chinese paid for that,” said our friend.  On the curb, tuk-tuk drivers reclined in hammocks rigged up inside their conveyances, snoozing until someone came along in need of a ride. The same proliferation of dangerous-looking, low-hanging telephone wires we saw in Thailand continued in Laos.

Night

In the evening, we went downtown in search of an authentic and delicious meal: we found just what we were after at the Lao Kitchen.  What tasty grub!  We hoofed it a bit afterward, walking the poorly lit downtown streets, and waiting to cross the road at an intersection, we were warned: “Watch out for motorbikes.  They could come from anywhere.  I’m not kidding.”  She was right.  We saw scooters zip onto the sidewalk, motoring along illegally until they found a gap in traffic that allowed them to nip over to the right-lane, where they were supposed to be.

Egg Rolls

We stopped at Patuxai, a monument known alternately as “The Arch De Triomphe” and “The Vertical Runway.”  The story of the monument is as colorful as any: it was built in the late ’50s and early ’60s with cement that the USA gave the country to expand an airport.  The arch itself is both picturesque and slightly grotesque; a large gray oriental block rising up 8 stories.

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Patuxai

Next, we visited a night market, just in time to have a hurried look at the wares: clothes, both traditional and not, some tourist shtick (some of which is genuinely cool, like the coconut wood kitchenware), and other such.  There, again, Turtle was a focal point.  At one point, the little fellow got tired of being carried in the Boba carrier, so I put him on my shoulders and walked around.  That attracted lots of grins, and I was actually stopped by some friendly folks for the sole purpose of having a group of people take a picture with my little blond son.  It was humorous, and had I not already grown accustomed to this kind of treatment in Thailand, I’d have thought it even more so. The market was soon shutting down around us, so we called it a night.

Night Market

Basket Vendor

Coconut Wood

The next morning we ate at a French bakery, then shopped for souvenirs at a little place across the road.  We spent most of our remaining kip on breakfast, unfortunately having to make an ATM run to get more money to fund our souvenir goodies, since the store’s credit card machine wouldn’t work.  The ladies inside enjoyed Turtle while we shopped; he had a ball pointing and waving for them.  Speaking of kip, if you go, withdraw plenty of money when you use the ATM, because many places don’t accept credit cards.

After that, our schedule dictated that we head for the border.  We walked to the bus station, a fairly grueling little journey because of the heat and humidity.  After a while figuring out what bus went to Nong Khai and when, never mind where the bus departed from, we parted with our friend and ended our time in Laos.

LilySushi

LaundryIn reflecting on visiting Vientiane, it must be said that the area is not spectacular.  The Mekong may offer a good sunset photo somewhere, murky water reflecting the brilliant hues of the sinking sun, but it’s not beautiful in and of itself; Vientiane has a few interesting sights (not all of which we saw; there’s also a Buddha Park, which we skipped, having already gone to one in Nong Khai, and not feeling like walking around in the sweltering afternoon heat), but it’s mostly unremarkable, and while it’s possible to get lots of interesting photographs of people, and perhaps some nice city/town shots, it’s hard to find landscapes that are astounding.  Like Thailand’s northeast, the land is generally flat.  That said, Vientiane is noticeably nicer than what we saw of Nong Khai.  Walking around Vientiane is a different experience from Thailand, and a dramatically different experience from exploring the grand capital cities of the West; it feels humble, it’s a bit hectic, there are street food vendors all around; tuk-tuks on every corner.  It’s a bit grubby; it retains a French influence in the architecture and street names.  Like Thailand, Laos is inexpensive.  We ate at nice places, bearing in mind that it’s important to be choosy, as food poisoning is a real possibility (our host had it 4 times in less than a year), and we found the food affordable.  The markets offer inflated fares to foreigners, but even the higher prices aren’t so bad, and it doesn’t take much effort to bargain and get the prices closer to what a local would pay.  In contrast to nearby northeastern Thailand, Vientiane seems to have a lot of foreign visitors, and it has a more international flair about it.

Were I doing it again, I’d visit Vientiane.  It’s a neat place.  But I’d try to allow enough time to venture to Luang Prabang, which is, judging by photos, an area of magnificent natural beauty.

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Spring Break Travels: Musings on Thailand

It’s back to the real world in a few days: back to work, back to the mundane, back to the routine.  Now we’re back to our apartment, life as usual.  But since that’s not too interesting, I’m going to share about the trip the little family and I made to Southeast Asia for the better part of two weeks.  We visited two countries, Thailand and Laos, but for now I’m focusing on Thailand.  We explored three distinct areas of Thailand.  Bangkok, Udon Thani, and Krabi (Ao Nang, more specifically).

Map borrowed from this website: http://samui-attractions.blogspot.ae/2012/04/map-of-thailand-koh-samui-hoh-phangan.html

You’ll see Udon Thani nearly at the Laos border in the northeast; Bangkok is center on the gulf; Krabi and Ao Nang are near Phuket.  Map is borrowed from another website, but it seems to have come from EmbassyWorld.com.

Let’s talk about scenery first.   Without a doubt, the Krabi area was the most scenic, with stunning cliffs and towering islands, verdant greenery, and multi-colored waters.  In contrast, Udon Thani isn’t picturesque at all.  It’s a city that’s grown rapidly in recent years, but it mostly lacks anything that lends itself to a photograph.  There’s a bustling night market, a nice mall, and street vendors selling whatever they can, and in the parks people play a sport that seems like a mixture of soccer and volleyball.  But it isn’t beautiful.  Bangkok was a surprise.  We’d both expected the city to be something other than it is.  What, exactly, I’m not sure.  But we didn’t find it pretty for the most part.  Until we reached Krabi on the tail end of our trip, in fact, we shared the opinion that Thailand generally wasn’t pretty, except for the temples and palaces, which seemed the only things well-maintained.  Bangkok has skyscrapers almost right next door to homes of a floor or two, paint peeling off the sides, yards ramshackle. It’s grimy and the sidewalks are uneven and difficult to walk.  

Longtail boats deposit tourists into the amazing island waters off the coast of Aonang.

Longtail boats deposit tourists into the amazing island waters off the coast of Aonang.

The Thai people seemed very warm and friendly, always smiling and courteous.  Even people trying to sell us trinkets and such weren’t usually pushy.  They’d try to get our attention, of course, but they’d accept “no thanks” as an answer without any of the irritating badgering that we put up with on a visit to the Old Souk in Dubai or to pretty much anywhere in downtown Kandy, Sri Lanka.  Wherever we went, the little blond baby boy we were carrying was an attraction.  Turtle himself thought the attention was quite alright, and enjoyed waving “bye” to people and pointing his finger up, which caused no end of giggles and imitations, bringing a smile to the little guy’s face every time.

In Udon Thani, a couple we’ve been friends with for years showed us around.  They’ve been there for a while, and were able to take us to the neatest places and help us sample the tastiest foods, as well as advise what to avoid and teach us a couple of Thai phrases.  It was awesome to catch up with them, and so good to have their inside view of and understanding of the area.

So what are some insights we gained from our trip?  Would we want to live in Thailand?  Is the Pad Thai (or Thai food in general) better than it is anywhere else?  Here are three things that made an impression on me.  Jenia has more insights, very interesting ones relating to culture, and she’ll write them up someday soon.  For now, here are my thoughts.

Insight one (if this is really an insight, perhaps I should call it an “observation”): there’s a palpable sense of freedom when compared to living where we do right now.  Yes, this takes the face of cross-dressing and prostitution in some places, but in others it’s the simple wearing of whatever clothes you feel like putting on, knowing nobody’s going to be offended.  There’s a sense of freedom in the (unregulated and kind of sketchy) selling of food on the sidewalks, off the side of a scooter with a sidecar contraption that contains rice and noodles.  This also means people run red lights or drive the wrong way on some roads (particularly the “motorcycles,” or scooters, in our understanding).  It’s got a touch of the Wild West about it, with all the associated connotations.  Regarding those who enforce traffic regulations, evidently extremely inconsistently, “The police here do stop you sometimes,” said our friends, “because they want a bribe.  But they usually only stop trucks and motorcycles, because they’re the ones that break the laws all the time.”  The bribes are usually small, too, which makes the harassment more bearable, they said.  Speaking of bribes, those are apparently also expected when doing some bureaucratic business, something us tourists don’t usually encounter much, and which I have no personal experience with.  “You just pay it,” we were told, “So things get done.  Otherwise you could wait forever.”  This freedom most certainly does not extend to making remarks about the King, and one guidebook we read advised tourists even to be careful about putting a banknote in your back pocket, as it could be deemed disrespectful to sit on a portrait of the King, whose face adorns all the currency.   If you’re interested in news about Thailand, check out the Bangkok Post.  The linked article is actually pretty interesting, being about the ivory trade, and it should supplement what I’ve written nicely.

Insight two: the place is still third world, despite fairly rapid development in the 20th century.  In terms of creature comforts, convenience, and the like, it’s a notch or two above places like Sri Lanka, though.  The electricity is generally reliable in Udon Thani, for example, however everyone’s prepared for a brief outage.  Also regarding electricity, it’s disconcerting to see the proliferation of wires that hang from telephone poles, sometimes easily within reach of anyone who might casually reach up and touch them.  We suspected the low-hanging ones were merely phone lines, but weren’t sure.  In Ao Nang, the highest wires were actually buzzing constantly, snapping, and popping occasionally.  At night you could see electricity arcing around the insulators atop polls sometimes.  Walking on the sidewalks under this wasn’t particularly nice, but we got used to it quickly, and it became normal after a day or two.

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A cloudy day on Phi Phi Island off from Ao Nang.

A cloudy day on Phi Phi Island off from Ao Nang.

Insight three: the food is by turns surprising, delicious, and tastebud scorching.  We found a couple of favorite dishes: papaya salad, a sweet and spicy dish, and mango sticky rice, which is exactly what it sounds like–slices of fresh, melt-in-your-mouth mango with glutinous rice.  We liked the fruit smoothies that were ubiquitous.  It was shocking to see bugs roasted up and for sale as snacks.  Want a crispy grasshopper?  Check.  Maybe  silkworm larvae?  Got it.  Other insect?  Probably available.  Neither of us ventured to try these, although my friend offered us this tidbit: “I’ve tried the ones under an inch long.  They don’t really have any taste.  They’re kinda crispy.  Just wings and things, you know.” And as for the Pad Thai: Ruen Thai, a restaurant half a world away in little Cornelia, Georgia, makes stuff that’s as good or better than we encountered in the actual country.  If you’re ever in Cornelia, you should go there, and you can have a wonderful Thai dining experience at a fraction of the cost of flying to Thailand and with none of the risk of food poisoning you run at a street vendor.

A maze of roads, rails, and walkways outside the MBK and Siam Center in Bangkok.

A maze of roads, rails, and walkways outside the MBK and Siam Center in Bangkok.

A tasty snack to some, these silkworm larvae were for sale next to more sizable grasshoppers and the like.

A tasty snack to some, these silkworm larvae were for sale next to more sizable grasshoppers and the like.

Insight four: the place is hot.  Really hot.  In UT it was 100F one day, and this was just barely April.  It’s also extremely humid.  This is no surprise, as Thailand is a tropical country, but still, 100F and high humidity is formidable.

Would we move to Thailand?  No.  “It’s too third world,” says my wife.  I agree.  It’s a neat place to visit, and we’d definitely go back.  The next time, however, we’d fly to Phuket and get the ferry from there to Ao Nang, skipping the bland northeast, grungy Bangkok, and go directly to the scenic coast, with its otherworldly pillars of rock and vegetation rising from the sea.  That’s all for now.  Stay tuned for Jenia’s upcoming post, one I think you’ll find far more interesting and insightful than what I’ve offered here.

Spring Break Travels: part one.

Spring break. Ah, yes. A chance to visit friends and explore new places. This year, we are hitting Thailand and Laos.

Our trip has, so far, taken us to Bangkok, Udon Thani, Vientiane, and Krabi. We’ve been distinctly underwhelmed by the scenery this far, but we can’t judge the coast yet as we’ve only arrived recently and it’s dark outside.

I’ll share a handful of pictures, but details will have to follow at a later date. For now suffice it to say that we are enjoying ourselves and are thankful for the chance to see exotic locales.

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