Laos – Northern Thailand – Vietnam, March 2009

With Rodger’s job at Sunway wrapped up and our few Malaysian belongings sent to Vancouver by post, we were free to go travelling again. Our route – by plane, train, automobile, boat and tuktuk – took us first to Laos’ capital Vientiane and its UNESCO world heritage town and monk central, Luang Prabang, then over the border into Northern Thailand, where we spent some time in the wonderful city of Chiang Mai. From there we took a State Railway of Thailand train south to Phitsanulok, where we switched to a rental car, we made our way east, stopping for a couple of backpacking hikes. We crossed the border back into Laos by boat, did a 3-day backpacking trip in the back and beyond of Thakek, then hopped onto a sequence of buses and minibuses to reach Vietnam’s former imperial capital Huế. From there on to Hoi An, another UNESCO world heritage site and undisputed capital of tailors. A 17-hour ride north on a chocker-block train finally got us back to Hanoi.

Like coffee and baguette, Patouxai, Vientiane’s Arc de Triomphe, is a vestige of French culture (paid by US dollars, rumour has it, in the 1950s). It offers great views – being pretty much the city’s highest building – souvenir shopping along the stairs to the top and good people watching around the fountain and lawns that stretch in front of it, including a troupe of amateur photographers with portable Sony printers who take offer to take and print your picture on the spot! Vientiane has got to be the most unassuming and laid-back capital on the planet. No big highways, nobody rushing off their feet to get anywhere, no malls, no crowds. Lazily winding its way through town, the Mekong river is the centre of ‘activity’: people amble along its banks, office workers sit on the park-like stretches next to it with a picnic lunch, students do their homework there. In the evening everyone seems to congregate in the beer and food stalls that line the Mekong, sitting on bamboo mats propped up by triangular cushions, nibbling satay or spring rolls, and of course sipping beer Lao, and just watching life and the river go by. Good kharma, that’s what counts, right?

Wat Haw Pha Kaew, the home of the widely travelled Emerald Buddha. Three Buddhas in the late morning light in a little wat next to our B&B, so serene, you catch yourself listening for the sound of one hand clapping.

Every male person in Laos is suppposed to spend at least some time (a minimum of 3 weeks) as a monk. Subsequently there are a lot of orange-robed men in Laos, and nowhere more so than in Luang Prabang. The day starts early in this former capital, now a UNESCO world heritage site, featuring with all the monks from the town’s many monastries lining up and filing through the centre for the alms ceremony. Giving alms is supposed to increase your karma, although we weren’t quite sure if rice handed out to tourists by tour operators qualifies as a karma-enhancing gesture. Many people visit Luang Prabang for its monasteries, the picturesque traditional Lao wooden houses, French-colonial architecture and the splendid silk and woven wares night market. But mother nature has also blessed the town with a very beautiful setting on the Mekong, surrounded by hills, rice paddies and fields.

The making of a Buddha: This Luang Prabang sculptor took several days to lovingly shape his Buddha’s body and face, before giving it its red protective coat and finally the golden touch.

Chiang Mai was our first port of call in Northern Thailand, and we fell hook, line and sinker for the cultural capital with its beautiful wats, brick city wall, friendly people and delicious food. The unbeatable Sunday evening market stretches over 3km and incorporates the courtyards of all adjacent wats, which are transformed into hawker food courts – a feast for the eyes, soul and tastebuds!

A Buddhist investment scheme for all believes and eventualities!

The ancient city of Sukhothai (‘The Dawn of Happiness’),Thai capital during the 13/14th Century A.D., after Siam took it from the Khmer Empire, is now a 70 km2UNESCO World Heritage historical park with fascinating restored brick stupas and temples, countless Buddha statues, lotus-adorned ponds, and – much to Rodger’s delight – some ancient kilns, all set in a lovely treed landscape and best explored by bike or scooter.
To make sure we don’t get culture burnout, we took a break from temples and Buddhas and went on a couple of backpacking trips, where we came across these rather unusual signs (as well as actual specimen of the latter)

Phu Kradeng National Park – a lovely, steep climb through forest onto a mesa-like mountain top during the Thai National Day weekend. However, nobody had told us that that is the weekend when hundreds of Thai teenagers and students labour up that mountain in a kind of right of passage which seems to requires them to bring along a lot of luggage and as many guitars as they can possibly lug up the mountain. It was an interesting cultural experience to camp shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of teenage Thais, who crooned their way into the night to more or less expert guitar accompagniment.

If large parts of Laos seemed off the beaten tourist track, a 3-day hiking trip in the backcountry of Thakek certainly was as far away from it all as it gets short of being alone in the wilderness. Our guide Mr. Pons, occassionally joined by helpers from the villages we passed through, took us through an intriguing landscape of steep hills – reminiscent of Chinese ink painting – wide rivers, deep caves and turquoise lagoons. We stayed at a visitors lodge in a small village, where we were welcomed with a ‘baci’ ceremony involving many good luck wishes, wristbands and copious amounts of beer Lao and homemade schnaps, shared the dusty village roads and courtyards with pigs, chicken (one of which lateron made a cameo appearance in a tasty chicken stew) and countless children playing boules with flipflops; learnt quite a lot about the local marriage and other traditions and generally very much enjoyed the change of pace and social aspects of village life in a place that gets along fine without running water or the luxury of an infrastructure other than walking. 

…except some dubious homemade vehicles, like this contraption: part tractor, part sewing machine, part ox cart and part plough, and tremendous, bone-rattling fun to putter over dusty tracks to have a much needed and refreshing bath in the cooling waters of a pristine river

After crossing the Lao-Vietnam border on a boat, we travel a few hundred hair-raising kilometers that feature a leech-like little man who was hell-bent on getting us onto his decrepid bus to somewhere we absolutely didn’t want to go as well as a group of gereatric peasants who, as it turned out, used us white-faced Westerners as decoys for smuggling large quantities of cigarettes and teakwood fitted into a tardis-like minibus, finally arriving in Central Vietnam’s cultural capital Huế. It has an impressive Mandarine citadelle, the design of which pays tribute to its natural surroundings (like the Perfume River) an is based on the ancient principles of geomancy. Reason enough to be particular about what visitors should or shouldn’t do . . .

Hoi An may suffer from an overload of tourists and people aggressively trying to take you for a cab ride, rent you a scooter or sell you postcards. And yet . . . it is a charmingly well restored example of Vietnamese shophouse architecture and the undisputed capital of tailors. Even the terminally shopophobic, like us, will be tempted by the dozends of tailorshops that display a dazzling array of fabrics and have all the designer catalogues for you to chose your favourite model. They also excell in copying the design of any peice of clothing you bring to them, down to the most minute detail. We finally succombed to the lure of bespoke tailoring and were promptly measured up by nimble shop assistants. The great thing about this whole tailoring business in Hoi An is that you will get your clothes, ready to wear, within about 24 hours, the secret being large sewing workshops where the Singers run nonstop. The first fitting turned out to be a bit traumatic for Rodge, whose suit trousers just wouldn’t fit properly around his backside. He had to endure a lineup of shop assistants, tailors and managers nipping and tucking fabric around his bum, the verdict developing from his backside just being the wrong size to admitting that the initial measurements were flawed. But it all turned out well and we came away with more clothes for way less money than we would normally spend in a year, feeling like part of the bespoke fashion in-crowd.

Ancient and modern history cheek by cheek: Nowadays a UNESCO world heritage site, the Mỹ Sõn temple complex, was constructed between the 4th and the 14th century BCA by Champa kings and is consodered an important example of evolution and change in culture and evidence of an Asian civilisation which is now extinct. Restauration of the temples and tombs began in 1937 but was brought to a brutal hold when United States B52 aircraft carpet-bombed the region in August 1969 during the Vietnam war. While Vietnam is accelerating into the the hi-tech age with mind-boggling speed and zest, traditional ways of life persist in the countryside.

After a non too comfortable but very Vietnamese train experience (3 or 4 people sharing two seats plus the footspace below; a woman trying to convince us that it would be much better if she stayed in our seats while we squeeze into the small corridor space next to the toilets; every single person on the crowded train buying meal tickets for what looked suspiciously like dog sausages, handed out by a totally disgruntled train assistant) we finally arrived in one of our favourite SE Asian places, Hanoi.

Serendipity brought us to Ba Trang, a pottery village on the outskirts of Hanoi. Everyone there is in the pottery business (and has been for generations), every building is devoted to making, firing or glazing pots, vases, bowls, etc. Rodger was over the moon, when we found a Vietnamese potter who, despite wearing a Unionjack T-shirt, spoke no English whatsoever, but was happy to show us some working X kilns and give us a tour through his own gallery before opening hours.

A crowning finish to our trip: an 1$ haircut with a local fanclub (electricity provided courtesy of a long cable going over the wall into the army barracks beyond)

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