Archive for the ‘Destination’ Category

Not quite Angkor Wat, but these two Khmer-built temples inside Thailand were some of the most impressively restored momuments from the 12th century we’ve seen on this (or any) trip. We started out on a mission to see Phanom Rung historical park (photo on the left), which is situated the summit of an extinct volcano 100kms from the middle of nowhere; nowhere being the small town of Buriram we took the train to and spent the night in.

The ruins are great. There is a small museum attached to the park and little descriptive signs next to most doorways that describe the intricate carvings that tell a long story of the Shiva (these were originally Hindu-inspired temples), and then later the Buddha. The site was small, but extremeley well restored and we enjoyed wandering around for a couple of hours, being only two of a handful of farangs that made the journey.

We had intended to only go here on our really quick day trip, but since we hadn’t brought anything but our day-packs and we finished up by lunch time (when the thermometer was already climbing well past 100F), we decided to try and make a complete circuit and get up to Phimai as well. After a short ride in the back of a pick-up to the local whistle stop of Nong Rang, a slightly longer ride in a not-so-air-con bus to the provincial capital of Khorat, and then a hurried bus trip the final leg to the small town of Phimai, we realized that we had no idea where the ruins were or how to get to them. Turned out we didn’t need to, as the historical park is smack dab in the middle of town, with the ancient stone walls carving out a nicely manicured spot of green, hemmed in by shops on one side, a soccer field on the other, and houses all around. We’re really glad we went out to Phimai as the ruins were even more extensive (this site had a road connecting it directly to Angkor), and the little town was quite enjoyable for the couple of hours we were there. There was a national museum that is supposed to have some good Khmer sculpture, but we missed it’s closing time of 4pm (we barely made it to the ruins before they closed at 6pm).

We were able to hop on the last bus back to Khorat (a rickety old local bus with holes in the floor and doors that didn’t close), finally arriving with about 4 hours to kill before our train was leaving. Our tickets were actually supposed to be from the previous town of Buriram, but we figured that since we paid the full fare from the further stop, we’d be OK picking up the train a couple hours later (yeah, we hoped the enterprising locals wouldn’t sell our seats).

Wandered around Khorat for the evening, got some good food at the local night bazaar, saw some truely interesting local culture, and finally stumbled out to the station. By the time we climbed in to our sleeping compartment we stunk to high heaven. The whole time we’ve been here we’ve tended to take three to five showers a day to ward off stench and exhaustion…we just went 18 hours in 115 degree heat all day. Luckily, we splurged for 1st class sleeper on the ride back to Bangkok, for something like $20, so we took a quick sponge bath and fell in to bed, awoken at 5am by a railway cop telling us we were at the last stop and had to get off. Our favorite hotel was nice enough to let us check in early, so we’ve been relaxing all day, running a few last-minute errands, and are spending tonight relaxing around Bangkok, probably going to see a movie or something mellow as we have to head to the airport at 4:30am tomorrow morning to try to get seats together on our totally oversold flight.

It’s been a great trip, but we’re excited to be going home…that’s always how it is at the end of a long journey, you start thinking about what’s next!

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I’m a sucker for waterfalls, so when we read in our Rough Guide that “Kouang Si [is] one of the best day-trips from Louang Phabang” (yes, there are multiple spellings for everything in this country), I really wanted to check them out.

Even though they are 35km north of town over a very bumpy road through the country, it’s no problem to get there. Everywhere you walk there are “tur-turs” — a Lao cross between a Thai tuk-tuk and songethaw — with painted signs and drivers eager to take you out to the waterfalls. Basically these are a tiny utility pickup where the back has been converted into two short rows of bench seats and a canopy to hold on to over the bumps.

The falls did not dissapoint…and this was in the driest of seasons! A cascade of water tumbling 60m (and that’s just the bottom drop) onto some deep limestone pools. The water is perfect for swimming and all the backpackers love to try to get their head under the falls themselves, not realizing what force the water is coming down with. We took a bunch of nice pictures, had a cool dip, and generally enjoyed the not-so-damn-hot afternoon then.

Oh! Added bonus! On the road up there was a little fenced in compound with an ominous sign that said “Please do not stick fingers in fence, the tiger bites!” Turns out that there was a 5 year old Indochine Tiger which had been rescued from poachers as a cub that they had there. When we came by she was peacefully sleeping in a caged in building, but it looked like she had a gigantic yard to play in and she looked extremely pretty there, calm on the ground (no, I didn’t stick my fingers in the cage!) I asked Lex if we could get a tiger when we got home and she said no, her sister is allergic to cats…darn!

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We took a slow boat up the Mekong river the other day to visit an unusual site. This is something akin to a burial ground for old Buddha images which have become damaged and for some reason are no longer displayable. But Buddha images are never destroyed. In this area (Luang Prabang), they are instead brought to this pleasant cave overlooking the river and set in amongst their breatheren to await…who knows what.

There’s one large cave near the bottom with hundreds upon hundreds of little statues all looking over the river, and there is another, much deeper and darker cave at the top of a long flight of stairs, which has some more interesting and somewhat different images. It was difficult to take any decent pictures in this second cave but we did manage a few interesting shots with an extended shutter opening and by using a flashlight for illumination.

The trip on the river was nice as well. There was the obligatory stops at a couple of tourist oriented villages, one making paper and silk and the other making lao-lao rice “whiskey”. The first village actually had a very good shop tucked away further than most of the people on our boat went, where we found some great deals on silk fabrics that were woven right there.

At other parts on the river we saw people netting for freshwater shrip, trawling for some kinds of fish, and even panning for gold in a couple of places. Three times we got buzzed by one of the speedboats that cut the 2-day trip time from the Thai border down to something like 6 hours. Apparently these boats are fairly dangerous, as evidenced by the funny crash helmets that we saw some of the passengers wearing and the terrified look that was on a number of their faces.

This was definitly one of the more touristy things to do around here, but we had a good time so it was well worth the day.

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Luang Prabang

We’ve made it to what will be our final destination in Laos before we head back to Bangkok and then on home. This morning we took a mini-bus (driven by a Mario Andretti fan, I would guess) up through the mountains to the old city if Luang Prabang.

I was a little dissappointed by the drive because we’re at the hottest time of the year, but before the monsoon, and the air is hazy. So bad in fact that you can’t see through the mountains more than a kilometer or two. If it had been clear I’m sure the views would have been stunning, but alas.

This town is great though. We found a recommended guest house and set out for some lunch. LP is known for it’s food, and so far has not dissapointed. Since then we’ve been wandering around, getting our bearings, and noting places we’d like to visit next. There’s a slew of temples and museums plus numerous day-trips out to some interesting caves and waterfalls, plus quite a bit of interesting buildings to see around town (this place is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site…which I have to look up). Wide range of accomodation too, from $4 tea-houses to the $100+/night Villa Santi and a number of amazing looking spots in between. We’ve been checking in looking for some special places to try as our last few nights on our honeymoon.

There’s also going to probably be a binge of shopping before we leave with all the local crafts people here selling their goods directly on the street. We found a great hand-made paper shop where they were drying the sheets right on the street today, have to go back and check that out.

We’re here until the 29th, at which point we’re going to fly directly back to Bangkok.

Now…to decide on what to have for dinner!

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Often when I meet people who have been travelling through Southeast Asia I get some very similiar responses about different places:

“How was Thailand?”

“Oh, it was nice. The beaches and islands were fun.”

“Did you like Cambodia?”

“Yeah, of course, Angkor Wat was amazing, but that drive really sucked.”

Pretty much the same stories from everyone…quiet enthusiasm for places that are a bit the same. But then you ask, “Did you go to Laos?” and you see a very different reaction. People get this calm look on their face, their eyes focus off on serenity in the distance, and this little grin breaks out, “Lao, yeah Lao amazing.” (To people who’ve been, the “s” stands for silent)

After just a couple of days here I can completely understand how they feel. Laos seems to be at a very special time in it’s development where it’s still relatively quiet and undisturbed, but there is just enough infrastructure to make it easily accessible to people (much more accessible than even the latest guidebooks make it out to be). The country itself is beautiful, the people are extremeley friendly, and it’s a very calm and laid back place.

We are currently in Vang Vieng, which is a stopover on the long from from Vientiane (the modern capital) to Luang Prabong (the ancient capital). This waypoint has become a bit of an adventure destination in it’s own right, with a cottage industry for kayaking/tubing/rafting down the river, climbing the massive limestone crags, and spelunking through some enormous underground caverns. The down itself is no more than a couple of main streets surrounded by some outling farms; it reminds me quite a bit of my home town actually… Around this, a handful of guesthouses, restaraunts, and of course, internet cafes have sprung up to cater to the Farang travellers in search of a little adrenaline.

We’re probably going to stay here for a couple of days (at $2-$8/night for a nice room, how can you go wrong), then we will either make the long journey north to LP or we might try to stop off at a smaller town up north which supposedly has larger/less explored caves. But first we have to try to usual traveller information source, chatting with people around town.

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Similan Dive Trip

As promised, when I was able to get some photos of our dive trip online I’d put a few of them here to share. This is a tiny subset of the 200+ images that we took in four days, so I have some serious iPhoto time coming when I get home.

The trip was on a live-aboard called the Queen Scuba and we did a 4-day/4-night cruise out to the Similan Islands, Richelieu Rock, and the Surin Islands. 14 scheduled dives in all, one at night, two in the sunset, 4 the first three days and two the last. The boat was great, a fantastic value for the money nicely nestled between the cheap-ass bunk style trips and the very high-end pleasure crusies costing more than twice as much. For our journey we got our own cabin, with en-suite bathroom (hot showers!), meals, soft drinks, etc, and were only two of 15 people total on the boat (definitly not crowded at all).

We set out on the night of the first day from a pier just south of Khao Lak, atiny village on the western side of the Thai peninsula; just north of Phuket, if you’re familiar. This place has experienced explosive growth in the past three years, almost completely due to diving-related actvities. There are a slew of very nice new resorts and even more under construction. The market is definitly upscale and quite heavily travelled by German/Swiss/Swedish tourists. It’s a pretty coast, reminiscent of New Zealand to me, but the beach was somewhat dirty and the people working in the restaraunts and what not seemed a little distant, as if the more mid-market European crowd was less interested in the local culture so the local people were less interested in talking. (Compare this to Koh Tao where a number of farangs have been living for a number of years and become quite involved in the local community…everyone is really friendly there). I’m not saying Khao Lak is bad, it’s just quiet.

But that was only our port of call. After a day of wandering, and me experimenting with a cheap Thai haircut (should have just done it myself if I could have found clippers) we hopped on the dive shop’s truck to pick up a few more passengers and then on to the pier. It was like a party that night, with no fewer than five other dive boats heading off into the darkness. We could tell that we’d definitly picked the right boat for our tastes. There were three or four junks alongside and then one high-end boat with candlelit dinner tables and a nautilus gym downstairs…that was a little too much. Boat briefing and gear checkout and then in to bed by 9pm for the 6:30am wake-up and the first dive.

When we woke up in the morning we were greeted by a view of a completely deserted beach in a perfect little bay. Two sailboats had tied up just in front of us and you could see all the way to the bottom of probably 60 feet of perfectly clear water. Schools of fish were already examing our boat’s bilge discharge, we could tell this was going to be a great trip.

First dive was a check-out to get familiar with our equipment (and each other). Alexis just finished up her Openwater certification last week in Koh Tao and she decided to push herself and complete her Advanced Openwater class while on the boat in the Similans (deeper dives, night dives, and a few more adventursome skills). I wasn’t taking any classes but it was the first time I was diving with my digital camera and the new underwater housing that I got for last Christmas, so I had plenty to occupy my attention underwater (other than of course worrying about Alexis…heh).

We did three full dives the first day, saw a wide range of marine life, got some good pictures, and generally had a lot of fun. I noticed that I seemed to be sucking wind though and would burn through most of my air when James (our divemaster) and Alexis would both have 100 bar or more left. A couple of times this meant that I had to head up with some other folks while they continued their dive. On the third dive of the day I ended up missing a leopard shark cruising right by Alexis, which sounded really cool. Made up for it later though.

The next day we went diving at the northern islands and then Koh Ban. (Koh means island, if you hadn’t guessed that by now =). Koh Ban is a pretty dive, but is really known for one thing at this time of year…Manta Rays. We got in the water in great anticipation, only to immediately get sucked into the worst current we’ve ever felt underwater. If you remember in Star Wars when ships were flying through hyperspace and the stars were just zipping by all around, well that’s what it looked like. We flew past the west side of the island and were just able to grab on to some underwater outcroppings to “catch our breath” (something you don’t want to have to worry about 25 meters under water). Seriously, it was difficult to even hold on to those rocks with both hands. By the time we got up the strength to sneak left into the lee of the island to avoid the current I was getting pretty worried about Alexis. I signalled to the dive master that we should probably cut the dive short, but since we were so deep and things had calmed down quite a bit we decided to make a slow ascent up the wall. Just as we were completing our safety stop we saw some fluttering wings in the distance…Manta! Turns out Alexis and I were completely knackered though and cut the chase short to get back on the boat (apparently there were two mantas flying by). After that stress we decided to skip the final dive of the evening and we both passed out in our cabin for about fifteen hours straight.

The next day more than made up for missing the dives though as we ended up doing three trips around Richeliu Rock. This place is amazing; at low tide you can barely see some coral on the surface, at high tide it’s completely obscured. Get underwater though and you’ll find a 100 foot pinnacle covered with the most complex bio-system for miles around (the ocean floor is literally all sand as far as the eye can see out from the bottom). Apparently Jaques Cuesteau found this place many years ago, and he must have been thrilled. Besides the normal masses of hard and soft coral, schools of fish all shapes, sizes, and colors, we saw sea monkeys (“sea monkey has my money”), octopuses, and some amazingly colorful little creatures called harlequin shrimp and ghost pipe fish (I hope my photos can be made to look OK, otherwise I’m gonna have to find something online).

We had a final sunset dive in the Surin Islands (even further north, right next to Burma), and then anchored for the night. Our next morning started with a ritual Manta dance (everyone trekked around the boat in the bed sheets letting them flutter in teh wind). A final dive at Koh Tachai and Koh Bon were scheduled for the day and we were pretty tired but excited for what was to come. Clear seas, clear skies, and no current were all looking really inviting. The water was awesome and the fish were great, but really, all I can talk about were the Mantas. We saw one on each dive, and they kept coming back to check us out. Four meter wide creatures, gracefully flying through the ocean, it was amazing. I think the best I can do is just to show the video clip I was able to capture as one cruised by.

A great trip, all around, I’m very very glad we got a chance to see this now, as who knows what will happen to the site in the future.

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Koh Tao

I spent a week on the tiny scuba-diving mecca of Koh Tao about three years ago and it was one of the most enjoyable places I’ve ever been. When Lex said she wanted to head down here in order to get her Scuba cert I was thrilled. After a looooooooong, bUmPy, and sleepless ride down the Thai “highway”, then a reasonably quiet boat ride over, we pulled in to Ban Mae Had (the main port).

Koh Tao has changed quite a bit in these past three years. The main town is about twice the size as it was, and the number of people zipping by on scooters has become excessive, if not dangerous. I don’t know if it’s because I was staying down on the south side of the island or if just the whole place has changed, but our little cottage (above) is only a hundred yards to the beach but only twenty yards from a walking path that has scooters zipping up and down all the time. Rather dissapointing and go-go-go, but there are still good things to be had, like great dinners while the sun dips into the ocean, amazing Thai massages, and some of the best Scuba spots in the Gulf of Thailand.

So that’s what we’ve been doing since we arrived, diving. Lex had half a day of rest then went straight in to the academic and water-based excercises for her basic Openwater course. I started the first day we arrived with a CPR/EFR class and then three intense days of Rescue Diver certification. This course was one of the most challenging things I’ve done in a long time. Involved study, special skills, and some real taxing excercises in the water. We start with some basic activities like helping a tired/panicing diver on the surface, then move on to more involved procedures such as rescuing an unconcious diver on the surface (performing resuscitation in the water, towing them back to the boat, and getting them up a ladder without help). The final skills involve searching for a missing diver, dragging them up (slowly) from the bottom, and repeating the whole excercise. Add to this a masochistic group of instructors who I’m convinced have gone nuts from a little too much sun and nitrogen narcosis, and they come up with some pretty insane scenarios for you to deal with.

All in all, a fantastic course though. The best class I’ve had in a long time and a hell of a lot of great information (I hope I never have to use). I think I’m on the PADI band-wagon now, and will probably continue to take a few specialty courses towards a Master Scuba Diver rating. But first, I have to convince some friends back home to take their Rescue Cert so that we can practice together to keep our skills sharp.

Alexis’s class should be on their last dive of the day right about now. From here we’re going to rest for a little bit and then make our way back over to the mainland, across the peninsula, and try to hop aboard a live-aboard dive boat for 4 days/4 nights of stupendous Scuba in the Similan islands. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to take my new camera housing under water!

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