Land of a million elephants !

Laos2017-7The girlfriend and I have recently come back from a couple of weeks in Laos, taking advantage of some cheap air fares from Bangkok, and some good hotel deals. Of course, there is always a reason behind those good deals …in this case Air Asia wanted to fill planes and the hotels wanted to fill rooms during the rainy season ! So the weather was not the greatest for sightseeing, but we have both been to Laos before so at least it was a getaway from Bangkok.

We started off in Luang Prabang, staying at the Villa Somphong. Luang Prabang used to be one of the extreme outposts of the French Empire, attracting many people who wanted to get away from Paris for one reason or another. There are still a lot of old villas left from that time, often renovated into boutique hotels. We had a nice room with a balcony looking out over the river, and close to the town centre.

Luang Prabang is well known for the number of wats (temples) there, and the number of monks. The morning tak bat (alms giving) has turned into a bit of a tourist cliche, one of the must-dos for the backpacker set. Living in Thailand as I do, it’s not exactly a novelty to me but I must confess I went along early one morning to take a few photos.

By 6am vendors have their spots staked out, with places for their customers to sit, baskets of cookies and sticky rice for sale. Every vendor had the same items for sale, so I hope that the locals who give alms do give them something healthy to eat instead of the cookie bars sold to tourists. Apparently the sticky rice sold by the vendors is low quality, I do know that much of it got thrown away ! The monks also give some of their excess food to local kids waiting around the corner. I would suggest that if you do want to give alms that perhaps you go down to the market and buy some fruit or anything else healthy.

Some more photos from Luang Prabang, click to see a larger version.

After a few days there it was time to move on to Vang Vieng. I had avoided this place before because of it’s reputation on the backpacker circuit, not my scene, but now that most of the more notorious stuff has been closed down I thought we could spend a few days there, hoping to do one of the ultralight or balloon flights over some spectacular scenery. VV_pano-1It was not to be, with low cloud and drizzle for the next few days. We stayed at the “Elephant Crossing Hotel”, I really cannot recommend this place ….switches and light fittings loose and falling out, the bathroom drain must be partly blocked, and the wifi is iffy ….off and on regularly. Guess it serves me right for believing the pics on Agoda !

At least it also had a nice balcony to watch the river flow by …..

With the dreary weather Vang Vieng was a bit of a letdown, maybe I’ll go back at a different time of the year and try again.

Then on to Vientianne, again. I’ve been there several times before on visa runs and holidays but not for a couple of years. In that short time the city has changed quite a bit, it’s almost up to the 21st century now ! We got very lucky with our hotel here (the Sengtawan Riverside), we had just got up to our room, the GF was smiling at the big size of it, when reception rang …”we have to change your room, sorry’ …..so we go up to our new room and find a huge suite. It was twice the size of our condo ! Apparently they needed all the rooms on the other floor for a tour group the next day so upgraded us. I certainly was not complaining.

20170708_142750 And naturally it had a private balcony looking out over the Mekong.

In the evening there were many open air restaurants on the riverbank outside, so we did not have to go far to eat. The hotel also had it’s own restaurant on the top floor but we only managed breakfast there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some more photos of Vientianne :

For anybody visiting Vientianne in the near future, Pha That Luang  is under renovation at the moment and much of it is cordoned off, and the Buddhas moved out. So it is not really worth the 10,000 kip to get in, even though they are still charging full price with nothing to see. Not that I actually paid it anyhow ……after queueing up behind a bunch of chinese tourists  for ages we just went around them and the guards said nothing 🙂

The surrounding temples are free and still open so it is worth a trip out there. But haggle with your tuk-tuk driver ! By this time I was a bit tired of having to do all the organising so I made the GF get the tuk-tuk out to Patuxai, for which she (too) quickly settled on 60,000 kip. I got us from Patuxai to Pha That Luang, wait for nearly an hour, and then all the way back to the hotel for only 80,000 ! She also paid over the odds for a t-shirt in Luang Prabang 😦

And then it was back to Bangkok, and a horrendous one hour queue at Don Mueang airport Immigration ! I really do wish our Chinese friends would learn to fill in the arrivals card before they get up to the desk instead of holding everybody up.

As Air Asia say …..Now everybody can fly ……but sometimes I think that some people should stay at home.

 

 

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“Tak Bat” (alms giving, Luang Prabang, Laos)

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A photo walk through Bang Sue

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Bang Sue Railway station, the start of the walk.

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Bang Sue station….picking our way through the parcels !

Last weekend I went on a photo-walk with the “Bangkok Photographers” Facebook Group round the Bang Sue community ( Google maps) in the north of Bangkok near the well known Chatuchak Market.

Nestled between the railway tracks and a couple of khlongs (canals) it is not exactly the most salubrious part of Bangkok, but there are certainly worse slum areas than Bang Sue. I don’t know what the locals thought of all us photographers, mostly foreigners but some Thais, walking around the back alleys on a hot Bangkok morning but they were friendly and welcoming….and patient with everybody asking for a photo, such as this old lady :

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I think everybody took her picture !


My favourite shot of the day :

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After every walk a collection of everybody’s photos are published in an online magazine, this walk’s images are here if anybody wants to have a look. There is usually a walk every month, but not in this July,so if you are a photographer coming to Bangkok, and want to perhaps see an off the beaten track part of the city check out the Facebook page for a schedule.

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noun: folly; plural noun: Follies
  1. 1.
    lack of good sense; foolishness.
    2.
    a costly ornamental building with no practical purpose, especially a tower or mock-Gothic ruin built in a large garden or park

     One of Thailand’s more eccentric moneyed class was Lek Viriyaphant, the creator of the Ancient City and the Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya, and also the Erawan Museum on the outskirts of Bangkok.

    Featuring a three headed elephant standing on top of a pink three storey building in the middle of a large garden, I think it qualifies as a ‘folly” 🙂

    Like the Sanctuary of Truth in Pattaya, the Erawan Museum is a bit of a hotch-potch of religious influences without actually being a religious building. The main building is supposed to represent the 3 levels of the Hindu universe, the basement entrance takes you into the “underworld” which is strangely full of antiquities, then you climb up into the human world :

    The main hall is full of Buddhist, Hindu and Christian allegories carved on to the walls and pillars, plus a large statue of a Chinese goddess, Guanyin ….I told you it was a hotch-potch ! The ceiling is a large stained glass map of the world.erawan-11

    erawan-6Getting into heaven is not supposed to be easy, so a long climb up several flights of stairs (through the elephants legs) will take you up to the top level which is a more conventional Buddhist  area, with several old and very valuable Buddhas, that represents Heaven.

This part is actually inside the elephant, but unfortunately there are no windows to see out over the gardens.

The gardens naturally feature many more elephants, in various sizes and colours.

 

 

One story I read says that when planning the nearby ring road the government was going to go through this garden, so Lek Viriyaphant dedicated it to his Majesty the king, making it untouchable. However the govt. changed the plans and put the road through his house next door !

How to get there ? The Erawan Museum is on Sukhumwit road, so many buses go past it. The 511 is an air-con bus that goes right across town and out to Samut Prakan so that would probably be best. The BTS Skytrain will be ( should be !) extended out there by end of 2018, currently you would have to get off at Samrong and then get a short taxi ride or bus. Note that some buses detour via the expressway when returning to the city so a return via taxi and BTS might be best.

How much ? It does have the foreigner surcharge, so a normal walk-in ticket is 400baht/adult which is a bit pricey, but booking online will get you a hundred baht discount. If you are an expat with a Thai driver’s license, flash that and get the Thai price of 200 baht.

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After our week in paradise Ko Lipe it was time to move on to our next destination, Langkawi. For most of the year there are 2 daily ferries and many speedboats that make the fairly short trip between the 2 islands…..both ferries cost the same and leave at about the same time, all the speedboats cost the same and are driven by the same young kids with cowboy attitudes to safety, which is why I never take the speedboat if there is an option of a “real” ferry. ( a quick Google search for “speedboat accidents in Thailand” gave up 386,000 results!)

The ferry check-in with Bundhaya went smoothly, boarding passes given, pointed over towards immigration, told to wait nearby. Slightly disconcerting and confusing for some passengers who did not speak Thai or English was the fact that passports would be given back to you once underway on the ferry. For some reason the immigration office bundle all the passports together, give them to one of the boat crew who later came around asking who owns a Thai/Malay/British/American/whatever passport. They did not seem to look at the photo inside to check they were giving passports to the right people !

Arriving in Langkawi at the Kuah ferry terminal the Malay immigration was quick and efficient and we were soon off to Pantai Cenang and our hotel, the “White House Lodge”.

Not quite as large as Mr Trump’s White House, but still very nice 🙂 , big room at the end looking out over a rice paddie, tropical gardens and a nice swimming pool, which was handy as I did not really think much of the beach here.

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mind where you walk at low tide !

Lang_Pen-1 The Lonely Planet says “ the beach is gorgeous, white sand, teal water, green palms” ….I thought the beach was rather grey, gritty sand, lots of glass and bottlecaps exposed at low tide, the water had a lot of jellyfish, and many of the palm trees have been replaced by construction equipment. Another blogger, Rob from Experimental Expats often bemoans the unrestrained development where he lives in Penang, and Langkawi is the same it seems.

There is certainly a lot of  construction under way, with hotels and apartments popping up all along the beach and Pantai Cenang’s main road. Just who do they expect to live there ?

In between all the building sites are plenty of international food chains, all the usual suspects, lots of Thai restaurants, Mexican restaurants, even a couple of Syrian ones, but hardly any local food, and I really, really wanted some laksa. The only place that I found happened to be closed 😦

But the main reason for coming here was because the GF had read about the legend of a woman called Mahsuri, who was falsely accused of adultery and executed.

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Mahsuri’s village (or a recreation thereof !)

After bleeding white blood to show her innocence she cursed Langkawi with 7 generations of bad luck, which supposedly ended around the time of Langkawi’s tourist boom. Anyway, we rented a motorbike and headed off to see her village, now one of Langkawi’s tourist attractions. I don’t know how much of it is original or recreated but it all seemed rather forced and artificial to me, but the GF liked it and that’s all that counts, is n’t it 🙂 While we had the bike we went for a ride into Kuah to see the big eagle, and then up to the top of the highest hill where you can see to Thailand on a clear day, so they say :

As she will not go in the sea but still wanted to ‘ see the pretty fish” we also went to Underwater World, Malaysia’s biggest aquarium. I prefer my fish on the reef, but as aquariums go this one is pretty good.

All in all, I did not really think much of Langkawi, and will not be heading back again.

After a few days it was time to head back to Bangkok, but the long way around with a 3 day stopover in Georgetown, Penang. It’s just a short flight, we probably spent longer checking in than we did in the plane ! Seeing all the construction cranes as we headed from the airport to Georgetown I could see why the Experimental Expats have had enough and are headed out. Georgetown is a listed Heritage area though, a crane free zone ! We stayed at the Kimberley hotel, a converted colonial style building, with wooden floors and a private balcony looking out over the rooftops of Georgetown.

Lang_Pen-10 Many, many years ago as a naive backpacker I arrived late evening in Penang, where one of these fellows recommended a nice cheap hotel. I looked at the room, it was ok, the price was ok, so I said OK. Later that night all I could hear was the sound of high heels click-clacking their way along the corridor and back again 15 minutes or so later. Back and forth, back and forth. The next evening I returned from dinner late and decided to check out the bar at the back of the hotel …it was almost pitchblack inside but when my eyes got used to the dark I realised that all the “customers” were women in tight dresses, high heels and way too much make-up waiting for their customers …the hotel doubled as a brothel.

The Kimberley Hotel was way, way above that level of place !

Without any real sightseeing plans we spent our time in Georgetown just wandering around the streets,  getting my laksa fix and eating lots of the local food …but not the durian : Lang_Pen-14

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Is that Gordon Ramsay @ number 5 ?

One good thing about Georgetown streetfood compared to Bangkok’s is the lack of diesel fume “seasoning”, the streets are almost vehicle free compared to Bangkok, much more pleasant !

Some more photos from Georgetown :

And then it was back to Bangkok, and get ready for the madness of Songkran.

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Our next trip away is in a couple of days, just up to Ubon Ratchathani for a week or so while the GF sorts out some bureaucratic paperwork or other, then it will be time to start getting all the paperwork together to renew my visa …another year gone !

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Ko Lipe….revisited again.

It had been all of 2 months since my last snorkelling trip so it was time to head off to my favourite Thai island, Ko Lipe, way down south in Satun province and almost in Malaysia.

flippers-3We flew down with Nok Air who have combo fly-shuttle-ferry tickets which are convenient and actually cheaper than booking each transport leg yourself.

Once again I stayed at the Green View Resort, right on the beach. This place is certainly not fancy, but the bamboo bungalows are great value on what is probably Thailand’s most expensive island. Peak season had finished so it was not too crowded, even on the weekend when the Malay tourists flock over by speedboat from Langkawi.

I think that I mentioned after our last visit that a new concrete resort had replaced my favourite beach/reggae bar, I was happy to find a replacement a bit further along the beach, and also happy to see that the new ‘Art Club” resort never had more than 8 or 9 customers whenever we walked by. Stretching around 80m along the beachfront and onto Walking Street,  and looking more like something from Ibiza (I imagine) it has several bars occupying prime real estate, and at least 10 more staff than customers at any one time. I really think the owners did not do any market research, as probably half the visitors to Ko Lipe are Malay, mostly non drinking, non partying Muslims, most backpackers cannot afford their prices, and many of the remaining tourists are too old for an Ibiza style foam/pool party (yes, my hand is up 🙂 )….which does not leave many customers even now, let alone in the low season. It seems to be only partly completed, perhaps the owners have had second thoughts ? And perhaps others will have second thoughts about building yet another resort and turning the island into another Samui ?

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Anyway, it was still just as beautiful underwater 🙂

There is a coral reef literally just off the beach, although you would be wise to stick to the roped off swimming zones to avoid the longtail boats ! In the swimming zone in front of the “Z touch Resort” I found this lobster, safely surrounded by sea urchins :
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And this Moray Eel : kolipe2017-23

kolipe2017-16I think this is a Trumpetfish, although they are usually yellow or a light grey. And just after I took that photo I saw a Giant Grouper, swimming right underneath me. Not a big one, but unusual to see in that area.

There are several daily snorkelling trips by longtail boat, nearly all go to an underwater rock called Jabang, which rises from about 16m deep to about 4m below the surface. Every other time that I have been there was a strong current, last time you had to swim upstream about 10m, dive down and get carried along like an express train with time for just one quick photo before surfacing on the other side. On this visit there was no current, and the visibility was nearly perfect…the first pic is near the bottom, about 12m straight down !


And elsewhere on that trip :

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But all good things must end, and while I was snorkelling every day for hours, my GF was sitting back at the resort twiddling her thumbs for a week…like many Thai women she does n’t like the sun or the water, so after that week the next few days were for her, and she wanted to go to Langkawi, just an hour and a bit away. And then the easiest way back to Bangkok was via Penang, so we had a few days there too. All that to come…….soon.

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