2023 November Bumbling along the Buddhist belt.

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                When I’d told Kylie I would take her to Asia she was just a bit too excited and I had to quickly throw a bit of water on her enthusiasm. It won’t be all roller bags and hotel pools. “Then what will it be?” she asked nervously. I wasn’t quite sure at that time but it would be across various regions I’d travelled before. Places I’d found inspirational and dare I say it.. spiritual. At least moved me enough to want to return.

              I got to work with a map on one screen and a list of places on one of my multitude of wish lists. Within a day the bones of the tour had become real. Mainly because I had started booking flights and accomodation. When I looked at the finished list it finally crystallised exactly what it was I was wanting to share. The inspiration and excitement that can come from stepping into a tuk tuk, a taxi disguised as a cattle truck or a past its prime river boat. It’s just about the raw act of travelling. Leaving yourself open to all the possibilities that will leave a mark on you along the way. 

                    Like all the best made plans there are hurdles long the way. Kylie is asked to travel to Bangkok for work in our holiday window so we travel separately and meet in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. I booked a hotel I’ve stayed at before next to the lazy Ping river. It’s simple, clean and a bargain. Kylie is impressed with the price A$115. Glee turns to concern when she finds out that’s the price for three nights… Are there six others in our room and a single drop toilet ? 

                   We head straight out into the sultry nightlife of Chiang Mai as soon as I’ve arrived. It’s a bustling city with a long, proud history of simple but fresh ‘blow your head off’ spicy food. They are not scared of throwing a couple of fiery chillies into an otherwise docile salad or ambushing you with a familiar looking curry. In the past I’ve had local knowledge from friends, Trish and Paul living in Chiang Rai, they have protected my mouth and the other end from the burning sensation of unfamiliar dishes. So it’s rookie error when I order a refreshing salad to find it generously sprinkled with red and green chillies. If I could have sat in a bucket of icy water the following morning I wouldn’t have been embarrassed. Sadly there was no bucket big enough. 

            We walk to the bus station the following day to get our Greenbus tickets to the border town of Chiang Khong. I recognise the dimly lit, in desperate need of a paint bus terminal so feel confident when I approach the ticket lady with my request. She listens then nods her head but not in a positive way. “No tickets available for two days”… suddenly I get the cold sweats. My real concern had been on getting the slow boat down the Mekong not getting to the border. I sit down with that cold sick feeling deep in my stomach. It wasn’t just me this time, I felt responsibility for someone else. I could just shrug and accept it if I was travelling alone. I went back to the window maybe a bus to Chiang Rai could get us close enough to get a local tuk tuk or taxi. A late afternoon departure was available but not ideal it would leave no time before darkness fell. 

                      Kylie quietly starts tapping away on her phone, her airport driver had given her his number, “maybe you want sightseeing ? Now we wanted more than sightseeing. “Hey Bright, would you be interested in coming to Chiang Khong tomorrow ? Oh, and how much ?” A few minutes later a deal has been struck and my first real hiccup is avoided. Bright is true to his word and rocks up the following morning like a man on a mission. He tears across the mountains separating Chiang Mai and Rai like a rally car driver. Until a few years ago this was a single lane road each way often damaged by torrential rains, clogged with lumbering trucks and notoriously slow.

                 On arriving at the border the only thing on my mind is locking in boat tickets for the following morning. In the past this has been an early race across the border into Laos then queuing up on a steep flight of concrete stairs. The prize is getting a flimsy piece of paper giving you a seat number. Not any more, third parties now arrange the ticket plus they pick you up to cross the border and a complimentary lunch. But I’d still left it a bit late based on the new system. There were tickets available and I was assured I had two but wouldn’t be content till I was sitting on the boat. 

               All goes smoothly as the sun comes up the following morning. Every Westerner wandering about town yesterday is on the boat. We clutch our boat tickets and find our seats just in front of the snack bar and single toilet with about 100 others. I can finally relax. The boat slowly fills with excited travellers working their way to the rear and slapping those already seated with their bulging backpacks. It seems like the ark, we were already sure the boat could take no more but still they came. Even as the boat lurched into reverse and scrapped against those parked alongside, a few stragglers still managed to jump onto the bow. 

Boarding the slow boat from Chang Khong to Pakbeng, Laos.

                  The Westerners party. The occasional local river dweller on board doesn’t dare take their mask off. The reality is that it would be easy for this hotchpotch of wandering foreigners to bring Covid to these remote villages who have little or no immunity nor access to medicine. To leave the party boat with the virus would have diabolical effect on these small communities. The backpackers are completely oblivious and work their way to the bar for another long neck Beerlao. 

              Our stopover in Pakbeng is disappointing. I had visited twice before and found the remote strip of small hotels and cafes edgy and a great backdrop to swapping stories and swatting mosquitoes whilst swilling Beerlao. The backpackers from the boat have gone too hard today and will sleep through till tomorrow. Therefore the streets are quiet, the cafes are all manned by children between the age of 12 and 15 years old and the food has no soul. It feels like a rerun of a bad movie when we all trudge aboard the following morning for another day on the river. It’s a better day on the river but everyone is grateful when we finally clamber up the sides of the river into tuk tuks bound for town as night falls again.

                 Just something I need to say. Over my three trips along the Mekong I’ve seen major change, very fast change. China is currently building its eighth hydro scheme along the Mekong in Laos and Cambodia. We pass the massive site just before arriving in Luang Prabang. Neither country needs the power, they on-sell it predominately to Thailand. Scientists say that each hydro plant increases the water temperature by about one degree and it is having a major effect on fish spawning downstream. What doesn’t need scientists knowledge is that the river is now sluggish, struggling to flow strongly enough through the Mekong delta to fully flush in the annual flooding season. It also carries 40,000 tonnes of plastic rubbish into our oceans per year. Now back to Luang Prabang.

Another Chinese hydro scheme on the Mekong river.

                 It’s mid afternoon when we decide to head out to the Kuang Si falls about an hour South of Luang Prabang. We’d been warned of getting a tuk tuk, the road there is a puzzle of potholes and crashing about for an hour each way not desirable. It was good advice as we watched our van driver spend as much time dodging the potholes as moving forward. The drive was worth it though. 

           The falls start as a series of large river boulders reminiscent of vanilla ice cream with a continues stream of shimmering ‘topping’ washing over them. Climb further up the hillside and you find a more impressive waterfall, a dazzling brightness as the drop appears crystal clear. Two wooden bridges get the tourists out over the river to gape in awe and embrace the cool misty air. Back down lower we edge our way into the swimming holes. Tentative steps amongst the hidden rocks, ouch till you can swim free of the bottom. The water has calmed here after dropping from a height and has returned to its milky opaque colour full of quartz. Most swimmers just drift along staring up at the waterfall above, listening to its thunder. A magical afternoon. 

Kuang Si falls near Luang Prabang, Laos.

                  The food market in Luang Prabang once played second fiddle to the nightly handcraft stalls selling everything you never realised you needed. The handicraft market is still busy but the real standout is the large square of food stalls selling freshly cooked delicacies from far and wide. It’s so popular that even with over one hundred tables it was difficult to find an empty one. Around us you could hear every language on the planet as one and all tucked in to their chosen meal. But they all drank one beer, tall bottles of perspiring cold Beerlao…

              Of course you can’t visit Luang Prabang without stumbling out into the predawn to watch the orange clad monks circle the city. The monks form a conga line receiving offerings of sticky rice, western sweets and cold hard bank notes. I watched one lady perched on her milking stool operating  her offerings like a production line guru. Both hands operating simultaneously she filled every monk’s basket with equal amounts of a chocolate bars and a bank note. Surely this will get her a gold pass to heaven, an honorary mention in despatches or at a minimum, the erasing of a previous debauched life. Meanwhile she leaves nothing to chance.

Direct line to heaven $$$

Our photos in this predawn are all disappointing with sharp focus on those seated and the monks in a swirling orange blur. 

                  It’s a flight of just over an hour to Siem Reap and enough turbulence to have someone behind me turn a cough into returning their lunch. We land at the just opened international airport. The Chinese have built and will run the new airport for 55 years. Again the locals miss out on the dollars. But worse it’s  60 kms and an hour and a half from Siem Reap township. We pool, with three other travellers, a Parisian, a Swiss woman and a young guy from Newcastle, England to try to reduce this now expensive taxi ride. The range of accents on the ride to our various hotels is a joke waiting to be told. 

          The city hotel is a calm haven blocking out the hustle, dust and pandemonium of nearby tourist driven Siem Reap. So it’s hardly a surprise when we decide to chill for a day. Besides  tomorrow we will join the throng of tourists sweating in the heat, clambering over the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat.  I’m sure even the Buddhists have the occasional rest day hanging around the hotel pool. But it’s not all peace and harmony we catch a tuk tuk into pub street containing the best and worst of every pub scenarios in the world. Starting with half price drinks.

Pub Street Siem Reap, Cambodia. Drink irresponsibly.

         I’d asked for a personal Angkor Wat guide, someone who was a mix of statistician, history buff and most of all, a story teller. Unfortunately something was lost in translation so although he knew his Angkor Wat from his ankle watch he struggled to put colour into the story. Our tuk tuk spluttered first to Angkor Thom along shaded roads till we reached the ruins. It is certainly an impressive entrance even 800 years after it was first built. The Southern entry bridge has an ornamental stone handrail featuring a pair of “Naga” serpents being manhandled by a 100m long row of giants identified as good and evil. Come on the bad boys. 

Serpent bridge, Angkor Thom, Cambodia

                The Prohm temple is my favourite mainly because it’s history line seems to be told by the gnarly fig trees which have entwined themselves through the ancient structures. First minor players when they were dropped by birds into cracks on the walls. Slowly binding, then squeezing the stone walls into submission. 

                Our guide ended up being worth his money by slipping us into Angkor Wat via the quiet, cool Eastern entrance while most of the many tour groups were somewhere else eating lunch. There was only a smattering of small groups and a handful of cheeky young monks who were yet to take their vocation seriously. We wandered free inside the imposing square tower before finally spilling out onto the Western entry, the main entry, with its huge reflective pond and imposing bridge. You turn as you leave, see the whole vista twice, once in the still pond and feel your breath taken away, it is so spectacular. 

Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Final destination Hoi An. A sleeping fishing village when I first came here with Robyn in 1990. The main road from Hanoi to Saigon was then one lane. How times change. Even in eleven years since I was last here I recognise nothing other than the river and some of the old city. Vietnam has grown at an amazing pace. Hoi An is a throng of tourists being served by over enthusiastic locals keen to profit from their attractions. Bus load after bus load of Tiawanese and South Koreans in kitsch matchy matchy holiday outfits (shoot me if you happen across me in such an outfit ) choked the walkways next to the river. 

          The last of these bus loads finally left at 8pm, restaurants magically had tables and calmness descended. A huge flotilla of row boats festooned with lanterns emptied their precious cargo of tourists then floated quietly on their moorings. They still do the paper boats complete with a flickering candle. They are still launched using a long pole from the bridges then drift with the evening breeze. It’s a chance to make a wish and send it on its way. 

            Just when I thought that Hoi An had sold its soul to tourism I  jumped on a rickety single speed hotel bike and over calculated both the distance and the strength of the sun in riding to the coast. Within minutes of summiting the flimsy, clackety clack motorbike bridge the tourist blare faded. Suddenly it was stooping farmers, waving children and smiles from rural people uninterested in my foreign currency. Buffalo sat neck deep in the rivers, fishermen steered with gnarly feet whilst tossing shimmering nets into the same sluggish river. One bridge led to another each time with less people. True I could still get my hair cut, feet massaged and a bowl of intestine soup easily but there was a calmness to the place. 

            It was ironic that we drifted through this poor farming land because our final destination ended up being a whopping big glitzy casino. Sweating and thirsty it was the only option for a cold drink before returning. We sat admiring but awestruck by the sterile environment. The staff were kind to us even though they quickly realised we were a million miles away from the Chinese high rollers that frequent this place. But they got us a couple of icy cold Vietnamese coffee and practised their English before we headed back. Finally after some days in Hoi Sn I felt like I had tasted real Vietnam again.

River lanterns, Hoi An, Vietnam

          Time to head home, it’ll be Christmas soon enough. But not in the Buddhist belt.