November 29, 2001

I'm a millionaire!

Greetings from Louang Prabang, Lao. I've been here for a few days now, and
this morning went to the bank to ask for a million kip. Mind you, the
largest note is 5000 kip, or just over 50 cents.

The trip here was interesting. Lao has become a big tourist destination. The
trip down on the infamous slow boat was on a cargo boat like it was in the
past, but there were about 80 of us packed in with no cargo. Reccomendation:
take the slow boat the other direction, or go only halfway--probably the
second half, since a number of people will do as I did and abandon the trip
and hire a fast boat instead for half the trip, which also lets you spend
some time in the charming town of Pakbeng. The trip is beautiful, the Mekong
is large and fast and the geology seems to alternate between upthrust
sedimentary rock (usually smooth going) and something volcanic (quite
rough). The fast boats handle this by having a smooth bottom, in effect
skimming across the water at maybe 30-50 mph, never actually going straight.
With the flat bottom they can go straight over whirlpools and you barely
even notice. And you do get a view of everything.

The country itself is quite beautiful. It's at a weird stage, you can get
off the tourist track in one minute, but on it they're learning all the
tricks quickly, from the begging children to the touts getting you on their
tours to the overpriced taxi from the (somewhat distant) fast boat terminal
into town. Bascially it's a total melange of the faded and completely
modern, with a strong 1930s French influence.

Where to next I don't know. Probably stay here a few days, then maybe north
(also beautful but even colder than here), or south.

Posted by MBlain at 12:00 AM | Comments (0)

November 24, 2001

Market Day

Chiang Kong is the first city I've been in small enough to have a market
day. Actually, probably the second--Tha Ton had a market building but no
market when i was there. Here it's a night market. On Saturday night, the
main street through town is closed to vehicles for a stretch (they're
detoured through the back alleys) and it's full of vendors. Pretty typical
selection of stuff, though socks and hats are featured due to the cold snap
right now. And of course food.

Earlier today I saw something else new--travelling car salesmen. Or
something of the sort. Fequently you'll see trucks passing through towns or
cities with loudspeakers blaring some sort of advertisement. And at dusk in
small towns, a permenant loudspeaker system broadcasts local news, some
music, and some public information (presumably 'kill mosquitos' and the
like). From here you can hear some of the Lao version of this, which
supposedly is all propoganda. Anyway, this truck would actually stop and
move very slowly for a bit. And it was followed by almost every model of
Toyota (mostly various forms of pickup), with "Test Drive" signs on some of
them. How would that go over in the USA?

Probably about as well as the bamboo hut I'm staying in. It's OK, the first
place I've been with a mosquito net and the first which required it.
Thatched roofs don't do much against bugs, and probably don't do much for
rain in the wet season either. I'll be here for two more nights, tomorrow I
may actually go to Mynmar for a bit with the people I hung out with in
Chiang Rai. Then off to undeveloped countries....

Posted by MBlain at 12:00 AM | Comments (0)

November 21, 2001

Night Rider

I have been asked to describe a 'day in the life' of a traveller. Tuesday
was a good day, so without further introduction, here goes. This is quite
long, maybe someday I'll come up with an edited version.

I woke up in the morning and had a bowl of porridge. Most guest houses have
'western breakfasts', and since Thailand is in the middle of a cold snap
(~5-10 degrees at night, sometimes only getting up into the low 20s during
they day), this sounded like the thing to try. Oatmeal and milk and
bananas, why not

Since riding a motorbike was easy enough, I decided after breakfast to rent
the Honda Dream for another day and ride up to Mae Salong, a chinese town in
the mountains. I headed off around 10:30 AM, late as usual. About half an
hour up the main route (rt. 1) from Chiang Rai is Mae Chan, a moderate sized
town at the intersection of a bunch of roads. After looping around parts of
the town a few times, I parked the bike to look around the market.
Practically every road in the center of town is marked with do not enter
8:00 - 18:00 signs, but clearly that's not the case. Perhaps it's for trucks
or something. Anyway, there are few or no tourists in Mae Chan, and I
couldn't even find anything for lunch as all the stalls in the market were
noodle soup shops, and that's not what I wanted. So I grabbed a quick snack
and went onwards.From Mae Chan towards the mountains is a typical 2 lane
Thai highway. Almost no traffic, excellent road conditions, villiages every
once in a while. At the junction between the road southwest to Tha Ton and
north to Mae Salong is a police checkpoint, with the police sitting back and
doing nothing as normal. This is also where the road really turns uphill,
steeply, up a ridge for a few miles. For some reason, the road here doesn't
follow a valley but goes up and over several ridges, which is extremely
beautful but slightly disconcerting. After 13 more kilometers, I reached the
edge of Mae Salong with the gas needle at E. I slowly went through town 'til
encountering a 'gas station', rural Thai style-- three big barells of gas
(91, 95, and diesel) with glass jars, a pump to fill the jar, and a hose. In
Thai places with wooden houses, it's often attached to the edge of a shop in
a small shed; in this case it was at the end of a chinese style shophouse
with nothing except some laundry in the room.

Mae Salong is a strange town. It's trying to be a tourist town, and gets a
fair number of tourists. But there is no tourist info there. Not even a map
on a sign, and it's a pretty big town, mostly since it's strung over a few
ridgetops. It's a Chinese town founded by Kuminotang refugees who fled from
China during the revolution, were in Burma for a while and then decamped to
Thailand. Now they mostly grow tea, and there are tea factories and stores
throughout. On one end of town is a market, and as the only westerner there
the hilltribe people (likely Ahka) descended on me to buy trinkets. I found
a Chinese restaurant (surprise!) and had fried mushrooms for lunch. The
restaurant was empty, as was most every place in town. Perhaps it's because
there are roughly half the number of tourists travelling right now, or
perhaps it was just late. But the food was fine, and part way through a
group of people (locals?) drove up and had lunch. They were counting money
before hand, I didn't watch so I have no idea how much or what they did with
it, but it's the second time in two days that the restaurants I chose seem
to be good business dealing spots.

After lunch I tried to go up to the temple, but the road was closed for
construction. After a bit of wandering in the town I picked a random road
up, up the hill, and ended up at the bottom of the temple complex and
clumbed the steps (only 350 meters... up stairs) to find the top part...
under construction and not very interesting, but worth the view. Down below
I could see two giant teapots being built, and set off to find them.

The teapots weren't too hard to find. Go through the town, turn left on a
paved road towards the end of town, go as far down hill as possible (keep
going 100m up hill and you'll reach a church, the missionaries are extremely
active in the north of Thailand), and bear left onto the dirt road. I
stopped, wondering about my ability to ride downhill in the dirt, and some
guy in a pickup encouraged me to go on. (The bike didn't worry me, it's the
standard form of transport in Thailand, even on unbelievable dirt roads with
multiple passengers.) So down I went to, I don't know, let's call it Chai
Land. A bunch of guys told me to follow them. One was apparently the
designer of the project, and I don't know who the other three were--maybe
the father of one and a helper or two. One of them spoke some english and
tried to describe the project--two sprouting teapots. A great wall of
Thailand (same as the great wall of China). Some map of the world. (Maybe
inside the teapots? Maybe ouside? Maybe on the hill just below? I couldn't
figure it out.) After a while, they invited me for something. For tea I
thought, and we all piled into the pickup and went further down the hill.

Steeply. The road here was recently cut by bulldozer, with a 15' cut on one
side and a drop on the other, and occasional switchbacks requiring reverse.
Down we went for 10 minutes to a dead end at the bank of a small stream. Uh
oh, what had I gotten myself into? I didn't think anything bad was going to
happen, but they sure picked a good spot to do it. Even if I was alone while
they went off somewhere else it would be at least an hour hiking back up to
my bike. But really they just wanted to show me the stream, and tell me that
they wanted to send tourists down it in some sort of boat. I wouldn't even
want to go down the stream in a kayak, but hey, this is Thailand and their
idea of reasonable transportation is not the same as in the west.

After some more pictures, we turned around and went further down the road
we'd been travelling, across to the other side of the valley and half way up
the other side to a tea nursery. If you look at the fields you'll notice
areas covered in netting, and that's what they are. The plants here were
about a year old, and worth about 5 baht each. Apparently they want to bring
tourists to the nursery on horseback. Which would certainly be far less
scary than on the pickup. I'm not sure if the old guy had been on the first
(new) part of the road before, he certainly seemed scared enough. For that
matter, I think the 'designer' was giving a tour of something to the other
people too, when they weren't talking on the phone. At this point I
commented on the height of the sun (3:30 in fhe afternoon, sundown at 5:30
and total darkness by 6), and we headed back. Well, I think we would have
anyway. From here the roads were older and slightly less scary, and we wound
our way through the tea plantation back to the teapots.

Thus ended the tea tour, and off I went down the mountain. I wish I had time
to take more pictures, it's quite a stunning ride. They were actually
stopping people at the police checkpoint at the intersection on the way back
(a different but similar) road, they waved me to someone who presumably
spoke english, so looked at me and waved me on. Checkpoints scare me because
I might not have a proper license, and my passport (techinally required) was
held in exchange for the bike. But really they are no big deal, the Thai are
unfaillingly friendly once you get away from tourist scam land.

Back in Mae Chan, I followed some bikes down what really did appear to be a
one way street leading to a night market. Much more food variety here, but I
didn't have much time and just bought some satay (which is actually not that
common), ate it, and got back on the road. This avoided riding at dusk and
splattering too many insects. Back in the dark to Chiang Rai and the guest
house.

Of course the day's not over yet. I headed off to the night market in search
of Americans. (It's thanksgiving today and I still haven't found any other
than a big group which was staying in my guest house for a bit.Yesterday I
went to the American University Associaten (mostly an english language
school) and their staff consists of an irishman and two canadians)).
Anyway, of course didn't find any there, but ended up staying the evening
with a group of Thai people and one english man. Was fed various local
specialties--bamboo borer, silk worms, grasshopper. Can't say I particularly
like any of them.

Well that's enough for now. Happy Thanksgiving!

--Matthew

P.S. - I returned the to Mae Salong with some others to see the teapot progress the following April. The teapots were painted gold and silver, and I exchanged construction pictures for some tea.

Before:

After:

Posted by MBlain at 12:00 AM | Comments (0)

November 18, 2001

Tha Ton

Well here I am in the middle of nowhere, Thailand. Well not really,
I'm in Tha Ton, a small town just (4km) down the Kok river from
Myanmar. The town seems to have a fair number of tourist
accommodations, including very nice places like the Garden Home
where I'm staying and a few fancy places. And the most overdone
temple I've seen yet. Wat Tha Ton spreads out over 3 mountain tops
in a row. Starting at the river you walk up through a concrete
stairway complete with caves (with concrete stalactites) and various
(guardian?) statues, ending at a big guardian statue which to my
eyes is very chinese. Then you go up to a big white Buddha, further
up to a large gold Buddha, and further up to various residences and
an unfinished pagoda until you finally, 2 km later, reach the final
standing Buddha. From here you can see the town and large fertile
valley below and presumably the mountains of Burma behind. With
binoculars you can see lots of hill tribe villages and army posts,
watching the border.

This is the smallest town I've been to yet. In a way you're exposed
to the other related people more here. Aside from the insistent Akha
silver sellers, the hill tribe villages are close enough to town
that they are constantly moving through--one village appears to be
reached from about half way up the temple road.

How did I get here? By bus of course. After a week or so in Chiang
Mai, taking the obligatory cooking class and trek, it was time to
move on, and the route to Chiang Rai via the Kok river sounds
pleasant. The bus ride up was at normal capacity for passengers, but
overbooked for packages, so those of us in the back got to sit with
them under our legs for three hours. The way onward sounds more
pleasant. There are some nice sounding raft trips, but I'm going to
go for speed and go with a small group via long tail, stopping off
along the way to visit a hot springs or maybe a village. The 'tour'
operator is very insistent on finding people to take her tours, but
they sound good, so off it is via boat.

Update: Now in Chiang Rai. The trip was pretty good, we didn't understand
what the boat driver was asking so we went practically straight through,
stopping only at the hot springs (developed and only vaguely intersting) and
a karen elephant villiage to look at and feed the tourist elephants.

Happy travels,
Matthew

Posted by MBlain at 12:00 AM | Comments (0)

November 07, 2001

bus fun

I just arrived in Chiang Mai after a day in Sukothai. So far I think I like
Sukothai better.

First, there's the trip there. From Khao San road ("the world's largest bus
station", I got a very overpriced bus--450 Bht to be stuffed in a van,
driven to the northern bus terminal, and have the driver attempt to get
tickets and put all the people on the right bus. Lots of freaked out people
because the driver didn't speak english well and wasn't explaining what he
was doing. But he was, people got put on buses. I was the only foreigner on
some random semi-local air conditioned bus which stopped in Sukothai. Before
the trip, the driver put fresh flowers on the rear view mirror and over the
top of the bus. On the bus were a number of bus company employees--driver,
some other person (along for the ride?), hostess to provide a drink and
snack at the start and to collect tickets. After a while, we picked up
another driver. By 3:30 AM or so we reached the Sukothai bus terminal--which
doesn't exist in any guidebook, it's brand new. So off on a random motorbike
taxi I went, anywhere he wanted to take me--not like I had a clue where I
was, or how to find someplace open. He took me to a guest house, rang the
bell, and someone came out in a towel to give me a crappy room. But hey, I
slept there, it was OK for two nights.

The day was much nicer, I went off to the Sukothai Historical Park. I headed
out with a German guy from the guesthouse, and on the saengthaew we met up
with two more people, one American (the first I've really talked to, and the
same for her too) and one Irish guy. We rented bicycles in the park, and
went riding around in the heat (40 in the sun). It's a beautiful place, the
first seat of a Thai government a long time ago (uh, I forget when). You
really do need transport to get around, since it's the remains of a city. We
visted a bunch, sat and talked for a long time, and went back to the new
city of Sukothai for dinner and drinks before parting.

Today I took the 11AM bus here to Chiang Mai. That's not air conditioned,
but at 50 mph, who cares. We got here before 5, argued (with a bunch of
other people from the bus--there a bunch of us this time), and took off in a
Saengthew for a guesthouse. Which had no single rooms, so I went around the
city looking for a place, and ended up in a bit of a dump. Tomorrow I will
find a nicer place, they are all full today. I hope to find a mosquito net
in the market tonight, I think I will need one.

Enough rambling, time for dinner.

Posted by MBlain at 12:00 AM | Comments (0)

November 03, 2001

caveat emptor

that's the rule of the game here. i now have a translucent blue cell phone
to throw in the bottom of my bag and also to deal with whatever comes up if
necessary. getting it was of course part of the fun.

the infamous MBK Center has a floor devoted to stuff. Imagine a cross
between a flea market (a big part of the floor is in fact pretty much that
setup) and, say the pike place underground. now imagine that half the shops
are devoted to selling and repairing mobile phone. what do you do with 300
mobile phone dealers? i have no idea. lacking additional info, and not
wanting to spend the day talking with people who speak little english, i
ended up at the first place i talked to trying to see if my old phone would
work. (yes, USA phones work in analog mode. my phone's probably been cloned
already. any number you dial results in some message in thai). of course the
place deals in cash, no receipts; the next day I was back, since the first
phone died already. but hey, I'm kind of memorable in this part of the
world, and they gave me a new (used) phone. give it a call, hopefully it
receives overseas calls (it can't dial them, and my calling card company
seems to have disconnected their thai number they day after i arrived). +66
(0) 9 993 9531.

this is pretty typical of bangkok. it's a very strange place. rich and poor
at the same time, though there seems to be little friction and it's a safe
place. but you know that under the covers there is something going on,
somewhere. i'm exhausted from walking around for hours every day, that's the
best form of transport here. in most cities, the bus is slow because it
stops a lot to pick up passengers. here, traffic is so slow that the bus
just opens the door near the stop, and you'll usually have plenty of time to
get to it (possibly going forwards, backwards, or even across a few lanes of
traffic) before traffic moves again.

until next time...

Posted by MBlain at 08:08 AM | Comments (0)