Time for a not so quick update from me!
So, the last circular that I sent out I was in Bankok, having just got back from a week on a palmy beach, lying in a hammock and eating banana pankakes. Our second stay was a lot less stressful, as we'd got more used to the place, and realised that the taxi cabs are cheaper & less hectic than those trazy tuk-tuks (a bit like a motorised rickshaw). This time we're taying a lot closer to the centre, and it's far easier to get right into the thick of it. We do some of the more touristy things stating at Wat Phra Kaew & the Grand Palace www.palaces.thai.net , an impressive sprawling complex that includes the temple of the emerald buddah, and royal palace buildings. Next up we check out Wat Po to see the famous temple of the reclining Buddah. The buddah is lying down having a nap and is absolutely massive- pretty awe inspiring.
In the evening we go to the MBK centre, which is basically a massive shopping centre, with some of the floors dedicated to specialist items like mobile phones. There is a cinema on the top floor there's a cinema, so we went to see "The Ring" (in English with Thai subtitles), and I really enjoyed it (although I found it quite scary). We went to the cinema again and saw "Catch Me if You Can", again in English with Thai subtitles. It's a true story, and as is the way with these films, it says in text at the end what happened to the main characters afterwards. Howvever, all this text was in Thai, so I never got to find out what happened - very frustrating!
Before we leave Bankok, there's one last thing that I have to do, and that is to buy a copy of 'Lord of the Rings', so that I'll have something to do during those long cold nights without a telly. I've wanted to read it since seeing the film, and it would be something that I wouldn't have the time or patience to do back home. The bookshops here are mostly secondhand, and charge prices that are pretty much the same as English ones, but eventually I was able to find a place and haggle with them (with Jo's help) to get them down to a price that was still massive in Thai terms, but not as bad as the price first quoted.
We then head North , on the way to Laos, and our main stop on the way is Chiang Mai, the former Capital of Thailand, and second main metropolis here. One of the main ways to get there is to take the overnight train from Bankok, which is what we do. It's a fairly weird experience - I don't think I've slept on an overnight train since I was i Canada when I was about 8. Anyway, it wasn't so bad - we were ripped off over a discusting breakfast, but that was about it. The highlight was seeing the countryside as we went pass, all manner of fields, farmers and water buffalos, and in the city, little shacks by the railway line, some without the full compliment of 4 walls, but most illuminated by the flicker of a television screen.
We arrive in Chaing Mai, and the guesthouse that we stay at instantly tries the hard sell on their 2 day trekking tour of the hill tribes. We decide against it, as we're not huge walkers, but I also have reservations about turning the Hilltribes people into a "human zoo". We decide to go on a 1 day tour instead with Piss Poo tours (its really called PSS tours, and is run by a lady named Poo). We have a lovely guide called Noi (which is a girls name, but he was the last of many boys in his familly, and his mum wanted a girl). We walk for a couple of hours into the hills in the countryside, over a rickety old bamboo bridge and eventually arrive at a Hmong tribe village. It is a village that is visited by several tour groups a day and was pretty commercialised - basically set up to cater for the tourists, with a little market, and a house turned into an exhibit, with everthing labeled in English. As such it was a little depressing.
Our next stop was at an elephant camp, and we stop to buy some bananas first. We arrive, and its an absolutely awesome sight, about a dozen elephants and their handlers milling about. I've always thought that elephants are very special, and to see them so close up was amazing. We feed them the bananas (they grip them with their trunk & then put them in their mouths - a bit like feeding a wet vacuum cleaner), and they get quite keen, advancing on us, which was pretty intimidating. We then have an hour long trek on the elephant, which was a unique experience for me, if a little uncomfortable (had a metal bar poking in my back). I was a little worried that the elephants wouldn't be treated very well, but all seemed to be ok. Our elephant handler just sat on its head, and was content to let the elephant mosey along the track, without needing to force it along.
After lunch, we visited a Karen hilltribe village, which was better than the first, the people didn't pay much attention to us, and we could admire their village, with their huts on stilts & pigs kept underneath them in our own time. After a stop at a waterfal, we had a raft down the river - it was a massive raft made of bamboo sticks tied togeter, and guided by the "captain" at the front with a bamboo pole. It was very relaxing down the flat bits & fun down the rapids.
When we get back to our hostel, we find that we can't stay there another night - they're not so friendly once they realise they've missed out on their chance to sell us a lucritive tour package. We're able to find anothe room without any bother though.
Chiang Mai, like most places in SE Asia it seems, has many fine temples and we visit a few of them. Fist, the ruined Wat Chedi Luang, which must have been spectacular in its time, but has since been damaged by earthquakes. While we're there, some young novice monks invite us to join "monk chat". This reminded me of a late night tv ad for a dating chat phone line - "Want to chat and date with monks who have similar interests to you? Come on join Monk chat oh-eight nine eight - 50 -50 -50. Monks are waiting to hear from you!" It was quite a fun experience chatting with them, and end up helping them with their English homework, although they seemed a little more interested in staring at Jo's boobs. We visit the Crystal Buddah at Wat Chiang Man and onto Wat Phra Singh, where a roomful of praying novice monks are once again distracted by Joanne. Later, we have an hour long Thai massage, but I wasn't too impressed, we're both a little bruised & sore that night.
We visit Wat Phra That Doi Suthep on top of the hill, overlooking Chaing Mai a little way out of town, we have to walk up lots of steps to get there, and everywhere people are ringing bells. It's very impressive, but I am distracted by the disproportionate number of old western men here with young Thai girls (and boys). You see quite a lot of that here, and it is a little stomouch churning at times. Indeed, we've seen quite a few transvestite ladyboys as well. They seem pretty accepted here, and indeed certain parts of the culture seem to celebrate them - they had a show on called 'Simons Dream' in Chiang Mai, and in the reviews of it, the reviewers openly addmitted to fancying them. Every night, there is a night bazare, selling lots of very cool cheap things. We have to restrain ourselves as we still have some ways to go yet & can't go lugging everything around on our backs.
There's a monkey farm in Chang Mai, where the tourists can go visit "monkies" (their spelling) being trained "to work on the farm", though quite how the skill of throwing a basketball through a hoop would be applied on a farm, I don't know. The animal welfare part of me forced me to avoid the show, but we instead went to Chaing Mai zoo, which I had heard some quite good things about. It's a big rambling zoo, with enclosures seemingly randomly scattered about, without giving the visitors a map or decent signs to follow, and I found that quite charming, turning around a corner and not knowing what you'd find - so oyu'd be constantly saying things like "Stone me that's a bloody big hippo". Some of the enclosures weren't great, and I saw some evidence of repetitive behaviour disorders, but by enlarge the welfare of the animals seemed pretty good (even by western standards). I saw some Asiatic Black Bears, which featured in a campaign that we had been working on when we were in WSPA http://www.wspa-international.org/site/index.php?page=44 , telling people about their cruel treatment when they are farmed for their bile in tiny cages in China. It was a pleasant change to see them in a healthy looking condition, although, better I suppose if they were still in the wild.
Next stop Laos! Pop fact: Following the American war in Vietnam, Loas had the dubious honour of being the most bombed country in history. We get a bus to Chiang Kong, and cross over the river to Hauy Xai in Laos. We pay a small corruption tax (apparently you have to pay this if you arrive in Laos on a day of the week that ends in 'y'), and then change some money for Laotian Kip. The biggest note is worth about 30p, so we end up with a massive wad of notes. I feel like 'loadsamoney'.
We take the slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang. We trundle down the river seeing the local people, fisherment, water buffalo, big rocks, other sunken boats, fast speed boats, fields, hills, hazy mists, forest, jungle & so on for 2 days. We stop overnight in Pak Beng, and stay in a very rustic guesthouse. The "bathroom" was a small cubicle with no roof over a hole in the ground. We'd been carrying "Rexona" body wipes around, in case we ever needed to freshen ourselves up, and here we were finally able to use them. The next day we continue down the river, and stop several times to service the local communty, loading and unloading rice, planks of wood, old ladies & monks. Stopping in these villages (most of which are still only accessible from river), seeing the houses, villagers & children made a wonderful change to the over-visited hill tribes on our one day trek. We stop at Pak Ou limestone caves http://www.laostravel.info/Cave/ , which contain a host of Buddah images, which were hidden away during the Vietnam War. When we are ready to continue on the journey, the driver of the boat demands some extra money from all the passengers for stopping there (although it is obvious he was stopping there anyway), and this sours the experience somewhat.
We arrive in Luang Prabang & have a hard time finding somewhere to stay (we get somewhere eventually). Laos is communist, but has been allowing private enterprise since 1990. It recently opened its doors to tourism to boost its ailing economy, but there is a strict limit on visas (which only last 15 days), as the infrastructure cannot cope with too many tourists. Eventually we find somewhere, and have a pleant time doing not an awful lot. This town is a world heritage site, on the basis of its well preserved french colonial charm. People tend to fall in love with it, without being entirely sure why. Its very rustic, with dirt roads, and not much traffick & chickens everywhere. We're woken every morning by the blasted things. We visit Phu Si, the pagoda on the top of the hill, where Jo frustrates the monks by thrying to find out why it is that they wear orange, and the Royal Palace Museum - the King's residence until 1975 when the new regime made him disappear.
Last night we went to the Royal theatre to see a traditional performance of dance, music and song, where they tell old stories and people are dressed up in bizzare costumes and masks. An aquired taste maybe, but it was nice to get an evening of culture. They finish with local tribal dances where they perform the amazing feat of picking up heavy jars filled with water with their teeth. Owch.
So thats my lot for now. I'm enjoying my time out here a lot more than I thought I would. We're off to Vientienne on Sunday.
All the best,