Thailand and Laos – Lots to Say!

6 10 2010

Phew, this is gonna be a big one – Seeing as how I can write a huge post just about 4 days in Burma, I imagine I could write several on my combined 22 days spent in Thailand and Laos! Fortunately for you, I’d rather spend my time travelling than writing a million blog posts, so I’m forced to distill it down to share the best stuff with you!

I’ve been in and out of these countries a bit – I entered into Thailand for the first time by train up from Butterworth in Malaysia, travelled there for 9 days, then left briefly when I went to Burma, then re-entered for a couple days to travel over to Laos, where I stayed for another 9 days, and am now back in Bangkok for another 2 days, where I’m resting and dealing with logistics before heading on to Cambodia tomorrow!

I’ll try to initially summarize each country in a paragraph, then lay out more details!:

Thailand: If I had to describe my Thailand experience in one phrase, I’d call it “The Land of Ups and Downs”. By that I’m referring to my general emotional mood, rather than anything necessarily quantitative about the country itself. I had some great times, some great meals, and met some great people, though at other times I was frustrated (by the constant hassling from touts, by the large numbers of stupid foreigners surrounding me, by the difficulty in navigation/understandings due to the non-Roman script, etc.), spent too much money, and/or was just generally starving! I think Thailand is definitely a place that requires time to integrate into, and its a place where, with time, you could either grow to increasingly love or increasingly hate. I could live here, but I think I’d rather not unless I was in a small village, if for no other reason that I just couldn’t stand to see how tourism has basically turned many parts of the country into Europe.

Laos: For me, Laos was probably what Thailand looked like 10 or 20 years ago – A very peaceful place with friendly people and good food, but with the black stain of foreign tourism edging ever closer to turning the place into Thailand #2. While my Laos experience was pretty much totally positive (and the country reminded me of Burma, which was great!), I fear for its future, as the main cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane are already pretty disgustingly Europe-like.

Now, I’m sure my comments have already inflamed a few of you who may have travelled to these places and may be thinking, “What’s he on about?! Luang Prabang was beautiful and full of cute little boutique shops, nice restaurants with English menus, and comfortable hotels!”

See the problem with that statement yet?

The more I travel, the more adamant I become about living / interacting as closely as possible to the way a low/middle-income local would live (minus the home cooking, obviously, since I have no home!). Sleeping in “grungy” guesthouses where the local man running it sleeps next door, eating basically all my meals at street stalls or cheap eateries frequented only by locals (I’ve only been minorly ill once so far), not wasting large amounts of money on alcohol or souvenirs, and taking a lot of time to learn the local language and customs. In short, when I’m in Thailand, I act like a Thai – I eat street noodles, wear long pants, don’t point my feet at anyone, take off my shoes before entering homes, refrain from criticisms or public anger, open all conversations in Thai and attempt to slip in as many words as I know with simple, apologetic English, etc. etc.

This isn’t to say I’m a perfect traveller, but simply to allow me to justify why I can speak negatively about Thailand and Laos, because many of the places I visited in these countries are both playing a role in promoting – and falling victim to – the childish demands for such ridiculous things as Western food and Western comforts from far too many tourists. While I certainly crave a pizza every now and again (though haven’t indulged yet), “money talks”, as they say, and whenever a tourist spends money on engaging in a Western interest, that is one less dollar spent on something local, meaning that there is more incentive for more local people to open businesses that cater to Western interests, rather than local interests. This is why you can walk down a street in Chiang Mai, stop, look around, and not actually see anything unfamiliar or ‘foreign’: travel outfitter, Western pub with soccer on the tv, coffee shop, souvenir shop, Western-style restaurant, etc. ad nauseum. It is cultural erosion, plain and simple, being replaced by the virus of Western culture, which is, in my opinion, the only culture in the world that actually *needs* erosion. And, of course, since there’s more money it it, it can all look glitzier and more attractive to locals as well, meaning that the richer ones fall all over it (which was also my observation in the Philippines) and suddenly liking Western things is a status symbol.

And its not even good, objectively speaking! For example, a couple times in Laos I managed to find baguette sandwich shops who made sandwiches for locals, not tourists, and they were some of the most delicious sandwiches I’ve had, whereas the typical Western-style ones, which are so deeply permeated into the culture now that even locals buy them, were generally exactly what you’d expect them to be – pretty shitty! (Context: because of French colonization of Laos many years ago, the baguette stuck around and is used for the hugely popular sandwiches seen being sold in tourist areas / bus stations / etc.)

So, rant aside, let’s talk about what I actually did in these places!

In Thailand, coming up by train from Butterworth, I saw the cities of Hua-Hin and Phetchaburi, then continued north by train to Bangkok, then north by train to the historic cities of Ayutthaya and Sukothai/Phitsanulok, then by train again north to Chiang Mai, followed by buses to Chiang Rai and Mae Sai (where I crossed into Burma). After crossing back in at Mae Sai, I checked out Chiang Saen and the Golden Triangle before leaving again for Laos via Chiang Kong, where you cross the Mekong in a small boat to get to the Laotian town of Huay Xai. From there I caught “the slow boat” (2 day lazy cruise down the Mekong) to Luang Prabang, after which I continued by buses to Phonsanvanh, Vang Vieng, and Vientiane. I then caught the train back down to Bangkok, where the train leaves for Cambodia (I would’ve proceeded south through Laos to Cambodia, but I bought the Cambodian visa already online and it is not valid at that crossing, apparently!).

Hua-Hin had a nice beach, so was super touristy and I continued immediately on to Phetchaburi – where I spent my first night, discovered a local state fair and met some friendly local girls who taught me some Thai, showed me a delicious meat/leaf-wrap dish, and let me ride the tilt-a-whirl with their little siblings! Continuing to Bangkok, I couchsurfed at the tiny apartment of this local Thai girl, who was also hosting like 4 other surfers at the same time! It was cool though, as I re-met a couple super nice French guys I had met a couple days earlier on the Butterworth train and also met a nice Australian guy who established an NGO in Laos that is working to produce an affordable and easy-to-make water filter for Lao villagers – I met up with him again in Vientiane and he showed me his work (Check out: www.abundantwater.org – Its good stuff!). Bangkok itself was like Manila – big, polluted, and with lots of traffic, though with the difference being that Bangkok actually has some nice sights! Some absolutely amazing temples, a big river and smaller canals running through it (the “Venice” of SE Asia, they say), and some nice parks and palaces. However, it was brutally difficult to navigate (maps distributed don’t show the small streets and even many of the main streets aren’t labelled with street signs) and had a major lack of readily identifiable street food (as did all of Thailand and Laos):

Here’s an aside for my Thai food rant: Everyone in North America likes to talk about how good Thai food is, but, honestly, I’ve never been more culinarily frustrated than here. Oh sure, the curries and pad thai is great – but a) you can’t actually find that anywhere in Thailand outside of the aforementioned “Europe” areas, and b) maybe even if it was available – Thai street food stalls basically rely on you knowing all the different possible food permutations – as there are never menus / cooked food readily visible and the stalls simply will consist of a cart with wok and a pile of fresh/raw vegetables / meat / noodles – all separated. The problem, of course, is that these ingredients can be combined in eight zillion different ways, so you really never know what they’re capable of making, and without knowing the names of any of the dishes, its difficult to request stuff too. This usually resulted me in just looking for a stall with a pile of noodles and pointing to them, and, crazily enough, I’d usually always get the exact same dish, which was depressing! The other main street food was meat/fishballs on sticks, which was served in a million different places a million different ways (seriously), but, for me, it was always just a meatball on a stick – boring after the first try. The only times I really had great and variable Thai meals was when I met expats or locals who could recommend things to me. This comes back to my statement early on about how Thailand is a place that would require time to integrate into – there’s just no real way of figuring out the street food unless you read the Thai script and /or learn about every Thai dish possible! Needless to say, I probably lost weight here, which I’m totally bummed about!

Back to the travel:  After Bangkok it was up to Ayutthaya and Sukothai – two very nice small towns where there are a lot of really old, crumbling temples scattered around (pics do them justice more than words), and then up to Chiang Mai, a.k.a. Europe. I’m REALLY GLAD I didn’t go to the Southern Islands of Thailand after seeing Chiang Mai (both these areas are two huge guidebook favourites, Southern Islands slightly moreso). While I knew it’d be touristy, I didn’t think the entire downtown core (an area surrounded by  a moat) would consist of English-labelled stores selling Western-ish / Thai-lite things. You had get far away from there before you found real markets and real locals, which I of course did 🙂  While there, I rented a motorcycle and drove up to Doi Suthep mountain – where a big temple and a couple hill tribe villages are located (those said hill tribes were basically just souvenir stands and jaded locals who wouldn’t even return your smile – a rarity in Thailand!). I also did a day-long cooking school, mainly because I was so frustrated in not being able to eat good Thai food that I figured I had to just cook it myself (and it was delicious!). From Chiang Mai, I headed to Burma – spending a few hours in Chiang Rai on the way (a couple nice temples and a decent market where I met some locals over a bowl of soup!) and a night in Mae Sai – the border town that was basically just a big market on one street.

After Burma, I spent a night at Chiang Saen – a small town whose main attraction is the nearby “Golden Triangle” – the place where Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos are all bordered together in a triangle along the Mekong River. It was a nice place, though I spent the night being rather feverish, having caught my first and only case of minor food poisoning that I’ve had since leaving North America 7 months ago. Luckily I had enough strength the next day to head on to Chiang Kong, another one street town where I ate yogurt and toast to recover myself before heading out the next day for the slow boat to Luang Prabang!

The slow boat ride was incredibly beautiful – sailing along in a nice wooden boat past tiny villages, stunning intact forests, and cool misty shorelines. It would have been a perfect experience if not for the 15 or so drunken Western brats onboard who decided that being loud and obnoxious was a better option than scenery watching! Do I sound like an old man yet? I feel like one sometimes, or, would at least like to be considered as one, given how shamefully some youth my age tend to act!

I knew Luang Prabang would be small, but given how much I’d heard about it, I was shocked to discover just *how* small! Vehicle traffic was practically nonexistent and I could walk across the whole town, including local suburbs (i.e. the most interesting places!), in probably under an hour if moving quickly. While I certainly enjoyed its peacefulness, there was still no denying that the entire downtown core has already been converted to Europe, though here at least it still had a non-agressive feel about it that could make that sin slightly more forgiveable! I spent several hours at the hostel I stayed at talking to the local caretakers, where I learned a tonne of Lao words, which really helped me for the rest of my time there.

After LP, I went a bit off the trail to Phonsavanh – in Eastern Laos and one of its most heavily bombed provinces (in case you’re not aware, Laos is the most heavily bombed country on Earth, thanks entirely to illegal US bombing of it during the Vietnam War), where there exists an interesting “Stonehenge”-like area called the Plain of Jars, which are thought to be burial urns. I took a day tour of the area with a reputable guide, who also brought us to an old cave used as a hospital during the war and to a hill and field that were still littered with UXO (unexploded ordnance) (while UXO clearance is ongoing, its a huge job that will likely take 100+ years at the current rate – just as with the environment, its easy to make a big mess, but hard to clean it up!). Neatly enough, I also met an American guy here who happened to be the guy who had posted a whole bunch of useful information on the Lonely Planet forum about Burma that I had relied on before I went there – so we spent lots of time talking about how great it was! 🙂

I then headed on to Vang Vieng, a really beautiful town along the river and mountains with a tonne of caves to explore. Unfortunately, the backpacker crowd decided it was also going to be the “party town” and the place was filled with scantily clad rivergoers who were there to go river tubing (the big draw) and drink. I, of course, stayed far away from there – staying and helping out at an organic farm I had discovered on the internet before I left. I fed goats (used for milk) and spent an evening with an expat at a local school teaching English to some Thai kids under their “Talk to a Farang” program. I also got invited to a birthday party of one of the Thai farm workers, where we all ate and drank merrily, and the next day I rented a motorcycle to explore the countryside and caves. Scarily enough, many of the caves were open to exploring by yourself – though each had a guy outside selling an entry ticket and giving out a flashlight. I went through 3 of them, 2 big cavern-like ones and 1 that was a long underground river that you had to wade through – I never saw a single person in any of them, so it was decidedly creepy and obviously a bit dangerous, though I’d like to hope that the guy at the front of each would have eventually come to investigate had I gone missing or something!

Finally, it was on to Vientiane, a city filled with NGOs driving spotless white SUVs and probably not actually doing much good for the country. I was particularly disgusted to come across the absolute palace that was the World Vision building – complete with gold-leaf fencing, multiple security guards, and tonnes of fancy cars in the parking lot. Seriously, what the hell? And yes, that *is* donor money, according to Sunny, the cool guy I had met earlier in Bangkok that started his own NGO there in Vientiane (and whose office consists of a shipping container in the backyard of an auto repair shop – yes!). Again, like Luang Prabang, the city was quite touristy, but I still managed, as I always do, so find some local street stalls and areas where my presence drew surprise, rather than feelings of opportunity! I spent less time there than I would have liked, which applies to Laos on the whole – I could definitely live in Laos, especially if I was making the salary of those World Vision guys! Haha.

Anyways, this has been a HUGE post and I’ve spent like 5 hours in this internet cafe, so I’ll end it here. Unfortunately, I’m really hungry and don’t have time to upload photos today, but I’ll make sure the next post of photos follows within the week and will be totally devoid of words! Thanks for reading, as always 🙂

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