A Travellerspoint blog

Right at home on Koh Lanta

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I can see that the Laos updates got a little bit out of control, length-wise anyway, so I will try to be a bit more brief this time.

I last wrote about our stay in Vang Vieng, Laos. We wrapped up our tour of Laos in Vientiane, a three-hour bus ride from Vang Vieng. Vientiane might have impressed us had we seen it first, but it was something of a disappointment after Luang Prabang. We made the most of the fresh baguettes, French pastries, good coffee and red wine, but otherwise struggled to understand the appeal. Vientiane seemed somewhat indefinable, not quite a city but more than a town, quaint enough in its architecture and French heritage yet suffering from the same depressing traffic and air pollution problems as most Asian cities. There were no doubt some interesting temples worth visiting, but we were feeling “all templed out,” so to speak, and couldn’t muster the interest (to say nothing of the kids and their level of interest). We had planned ahead of time to pay a few dollars to use the pool at a more expensive hotel, but when we dropped by to case it out a day ahead of time, we were greeted by something more closely resembling a swamp – green, murky and foul. Moving along, we dropped by another posh place to try our luck and found a beautiful pool that we could use if we were willing to part with $50 for the experience. (We weren’t.)

Abandoning the swimming plan, we decided on something a little out of the ordinary: bowling. Yes, we actually stumbled upon bowling lanes as we were strolling around the city, and further investigation revealed that the place was open, empty except for one rowdy group of Lao teenagers, and could lend us shoes and sell us socks. The catch was that it was 10-pin bowling with those giant balls, which the kids found a bit difficult to manage at first. As they lurched towards the starting line with three fingers embedded in the massive ball, I could hear the twinkle-toes sound effects from The Flintstones playing in my head, and kept picturing Fred Flintstone’s cartoon toes dancing down the lane. It was a strange but entertaining experience all round, and kept us busy for the better part of an hour.

Later that same afternoon we decided there was no point sticking around Vientiane for an additional day, as originally planned, so we cancelled our third night at the Vayakorn Guesthouse in favour of heading across the Thai border a day early. We had been staying right next to a branch of Monument Books, so the last order of business in Vientiane was to buy Chloe and Ciaran each a few new French books (none to be found here in Thailand), then sell the stack they’d finished at a second-hand bookshop. With that accomplished, we packed up and left.

Getting back across the border to Thailand was a breeze compared to entering Laos. We grabbed a tuk-tuk to the immigration post at the Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge, completed the necessary paperwork, hopped on a shuttle across the bridge, got stamped back into Thailand on the other side, and hired another tuk-tuk to our guesthouse, Mut Mee, in Nong Khai, a friendly, laid-back border town.

It happened to be Halloween that day, and as luck would have it, the Western owner of the guesthouse, Julian, has two sons (with his Thai wife) who looked to be about 12 and 14 years old. They were spending the afternoon cutting Halloween decorations out of orange and black poster board for a party the guesthouse would be hosting that night out on a floating bar nearby (Nong Khai is right next to the Mekong River). The kids spent hours making decorations, then turned to creating their costumes. Chloe decided to go as a vampire, wearing several of Charlotte’s black items and creating long, pointy black fingernails for herself out of black poster board. Ciaran was a bat, with two huge wings fashioned out of massive banana leaves that we tied to his back and arms. The party started too late for Ciaran to make it, but Chloe and I headed down to the floating bar around 9 p.m. to see what was going on. It was decidedly not for children – she was the only one there under the age of 18 until Julian’s kids showed up a bit later – but she had a blast anyway, chatting up the bartender and snacking on a bowl of gummy worms.

We spent two days in Nong Khai before flying south to Thailand’s northern Andaman coast, landing in Krabi. The next day we were on a ferry to the island of Koh Lanta, where we’re now staying in a bungalow on Khlong Dao Beach (known as Long Beach because it’s two kilometres long). So far nothing terribly eventful has happened, but that’s just fine for now. The beach is beautiful, the people are friendly and the bungalow is both perfect and reasonably priced: $40 for a large, air-conditioned room with a big fridge, hot shower, plenty of storage for everyone’s stuff and a verandah overlooking the pool—breakfast included. On a trip to the nearest town today, we stocked up on beer, yogourt, Pringles and Oreos to keep the food costs reasonable. We’re contemplating staying right where we are for a couple of weeks.

Posted by The Rymans 07:48 Archived in Thailand Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

Biking, caving and swimming in Vang Vieng

And wishing we had more time to spend here as well!

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You know you’ve been in Asia too long when you throw all caution to the wind, rent a motorcycle, get on it (no helmets) with your six-year-old, and drive around all day on rocky roads.

Not me, that is—I have no idea how to drive a motorcycle—but Mark. Ciaran has been begging and pleading with us for a motorbike ride ever since he first encountered swarms of them in Bali, where he also got his first brief taste of riding one. Vang Vieng is exactly the kind of place that would make you cave in to such demands. It’s quite a small town—spectacularly scenic, surrounded by mountains—with very little traffic, and in any case our plan was to get off the pavement and bike down a dirt road for 10 kilometres to Phou Kam cave, a massive, awe-inspiring cave so large you need a guide to show you around for fear of becoming lost inside one of its many rooms. As in Luang Prabang and elsewhere in Asia, we couldn’t find a bike Ciaran’s size and Mark was going to have to pedal him around anyway. It struck us that maybe this was Ciaran’s lucky day, and the two of them could go by motorbike while the rest of us cycled.

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Our original plan had been to spend the day tubing, the activity Vang Vieng is most widely known for. The Nam Song River, along which the town is centered, is surprisingly clean. Travellers rent tractor-tire inner tubes and spend half a day drifting lazily down the river, being pulled in with bamboo poles from time to time by locals selling cold BeerLao. It sounded fabulous to me, so our plan was to see the cave in the morning, return for lunch, and go tubing in the afternoon.

But as it turned out, getting to the cave was quite the undertaking, and turned into an all-day event. Our bikes—not mountain bikes or even hybrids, but the usual heavy, gearless, brakeless Laos specials—handled the rocky, gravely uphill road with some difficulty. Charlotte was managing beautifully and I was okay, but Chloe was grumbling and complaining most of the way, stopping frequently to walk her bike through particularly rocky sections, banging her ankles into her bike after swerving unexpectedly, cutting herself on the bike a few times. The ride that we figured would take half an hour had taken an hour already and we weren’t even halfway there.

It was near the halfway point, actually, when Charlotte noticed that she had lost the key to her bicycle lock somewhere. It was the kind of lock that is attached directly to the bike’s rear wheel so that when the lock is engaged, the wheel doesn’t turn. Poking around to search for the key, she somehow managed to lock the bike—and we had no way to unlock it. Mark and Ciaran took off on their motorbike to look for the key at places where we’d stopped along the way, but returned after some time to say they’d had no luck. Fortunately for us, although we were out in the middle of what looked like nowhere, on a dirt road bounded by rice paddies, farms and the occasional bamboo shack, we happened to be standing right in front of a painted wooden sign advertising bicycle and motorbike repairs. The shop owner was not able to unlock the lock, but after a few tries he did manage to simply remove the entire apparatus from the wheel. That would later cost Charlotte $5, but the good news was that we could continue our trip.

Reaching the cave more than two hours after we’d left Vang Vieng, the first thing we noticed was a wide, deep stream at the foot of it known as The Blue Lagoon. A ladder had been built from the ground to a tree branch hanging high over the lagoon, perfect for jumping—and there were rope swings, tubes to rent, a food shack, and little bamboo shelters with mats for relaxing. Just spectacular.

Promising the kids we’d spend time at the lagoon after seeing the cave, we hired a guide, rented some headlamps and began the steep ascent to its entrance. It wasn’t more than a 15-minute climb, but the last third was steep enough to require the use of a bamboo handrails on both sides of the trail—you sort of had to haul your body along. Although Charlotte managed this beautifully, Mark was a bundle of nerves about it, worried she would slip and hurt herself seriously. The owner of our hotel had recommended wearing flip-flops to visit the cave due to the pools of water inside. But flip-flops were certainly not the ideal footwear for the climb, nor for clambering over the slippery rocks inside the cave. Of course, all five of us had worn our flip-flops on this advice, so the hike seemed like an accident waiting to happen—if not a broken neck then at least a turned ankle. Mark harangued his mother about being careful all the way to the top and deep into the cave until we reached a golden reclining Buddha statue on a type of altar.

There, Charlotte decided to call a halt to the cave exploring and said she would sit down and wait for us. We continued with our guide on what turned into at least a half-hour of wandering around inside the massive cave. At times the ceilings looked to be as high as 80 feet above us. We saw bats hanging, giant spiders, little red crabs. At one point when we were deep inside the cave, the guide asked us all to turn our headlamps off. We found ourselves in pitch blackness, completely disoriented. The kids found this all marvellously spooky and started to pretend they were characters in a Scooby-Doo episode. I wasted no time pointing out that maybe this was the perfect Halloween activity and would suffice to replace the trick-or-treating that we would not be doing. I wasn’t sure this suggestion was going to meet with anyone’s approval, so I was amazed when the kids agreed.

Climbing and skidding back down the trail outside the cave, we thanked our guide and moved on to the blue lagoon, where we spent a fabulous hour or two swinging on ropes, jumping from the tree and floating around in the inner tube.

The bike ride back late in the afternoon was easier, since it was somewhat downhill. The only mishap occurred when Charlotte coasted to a stop to see where the rest of us were, but couldn’t put both feet on the ground, so toppled sideways into a barbed-wire fence. It took some time to get her unhooked, but she was otherwise unhurt and handled the whole thing with her usual sense of humour. Everyone agreed that we’d had a much better adventure with our cave-and-lagoon day than we would have had just tubing down the Nam Song, so I suppose it was a serendipitous choice.

We would have loved to spend more time in this spectacularly scenic, slow-moving place, but we have hotels and flights booked elsewhere so it’s time to move on. We’ll be on a bus to the capital, Vientiane, later this afternoon, and after a few days there will be heading down to an island in southern Thailand.

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Posted by The Rymans 20:53 Archived in Laos Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

In Luang Prabang

And wishing we had several more days here!

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On our first evening in Luang Prabang, recovering from the arduous journey there from Thailand, we did little other than enjoy our beer and pizza and flirt briefly with the night market on our way home. But the next morning we headed straight up to the main street to rent bicycles for the day—just $1.50 each. Ciaran rode on the back of Mark’s since we couldn’t find one his size (a recurring theme in this trip, it seems), and we managed to explore most of the old city this way, making a loop around it by following the water. We were dazzled by the town’s attractiveness. It just has charm in spades—everywhere we looked that morning, we saw meandering river, cobblestone sidewalks, makeshift cafes with their plastic tables out on terraces at the river’s edge, old colonial buildings, monks, children playing and riding bicycles, fresh coconuts for sale. We rode for several hours before deciding we needed a break, at which point we stopped for baguette sandwiches (and in my case, one fabulous iced latte) at a café back on the main street.

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The next day we decided to hire a songthaew to take us to Kuang Si waterfall about 35 kilometres away. I had my doubts about whether or not the trip would be worth it, since we don’t seem to have a lot of luck with waterfalls. For example, back in Munduk, Bali, we spent most of one day on an unguided trek in search of waterfalls (they were the main point of the trek). We managed to get lost after finding just one that was not terribly impressive, and spent most of the rest of that day wandering around in the forest, hot and thirsty. In Malaysia, we were promised a waterfall as part of an excursion we had signed up for—and we did see one, but we had forgotten to pack all the bathing suits, so we had to sit by the side of the water sweating while everyone else jumped in. In Thailand, we paid a fair amount of money to see the famous seven-tiered Erawan falls, where normally it’s possible to swim at gorgeous pools in several different areas. We arrived a few days after torrential downpours had turned the entire waterfall brown and frothy (it’s usually turquoise and inviting). The water looked like chocolate milk, and the falls were so swollen and powerful that we were not even allowed all the way up to the top of them. We gazed mournfully at signs inviting swimmers to take a dip, or warning them not to dive.

Watefall, shmaterfall, I was thinking—but as luck would have it, these falls were stunningly beautiful, with natural swimming areas at several levels. The water was emerald, clear and bracingly cold, and we managed to remember to bring bathing suits. The first thing we noticed was that if you took too long getting in, fish would nibble at your feet. That made it pretty easy to plunge right in despite the temperature.

Strangely, the waterfall area also houses a bear sanctuary (run by Free the Bears of Australia), so the kids had a close-up look at half a dozen unexpectedly playful Asiatic black bears, known as moon bears, who made good use of their facilities, swinging in hammocks, climbing trees, perching on treetops and rising up on their hind legs to swat at each other. These bears are generally all rescued as orphaned cubs when their mothers are poached or shot by hunters keen to sell their parts in China, where apparently there is demand for bear bile and bear paw soup.

There was a bit of drama on the way home. After we’d piled into the tuk-tuk and driven maybe 15 minutes down the highway, we came across an accident. A woman driving a motorcycle while carrying an infant in a sling and managing a four-year-old on the seat with her had somehow veered off the road and crashed in a shallow ditch. There was a man helping her out; he had a motorcycle as well, so it was unclear to us whether he was part of the accident or had just stopped to help her out. He flagged us down and, using some basic words and body language, indicated that she had broken her collarbone and should be taken to the hospital.

Broken collarbone and all, she managed to climb into the back of the truck with her baby still in its sling while we helped her older child board. It was a strange ride after that, since clearly she spoke no English and we spoke no Lao. She seemed to be in a mild state of shock, and was for the most part expressionless except for a handful of times when she adjusted the sling and pointed to her neck, grimacing slightly. It was one of those times when we really wished we knew a few more words. We arrived at the hospital, and the driver seemed to want to assure us that he would only be in there with her a few moments. Meanwhile, we were at pains to convince him that we were in no hurry at all and would be happy to wait as long as it took. We also wondered if the woman would need money for the hospital, but couldn’t ask that either. In the end, the driver reappeared less than five minutes after escorting the woman into the hospital, and that was the last we saw of any of them.

We had intended to visit a scenic bridge and at least one temple on our last day in Luang Prabang, but the rest of the afternoon was quickly eaten up by school work, foot scrubs and writing. By the time we left the hotel again, the temple was closed for the day and darkness was falling. We left the kids with Charlotte and set out for the bridge anyway, eventually reaching it after a few wrong turns. It was worth the trip; there are no cars allowed, just motorcycles and bicycles, and there’s a walkway for pedestrians on each side. The walkway is made of creaky slats of wood (through which you can see the river fifty feet below) finished off with a low metal fence on the side, and crossing it in the near-darkness was an eerie experience. On our way home, we passed by a most unusual sight: a makeshift skateboard park on the concrete grounds of what seemed to be a school or other community building. We finished off our final evening in Luang Prabang with dinner at our favourite restaurant (Khmu) and one last trip to the market to pick up a duvet cover I’d asked two women to sew for me.

I didn’t want to leave Luang Prabang without seeing the early morning procession of monks collecting alms, so I set our alarms for 6 a.m. and shook both kids awake to see it as well. I don’t think they appreciated it as much as I did, but it was one of those unforgettable experiences, like watching the people of Hanoi wake up and exercise outdoors before the city comes to life: some 270 saffron-robed monks, barefoot, silent and carrying begging bowls, walk down the small street our hotel faces each morning around 6 to collect food from local people who kneel on bamboo mats or sit on folding chairs. As the monks go by, these people reach into giant bamboo rice containers repeatedly, giving each monk one handful of cooked sticky rice. At this time of the day the city, already sleepy at its busiest, is incredibly peaceful. What I really loved was that it was a chance to witness something real rather than staged. Unlike the artificial “five-tribe villages” in Thailand that have been set up to make it easier for tourists to visit ethnic hilltribes (kind of like human zoos, unfortunately), this is just a routine thing that the monks do every day out of a combination of necessity and tradition.

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The necessity part is a bit of a mystery to me, actually; the whole idea behind the saffron robes and lack of shoes is that monks have presumably renounced material goods to devote themselves to the study of Buddhism and pursuit of enlightenment. In theory at least, they’re not supposed to own much more than a begging bowl. But every now and then you spot one somewhere in town (not just in Luang Prabang, but anywhere in Laos or Thailand) with a cell phone or sometimes even a digital camera. They often carry umbrellas for sun protection as well. It’s likely that not all monks are taking their studies quite as seriously as others. In Thai tradition, every man is supposed to spend at least three weeks being a monk at some point in his life. Some will decide to continue longer, possibly a lifetime, while others will decide they’ve put in their three weeks and are moving on. We were told by the owner of our hotel in Luang Prabang that boys as young as 7 or 8 can become monks. So it’s likely that some novices are taking the monk business more seriously than others.

When the last monk had disappeared down the street, we packed, went for breakfast, and boarded a tuk-tuk to the bus station, where we got on the bus that would take us to our next stop: Vang Vieng, about six hours away, mostly up and down a tortuously winding, terrifying road through mountains. The bus looked ordinary enough, but performed some feats of engineering that were anything but ordinary, such as managing hairpin turns that seemed to me to be calling out for the long, unwieldy bend itself in half. Luckily, I had doled out Gravol to both kids half an hour before the trip. They seemed impervious to the many dips, rises, twists and turns. But two hours into the trip I was digging into the Gravol bottle again for Charlotte, while Mark coped by closing his eyes and leaning his head against the seat in front of him. This was also the route that was until recently known for shootings and banditry, so there was really nothing relaxing about it.

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To top it off, Ciaran turned tornado on me at one point when his Nintendo DS wasn’t cooperating: I suggested he take a break and have a nap, so he slapped me. I snatched his Nintendo and closed it, and he went psycho because he wanted to turn the power off first so as not to drain the battery power. The long and the short of it is that ultimately I decided to punish both of us by removing his DS privileges for the rest of the long, long bus ride (at this point there were still four hours to go). Not pretty…but we survived, and Vang Vieng is beautiful. More on that next time.

Posted by The Rymans 20:28 Archived in Laos Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Loving Laos

Warning....this got a little bit long and I haven't cut it down!

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Well, here it is finally: the picturesque little Asian town we’ve all been waiting for. Luang Prabang is just the right size—big enough to offer some sophistication and small enough that locals and travellers alike can (and do) still drive bicycles down the main road. Not just any old bicycles, mind you, but those iconic ones you might have associated with a leafy Vietnamese boulevard thirty years ago: long handlebars curving upwards, wire mesh basket mounted in the front and often a family member or two double riding.

The low-key streets are lined with two-storey buildings in rows, with storefronts and cafes on the bottom and colourful shuttered windows on top. Every morning at dawn, hundreds of monks from a nearby Buddhist temple stroll past the lane that our guesthouse fronts, barefoot and saffron-clad, collecting alms offered by the many local residents kneeling on the sidewalk. The French influence is evident everywhere, from the architecture to the fresh baguettes to the good wines found easily in restaurants throughout the old part of the city.

You have to love a place where the beer is sold mainly in quarts for $1 each. BeerLao, it’s called here, and Mark and I have gone from sharing one each day to managing one each.

Even the night market here operates at a pace that seems lethargic next to those in Thailand—plenty of room for everyone, prices that are only slightly inflated, merchants who are relaxed and approachable, and the whole thing packs up by 10 p.m. The streets are clean, the sewers are covered, the spa services are cheap and the people are warm and genuine.

Possibly the reason for all of this is that Laos is only just emerging from its reputation as a destination best left to intrepid travellers willing to brave all-too-likely air and road accidents to get here and prepared to live with scarce health care, endemic malaria, sketchy food hygiene and highway bandits once they arrive.

When you get here the way we did—via slow boat from the Thai border—it seems truly amazing that this town exists at all. The slow boat trip takes 16 hours and is done over two days, since the boats don’t use lights and can’t travel overnight. During the first long eight-hour day of motoring down the Mekong, we saw scarcely any signs of life at all—just the odd tiny village here and there tucked into the abundant greenery, really no more than a scattering of greying, thatch-roofed bamboo shacks on stilts with laundry drying in the sun. The second day was more of the same. The scenery was absolutely spectacular, with mountains in many shades of green for backdrop and then sandbars, rocky cliffs and limestone karsts closer up, with the occasional group of three or four water buffalo or collection of small naked children bathing.

But enough of the romance. I suspect another reason this place is as yet so unspoiled by tourism is that it’s bloody difficult to get here. There are several choices, but none are particularly appealing. From Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai in northern Thailand, the only airline we could have flown with is Laos Airlines, which is famous for poor maintenance and fatal mishaps. There was no bus going here from Thailand, and there are no trains at all. (From a different part of Thailand in the northeast, it is possible to cross into Laos via the Friendship Bridge at Vientiane, but then you’re still nine hours away by bus from Luang Prabang.) For us, the only credible choice was the slow boat, which travels some 300 kilometres down the Mekong from the Thailand-Laos border to Luang Prabang.

At first, the slow boat seems a straightforward enough option. Agents in both Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai sell package tickets that include a Thai minivan to the border town of Chiang Khong, the ferry crossing to Huay Xai, which is the Lao town on the other side of the river, and slow boat tickets from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. The package includes a boxed lunch for the first day.

What it doesn’t include: overnight guesthouse accommodation in Pakbeng—the Lao town at the midway point of the slowboat trip—or any meals after the boxed lunch. Once you’re in Laos, you’re on your own.

Our trip began a few days ago in Chiang Rai, when a driver picked us up from our hotel at 6:30 a.m. for the trip to border at Chiang Khong. We were surprised that he seemed to have no tickets or any kind of documentation for us, but he indicated that he would deliver us to someone else in Chiang Khong who would see us through the next step. The two-hour journey was completely uneventful, with everyone far too tired from the 5:45 a.m. wake-up to chat or observe all the dogs lying around on the white line down the middle of the highway. Both kids were asleep for most of the trip.

Arriving in Chiang Khong, we were still a bit sleepy and surprised when our driver told us to carry our bags up a steep set of concrete steps to a restaurant across the street from the immigration office, where apparently a woman would have instructions for us on what to do next. Without giving us tickets, paperwork or advice of any kind, he drove off.

The woman running the restaurant handed us immigration and visa application forms together with a list of visa prices for various nationalities. The list was a black-and-white, dog-eared photocopy that appeared to bear a stamp of approval from the Laos government.

Canadians do for some reason have to pay quite a bit more than other nationalities for a Lao visa: $42 compared to about $30 for Americans. But I wasn’t expecting (or budgeting for) the $70 that appeared on her list. Neither Mark nor I understood, either, why we should be applying and paying for Lao visas on the Thai side of the border. The woman spoke limited English—just slightly better than our pretty much non-existent Thai—so we were communicating mainly through gestures, facial expressions and one-word sentences. I started suspecting a visa scam right away, but it was unclear to us whether or not we were stuck with this woman and her system because of our package deal. We started filling in all the forms, but as soon as mine were finished, I ran across the street and got in line at the departures window at the Thai immigration building. I asked the official there whether or not we could get visas on the Laos side, and if so, how much they should cost. He told me we could indeed get them on the other side for $30 to $40.

I told the customs officer about the little scheme going on across the street, then went back and told Mark as well. We let the woman know that we’d be getting our visas ourselves on the other side, and proceeded down the hill towards the river with our bags.

Now when I say “with our bags,” it’s interesting to understand what I mean by that. Back in Chiang Mai, Mark decided one day to stack up all the books we’ve been lugging around so we could get a fun visual of just how much we’re carrying and why it’s all so heavy. The leaning tower of books was a good four feet tall. It was smaller before Charlotte arrived, but we had asked her to bring a number of books from home and when she arrived, we still had not finished with the ones we had planned on giving away. Here's a look at what we've got:

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If there was ever a time to travel light, it was probably this trip down the Mekong. But there we were, carrying between the five of us two children’s backpacks, two enormous adult backpacks, two cross-body bags containing the laptop, camera and other essentials, Chloe’s purse, two cloth bags with snacks and water for the trip, and Charlotte’s bags, which consisted of one large wheeled suitcase, a smaller wheeled suitcase, a daypack and a purse.

We lugged this all down to the visa office where I’d made my initial inquiry so that we could get stamped out of Thailand. The first four of us had no problems, but there seemed to be a snag with Charlotte’s paperwork—something to do with an incomplete departure card. Rather than explaining the problem to her and handling it right away, the official merely put her passport aside and moved on to deal with the people in line behind her. From where we stood, sweating and sagging under the weight of our ridiculous backpacks, we could see crowds of people boarding ferries. The minutes ticked by. Finally the woman from the restaurant, who was still with us despite our lack of interest in her visa scam, intervened to ask what the problem was. The departure card matter got sorted out, and the official gave the woman quite an irate speech. We could only guess (and hope) that it related to the visa business.

Paperwork complete, we trundled with our heaps of baggage down to the sand to board the ferry. The “ferry” was actually little more than a rundown wooden boat with rickety slats of wood to sit on, accommodating maybe 20 people at a time. We were feeling sheepish about our masses of baggage until we saw somebody get on after us with a bicycle. By now the woman from the restaurant had handed us off to a man named Mr. Sai (who for the next hour or so was known to us only as the man in the blue and orange jacket). Having met us, Mr. Blue-and-Orange Jacket then stepped off our boat and told us to look for him on the other side.

After the 10-minute crossing, we were greeted on the other side by a woman wearing a face mask and scanning all arriving passengers for fever. Passing the test, we dumped our bags in a pile on the dirt road and joined a swarm of people to apply for our Lao visas and get through passport control.

Getting the visas was chaotic and time-consuming, but there were no hitches and no scams. We paid our $42 (times five), waited at the next window to show our duly stamped passports, and moved back out onto the road to stand with our bags. That was when we finally began to wonder where the man in the blue and orange coat had got to. There we were, standing at the edge of Laos, with visas but without local currency or boat tickets or any knowledge of where to board the slow boat or what we should do if the man in the blue coat had bailed on us.

After we’d been standing there a good long while looking lost and increasingly annoyed (thinking we’d also been scammed by the agency we’d bought the slow boat tickets from), someone else’s guide asked what group we were with. We were forced to admit, sheepishly, that we actually had no idea: we were with the man in the blue and orange coat. He asked what agency we’d booked with in Chiang Rai. We took out our receipt only to find that while it was full of details about our trip and its associated costs, it was a generic receipt with no letterhead or logo to indicate where we’d obtained it—and we couldn’t remember the name of the agency, either.

The other group’s guide helpfully ran off with the receipt, saying he would show it around to see whether or not any other trip representatives might have some idea where it had come from. He reappeared 10 minutes later to tell us he had not been able to find anything out. Just a few moments short of despair, we spotted him: the man in the blue and orange coat, getting off an incoming ferry with another gaggle of travellers. This time when he came our way, we sucked him straight into our little vortex and asked his name (which is how we came to know that he went by Mr. Sai). But this was to be a short-lived victory, since about five minutes later he handed us off to someone else—a man in a blue-and-white-striped polo shirt—who told us to walk up the street and around the corner and get in the idling songthaew.

We hoisted our many bags into the back of the songthaew (these ubiquitous vehicles are essentially converted pick-up trucks kitted out with two long benches lining the back, and operate as taxis for larger groups) and climbed in, still with no tickets and never to see Mr. Sai again. We got dropped off at a riverside restaurant about 10 minutes away, where we had to surrender our passports yet again, this time to the man in the blue-and-white-striped polo shirt. He informed all of the travellers sitting in the restaurant that we would shortly get our passports back with tickets and would be leaving at 11:30 a.m.

And that’s pretty much the way it happened, actually. We never did get the promised box lunch, so we were happy to have packed our own bread, butter, cookies and Pringles. We even managed to get reasonably good seats on the boat, thanks to our divide-and-conquer strategy—I boarded the boat as quickly as possible with Charlotte, the children and all the small bags while Mark took the big bags on one by one without having to worry about scoring a seat. The boat left more or less on time at 11:45 a.m. By then we’d been up for six hours already and were still looking seven more in a crowded slow boat. These boats can take some 90 passengers, and ours was nearly at capacity. Among them was a group of about eight backpackers who looked to be between the ages of maybe 18 and 22 and who were clearly planning a party: they boarded carrying a case of 24 BeerLaos and a bottle of Lao whiskey, set themselves up in a circle on the floor near the back of the boat, and immediately started playing some combination of a card/drinking game that seemed to require the whole group to stand up periodically and perform the chicken dance. Needless to say, we were happy to be sitting near the front.

Slow_boat.jpg

I would like to say the next seven hours passed uneventfully other than occasional uprisings from the chicken dance group, but they didn’t. In the first place, it had been a rainy day from the outset and the rain continued off and on all day, sometimes changing to dramatic, heavy downpours that made it difficult to see more than a foot or two ahead. Secondly, we developed engine trouble about six hours into the trip, just an hour before dusk.

We first knew something was up when we noticed some activity near the front of the boat. The driver was shouting at the boat boy, and both of them were looking at the back of the boat. We deduced that the engine water coolant was no longer coming out of the back, a fact which had gone unnoticed for a while as the driver, who was also the mechanic, was busy taking us down the river. Now he needed to find somewhere to moor the boat in the 10-knot current so he could tend to the engine, which was overheating.

He found a small alcove, ducked in and anchored the boat. Then he ran to the back of the boat, turned the engine off, and proceeded to take apart the hose that runs from the water pump into the engine. Something had been clogging it. He pulled out the clog, and tried to start the engine, but the battery was dead. The sun was going down and we were still an hour or two from our destination.

Not in the slightest perturbed by this development, the driver took the belt off the water pump, put a rope around the main engine pulley, and used it to start the engine. He then manually put the water pump belt back on the main pulley, very carefully, while the engine was running. For those having problems visualizing all these engine parts, the upshot of it is that he could easily have got his fingers caught under the belt, which would almost certainly have resulted in the loss of a digit or possibly the entire hand. But he managed it unscathed, so we were back in action.

We set off again, completing the final half-hour of the trip in total darkness. It’s hard to imagine anyone being thrilled to arrive at Pakbeng, where we were scheduled to stop for the night, but we were overjoyed to be getting off the boat. Pakbeng is a tiny village with maybe one street where there is only electricity from 6 to 10 p.m., and finding a guesthouse is notoriously a matter of choosing the “least worst” option. But before we could even hit the pavement, we had to make our way from the harbour to the road, swatting away swarms of hotel touts. We exited the boat by walking a six-foot-long plank over water, carrying all of our bags, and then found ourselves on a steep, muddy hill leading up to the town. We had to forage for flashlights to pick our way up the hill safely until we found a set of concrete stairs. At the top of the stairs, we continued until it appeared that we’d made it into the town. Then we set down our bags and set up a plan: Mark and Ciaran would wait with the bags while Patti, Charlotte and Ciaran went off, flashlights in hand, in search of a reasonably clean guesthouse.

The first two we inquired at were booked full, likely because thanks to the engine trouble, we were the last slow boat to arrive that day. At the second one, the owner suggested we try his sister’s place instead, and offered to escort us to it. Not seeing many other viable options, we agreed. As luck would have it, it was basic but clean, and we decided it would do for the night. We made the most of the remaining hours of electricity, fitting in dinner and hot showers before the power went out. Over two big BeerLaos and some Indian food, we marvelled over what a completely ridiculous day we’d survived. I think the word “ridiculous” came up in conversation about 26 times.

We were back on the boat by 8:30 a.m. the following day, and arrived in Luang Prabang by 4:30 p.m. as scheduled. The trip was long and uncomfortable thanks to the hard bench seats, but nothing went wrong; bored with scenery by now, the kids devoted themselves to books and video games, only occasionally breaking into sparring matches with each other.

We were exceedingly grateful to arrive in daylight and to have reserved a hotel room in advance, so our introduction to Luang Prabang was stress-free: we hired a songthaew to deliver us to our guesthouse, and it didn’t take us long to be showered and ready to toast our arrival. We found a pizzeria (The Pizza Luang Prabang), where we discovered the $1 BeerLao quarts. There were tables out on the sidewalk, so we moved a few together and made ourselves at home. Sitting there at our candlelit table on the sidewalk, watching the people go by and enjoying my tall, cold, cheap BeerLao—along with the mellow atmosphere and utterly charming streetscape—I decided Luang Prabang had certainly been worth the effort.

Mekong_scenery.jpg

Posted by The Rymans 20:18 Archived in Laos Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

Taking Grandma to Laos

Grandma Charlotte arrives in Thailand, and other adventures

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What does Grandma get for treating us to several days at Chiang Mai's most luxurious boutique hotel? Talked into an adventurous trip to Laos via a two-day slow-boat journey down the Mekong River.

Lest we sound ungrateful, Grandma is fully up for the trip. Regretting that she didn't take in Cambodia during her trip to Vietnam a few years back, she's ready to take on Laos as part of her Thailand experience. "I go with the flow," she said with a good-humored, philosophical shrug when we presented her with the idea.

This is the perfect attitude for a trip to Laos. We're told it's developing at breakneck speed and standards for food and lodging have improved over the past few years, but Laos remains a destination geared more towards intrepid, independent travellers than towards those who demand security, predictability and all the comforts of home. In fact, we had nearly talked ourselves out of Laos altogether thanks to descriptions like these from our guidebook:

About getting around: "Buses in Laos range from a/c tourist coaches to the rattling wrecks that serve the outlying provinces. Cramped, overloaded and extremely slow, the latter can be profound tests of endurance and patience. There are no public toilets in Laos, so passengers relieve themselves by the road during breaks on long journeys. Keep in mind that some areas still have unexploded ordnance about, so it's not a good idea to go too far off the road."

About eating: "As for hygiene, Laos kitchens are often just a shack without proper lighting or even running water, and, in many northern towns, there's no electricity to run refrigeration. As a rule, sticking to tourist-class restaurants or well-frequented street stalls is the safest bet but it is by no means a guarantee of not getting an upset stomach."

About health care: "Healthcare in Laos is so poor as to be virtually non-existent. The nearest medical care of any competence is in neighbouring Thailand, and if you find yourself afflicted by anything more serious than traveller's diarrhea, it's best to head for the closest Thai border crossing and check into a hospital."

And so on.

But we've been on the road for two months now -- nearly a third of our trip is behind us, sadly -- and haven't run into any serious health problems, so we're hoping optimism will power us through without too many hitches.

Since we're already in Chiang Mai, getting to Lao involves a six-hour bus ride to the border town of Chiang Khong, a ferry across to Huay Xai on the Laos side, an eight-hour slow-boat ride down the Mekong to the dusty one-horse (electricity-free) town of Pakbeng, and eight more hours on the slow boat to our first real destination, Luang Prabang.

We plan to break up that first bus ride to the border with a two-night stay in Chiang Rai, about three hours north of here.

But first we'll be enjoying Chiang Mai for a few more days. After we left Tamarind Village Inn in the old city, the best hotel here by far, we moved to the Imperial Mae Ping outside the walls of the old city and nearer the night market. It's still quite a nice place by our standards, and in any case we're mainly just using it as a home base. Today Mark took the kids to Baanchang for the day on a "learn to be a mahout (elephant trainer)" class, where they are riding elephants bareback, feeding them, washing them in the river and learning how to track them down in the jungle and train them. Tomorrow Charlotte, Chloe and I are off to an all-day Thai cooking class while the boys bum around town and swim. The following morning we're off to Chiang Rai.

A highlight of Chiang Mai so far was our visit to the city's oldest Buddhist temple, Wat U-Mong, built in the 1300s. We spent about an hour there learning about the temple, the monks who live there and the history and practice of Buddhism. The kids were able to participate in giving food to the monks, conveying it to them on a gold platter so as to ensure no physical contact between themselves and the monks. There was a giant gold Buddha statue whose facial expression changed dramatically depending on the light cast upon it, and the kids were quite entranced by that. Later that afternoon they made rice-paper lanterns in the northern Thai style for a festival coming up soon. I hope those survive the journey home in Charlotte's suitcase!

Posted by The Rymans 02:42 Archived in Thailand Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

Mission accomplished...

...and off to Chiang Mai

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WOO-HOO: We have some very pretty Indian visas glued into our passports. We picked them up yesterday and still can’t quite believe they’re in there, but they are—and valid for a full six months for multiple entries.

We seem to have a knack for being in the right place at the right time (or maybe not, depending on how you look at it): Although we’re now in Chiang Mai, we spent the past couple of days in Kanchanaburi. We got to Kanchanaburi by third-class (local) train, which was interesting and efficient. Ciaran met a Thai family with three kids on board and spent most of the three-hour trip playing with them. It was all good, so we were planning to return to Bangkok the same way yesterday. At the last minute, we decided to take a minibus instead (long story). This morning, I opened up the Bangkok Post to read that yesterday, the Kanchanaburi train derailed. Four cars followed the locomotive off the tracks, with 280 mostly foreign passengers on board. Luckily, it sounds like there were no fatalities or serious injuries. Apparently this is the second such accident on that line this month.

Actually, yesterday was an interesting and busy experience in all forms of Thai transportation:

    First thing in the morning, board minivan from Kanchanaburi to Bangkok.
    By noon, arrive in an unknown area of the Banglamphu district of Bangkok. Whisk all bags to sidewalk, dive back into traffic to flag down a metered taxi.
    Pile bags into trunk of metered taxi and drive to Hualamphong train station near Chinatown to drop into the travel agency that booked our train tickets so we can pick up the tickets and leave our baggage there for the day.
    Take the MRT (metro) from Hualamphong to the nearest Skytrain station.
    Take the Skytrain to Siam Paragon in modern Bangkok to be mall rats for a few air-conditioned hours. Discover Kinokuniya, a gigantic bookstore, where Ciaran sprawls on the ground with comic books for an hour and Chloe meets a Thai girl in the juvenile section.
    Take Skytrain to Asoke station by 4 p.m., alight and make our way back to the Indian visa processing centre.
    Pick up passports with visas, do victory dance.
    Hop the metro back to travel agency near Hualamphong train station to pick up left luggage. Notice that most staff members, still uniformed and sitting at desks behind computer screens, are now drinking whiskey on ice with lemon wedges in fancy champagne glasses.
    Just after 7 p.m., board overnight sleeper train for the 14-hour trip north to Chiang Mai.
    This morning around 10 a.m., arrive in Chiang Mai and negotiate a cab to our hotel.

Whew. Not as difficult as it might sound, but busy, and always interesting to be homeless for 24 hours in Bangkok with the kids in tow.

The kids are amazing little troopers who thought sleeping on the train was marvellous. They watched with interest as the train attendant worked his way down the aisle making up the beds for the evening with clean sheets, pillowcases and white blankets, then got into their beds and promptly fell asleep. I, on the other hand, climbed into my bunk and got absolutely no sleep at all. The fluorescent lights remained on all night long, and if you’re imagining a Via train gliding softly north in the quiet darkness, think again—this old, narrow-gauge train lurched and thumped and squealed and rocked its way along, speeding up, slowing down and coming to sudden shuddering stops for no apparent reason. I was convinced that if I fell asleep, I might be thrown bodily off my bunk during one of many curves.

We had pre-ordered some breakfast, but not much, and were glad we’d been cheap: I don’t know when I’ve ever seen anything less appealing. Cold toast on a Styrofoam plate sealed with plastic wrap so that it was also soft, and a brownish, unappealing chunk of pineapple beside it. The coffee was shockingly bitter. The kids were happy, though, because the night before I’d stocked up on croissants and orange juice just outside the train station.

I thought the kids might object to the toilets on board—typical Asian squat numbers that empty directly onto the tracks, so you can see the tracks racing by underneath you through the hole while you’re in there—but Ciaran thought they were just the bomb and is planning to write to his teacher about them. Chloe’s attitude was purely philosophical: if this is how it has to be, bring it on, but please tell me there’s something better around the corner.

The first thing we did upon checking into the hotel here in Chiang Mai was temporarily lose Ciaran. He grabbed a deck of cards and fled the room. We fanned out looking for him, briefly panicked (me anyway), only to find him lounging in the restaurant area, where someone had set him up with a tall glass of cold water and some cookies. He was playing solitaire.

Posted by The Rymans 03:25 Archived in Thailand Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Teachers, trains and tuk-tuks

Getting re-acquainted with the big smoke

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As an ironic postscript to the previous entry about our suspenseful pursuit of visas for India, I thought I'd better admit something ridiculous: One of our key errands here in Bangkok was supposed to be a trip to the General Post Office to see if any of us have mail. Ciaran in particular was expecting some postcards from friends. Only now that we've left his passport with the Indian visa application service, he has no identification to present to collect his mail! And the passports will be with the service right up until 5 pm on October 14, and then we have to be on a northbound train two hours later.

Of course in our mad panic to get the visas arranged, none of this crossed our minds. The upshot of it is that 1) We'll have to return to Bangkok eventually; and 2) Those of you who had good intentions about the postcards but ran out of time now have another shot at it (but no pressure!). It could be worse, I guess; we were probably going to have to come back through Bangkok anyway to restock on kids' books and arrange transportation to Cambodia. But still.

Bangkok so far has been a somewhat bipolar experience. We'd been warned off of Thailand many times in the past two months by travellers who've been here much more recently than us. Most of them said there have been so many tourists here in recent years that people who work in tourism-related jobs have become irritated and unfriendly with foreigners, seeing them mainly as opportunities rather than individuals (one person said that particularly in the south, if you're not going to buy something then they have no use for you, which is a bit off-putting and certainly not how I remember it).

Since Bali had changed so dramatically since our last visit, we were prepared to be disappointed by Thailand, and expected to have to fend off aggressive touts at every corner. But our first morning in Bangkok (after the visa day) seemed to prove everyone wrong. Although the reception clerk at our hotel was a bit surly, everyone else we met was full of smiles and incredibly friendly, saying hello, giving us directions, striking up conversations. Some of the credit for this can be laid squarely at Ciaran's feet, because he seems to be a magnet for affectionate attention. Just as in Bali, he's again getting quite manhandled by friendly Thais who want to shake his hand, put an arm around his shoulder, chat with him and so on. Then we come along right behind him and get the same broad smiles. Really, he gets so much of this attention that it's almost too much. He puts up with it very well and seems proud to be so well-liked.

Stepping out of the soi (lane) that our hotel is on, we pulled out a street map, intending to find our way to the Chao Phraya river ferry as a first step towards heading to the train station to book some tickets. We were immediately accosted by a tuk-tuk driver who spent a good 10 minutes with us giving us tips and ideas and making notes on our map about where we should go. Of course, we weren't so obtuse as to think there were no strings attached -- he was hoping we'd pay him 30 baht to take us to all these places. But it wasn't a hard sell; he took our "no" pretty graciously. We moved on down the block and had only gone maybe 20 paces more when we were stopped again, this time by a Thai woman who spoke excellent English. She was a teacher, on holiday at the moment since Thai schools have closed for the next few weeks. When she heard of our plan to take the ferry to the train station, she quickly talked us out of it, insisting that this was really doing things the hard way and we should just head down to an accredited Thailand tourism bureau, where English-speaking staff could book the tickets for us in air-con comfort and without all the hassle of train-station touts. She flagged down a tuk-tuk for us and in rapid-fire Thai negotiated the trip down to 40B (about a dollar; not bad for a ride all the way across town).

At the tourism office, everything went pretty much as planned -- staff raced around getting chairs for the kids to sit on and someone served each of us some cold water. When it was time to pay for the tickets and we had to get more money out of an ATM, another staff member actually walked me all the way up and across the street to show me where it was, waited while I got the money, and accompanied me back. No hitch, no catch, not even a commission that we could discern.

We were starting to wonder what everyone else had been moaning about -- and we found out as soon as we flagged down our first tuk-tuk for the return trip and said, "Khao San Road?" The driver said, "200 baht." We looked shocked and said we'd got here for 40. He said 150. We again said 40. He said 100 but only if we would consent to stopping at a shop on the way back (a scam so textbook that it's amazing they even still try it). We turned around and left.

This little scenario repeated itself about four more times with various tuk-tuk drivers, the last of whom actually became quite aggressive with us and didn't back off until Mark raised his voice in return. Without the help of a friendly local, nobody was going to take us back to our hotel for anything approaching a fair price. It was obvious that unless we were willing to get ripped off knowingly, we were not going to be taking a tuk-tuk back.

We could have just flagged down a metered taxi at any point (and that's surely what we'll be doing from now on), but I was still quite sure we could find the river ferry if we were determined enough, so that became the new plan. As it turns out, the ferry stop we were looking for is one we used a decade ago when we took the ferry from Khao San Road to the GPO, and Mark eventually recognized enough landmarks to steer us there accurately. Both Mark and I love the river ferry, but the kids were less than impressed. It was standing room only for most of the trip, and incredibly loud, with the engine roaring and diesel fumes dominating. At one point, standing along the outside edge of the boat so I could see out, I was told by the conductor to move on and change places. I looked up and noticed a sign in both Thai and English: "SPACE FOR MONKS." There didn't seem to be any monks looking for the space, but I cleared out quickly nonetheless.

Today was nowhere near as interesting. We planned on getting some homeschooling in during the morning so we could take the kids to the Chatuchak weekend market and museum, but a slow start and other uninteresting setbacks meant we weren't even ready for lunch until after 2 p.m. By the time that was finished, we just couldn't muster the motivation to tackle Bangkok traffic and see much of anything interesting. Instead we walked around our immediate area some more and went for a swim.

We have one day left in Bangkok and then we're off by early morning train to Kanchanaburi, about 2-3 hours north of here, where we'll stay for just two nights. Kanchanaburi is the site of the famous "Bridge over the River Kwai" and Death Railway, and has a few kid-friendly attractions as well, including monkeys harvesting coconuts from tall trees and a tiger sanctuary run by monks. After that it's off to Chiang Mai.

Posted by The Rymans 07:57 Archived in Thailand Tagged family_travel Comments (1)

Here in Thailand, it's all about India (so far)

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It just wouldn’t be a regular day for the Rymans on the road if there weren’t a few near misses and tense moments, would it?

So let’s recap…we left Bali shortly after a four-hour blackout and just one day before a moderately powerful earthquake caused panic and injuries across the island, though no fatalities that I know of. We had just left Singapore when another earthquake centred in Indonesia was felt there, though it caused no damage. We were on the east coast of Malaysia when the country issued a tsunami warning for the west coast due to the massive earthquake in Padang, Indonesia. We were still there, swinging in our hammocks in the Perhentian islands, when we got pummelled by the tail end of Typhoon Ketsana, which toppled trees and crushed bungalows at our resort and neighbouring ones. Then just as we were about to get out of Malaysia today, a terrorist threat: as I was waiting to board our flight from Penang to Bangkok this morning, I opened up the newspaper and read that Malaysia was advising its citizens not to panic despite a threat from Indonesian terrorists planning to take action against the country today for some series of perceived injustices.

The drama should have ended there, but we boarded and landed (uneventfully) in Bangkok with a pressing mission: we had to present ourselves at the visa processing centre for the Indian embassy by 3 p.m. That’s because unlike every other country on our itinerary, India doesn’t just hand out tourist visas at the airport: you have to apply for them well in advance via a process almost as onerous as obtaining a Canadian passport. The deadline to submit applications is 3 p.m. daily, and it takes five working days to process applications for foreigners. We looked at a calendar and counted the days: if we got our applications in today, October 8, the soonest we could possibly get them back would be October 14 at 4 p.m. We have to be on a train to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand by 7 p.m. that same evening so that we can arrive there the same day as Mark’s mom, who is meeting us there after a marathon flight from Canada.

So it was Indian embassy or bust, and the difficulty of our mission became apparent as soon as we wedged ourselves into an airport taxi: it was already 12:15 p.m. as we pulled away from the airport, and it was going to take over an hour to reach our hotel here in Banglamphu because of the shocking Bangkok traffic. We would have to check in, drop off our bags, get our bearings and get right back out and into another cab bound for a different part of town that would take yet another hour to get to. On top of this, both kids—whom we had awakened at 6:30 this morning (after a late night) to catch our flight—were exhausted, tired of driving, starving, and thirsty.

We made a compromise: they could have a five-minute swim here at our hotel’s rooftop pool, and then we would all have to pile back into a cab again. Deal, they said.

So it was already 1:45 p.m. when we were back on the street flagging down a cab and trying to explain to the driver where we wanted to go. There was one problem: I didn’t have the address. I’d forgotten it in a notebook in my backpack at the hotel. I did know where it was on a map, though, so I kept pointing to and mispronouncing nearby Thai street names. I don’t know how many times I said, “Sukhumvit?” (a major artery)—it felt like a dozen—but the driver just kept looking at me like I was speaking Swahili. Using two different maps and recognizing the odd landmark building here and there, I was eventually able to communicate where we wanted to go despite apparently butchering the Thai language in the process.

We’d been stuck in traffic for about 20 minutes, and it was 2:20 p.m., when it suddenly dawned on me that I’d forgotten all of our visa photos back at the hotel room.

NOOOOOOOOOOOO…..Mark wondered if he should jump out and run back to get them, then meet up with us. But there was no way he had time for that. Then we considered abandoning our entire plan and asking the driver to just turn around. I wasn’t a fan of that plan since it meant sure defeat—and it would also mean returning to Bangkok some other time for another week to try this whole thing all over again, and that’s just not on our itinerary. I figured we were halfway there and after all, this is Asia: there would probably be some kind of photo service available for an exorbitant extra fee for disorganized people just like us. So on we went.

We finally arrived at 2:45 p.m. In my haste to rush us in before the deadline, I nearly plowed right by the security guard on the main floor, who wanted all four of us to sign in with passport numbers. Finally, we all piled into the elevator and got out at the 15th floor, only to be greeted by another security checkpoint where we had to state the purpose of our visit (after waiting behind several other people) and then be checked for weapons on our way in. We were given reams of paperwork to fill out—three pages worth of forms for each of the four of us—and we needed to obtain several photocopies of each of our passports as well as two photos. Sure enough, there was a photo booth right there in the visa office, where we got the requisite number of photos for a whopping 1,000 baht. Nonetheless, it was a tall order given that we had less than 15 minutes left.

We were told that we couldn’t get a number and get in line to submit our applications until we had all our paperwork completed, so we worked like mad things for nearly an hour, just hoping they would take the applications anyway--and completely ignoring the starving, thirsty, exhausted children, who at this point were probably even too weak and confused to fight. They eventually helped themselves to some water at the cooler and found seats somewhere in the waiting room. It was about 3:30 p.m. when we were finally ready—but the woman who’d been organizing the queue had departed. In a state of desperation, I buttonholed the first sari-clad woman who exited a door marked “Staff” and asked her what we should do next. She said she had no idea, but the man coming along behind her might know. So I asked him, and he said cheerfully, “Oh, I think it’s too late; applications close by 3 p.m.” I gave him the biggest, saddest doe eyes that I know how to make (I’m not very good at that sort of thing, but it must have helped that my desperation was actually sincere) and explained that I really had arrived before the deadline but had filled out forms for four people because of my children, and so on, and so on…so he asked me to follow him outside the office, back to the security area, where he instructed someone out there to issue me a number.

Long story short, after a great deal of stress and suspense, the office did accept our applications and we’re to show up again on October 14 at 4 p.m. to collect our passports with the visas inside them. (That should be another interesting day, since our train north leaves at 7 p.m.) Besides all the work involved in obtaining them, the cost was crazy. On top of the 1,000 baht for the photos, the visa processing fee was 1,450 baht or so, and the visas themselves cost more than 8,000 baht. (I can’t do the math just now but there are 33 baht to the dollar, approximately—all told, far more per visa than we’re paying to go anywhere else.)

And the embassy has this comforting little message for anyone daring enough to book a ticket to India before getting the go-ahead (I saw this written on several signs posted around the office): “Please note that the Embassy of India reserves the right to delay/refuse the visa without stating any reason and the fees once paid are not returned under any circumstance.” The posters go on to recommend that applicants refrain from booking any tickets until after they have their visas in hand. This is so perfectly, quintessentially Indian that you just have to laugh. We did look at each other and ask: Why are we going there again, again??

When we finally stumbled out of the building, we headed straight across the street for some ridiculously expensive pizza and beer, the first food or drink we’d had, or given the kids, in over eight hours. Then we got another cab back to our hotel district...after a few tries. When we flagged down a first taxi and I opened the door and said, "Khao San Road?" the driver, who was wearing earphones, just chuckled at me like this was the most ludicrous suggestion he'd ever heard, and waved his hands dramatically at me while continuing to giggle, saying, "No no no no no no no!" Okay...We did finally find a driver willing to take us. We got in and he immediately cranked up the Elton John. Yes, it has been a strange day! Time spent in airports and planes: 4 hours. Time spent in cabs: 3 hours. Time spent in suspenseful queues: 2 hours. Whew.

And as for Bangkok? Admittedly, we haven’t seen very much of it yet--mostly just the insides of taxis. We hope to get a more leisurely start to the day tomorrow, although we do have some errands to run: a visit to the post office, some shopping, a phone call or two and a trip to the train station to book our tickets to Chiang Mai on October 14, in flagrant, optimistic disregard of the Indian embassy’s warning.

Posted by The Rymans 08:50 Archived in Thailand Tagged family_travel Comments (9)

The Perhentian Islands

Finally, kids to play with!

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Well, after many weeks of complaining about the sewers, bathrooms, bus rides and bad hotels, I’ve got nothing but glowing (and therefore probably boring!) reviews about our week here in the Perhentian islands.

The Perhentians are two tiny islands off the northeast coast of Malaysia. Their names are Kecil and Besar, but they’re better known locally as Small Island and Big Island, respectively. Small Island has a reputation for being a busier, somewhat scruffier backpacker haven with more lively night life and cheaper beach huts, so we’ve ensconced ourselves on Big Island. According to our guide book, “the older generation” heads here. At first we were not really sure what generation we should consider ourselves to belong to, or what the guidebook meant by “older,” but as it turns out there are a number of families with kids of all ages here, so it seems to have been a good choice.

We left our hotel booking a bit late, so had no choice but to stay in a higher end place (so sad!) somewhat out of our budget for the first two nights. That coincided with Mark’s 40th birthday, though, so it worked out well. But we started scouting around immediately for somewhere else to move to, since we intended to settle ourselves here for a good 8-9 days. From the afternoon of our arrival, it was clear that the place to be was a spot named Abdul’s, about four places down from our place, Cozy Chalets. Abdul’s has the best beachfront, cute little huts right on the sand for as little as $20, coconut trees perfect for stringing up hammocks, and a family-run restaurant that serves the best fresh lime juice I’ve ever tasted and which turns a TV on early every morning for the kids. On top of all that, there were already two families staying there with boys Ciaran’s age. Unfortunately….we tried everything to get ourselves a spot there, but it was (and still is) fully booked for the rest of the week.

Regardless, Ciaran lost no time whatsoever making friends with the boys who were staying there. We hadn’t even been on the island two hours when he spotted Sam, a 7-year-old from Australia who was kicking a soccer ball around. Sam had already met Finn, another Australian boy who was 9 and staying in the next hut. It seemed to take no time at all for the three of them to turn into a little roving posse of the sort Ciaran loves to be a part of at home. An hour after the first soccer game began, Ciaran was asking if he could run back to our room to get his Pokemon cards for trading. Chloe accompanied him while I waited on the beach, and the next thing I knew, both kids were sitting in Finn’s parents room engaged in a giant Pokemon trading session (which, sure enough, devolved into a wrestling session and ended with the boys jumping all over both beds and getting sand all over everyone’s sheets).

Of course the next morning the first thing Ciaran wanted to do was go back to Abdul’s to see what his new pals were up to, so once again we spent the day hanging out there. By the end of the afternoon, Ciaran had invited both Sam and Finn’s families out for dinner with us.

Yesterday we went back for yet one more full day in front of Abdul’s, but we had also found a new place to stay quite a bit further down the island at a place called The Reef Resort, only accessible by water taxi or a 15-minute scramble through the jungle, so I think we’ll be seeing a bit less of our new friends. Sam and his family are leaving this morning anyway; maybe we’ll make one more trek over to Abdul’s this afternoon before Finn and company leave on Saturday.

The new place, while not convenient to the scene in front of Abdul’s, is actually quite spectacular in its own way. We lucked into a two-bedroom bungalow with spacious rooms, A/C, hot water, a ceiling fan, a large tiled deck out front and a really pretty sea view. We’re about 20 feet from the water’s edge, and through the front window my view is of bamboo curtains, palm fronds and ocean. The water directly in front of us is a bit shallow for swimming, but five minutes away there is a huge sweep of white sand with waves rolling in, perfect for body surfing and playing.

Really the only eventful thing here so far has been the weather. We seem to get an impressive thunderstorm every afternoon. I’m not sure if that’s the norm for here, or if it’s because monsoon season is approaching; apparently these islands close down completely for the monsoon season between late October and March. Yesterday’s storm was the most dramatic we’ve seen so far, and we wondered if we were getting the side effects of Typhoon Ketsana. A massive tree at our resort actually broke in half about 25 feet up, and the chunk that broke off crashed through a nearby bungalow, coming right down into the bathroom. Two cabins were similarly wrecked by fallen trees two resorts down from us, and many places all over the island have been busy repairing roof tiles and sweeping up debris. These crashing trees are a bit worrying given that the forecast is for thunderstorms every afternoon for the next week, but I’m guessing the odds are in our favour—what are the chances of a second tree coming down in the very same resort? I guess we’ll see…So far, we’ve been lucky, dodging an earthquake in Bali, a tsunami warning for Malaysia and then the worst of this typhoon.

I had a funny experience with coffee the other morning. There’s no restaurant at our bunch of bungalows, so I walked to the next guesthouse down and asked for two coffees “to take away.” I waited patiently, imagining myself sipping my hot, strong Malaysian coffee from the deck of my bungalow while the waves lapped the beach. Then the waitress waved me over and and handed me….a plastic bag containing two other plastic bags of coffees, tied up with elastics, and two straws. Hot coffee in a plastic sip-sac with straws! What a just plain BAD idea. I couldn’t believe it. I guess I’ll be taking my coffee at the restaurant in person from now on.

Posted by The Rymans 21:39 Archived in Malaysia Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

In the Cameron Highlands

Another insane road and other adventures

semi-overcast 25 °C
View Get Out The Map on The Rymans's travel map.

Our first impression of the Cameron Highlands was that it was, literally, going to be a breath of fresh air after Melaka. At an altitude of 1,500 metres, it’s much, much cooler here; for the first time since we left Canada, we’ve needed sweatshirts in the evenings.

The Cameron Highlands area was originally developed by the British as a tea-growing area, but has since developed a much broader agricultural base (famous for strawberries and other fruits and vegetables) and is also a magnet for tourists. Happily for us, there are several excellent Indian restaurants here, and even more exciting for the kids, tea and scones are a big feature, sold nearly everywhere.

Some of the main things to do here are hiking/trekking in the many varieties of jungle and forest nearby, visiting tea plantations and strawberry farms, and dropping in at a nearby Orang-Asli village. “Orang” is Malay for “man” while “Asli” means original; the Orang-Asli are the aboriginal people of Malaysia. While many are gravitating towards towns and cities to earn a modern living, some still live traditional village lives and it’s possible to visit them while in the highlands.

Yesterday we set out with a number of other tourists on an all-day “4 X 4 jungle trekking” adventure. The idea was to spend the morning on a three-hour hike that would take us to a waterfall for swimming and to a spot known for rare rafflesia flowers. These flowers, named for their discoverer, Sir Stamford Raffles, are known to grow up to a diameter of 43 inches and are quite a sight to behold.

Right after breakfast yesterday, we piled into a Land Rover and set off. There are Land Rovers all over the place here, some dating from decades ago and sitting in rusting, yet apparently still mechanically functional, heaps by the roadside. I wondered how necessary the Land Rover was going to be, thinking maybe it was all just part of the show to get tourists interested in booking the tour—but the need for a 4 x 4 became abundantly clear as we left the main road and started heading up a track into the forest.

The dirt was red, thick, deeply rutted and often wet and slippery, and it wound up the mountain in frightening switchbacks entirely free of guard rails or other such niceties, often with sudden, sharp turns. We could hear the truck’s suspension squeaking and squealing in protests as the driver negotiated the road, sometimes roaring ahead suddenly and other times gearing down and powering up a slippery hill. We rocked so violently from side to side that it was essential to grasp the loops hanging over the windows to prevent having our heads bashed into the windows. Several times it felt like we might overturn entirely. The kids were having a fabulous time, riding along with giant grins on their faces. The ride was scary enough to be interesting, but not scary enough to be truly terrifying, especially since we did feel like we were in good hands with our expert driver, who had told us he does this sort of thing not just every day for tourists, but in his spare time for fun.

These roads made the ones up to our Quebec hunt camp look like child’s play. It often seemed completely incredible that we were even making any headway. Mark took dozens of photos, and as usual I’m having some trouble getting them uploaded in a timely way, but I hope to accomplish that either this afternoon or next week, so stay tuned.

After about half an hour on this crazy road, we arrived at the trailhead and piled out to follow a different guide who would lead us to some rafflesia specimens. After all the work involved in getting to this place, you had to wonder: All this to see a flower??? It was a hot, sweaty walk up and down a sometimes challenging trail, across streams and a river and at least one dodgy bamboo bridge. But when we eventually found the flower, it really was pretty spectacular. There are lots of interesting facts about this flower, for example the fact that there are male and female specimens, and that it can take up to 8 months for a bud to open, after which the flower lasts just 5 days. To get a better sense of the size of it, we photographed the kids next to one. As always, check the photo gallery later!

The whirlwind tour continued on with a swim at a waterfall on the way down, a reverse trip back down the crazy dirt road (all the more frightening for being downhill; we nearly slid ride off the road on at least one occasion--at one point Ciaran said, "I wonder how this story will end. Will I die after we slide off one of those cliffs? Or will we all survive and it will make a great stories to tell my friends?"), and then a visit to an Orang-Asli village. After being given some background information about the Orang-Asli and how they live, we were treated to a demonstration of how they hunt using a blow pipe. The pipe is a long, narrow affair with poison darts plugged into its end, and the hunter’s job is to blow hard enough to send one of the darts into the prey. After the demonstration, we were asked if anyone wanted to give it a try (there was a target for the purpose), and of course, Chloe was keen. After a few attempts, she managed to get the dart just a few inches to the left of the target. Ciaran didn’t want to try, but he did desperately want to buy one of the $7 smaller blow pipes for sale. Mark, who has been hating that we seem to carry around so much stuff everywhere, was an unusually each touch on this, and let Ciaran choose one to keep. It came with a batch of darts and everything needed to work properly, and the kids have been trying it out in the hotel room.

There was a lunch stop after that, but the food was completely unappealing, so we ate lightly; among the choices there was a stew of chicken’s feet and a stir-fry of mysterious organ meats and chicken hearts and skin. We chose iced tea, soft drinks, plain rice and a thing that looked somewhat like an omelette, supplementing that with snacks we’d brought along.

This is getting rather long so I’ll try to sum up the rest of the day: We also visited a tea plantation, which was a highlight for our family tea fiend, Ciaran, and enjoyed a tour of the tea factory and grounds. The kids were excited to see scones for sale again here, but chose a doughnut to snack on instead. The plantation itself was spectacularly scenic, and we took some great photos of the kids hiding and peeking among the tea bushes.

We finished the day by heading up to the top of Gunung Brinchang, a 2,031-metre mountain at the top of which is a cloud forest that is known here as a “mossy forest.” We had a chance to walk through the forest as dark approached, and it was certainly an enchanting, spooky experience; the guide showed us insect-eating plants and a variety of medicinal shrubs and trees.

There is really so much more I could write about this action-packed day, but I’ve been typing for some time now and you probably don’t want to know every detail, so I’ll end it here. Tomorrow we’re off to Pulau Perhentian, a quite remote tropical island where we are unlikely to come across internet access, so this will be my last update for at least another week or so.

Posted by The Rymans 22:09 Archived in Malaysia Tagged family_travel Comments (6)

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