Slow Boat to Luang Prabang with Sara (Part 1/2)
On a rainy afternoon in July, I got a message from WhatsApp, this is a messaging app that I hardly ever use, but it’s now going to make my life much easier. It was Sara, she was someone my previous client from Vietnam recommended me to be her guide during her travel in Thailand. It was very fortunate for me since I have been planning on selling our Slow Boat to Luang Prabang tour since the beginning of the year. This is a program which we have been working on for a group of American University Students.
They were interested in having us do a custom tour for them for the Northern Thailand and Southern Islands tour. But for our part of the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang, I added as quick break away from Thailand and I was trying to create a little more of an adventure in Laos. This would also be a quest for the rare greenery of the Mother Earth that we have less and less of here in Bangkok. Which I am sure is causing some psychological problem for us city-dwellers. I guess it was a way for a bunches of us city-slickers like Sara and I to give ourselves a treat of getting closer to the forests and hills of Laos.
So, I have done some scouting a couple of time before by taking the sleeper train up from Bangkok Hua Lamphong station. The train route was to be a very scenic railroad start of the adventure up into the Northern Part of Thailand especially through parts of very beautiful and hilly Chiang Mai area by way of Lampang, where the terrain make change to a more interesting landscape than the flat plane of Central Area near Bangkok, my second city of angels which I was very used too. We have been doing some planing for already did 2 trips up to Chiang Rai during the past several months to scout out what we need to do and see up in the Lanna area which is which was actually a different Kingdom 200 years ago. The idea was to use the over night train to cut cost on a night of hotel as well as getting transport up to the North sleep most of the way there, which I did with my wife on our first scouting trip. It was all fine and good except we forgot the elephant part of the trip. The elephant experience we planned for was a place that is up in Lampang which was a stop before reaching Chiang Mai.
I had to go check out this place the second time which I did very briefly with another Vietnamese friend before this trip. Sara was actually the one WhatsApp me about her trip through Thailand and she wanted me to go pick her up from the Airport. She is a divorcee in the 50s who just got the travel bug bad. From working in corporate environment to taking her time to travel the world. And of cause her first chance was to do Japan and South East Asia first. Since she has a Convention that she had to attend in Singapore, which meant traveling from her home country of Colombia. You can imagine the long flight from South America all the way to Singapore with stops in Tokyo, Kyoto then on to Northern, Central, Southern Vietnam, then on to Siem Reap, Cambodia to the Angkor Wat. That was the last city before she flew into Don Mueang International Airport.
I got to the airport half an hour before her flight arrival time. That was a bad idea. As I waited at the airport she sent me a picture of the line at the Immigration. My feel a fever coming on. During the long wait for Sara, I walked to a convenient store on the departure level to look for fever reducer and a drink. But, it was not really helping me to feel any better.
It turn out that it was the time that all the Chinese tourist decided to arrive in Bangkok at the same time and the line at the immigration was 2 hours long. As I was waiting for her I started to feel under the weather and a light cold that I had the night before which made me vomited in the middle of the night follow with a diarrhea in the morning was developing into a full blown flu symptom with fever and headache. As we met and were leaving the airport she immediately ask about getting a tourist SIM at the airport, but another 10 Chinese tourists thought of the same thing and it was a long wait at the phone service at the airport. So, I told her we can take care of the that later tonight anyway by getting into any 7/11 in Bangkok. After I drop her off at her hostel. This hostel was a very small place on Pan street near the Hindu Temple on Silom road which is essentially a little Indian town by. We walked to have dinner at a vegetarian Indian restaurant that I frequented with my wife for our yoga and meditation class. Anyway it was only less than a block from her hostel, so that was easy enough. Then I went on to bring her to the Asiantique night market, the place is very touristic and maybe make a good night out for family but not really for a place for a backpacker looking for authentic experience. It was still a useful trip to the market since we could walk over to get the local Thai SIM card for her phone which will be very useful for the whole trip for her. Since we left the airport not wanting to get the unlimited 7 days package or the 10 days package that was a little expensive, we got the 8 days refillable as Sara requested instead. After dinner and night market I went home feeling like taking a rest and getting a good night sleep for tomorrow we planned for a big day of the old city tour, we were going to see the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha Temple, Wat Pho or the temple of the Reclining Buddha.
The plan was to cross over the river to see Wat Arun or the Temple of Dawn as well before taking a taxi to meet up with my boat on the canal. That night after I went back home I was feeling a sickness coming on slowly, and I was still thinking if I can bailed out from 10 days of traveling. But, It really was too late to back out now.
Afterward I quickly went to look for fever medicine and hope that it would not turn this trip into a another nightmarish travel episode. I woke up the next morning feeling much better than yesterday, and was ready to do this day tour for Sara. The night before we were already chatting about what would be the appropriate outfit to go into the Temples, and the Grand Palace. I have been doing the Grand Palace tour in Bangkok several times after the passing of King Rama the 9th. And they have change some of the procedure to get in especially the part of the what is appropriate for you to pass into the Grand Palace and the Emerald Buddha Temple.
Of course with the mourning of the passing of our King, only Thai people are now allowed to go inside the Grand Palace proper, where the King body is lying in state until October 26 when his body will be cremated according to the Thai traditional rite. Thanks goodness, tourists are still now allow into the Emerald Buddha where most tourists actually want to see anyway. Except I like to show the museum of weapons as well as the Museum of the Emerald Buddha which are both located within the Grand Palace, but both are closed during the mourning period. So, we will just see as much as what we are allowed to see. When I show up at her hostel, she was in long tight legging pants with an appropriate top. But the tight legging is not going to fly at the entrance to the Emerald. But her response was very casual,
“I will just buy one of the pants at the entrance, since I will need it in the future anyway.”
After making sure she understood that it might take a long time to get inside the Palace due to the pants. We head out by the BTS (Bangkok's "Modern" Skytrain System) being on a Saturday, it was empty of people, which make me realized after half way walking to the station that the traffic was also very light as well and we could have take a meter taxi quickly to the Palace. Anyhow we took the train to Saphan Taksin BTS to connect with the Chao Phraya Express river boat service which was full of tourists and again reminded me that we could have done this commute in a taxi at half the time. As usual the Emerald Buddha Temple was pack to the brim with tourist from around the world, but Chinese tourists are the one you have to elbow your way through while keeping place by staying alert to their elbows. Sara got the harem pant right when we got off the pier and we got through all the security in a breeze.
The security staffs now have change the procedure for the check in again with no second bag check as we were funnel through the entrance pass the big group of tourist taking photos at he entrance. I quickly got the entrance ticket for Sara and as I has been having problem with the staff who writes down register license tour guide license which I have, but I did not want to be reminded again that I am not in a proper attire for a licensed guide which require long slack pants as well as a collar shirt.
I keep thinking to myself that why uniform is so important in Thailand where the humidities usually hover around 80-100 percent, and the temperature is around 35 degree Celsius on most days. Why would you want to walk around in the Sun in an outfit like that? I quickly put my license under my t-shirt and just walk pass the lady while they alway ask if you are Thai, I just answer in Them in Thai and not mentioned about being a licensed guide. This way I could get in and not worry about the shirt and slacks.
Once I got inside the Grand Palace, I just took out my license and start the tour like normal. It was the usual hot and humid day in Bangkok and we had to cover the ground sometime in direct sunlight. But most time we could take cover in some shade with we did as much as we could. After quickly finishing up the Grand Palace with many photos on Sara Camera and her iPhone. We moved on to the Temple of the Reclining Buddha and of cause wait for the perfect picture where you can get the whole of the Reclining Buddha from head to feet and from feet to head. All in all a great photos session for Sara, and I recommend all the good place to do her shots.
Sara and I wolfed down the delicious food and jump right back into the boat to see the Artist House where Sara decided not to stay for the Traditional Thai Puppet demonstration due to our time constrain. We cruised the canal as I have been doing for the past 6 years with interesting stop at an orchid farm and the Wat Paknam which is where a new school of Thai Buddhism called Phra Dhammakaya sect which has become a powerful force in religion and cosmology in Thailand. To the point, that the current military government have decided to crackdown on the temple’s leadership. But we are not here for the politic, only to enjoy the sight of the beautifully painted and sculpted interior of the huge stupa which was built as a place for important ceremonies, a meditation center, as well as a museum to house the many gifts that were donated to the temple.
She had a great time and we jumped on the Wat Arun ferry to cross over the river and it was a good day for more photos since Wat Arun has been under a major renovation since last year. The workers finally removed all of the scaffolding form the main stupa which is the most important landmark of Bangkok and is the sight that every Tourism Authority of Thailand been putting on their advertisement.
After Wat Arun we were getting very hungry and we took a taxi to meet up with one of our boat in the canal, first call was for a restaurant on the side of the canal. We were doing well by the time we got to the restaurant by the side of a canal that I frequented. The food was great, and the price was very reasonable. Most of my guests that came here with us before have also been telling us that the food there was excellent. The food was really nothing fancy, but it was always cooked with fresh ingredients and done right after you just ordered it as how Thai food should be.
We ordered like we were loss in the desert for a month. We had Tom Yum Soup and Chicken Panang Curry that Sara requested not to be spicy. We also ordered stir fried sweet basil with mince pork, and also a big plate of fried frogs which you guess it, “It does tasted like chicken.” But we think it tasted more like half chicken and half fish.
The spectacular huge white stupa or what we would called in Thai a Chedi is a beautifully painted and decorated with hand painted mural and hand sculpted intricate details on the wall and ceiling of this amazing place. We can see the skyline of many skyscrapers on the other side of the Chao Phraya river, while looking down you can see the canals on the both side of the temple. The canal to the Eastside of the temple is call ‘Klong Dan’, ‘Klong' is canal in Thai and ‘Dan’ means check point. This is due to this historic canal use during the Ayutthaya Kingdom as a place to inspect any boat traffic moving up from the sea through the old course of the Chao Phraya river that flowed through the present day Bangkok Yai canal before 1542. At the advice of one of the Portuguese engineer working under the King of Ayutthaya at that time to make numerous short cut along the old course of the Chao Phraya river to make transportation between the sea and the old Capital be shorten by several days. During this period of time the King’s men would have been waiting inside Wat Pak Nam to force any boat that pass by to stop and get search and pay for all the necessary tariff before being allowed to go farther north on the river. We went on to visit the Orchid Farm, which Sara was mentioning that in Colombia they have many of the similar plants and flower. But a little different, one example was the dragon fruit that has purple and green on the on the skin but with inner white or red colored with small edible seeds.
In Colombia they have yellow colored one that look kind of like a small pineapple. She showed me the picture, but I just wonder if it taste the same as our and figured that the only way to find out was "to go to Colombia one day."
We ended the day by taking the taxi back to her little hostel on Pan Road right by the Indian Temple by Silom road. We popped into the temple for a quick look, due to my unfamiliarity with the many gods in hinduism, I usually explained about the syncretic of many elements from Hinduism in the Thai Buddhist cosmologies.
As for my luck, by this time my cold was getting worse and was heading home intended on getting a really good night rest which I did. The only problem was trying to book a ticket of the sleeper train the next night.
Due to the time constrains, I was unable to get the sleeper train ticket as our itinerary stated. Oh no, that meant no first or second classes sleeper! This is for all practical purpose would be the most comfortable way for us to go up North smoothly. That night I can feel the virus or bacteria or what ever cause my discomfort was getting to be full blown. I got to get rest! I hope for a good sleep on the way up in a comfortable real bed on the rhythmic railroad with that familiar pattern of steel wheels and the suspension noise that turn into a musical lullaby to put you into a comfortable sleep for your whole journey. So now our only practical choice was to head to the Mo Chit Northern Bus Terminal and get a night bus up to Lampang.
I quickly got an online the VIP bus ticket that was the more expensive option in the little hope that sleep would come with the acronym VIP. Hah, was I wrong. When we got to the station, I quickly head to the right bus birth. It was another 30 minutes wait until the bus got there and we were sitting in the hot and humid tropical heat at this outdoor terminal. Then as the bus arrive and we got on I remembered that I opted for the farthest back seat in the hope that it will be far way from staircase down to the toilet at the lower level of this 2 levels VIP bus. Right on top of our head where we have no way of escape there were big air vents that brow freezing cold air on our heads.
I was thinking. "Ok, this night will not be my best night of sleep again."
That night bus air-condition system was blasting really cold air down on us like
"The Old Man Winter himself came with us on the bus!"
I could not believe how cold it was. The whole night as we speed up to the Northern Thailand, which local called Lanna for more than nine centuries. We both had to put on something to cover our head and put on some extra clothing to keep from freezing to death. Sara used her scarf and she had a jacket, and I used by bath towel and an extra T-shirt with long sleeves. The VIP bus has those massaging seat that were vibrating and an Entertainment LCD screen just like on a plane, but after a whole night of that vibration and LCD that just put more light in your eyes, this was not going to help me sleep any better tonight. Sleep was of cause impossible, and I thought to myself, that this is going to be one of those sleepless night nightmarish bus ride. I had one of my worst transportation story with a night bus in South India from Bangalore to Goa. It was a bus ride from hell. If you haven't see how Indian bus driver drive and the traffic situation in India you might not really have the picture in your mind. Let me start by saying that our bus driver and all the driver on the Indian countryside highway who still up and driving at 3 am are all nuts or have a death wish or in all likelihood both. Think of all these honking and high beaming each other to scare the other driver or more likely their own passengers and passing at crazy fast and illegal speed on a single lane highway with variably maintain cars and trucks swaying from side to side coming so close you wonder why they still haven’t slam into each other already. Then you start to get some ideas of the road condition during the night. During the whole ride my wife was fast as sleep in a regular seat in the back as other passengers.
I was on the other hand had to sit on a jump seat right by the driver with the bus conductors sleeping on the floor right next and behind me the whole way. For 12 hours ride, I had to get up and keep folding the backrest again and again in order to let other passengers get on and off to go out on the side of the road to relief themselves during the night. And when we stop for a bathroom breaks, it was usually done right on the side of the road, this includes women. But then again, I had a similar experience on a wedding caravan in Vietnam this year as well.
Clean bathroom was in short supply in both India and Vietnam and travelers frequently have to relief ourselves on the side of the road in these countries. When we got to Lampang. We jumped off the bus at 6am and walked around looking for a place to get a coffee but since nothing except 7/11 was open.
Even though you can almost get anything you needed in 7/11, there was no seat for us to hangout until later in the morning.
As we were walking out of the bus terminal to the main highway, we decided to just grab a scooter from a shophouse restaurant next to the bus terminal that we walk past earlier and look for a place to have breakfast on the way to the Elephant Conservation Center. After we fill up the bike was gasohol, and grab a bowl of beef boat noodle along the way. We arrived at the center just as it was opening and got the bus shuttle into the park and we went to watch a regular of the elephant camp. This little Japanese lady wrote an elephant on the neck as we were at the elephant corral. She looks pretty comfortable on the her ride sitting a top the neck and you can feel her mastery of the elephant even though there was a mahout walking in front. The mahout also feel very relaxed as she expertly control her elephant. I started talking to her by saying
which is “good morning” in Japanese. As Sara also join in the conversation we start to ask her about her elephant adventure. This Japanese girl has a traditional Thai farmer deep-blue denim mixed with cotton shirt and pants garb on. I talked to the Thai mahout and he mentioned that she has been to the camp for more than 20 times. He told me that when she arrives at the camp now her elephant would recognized her and come up to greet her right the way. It seems that she has been coming here twice a year for the last 10 years. I was very surprise that someone would be so keen on being with elephant that much.
Essentially, the elephant have became her giant pet that she see twice a year. She look so content to on the neck of her ride that it look like that her purpose in life and I thought to myself that she would have make a pretty good elephant driver back when we still used elephant for work as well as for war. Maybe she would have been conscripted into the ancient army to work with elephant, like the old Japanese samurai who came to serve under the king of Ayutthaya in their frequent war with the Burmese empire. We did have someone like that in our history such as Yamada Nagamasa who was an exiled Christian Samurai who came to settle in the Ayutthaya kingdom and fight along the Thai army during that time, along with many other nationalities and people from around the world who came to call this part of the world their home in the pass. So, after seeing this of course After this conversation Sara was now also very interested in riding the pachyderm as well. She insisted on getting a 10 minutes ride and told me to take lots of photos. Of cause the set up there was in such a way that they have a good camera girl standing in ambush in front of the elephant and since you not sure where to position yourself, you missed the shot. After this riding episode we when to see elephant feeding and bathing in the lake and goes back to see the show that they have the elephant perform the work they used to be working as in the logging industry. It is sad to know that the logging industry have manage to cut down most of the rain forest in Thailand by now, mind you, not with elephant but with modern bulldozers. Some animal activists now are trying to stop the practice of elephant riding all together, by telling conscientious traveler to not participate in this practice of animal tourism. Which is maybe good for feeling good about oneself, but not so good for the people who livelihood depend on making money from the tourist or for vast majority of the elephants in captivity in Thailand. They can not be released into the wild since they have been domesticated and now had lose their abilities to care for themselves. Is riding the neck of an elephant considered ethical, how about riding in the Howdah tied to the back of the elephant? Is it really just marketing by a more expensive elephant places? I don’t really have all the answers. Please visit the website http://www.elephantexperts.org for your own conclusion.
After the show we rode back to the bus station and found out that the VIP bus to Chiang Mai was running out of ticket soon, we were in a line of about 40 people and figuring that we will not be able to get ticket for the A/C bus we decided on local Non A/C, which turned out to be a real adventurous ride. When we went to the bus, it was full of people trying to get on. We got in and took the back seats with fighting cocks in paper boxes at our feet, and a scooter that someone decide to bring along on the bus right in front of us. It was about 2 hours of this awkward situation until most of the people got off and we had extra legroom to ourself which make it much easier to bear. Once we got to Chiang Mai I immediately get the VIP bus ticket for our next ride to Chiang Rai, so we can ride in comfort. As we got off the at the Chiang Mai bus terminal, I used the Grab Taxi app to call for our taxi which I have tried before last trip, and it went pretty smoothly again. We headed to a hostel place that was near the old city wall. As it was low season most places are still sitting empty so booking was not really needed. I got an old room that I had stayed the previous time, and it was pretty comfortable.
Sara was pretty lucky since we arrive on when the Chiang Mai Sunday night market was open, We walked to the night market to get something to eat. As we got into the market, and seeing the first shop that sell the famous northern style egg noodle curry, Sara and I got us a couple of noodle bowls. My was a Khao Soi which was a really bad version of it. Sara got green curry with lightly fermented rice noodle, which she said was a little too spicy for her. I remember from my trip here 3 years ago with my Thai guide license class that there was another very good place right the back of the market. So after wolfing down my first bowl of Khao Soi, I went on to look for this better place.
Original blog from : https://1thinglearn.blogspot.com/2017/09/tom-praisan-my-travel-blog-august-18.html