OUR SEASIA Odyssey

Old Apr 21st, 2012, 08:33 AM
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Well I for one am enjoying this tremendously. Go, you are a wonderful writer!
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Old Apr 23rd, 2012, 07:10 AM
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Thanks everyone for your wonderful responses. I'll be posting next leg (regarding Chiang Rai in northern Thailand) later this week. I'm having a hard time thinking of an appropriate song title though!
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Old Apr 23rd, 2012, 08:58 AM
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Great reporting, We did the river trip in the opposite direction. Sadly we didn't get to see much because of the smoke due to the burning of the fields and forest! Looking forward to hearing more..
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Old Apr 23rd, 2012, 09:51 AM
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I just discovered this and am loving it! We also loved LP and the Apsara and your description of river weed is spot on! Back to reading now.....but keep it coming!
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Old Apr 23rd, 2012, 03:01 PM
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Very interesting, helpful and well written report.
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Old Apr 23rd, 2012, 04:11 PM
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Hope you made it to the white temple. I also hear there is a black temple in Chaing Rai, but did not see it. Waiting for more.
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Old Apr 23rd, 2012, 04:42 PM
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Sure did c both the White Temple & Black House/ Temple while in Chiang Rai. Both made quite the impression.
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Old Apr 28th, 2012, 04:25 AM
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Hi yestravel and gottravel, I'm just now getting a chance to catch up on this (work and life have been a little crazy lately and travel/Fodor's have had to take a back seat). Great report and detail--still amazed by all that you did on that trip! I was just thinking about our dinner at Tamnak Lao the other day, as well as the lime-lemongrass granita that I had at Tamarind a couple nights later on your recommendation. Looking forward to more.
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Old Apr 28th, 2012, 03:43 PM
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Hi ms-_go, good 2 hear from u. Just hate when work interferes with ones travel life. That was a great meal @ Tamnak Lao. Been thinking that I need to find a Lao restaurant in DC. There must be one somewhere.
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Old Apr 28th, 2012, 05:04 PM
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There's actually a Laotian restaurant or two in Madison where DD goes to school, but I have yet to find one here. There are quite a few Vietnamese restaurants in the city but nothing good out in our area. Fortunately, we do have a pretty good Thai restaurant in our town, so not all is lost...

Where are you going next?
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Old Apr 28th, 2012, 05:26 PM
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We've got good VN and Thai restaurants in the suburbs, but haven't found a Lao one yet.
We r going on a driving trip beginning mid June. we will drive up thru NE to Nova Scotia, and back thru the Hudson Valley in NY. Then in mid September we go to Puglia. How about u all? U mentioned Croatia when we saw u.
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Old May 1st, 2012, 05:33 PM
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Wow you guys are late and keeping your readers in suspense! When is the next installment coming out?
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Old May 1st, 2012, 05:37 PM
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Working on it now. We've been buried in house projects. Chiang Rai coming up...
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Old May 2nd, 2012, 04:29 PM
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<b>Northern Thailand #1: Chiang Rai – Dengue by Day, Malaria by Night</b>

The Chiang Kong Teak Garden Hotel was pleasant. While it was a newly built budget hotel it had everything needed for a one-night stay. Our room had a comfortable bed and overlooked the Mekong River and the Lao shore on the far side. We had arrived somewhat late and were in no mood to explore the city, which was little more than a way stop for us anyway. We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant. It was another tasty meal – this trip was slowly turning into a foodie road show. After dinner we read for a bit and then turned in early. On an amusing note, the next morning I awoke and stepped out onto our river-facing balcony to check the weather. I was dressed solely in my underwear and was somewhat startled to find our neighbors on their adjacent balcony taking their morning coffee. We exchanged murmured good mornings and I hastily retreated to our room. I hope I made a good impression.

Rather than negotiate the bus station, we arranged with the Teak Garden Hotel for a ride to Chiang Rai. Their driver would take us there for less than 40U$D. Our drive took us through low rolling countryside. Despite it only being mid-January, the first of the fields was already being burned off in preparation for the rainy season and the new plantings. One small town we rode through was engulfed in the smoke from the fields. In a few weeks, the entire countryside would be filled with smoke.

After several stops on our driver’s part to ask for directions, we arrived at the Hotel La Luna a little after noon. La Luna made a positive first impression - a beautiful spacious lobby and luxuriant grounds filled with flowering tropical plants. Our room was large, had a comfortable king-size bed and the biggest flat-screen TV I’d ever seen. Unfortunately, it also had several mosquitoes. YT sought out the room service while I tried to hunt them down. She came back with a can of spray; we sprayed the room and then headed to the hotel restaurant for lunch. I had a superb ‘northern style’ curry, made with a tart tamarind sauce rather than the previously ubiquitous coconut milk. YT had squid sautéed in garlic and black pepper, which was equally delicious.

Then I took a nap and YT went to the hotel pool to read. When she returned, the room again had mosquitoes and we embarked on a major mosquito-killing exercise. It turned out that La Luna’s lush vegetation – so at odds with the dry countryside – was the result of frequent watering. There was standing water throughout the grounds, everywhere from pots to the interiors of bromeliads. There were, as well, two plants in standing water in our bathroom. And mosquitoes could enter our room both via the bathroom exhaust fan and the slightly askew doorframe to the outside. (We later discovered that it was La Luna practice for the cleaning staff to leave the room doors open while cleaning rooms.)

As background, we’d been very conscientious about mosquitoes when planning our trip. Cambodia, Laos and Northern Thailand were all dengue fever and malaria hotspots. The two diseases are spread by different species of mosquitoes: The Dengue-bearing mosquito bites in daytime, the malaria-bearing mosquito is prevalent at dusk and early evening. We’d begun taking the malaria preventive medication malarone shortly before leaving (mosquito-free) Bangkok for Siem Reap. As well, we’d been slathering ourselves with DEET ever since arriving in Siem Reap. However, malarone only protects one from malaria - there is no comparable medication for the extremely painful, if rarely fatal, dengue fever. DEET is an efficient mosquito repellent, but not without its downside – one needs to re-apply it periodically and it dries out one’s skin terribly. By the time we arrived in Chiang Rai, the skin on my fingers was peeling due to repeated exposures to DEET. Our hotels in both Siem Reap and Luang Prabang had had very few mosquitoes due to measures taken by management. Consequently, we’d been rarely bitten during our sojourns there and were not in the mood to begin providing blood meals to potentially infectious insects in La Luna. (I should note that it was the end of dry season and that we encountered mosquitoes nowhere else in Chiang Rai.)

After our mosquito pogrom, we complained to the front desk. They promised to spray the room. We fled the grounds. Using a bad photocopy of a Chiang Rai map provided by the front desk, we navigated the crumbling sidewalks and unlit streets of Chiang Rai until we arrived at the Night Market in downtown Chiang Rai. It sold some hill tribe handicrafts and Thai silks, but much of it was devoted to t-shirts and tourist trinkets. It sprawled out on side streets around a central square that functioned something like a food court in a shopping mall. Twenty or more stalls lined each of the two sides of the square, selling grilled meats, noodles, stir fries, sushi and some insect dishes that prominently featured large cockroach-like water bugs.

We were struck by the hot pots a Thai family was eating and were directed to the appropriate stall, where we ordered one pork (“moo”) and one chicken (“gai”). We chose a nearby table - the center of the square was a sea of tables – and they brought over two charcoal braziers on top of they placed clay pots filled with bubbling broth. They also brought two small plastic trays of meat as well as two large trays containing a raw egg, various herbs, noodles and lettuce. The general concept – as it was explained to us by hand gestures – was to add the meat to the broth, crack the egg in, wait two minutes, add everything else and then enjoy at leisure by spooning small amounts of the resulting soup out to some provided bowls. One could also add a potent chili paste to one’s taste. Our two soups, although conceptually similar, ended up tasting very different. I had the pork and added all of the provided herbs, which included copious amounts of ”holy” basil, cilantro and mint, as well as a small dollop of chili paste. YT had been more restrained in herb and chili usage. Both approaches resulted in a delicious soup. Incredibly, given the precarious balance of our metal table and the potential spillage while spooning out soup, we both managed to complete our meals with neither spill nor stain.

We took a songthaew back to La Luna. A songthaew is something like a pickup truck covered in the back with a low roof; seating was on two added benches on either side of the back of the truck. Before we’d gone out, we sent an email to a gentleman named Jermsak ([email protected]), a tour guide/driver recommended on Trip Advisor and by “Moreweird,” in regard to potential tours over any of the next three days. He’d replied by email giving us his cell number. With some assistance from the La Luna front desk, we managed to call him on his cell. The only day he was available was the very next day, Friday. We agreed and he sketched out a possible itinerary and agreed to pick us up at 8:30 in the morning. We then killed another mosquito or two, moved the watery plants from the bathroom to our front stoop and retired for the evening.

The next morning, we went to La Luna’s very good – and very large – breakfast buffet. Jermsak showed up promptly at 8:30. Out itinerary for the day was to be the ruins of a “pre-Thai” wat, the White Temple (Wat Rong Kung), the Golden Triangle/Hall of Opium, Mae Fah Luang Garden at Doi Tung Palace, the 101 Tea Plantation and two hill tribe villages, one Akha and one Yao (Chinese). We stopped only briefly at the pre-Thai wat. It was somewhat interesting - but promptly forgotten once we arrived at the White Temple.

The White Temple is a contemporary Buddhist temple and is still under construction. (I think six or seven of nine planned buildings have been completed.) Although the architectural design of the central temple is in accordance with other wats we’d seen, it is nonetheless extremely unconventional by traditional standards. White is used instead of gold and the interior incorporates contemporary images such as Batman, Spiderman and rocket ships. The bridge leading to the temple arcs across a ghostly white sea of sculpted upraised arms and hands, some holding bowls, some holding skulls, and one – with the middle finger bearing bright red nail polish – making an obscene gesture. Coupled with the designer’s art (on view in a separate building) the complex as a whole is stunning and one of the most striking and memorable sights we saw on our trip. The White Temple is a definite “don’t miss” if you’re in Northern Thailand.

Even the formerly infamous Golden Triangle turned out to be a bit anticlimactic after the White Temple. There’s a spot where your view incorporates Thai, Lao and Burmese territory. We passed on a quick entry into Burma. Our crowded schedule didn’t permit it and we felt uncomfortable visiting a country run by what was then one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. The Hall of Opium was something of an attempt at a narcotic entertainment complex. It coupled a history of opium cultivation and its impact around the world with special effects that attempted to recreate the effects of smoking opium. Overly large and somewhat cheesy at times, the Hall of Opium is worth visiting only if one is in the area. (I understand that there’s an Opium Museum in the area that’s both more compact and more interesting.)

The Mae Fah Luang Garden at Doi Tung was another highlight of the day. This is a ten-acre hilltop garden sponsored by the late “Princess Mother” (that is, the mother of the current king of Thailand). The purpose of the garden was twofold: Firstly, to reuse land previously used for opium cultivation and, secondly, to give Thai people the opportunity to enjoy a temperate flower garden. (The hill where the Mae Fah Luang garden is situated is much cooler than the lowlands.) The garden is essentially western in design, immensely popular, and ranks among the most pleasant we’d ever visited. We highly recommend a visit.
The opium aspect was interesting and I discussed it at length with Jermsak as we drove. Opium had been cultivated and consumed in Thailand for centuries. I understand that while it is still cultivated and consumed, particularly among hill tribe peoples, this is now to a much lesser extent than previously. The current king, who has been on the throne since the late 1940s, had initiated an effort to end opium use (and, later, cultivation) in Thailand. Such was the degree of his popularity that the Thai people, for the most part, complied. As unlikely as this seems, I can vouch that it would be very hard to understate the esteem that Thais hold for the King.
Tea cultivation has also replaced opium production. We visited the 101 Tea Plantation, owned and operated by Taiwanese Chinese. We found the grounds appealing – beautifully terraced thigh-high hedgerows of tea bushes running up hills and down into valleys. However, neither YT or myself are a tea drinker and the subtleties of the tea tasting there were absolutely lost on us. I’d say that this stop was for tea lovers only.
As we drove through the hills it was hard to miss the effects of slash-and-burn agriculture practiced by the hill peoples; hillsides and hilltops had been denuded of vegetation. Columns of smoke rose here and there. Last year’s fields, harvested of crops, looked like brown dry scars. It was also hard to miss the presence of a number of evangelical Christian churches, which led to one of the more interesting conversations we had with Jermsak. Most of the hill tribe peoples had traditionally been animist. Animism required the periodic sacrifice of animals to appease resident spirits (in trees, rocks, etc.) when someone became sick or the community suffered a run of bad fortune (e.g., a drought). For people living a marginal and impoverished existence, animal sacrifice is a substantial cost and people had begun to convert to evangelical Christianity for what were, in part, economic reasons. Christianity doesn’t believe in resident spirits and vehemently opposed their propitiation via animal sacrifice. Hill tribe people who converted could keep their animals and have a (slightly) higher standard of living. So why, I asked, didn’t they simply convert to Buddhism? The answer was interesting. People who converted to Buddhism also remained animist and still had to perform the sacrifices. (Apparently Buddhism, at least as practiced here, was a syncretic religion – people were “85% animist and 15% Buddhist,” I was informed.) Some of the hill tribes tolerated conversion and the convert remained in the village. Others did not and converts had to leave. We stopped at both an Akha village and Yao village on the way back to Chiang Rai. The standard of living in both was noticeably lower than that of Thai people in general. We particularly liked the Akha village and the elaborate headdresses worn by the women.
We’d had a busy day, seen a lot, skipped lunch –Jermsak had thoughtfully brought along snacks - and returned late, after 7:00. I would recommend Jermsak’s services to anyone visiting the Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai area. He’s a pleasant and intelligent man, a knowledgeable guide and an excellent driver. As well, he speaks superb English.
We ate dinner in the hotel restaurant, which was turning out to be La Luna’s best feature. Our huge delicious repast – we were starving! - included:
• Curry puffs,
• Chicken satay,
• “Stuffed minced pork” (aka sausage),
• Chicken with cashews, and
• A banana fritter w/ ice cream (which unfortunately included a heart-stopping mound of whipped cream and a garish maraschino cherry).
We returned to our room to squash mosquitoes. After the day we felt that we’d pretty much exhausted Chiang Rai’s possibilities and opted to leave a day early to escape the mosquitoes. We checked in with our Chiang Mai lodgings and confirmed that they had an available room the night after next.
The next morning, we again visited La Luna’s superlative breakfast buffet. I’d taken a liking to the fried rice and the spicy sauté of vegetables and chicken. We started the day by taking a songthaew to the local office of the Thai Post. We arrived only after a brief misadventure. The driver had interpreted “Post” as “plaza” and had attempted to deposit us at a largish shopping center. I guess there are not a lot of tourists who go to post offices. Thai Post was wonderful. It supplied a box and tape, and we prepared a six kilogram package back to the USA (via surface airlift) for about 5U$D. It arrived at a friend’s about three weeks later – what a deal! We left the post office and walked down to the nearby bus station and bought first class tickets for the Chiang Mai bus for Sunday ($12 for the two of us). Then we had coffees at the nearby “Concept” café – with some free wifi on the side. Then back to the hotel. We did some preliminary packing and then took a songthaew to the “Black House,” a kind of anti-Buddhist counterpoint to the White Temple. We had the driver wait while we wandered about.
The “Black House:” consisted of something between ten to fourteen buildings. Some were huge, Lanna-style halls, others as small as garden sheds. The best way to describe the overall concept is to conceive of a series of different-sized buildings (all black) that housed various art installations and furniture constructed of animal bones, horns, hides, teeth, shells and skins. The animals were from all over the world – I even saw a couple of old-school moose heads that would not have been out of place in the Maine woods. The artist was so whacked out conceptually that he made Salvador Dali look grounded.
After our visit to the dark side, we had the driver deposit us back by the Night Market area. We were somewhat amazed to find it totally abandoned by day. We went to a bakery/cafe a couple of doors down from the Concept Café for iced Thai coffee, a banana smoothie, a cinnamon roll and some marzipan. Then another songthaew back to La Luna where we spent the afternoon packing, updating Facebook and killing mosquitoes.
We left at 7:30 for the Jermsak-recommended restaurant Tohng Tung, down the block from La Luna. It had great traditional Thai dancing and truly superb food: Thai sausage, fried pork, sautéed mushrooms, shrimp with vegetables in oyster sauce, fried rice and, improbably, orange cake. It was a true feast for about $15. We walked back to our room at the hotel and watched TV for the first time since Bangkok. The only English language station was Al Jazeera. The news consisted of wars and murders from Nigeria to Afghanistan and almost everywhere in between. And Newt Gingrich was declared the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary, cementing that state’s status as the least lucid in the USA. Then lights out. We had a bus to catch the next day.
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Old May 2nd, 2012, 05:13 PM
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Still enjoying your report (and political commentary) and looking forward to the next installment.
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Old May 3rd, 2012, 07:35 AM
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Oh don't tell me you rode a bus to Pai and MHS? That's a long.... ride!
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Old May 3rd, 2012, 07:56 AM
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@Hanuman -- absolutely not -- bus to Chiang Mai and then rental car for the Loop.
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Old May 3rd, 2012, 08:16 AM
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Glad you did that as I've seen some of the bus they use for this route and they are in bad shape!
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Old May 3rd, 2012, 08:18 AM
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@anuman - I don't even think we saw any regular buses along the Loop -- some vans. Check out my profile and c what I added as a fav restaurant...
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Old May 3rd, 2012, 08:28 AM
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Very nice and excellent taste! Going back up to Chiang Mai this weekend but it's way too hot to enjoy Pai or MHS and maybe even Chiang Mai. Can't wait till it cools down again!
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