This is where you will find the mysterious Plain of Jars, the enormous stone containers that cover the landscape. This is the perfect place to go trekking, especially around Luang Namtha and Phongsaly, while the Gibbon Experience offers visitors a rare opportunity to view these magnificent creatures in their natural environment.
This region of Laos is home to many of the hilltop tribes, each with their own unique styles of dress, culture and belief systems. Exploring northern Laos provides to opportunity to get to know a little about this interesting people and discover traditional village life.
Although this area has only been open to tourist for around 10 years, there are already a number of vibrant tourist hangouts in northern Laos. Top of the list is Vang Vieng, where travellers can indulge on Western food, explore the caves and float down the river in a large rubber tube. The nearby temple town of Luang Prabang is also particularly tourist friendly and there is plenty to see and do here.
Adventure sports are popular in northern Laos and this is a good place for white water rafting, hiking, cycling, rock climbing and a number of other activities. Simply walking through the countryside is a great way to spend a day or two as the scenery is always striking and many surprises await the adventurous.
The mighty Mekong River flows through northern Laos and into Thailand. A good way to continue exploring is to take a slow boat from Luang Prabang along the river into Thailand. The journey offers spectacular views of Laos and the chance to stay in the pretty village of Pakbeng along the way.
There are 19 provinces in Central Thailand, of which most are widely visited by tourists and international travelers. Perhaps the most well known province is Kanchanaburi, famous for the Bridge over the River Kwai, tiger temple and stunning natural scenery such as the Erawan National Park.
There are also several beautiful beaches in Central Thailand, and Hua Hin should not be missed, especially during the Jazz Festival, when thousands of people flock to the beaches to listen to some of the best jazz music from around the world.
Dotted around the region are some enchanting islands and especially worth visiting is the pleasant beach area of Cha-am, which is just a two hour bus journey from Bangkok. However, the island is very popular with Thai people and can become very crowded on the weekends and during major holidays.
whilst lovers of history will find their heart's desire amongst the interesting ruins of the Ayutthaya Historical Park and Nakhon Pathom, which is Thailand's oldest city and features the largest stupa in the world.
Generally speaking, travel within Central Thailand is undemanding as there is a good road and rail network. Catering to tourist tastes and taste buds, this is a good region in which to take it easy and acclimatize to Thailand.
One of the most enchanting activities here involves wandering along the banks of the gently flowing Sarawak River. A large number of interesting buildings can be found close to the river, including historical houses, shops and temples, and one of the highlights here is the large and lovely Fort Margherita, which was constructed by Charles Brooke in 1879 as a tribute to his beloved wife Rani Margaret. A number of ferries also offer to take visitors across the river for a few Ringgit, and this is a great way to view the area.
Those who want to relax and unwind for a while can spend time wandering in the picturesque gardens of Kuchin, which can be found in abundance. Those who enjoy temple hopping will also be in their element here, and one of the most enchanting places of worship here is the Hong Saan Temple, while culture vultures will want to make sure that they check out the Sarawak Museum and Islamic Museum.
Stargazers can pay a visit to Kuchin’s Planetarium, which was the first ever to be built in Malaysia, while those who like to shop until they drop will want to check out the wide range of goodies that can be found at the weekend market, which is known locally as Pasar Minggu.
The tranquil atmosphere of Vang Vieng is very addictive. The landscape is incredibly serene and picturesque; beyond the sparkling river sheer limestone cliffs rise from a plateau of paddy fields. The river is spanned by a number of wooden bridges, which despite their flimsy appearance compliment the scenery perfectly.
Vang Vieng is a real haven for travellers and you will find a great assortment of cheap guesthouses dotted around the village. Many westerners arrive here and never leave, setting up their own bars and guesthouses alongside the many others owned by Lao people.
Chilling out is the main activity in Vang Vieng. Restaurants show Friends reruns throughout the day and night and there is plenty of good food and drink to go with it. International food is popular here and most restaurants offer a selection of backpack favourites such as pizza, pasta and spicy curry.
Walking through the scenic landscape is also popular and there are some other beautiful caves to explore on the far side of the river. Alternatively, if you fancy something a bit more energetic, why not hire an inner tube and float away down the river? Other popular activities in and around
Vang Vieng include rafting, trekking and bicycle and motorbike trips.
Many of the families that live in Vang Vieng are self-sufficient and have chickens clucking in the garden in front of the house. As you explore the picturesque dusty lanes you will find puppies running around and fluffy yellow chicks cheep in the long grass, watched over by their clucking mother.
If you are feeling adventurous, take a walk through the village to the Vang Vieng Resort which is a large, picturesque garden with a large cable bridge spanning the river. At the far end of the park is the impressive cave of Tham Jang. Climb the 147 steps for enchanting views of the surrounding countryside and sparkling rocks inside. In the evening, sit beside the river and watch the sun slip behind the horizon with a beer or two.
Krong Koh Kong can be found close to the mouth of the mighty Kah Bpow River and this entire area is famed for its intense natural beauty. One of the best known and loved natural features here is Koh Kong, which is a tiny tropical island that features pristine sandy waters lapped by cool, clear waters. Naturally, this is a popular spot to stretch out and soak up the sun for a while, and it is easy to simply stay here and drift away for a day or two.
The Thai border is located just a few kilometres away from Krong Koh Kong, and this makes the perfect place to take a break from the rigors of travel and gather your strength before hitting the road once more. Another popular spot in this part of the world is Bak Khlong Beach, which is famous for its sandy beaches and restaurants that serve freshly caught seafood prepared to local and Western tastes.
If you’re looking for entertainment, Koh Kong Safari World has a good collection of animals and has regular live shows, although it’s doubtful whether the interests on the animals on display are the primary concern here and animal lovers may want to stay away.
Real nature lovers should head instead to Peam Krasaop Wildlife Sanctuary, where you will see an impressive collection of wildlife such as sun bears, leopards, elephants, gaur, banteng and sambar. Another area of great natural beauty is the Botum Sakor National Park, where you will find a number of pretty waterfalls.
Other interesting diversions in the area include a small ice rink and some quaint Cham Muslim villages, where you can learn more about the traditional Khmer way of life.
Kirirom means ‘mountain of joy’ in the Khmer language. This is a great place to escape from the heat and King Sihanouk had a palace built here in the 1960s as a summer retreat. This is also a great place to retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city and experience Cambodia’s natural beauty.
As you explore the park you will discover a number of pretty lakes and waterfalls. There are food vendors located at various points throughout the park and this is the perfect place to stop for a picnic while you soak up the spectacular scenery.
There are a number of walking trails, with one of the most popular being the two hour hike up to Phnom Dat Chivit. Also known as End of the World Mountain, pause for glimpses of black bears and unparalleled views of the Elephant Mountains and Cardamom Mountains.
At the top of the mountain you will find a Buddhist monastery and a clear water lake, which is a good spot to cool and enjoy a snack from one of the vendors’ carts. Although a number of animals live in the national park such as elephants and tigers sightings are rare, although it is possible to see other animals such as porcupines and colourful hornbills.
If you don’t fancy travelling straight back to Phnom Pehn when darkness falls, head to the nearby Chambok village to spend the night in a traditional wooden house. There are a number of good restaurants here and an impressive 40 meter high waterfall.
A boat trip through the national park is the perfect way to see the natural beauty of this charming area. Sail away down the Prek Tuk Sap River in a small motorboat, sheltered from the hot sun by a canvass roof. The scenery is spectacular and the banks of the river are lined with mangrove forests. There is plenty of wildlife to see such as beautiful green kingfishers, monkeys hooting in the trees and purple jellyfish.
As you glide slowly along the river, you will pass people digging in the river bed for shellfish and fishing from small boats. After a couple of hours, you will arrive at Koh Som Poch Beach, where you can swim or sunbathe while lunch is prepared.
Walk for about an hour through tropical jungle rich with plant life and you will come to the Thmor Thom fishing village. The buzz of cicada beetles is loud and exoticly beautiful butterflies flutter through the forest.
Ream’s intense natural beauty leads many people to set up home here and the population has doubled in the last eight years. This means that resources such as wood, herbs, fish and fruit are seriously over-used. There is also the problem of illegal logging and poaching to deal with. Luckily, this situation is slowly but steadily changing thanks to the injection of cash that the tourism industry is providing. Illegal fishing and logging are being stamped out, and the forests of the area are gradually regenerating.
It is possible to book a tour of Ream National Park at a number of places in Sihanoukville. The prices of tours vary according to the company you opt for, but all tours include meals as well as transportation and entrance into the park.
Songkhla has a lot to offer, whether you are interested in history and culture, appreciate stunning scenery or simply want to chill on the beach and swim in the sea. The town is endowed with ancient ruins, arts, and places of cultural importance. Songkhla is a melting pot of Thais, Chinese and Malays and charms visitors with its unique traditions, dialect, and folk entertainment.
To discover the area's history, the first stop should be The Songkhla National Museum, while the Phathammarong Museum is also a great source of local knowledge. The Bronze Mermaid Statue usually appears on postcards of Songkhla and represents the Hindu-Buddhist earth goddess Mae Thorani.
Songkhla is well known for its interesting architectural styles, which can best be seen in its temples and chedis. Some good examples are Wat Cha Thing Phra, Wat Pha Kho, Wat Chai Mongkhon and Wat Matchimawat. The city's black and white stupas - known as Chedi Ong Dam and Chedi Ong Khao - should not be missed and Sating Phra Ancient Community is well worth a visit.
Songkhla also contains some areas of stunning natural beauty. Top of the list are the Khao Nam Khang National Park with its jungle, caves and waterfalls and Khu Khut Waterfowl Park. As its name suggests, Namtok Boriphat Forestry Park features a large number of waterfalls and beautiful forest, while Wat Tham Khao Rup Chang is an interesting cave temple.
Songkhla is blessed with a large number of caves to explore and mountain tops offering spectacular views over the area. A good place to start is Khao Nam Khang Historic Tunnel, while other mountains include Khao Tang Kuan, Khao Kao Seng and Khao Noi.
There are some very pretty beaches to soak up the sun on including Hat Samila and Hat Sakom, while Hat Yai is the liveliest town and famous for fresh seafood and Muay
Thai boxing matches. Whilst in Hat Yai, pay a visit to Wat Hat Yai Nai, which features a 35 meter reclining Buddha known as Phra Phut Mahatamongkon and the very pretty and peaceful Hat Yai Municipal Park.
Amongst the area's small and somewhat secluded islands are Koh Maeo and Koh Nu (cat and mouse islands) and Koh Yo, which is a very pretty island famous for its cotton weaving community.
Of course, when it comes to eating, seafood dominates the menu. The best place to find a good selection of reasonably priced seafood is at the local night markets, where you can relax for a while at one of the small tables and watch the dramas of this charismatic area unfold around you.
One of the main attractions in this area is the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market. Visitors flock to this market to discover Thailand's unique traditional way of trading. Although today the market is dominated by souvenir stands, you can still take a boat trip through the market and barter for exotic fruit.
Ratchaburi Province contains some stunning natural caves for you to explore. Just 8 kilometres from the town you will find the famous Tham Ruesi Khao Ngu, whilst Tham Khao Bin is said to be the most beautiful. 30 kilometres west of the town you will find Tham Chomphon, whilst the mountain top of Khao Chong Phran offers spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.
There are many interesting temples in the area such as Wat Muang, Phra Si Rattana Mahathat, Wat Khongkharam and Wat Khanon, which contains an interesting collection of more than 300 traditional Nang Yai puppets.
The area is well known for its abundant history, and a good place to discover more about it is at the Ratchaburi National Museum, whilst the Bo Khlueng Hot Spring is a great place to soak away your aches and pains after a busy day of exploring.
History enthusiasts would do well to visit the Ban Khu Bua Ancient City, which displays many of the archaeological discoveries of the area. The Siam Cultural Park is also interesting as it contains fibre glass wax images of important people such as Mother Teresa, President Deng Xiaoping and Chairman Mao Tse-tung. This display has to be seen to be believed as it is certainly unique.
The province hosts some interesting fairs and festivals and it is worth trying to time your trip to coincide with one of them.
The Ratchaburi Tourism Fair is held annually during February-March in the grounds of the City Hall. Featured activities include demonstrations of famous handicrafts, such as jar making and "Sin Tin Chok" cloth weaving, folk art and cultural performances by local tribal groups.
The Sweet Grape and Damnoen Saduak Floating Market Week Fair happens around March-April each year to introduce agricultural produce to the market. This is a good opportunity for visitors to buy agricultural produce such as coconuts, pomelos grapes and lichis at discounted prices.
The Khao Ho or 'Ang Mi Thong' Festival is a Su Khwan blessing ceremony for happiness and longevity in life, held around the ninth lunar month. Karen people believe that the ninth lunar month is a bad time of the year, when ghosts and evil spirits hunt and eat the "Khwan" 'spirit' of people. During the festivals many traditional methods are practiced to ward off the evil spirits. The elders of each family tie red threads on the children's wrists and give a blessing for good luck.
Most visitors are draw to the province by the pretty town of Hua Hin, which was previously a royal resort, and is an excellent seaside location with an incredible beach. There are many large designer shops in Hua Hin as well as seaside souvenir stalls, making this a good place to indulge in a little retail therapy.
The Hua Hin Jazz Festival takes place around the first week in June and usually lasts two or three days. With well known bands and solo artists from all over the world, this is an event not to be missed.
Another great seaside town is the capital, also called Prachuap Khiri Khan. Here you will find Wat Thammikaram, which is a temple set atop a steep hill. Although climbing to the top of this hill is a bit of an effort, the spectacular views of the bay and surrounding countryside more than make up for it. There are a large troop of monkeys living in the temple grounds, which has earnt the temple the nickname of 'Monkey Temple'. The temple is located at the top of Khao Chong Krajok (Mirror Tunnel Mountain).
Another area of great natural beauty is the Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, which was established in 1966 to protect Thailand's largest freshwater marshes and contains pretty limestone cliffs and beaches.
Other beaches in the area include Ao Bang Nam Lom, Ao Noi and Ao Manao. Hat Ha Kaw is another lovely beach, whilst next to it is the King Mongkut Memorial Park of Science & Technology, which commemorates the 1868 solar eclipse that the great king witnessed from this spot with his son.
Nature lovers can pay a visit to the Wildlife Friends of Thailand Rescue Centre, which has committed itself to looking after animals of every species and another good way to spend an afternoon is to visit Wat Khao Tham Khan Kradai, which is a small cave temple situated at the end of a long, beautiful bay.
Like in most of Thailand's beach resorts, snorkeling and scuba diving trips are readily available, and another good way to get an idea of the true beauty of this area is to go on a boat trip around the coast.
Phrae has a slightly sleepy feel and is a great place to escape from the hustle and bustle of life for a day or two and simply relax. This is an area of intense natural beauty and there is plenty to explore if you're feeling active.
Wiang Kosai National Park is a great showcase for the area's nature. Another immense area of natural beauty is the Mae Yom National Park, which is situated around 48 kilometres from the town of Phrae. A popular feature of the park are the Kaeng Sua Ten rapids, a two-kilometre-long stretch of rock formations which is best visited during November-February when the weather is cool and scenery at its prettiest. Visitors are permitted to camp along the river banks, making this a great place to simply relax for a day or two.
Scattered around the province are some pretty sparkling waterfalls and haunting caves to explore. Take a trip to Tham Pha Nang Khoi 40 kilometres north of town, Namtok Huai Rong and Namtok Tat Mok.
The area's temples offer an interesting insight into the traditional culture and style. Wat Luang is the oldest temple in Phrae and includes an interesting museum. Also look out for the 400-year-old chedi of Phra That Phra Lo, Wat Sa Bo Kaeo, Wat Phra That Chom Chaeng, Wat Phra That Cho Hae and Wat Phra Non, located near the old city wall.
An interesting day trip is Phae Muang Phi, which is located about 12 kilometres out of town. This is an unusual natural feature which subsidence and erosion of the soil has created rocks in the shapes of exotic-looking mushrooms.
Another interesting local feature is Vongburi House, which is a private museum. This teak house was the residence of the last Prince of Phrae. Another interesting old teak house can be found in the village of Ban Prathap Jai.
A good place to get a feel for the local culture is at the Folklore Museum, which is located three kilometres from town. Here you will see different types of wooden houses, which demonstrate the different status of the local people. There is also market and shop houses of the ancient traditional style.
When it comes to eating, a great place to get a good, cheap meal is at the town's large night market.
Phrae province is well known for its lively and interesting festivals. The Phra that Cho Hae Fair is held around March and involves a procession to carry robes to cover the local chedi. The procession follows the Lanna style and all participants are decked out in traditional Lanna attire.
The Kin Salak Fair is an old Buddhist merit-making event. Villagers prepare offerings and carry them in a procession to present to the monks. The fair is held around September each year.
This is a great place to visit if you appreciate cool weather, walking amongst attractive natural scenery, good food and chilling out in a city that has all the charm and atmosphere of a small village.
The city of Chiang Rai has a rather sleepy, relaxed feel to it, and exploring the streets can yield some interesting sights. The pure white temple of Wat Rong Khum has to be seen to be believed, whilst Wat Phra Kaeo is the original home of the Emerald Buddha, now located in the temple of the same name in Bangkok. Also worth exploring are Wat Pa Sak and Wat Phra That Doi Tung.
Although not as large as its neighbour in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai's Night Bazaar is a great place to pick up a bargain or two, whilst the sleepy village of Chiang Saen with its interesting history, warm welcome and architecture is a great place for a day trip.
But it is Chiang Rai's natural beauty that draws most visitors to the area. As well as enchanting jungle waterfalls such as Khun Korn Waterfall and Pong Phra Bat waterfall, there are also dozens of hot springs scattered around the area, where you can soak up the goodness of meltingly hot water and natural minerals either in public pools or secluded in your own private tub. Look out for the Pha Soet Hot Springs and Huai Hin Fon Hot Springs and Waterfall with its stunning jungle backdrop. What could be better than listening to the insects and wind in the trees as you enjoy a good soak?
The Hilltribe Museum and Education Centre is a great place to learn about the local people before going on a trek, and The Hall of Opium museum also provides a lot of interesting information about life in the area, both past and present.
No visit to the area would be complete without a trip to the absolutely stunning Phu Chi Fa Forest Park, and animal lovers can get up close and personal with the elephants at the Mae Sa Elephant Training Center.
Northern Thailand displays heavy influences from the neighboring cultures of Myanmar (Burma) and Yunnan (China). The kingdoms of Lanna and Sukhothai were the first historical Thai nations.
A series of Communist insurgencies and the effects from Myanmar's drug battles and civil wars has meant that recently a large portion of northern Thailand was off limits. However, these problems have now been mostly resolved, and safe, easy travel is possible throughout the north.
Although standard Thai language is widely understood, the people of Northern Thailand have their own Thai dialect called Kham Meaung. The hilltribes also have their own languages, and if you wish to make extensive contact with them it may be a good idea to employ a translator/guide.
The main airport in Northern Thailand is Chiang Mai, which serves both domestic and international flights. There are also small domestic airports at Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Pai, Phitsanulok and Sukhothai.
Spicy and bitter, Northern Thai food is quite different to that eaten in the rest of the country. There are dozens of local specialties and this is a great place to sample the traditional food of the hill tribes as well. A regional specialty is thick, slightly spicy sausages stuffed with raw garlic, the pride of Chiang Mai Province.
Other dishes to look out for include:
kaeng hang le - Burmese-style pork curry
khanom jiin naam ngiew - rice noodles with pork ribs and thick sauce
khao soi - a Burmese curry noodle soup served with shallots, lime and pickles to add as required.
Thailand's temples - known as wats - are big, richly decorated and contain an interesting assortment of treasures. Every town has a large assortment of temples, with perhaps the highest concentrations in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Ayutthaya. Some temples not to be missed are Wat Arun on the Chaopraya river in Bangkok, Wat Po, also in Bangkok and Chiang Mai's Wat Benchamabophit. Whilst in Chiang Mai, climb Doi Suthet to see Wat Doi Suthep, which offers stunning views over the area.
As well as spectacular scenery, Thailand's islands and beaches offer a good opportunity to take part in diving and snorkeling, the clear blue water offering glimpses of colourful coral and fish. Koh Tao is rapidly becoming the most popular island for diving and snorkelling, whilst Koh Phi Phi and Phuket are also popular. Other water ports available include sailing and windsurfing. At many places, bungee jumping and rock climbing are the order of the day, whilst paintballing offers a good opportunity to let of some steam.
Thailand has some beautiful golf courses, some designed by skilled international golfers. Muay Thai is the national sport and no trip is complete without watching a match or even training and competing yourself.
The amazing landscape makes Thailand a great place for walking and trekking, the hill tribe villages to the north making a great stop over or a three or four day trek.
Many come to this deeply spiritual country to learn about meditation, and there are numerous meditation courses available. Whilst here, you can also learn the ancient art of massage or join yoga classes on the beach.
Thai food is some of the best in the world, and you will find some outstanding restaurants, offering everything from international style dining, dining aboard river cruises or simply eating at a tiny table on the street.
The spas and saunas are also a great place to unwind and be pampered; whilst for many cosmetic surgery and cosmetic dentistry provide the opportunity for self improvement. Also, there are plenty of chances to indulge in a little retail therapy.
Thailand has a great selection of outdoor markets, floating markets, stores and shopping centres. Do not miss Bangkok's Chatuchak market, MBK, Paragon or the night bazaar at Suan Lum, whilst Chiang Mai's Night Market draws visitors from all over the world.
For people wishing to take in some culture there are some interesting museums, art galleries, exhibitions and displays of Thai dancing. Thailand also has some interesting theme parks, shows and zoos such as Sri Racha Tiger Zoo.
There is always something to see and do in Thailand, and the numerous festivals can add colour and life to your holiday, especially if you are lucky enough to be in the country during Songran or Loi Krathong.
There are plenty of opportunities to get in touch with nature in the national parks, such as Khao Yai where parts of the movie The Beach was filmed or Koh Samet, where the outstanding natural beauty has led to its being preserved as a national park.
Whatever you decide to do, there never seems to be quite enough time, and it is almost certain that Thailand's charms will draw you back time and again.
Trains are regular, approximately every hour and the tickets for the one hour run are 10 baht. The single track rattles through some of Thonburi's western suburbs hemmed in by markets and houses. Past Wat Singh and we get more greenery. Ramshackle huts hug the klongs that criss cross the flat terrain while young kids fish and play around. Sam Yaek looks great, a wonderful place to get off and wander around and take the opportunity of recording this photogenic landscape. It's a junction of 2 klongs with many bright flowers and brighter birds flashing by the rapidly moving train.
With Swiss style punctuality we arrive at a spot where double tracking allows the trains to pass and we are soon proceeding on our way. It's a Saturday and I'm a little hung-over and appreciate the cool air through the open window. We pull into Mahachai station and come to a halt in a dark market that doubles as the railway station. Outside in the bright sunshine it's a sea food lover's delight as stalls sell all sort of stuff that had been happily minding their own business and few yards away the night before. Rickshaws and songthaew remind you that while Bangkok may only be an hour away your are pretty much up country here.
There is a river crossing where you can join the Mae Klang line but this is a less frequent run, four times a day and I had little time to wander the market and surrounding streets before heading back to the big city.
I've done the journey a couple of times now and enjoy it. You do feel you are being taken to another world yet one so close to Bangkok. The journey back is as uneventful as the outbound and I took the opportunity to look at my pictures. Each time I've done the trip I have never been the only farang (foreigner) on board so obviously people are hearing about this quaint little line.
Recently I was shafted good and proper in an elaborate airport taxi scam in Kuala Lumpur and vowed never to let myself fall prey to such tactics again. So when I’m told that there is no option other than a 200baht ‘limousine’ ride for the 8km into town I shoulder my bag and march off to the road beyond the airport thinking that I’d rather walk it than get fleeced. My stubbornness soon pays off as the moment I’m out of the gates a guy in a van pulls up and offers to take me to town for 100baht.
He drops me at ST Motorcycle on Banphaprakan Road where I get a new 250cc all terrain 6 speed Honda for the inflated price of 700baht a day. By 9.30am I’m on the open road in the direction of Mai Sai and the Burmese border. Red earth, rice paddies and grazing buffalo are plentiful along the road and the scenery just gets better the further I go. The open road, clean air and the natural environment make a welcome break from Bangkok’s metropolitan madness. I have a late breakfast of somtam, sticky rice and gai yang at a small roadside restaurant about 19km outside Mai Sai. The staff are inquisitive about what I am doing and where I am going and exceptionally friendly. I just know that I will enjoy my few days in this area.
Mai Sai is not much to look at; a cluster of grubby looking concrete shop houses and street stalls with the border crossing into Burma located, dominantly, at the far end of the main street. The border is busy and is clearly very much used for local commerce. Burmese and Thai traders come and go with goods stacked on their backs, carried on bicycles and samlor, motorbikes and pick-ups.
Just as I think I’m going to get through the vehicle channel on the bike I’m fished out by a smiling soldier and reluctantly have to leave it with the tourist police. On the Burmese side I’m issued with a receipt for my passport, which will be retained and stamped whilst I’m away. The Burmese border town of Thakhilek is even drearier in appearance than Mai Sai and evidently less developed. Wandering through the streets I come across the rather plush Allure Resort and head in to use the bathroom facilities. Inside there is a casino full of slot machines all geared to take Thai baht and there is no shortage of day-tripping Thais happy to pay to watch the reels spin.
I don’t want to spend the day travelling further into Burma and can find very little to hold my attention in Thakilek so I stop for a coffee at a quaint little street café before heading back to the border. I order a cup of black coffee which arrives in a glass and thick with condensed milk, accompanied by the obligatory complimentary hot green tea and a selection of savoury buns and cigarettes on a sale or return basis. The furnishings are all miniature, the kind you might find in a kindergarten, and there are plastic spittoons full of the discarded remnants of chewed betel by every table. The waitresses are pleasant and welcoming and waft around the customers with grace and efficiency. All the Burmese here seem to speak Thai and accept Thai Baht. My coffee and two cigarettes (not that I would normally smoke) cost 15baht.
Returning across the border is a painless experience and it suddenly occurs to me that my first impression of this part of the country was right. Everyone here seems so much happier and easy going; surprisingly even the passport control guys have a smile and a few words. In the no-man’s land of the bridge between the two border posts there is a collection of women and children sat around begging for money. They are bedraggled and filthy and at the same time pleasant and not pushy. A young girl of about three or four skips along beside me asking for ‘sam baht, sam baht ka’ in unclear Thai with a smile that would melt the stoniest of hearts. She’s grimy and wearing a filthy little dress that could have been a nice party frock in its former life. Normally I wouldn’t give money to beggars but looking at this poor little thing, not much older than my own daughter back in Bangkok I couldn’t resist and handed over the three baht she was asking for. Her eyes lit up and she thanked me and scampered back to her mother with the good news.
I head out on the road to Chiang Saen through no end of rice paddies, the smell of fires smouldering almost everywhere. Just before the Golden Triangle I pull in to the Hall of Opium, a museum dedicated to the history of the drug that this area is so famous for. It’s a large modern building and very impressive. At 300baht entrance (200baht for Thais) it’s a bit steep and I challenge the staff about the two tier pricing. The first girl looks embarrassed and can’t think of anything to say when her more talkative side-kick steps in, and with more than a dollop of sarcasm asks if I pay tax and if I am Thai and goes on to say this is Thailand etc etc. I point out that Thais don’t pay tax in other countries but still pay the same rate as the locals. She shrugs her shoulders and asks for my 300baht. This turns out to be my only negative experience throughout the trip and is actually quite amusing. The museum is well laid out and very informative, the only downside being the rather one sided picture of history that is presented. But despite that and the extortionate entrance fee it is well worth a visit.
A short ride down the road is the Golden Triangle. This is basically a collection of street stalls selling hill tribe goodies at the point of confluence between the Mekong and Ruak rivers, where Loas, Burma and Thailand actually meet, creating a triangle. The golden bit comes from the lucrative production of opium once ubiquitous in this area. The village is actually called Sop Ruak but all the maps have it listed as Golden Triangle, which obviously has better tourist pulling clout than Sop Ruak. The place is positively teeming with tourists foreign and local, mixed with groups of hill tribe kids dressed in colourful traditional dress, licking ice creams and smiling for pictures. The other dominant feature, apart from the river and neighbouring countries, is the large golden Buddha statue, perched high above the road by the side of the river.
Further down the road, about 10km or so is, Chiang Saen. Much older than Mae Sai, Chiang Saen has a lot more character and various ancient ruins for viewing. The sun is starting to go very low and I want to get back to Chiang Rai to find some accommodation, via Chiang Saen Lake, so I more or less just drive through Chaing Saen, stopping very briefly for a look at Wat Chedi Luang. It looks like a good place to spend a night and I make a mental note to return. A few km out of Chiang Saen on the road to Mae Chan is the lake. I don’t really know why I make the effort to go there except that it is a peaceful spot to stop for a drink and to get off the bike and stretch my legs. Back in Chiang Rai I blindly cruise the streets on the bike looking for accommodation and for some daft reason settle on a grubby place called the
Krung Tong Hotel just off Banphaprakan Road. It’s more of a cheap and aged apartment block than hotel and I get a very basic room with ‘en-suite’ and a fan for 270baht. The shower is filthy and has evidence of previous guests encrusted on the walls, the mattress feels like solid teak and the pillow feels as though it’s been stuffed with granite. However, it seems a good idea at the time and isn’t too expensive.
Having not eaten since the morning I gorge myself on Thai food just around the corner from the hotel and set off to wander the Chiang Rai nightlife. In the centre there is a really good night bazaar that is definitely worth a wander, even if you’re not interested in buying anything. I weave in and out of the rows of stalls and open fronted shops free from the usual hard sell you get in Bangkok. The main focus of the bazaar seems to be handicrafts and there’s an abundance of wooden ornaments and ceramics for sale plus clothes, food, cloth, and the usual array of weaponry available in most Thai tourist areas. There are also several stalls with artists prepared to sketch your portrait for a reasonable amount of cash, and given the quality of what they are producing it seems like a bargain.
Not far from the clock tower on Banpharakan Road is the main drinking area and I wander past numerous pubs with pool tables and TVs, restaurants and massage parlours. There is also a small section devoted to go-go bars and what looks like pick up joints. Not being a regular frequenter of this kind of establishment I decide to have a quick beer in one and see what the more seedier side of Chiang Rai nightlife is like. I wander in to a go-go bar with the rather unimaginative name of, The Go-Go Bar, perch myself on a seat as close to the door as possible and order a Heineken. It’s a narrow bar with mirrored walls, neon and ultra-violet lighting and a small stage at one corner of the far end where a young woman in bra and knickers with a wisp of black lace tied around her waist is shuffling nonchalantly between two stainless steel polls to the Crazy Frog’s rendition of Axel F. She looks happy enough but would never win any dancing awards. Five minutes later and she’s replaced by another young woman who strips to bra and knickers and ties on her bit of lace and begins her little shuffle. The clientele is mainly Thai, with the exception of one foreigner who is holding court with three of the women, who appear to be genuinely hanging on his every word. Nobody approaches me or tries to talk to me and I’m left alone to drink my beer in peace and watch the ‘show’. Maybe I’m too smelly from my day on the bike or maybe the fact that my trainers, normally beaten-up and dirty, have come to life and started to glow radiantly in the ultra-violet light.
Sunday morning and it’s an early start. I walk the early morning streets and watch the town come to life. Monks are in abundance collecting charitable offerings from merit making locals. The early morning fruit and veg market is in full swing and doing a brisk trade with its sellers’ wares laid out on stalls and on the streets. Near the clock tower on Banpharakan Road is Doi Chaang coffee shop. I take a seat on the terrace and order coffee and a pancake whilst trying to decide on my route for the day. The local Doi Chaang coffee is definitely worth a try.
By 9am I’m on the road again, speeding along the main road towards Mae Chan feeling more confident with the bike and fast becoming addicted to the idea of exploring on two wheels. Just the other side of Mae Chan I hang a left onto the 1130 road and follow a series of windy roads indirectly up Doi Tung towards Phrathat Doi Tung. On the way I stop in an area completely devoid of all signs of life and rest. The scenery is truly stunning and the almost heavenly silence is broken only by the occasional and unmistakable sound of gunfire in the distance, a reminder that the Burmese border is close by.
The temple is bursting with Thai and what sounds like Chinese people, praying, making merit, banging on bells and walking around the Lanna style chedis that are said to date back to 911AD.
I assume that the view from here would normally be breathtaking but today there is a haze that restricts visibility to about 1 or 2 km so there is not a lot to see.
From the temple my exact route is hazy as the map I have is not concise enough to cover the small roads I end up on, so I just push on and on as the roads get narrower. I aim towards Mae Fah Luang and turn right onto the 1334 and then take several turns and go down some very narrow roads. I ride through hill tribe villages where children wave frantically and try to run alongside my bike, shouting and laughing, and mothers holding babies smile. I decide not to stop and take pictures. I know that most people do and I’m sure these people are quite happy with this but I always feel it is a bit voyeuristic and feel uncomfortable with the idea of treating someone’s home as and way of life as a museum.
At one point I realise that I’ve not seen a living soul for half an hour or more and the roads are becoming poorer in quality and less travelled. Eventually I come to a military check point on a dusty road near the Thai/Burma border where I’m stopped by a soldier with a semi-automatic rifle. He’s young and actually seems more nervous of me than I of him. He can’t speak English and asks questions in Thai; most of which I can understand. I return several questions about why he is there and about Burma etc and take the opportunity for a rest and drink of water. He’s quite friendly and lets me take some photos and seems quite happy for some company; I can’t imagine he sees an awful lot of people during his average day. Whilst I’m stretching my legs and drinking, his phone rings and he’s questioned about my presence. He then asks to see my passport. Taking it into his little hut he fingers through the pages looking for I don’t know what and it seems apparent that he can’t actually read what he’s looking at. Even so he finds the passport number and jots it down. The barrier is lifted and I’m allowed to continue with my journey.
I continue on for quite some time and eventually the roads start to get better again. At one point whilst winding my way through a series of very sharp hairpin bends I have my first, and hopefully only, fall. I take the bend too sharp, lose control and go flying. The bike has minimal damage and I’m just slightly bruised and grazed. I pick the bike up again and I’m thankful that there was no one here to witness my idiocy. But then I realise that if I had been more seriously injured I could have lay there for a long time before being found. Having a mobile is good I guess but useless if you don’t know where you are.
From then on I take more care and start to worry about the damage to the fairing on the bike. The bike is presumably an import job and therefore difficult and pricey to repair. Will I be faced with a huge bill back at ST Motorcycle? Eventually I get out onto better roads and find road signs I recognise and get back to the Mae Chan/Mae Sai road. My concerns are unfounded, as when I return the bike the woman in charge looks at the damage, makes a call and says, ‘mai pen rai ka’.
There are many things to see and do in and around Chiang Rai and I’m sure you could spend a weekend in Chaing Rai alone, before even thinking of venturing further afield and, if the signs are to be believed, it even boasts its very own beach. There are guesthouses and hotels in far better positions than the one I stayed at and a plethora of tours available. If I was to go again I would definitely stay further out in a more remote area and maybe spend longer, exploring the whole region by bike.
As for my thoughts on Chiang Rai and its people. Just great. They have a wonderful attitude towards life and a splendidly cheery disposition. The tuk-tuk driver who took me to the airport in the evening epitomised the Chaing Rai way beautifully. I asked him if he would take me to the airport and he replied ‘Yes, ok. But slooowly na, no hurry’, and proceeded to give me a guided tour of Chaing Rai on the way.
Starting in November of each year, the province of Saraburi, as well as surrounding central provinces, hit a sunflower high season. The rural landscape fills with vibrant yellow flowers, 72 square kilometres of them, to be exact. As the fields blossom, the province takes measures to ensure that tourists who come to experience this sight will be pleased. In addition to the flowers, there are markets and activities set up on the roadside to offer more entertainment after the fields have been explored. This makes Saraburi a popular destination for Thais on car trips, and a fantastic surprise for the traveller who stumbles upon it.
Being a city girl by nature, the last sunflowers I saw were in a Van Gogh print in a guesthouse bathroom. And so, the sight of man-sized sunflowers, big and blossoming and tall enough to make me feel comparatively short for the first time since arriving in Asia, was surreal; stunning in a giddy, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" kind of way.
The sunflowers are more than picturesque, though you will easily fill rolls of film while walking through the fields. The scene of vibrant yellow blossoms, with lush palm trees and cool granite mountains in the backdrop, is downright beautiful. Also, the fields are large and uncrowded enough to explore in peace, with the opportunity to study the flowers up-close.
The busier fields offer booths of local wares at the entrance, perfect for souvenir-hunters. I would recommend bypassing the sunflower-print blouses and umbrellas and going straight to the roasting sunflower seeds. Here you can sample the freshest of sweet and salted varieties, still warm from the cooking pan (20 baht per bag).
Some fields also offer elephant rides, a highly recommended experience, where sightseers can perch in a basic wooden seat and enjoy the bumpy ride through the fields, led by friendly guides on small but healthy-looking elephants (100 baht for 2-3 people).
Saraburi province is north of Bangkok, an easy 2.5 hour drive on Highway 1. While the sunflowers aren't located in the city of Saraburi itself, the province has placed sunflower posters and signs on the major roads, offering directions. The people of the region are friendly and more than willing to offer their personal tips for the best sunflower fields. Just be sure to bring plenty of film!
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.
There are many reasons to visit Penang. With its beautiful beaches, Kek Lok Si – perhaps the largest and finest Buddhist temple in Asia – and spectacular scenery, it is easy to see why the island has earnt the nickname Pearl of the Orient.
Don’t miss Kek Lok Si, the terrific pagoda-style temple situated atop Penang Hill. Not only is this a great place to relax and meditate, but the views from the top are spectacular as well. Another good place to visit is the Botanical Garden. This 30-hectare garden was created in 1884 and features a sparkling waterfall as well as beautiful wild Rhesus monkeys.
Also known as Foreigner’s Rock, Batu Ferringhi is a picturesque beach resort. Take a break from temple hopping and trekking through the jungle to simply lie back on the sand a soak up the sun for a while. The Penang Butterfly Farm is located nearby at Teluk Bahang. The butterfly farm is set in picturesque tropical gardens and has thousands of species of butterflies and insects.
In 2004 Time Magazine announced that Penang had the ‘Best Street Food in Asia’, a fact that many dedicated gastronomes have known for some time. People flock from all over Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand to sample the wide range of cuisines available, which include Malay, Chinese, Indian, Nyonya, Thai and a sprinkling of Western dishes such as pasta and hamburgers.
The Indian district of Penang features a large number of stalls bearing dishes from all over India, and this is a great place to dine on portions of daal, biriyanis, tandori chicken and a wide range of other dishes.
If you fancy a treat, take a spin in the Revolving Restaurant on 25A Lebuh Farquhar. It takes an hour for the restaurant to make a complete revolution, allowing you to enjoy spectacular views of Penang.
Some of the best and cheapest accommodation can be found in Georgetown, especially on Lebuh Chulia, where there are several guesthouses offering rooms from RM 200 per night.
The journey takes me just over an hour and is mostly flat, before leading me up a winding tree-lined hill. On the way up the hill I stop to buy petrol from a small stand and get talking to the owner, a friendly robust woman called Pim.
Pim laughs when she hears that I intend to climb to the top of Erawan Waterfall, the majestic seven-tiered fall that is about 1,500 meters high. "You cannot do it," Pim grins - "you are much too fat!"
I thank Pim for her kind words and continue my journey, noticing how empty the road is and how beautiful the scenery. Before long I have reached the park and leave my bike in the car park.
As I walk through the forest to the first level of the waterfall, I pass by a guide giving instructions to a group of brightly-clad tourists. "Remember, the monkeys like to bite. Last week a monkey bit of someone's hand!" the guide grinned at the look of alarm at the tourist's face. "No, I am joking. But take care."
I pass the group and reach the first level, which is stunningly beautiful. Although only a shallow fall, the water is clear and inviting and the forest backdrop is very pretty. Several people are already at this level, splashing in the water, balancing on logs or eating picnics.
I continue up a flight of steps to the second level, which features a deep pool filled with cool water. It is a long climb up to the third level, and I am hot and breathless by the end of it. I remember Pim's words and wonder if I will make it to the top.
The fall at level three is much larger and extremely pretty. This seems like a good place to swim and its not long before I'm splashing about in the crystal clear aquamarine water. But I am not alone. After a few seconds I am attacked by a school of fish, who are intent on eating my skin. Luckily, these fish are only about an inch long and simply want to feast on my dead skin cells, so I'm safe enough. Still, the fish are persistent ands swimming with them is like being struck by a series of minor electric shocks.
Erawan falls is situated in Erawan National Park, which covers 550 sq kms and receives around 60,000 visitors each year. The falls are named after Erawan, the three-headed elephant of Hindu faith as the falling water is said to resemble the mighty beast.
After sitting sunbathing on some rocks to dry off, I embark on the challenging climb up ton level five. Sweat is pouring off me as I struggle to climb the steep hill. Luckily, there is a lookout point halfway up and I take the opportunity to rest as I enjoy the spectacular view across the lush landscape.My spirits are lifted as I reach level five and am greeted by the sweet sounds of singing, music and laughter. A group of Thai teenagers have somehow carried their guitars up the mountain, and I rest for a while enjoying the way the light blends with the sounds of the birds and the breeze in the trees.
The climb to level six is equally challenging, but once there I am greeted by the sight of a large waterfall and deep pool. This level is completely deserted, and I welcome the opportunity to wade in the waters once more.
After I have rested, it is time to ascend to the seventh and final level. I search in vain for a pathway, finally realising that to reach the top I must climb the steep rock face to the left of the fall. Expecting to stumble at any moment I eventually make it to the top, cross a stream and somehow manage to climb the last 100 metres to the summit.
Hot, sweaty and breathless, I stand and look around. To my surprise I am actually above the level of the jungle and can see for miles in every direction, where varying shades of green mix with bursts of bright colour and the sparkling blue of distant rivers.
Finally, it is time to descend from my lofty perch. On the way back down I am surprised by a group of monkeys, who climb past me down the rocky path without even giving me a second glance. I look jealously at the effortless way they scamper down the mountainside, feeling slow and heavy in comparison.
Finally I am at the bottom and climb aboard my waiting motorbike. On the way back I stop to tell Pim about my adventure. The friendly woman looks at me in surprise. "Maybe you are like an elephant," she tells me. "They look slow but are very powerful." I grin at Pim, realising that this is as close to a compliment as I am ever going to get.
About the author:
Kirsty Turner (Kay) is a freelance writer currently living in Bangkok. She has kindly agreed to write for KhaoSanRoad.com and share her love of all things Thai and, especially, all things Khao San Road!