Tag - southeast asia

Our Philosophy

logoKhaoSanRoad.com is THE jungle drum for travelers in Thailand and Southeast Asia. Each article printed has either be sent to us by a traveller on the road or inspired by a traveller’s interest. We do not print information we think people need, rather we wait for people to tell us what they want…

There may be things you think are lacking on the site… If that’s the case it’s because no one has contacted us about it. As a traveller consider it YOUR responsibility to spread your news and views…

There may be things you think are out of place on the site… that’s your opinion. If someone takes the time and effort to write to us to inform us of something as simple as a new clothes washing place opening on Khao San Road, we’ll print it or check it out… whatever’s required…

The intention of KhaoSanRoad.com is to get people OFF Khao San Road… strange? Not as strange as you think… Khao San Road used to be the place travelers stayed before going on their adventures… now it seems it’s become the adventure. If people stay on Khao San Road watching ‘The Beach’ they might as well stay at home… Like the old days, we want your to try new things and let people know what happened… good or bad. That way people with the traveling spirit can try something and exciting… something that’s NOT in the guidebook!

 

Hospitals in Bangkok

BNH Hospital, Bangkok, ThailandThe number of people flying to Bangkok to receive major surgery testifies to the fact that its hospitals – both private and government – are world class. If you are in Bangkok and cost is a problem head to Chulalongkorn University Hospital, Rama IV Road (Tel: 0-2252-8181). It’s a government hospital with some of the best doctors in town. If you need to get to a hospital in Bangkok quickly, Bangkok Adventist Mission Hospital is closest to Khao San Road. Get there by ordinary bus #11, 12, 44 or airbus #44. If it’s an absolute emergency get in a taxi and tell the driver this: ‘By rong-payabaan mi-shun row-row’. Click here for hospitals around Thailand.

 


Here’s a quick list of hospitals in Bangkok:

Phyathai 1 Hospital
364 Sri-Ayudhaya Road.,
Rajhathevi Bangkok 10400
Tel: 0-22452620-1, 0-2642-7373
Fax: 0-2245-5488 Phyathai 2 Hospital
943, Phaholyothin Road,
Samsenni, Bangkok 10400
Tel: 0-2617-2444 ( Automatic 100 line)
Fax: 0-2271-2306

Phyathai 2 Hospital
943, Phaholyothin Road,
Samsenni, Bangkok 10400
Tel: 0-2617-2444 ( Automatic 100 line)
Fax: 0-2271-2306

Phyathai 3 Hospital
207/26 Phetkasem Road.,
(Phetkhasem 19/3),
Pakklong, Phasricharoen Bangkok 10160
Tel: 0-2869-1111

Bangkok Hospital
(formerly known as Bangkok General Hospital)
2 Soi Soonvijai 7
New Petchburi Road
Bangkok 10320
Tel: 0-2310-3101/3102
Fax: 0-2310-3367

Bangna Hospital Km. 3
Bang Na-Trat Road
Bangkok
Tel: 0-2393-8534-5
Fax: 0-2398-9531

Bumrungrad Hospital
33 Sukhumvit Soi 3 Wattana
Bangkok 10110
Tel: 0-2667-1000
Fax: 0-2667-2525

Central General Hospital
362/114 Pahonyothin Road
Bang Khen, Bangkok
Tel: 0-2552-8777
Fax: 0-2552-0666

Lad Prao Hospital
2699 Lad Prao Road
Bangkok
Tel: 0-2530-2244
Fax: 0-2935-0021

Dental Hospital (Dental only)
88/88 Soi 49, Sukhumvit Road
Bangkok
Tel 0-2260-5000
Fax: 0-2260-5026

Nonthavej Hospital
30/8 Ngarm Wong Wan Road
Bangkok
Tel: 589-5489-91
Fax: 589-8753

Mongkutwattana General Hospital
34/40 Chaeng Wattana Road
Bangkok
Tel: 0-2574-1000-1
Fax: 0-2574-4856

Pakkred Vejchakarn General Hospital (Government Hospital)
132/215 Chaeng Wattana Road
Bangkok
Tel: 0-2960-9655-9
Fax: 0-2960-9666 Police Hospital
Rama I Road.
Bangkok
Tel: 0-2252-8111-25

Ramkhamhaeng Hospital
2138 Soi 34, Ramkhamhaeng Road
Bangkok
Tel: 0-2374-0200-16
Fax: 0-2732-3977

Rajavithi General Hospital (Government Hospital)
Rajavithi Road
Bangkok
Tel: 0-2281-1246
Fax: 0-2246-8270

Saint Louis Hospital
215 Sathorn Tai Road
Bangkok
Tel: 0-2675-5000
Fax: 0-2675-5200 Samitivej Hospital
133 Soi 49, Sukhumvit Road
Bangkok
Tel: 0-2392-0011-9
Fax: 0-391-1290

Samitivej-Srinakarin Hospital
Bangkok
488 Srinakarin Road
Tel: 0-20-2731-7000 Samitivej Hospital
133 Soi 49, Sukhumvit Road
Bangkok
Tel: 0-2392-0011-9
Fax: 0-391-1290

Thai Nakarin Hospital
345 Bang Na-Trat Road
Bangkok
Tel: 0-2361-2712-61
Fax: 0-2361-2788 Thonburi Hospital
34/1 Soi Saeng Suksa (Soi 44)
Issarapharp Road
Thonburi
Tel: 0-2412-0020-7
Fax: 0-2412-7343

Vibhavadi General Hospital
51/3 Ngarm Wong Wan Road
Bangkok
Tel: 0-2561-1258-67
Fax: 0-2561-1466 Bangpo General Hospital
95 Pracharat 2 Road
Bangsue, Bangkok 10800
Tel: 0-2662-587-0144
Fax: 0-2586-0024

A Visit to the Ladies’ Prison

“A story of a day in which I would experience a complement of emotion.”

This is an account of a friendship I have made with a girl that is serving a 40 year prison sentence in Thailand.

How this all Began

Around ten months ago in the U.K. I was randomly trawling the internet for anything of interest on our favourite tropical destination.  Just by chance, I stumbled on an international prisoners abroad website.

Fascinating reading, news, views, stories and there is even a facility where you can email an inmate. Long lists of many nationalities are displayed and I accessed the Lard Yao section in Bangkok.  Upon scanning through the list of prisoners my attention was drawn in particular to a girl from South Africa who was arrested whilst pregnant ten years ago. Her baby daughter was born inside the prison and returned to South Africa at the age of three. At the trial, the child’s mother was sentenced to 50 years, then commuted to 40 years on appeal. She has now served 10 years, so unless His Majesty the King of Thailand in his mercy grants a Royal Pardon, then a further 30 years she must serve.

I guessed as much that this girl would appreciate an English pen-friend so I sent over an introductory email. I have never written to an inmate before and this was to be the start of ten months of correspondence between us.  All incoming and outgoing mail must go through a censor causing a delay, but I have found that our letters rarely go missing. Over the coming months my friend was open and honest about her life and the reasons leading to her current situation. Our friendship developed and I became increasingly concerned for her welfare. I saved up the cash and booked my ticket for Thailand whilst organising a two hour prison visit with the assistance of the South African embassy.

Crime and Punishment

Until recently I didn’t know what crime my friend had committed – [well, that’s the one question you can’t ask can you?]. I was sure it wouldn’t be bank robbery, or murder or treason. I didn’t want to focus on the girl’s past mistakes. That was history. I know she desperately wants another chance to re-build her life.

About a month ago I discovered that she tried to board a plane with a suitcase with a false compartment containing illegal drugs.  Whilst travelling around I have sought the opinion of fellow farangs and Thais on this matter. Many are sympathetic but others take the view that people that commit serious crimes deserve everything they get. A sort of “no more to discuss/show no mercy” attitude.  However, as I see it, the problem is that a verdict is never quite as black and white as pure guilt or pure innocence. Any grey areas should also be considered. For clarification, please read Sandra Gregory’s* excellent book “Forget you had a Daughter”. Sandra was arrested and sentenced to 25 years.  One statement she made in her book was that “All the foreign girls in Lard Yao on drug offences have one thing in common, which is they were duped by a male”.

It’s my belief that when a woman gives her heart to a man she will trust him without question. Under such circumstances, she will not doubt anything he tells her. When you read Sandra’s incredible sequence of misfortunate events that lead to her arrest, then maybe her story will mellow your viewpoint. Does the punishment fit the crime? We could debate that issue for years and in the grand scheme of things, I guess the decision should remain within each Country’s own judicial system. But here is my take on this sensitive issue – let’s just say that I have the view that when anybody makes a big mistake in their lives, any punishment should never last forever.  Shoot me down about this if you want to, but please remember that sadly, some of the poor souls serving long sentences have been completely forgotten about on the outside.

The resulting despair of being forgotten was never prescribed by any court of law.

Return to Bangkok

Any regular visitor to Thailand will recollect the warm feeling of excited anticipation as their taxi heads down the expressway to the metropolis. An expectation of what’s to follow if you like.  February 6th 2004 arrives and on this particular occasion the feeling of excitement was heightened like never before. Just a premonition, but I knew this holiday was going to be exceptional.

Before I could make my prison visit there were a few things left to do. As one would expect there are restrictions to the type of gifts allowed.

Toiletries, cosmetics and underwear seem to be highly desirable items. Non controversial books and magazines are also prized. So the Robinsons branch on Sukhumvit did quite well out of me.  Wandering around the ladies underwear department looking for bra and knickers was surprisingly, not an embarrassing task. It would have been in the U.K., but in Thailand nobody seems to bother about such trivial matters. So with my passport and bag of gifts I’m all set for the journey up to Lard Yao.

Day of the Visit

Lard Yao Mens and Ladies Prison is located in north Bangkok, about a 15 minute taxi journey from the Mo Chit skytrain station.  It’s cheaper to take the boat up the Chao Phaya to Nonthaburi. On such a beautiful day, I would have preferred that nice boat ride but I didn’t want to risk being late and I had to collect a letter of authorisation from the South African embassy beforehand.  It is quite possible to visit without contact with the embassy, but then it is restricted to only a 20 minute duration.

The visit would last for two hours and I worried about exhausting our conversation prematurely. I thought about the embarrassment of sitting there in silence.

As a precaution, I wrote a list of topics I wanted to discuss. A sort of cue card of items which I subsequently trash canned in my hotel room. I guessed it would keep it “natural” by remaining spontaneous.

It’s nice when these little decisions to go the right way.

My taxi pulled into the main drive way area that divides both the men and ladies prison. Over to the left side the cab stopped outside a security gate.

With a friendly wave through by the security guard I was inside the compound. There is an admin building where visitors must report to register. Everything was very relaxed and straightforward and I must say that all the staff within the building were helpful and friendly. Not at all formal like I had imagined. There is even a small outdoor restaurant for visitors and a shop where some basic gift items can be bought. The surrounding area is quite well landscaped, trees, plants, etc, it could almost resemble the entrance to a park, except of course for the high walls with barbed wire.

After a few minutes I was invited to the embassy room to wait out of the hot sun. My passport was borrowed and I was asked if I had a camera or telephone. I possessed neither, so was politely taken to a very comfortable waiting room where there was about an hour left until my appointment.

This gave me time to mentally run through all the questions I wanted to ask. What would be my first sentence? How inquisitive can I be without causing offence? What if I made a stupid mistake? How would I cope with any requests I could not comply with? What if we sat in silence? – I needn’t have worried.

Across from the waiting room was a long clean corridor about one metre wide. There were five upholstered small stools spaced out by about two metres. Above the stools a beige formica covered counter stretched the length of the corridor. From the counter to the ceiling a clear perspex screen was sealed on all sides, but a few small circular holes are positioned at head level to enable speech. The place was empty and very quiet and I sat patiently and waited.

Ten minutes early and my friend appeared behind the screen. She was wearing regular blue uniform, but had obviously gone to much trouble to make herself look very good with make up. We both sat down and smiled. The feeling of apprehension disappeared in an instant.

It was one of those personal moments that last in the memory.

I guess the conversation was split maybe 70% to my friend and 30% to myself. I was happy about that because she told me everything about her life. In particular she explained that she was always adventurous and very determined.  She would pursue with energy anything that she wanted. I thought back to my younger days when there were times I always thought I knew what was for the best and wouldn’t take advice. Lucky for me that I made my mistakes in England where leniency is very much the norm.

It was extremely interesting to listen to her life story. She was very articulate and polite, and in particular, I was saddened to learn of the despair of being separated from her nine year old daughter. Due to high travel expenses, her daughter cannot visit regularly. Maybe once every year or two. The mother/daughter bond is very strong and so this must be extremely hard to endure. Whilst speaking about her daughter I could see the hurt in her eyes. Very sad indeed, but there is a glimmer of hope insofar that an application has been made to the King of Thailand for a Royal Pardon. This process can take a lot of time but sometimes it is granted. It would be a special day indeed if she could be re-united with her daughter back in South Africa.  What a great photograph that would make. I’m hoping that day of reconciliation is not too far away.

Our topics of conversation were diverse to say the least. We discussed modern day living, technology advances, mobile phones with video, the skytrain, the internet, ice cream at Swensens, the meaning of happiness, finance, Singapore, Malaysia, religion, Aids, sorrow, alcohol, family life in South Africa, prison life in Thailand, family life in England, plus of course the dreadful weather in England (Brits never leave that out) and a few anecdotes here and there to lighten up the proceedings. All things considered, a thoroughly enjoyable conversation where neither of us were ever lost for words. After two hours and twenty minutes (I resisted to glance at my watch and it only ‘seemed like about one hour) my friend said that she should be getting back to her dormitory.

Surprisingly nobody came over to call time, but we knew the time was upon us to say our farewells. A sad moment until next visit – probably again later this year. As we have now become good friends, I will definitely go back again.

It was a memorable experience. A pleasure and a privilege I wouldn’t have traded for anything else.

Conclusion

A prison visit may not appeal to everyone, but if you enjoy the art of conversation and forming a new friendship with someone less fortunate, then it’s an experience I thoroughly recommend.

If you can’t spare the time to make a visit in person, you can definitely lift the spirit of an inmate by writing a letter.  For the negligible cost of a stamp your mail will make a positive difference. Try to include a couple of post office reply coupons, because if your new friend is broke they can be used to buy stamps. I’m already convinced that all mail received from the outside is welcomed with opened arms, so please try to make the effort to write.

Moreover, if you are of a generous disposition, there is a prison shop where small items such as toothpaste, soap, biscuits etc are on sale. These sort of things we take for granted are very gratefully received. For those of you with exceptional generosity there is a counter where funds can be deposited in the prisoner’s own account. A receipt is given and the money will reach the inmate in a coupon format that can be spent in the shop. On that note, I’ll leave everything to your good nature.

Thanks very much for reading this story. I’m interested to hear your views on this matter, favourable or otherwise. Please email me. I will make every effort to reply.

Finally, a big plea to everybody ….. Enjoy yourself in Thailand but please don’t break the law.

Footnote

*Sandra Gregory was granted a King’s Pardon and has since taken a University course in the United Kingdom.

Muay Thai on Khao San Road!


Muay Thai on Khao San Road
muay_thai_on_khao_san_road_2
Muay Thai on Khao San Road
Muay Thai on Khao San Road
Muay Thai on Khao San Road
Muay Thai on Khao San Road
Muay Thai on Khao San Road
Thai boxing on Khao San Road

Want to learn how to kick arse and show your respect for thai culture at the same time? Not far from Khao San Road, down a small alley, is hidden the Sor. Vorapin boxer training center. You have likely walked past and been mystified at the shouts of “ess!” followed by the rather painful sounds of passionate pummeling. Yes, this is Muay Thai, Thailand’s national sport, and you too can get in on the action!

Sor. Vorapin started around 30 years ago with only three people, and was initially a thai-only training center. This was back in the days when there were no banana pancakes on Khao San Road- no dreadlocked hippies, no VW bus bars – in fact, there wasn’t much there at all at the time! The location was chosen simply because of its proximity to Sanam Luang, where the trainees would be able to run around the park if they so desired, as part of their training. Eventually the area started to become the foreigner circus it is today, and farangs started traipsing past the gym and being distracted by the grunting and sweating. Simultaneously, the trainees had grown into champion fighters, and started thinking about training others. In around 1984, a french lad named Frederic became the first foreign student of Sor. Vorapin. He was also the first foreign champion.

Nowadays, people (both men and women) come from all over the world to study muay thai at Sor. Vorapin. There are an average of five trainers on hand daily, who can give personal attention to anyone from a wide-eyed beginner to a (hood-eyed) experienced fighter. Each trainer has many years of fighting and many champion titles under their belt

We stopped by during an evening class to get the scoop. Dodging high kicks and flying sweat, we found a safe corner in which to gawk. The gym has a boxing ring, several hanging punch bags, lots of weights, space in which one can practice making evil faces in the mirror along with perfecting that move with their knee. The many students were each paired with a trainer of similar size, who prompted them to hit as hard as they could on the rubber pads they had slipped onto their hands. A tiny thai girl screeched loudly as she wailed on her startled victim in merciless succession. A well sculpted irish girl casually jumped rope. Several Japanese boys practiced combos on mats.

We cornered a group of trainers once they got a break and fired up the old pencil. A young man named ‘Us’ was most happy to oblige our interrogation. He, like many professional boxers, came from the area of Buriram, and has been with the gym for about 15 years. When asked why in the world he would ever choose fighting as his profession, he interrupted defensively- “it’s not so much fighting as it is an art”. Sure, he gets a lot of aggression out in the ring, but the reasons for his chosen life are more complex. Muay Thai teaches discipline, he says, and helps you realize your strength, both inner and outer. It also keeps you healthy, in shape, and away from vices like alcohol and drugs. It helps you defend yourself, and in the case of thais, is a way of showing patriotism to their country. The other trainers nodded in agreement, and a garrulous ‘Singh’ piped in that the money and international travel opportunities were good motivators as well. How much money do you make as a fighter? “It depends,” says Singh, “in my village when I was a little kid I made 50 baht for winning my first fight. Nowadays I make an average of 6000 baht per win, and much more in international championship fights”. Us nods, adding that he is headed to Indonesia in a couple of weeks for a fight and is excited to add that to the list of countries he has been to. “It’s good to give exposure to Muay Thai to other countries. It’s not like any other martial art- it requires you to be much harder and there’s a lot of different technique involved”. When asked how he will prepare for this upcoming fight he sighs- “It’s a lot of relaxing. Meditating, cleaning out your body, staying away from alcohol, getting sleep”. My Thai companion leans over and whispers in his ear and he blushes and says sheepishly “it’s true, you can not ejaculate for 2 weeks prior to a fight. It builds up tension which you can use to your advantage against your opponent”. I muse that it’s rather like joining the monkhood and they nod. “It’s a spiritual practice in much the same way. It’s been around for hundreds of years [in fact, it is first on record in the year 1767] and every thai child grows up with a certain reverence for it. It’s very ceremonial- before each fight we perform the wai-kru, which is a sort of traditional dance. It’s a way for us to please our families, please the king, and please ourselves with our bravery and stamina. This takes a lot of self discipline.”

A very large thai man emerges from the gym with his arm slung around the neck of a lily white dutch student, and I recognize the man from the many pictures pasted up on the walls as being Mr. Tanomsak. He is one of the most well respected trainers in Thailand, and now spends part of his time teaching in Switzerland. I am lucky to catch him. I ask him why he thinks people should come to his gym and he smiles. “We have so much experience, we’re all champions here. We’ve worked with foreigners for years, and we have a good understanding of just how far we can or can’t push someone. Each trainer has their own special techniques for bringing out the best in people, and we welcome anyone who is interested in observing or joining up”. I ask him if one should be worried about pain or injury and he laughs. “It happens occasionally, and certainly the first couple of times might be a bit painful. But you learn to feed off the pain and it eventually becomes welcome”. He adds that they take every precaution as to the safety of bones and muscles. I ask him how long it takes to become a champion and he muses, “It’s probably easier for a thai, as we grow up with muay thai and many boys start learning at a very young age. But if a person is careful, has a good trainer, and learns step by step- starting with building up strength in the body and progressing to having the strength in the mind, they can be ready to fight after just a couple of weeks of training”. Do they turn out farang champions? He nods vigorously, saying many backpackers come for just an introductory class and end up changing their tickets home so that they can stay longer and do more intensive study. “We have champions in Holland, France, Switzerland, Japan…. you name it. We have girl champions too!”- he scrambles for a photo of a very large swiss girl with arms like tree trunks and I shudder in awe.

Mr. Tanomsak urges anyone who is interested in having a look to stop by around 3pm. To get to the center you cross the main street (Jakapong) at the Khao San police station and walk left until you see the sign at an alley on the right. Training occurs from 8:00am-10:00am and again from 3:00pm -6:00pm. An introductory class sets you back a mere 400 baht, and they have special deals for packages of classes. Everything you need is on hand, just dress comfortably and bring an open mind. They guarantee you won’t leave without learning a thing or two, and you might even have some fun!

Nicole Furi lives in New York. She is a gradutate of the University of Colorado, Boulder (Psychology major) and a Human Factors expert working in the web industry where she designs and tests Graphical User Interfaces. She is also a writer. Currently in Thailand, Nicole is spening a bit of time writing for KhaoSanRoad.com. Are you interested in booking a Thai Boxing course? Use the form below to make an enquiry…

A Weekend Walk in Yangon

A Weekend Walk in Yangon Burma
A Weekend Walk in Yangon Burma
A Weekend Walk in Yangon Burma
A Weekend Walk in Yangon Burma

It’s a gloriously sunny day. Squinting through the window I can make out the magnificent deltas of the Thanlwin, Sittaung and Bago rivers below, looking like hundreds of crooked bony fingers probing into the Andaman Sea. It’s a breathtaking view and I remain transfixed until we touchdown. Myanmar International airport is nothing to write home about and I find it strangely reminiscent of a visit to Tashkent Airport about 12 years ago, but with slightly less rubble to scramble over. That said, the customs staff in this peculiarly cool and airy arrivals hall manage to process the entire flight in minutes and still find time to exchange pleasantries with each passenger.

In most developing countries the newly arrived guest is accosted by hordes of taxi drivers and hotel touts, and Yangon International Airport is no exception. The only difference here is the remarkable politeness of these guys. They accept no for an answer, bid me good day and move to the next potential source of income. It’s a welcome and refreshing change. It’s at this point that I realise that investment in a guide book would have been money well spent. I negotiate with several drivers on the road outside the airport and settle on what seems to be the going rate for the journey to my accommodation.

Most taxis will take either Kyats, US dollar, British pounds or Yen. Dollars can be exchanged at the official money changer booth in the airport, presided over by a crusty old guy with a sinister appearance, where you will get about 450 kyats to the US$1. If you can wait and change money once you’re in Yangon itself you will get 1000 Kyats or more, a much better deal. Be sure to have a few dollars, British pounds or Yen with you on arrival though, just to get you away from the airport, and don’t forget to check that driver is happy to accept whatever currency you have.

As with most taxi drivers across Asia the one who drives me to my chosen accommodation is a Manchester United fan, and even has a brand new Wayne Rooney shirt in his cab, kept neatly folded in a plastic wrapper; apparently a much a prized possession. I haven’t the heart to tell him that I think Rooney, though a talented footballer, is a butt-ugly, foul mouthed thug in my humble opinion. I settle with just telling him that I support the Magpies and he embarrasses me by knowing more than I do about their present struggle to keep from relegation. I really didn’t expect an Yangon taxi driver to be so knowledgeable about the English Premiership; it’s quite a revelation.

I stay at the Classique Inn which is a lovely privately owned guest house nestled amongst the diplomatic residences along Golden Valley road and a short walk from where Aung San Suu Kui is held under house arrest. I arranged this accommodation online prior to my arrival and can strongly recommend their fast and courteous service. They charge US$30 per night for a double room with en-suite and breakfast and for a further US$2 they throw in a dinner too. Once there I change US$75 at a rate of 1100 kyats/US$1 and get landed with a gargantuan pile of the local currency that won’t fit into my wallet and has to be stuffed into an airmail envelope. A short taxi ride with yet another Man U supporter and I am in downtown Yangon, after a brief stop to change a deflated tyre for an inflated but bold one. The taxis in Yangon are almost exclusively white, Japanese, at least 20 years old and right hand drive; odd in a country where they drive on the right hand side. In fact most of the private vehicles are right hand drive also, not just taxis. Presumably a sign that they get most of their vehicles as second-hand imports from a country that drives on the left.
 
My aim is to explore Yangon on foot. Hot as it is, the climate is much more suited to walking than Bangkok and the traffic a great deal more pedestrian friendly. I walk for hours through busy streets, crammed with locals in sarongs busying to and fro, through markets with colourful displays of exotic fruits spread out on the floor, garment merchants selling material in all patterns and designs, sarong peddlers, men selling cheap plastic toys, book sellers and street tobacconists. Someone is selling something on every street, under every tree and on every corner. I try to install a new film in my camera but have a problem. I find a camera repair shop with far too many assistants for its clear lack of customers and try explaining my problem to a young guy at the door. He shares the dilemma with a few of his colleague and then collectively they refer it to a evil looking bearded guy perched on a stool at the other end of the shop. He takes my camera in complete silence, fiddles a little and then solves the problem in an instant. I ask how much but he just slowly shakes his head and throws me a knowing wink. All his underlings are suitably impressed by his performance with the foreigner’s camera and can’t stop smiling.
 
Everywhere I go there is an aroma of some kind in this city of fragrant streets; scent, food, tobacco, incense, pleasant and exotic cooking smells. Filthy canals and open drains don’t seem to be in as much abundance as they are in Bangkok. Yangon is in no way a romantic city and falls well short of being even picturesque at first viewing but it has a certain charm that, mixed with the friendliness of its people, is quite intoxicating. I read somewhere that Yangon was once the ‘garden city’ of SE Asia. Though it is undeserving of such a flowery monika at present it is easy to see that it would have been quite a place in its heyday. On this first day I already want to return and learn more about the country, wishing my stay wasn’t so short
 
The buildings are generally old colonial with modern cheaply constructed units dotted between them, and here and there more recent multi-storey monstrosities. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of colonialism the resulting architecture is surely an asset to any cityscape. Unfortunately even some of the colonial buildings that are still in use have been sorely neglected and look tired and miserable. It’s a city in need of a sympathetic makeover.
 
Busy as the streets are I can’t help feeling alone. Foreigners are scarce and once away from the absolute centre I’m soon aware that I’m the only white face around. At no point do I feel in danger or the need to worry, even when sauntering through the most run down areas of town or when, as on several occasions, I’m stopped from taking photos or going down certain streets by armed soldiers and police.
 
Several hours of walking and I have the town pretty much sown up and retire to the 20th floor of the Sakure Tower for refreshments and to view the city from above. The crumbling buildings look even worse from up here, roofs caved in on many of them. I was right about the makeover. The view reminds me of Cairo where you suddenly go from city to desert. Yangon is similar, but with considerably less pyramid. Stretching before me is the chaos of Yangon, right up to the river which acts as a buffer between city and nothingness. On the other side of the river is nothing, just open plains littered with the occasional cluster of trees.
 
I’ve been wanting to visit Yangon for some time and my first impression of it is favourable. I think you know if you’re going to like somewhere the moment you see it, and arriving in Yangon with no pre-conception of what to expect I am pleasantly surprised by what I find and know straight away that I like it. It’s a step back in time and is, I imagine, similar to Bangkok in the early seventies, but it has charm and the people are truly warm and welcoming. More than once I’ve been stopped by strangers for a quick handshake and to wish me well, leaving me wondering if I’ve just been the victim of a scam or theft of some kind. In fact it is just a refreshing and genuine attack of politeness and good manners from a people only too happy to see faces from outside grace their streets. Without exaggeration almost everyone I’ve made eye contact with has smiled and or said hello. The true ‘land of smiles’ if ever there is one.
 
Another taxi ride, this one with a chirpy Liverpool fan, and I’m back at the Classique Inn where the staff serve a fabulous local dish for dinner incorporating a wholesome vegetable soup, spicy chicken pieces with vegetables and a simple caramel nut dessert, all washed down with local beer and served alfresco on a quaint little patio beneath a large coconut tree that dangles heavy coconuts perilously above my head from about thirty feet.
 
I intend to go out and explore the Yangon nightlife but get sidetracked by the staff of the Classique who are keen to talk about Myanmar and all it has to offer. Later an American girl arrives fresh off the plane from Bangkok. She’s one of many foreigners I’ve spoken to who is visiting the country for a three month spell of meditation and we talk late into the evening over a several beers. Despite her best attempts I remain unconvinced as to the usefulness of spending three months sat cross-legged and going ‘ohm’ whilst depriving yourself of beer, fags and all your favourite food. Despite our differences of opinion we get along fine, though I decide it’s time for goodbye when she claims to have a ‘spiritual connection with the people of Myanmar’. A bold claim for someone who has only been in the country for a few hours.
 
Breakfast alfresco on the patio at 6.30 sharp and then I walk down to the famous Shwe Dagon pagoda. The original pagoda is said to date back some 2,500 years and contain 8 hairs from the Lord Buddha given to a couple of brothers from Myanmar on a pilgrimage to the north of India. Not being one for temples and pagodas I visit Shwe Dagon mainly because I had been told that it was a must for any visitor to Yangon. It is. As pagodas go this one is definitely the daddy. Built on a mount there is quite a walk up, barefoot, until you reach the base of the pagoda. But it is worth it. Standing more than 90m high from its base, which is greater than 420m in perimeter and in the region of 50m above the surrounding city, this golden ‘winking wonder’ dominates the surrounding complex of smaller pagodas, statues shrines and Tazaungs. Sarong clad locals are in abundance; praying, relaxing, meditating or simply, as it appears, chewing the fat with friends. There is a truly pleasant atmosphere and I would have stayed a while longer had I not been on a strict time frame due to my lunchtime flight.
 
From Shwe Dagon I continue north-east and make my way to Nga Hat Gyee, on the recommendation of one of the staff at the Classique, to view another temple and several hundred monks learning about meditation. Meditation appears to be quite a popular pastime for both locals and foreigners alike. At Nga Hat Gyee I’m told there is a Brit in residence who has been meditating now for six months solid, and for free. I politely decline an offer to meet him and continue my walk. I can’t imagine what I could possibly talk about to a guy who has been meditating almost exclusively for six months.
 
From Nga Hat Gyee I head south taking in the picturesque Kan Daw Gyi Lake and then along Zoological Garden Street, past the Aung San Stadium and back to the downtown area. It is in the area of the stadium that I am the victim of a money changer scam. Keen to change the pile of Kyats I still have left back to dollars I fall for the sales patter of a money changer and follow him back to his ‘shop’, a small, sweaty, hole in the wall affair populated by several of his countrymen. There’s a great deal of pushing and shoving, a fair amount of bullshit to distract me and I’m down 10,000 Kyats with nothing to do about it. We continue the transaction with the remainder of my money and I leave, somewhat pissed at myself for letting this happen. Two of them follow me out of the shop begging me to come back and solve our ‘misunderstanding’. Accepting my loss I suggest where they can put their solutions and move on. They hassle tourists in the area around the stadium and look Indian. Avoid at all cost or take extreme care.
 
Yangon is not for those addicted to the creature comforts of modern 21st century living. The streets are not awash with luxury shopping malls or American fast food retailers; though they do have a local equivalent complete with golden arches called Mac Burger and a doughnut shop that looks remarkably familiar. You’ll have trouble getting a mobile on an overseas network to work and your options for nightlife are somewhat more limited than Bangkok, Singapore or even KL. That said, it is a great place to visit to experience that something a little out of the ordinary. As for the moral argument about whether or not to visit just think about the people. Do you think they really want to be isolated? It’s easy enough to visit Myanmar and limit the amount of money you actually throw into government coffers. If you visit major government tourist attractions, fly with MIA or use the state transport system and hotels you’ll be contributing to the system and arguably prolonging the hell. If, on the other hand, you organise the trip yourself and use only privately owned accommodation, private taxis for transport and avoid anything with state involvement the only money you’ll be giving the government will be the US$10 airport tax on departure. One thing is for sure, the people of Yangon clearly welcome visitors to their country.

Cycling in Laos

cycling_in_laos_1
Cycling in Laos
Cycling in Laos
cycling_in_laos_4

Cycling is fun in Southeast Asia; it has become a way of life for me. I can’t even imagine a trip without my bike. I have had many adventures and lots of great experiences. There are so many new things to see and learn from. This story is just a glimpse of what I have done, how I have felt and where I have gone.

A couple of years ago, I was lying in a bed. It was cold, the kind of cold you get on crisp English mornings in winter time. I was wrapped in my guest house blanket, a blanket of dubious history. These are the kind of things you must deal with when you are cycle touring, or backpacking, around Southeast Asia. Blankets and sheets in guest houses often give you a strong indication of the economics of the guest house you are staying in. If the bed linins are old, dirty or smelly then it doesn’t bode well for your stay. If the blankets or sheets are crisp, clean and new (ish) then your stay may be full of care and attention. I have found that the blanket rule often supersedes the pricing rule, prices do not necessarily reflect the quality of your stay.
 
My journey to this blanket had begun on khao San Road in Bangkok. I had battled through the Bangkok heat, pollution and traffic on my bicycle. This is never a safe or healthy thing to do, but it is a necessary journey. I boarded my train to Nong Khai at Hualompong Station as I was heading for the Plain of Jars in central Laos, close to the town of Phonasavan. My cycling would start in earnest in the northeastern Thai town of Nong Khai. The journey had been planned for months; my goal was to see the mysterious jars of central Laos.
 
Getting off the sleeper train in the cool morning haze of northern Thailand, I collected my bicycle from the front luggage compartment and assembled the various parts (panniers, bungee cords etc.). The ride to the border point was a gentle 4 Km. The Laos border crossing was as user friendly as any good border crossing in the region. Everything is detailed for you with clear instructions and the wait for the slow bureaucratic clogs of the immigration police is minimal.
 
The ride into Vientiane was excellent. The welcome from the people is always good. You pass the Beer Laos factory on your right after about 10Km. This, after my first visit to Laos 10 years ago, was to become a place of worship and awe. I stopped and took some photos, I already have plenty of photos from previous trips, I just can’t help myself. This time I went on the tour of the brewery. The free samples went down well and provided an excellent break for my ride into Vientiane. Beer Laos truly is one of the worlds great largers.
 
The ride into Vientiane is a relaxed affair; you pass the old communist work slogans on advertising boards on the way into the sleepy capital city. These act as a reminder that you have entered a ‘workers’ paradise’, although I doubt Marx would agree with the 21st century version of his dream.
 
The local folk are very unobtrusive in the interest in a
western cyclist riding through their neighborhood. Vientiane is one of my favorite capitals in the world, primarily because you feel the lack of bustle and hustle of the place; you get the sense that the tumbleweed will float passed at any second. The place is small, there are no high rise developments (bar that huge new Chinese hotel) and the place has a sleepy, relaxed feel to it.
 
Leaving Vientiane the next day, the ride to Phonasavan took me north to Vang Vieng in a 2 day ride through the central plains of Laos. The ride to Vang Vieng is flat and one of those great little stretches where you can take a gentle pace, stop and chat with the locals over a meal of rice and fruit and feel good on a bike. There are no difficult mountain stretches and the scenery is beautiful.
 
Vang Vieng itself nestles in between a few mountains and is an idealic spot to stop and recharge for the coming ride to Phonasavan. I stayed for 2 days as there is plenty to do, not least the fun day out tubing down the river or taking in the nearby caves and wonderful swimming in clear, fresh lagoons.
 
I set off early on the next leg of the trip, the most difficult part of this tour. This is a monster stage, much like the Alp D’huez in the Tour de France. There is a 130Km ride to Phu Khun in the mountains. The wind was blowing fiercely; I was battling the head wind until the town of Kasi. At Kasi the challenge began in earnest. Here each assent to a higher plateau left me exhausted. At each peak there was a Hmong village waiting to welcome me, invariably selling the same lukewarm cola refreshments. The refreshments were lacking, but the locals’ reception definitely made up for the lack of cool coca-cola.
 
The day climaxed in a stunning uphill section that really took my breath away. About 10Km from my destination of Phu Khun I began the final assent. I did run out of energy and water at some point and had to stop by a mountain stream to fill my water bottle. In the process I managed to scare some Laotian ladies who were taking a wash in the stream, naked. I don’t know who was more embarrassed, the naked Laos ladies or the sweaty, sun burnt, limping semi-naked white boy. After both parties covered their dignities we managed to have a chuckle and communicate together, they even offered me some of their food.
 
I have christened this style of riding ‘whirlwind riding’ as you just have to go at it as quickly as you can come-what-may. I was definitely on my last reserves of strength, but still I needed to get to the village and a bed. I had to get on with the ride, there was no other option. Everything was hurting me, but between the fresh water and the stunning views across central Laos I was revitalized enough to push on.
 
Eventually I found the down slope in the road and headed into Phu Khun and I ventured into the first guest house that I found. I took a look at the room, and the all important blanket, and did the (not so) complex equation of cost vs comfort vs tiredness. My legs made the decision for me, virtually screaming at me that they couldn’t go on to the other guest house 100 meters down the road.
 
And so it came to pass that I awoke wrapped in the dubious blanket on the cold, crisp Laotian mountain morning at the end of December. I was being welcomed to the hills of Laos at Christmas time by a smelly blanket and guest house which didn’t have a shower. The bed bugs had been kept at bay by my sarong; my legs felt better but were still aching a little. I stumbled out of my room, threw some water over me from the bucket in the ‘bath’room and repacked my bike.
 
The reason for putting myself through the previous days’ pain and the ache in my legs really hit me when I cycled away from the guest house; the air was fresh, the mountains surrounding me looked like they had been taken from a movie set and the roads were empty. I will never forget me exit from Phu Khun, it was made even more special by the locals who all waved and shouted ‘sabaii dee’ as I past. It really does make you feel special and alive.
 
I set off for my destination, the town of Phonasavan nearly 140Km away. The first assent of the day left me delirious with joy, so much so I was laughing and sweating at the top of the first peak. The views across the valley which unfolded before me were spectacular. Any soreness in my legs was replaced by adrenalin. The climbs continued, punctuated, thankfully, by a few great descents. At one point I descended 19Km in one long downward free wheel. This is truly and exhilarating experience. These kinds of days are what you start (and seemingly I can never stop) cycling for; upward challenges, downward enjoyment, stunning scenery and friendly local villages.
 
The 140Km stretch is punctuated by villages, both Hmong and central Laos villages. I stopped at one point at a village which seemed to be full of AK47 toting Laos army cadre. I decided to have my morning tea (you can take the man out of England but you can’t take England out of the man) in the middle of the village. I was immediately surrounded by Laotian soldiers carrying guns. However, the threat level did descend a few notches when I looked down and most of them had dispensed with the customary army uniform boots and instead were wearing flip flops. These guys certainly didn’t look menacing but there was a threat in the air as they were all carrying guns, albeit in a relaxed fashion, slung over their shoulders.
 
Now, the situation may seem to be a worrying to some as I was miles from any main town, alone and surrounded by soldiers. However, my survival skills were not required as, to a man, the soldiers were laughing and goofing around. They were obviously curious about my presence, but they soon settled down, sat on their haunches and watched me brew my tea from a polite distance.
 
At one point I opened my map and asked the guys where we were. The most senior officer was pushed forward to answer my question. Apparently the village wasn’t on any map, presumably for military reasons, but I am only speculating about that as my Laos conversation skills are not what they should be.
 
After my tea I packed up and handed my rubbish to a young lad who took it and held it with a confused look on his face and I rode off with the bemused military men staring at me.
 
My cycling was becoming better; I was becoming used to the merciless hills. I eventually stormed up the last hill. Getting onto the plains of central Laos was a joy I have felt only a few times in my life. I cycled into Phonasavan at dusk, a tired, sweaty, aching cyclist nut with a warm glint of joy in my eyes. I had battled with some big mountain stages and I had won.
 
My hotel was luxurious in comparison to my previous night’s encounter with the blanket. I collapsed in my large bed and slept the sleep of the dead.
 
Early the next morning I awoke and got out of bed with a bounce in my step. This was the final leg of my tour, the finish of my tour was within grasp. I asked at the reception for directions, never underestimating my knack for geographical embarrassment, and headed out. I soon found the road and cycled the short distance in under an hour. I found myself at the reception hut for the Jars and paid the small entrance fee. Walking up the small slop and arriving at the crest of the hill I caught my first glimpse of a stone jar. The round, skewed, moss covered jar was a sight that gave me a euphoric high. I enjoyed the sight, but not as much as I had enjoyed the journey to it. This trip was, as most are, about the journey, not the destination.
 
The jars are impressive for their mystery, they are strange and intriguing. The recent history of them is as interesting as the speculation about the origins. There are hundreds of these large man size stone jars strewn across the Laos plains. No-one knows why they are there, and therein lays the intrigue.
 
Cycle touring has become a way of life for me. I enjoy the sedate pace of the bike; you get to see so much more of the places you are traveling in. You also interact with the locals more, often seeing a friendlier, and more helpful side to a country or culture. Cycle touring can be tiring, it can make your body ache, but cycling is fun, healthy and a great way to see a country.
 
About the author: Simon Stewart is a cycling evangelist who has made it his mission to spread the gospel through the excellent tours he organizes.

Traveling China

Travelling in China
Travelling in China
Travelling in China

For all its beauty, mystery, and excitement, China is one heck of an intimidating mass of land. The country itself is huge and diverse; the languages aren’t even remotely familiar for most Westerners, and China’s self-described “smaller cities” boast several million people. So where does a traveler begin? Dozens of tour companies have made a nice bundle on this intimidation, selling organized tours to curious-but-overwhelmed travelers. At first glance, a potential traveler might be tempted to do the same. After all, China doesn’t have the compact size of Japan, or the backpacker circuit of Southeast Asia. Here, KSR gives you the low-down on traveling China, with a group or with oneself.
Time

If you have a two-week time frame and a mile-long list of Chinese must-sees, a tour will allow you the luxury of enjoying the moment without worrying about sold-out trains, odd museum hours, and researching each new hotel. A traveler who knows exactly what they want to do on the trip may feel relieved when the details of accomodation and transportation are arranged.

If your schedule is more flexible, a solo trip allows you the luxury of staying as long or as briefly as you like in each new spot. Lone travelers are free to change their timetable if something unexpected comes their way; a kite festival, a rafting trip, or a volunteer spot in a panda sanctuary. A traveler who is prone to falling in love with new places (especially cities off the beaten path) will benefit from this kind of malleable timetable.

Sightseeing

When it comes to building an efficient schedule, you can’t beat the convenience of a private tour bus and guide. With a tour group, you can hit all the sights on your must-see list without the fuss of ticket queues and city buses. Many companies offer various tours that cater more specifically to a traveler’s interests. Athletes can hike, bike, rock-climb and kayak, while history buffs can sign on to a tour of temples and monuments.

Solo travelers have to work a bit harder to find their way around, and information in guidebooks can be subject to change.
    
Without the guided tour, however, the traveler can spend as much time as they like seeing the landmarks of China that really speak to them.

Travelers who stick with a group might not like every part of their tour, or want more time at some stops (like the buffet) and less time at others (like the demonstration of 17th century pottery). If your idea of travel involves people-watching and unstructured exploring on bicycle or foot, then a tour itinerary might cramp your style.

Socializing

A lot of lone travelers enjoy tour groups, as if offers them the company of fellow adventurers with varying backgrounds and similar interests. Because you will travel with the same group throughout the journey, there aren’t as many sad goodbyes and tedious introductions (what’s your name? where are you from? have you tried wontons yet?). You can get to know your fellow travelers, and you can also take advantage of your guide, who will serve as a teacher, translator, and insider on Chinese life.

Solo travelers can find good company in hostels, which often draw livelier and more diverse crowds (though some dubious characters will inevitably crop up). However, between these meetings come some lonely patches when you’re between hostels, or in a quiet hotel. Chinese people are kind, helpful, curious and friendly, but most speak no English at all, especially in smaller cities. Travelers might meet earnest Chinese students who are looking to practice their English. These folks are usually charming and harmless, but solo travelers are more susceptible to tourist scams or overcharging.

Travel

Again, those on a tight time frame might not want the added stress of tracking train station addresses, checking the schedules, making a reservation with a language barrier, etc. Chinese trains and buses are reliable and comfy enough that an organized traveler can move from city to city with ease. Many big-city bus and train stations have one ticket booth with an English-speaking attendant. If you have the time and patience to make these arrangements yourself, the flexibility can be freeing. If you know ahead of time that you’ll be sticking to a plan, then the ease of a tour means that travel details are out of sight, out of mind.

The same applies to getting around a Chinese city. Most urban areas have great, reliable buses and subways. City types who don’t mind wandering and getting a little lost might enjoy going at their own pace. Travelers who want simply to go from point A to point B might benefit from a tour group, to avoid the stress of navigating new places.

Eating

With a tour group, you are guaranteed the opportunities to try a wide range of Chinese dishes. Some groups will shepherd their tourists to western-friendly hotel restuarants, where the food is more bland and gentler to the western palette. Others will get to try fresh and authentic dim sum, duck, soups, and famous regional dishes. A group has the asset of the omnipotent guide, who can help travelers with dietary issues and allergies.

The solo traveler has to use the luck of the draw with their eating. Adventurous foodies will love the challenge and reward of navigating food stalls, communicating from the phrasebook, and eating exotic new dishes without knowing all the contents. Some may be alarmed by the cultural barriers and recess to the safety of grocery store dinners or familiar sights like Subway or McDonalds. If you’re one who doesn’t mind taking a gamble on your supper, solo travel can open the door to hole-in-the-wall gems, amazing new flavours, and the local culture of dining.

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

Slowly Down the Mekong

Slowly down the Mekong
Slowly down the Mekong
Slowly down the Mekong
Slowly down the Mekong

In Southeast Asia, smug backpackers parade their Laotian transport horror stories like war medals. Mention Laos to a group of travelers and you will no doubt be entertained by a playful one-upmanship, with stories of buses catching on fire, boats capsizing, innocent tourists becoming unwitting drug mules. Each survivor’s tale is a testimony to their own fearlessness. Now I’m no backpacker princess, I’ve endured my share of spiders in the bed and pickpockets in the markets. But even in the adventurous travel game, the risk of injury sends me clutching my first aid kid like a baby blanket. This cautiousness was tested when I crossed the Thai-Laotian border into Huay Xai, a tiny border town that people enter in order to leave again. Here, the travel options were a spine-rattling bus, a deafening speedboat, or 2 full days on a longtail slowboat. And so I signed on for a two-day slowboat down the Mekong, from Huay Xai to the reputedly charming Luang Prabang. For better or worse, it would provide an up-close introduction to Laos.
Day One

My fellow boaters and I have stuffed the vessel with enough baguette sandwiches, Pringles, and water bottles to last us days. Also aboard are every model of ipod, ipod nano, and mp3 player possible, six copies of The DaVinci Code (in six different languages), and two dozen Lonely Planet books. Armed and ready, we set off down the river.

The land around the Mekong is mostly unspoilt, with a few sparse hilltops that are clear-cut for local farming. It’s a peaceful change from the hustle of Thailand, seeing the countryside unfold at each bend in the lazy river. With an economy dependent on agriculture and a topography where arable land is sparse, the land surrounding the Mekong accounts for a good portion of Laos’ rice production. This is a staple of the Laotian diet as well as its economy, and in a country with limited roads and no railways, the river is a hub of transport. And yet, while the Mekong is a hub of sustenance for the country, today the waters are calm and the scenery is tranquil.

The boat stops on a sandy bank and local children bustle on board, their arms full and voices loud. Cold soft drinks, Beerlao and water; cigarettes, cookies, and potato chips, and the odd bag of pineapple, are all for sale by the quick and persistent children, whose fearless vending tactics make them tiny, pushy adults. I start to wonder what poor impressions the Laotians have of a Western diet. Apparently, they have been led to believe none of us.

Biscuits and snacks are passed around as we sail on. I barely notice the darkening sky as we dock in Pakbeng, a tiny riverside town ripe with English-speaking vendors and foodstalls stocked with more Western goods. At the rickety wooden dock, the whole street seems uniquely catered to

slowboating tourists on their evening stopover. The slow parade of backpack-laden figures spills into town, everyone happy to be up and moving after a long day of sitting on wooden benches. Back at my hotel, other slowboaters sit drinking beers at the open-air restaurant. The hustling noise of the town, vendors yelling, dogs barking, old cars coughing, makes me eager to be back on the calm river again.
 
Day Two
 
In the morning, there’s camaraderie on the boat as cheerful but weary travelers compare guesthouse notes (mine had Indiana Jones bedsheets, but only a trickle of cold water in the shower) . My hunch to arrive early proved correct – there are limited cushions on the seats today, but my boatmates are getting creative with sleeping bags, towels, and sweaters. No one comes onto the boat today to sell snacks. Instead, we are all are quietly occupied with books, diaries, and card games. Some people are at the back, cold bottles of Beerlao in hand, chattering in that good-humoured way that large beers allow.
 
Two days on the Mekong is a vivid introduction to Laos, in terms of scenery but also character. Here, the pace is steady but relaxed, the breeze cooling, the landscape fantastically unspoilt. Apart from the splash of the boat’s wake, and the occasional tinny Jack Johnson tune from a backpacker’s ipod, the only noise comes from the odd roaring speedboat, splitting the calm. Their racket confirms our thoughts: to roar speeding through Laos would be all wrong. Go crashing through a country and you’ll miss the fine details; the mountain goats on clifftop, the thatched huts dotting mountain peaks, the clusters of children splashing and waving on the riverbank.
 
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.

Laos Lifts Us Up Where We Belong; the Gibbon Experience of Bokeo

The Gibbon Experience of Bokeo, Laos
The Gibbon Experience of Bokeo, Laos
The Gibbon Experience of Bokeo, Laos

When globetrotters book their tickets to Southeast Asia, they usually anticipate weeks of lounging on beaches, eating delicious spicy food, and touring stunning temples. But as any traveller can tell you, the most rewarding and memorable experiences are often found off the tourist trail. For some people, it’s hard to tear through such beautiful countries without giving something back. Well, eco-minded adventurers take note of the most exciting conservation project on the map; the Gibbon Experience in Bokeo, northern Laos.
The premise sounds a bit like a boyhood Tarzan fantasy; guests climb up to treehouses and don’t touch the ground for days. Instead, they zipline between huts and throughout the conservation area in attempts to spot the elusive-but-adorable black gibbon. But as thoughts of Swiss Family Robinson come to mind, remember that this project is operated with nature and wildlife conservation in mind. The Societe Animo is the brains behind the operation, working with the Bokeo Nature Reserve to help promote environmental awareness and conscienciousness through this hands-on style of eco-tourism.

The organization is located in Huay Xai, across the river from Thailand’s popular northern border crossing. Here you can book your Gibbon Experience package and catch the 3 hour ride into the reserve (trucks leave every other day at 7:30am).

Once you’ve arrived, you can spend hours touring the camp and its environs by zipline, eat delicious fire-cooked meals, and chat with local guides who will dazzle you with their bottomless knowledge of the forest and its animals. A 3-day stay (approx. $110 USD) includes all food and accomodation, plus hiking excursions and visits to stunning waterfalls.

When you’re not swinging through the trees, monkey-style, take a moment to ask the Gibbon staff about their environmental efforts. Animo encourages grassroots conservation; a common goal that should be realized by local inhabitant, not imposed upon them by foreign organizations or NGOs. The emphasis of the project is on the protection of the black gibbon, a species that was once thought to be extinct before it was discovered again. This is different from the hilltribe tourist treks of “ethnotourism,” which Animo believes is an exploitative move to peddle a tribe’s otherness for tourist profit. Animo wishes to draw awareness and respect to the environment itself, not simply the people. All profits of the Gibbon Experience go towards the conservation of the forest, to help prevent logging, poaching, and scorched-earth farming in the area.

If you’re interested in stepping off the beaten path in Laos, why not forego the tribal treks in favour of the Gibbon Experience? Your money will go towards an important cause, and your three days of tree hut living will be an adventure you won’t soon forget, even when you’re back on the ground.

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.

Things to Do Under 50 Baht


Things to do under 50 Baht in Bangkok
Things to do under 50 Baht in Bangkok
Things to do under 50 Baht in Bangkok
Things to do under 50 Baht in Bangkok
Things to do under 50 Baht in Bangkok

There are no two ways about it; Bangkok can be a pretty expensive place to hang out. The vibrant night life and tempting food can eat through your budget faster than a mouse through grain.

For those on a tight budget, Bangkok’s diversions can seem out of reach, and becoming confined to whiling away the hours watching movies around Banglampu becomes a disheartening prospect.
 
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Many activities in the city cost less than 50 baht and can be rich and rewarding. Here are some of my favourite ways to spend time in the city
 
Situated just behind Chatuchak, Suan Rotfai, or Railway Park, is one of Bangkok’s best kept secrets. Filled with water lilly ponds, streams and places to relax, this huge park is extremely picturesque. One of my favourite ways to spend an afternoon is to hire a bicycle from the stand at the far side of the park and navigate the specially constructed cycle paths. Just 20 baht will buy you three hours of cycling fun.
 
Whilst exploring the park, don’t forget to visit the Bangkok Butterfly Garden and Insectarium in the Southeastern area. A 15-metre-high glass dome covers an area of 1,100 square meters, abundant with beautiful butterflies. Admission is free and you can watch the butterflies and learn about them in the attached museum. Open 8:30-4:30 Tuesday-Sunday.
 
The easiest way to get to the park is to take the MRT to Chatuchak Park station or the BTS to Mo Chit. You can also take bus 3 from Samsen Road, just around the corner from Khao San. Simply walk through Chatuchak Park, turn right and walk along the back road until you come to the gates to another park.
 
If you are interested in science, the Bangkok Planetarium and Science Museum is a great place to spend a few hours. A combined ticket to the Planetarium and Museum costs just 20 baht and includes an information leaflet. Tracing the history of space travel, the Planetarium show has spectacular visual imagery and sound. Visit on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. for the English language show.
 
The science museum covers everything from dinosaurs to marine biology and has many interesting exhibits. Open 9-4 Sunday to Tuesday, it is located near to the BTS Ekkamai Station and the Eastern Bus Terminal. You can also catch buses 2, 25, 38, 40, 48, 72, 98, 501 and 511.

Few visitors venture across the Chao Phraya River to the Thonburi side, but there are some attractions worth visiting. Take the ferry down the river one afternoon to pier 6, known as Memorial Bridge or Phra Pok Klao. After walking across the bridge, follow the road to your right and you will soon come to a large red gate flanked by two enormous stone turtles. I love to watch the cute baby turtles learning to swim under the watchful guidance of their and feed the older turtles meat and fruit on sticks.
 
Just around the corner, The Princess Mother Memorial Park is another good place to relax. Established in 1993 by His Majesty the King as a tribute to his mother, these beautiful gardens feature a reconstruction of the Princess Mother’s childhood home. These open rooms allow a rare insight into a traditional Thai home and are very interesting to observe.
 
The gardens also include two exhibition rooms, where photographs and text both in Thai and English tell the story of the Princess Mother’s life. Perhaps most revealing is a passage written by the King’s elder sister, HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana:
 
“Mother said once she was living in this house near Wat Anong. It was like a row-house with many rooms, a rented house with only the wall panels and the roof. The tenants had to provide the other parts of the house, such as the floor. It had a balcony with a roof. Inside the house to the right was a raised platform, which served as an image room and Father’s office. Beyond that there were a sleeping chamber and a kitchen. There was no bathroom. They took a bath by the water jar on the front balcony, or in the canal nearby.”     

A sign outside Wat Prayura Wongsuwat illustrates the way to the Princess mother’s memorial Park. Just a five minute walk away, simply follow the green signs.

Just a short boat ride from Thailand’s capital, Koh Kret is like the land that time – and tourism – forgot. Steeped in culture, this is the perfect place to escape from the frantic pace of Bangkok for an afternoon.

No cars are allowed on Koh Kret, and you can walk around the island – which is a little under 4 kms in circumference – undisturbed. The smell of traffic fumes is replaced by a rich, earthy scent. People sit in the shade beside their houses, completing household chores and chatting to pass the time. Koh Kret has an unusual history. The name literally means ‘the land surrounded by water.’ It was artificially created nearly 300 years ago, when a channel was cut through a bend in the Chao Phraya River to make the journey to Ayuthaya shorter.

Thousands of Mon people flocked to Thailand in 1757, when Burmese troops destroyed Pegu, the capital of Monland. King Taksin the Great of Thailand encouraged the Mon People to settle on Koh Kret and they used their skills in pottery to set up kilns, producing pots, jars, plates and bowls for Thai people. Today, more than 6,000 people live in peace on Koh Kret.

Worth a visit is Suan Kret Phutt, or Buddha Park, a beautiful garden in the center of Koh Kret. Secluded from the road, this is a wonderful place to sit and meditate, and I spend an hour or so relaxing and listening to the wind in the trees.

Before you leave, stop at the food market near the ferry pier to sample some Mon delicacies. Especially good are Khao Chae; rice in jasmine water, accompanied by tempura vegetables. This food is refreshing and delicious and sweet tea is served in clay pots, which make great souveniers.

I love to finish the day by taking a ferry down the Chao Phraya River just as the sun sets. Wat Arun looks spectacular lit from behind by the warm rich tones on Bangkok’s sunset.

Other Attractions:

Housing a total of 52 vessels, the Royal Barge National Museum is worth a visit, as are the National Museum and National Gallery. If you are looking for somewhere cheap to eat, check out the vegetarian food section of Chatuchak market, where all dishes range from 12-20 Baht. Situated near the MRT and open daily from 8 a.m-2 p.m.

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!