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Northern Laos

Northern Laos
Northern Laos

With lush forests, high plateaus, sparkling waterfalls, caves, mountains and rice fields, northern Laos is intensely beautiful. This area of Laos is very diverse and offers travellers a range of different experiences. Although travelling through this region is challenging, the rewards are significant and a warm welcome awaits those who venture off the tourist trail to explore the villages and small towns scattered throughout northern Laos.

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.

Ban Lung, Cambodia

Ban Lung, Cambodia
Ban Lung, Cambodia
Ban Lung, Cambodia

Known by the local people as ‘dey krahorm’, which means red earth in Khmer, Ban Lung is a modest town where you will find genuine people and friendly faces. This is a great place to use as a base while you explore the surrounding countryside and there are a number interesting attractions nearby.

Most people travel to Ban Lung to visit the nearly Boeng Yeak Lom. Also known as Yak Lom Lake, this is an impressive volcanic crater filled with freshwater. There is a well worn train leading from the town to the volcano and the trek takes about an hour each way. Take the time to fully explore the volcano and have a swim in the cool waters. Watch out for the legendary Yak Lom monster as you swim and visit the nearby culture centre, which contains some interesting information about the volcano and items made by the tribes people who live in the area.  

This is a great place for trekking and you can wander through the countryside, with its rich red earth and pretty villages. The scenery here is simply spectacular and there is plenty to hold the attention.

Scattered around Ban Lung are a number of small villagers where tribes people live, following the same cultural styles and general life styles that they have practiced for hundreds of years. Most of the tribes people gather at Ban Lung market to buy and sell goods, and this is a great place for people watching and to also pick up a bargain or two.

The market is also a good place to pick up a cheap, tasty meal. There are a number of food stalls scattered around the town as well as restaurants and hotels, making this a good place to stay for a day or two.

Around the market place you will find a large number of small shops selling colourful precious stone. The gems come from the surrounding hills and also more distant places such as Sri Lanka. Although you should be careful about buying, browsing through the multi-hued stones can be a good way to spend an hour two.

Savannakhet, Laos

Savannakhet, Laos
Savannakhet, Laos
Savannakhet, Laos

Located in the southern section of Laos, Savannakhet province is bordered by both Thailand in the west and Vietnam in the east. Many travellers pass this way on their way in or out of Thailand as the Second Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge spans the mighty Mekong River, connecting Savannakhet with Mukdahan in Thailand.

Another way to reach the town is by boat from northern Lao areas such as Vientiane and Tha Khaek or from Pakse in the south. Travelling through Laos by boat can be very relaxing and a great way to see the countryside at a leisurely pace.

The name Savannakhet means ‘city of paradise’ in the Laos language and this is Laos’ second-largest city. This is a good place to pause for a while as the town has a lot to offer tourists and there are a good number of guesthouses, hotels and restaurants serving international food. You will also find plenty of Asian delights such as curries and spicy salads from Thailand and Vietnamese noodles.

Savannakhet’s close proximity to Thailand and Vietnam means that you will discover a number of different styles as you explore. Take a look around the city’s old Vietnamese temples, French colonial quarters and Buddhists temples. Among the most popular temples are Wat Inghang and Wat Xayaphoum, while the large Catholic church provides an interesting contrast.

If you are interested in the history of this unique area, take a day trip to Heuanehine or Stone House. This rocky house was designed by the Kham people and is thought by many to be one of the most important and interesting sites in the province. The house was built somewhere between 553 and 700 AD and contains a collection of Khmer artwork.er important site is the That Phon stupa, which was built around the same time as the Stone House. Unlike most of the religious shrines and temples in Laos, this stupa is Hindu in origin and dedicated to Phra Shiva and other Hindu deities.

Before you leave Savannakhet, drop by the Dinosaur Exhibition Hall in the town of Khanthabouly at the heart of the province. Here you will find a collection of dinosaur remains that were discovered by an intrepid French scientist in the 1930s. This is one of the few collections of dinosaur remains in Laos and they make an interesting break from exploring the country’s temples and jungles.

 

Xieng Khouang, Laos

Xieng Khouang, Laos
Xieng Khouang, Laos
Xieng Khouang, Laos

Situated in the northeast of Laos, the enchanting province of Xieng Khouang is a popular stop on the trail through Laos. This is a great place to go trekking as the landscape is infinitely interesting; with broad ochre hills, and the eucalypts and pine plantations, the mountains of Hua Phah and lush valleys. The climate is quite cool and this is also a good place to escape the heat of southern Laos.

Most people come to Xieng Khouang province to visit the Plain of Jars, where hundreds of stone jars are scattered across the landscape. Carved from solid rock, these enormous jars are more than 2500 years old, and are an impressive sight. Although legends tell that the jars were used to ferment wine in the sixth century, nobody is really certain of their origins and another theory is that they were tombs for the people who died in battle. The Plain of Jars is also known as Thong Hai Hin and one of the highlights of Laos as it is entirely unique.
After a hard day of exploring, soothe aching muscles with a dip in the hot springs. There are two hot springs in the area, Bo Noi and Bo Yai, which reach temperatures of around 60?C, are set in a beautiful forest and the perfect place to relax and unwind.

The capital of Xieng Khouang is Muang Khun, and this is a great place to spend the night and explore. Here you will find some interesting temple ruins as well as the complete Wat Pia Wat. As you wander around the city you will find a number of good restaurants and places to stay.

The town of Muang Khun features both night a day markets, which are large and lively. People travel to the market from all over the province to sell their wares, swap stories and do some shopping. This is a good place to buy a cheap meal and indulge in some people watching as you witness Lao life unfold around you.

Phnom Bayong, Cambodia

Phnom Bayong, Cambodia

Situated in the heart of the countryside, this spectacular ancient temple is more than worth the journey, which takes you away from the usual tourist trail and offers an insight into traditional Khmer life.

A large number of people here travel to Phnom Bayong via the border crossing of Phnom Den–Tinh Bien, which is situated some eight kilometres north of the temple. Phnom Bayong measures a mighty 313 metres and those who want to climb to the very top will need to allow around three hours to complete the return journey. While this can be rather challenging for those who are not used to the heat and humidity of Cambodia, the stunning views across to Vietnam are more than worth the effort.

The best time to complete the climb is either just before dawn or at the end of the day. Those who time their trip carefully should arrive at the top just in time to see the glorious sunrise or watch the sun slowly sink behind the horizon at the end of the day. However, the climb is far from easy at any time of day and it is best to wear comfortable shoes and bring along plenty of water.

While in the area, visitors should take the time to check out Phnom Tchea Tapech, which is another ancient temple that is topped by a standing Buddha image. The temple is adorned with intricate stone carvings and also offers enchanting views from the summit.

Phnom Bayong is located 50 kilometres south of Takeo and it is possible to visit the site on a day trip. However, the pretty town of Kirivong is just 3 kilometres west and there are a few places to stay here as well as restaurants offering traditional Khmer food and a number of backpacker favourites such as sandwiches and French fries.

Within easy driving distance of Takeo and Phnom Bayong is the Kirivong waterfall, which is a great place to relax for a while or wander along the surrounding pathways.

Pattaya, Thailand

Pattaya, Thailand
Pattaya, Thailand
Pattaya, Thailand
Pattaya, Thailand

Located about 170 kilometres southeast of Bangkok, Pattaya makes a good destination for a weekend break, although with so many entertainment options to choose from, many people tend to stay in the small seaside city for several days. Pattaya means the ‘south-west monsoon wind’ in the Thai language and ranks as one of the most successful beach resorts in the world, with more than 5 million visitors each year.

Pattaya is probably best known for its night life. For the curious, this is a good place to see a “Tiffany Show”, where stunningly attractive transsexuals dress in incredibly elaborate costumes and perform gracefully choreographed song and dance numbers on stage. There are also a wide range of go-go bars and discotheques to explore on Walking Street, which is the center of Pattaya’s nightlife.

By day, Pattaya offers a large number of intriguing diversions that are hard to find in most other parts of Thailand. A great entertainment option is the Million Years Stone Park and Pattaya Crocodile Farm, whilst visitors can ride the mighty beasts at the Elephant Village. The world class aquarium at Underwater World Pattaya has beautiful displays of local sea life and you can see scale replicas of Thailand’s key attractions in Mini Siam. Also popular with visitors to Pattaya is Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, and the sign for this can clearly be seen for the beach front.

Pattaya is a great place to let off some steam, and the go cart course and shooting range and good places to do just that, whilst the many spas and massage parlours offer a different way to unwind.

But Pattaya isn’t all neon lights and lipstick, there are also some very beautiful nature spots waiting to be discovered. Pattaya Beach is situated alongside the city centre and is a popular spot for jet-skis and speed boats. Just south of the city is the pretty stretch of sand known as Jomtien Beach, which is much quieter than Pattaya Beach and a good place to chill out for a few hours.

Another great day trip is the large and interesting Sri Racha Tiger Zoo, which features several hundred tigers and thousands of alligators. The tiger zoo offers the opportunity to view and interact with animals in exciting new ways, such as cuddling tiger cubs and helping hatch baby crocodiles from their eggs.

If you need a break from the beach, pay a visit to the Nong Nooch Tropical Botanical Garden, which is located 15 kilometers east of Pattaya and has lively cultural shows.

It is absolutely impossible to be bored in Pattaya, and no matter what you are looking for you are sure to find it here.

Wat Doi Suthep

Wat Doi Suthep
Wat Doi Suthep
Wat Doi Suthep
Wat Doi Suthep

“I have to tell you, I don’t think I’m gonna make it,” my friend pants, red faced and breathless as we climb the steep flight of stone steps. “Come on, we’re nearly there, you can’t quit on me now!” I pant back. Who would have thought that 309 steps would prove to be such a challenge? We should have taken the tram to the top, but it’s too late now.

Finally, we reach the top and nearly collapse in relief. The temple grounds of Wat Prathap Doi Suthep, situated at the top of the mighty Doi Suthep Mountain, are large and interesting, full of towering chedis, enormous bells and intricate stone carvings.
But it is the view that really makes this journey worthwhile. After circling the central chedi, I make my way to the white balustrade at the edge of the temple grounds and find myself breathless once more.

The view over Chiang Mai is simply spectacular. Wat Prathap Doi Suthep is located about 20 miles from Chiang Mai, Thailand’s northern capital, at an elevation of 1,685 meters above sea level. From my lofty perch I can see right across the mighty city to the jungle that surrounds it and a winding, sparkling river in the far distance.

The Buddhist temple of Wat Prathap Doi Suthep was founded in 1383 under unusual circumstances. A famous Thai legend tells that in the 14th century a monk from Sukhothai had a dream telling him to go to Pang Cha and look for a relic. Upon following the directions of the dream the monk found what is believed to be the Lord Buddha’s shoulder bone.

The relic displayed magic powers such as glowing, vanishing and self-replication, so the monk took it to King Dharmmaraja, ruler of Sukhothai. But the king was uninterested in the relic, which did not reveal its magic powers to him.

However, King Ku Naone of the Lanna Kingdom requested the relic, which was then placed on the back of a white elephant and released into the jungle so that the elephant might find a suitable location to build a temple to contain the relic.

The noble elephant climbed up Doi Suthep, trumpeted three times and died on the spot. This was seen as a sigh that the temple should be built on the top of Doi Suthep.

Wat Prathap Doi Suthep is highly revered and a major pilgrimage destination during Buddhist holidays, especially Makha Buja and Visak. Around Wat Prathap Doi Suthep are 47 murals that illustrate the past loves of the Buddha and of the Jataka Buddha before he became enlightened.

Another focal point of the temple is the large chedi, which is bell-shaped and formed in the Lanna style. There is also a model of the Emerald Buddha and a statue of the multiple-armed elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh.

After exploring all that the temple has to offer, I climb back down the steps and buy a cup of hot tea at the market at the base of the temple. The view over Chiang Mai is still spectacular from here, and it is a peaceful place to reflect in before returning to the madness and mayhem of the city.

Wat Prathap Doi Suthep is situated around 22 miles from the city of Chiang Mai. There is a winding road to the top of the mountain, but it is extremely steep. As I amble back down the mountain I pass a group of red-faced cyclists, who are clearly regretting their choice of transportation.

Getting There

The easiest way to reach Wat Doi Suthep is to go by songthew, which is a small open-backed truck with two rows of wooden benches running down the sides. You can catch a songthew from the market area at the corner of the Manneenopparat and Chotana Roads. Expect to pay around 150 baht for a return journey.

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!