Up the Mekong (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia)

by Lynn and John Salmon

Friday, November 13, 1998 [Bangkok]

We arrived in Bangkok at 6am and used the airport hotel finder service to get a hotel. Unfortunately, the Royal Hotel, where we stayed on a previous trip was full, so we picked a similarly priced place and tried a new area in the city. The Tong Poon Hotel was not exactly a dump, just kind of dumpy. It's main flaw was a lack of lighting with a whopping 25W bulb in the lamp making the room pretty dim. There was also a blinking fluorescent fixture adding to the ambiance. The place did have several redeeming features, however. The bed was extremely comfortable, it had AC, and a small fridge. The price included breakfast of bacon, eggs, ham, toast, coffee and fresh pineapple.

We trekked out to the Siam Square shopping area and visited the MBK Centre, a huge 7 or more story shopping center. Each floor is larger and more densely packed than your average galleria. We can't imagine Thais need this many cell phones and pagers. We bought a quilt that may come in handy on our road trip. We also found a place serving "siphon coffee" which is like the contraption Nathan has at home, but much quicker. On our walk to shopping we passed a construction project bearing the sign "safety first" which will later become a catch phrase on this trip.

Saturday, November 14, 1998 [Ayutthaya]

The real start of our adventure. We rented a car with one small glitch in the car pickup plan. In order to avoid the traffic congestion in the city of Bangkok, we had arranged to pick the car up at the airport when we reserved it at home. When we got to the airport, however, we found the Budget office was back in town, and they didn't have a driver available to bring the car to the airport. So we came back to the city and got to experience our first Thai driving in Bangkok. Fortunately traffic was a bit thinner on Saturday, and John made the way to Ayutthaya flawlessly. So far, the roads have been good and well signed.

In Ayutthaya we made a short loop around the city before stumbling onto the place we were looking for, the Ruandrum Youth Hostel. We got a room with double bed for 250 Bhat. The place is quaint. A teak structure has grown along the river with an assortment of angles and layers. The place has a very welcoming atmosphere as you step down from a busy street into an overgrown garden patio.

[Wat Mahathat]

After checking in, we walked into town ~500m and visited Wat Mahathat which was built in 1374, but is now in ruins. The ruins have a hundred or so headless buddhas sitting here and there. One head was trapped in a tree, most of the rest have either been destroyed or carted off to museum collections. The overall impression of Ayutthaya is there are LOTS of temples, acres and acres of them. There is also a medium sized town, more or less independent of the temples.

After relaxing at the ruins, we headed back to the hostel and had an excellent dinner on "the boat." The boat was an actual boat tied up to provide more dining space for the restaurant. It looks great from the shore, but I think I'll take my next meal at one of the tables on land.

Sunday, November 15, 1998

Ayutthaya was the second Siam capital from 1350-1767. In the mid-16th century, at it's height, Ayutthaya was one of the East's most magnificent cities. After being ravaged by the Burmese army in 1767, the city never recovered its former grandeur.

We spent the day visiting various attractions around Ayutthaya. Our first stop was at Wat Pra Ram. This was an impressive set of ruins very similar to Wat Mahathat. The wats are very big! Each has a central stupa, a prang and a series of walls or terraces extending outwards. Next we wandered through a large set of stalls with food vendors and sampled a few things. Many sellers were offering samples which helped with the selection. Most items cost in the 5-20 Bhat range.

[Reclining Buddha]

It was quite a walk to the reclining Buddha at Wat Lakaya Sutha. We were hot, and felt even hotter watching the grounds keepers at work. These workers seem highly over-dressed. Long sleeved shirts, long pants (dark colors) in several layers. It's about 90 degrees F with high humidity.

We walked back through the food market and got a few more items for lunch. Then we got the car and visited some more distant places including Wat Na Praman, a monastery that is in use. Lastly, we went to Wat Chai Wattanaram which our guidebook described as being down a path, covered in vines, with grazing cows. Evidently the cows have been moved, the vines pulled off, the path paved, and a number of tour buses are parked outside. It was still an interesting place, but hot in the afternoon heat so we returned to our room and showered.

Monday, November 16, 1998

[Wat Chai Watthanaram]

It rained during the night but was clear by morning. This morning we visited the best set of ruins in Ayutthaya, Wat Phra Sri Sanphet. It was a huge place with lots of "towers of Hanoi" type temples, plus a brick Buddha. The chedis are in reasonably good repair, and there are colonnades and other structures still partially standing.

We see a number of school girls hanging about interviewing tourists for an English class. We agreed to be interviewed by two different girls since they were very polite and sweet. The first one taped us and was much more interactive than the second interviewer who had a written questionnaire we filled out. They had the typical learning a new language questions like what is your name, do you have brothers, sisters, children, etc. We told the girl with the tape we had a dog and she asked what his status was. We didn't figure out what that meant.

We drove out of town and generally headed northeast. A souvenir seller outside the wat had pointed out one of our tires as low so we had it looked at when we stopped to get gas. I think gas is ~10 Bhat/liter. The tire turned out to have a nail in it and we had it repaired for 50 Bhat. We seem to see more mechanics on our vacations than we ever do at home.

While stopped we got some lunch at the town of Saraburi. This was our first experience dining at a sidewalk cafe where no one spoke English. We had some trouble getting started, but pointing at some things resulted in a good lunch in the end. Rice, a chicken dish, some type of curry, pork perhaps, soup and water to drink. Our advance prep for this trip included listening to a Thai language tape, but we had little success with the language.

Drive, drive, drive about 400km today until we reached the town of Khon Kaen where we stopped and got a room at the Roma Hotel. Nicer room than the Tong Poon in Bangkok for 1/4 the price. We spent the entire trip studying the sky looking for clues about tomorrow night's weather. All the way there were puffy cumulus clouds, which seemed to be moving westwards, but who knows what tomorrow will bring.

We had a dinner at the First Choice restaurant around the block from our hotel. The food was very good, a bit spicy. Lemon pork, a curry, some kind of soup. There were a group of German and Australian girls at a table next to us. They seemed to have a lot of problems with their food. At one point, one of them exclaimed "Oh, my God" upon sampling whatever she had ordered. She subsequently ordered a cheese sandwich.

Tuesday, November 17, 1998 [Meteor Shower]

Tonight will be the night of the Leonid Meteor Shower so we spent the day trying to find a good vantage point after stocking up on supplies at the Big C (kind of a cross between Target and a supermarket).

We first drove up into the mountains looking to get above the clouds, but the mountains were not high enough. We did have a nice drive through pretty scenery before turning around and heading back toward Khon Kaen. The drive was mostly on a two-lane road with lots of slow buses and trucks and passing is frequent. It is not uncommon for passing vehicles to "not make it" and force oncoming traffic onto the shoulder. This happens a couple of times per day, and is particularly harrowing when the oncoming vehicle is a bus.

After ~300km of driving we took a chance and made the turnoff to Nam Phong National Park. This park is neither on our map nor mentioned in our guide book, but a sign in both Thai and English directs us from the main road to a park, 19km. After 3km we were faced with a crossroads and a choice of wooden signs only in Thai. Fortunately our phrase book has a few Thai words and I was able to match up 8 or 9 of the letters on the sign to the script next to National Park in the phrase book. We began following these signs through a series of T's and forks in the road as we went around some farms and through a couple of rural villages. All the while wondering if we are getting to the National Park, or perhaps I've only identified the word National and we are going toward something like the National Water District Office.

However, we successfully reached a National Park with clearly identifiable camp sites, and tried to see if we needed to register or pay a fee at the visitor center. The guy working did not speak English but tried very hard to give us a lot of information. He wrote a lot of stuff down using very neat and BIG handwriting. Unfortunately, we can't read Thai any better than we can speak it. Key points included something happening at 22:00 PM and the number 17. The date was the 17th, but I'm not sure that is relevant. Eventually I pointed to the word for tent in our phrase book and the guy nodded and pointed in the direction we had seen another pitched tent.

We set up our tent next to a wooden bungalow affair. Grass thatch roof over a raised bamboo platform, no walls, by the edge of a lake. Bugs came out in force around sunset and we retreated to the tent for a coupled of hours. The mozzies died down a bit and we came out of the tent around 9pm and lied in the bungalow for the next few hours waiting for meteors.

The place we were at was not very crowded. A handful of other campers (all Thai) were behaving just like American campers; bonfire by the lake (even though it's 80 degrees out). I guess you can't call it camping if you don't have a bonfire. However, the fire died out before the meteors came on strong and our neighbors were all pretty quiet.

We couldn't have picked a better location (16.625 N 102.570 E). The sky was perfectly clear and cloudless. Away from city lights and we had a comfortable place to lie on our backs and gaze up.

Early on there was just an occasional meteor, increasing to ~100/hour between 1-2am. After midnight we saw at least one meteor every minute or so without straining. It wasn't the 1000/hour rates we had hoped for, but a lot of the meteors were the big impressive OOH AHH kind and a few were the really impressive fireballs that leave a glowing trail for 15 seconds. As 3am neared we were both falling asleep and decided to call the meteor watch a success and retire to our tent for some sleep.

Wednesday, November 18, 1998

Although we woke up at 7am, all of our fellow campers had packed up and left already. We got going pretty quickly and drove to Udon Thani ~150km. We checked in at the Udorn Hotel which has an excellent shower (much appreciated after a night of camping).

After cleaning up, we went out for lunch and had Kai Yang (a kind of barbecued chicken) at a street stall restaurant. The word kai yang, and a bit of pointing yielded a yummy lunch of 1 chicken plus a kind of vegetable salad and some rice. For dinner we went to a restaurant at a hotel recommended in our Moon guidebook. It was nothing special, not bad, but not as good as the street food earlier in the day.

The TV had an eclectic mix of channels including a few Thai stations, CNBC, ABC (Australia), MTV, and a French station. We watched an Australian show called "A Country Practice". It had over-the-top acting, but the plots moved along briskly. The stories included one about a lumber mill with an ultra-evil owner and a workman who has a heart attack; a woman looking for a flat-mate gets Flamenco Waltzing Matilda applicant; some race-dog/bunny scandal, a doctor with a Ferrari; and a couple of other things all in the space of an hour!

Thursday, November 19, 1998

[Ban Chiang]

Today we visited Ban Chiang World Heritage archaeological site ~50km east of town. The place has an excellent museum with lengthy descriptions about the discoveries. Bronze tools dating from 3000 BC were the big find. Stone molds and crucibles for casting the tools were also found. The site was discovered in 1966 by an anthropology student from Harvard who tripped and fell over a tree root and came face-to-face with a potsherd. There is a great web site called The Ban Chiang Project that provides heaps more information about the place.

Several tons and several million pot fragments later we have a very good museum and a picture of life in the area from ~2500 BC to ~500 AD. The abundant "red design" pots came from the middle time period. There were also a lot of roller spindle gizmos with an incised pattern possibly used for making a pattern on cloth (we bought one at the museum shop). The excavation site itself has some portion of the dig left in situ with a protective covering.

We had lunch at the food court back in Udon Thani before setting out in search of Erawan cave. We couldn't find it. Seems the map in the Moon guidebook has it mis-located. We rolled over our first 1000km on this trip.

For dinner we went to a different Kai Yang food stall. This one was even better than the one yesterday. We took an evening stroll after dinner and saw an elephant going door-to-door. We can't figure out what the elephant is doing around town. It seems to be making deliveries at shops. Can this really be the case? What are we missing here?

Friday, November 20, 1998

[Kraek]

We drove north to the border town of Nong Kai (border with Laos). On the way we visited Wat Kraek which is kind of a wacky park with a lot of statues of buddhas with Jimmy Durante style noses. Snakes and elephants and lots of buddhas, big ones, little ones, fat ones, emaciated ones. It would be great to be able to read all the Thai inscriptions. As it was, we just gawked and took a lot of pictures.

We had lunch at the Mut Mee Guest House in Nong Kai. This seems to be THE backpacker hang out in town, and some of the people seem like they could have been here for weeks. An Ozzie with complicated money problems had finally managed a wire transfer to someone else's bank account. A Dutch woman was worried about the last blank page of her passport and had been corresponding with her embassy. We believe Julian was the proprietor, or else he was moving in and planned to plant some lemon grass on the property. It was a very charming place on the banks of the Mekong. Pleasant temperature with a nice breeze. The food was good, but a bit bland.

Next we drove, and drove and drove, somewhat in circles until we found Phu Phrabat Historic Park (17.73 N 102.358 E). This is a neat little place with mushroom shaped rock formations and wall paintings reminiscent of Aboriginal rock art. Why are rock paintings always under sandstone overhangs? Because people lived there? Because the elements didn't erase them? Finding this place was tricky and we get there late in the afternoon leaving only 1.5 hours to explore.

We drive back toward the Mekong. The road turns to dirt. It gets dark. We can see very little. We drive through small villages. We are still heading generally north. Finally we reach a main road with signs only in Thai and we use the GPS to get a bearing.

We chose to stop in the town of Sri Chiang Mai and stay the night at the Tim Guest house. Daniel and his first wife, Tim, opened the place in 1988. He's friendly and has one room left for 100 Bhat. After dinner we sit by the Mekong. It seems so late. There is no traffic and it's quite dark, but it's only 9:00pm. Vientiane across the river looks pretty quiet. No tall buildings, no noise, a far cry from Bangkok.

Saturday, November 21, 1998

Impulse grabbed us this morning and we decided to take a spur of the moment trip across the border to Laos. Rain contributed to the decision as it made a slow meandering drive along the Mekong less desirable than on a day with better weather. We stopped in Nong Kai long enough to pick up a copy of Lonely Planet Laos, then headed to the Friendship Bridge. Our rental agreement doesn't allow us to take the car out of the country, so we park it near the bridge and get on a bus.

Somehow we manage to walk out and catch a shuttle bus and go across to Laos without "officially" exiting Thailand. Oops! So we had to take the shuttle back and try again. Fortunately, the shuttle costs only 10 Bhat, is a short ride, and runs fairly often. We came back, exited Thailand, shuttled across again and went thru visa formalities to enter Laos. We finally pay our $51 visa fee to the staff who are playing some form of Liar's Poker with our currency and a calendar.

We changed a little money at the border post. The rate is 121 kip for 1 Thai Bhat. The biggest note available is a 1000 kip bill which is roughly equal to 25 cents US. The result is a massive pile of bills that are only worth a few dollars. Thai Bhat and US dollars, however, seem to be freely accepted in the country.

Now in Laos we grab a cab and headed strait for the airport hoping to catch an afternoon flight to Luang Prabang. Alas, the flight is full and we wait in case standby works, but the flight is really full so we are out of luck. After a bit more waiting. This time in comfortable chairs inside the Lao Air offices, we are able to put our names on the roster for tomorrow's flight. John does half of the conversation in French since one of the employees is more fluent in French than in English. The guy disappears to "check availability" of tomorrow's flight and he's gone for about 40 min. We think he had to drive to town and return to the airport to report the flight status to us.

Sunday, November 22, 1998

We spent the morning doing a walking tour of Vientiane. From our hotel we walked to the fountain circle then down an alley past the Jame Mosque. We then walked along a major street, Thanon Setthathirat, past the Presidential Palace. Across the street is Wat Si Saket which has hundreds of large Buddhas rimming the courtyard and thousands of smaller Buddhas in niches all along the walls. The central part of the temple was painted with scenes from the Buddha's life. This is allegedly the only wat that survived the 1828 Siamese invasion possibly because of its architectural style.

We continue on and visit Haw Pha Kaew, a temple with fierce dragon hand rails and a carved tortoise near the entrance. The temple doors were very intricately carved. We angled around the block and walked a short distance along the Mekong then came back up to Thaneon Setthathirat and walked back toward the fountain to visit Wat Mixai, Wat Ong Teu, Wat Hai Sok and Wat In Paeng.

[Wat Ong Teu]

At Wat Ong Teu we had an enjoyable interaction with a monk. We went in the temple and sat down in the conventional "little mermaid" posture. An older monk who was sweeping came over and turned on some fans so we would have a cool breeze. He then started talking to us, but we don't understand Lao. He was being very animated and friendly so we tried to use the meager phrase book section at the end of Lonely Planet Laos. John pointed to the words for "I don't understand Lao". He tried to say it, too. The monk seemed to find this terribly amusing, a real knee slapper. He then picked out some phrases and we we had a simple conversation. The monk asked us where we were from. We found the word for USA. The monk found the phrase "where is --- USA". We tried to draw a map but I'm not sure we conveyed a sense of where the USA was. The monk picked out "Wat Sainjaphur" from the phrase book, we believe that is where he came from. We asked him if we could take his picture and he strikes an amazing beatific pose. One second he was laughing merrily, the next second total peace. After leaving we noticed our guidebook says that the Deputy Patriarch of the Lao Monastic Order has his official residence at Wat Ong Teu. We wonder if that's who we met.

[Pha That Luang]

We took a tuk-tuk out to Pha That Luang, but it closed at 11:30am and we can't go inside. Bummer. We grab another cab back to our hotel. We find ourselves haggling the price down from 5000 to 3000 kip, before we remember that 1000 kip is only 25 cents. Big numbers can make you think things cost more than they really do.

We went to the airport and purchased our plane tickets for Luang Prabang (Only US cash is accepted by Lao Air). While waiting for the plane we met a couple from Montreal (Paul and Adele) who will be on our flight. They've been traveling for 3 months of a 9 month holiday. Trans-Siberia, Mongolia, Beijing, Hong Kong, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, Phnom Penn, Angkor ... to here. They're on a $100/day budget and are having a great time.

After some waiting, some of it near the runway. They're not too strict about where you hang out at this airport. We were boarded and our flight took off 15 minutes early. It was a small plane with a large tour group of Finns and a few other passengers including us. It was one of the hottest, most uncomfortable short flights I've taken with all the passengers sweating buckets.

After checking into the Saynamkhan Guest House, we took a short walk as sunset approached and climbed up the Phou Si hill in the center of town. There are a bunch of temples on top, a bunch of tourists, too. Luang Prabang is crawling with westerners or at least it feels like it is perhaps due to a smaller local population.

We went to dinner at the Villa Santi which used to be the residence of the king's wife and a princess. We found Paul and Adele there and joined them for dinner. We talk more about travel. They've been everywhere. They give Angkor VERY high marks. Ranked up with Machu Pichu and the Taj Mahal as other superlative sites. We keep the possibility of a side trip to Angkor at the end of our trip in mind.

Monday, November 23, 1998 [Luang Prabang]

We went to the Royal Palace Museum in the morning. It was the former residence of the king built around 1904. With the exception of the throne room, the place was fairly plain. One room showed state gifts from various other countries to the royal family. By far the ugliest set of gifts was from the USA. While the moon rock was kind of cool, if unattractive, the other items were things like "the key to the city of Knoxville" and the like. The prettiest gifts were various porcelain vases from Japan. My favorite was an intricately carved ivory sculpture we believe was a gift from Nepal. It was in the case of gifts from "other countries" including Australia (a boomerang).

Before lunch there was time to take care of a few practical matters including changing money. The bank seems to have some new money including 5,000 kip notes so the pile of currency I received was not as huge as feared. We also try to check return flight availabilty at the Lao Air office, but they don't know the flight schedule more than a day in advance.

We found a good place for lunch overlooking the Nam Khan river near our guesthouse. The restaurant may be called the Khem Karn Food Garden. Their Luang Prabang salad was fabulous. Who'd a thunk water cress could taste so good. We also had some Lao chicken curry, fried noodles and sticky rice, too much food to eat for 14,500 kip. During lunch we witnessed an intimate scene of a local woman washing her hair in the river. She took quite some time, very long hair.

John is feeling a bit sick (unclear if it's a head cold or an allergy) so our afternoon was a bit subdued. We walked toward the northeast end of town and looked in at various wats. There are many to choose from. We ended up at Wat Xieng Thong, a huge complex with a lot of glittering stuff and some local children playing with kites in the courtyard. We sat down in the sim which attracted a monk (actually a novice) who came and talked to us. He spoke English and we had a long chat. His name was ?Hmonm?, he couldn't pronounce my name either. He will be there 2 years then plans to go to school more and become a teacher. About 11 monks and 30 novices live at Wat Xieng Thong.

[Vat May]

We also stumbled upon Vat May. Gee that looks familiar, it's the cover photo on the LP Laos book. So we take our own photos of the place.

Rested on the veranda of the hotel for a while, then got dinner at a non-descript restaurant on the main drag. A young monkey was hanging out at the restaurant and we ended up with him practically falling asleep at our table. We were petting him in manner to resemble lice picking, which seemed to cause him to be pretty content. The monkey seemed to have a best friend of a young kitten to hang with.

Tuesday, November 24, 1998

[Morning Monks]

John seems to be feeling much better and got up for the "monk walk" in the morning. At 6am the streets are deserted, but the drums start at about 6:15am. By 6:30am the monks are parading through town to collect food given to them. A few kneeling old women are giving each monk one small handful of rice. There is a very long line of orange robes, and it doesn't look like there could be enough food for all of them.

We had the special Luang Prabang breakfast offered by our hotel. Sort of a beef jerky, sticky rice, hot sauce, plate of fruit, plus juice and coffee. Much better offering than their continental breakfast.

After a visit to the post office (beautiful stamps) we took a long-boat ride up the Mekong to the Pak Ou caves. The trip there took a little under 2 hours. It was a fun ride. The boat had a roof shade and we had a refreshing breeze all the way there. On the way, the boat gassed up at a hand pump Shell station. There were lots of villages and houses along the river with water buffalo, planted fields, fishermen, etc.

The caves have been carved in the side of a cliff. They appear to have been abandoned a while ago and rediscovered by a Frenchman in the 19th century. There are lots of steps up to the caves, then Buddha, Buddha, Buddha. The trip back down river was much quicker; under an hour.

Wednesday, November 25, 1998

[Luang Prabang]

Got up early, but not early enough to see the monks on parade. We had a morning flight to Vientiane. It was a much more reasonable temperature on the plane for this flight than the one in the other direction.

Laos requires internal immigration so we had to sign out of Luang Prabang province and sign into Vientiane. Neither process was difficult. The immigration officers joked with us on the way out of Luang Prabang, they thought John and I looked alike. I guess when you've been together 20 years ...

In Vientiane we got a taxi from the airport straight to the Friendship Bridge. Same driver we had to the airport a few days earlier. We saw a lot of school children on bicycles, approx 2/3 of them seemed to be girls, perhaps a larger percent of the boys are getting their education in the monasteries.

The border crossing at the bridge was much simpler this time and we are now back in Thailand and pleased to see the car is where we left it. We stopped at the Mut Mee for lunch, then headed up the Mekong (by road) till we reached the town of Sang Khom. Along the way we found a large collection of topiary (lots of different animals). We pulled off and drove through. Not sure who made them or why. They're real topiary, not the frame type you find at Disneyland.

In Song Khom we stopped at the Dee Daeng guesthouse. A collection of 4 river front bungalows built by a Belgian guy named Rudy and his wife, Daeng (Red). Rudy used to be a chef in Antwerp, but has now settled in Thailand. The Dee Daeng is a relatively new place, only a few months old.

We had a family style dinner with Rudy, Daeng, their son and two friends. Nick and his wife Sue who stopped by to say hello and joined us. Nick is a retired air force medic orignally from Fresno who came to Laos ~30 years ago. A very nice guy. The food was good. A couple of kinds of raw beef dishes. One flavored with lime, the other with bile. Tastes much better than it sounds. Rudy is sure the cow was killed this morning and the beef is very fresh.

This was the first time we ever slept with mosquito netting. John wonders if he will get malaria from this trip, being the mosquito magnet he is.

Thursday, November 26, 1998 [Thanksgiving Day]

We have an excellent breakfast. Fried eggs, baguettes and papaya, some of the best eggs I've ever tasted, and the baguettes were made fresh that morning in Laos and boated across to the guesthouse.

[Elephant Football]

After learning that there will be elephant soccer played this afternoon we agree that it sounds like a MUST SEE event. But we have time for a drive around the local area and a visit to the Tha Tip waterfall. We are the only ones there. We also drive through some villages, and see a lot of papaya trees, bananas, and rice being harvested.

At 4:00pm we went to a local Thai sporting/entertainment event, Elephant soccer. The event began with the national anthem and drew a pretty big crowd, maybe 200 people in all. Safety First. Everybody mills about in a makeshift field denoted by dark plastic hung from trees to prevent non-paying onlookers from seeing in. Two large elephants, one medium size elephant, and a baby elephant are free to mingle. Loud music blares. Finally a team is chosen from the children in the audience and pitted against the trained elephant soccer team. Pacyderms vs. Homosapiens. The kids were able to score against the elephants at least once. No easy task. Typically, the elephants would get the ball in their trunk and charge. The children would scatter. Pretty amusing all-in-all. Lots of visual humor and jokes in Thai from the announcer.

Friday, November 27, 1998 [Louie, Loei]

Out and on the road. The weather is drizzly and the drive twisty-turny. Up and down for 100 km or so in the rain. Very little traffic makes it bearable. There is a police checkpoint on the way into Loei, the first one we've encountered. They were stopping all vehicles and looking into trucks, etc. Not clear what purpose, smuggled goods from Laos? The police didn't speak English and didn't know quite what to do with us. John showed them his international drivers license and one of them figured out we were from the USA. Some of the others agreed we were from the USA and they waived us on.

We stopped in Loei for lunch, then continued on to Lom Sak where we decided to stop at the first hotel we found. Went to the hotel restaurant for dinner out of laziness, but had an excellent meal (violating our assumption about hotel food being uniformly bad). There was a piano singer doing Elvis toons and a Chris Farley movie on HBO for added dining ambiance.

Saturday, November 28, 1998

We drove from Lom Sak to Sukhothai stopping in Phitsanolok to visit the wonderful Folklore Museum set up by Sgt. Major Tawanee. Beautiful housing and grounds, lots of collection from life in the local area around Phitsanolok.

There was a loom and description of natural colorants used to dye silk and cotton thread. A display case had samples of the leaves, roots or bark of the plants including:

  • hog plums leaves - green
  • curcuma - yellow
  • leu sri root - purple
  • lac - red
  • mango root - black
  • morinda root - yellow
  • satri fruit (seed) - orange
  • jackfruit core - yellow
  • diospyros fruit - black
  • hom leaves - blue

There were also a number of ingenious traps for catching various animals. For example, a coconut trap that would catch a monkey when it put its hand in and grasped an egg making a fist too big to extract through the hole. Various rat, bird, and snake traps and a Bet Dak Tun for trapping moles. Everything has an excellent description that says not only what it is, but how it works/is used. In addition, there are photographic exhibits, like one showing "how to grow and harvest rice" with about 26 steps from plowing the field to storing it in the granary.

The museum is just great and charges no admission, surviving by donations. Sgt. Major Tawanee has done a great service in creating this museum, which is unique in my experience. Other museums of cultural artifacts (e.g., the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles) could learn from its design. Down the road 200m, also owned by Sgt. Major Tawanee, is a Buddha bronze casting foundry and animal kennel. We don't know why the caged dogs and birds were there. But the place casts bronze buddhas (some very big ones) by the lost wax method. Visitors are free to roam around inside. Safety first is our motto.

On to Sukhothai, the first capital of Siam. Unlike the ancient capital of Ayutthaya, which has had a modern city grow up around it so that you stumble upon ruins at every turn, Sukhothai instead is separated into Old Sukhothai (the ruins) and New Sukhothai (the modern city). Most hotels and restaurants are in the new city which has little appeal.

[Wat Sri Chum]

After looking at the nearby Wat Ho Hum, we drove over to the old city, ~14km away, and looked at a couple of the wats before sunset. Wat Sri Chum has a large Buddha and Wat Pra Pai Luang is pretty much in ruins. The kilns weren't too hot. We see the Buddha subduing Mara and the Buddha dispelling fear (Buddha doesn't really break a sweat when he triumphs over the forces of evil!). We will see more of the place tomorrow.

Had dinner somewhere in the night market. Quite good. pad se eu finally found, plus some delicious squid and a seafood soup. Car mileage rolled over the 2000 mark. Somewhere ~2200km have been traveled by us by road in the Thailand portion of our trip so far.

Sunday, November 29, 1998 [Sukhothai]

It's raining, so we begin the day by looking inside the National Museum in Old Sukhothai. They have one building that has a lot of city plans, aerial views and other general info and a second building with a collection of some of the finer pieces found in Sukhothai.

The rain was letting up as we finished at the museum (it actually became sunny by days end). We spent several hours seeing the ruins in Zone A. Wat Mahathat was probably the most impressive of the several wats gathered in this central zone. We were allowed to drive the car in and motor around between sites. We seem to be one of the few tourists who have a rental car in Thailand. Can't quite figure out why since it has been a real convenience, and the roads have been very good.

[Sukhothai Wat]

There was one set of cafes inside the central zone so we had lunch (a good Pad Thai) there. Zone A is very "orderly". It seems too planned out to be a set of ruins. More a feeling of an amusement park.

In the afternoon we drove south of the central area to what is labelled as Zone C. We found this much more enjoyable. Here the ruins remain in ruins. In many cases they are overgrown by plants so there is a feel of a lost city buried in the jungle rather than lost city with neatly manicured lawn back in Zone A. There were also no other visitors to Zone C while we were there.

Monday, November 30, 1998

Today, we drove to Kamphaeng Pet south of Sukhothai. This city is also part of the World Heritage listing that includes Sukhothai and Sri Semphat to the north. Kamphaeng Pet was excellent. Perhaps the ruins were not as well manicured as Sukhothai, but it had a congenial atmosphere. Almost no one else was there, so we had the place pretty much to ourselves. One wat, Wat Chang Rob, was surrounded by elephant statues. It had a very steep and perilous climb up to the top. Even steeper on the way down.

After our enjoyable morning, we undertook a long drive cumulating in a miserable night in Kanchanaburi. We arrived in Kanchanaburi a little after 5pm and found a lot of traffic winding through the narrow streets with fish shaped signs. We chose the Bamboo Guest House because 1) we could find it, and 2) it was described as idyllic in Moon Guide. Unfortunately, the place was less than idyllic for us. The setting looked nice enough, a few bamboo bungalows, some floating, on the banks of the River Kwai in sight of the "Bridge over the River Kwai". However, about an hour after we settled in, floating discos came up the river and parked in sight of the bridge and blared over amplified music for a few hours. After dinner we tried to sleep in the damp, mildew-smelling room. Mushrooms were growing in the bathroom. Music still blared from a nearby establishment. The bed was lumpy.

Tuesday, December 1, 1998

Still in a negative mood, we awoke a couple hours before our guesthouse seemed to get itself up and going. This prompted a quick departure and we went down the road to the Jolly Frog Guesthouse where we were able to have and excellent breakfast. Fresh rolls and eggs for me, squid for John. The squid was mis-delivered to the next table where a pair of German girls went "Eeeek!"

We drove around slightly lost then used GPS to put us on the road we wanted, northwest toward the Burmese border. We stopped at Sai Yok National Park and spent a few hours. It's a nice little park. Today it was completely uncrowded, though there were facilities (toilets, food stalls, etc.) for 1,000's of weekend visitors.

There was a small but pretty water fall near a suspension bridge. Evidentally scenes from the Deer Hunter were filmed here. We saw the remains of the death railway built by the Japanese in WWII and take a 2km walk to a bat cave. We didn't see any bats, but the walk was teeming with butterflies. It's HOT.

[Sangklaburi]

We drove on north to the border town of Sangklaburi which is very picturesque. We have a lovely bungalow over looking another bridge. This one is not on the river Kwai, but looks like it would belong. Our place is called the Burmese Inn. Nice teak furniture in the room. Pleasant woman running the place, Burmese dinner.

Wednesday, December 2, 1998 [Coho's birthday]

In the moring we visited Khao Laem National Park which doesn't get many western visitors, and didn't seem to have any other visitors today. A park map shows a trail that hugs the river for an indeterminate distance. We try to find the trail head across a bridge (on the map) but can't find the bridge. A jeep track peters out into jungle. We turn back somewhat despondent, review the map again and convince ourselves that everything else is in the right place on the map. John goes on head to see if either a bridge or a trail become apparent. It does. Leary of snakes and spiders, but equipped with Gortex boots and two liters of water, we start again, and are accompanied by a trusty companion dog who lives at the park. After a pat on the head he joined us for our trek. He would run ahead then wait for us to catch up which sometimes helped to identify the trail. The walk went through dense stands of bamboo and other foliage. A GPS reading during our walk placed us at 15.0297 N 98.6035 E. It's HOT even though we're in deep shade the whole way, it's very green and lush. Deeper in the forest there are allegedly tigers and possible wild elephants, which seems quite possible given that this is the civilized corrupted edge of a reserve that extends over thousands of square kilometers.

[Burma Shave]

After lunch, we went to the Burmese (Myanmar) border at Three Pagodas Pass 20km to the north. There isn't much at the border. Not that we expected much. There are 3 small stupas sitting in the middle of a traffic circle, plus a couple of food stalls and buildings for the checkpoint. The border is open and people seemed to be freely crossing in each direction. We didn't bother, but could have gone into Burma if we wanted to pay US$18.

Back near the inn we check out the bridge not on the river Kwai. It is FAR more frightening than we had imagined. Widely spread horizontal slats bridged by a few parallel 2 x 6 pieces of teak. The boards are loose! Maybe a 60 foot drop to the water below. A flimsy upright bamboo pole for balance. If walking alone wasn't hard enough, pedestrians have to give way to the motorcyclists who use the bridge.

Thursday, December 3, 1998

Left Sanklaburi in the morning and arrived in Nakhon Pathom in early afternoon stopping only for lunch. It was a very pretty drive, up and down. The car struggled through a number of the hills. The car rolled over the 3,000km mark.

We checked into the Nakhon Inn. Average up-scale hotel. The same accommodation would cost at least double in Bangkok, so we decided to stop here instead of continuing the last 50km to Bangkok for our last full day in Thailand.

John brings back some "crullers" from the night market. They come with an ugly green dipping sauce. We both agree that a) they grow on you, and b) the green stuff really makes the dish.

Friday, December 4, 1998

[Nakhon Pathom]

Nakhon Pathom has been good to us. At least we were able to accomplish everything we needed from this base of operation. Made a number of phone calls. First, US Embassy in Bangkok. The Cambodia guy there clears the place for travel saying it's been pretty quiet lately. Called Bangkok Air, 2 direct flights daily to Siem Riep. We book ourselves on the afternoon flight tomorrow. Double check visa requirements with the Cambodian Embassy. None required in advance for US citizens as we expected. Called Budget rent-a-car. A representative will meet us at the airport tomorrow to collect the car before our flight. It appears A-okay to have a holiday in Cambodia before going home.

We spent a few hours at Nakhon Pathom Chedi. It's big claim to fame is having the biggest chedi in the world and a very important one in Thailand. We found it to be a good place to hang out and watch people pass by for a while. The place is very large, with lots of benches in the shade.

We met a monk from Sri Lanka who spoke to us at some length. He has been here for 10 years. Unlike some of the Thai monks who only do it for a few weeks, he is a monk for life. He is writing his master's theses on the Bodisatva. His will be the second English language thesis at the university here. He compared notes with John about bibliography styles.

Saturday, December 5, 1998

It took a long time (~3 hrs) to get to the airport in Bangkok. The last hour was spent within site of planes landing. Between traffic, construction, and so-so sign-age we managed to miss the airport, twice. Once going south and again going north. Finally managed it on our third approach and got the car parked. The Budget representative was at the designated meeting point and all is well. Finally car mileage tally 3539.3 km.

As we prepare to board our flight to Siem Reap we overhear a CNN broadcast announcing "The Khmer Rouge have surrendered." Ah to live in interesting times.

To be continued ...


Lynn Garry Salmon <>{