Angkor Wat: If You Can’t Beat Em,’ Join Em.’

Visiting Angkor Wat is like going to Disneyland: it’s expensive, it’s hot, there’s a lot of walking, and there’s people everywhere.

Angkor-Wat-Crowds
Good luck beating the crowds in Angkor!

We tried to think of strategies to escape it, but alas, they just don’t exist. And we’re usually pretty good at avoiding the crowds. Here are some tips to make the most out of your experience, even when there will always be 1000 people around you at any given point.

1. Buy a multi-day pass. I don’t know if anyone goes to Siem Reap for just one day. Highly unlikely. If you buy a 3 day pass or a weeklong pass it’ll be less expensive in the long run. Also consider that if you visit for sunset after 5pm, the ticket does not need to be validated for the day, but instead will get stamped on the next.

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Quiet sunset on the eastern perimeter of Angkor Wat

2. Eat cheap. There are a ton of restaurants in Siem Reap, almost all of them catering to tourists. That means that most of them are more expensive because, well, they can get away with it. There are some restaurants that aren’t too bad, most of them around the old market area. These will only set you back $2-$3 a meal as opposed to $5-$7 which may not be much, but over a few days it adds up to something.

3. Shop around for a tuk tuk driver. There are tuk tuk drivers everywhere in Siem Reap, and while they may be easy to find, they put up a pretty hard bargain. We managed $15 for the small circuit (day 1), $23 to Banteray Srei along with a few others in the small circuit (day 2), and $35 to Beng Melea, the Roulos Group, and Phnom Bakeng (day 3). That is compared to probably $20, $30, and $40 some people (or cars) were trying to charge for the same things, respectively. Do keep in mind – these guys work hard for their money; they work to put a roof over their head, food on the table, and to send their kids to school. Ask your hotel for rates, ask drivers on the streets for rates, and come up with a number that works for you. Don’t get ripped off, but please don’t get worked up over a dollar or two.

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An early morning ride on our tuk-tuk / chariot with our driver, Mr. Pich

4. Pack breakfast or lunch. There are small shops around most temples offering food, drinks, hats, etc. but the temples are also less busy around lunch so if you pack your own it’ll probably be less expensive and maybe a little less crowded. Same for breakfast if you want to see sunrise at Angkor Wat or any other temple for that matter. Bring some apples and peanut butter or muesli and yogurt and eat your breakfast while watching a beautiful sunrise over Angkor Wat.

5. If you want to go to Phnom Bakeng and not be in the midst of hundreds try going around 2-3. We went at this time and we were there with only six other people. It may not be sunset, but I prefer less people to explore than the sun going down.

6. Banteay Srei is absolutely worth the drive. Hands down my favorite temple. Go.

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Banteay-Srei- the beautiful details.
Banteay-Srei
The big picture at Banteay-Srei.
Banteay-Srei
A picture framed picture.

7. Beng Melea is far. Two hours by tuk tuk each way. I really wanted to go but Nick hemmed and hawed over the price. On top of the tuk tuk you pay $5 each for entry and then have to tip a guide once they show you around. We got there very early. 8AM. And while this a less travelled to temple, as we were leaving there were busloads of people, probably at least six huge tour buses, a dozen minibuses, and a handful of cars and tuk tuks, dropping people off. If you go when there are tons of people there it’s definitely not worth it. If you go, go in the morning when you basically have the place to yourself.

Beng-Mealea
A real root takeover.

Reunification Palace in Saigon: A Lesson in Style

The Reunification Palace in Saigon was nothing I expected. Expertly designed and decorated, it’s more a lesson in style than history until you stumble down the stairway into the basement bunker. This is where the war was fought. With telephones, communication devices, and maps upon maps on the walls, the drama that took place down there is still present. The upstairs is just as dramatic but in a completely different direction. The juxtaposition of grit and glamour makes it all the more alluring. Take a peek into the palace.

Waiting for a phone call in the bunker.
Waiting for a phone call in the bunker.
Typewriter row.
Typewriter row.
An orange perspective.
An orange perspective.
Mural-ings. Pretty things.
Mural-ings. Pretty things.
Fixture this.
Fixture this.
Loitering in the library.
Loitering in the library.
Around the table.
Around the table.
Cool composition.
Cool composition.
A grand room.
A grand room.
Heli pad on the palace pad.
Heli pad on the palace pad.
Stairs to stare at.
Stairs to stare at.
Windows for days.
Windows for days.

Halong Bay Junk Boat: Not So Junk-y After All

While we were in Hanoi, we knew we had to take the opportunity to shoot east to Halong Bay and jump on a Junk Boat cruise. Junk boats are a popular tour in Halong Bay, as that’s really the only way you can see it, so there are many options to choose from, obviously with a huge range in price. We ended up on an IndoChina Junk boat, more out of availability, but left with a good feeling about how they run their business. Throughout the trip our guide, Hung, explained to us reasons why we go to certain places, reasons why we visit certain villages, and helped us understand the good they are trying to do for the tourism industry in Halong Bay.

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Our junk boat: the Dragon’s Pearl II

Halong Bay is very beautiful. Monolithic islands of limestone dot the water in every direction to what seems like infinity. The water is calm and that’s basically it. That’s the scene for the few days on the junk boat, and outside of the extensively planned meals and some kayaking mixed in, you’re left to entertain yourself staring into the bay (or in the evening- drink heavily after you’ve thrown in the towel on squid fishing). It’s a nice respite from Hanoi, that’s for sure.

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Post dinner dance party

Speaking in tourism terms, Halong Bay can we divided into three sections: Ha Long Bay Center, Lan Ha Bay near Cat Ba Island, and Bai Tu Long Bay. Most junk boat tours tour through Halong Bay Center but IndoChina Junk has managed to wiggle their way into the less trafficked area of Bai Tu Long Bay to offer their clients a much calmer Halong Bay experience. They developed a program called “For a Green Halong Bay” which is supported by the government and the residents of Halong Bay. It is a two part project that focuses on removal and treatment of waste as well as mangrove reforestation in Bai Tu Long Bay and building new cultural houses and schools in fishing villages. Tourism is slowly taking its toll on Halong Bay. Mangroves have been cleared to make way for all the tourist boats and pollution is on the rise among other things. Indochina Junk is trying to reverse it’s impact by actively putting forth energy and constructive processes into the places they visit with their tours.

Vung Vieng fishing village is one such example. This fishing village is located in a pocket of limestone islands, sheltering the residents from strong winds and choppy water. We noticed the second we arrived that it was so much warmer inside their watery home. Hung told us that in the beginning the residents of the village did not like tourists. Indochina Junk ended up striking a deal with the residents. They would help clean up their waters (they were very polluted from day to day activity), they would build a new floating school, and they would exchange the foam floats that hold up their floating houses for plastic ones that would be a long term sustainable solution for them and the environment in which they live.

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The village from afar
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Paddling with feet at Vung Vieng fishing village
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A local school house at Vung Vieng fishing village

This junk boat operator also decided to buy a cave, Thien Canh Son cave, that is. Located in a small island in Bai Tu Long Bay, it is only for visitors of Indochina Junk. This is where they hold the final dinner of the cruise. Now, getting rights to an island was no easy task. There were people living their for gosh sakes. They ended up striking another deal by providing these cave dwellers with alternative lodging.

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BBQ dinner in Thien Canh Son cave
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The whole group in Thien Canh Son cave

They also now run a kayak shop on the island that houses Thien Canh Son cave, that gives the clients of Indochina Junk a chance to paddle around the islands themselves.

Halong-Bay-Kayaking
Kayaking in Bai Tu Long Bay

An optional, additional night to add onto your Halong Bay tour involves a village homestay on the mainland in Yen Duc Village. The name of this village may sound familiar as it provided us with a great place to ride our bikes. But it was another strategic decision for Indochina Junk. After scouting several villages for a homestay, Yen Duc Village was the winner. Recognized as a national relic in 1993, the village retains traditional agricultural features and a offers a peaceful peek into rural Vietnamese life. When we asked Huong, our guide, what the village people thought of its new place in tourism, she basically said the same thing as the residents of the fishing village. It was a change indeed. At first unwelcome, but with the cleanliness and beautification of the village brought about by the new relationship as well as the creation of new jobs for the villagers, the locals will give you a nice hearty wave and hello upon seeing a foreign face.

When we were kayaking one day there was a lonely bottle floating in the water that Hung went over to snag for the trash. Now, I’m not sure if everything Indochina junk does is perfect, as nothing is, and I’m sure they’ve had their bumps along the way, but it’s clear that they’re taking their effect on the environment seriously and doing their part in retaining the natural beauty of Halong Bay.

Bike Vietnam

Like most SE Asian countries, Vietnam is an assault on the senses, sometimes for good and sometimes not. Between sidestepping your way around sidewalks, scooting through motor scooters, and saying no countless times to ladies trying to stuff your faces with donuts on the street, the cities of Vietnam will have you screaming ‘Serenity now!’ in no time flat. Luckily, there are other places. Unfortunately, most people opt to see these places on stuffy tour buses with more stuffy tourists which will also not lessen your need for serenity. Skip the buses, don’t skip the countryside, and hop on a bicycle. Two wheels gives you much needed freedom to explore the peacefulness that exists outside of the city limits. And while this mode of transportation can probably help you find tranquility in many other places other than Vietnam, I found it particularly awesome here. Below are a few places we jumped off the bandwagon and onto a bike. Serenity now (insanity later)!

Ninh Binh

We were torn on what to do in Ninh Binh. It is a little town and used as a jumping off point for exploring two popular tourist destinations, Tam Coc and the Hoa Lu temples. There are many tours that will take you through these places for a good amount of money and some quality time in an air conditioned bus, hooray. We went in a different direction and took the local bus to Ninh Binh. From there we rented bicycles (relatively new ones for a change) and lost our way into the countryside and into the beauty of Trang An. This was probably one of my most favorite days on our whole trip thus far.

Trang-An-Grottoes
A boat ride after biking to Trang An Grottoes

Yen Duc Village Homestay

After a two day sailing cruise around Halong Bay we opted for a one night stay at the Yen Duc Village Homestay. This is an up and coming tourist village but with it being so new our foreign faces were in for a lot of staring time. Here, besides catching fish with bamboo baskets, planting a garden, visiting the morning market, and learning how to make a northern Vietnamese dessert we also got some bike riding time in. Although we had a guide for the tour, it was a pleasant ride around a little village with some beautiful scenery and of course an abundance of rice fields.

Yen-Duc-Village-Bike
Biking around Yen Duc village

Hue

Hue is an historic town. Boasting several ancient tombs and an ancient citadel along the river, there’s enough to see for a few days. Usually, the tombs are best seen by boat tour. Unfortunately for us it was quite chilly and rainy while we were there so the boat tour was pretty out of the question. Instead, we took a break in the rain to bicycle down to the Tu Duc Tomb to nose around. We passed through tiny streets, cemeteries, people being people, all stuff that you can easily miss on a boat or a bus. I enjoyed the tomb way more than I thought I would and if we had more time I would have liked to explore all three major stops. After the tombs we regrouped and decided to head out to a handmade bridge in the countryside. Commissioned by a little old lady a long time ago, this bridge was quite small. And while the destination might not be all it’s cracked up to be, getting there was the fun part. We passed little kids playing badminton with cardboard box lids and decided to buy them some real racquets. Seeing as it was late in the day we passed many farmers tending their fields, fishing, and picking morning glory from its murky living space, and we were provided tea and dried ginger snacks from a very nice lady at the bridge. All thanks to the humble bicycle.

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Feels like fall at the Tu Duc Tomb
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Exploring the Tu Duc Tomb

Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta was another question mark in our trip. Do we go or not go? Do we go there for a few days or take a day trip from Saigon? Looking into it further, it seemed that the day trips were a whole lot of driving and not a whole lot of doing much of anything. Most of them head to My Tho which is the northernmost town of the delta and I’m guessing the most overrun with visitors. After reading some travel blogs and conducting a little more research we decided to go for it, but to go further into the delta than most people. Here, we opted for another homestay, Nguyen Shack, which is a little down the river from the town of Can Tho. We took a bus to Can Tho, then a taxi to a bridge and then from the bridge they came and picked us up from a tiny dock and took us to the homestay by boat. Boat is the only way in and out. Peaceful and inviting on all accounts. I knew I wanted to do two things in the delta: go to the floating market, and go bike riding. Unfortunately we were only able to go to the floating market as Nick came down with something, but I assure you the bike riding would have been awesome. The guy who manages the place offers bike tours for a few bucks or you can just take bikes for free and ride around yourself. He’s even nice enough to draw you a little map of where to go. That was what we were going to do had it all worked out.

Nguyen-Shack-Homestay-Pano
The quiet countryside of the Mekong Delta

But not everything always comes up evens. Next time. Even so, Vietnam by bike is beautiful and undiscovered. Find your own bliss on two wheels.

Living With the Land in Luang Prabang

Slowly but surely, but really quite quickly, a food movement has taken hold. Part of this movement is the demand from the foodies and hipsters of the world to know where their chicken comes from. Is it from Illinois? Iowa? What did it eat? Did it have friends? What was its name? Can we visit the farm? While not many people take it to the extreme and actually visit the farm that their food comes from, we happened to have the opportunity; and we took it.

Being in SE Asia, we’ve eaten a lot of rice. And although at home we may not give a second thought to the blood, sweat, and tears that go into growing and harvesting those tiny morsels of deliciousness it’s really hard to ignore it here. Rice paddies spill out in front of you as soon as you leave any city and reach the countryside. Rice farming goes way back. Every day you can see the conical hatted farmers in their fields- sowing their seeds, fussing with their rice shoots, reaping their crop.

While in Luang Prabang we had the chance to visit the Living Land Farm on the outskirts of town. It’s a relatively new venture started by two brothers with a long family history of farming. But these guys are of the new generation. Turning a profession that leaves most living barely above the poverty line into a program that’s pushing them into the towns elite. The farm sells the best organic produce to the top restaurants in town and spends most mornings educating tourists on rice farming while charging each person what would equate to a weeks pay for the average farmer.

The program takes you through each stage of growing rice.

Prepping the Land

First step is to plough the fields. Fill the paddies with the right amount of water and put your tractor to work prepping the soil for new seedlings. Traditionally, this is done with a water buffalo. For most farmers this has a two-fold benefit: 1) Buffalos are way cheaper than a real tractor. Under $1000 compared to up to 10x that amount for a tractor. 2) Buffalos provide fertilizer. That’s right. These friendly beasts are a rice farmer’s best friend.

Our water buffalo for the day was named Suzuki. There’s another on site that we didn’t get to meet named Yamaha.

Living-Land-Farm-Suzuki
Suzuki: the resident tractor

Germination

While the farmers are busy prepping the paddies, one section of the farm is closed off for germination of this season’s harvest. Lumped close together these young seedlings are nurtured until they are ready for the next step, transplanting.

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Young seedlings well into germination

Planting

Here’s where the pain begins. The seedlings that are properly germinated are picked by hand and transplanted to their final home. Arched over, ankle deep in the mud we planted each seed, one by one, 20cm apart, in a nice little row. Well at least it started in a nice little row. The guide laughed at us a little bit as we are hard at work and mentioned that most of the time he has to re-do what had been done by the day’s visitors. We tried. We’re told this process takes a minimum of 240 man hours of back-breaking work for each hectare of rice.

Living-Land-Farm-Transplant
Transplanting the crop seed by seed

Harvesting

Cutting

Once the rice has dried out it’s time to harvest. A sickle, which you can find for sale in any market in town, is the tool of the trade here. Harvesting is also a plant by plant operation. Each individual shoot is sickled by itself. Take hold of the plant, place the sickle at the base of the plant, and pull to cut. Once you have a handful of these you have your first bundle. Use one of the plants to tie around the bundle in your hand. Now repeat until you’re finished harvesting the field.

Living Land Farm Rice Bundle Sickle
Harvesting rice using a sickle bundle by bundle

Threshing

Now that you have your bundles of rice it’s time to remove the seeds. Something to the likes of a nunchuk are involved in this process, alone with something that looks like a cornhole board without the hole and the party game. Put the rice stalk bundle in the nunchuk and then beat the bundle (with the seeds facing down) on the board. This will send the rice flying off the stalks and onto a mat. Once you’ve completed this with all your harvested rice you fan any of the remaining stalks off the rice pile with a rice dance and song (pictured).

The rice in the current form still has the husk on it. You’ll notice it’s brown in the picture and not white like the grains we are used to seeing. Removing the husk is a two step process. A scoop of rice gets put into a stone bowl in the ground. Then using your foot and a lever contraption with a stone at the end, you push the lever up and down to ‘beat’ the husk off the rice. For one batch this takes about 40 minutes. Yikes. After all that your rice and your husk are still living in the same place and they need to be separated. This involves a highly skilled technique of flipping the rice around in a tray and blowing the grains out. Apparently, if you’re a woman and don’t know how to do this, then no one will want to marry you.

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Fanning the rice away from the stalks
Living-Land-Farm-Husks
Separating the husks and grains

And that’s it. Hours of our hard work and we were left with just a few cups of rice. Enough to feed a few of us, which is exactly what happened. The day ends with a few snacks: some sticky rice (with a buffalo skin chili paste for dipping), sweets made from rice flour, and some sugar cane juice to wash it all down. It was a pleasant day on the farm where we learned a lot about the work ethic of rice farmers. If there’s anything we can do to thank them for all their work it’s this: next time you order rice with a meal, you better eat every last morsel on that plate. We will.

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Our souvenir for a day’s work

The Wrong Way from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang

It’s been done many times before. The tour groups have long pushed this route along the banana pancake trail and it’s in every guidebook on ‘an experience not to be missed’. The slow boat down the Mekong starts just over the border of Thailand and Laos and takes you into Luang Prabang. It’s a long journey, but after our mis-adventures in Africa I assumed we could handle it.

Chiang Rai to Chiang Kong (morning of Day 1)

The trip started easy enough out of the bus station in Chiang Rai: we showed up, hopped on a rickety, old bus and were off. This was a local bus, however, and with all things local come surprises. Just outside of the bus station we were waved down by someone trying to a hitch a ride. He had his pickup filled with produce, some rice, maybe a few motorbike parts, and a few boxes of who knows what. We loaded up, he hopped on, and we continued down the pothole-filled roller coaster road to Chiang Kong. 65 baht lighter, and 3 hours and a sore back later we had reached the Thai frontier.

Crossing the Border (afternoon of Day 1)

I was looking forward to a nice, easy border crossing into Laos, leaving us enough time to buy tickets for the next day’s slow boat. But after getting off the bus, we were accosted by tuk tuk drivers eager to take us to the new bridge in town. Just a short two weeks earlier the Thai-Laos friendship bridge had been opened, closing the old boat crossing in town, and sending Thais and farang alike 10km out of town to the new land crossing. So Kristin, myself, and a curious Turkish guy, who spoke no English, hitched a ride across the border with a smiley tuk tuk driver who must have been super excited about all the new business that would be coming his way.

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The brand new border crossing in Chiang Kong

We arrived at the crossing 15 minutes later and I’ve got to say, the new buildings and bridge are quite impressive. Nothing like the land crossings we had seen before, and brand-spankin’ new. There was no funny business after that and we exited Thailand, payed 20 baht for a shuttle across no man’s land, got our visas processed into Laos for $35 each, and continued onto Huay Xai.

Huay Xai to Pakbeng (Day 2)

For some, Huay Xai may warrant a stop over for more than a night. We met a German fellow who was there for the Gibbon Experience, a highly-rated trek to swim under waterfalls, zipline through the jungle, sleep in tree houses, and for the lucky- spot some local gibbons. But we had places to be and headed for the boat landing to buy tickets. Unfortunately, it was closed for the day and we made plans to get up early the next morning to make sure we got a nice seat and not one crouched inside the engine compartment as we had heard from others. Our hotel did offer to buy tickets for us at $40 a pop, including a nice $12.50 commission above the normal price of $27.50 (220,000 kip). How nice of them, but I’ll pass.

Huay-Xai-Slow-Boat-Ticket-Office
Posted ticket prices in Huay Xai

Instead, at 8:00 am flat the next morning we made our way back to the boat landing. We were the first to arrive. No sign of life besides a guy stripped down to his underwear bathing in the river. Eventually we found a guy hiding behind the ticket office and bought tickets for the day’s boat. And then we waited. And waited some more. Some people showed up. More waiting. We loaded our bags on the boat. And continued to wait. At 1:00 pm, with 200 people and 2 boats loaded up we were finally starting our journey on the slow boat down the Mekong.

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Locals on a neighboring boat as we depart

It was peaceful. The sun was shining and we gazed at the sparkling temples on the hillside. We laughed at a few Thai and French children warm up to each other and then laugh and play while running up and down the aisles. But not more than an hour or two later I had gotten bored. I started to take swigs of the Thai whiskey that I had bought the night before. I ate the chicken sandwich we bought before leaving. I practiced some Thai. I went and bought an overpriced coke and then poured a liberal amount of whiskey into the can. Kristin gave me dirty looks while telling me that I looked like an alcoholic. I fell asleep.

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These Thai and French kids kept the boat entertained with their shenanigans

As the day wore the sun started to hide behind the hillside. It started to get cold and I began a ritual of 15 minutes in my seat and then another 15 minutes hovered over the exhaust pipe of the engine trying to stay warm. Eventually, just a short 7 hour hours after we had left Huay Xai, we were pulling into Pakbeng.

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A beautiful, but chilly view from the boat

It was dark, we couldn’t see much, but we eventually found our bags and made our way up the hill to the guesthouse that I had emailed. I should have expected it in a town like this, but we were told that the place was completely booked up and they had no record of my emails. We were out of luck and stumbled around to other places in the area trying to find a place to sleep to no avail. The one place we found with availability told us $45 / night. Another couple had just wandered into this place at the same time as us and told us they scouted the other side of town without any luck on availability. So we spent the money for a night’s sleep, an amount that we haven’t spent on a room since we were in Europe.

We ate an Indian restaurant while enjoying some Beer Lao. Our server was wearing a Cleveland Indians hat and I told him I liked it. He smiled and walked away, likely not understanding what I was saying. We watched a 10 year old cooking in the kitchen and eventually our food had arrived. The “mixed salad” was a sliced up tomato and cucumber arranged on a plate. The “naan” was a flour tortilla. Before arriving in Pakbeng, we had heard people describe the place as a bit of a hole. I’d have to agree.

Pakbeng to Luang Prabang (Day 3)

The next morning we loaded up and headed to the docks for our second day on the slow boat. This day was colder, partly due to the fact that we were leaving first thing in the morning and partly due to complete lack of sunshine. I repeated my routine from the prior day- a little whiskey, a little Thai practice, a walk back to the engine room to warm up. Nothing eventful on this trip, and I spent a lot of the time staring at the map trying to figure out how far we had traveled and when we were going to arrive.

Boat-Landing-Mekong

At 4:00 pm, we were pulling into the outskirts of Luang Prabang. The boat dock has changed a little bit from what I had read and we weren’t landing directly in town. Instead, we fumbled up a muddy hill where tuk tuks were waiting to take us the 15 minutes into town where we were dropped off at the entry of the night market.

Conclusion

This trip took us 3 full days. Some describe the journey as either love it or hate, and I fell in the latter category. I was left sick for a week afterwards and we didn’t see too much along the way. So my recommendation for the trip- take a bus to Chiang Mai and catch the 1 hr direct flight into Luang Prabang. And then if you’re itching for a ride on the Mekong, hire a boat from town to take you to the Pak Ou caves. I wrote previously about a journey that we did the right way, from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. This time, however, we clearly took the wrong way from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang.

Chiang Rai’s Enchanted Garden

It was our last night in Chiang Rai and we wandered the streets of the city searching for something sweet. Something that I’ve found us doing often due to Kristin’s sweet tooth. As we turned the corner a few minutes from the clock tower, we encountered a small crowd of people strolling under bright lights in Flag and Lamp Park. Because we happened to be in town during the city’s annual flower festival that’s only on for a few weeks in the end of December to early January.

We had heard that it was happening, but come on – how interesting can a flower festival be? Turns out, it’s well worth a trip. We strolled around the fairyland amongst the locals and admired the mist fall slowly over the freshly planted, enchanted gardens. Trimmed neatly and placed deliberately. After seeing this, I’ll admit in the manliest way possible… flowers can be really beautiful. Maybe I’ll take up gardening when we get back to Chicago.

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Chiang-Rai-Flower-Festival

Chiang-Rai-Flower-Festival
Chiang-Rai-Flower-Festival

Chiang-Rai-Flower-Festival

Chiang-Rai-Flower-Festival

Templed Out in Thailand

On our first visit to Thailand, we hit several of the major temples around the country. Wat Pho, Wat Arun, Wat Phra Kaew, Wat Chedi Luang to name a few. It was exotic, fascinating, and we wanted more. These glittering relics provide the first euphoric feeling of being in a foreign land- different from the towering sky scrapers of the Windy City and begging us to discover more of Thailand’s ancient culture.

But over time, the small temples in each and every town around the country leaves you with a little bit of deja vu: lots of architecture, lots of Buddhas. Maybe saying that makes me a little ignorant of the culture. These are places of worship, after all. Sacred to the local people and visited often, for prayer and to provide offerings. But as an outsider, hitting up the major temple in each town is moving down in priority on my ‘to-do’ list.

That was until we came to Chiang Rai. For us, this city wasn’t just a stopover on our way to the Laos border. We came to see a temple, the White Temple, rumored to be different than the rest. We told the owner of our hotel that we needed some scooters to go visit Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple) and she pushed us to check out Baan Dam (the Black House) as well. And that’s what we did.

We mounted our little motorbikes for the first time and fumbled around trying to figure out how to start them. Did I mention I’ve never driven a motorbike before? Turned out to be easy enough and after a brief practice run around the block a few times we headed down the back roads to the White Temple.

Chiang-Rai-Scooter-Kristin
Mounted and…
Chiang-Rai-Scooter-Nick
Ready to ride

It’s a quick drive, and before we knew it we had met up with the crowds of tourists in front of Wat Rong Khun. The temple is the work of Chalermchai Kositpipat, a well-known painter from the area. In the past he had been criticized for his contemporary work, but over time became more accepted. I can understand why. Inside the temple is a wax monk that looked so real I had to stare at it awhile to make sure he wasn’t going to blink. And along the back wall is a large wall depicting many “good vs. evil” characters in modern culture: The Matrix, Freddie Kruger, the Twin Towers, Star Wars, Angry Birds, Kung Fu Panda, Michael Jackson, and more. But the locals amongst us sat praying as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

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Wat-Rong-Khun-White-Temple-Entrance

There are no pictures allowed inside, but if you Google the temple you’ll get a few hits from those who didn’t abide by the rules.

After wandering around the grounds trying to make sense of what we just saw, we strapped on our helmets again and headed north to the Black House. It’s not a long ride, but without our handy City Maps 2Go app it would have been difficult to find. Signs are all in Thai and it’s hidden down a quiet residential neighborhood not far from the highway.

The Black House is not a temple, but rather an artist’s museum (or more of a complex) of sorts. Thawan Duchanee’s estate feels drastically different than what we had just experienced at the White Temple. While Wat Rong Khun seemed to tell us that good will prevail, Baan Dam took us to the dark side. Be warned.

Black-House-Chiang-Rai-Main-House
Black-House-Chiang-Rai-Sunlight

Black-House-Chiang-Rai-Snake-Skin

Black-House-Chiang-Rai-Horns
Black-House-Chiang-Rai-Small-House

Mae Hong Son Loop: Pai

We stayed at the Aqua Resort in Pai, just a bit out of the main town but in a quiet area. I think this place used to be a resort. Unfortunately, it just isn’t what it presumably used to be. If you look at it from far away it seems beautiful but the closer you get the more that image and the physical place itself deteriorates. It did have some really warm blankets, but having the bathroom outside was a bust.

Seeing as Pai is the hippy spot, and seeing as we’re not hippies, we decided to only stay one night then head straight to Chiang Rai. I think a mix of road weariness and hatred of tie dye led us to that decision. We took the night to visit the night market. For dinner we sought out Na’s Kitchen which is supposed to be one of the best places in town. I finally ordered a whole fried fish and it was delicious.

Thai Fried Fish
Fried fish at Na’s Kitchen

On the way out of town the next morning we happened upon a strawberry farm which was quite . . . unique. A fun place to stretch your legs and peak around. Also, their strawberry muffins are totally worth it.

Love Strawberry Pai Farm
Love Strawberry Pai Farm

The Pai Canyon is also on the way out of town and although we were there on a misty morning it is an interesting place. If you’re brave enough you can walk along the ridges and go into the canyon but if you have stupid slippery shoes like me you probably won’t be able to go very far until you realize your straddling a dangerous line. Have fun, but be careful!

Pai Canyon Nick Leaning
Nick looking over the canyon
Pai Canyon Trail
Pai Canyon trail

Road Conditions: fair to good

This post is part of six of six on our series on the Mae Hong Son Loop: Chiang Mai -> Mae Chaem -> Khun Yuam -> Mae Hong Son -> Soppong -> Pai -> Chiang Mai.

Mae Hong Son Loop: Soppong

We made the decision, since we assumed there is not much going on in Soppong, to take a day long detour from Mae Hong Son north to the Pang Ung Forest and then further north, almost to the border, to Rak Thai. The forest was our lunch stop. It was peaceful and pretty but I thought there was going to be more in the way of hiking trails. There weren’t. There were rafts for rent which would have probably been a nice ride. If you have the time I think it’s pretty enough to deserve a visit.

Pang Ung Reservoir Forest
Pang Ung Reservoir Forest
Pang Ung Reservoir Raft
Rafting on the reservoir

Rak Thai is tiny, as are most of these small towns. It seems that every shop there sells all kinds of dried things so if you’re in the market for a snack this is a good place to get out. Most of the shop-owners will let you try a piece of the dried fruit/vegetable so you can make up your mind. We tried a bunch of stuff and decided on some sour plums; the dried tomatoes were . . . interesting.

Valley House Coffee Rak Thai Thailand
Hipster coffee house in Rak Thai

After that detour we made it to Soppong. They have a small night market, but besides that the food options are slim. Although our guesthouse had a kitchen we decided to check out dinner at the Soppong River Inn just for a change of scenery. It was peaceful and delicious, probably much like it would have been at our guesthouse.

As a side-note, and if you’re interested in mediation, Wat Pa Tam Wua Forest Monastery sits between Mae Hong Son and Soppong. We stopped there to look around and saw a lot of mute people in white flowy robes looking bored, confused, and at peace?

There are not many places to stay in Soppong. Maybe two or three other guesthouses along the main drag. And Soppong consists only of the main drag. Little Eden was very nice, the owner/manager speaks beautiful English and you have a range of rooms to choose from ranging from a little bungalow to, I believe, a whole house. We chose the in between and were quite happy.

If you walk to the back of the Little Eden property there is a whole trail back into the wilderness you can wander on for about an hour. It seems like there are several branch off trails but we tried to stay on the main one. The trail markings aren’t great and we got lost once but it was a nice walk and ends in a garden.

Little Eden Guesthouse Soppong Thailand
Little Eden Guesthouse on the river
Little Eden Loop Trail Soppong Thailand
Little Eden loop trail

The following morning we left Soppong and drove 20 minutes north to visit the Tham Lot cave. We were originally going to stay at the Cave Lodge but decided to just see the cave and go on to Pai. The tour of the cave is no longer than two hours and there just didn’t seem to be enough to do to warrant an overnight stay.

To go into the cave you need to hire a guide. Once you pay at the main desk a guide is assigned to you. The tours last about an hour or so depending if you visit all three caves or just caves two & three. You can also decide if you want to take the raft back or walk back.

The tour itself left a lot to be desired. It would have been better if we spoke Thai since our tour guide spoke no English. Therefore, there was no education involved. She pointed at formations that looked like popcorn and said ‘popcorn’ and formations that looked like a crocodile and said ‘crocodile.’ There were a few signs teaching you the difference between stalagmites and stalagtites, again, but let’s face it, I will never be able to remember which is which.

There is also a peculiar thing that happens at night at the mouth of the cave where swifts and bats exchange places. Although we didn’t see that, I don’t think I’d be able to take it depending how long it takes. The smell of there poo, that was everywhere in that part of the cage was overwhelming. I couldn’t wait to get out. Maybe caves just aren’t my thing.

Tham Lot Cave Soppong Thailand Raft Driver
Tham Lot Cave
Tham Lot Cave Kris Riding Bamboo Raft
Riding the bamboo raft in Tham Lot Cave

Road conditions: fair to good

This post is part of five of six on our series on the Mae Hong Son Loop: Chiang Mai -> Mae Chaem -> Khun Yuam -> Mae Hong Son -> Soppong -> Pai -> Chiang Mai.