15 August 2011 | Thailand and Laos
The first of our Asian travels began in late July when we flew to Bangkok and travelled by train to the northern area of Thailand. En route we stopped off to visit Sukothai which was once an ancient city and the original capital of the first Thai Kingdom. The ruins are well preserved and extensive, so hiring bikes and cycling around the ruins was an efficient way of exploring the historical park in a few hours.
Our next stop was Chiang Mai about 6 hrs further north, where we were booked to do a 4 day bike ride with our friend Marcus who was our tour guide. Marcus is originally from Melbourne but is now based in Chiang Mai and runs Crouching Tiger cycling tours. Our rides covered 100kms on average each day, which at times was challenging especially in the heat. However, we got to see so much of the surrounding countryside, it gave us a real appreciation of that part of Thailand. The city of Chiang Mai is in a valley but surrounded by high mountain peaks and limestone cliffs that are often covered in cloud. Our rides took us along narrow roads through bright green, rice paddy fields and up into the hills beyond, where you could often spot richly decorated Buddhist temples perched on the highest hilltops. Chiang Mai is now a bustling city, but has retained the old city which is a neat square surrounded by remnants of an old medieval style wall and a moat. Beyond the moat is the sprawling new city of restaurants, businesses and accommodation for the thousands of tourists who visit. Being a local, Marcus is 'in the know' about the best places to eat, so we enjoyed some really delicious Thai food.
Feeling fitter after 4 solid days of bike riding, we headed north east towards the border crossing of Chiang Kong where we would cross over from Thailand into Laos. The mighty Mekong River separates the two countries at this point. It is an extremely swift flowing river and the little boat that carried us from one side to the other really had to work hard at counteracting the flow of the river. Once through passport controls and checked into Laos we boarded a much larger boat for a two day ride (over 300kms) down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, a large town in northern Laos. The boat was very long and narrow with a seating capacity for about 50 people. However we were part of a group of 5 guests on board, so it was very comfortable with plenty of room to move. The captain, his wife and children and our guide made up the crew. The captain proved very skilful in navigating his boat down the river, dodging rocks, shallow areas, over falls and whirlpools. His wife prepared a hot, local lunch for us on both days and their children being on school holidays just enjoyed the ride. Half way down the river, we stopped off at a small village and spent the night in a hotel as boats are not allowed on the river after dark. We then set off again early the next morning and made it to our destination of Luang Prabang, later in the afternoon. The river scenery was really interesting and it was a very relaxing way of travelling from A to B. We really enjoyed our three days in Luang Prabang which has retained many of the French colonial influences especially in its architecture. It is surrounded by steep rugged mountains with sheer limestone outcrops, so amazing countryside.
We then boarded a bus for a drama filled days drive across the mountains to Vientiane. The bus driver had trouble with the gears and only got a Km out of town before stopping and trying to repair the problem with a welder on the side of the road. Two hours later, still no gears, we limped back to town and after another hour, boarded another bus. Finally on our way we encountered very windy roads and torrential rain. The driver drove through a large puddle smashing the front of the bus on the ground, knocking the front door almost off its hinges and cracking the glass. We climbed up and down steep mountains all day inching past washed out sections of road with sheer drops on the side. Not surprisingly, some passengers suffered motion sickness for the whole journey. We finally made it to our hotel at 10PM that night.
We found the Laos capital of Vientiane a little bland after the spectacular scenery of the north. After two days we travelled just 30 kms to the Thai Border where we caught an overnight train back to Bangkok. The Thai capital is such a bustling city, but easy to navigate round using the sky train and water taxis. We particularly enjoyed our visit to the Royal Palace and the enormous Sleeping Buddha. Our trip to Kanchanabri-'Bridge Over the River Kwai' fame, was memorable for our visit to the Allied POW's war cemetery and museum and a train trip along the edge of the Kwai River. The heat and humidity is relentless in Thailand and it wasn't hard to imagine the horrendous conditions the thousands of POW's were forced to endure at the hands of the Japanese, in the construction of the Burma railway. The visit was a sober finale to our travels in Thailand and Laos!