All respectable Vietnamese buildings based on Confucian design principles have an entrance gate opening onto a small space backed by a freestanding wall – the Spirit Wall. To enter the courtyard one simply walked a short distance to the right or left around the wall. Easy for humans but not evil spirits who cannot sail through so effortlessly. This would be especially useful for an imperial capital. The moat enclosed fortified walls of the 2-1/2 square mile Hue Imperial City was home to hundreds of buildings – palaces, temples, administrative offices and housing – lakes, gardens fountains and the Forbidden Purple City – home to the Imperial family. This vast complex was “Versailles” for the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1946). After years of war wresting control from feudal lords, Gia Long, first Nguyen emperor, established the modern boundaries of Vietnam – fatefully, with a little help from the French. Yet even double gates and fortified walls could not prevent floods, nor could meticulous planning under Confucian principles protect from bombs and artillery. Tempered by this reality, what remains of the vast UNESCO World Heritage Site with its ongoing restoration is beautiful, serene and haunting.
Wandering freely, after paying the admission of US$2.50 at the inner Ngo-Mon Gate, through palaces, gardens, ruins under restoration, past breathtaking decorated gates and crumbling walls, what struck me was the modern Vietnamese attitude toward the Imperial City. No matter that not all Nguyen family members were fondly remembered – to say the least – this was still the shrine to 144 years of national ancestors and therefore sacred ground. Even the 1933 tennis court of the last Emperor, playboy Bao Dai is being restored. The descriptions – written in French, English and Vietnamese – for the extensively restored Dien Tho Palace complex is nearly reverential.
Sadly there isn’t an army of restoration workers on site. Despite UNESCO designation, the projects are vast, requiring research, meticulous craftsmanship and lots of money. Germany and Japan are actively contributing to several current projects. Maintenance alone is a daunting task – this is 2-1/2 square miles of monuments.
The 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War (locally known as the American War) inflicted severe damage on the Imperial City, yet there are no vitriolic nationalist slogans, just a sober plaque describing the skeletal remains of a palace building within the Forbidden Purple City (bottom left).
Yet there are always the reminders that this is Vietnam where the practical tasks of everyday life are as important in Confucian thought as the lofty actions of State. Laundry drying on the Imperial City’s walled moat? As long as it’s feng shui…
Have you ever wished you could live in a postcard? You can if you cruise the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Halong Bay. Situated on Vietnam’s north east coast, it has been an important player in the nation’s history and economy for over a millennium. It doesn’t hurt being one of the most beautiful sites on the planet.
Hundreds of limestone island mountains have been sculpted by centuries of erosion. The bay itself opens to the Gulf of Tonkin, the port of Ha Phong and the vast Pacific. It has been an artery of wealth for Hanoi and north Vietnam, as well as the cultured pearl capital of the country. The bay, like so many expanses of water in Southeast Asia, contains floating villages. Unlike floating villages on lakes, Halong Bay’s are not as polluted or dangerous for residents, although the average family wage is less than US$800/year – owning your own floating house can run 20X that amount.
The main occupation is cultured pearl farming and it’s an extraordinary art. A thin slice of the oyster’s skin is dissected under microscopic glasses and transformed into “seeds” that are surgically inserted into the live oyster. Several seeds may be implanted in one oyster, but, after 3 to 7 years gestation – depending on the type and color – less than 20% will ever produce gem quality pearls. Packed in baskets suspended from bamboo floats, this important crop waits for the luxury world beyond.
Prior to the Indochina wars that ravaged Vietnam during the 20th century, Halong Bay’s limestone islands provided shelter for villages and isolated Confucian and Buddhist retreats. During the war they served as protection from air raids and today they are fascinating caves for everyone to explore. Several caves have been transformed into “tourist-friendly” sites complete with guides and dramatic multi-color theater lighting illuminating an otherworldly scene that takes on the look of an “otherworldly tourist attraction” – shapes of hanging feet, a large erection.. etc. (I keep on saying – the truth – that Southeast Asians are playful and NOT dour.) It’s fun to walk through the caves.
Halong Bay’s a year round destination but summer is its high season. March was still chilly and damp but added a mystical mist to the entire scene. There are islands that have summer beaches and there are a variety of ways to visit the bay. The most popular is by taking an overnight cruise on a small Chinese Junk-style ship carrying between 10 – 35 passengers. From the port of Halong City, the ships sail into the center of the bay – about one hour – and anchor. From there passengers are ferried to the floating villages, pearl farms, caves, kayaking through caves and to beaches. There are over 400 ships that ply the bay ranging from small day-trip boats to “luxury” cruise junks. I place the word “luxury” in quotes because it’s difficult to determine beforehand which ships fit that description. Our ship, the Hanoi Opera, booked through the highly recommended Explorer Tours, was a fine ship carrying 20+ passengers but whose beds were designed for ascetic monks – the futon mattress was perhaps 1.5 inches thick to be generous. Paying $US420/couple for 2 nights to sleep on a wooden pallet was very uncomfortable. We discovered that there were many other ships that offered a higher level of comfort at less cost. Having researched the options for a month before booking the cruise, and after extensive conversations with fellow travelers, I would not recommend booking ahead. With so many ships available for tours, the best options are: (1) stay overnight in Halong City and take a day excursion on the bay, or (2) stay overnight in Halong City and check out the overnight ships to see which ones offer real beds. A one-night cruise is sufficient and should run around US$150 – $165/couple, including meals.
The three hour bus trip from Hanoi to the Bay – included in the cruise fare – was equally interesting. Although not comfortable given the condition of Vietnamese roads, passing through rural countryside and old villages undergoing rapid middle-class changes was enlightening. Rice paddies with Water Buffalo pulling wooden plows are next to French/Vietnamese style “McMansions” of affluent Vietnamese. Anyone owning a house more than 9 feet wide is affluent since ancient real estate tax laws dictate high levies on any structure wider – although depth and height are excluded. Catholic churches towered over Confucian and Buddhist temples. Trash, dust and too much traffic for the narrow roads was typical. Nineteenth century farming and building techniques were side-by-side with 21st century office buildings, truck dealers and technical schools.
Of course, the bus does make a shopping stop at a stone carving studio. Vietnam has an abundance of both limestone and marble. Hand-made marble carvings, especially garden fountains and statues, in sizes that are quite large, are available and shipping can be arranged – don’t look for bargains, these are top-of-the-line. Silk embroidery – some of it quite fine – is an art that frequently employs the disabled and is widely available, as well as jewelry and women’s ready-to-wear clothing – as long as you’re a size 8 or less.
The ceiling fan stirs the languid air as mosquitoes flirt in the shadows of verdant ferns and orchids. Roosters compete with motor bikes to break the dawn. The gray/pink haze illuminates the dust laden street with its fading blue and red tin roofed houses. A young man in his 20’s, shirtless, in red shorts, barefoot, opens a creaking gate to drag the motor bike out of the night-time safety of his house. He pauses, takes in the day – a day just like yesterday – the sun will break through and life will steam.
I sit on the rattan chair at the small dining table, close to the window away from the fluorescent ceiling lights and their harsh pools of blue/white light. The coffee is black, thick and sweetened with condensed milk, just as everyone in this ancient kingdom likes it – except me.
Other guests filter down the wide wooden staircase during the morning. Given the heat, humidity and sugar high from the coffee, I easily imagine a veritable cornucopia of characters from any number of 20th century expat-in-the-tropics novels. The fit German couple in the corner table – early 50’s but have that trekkers’ older look – bussed it overnight from the capital, 12 hours, no air-conditioning. I’ve been warned the overnight busses are not wise – theft, bandits, drivers falling asleep, other accidents. Relaxed they were with their pineapple juice, coffee and toast; they’ve faced worst dangers (?). There’s the eager well-scrubbed English 20-something travel companions planning their one-day schedule to see 14 temples, naive to the toll the jungle will take by temple # 3. The sullen early middle-aged North American couple, skin already too red from the sun, start the day badly due to the eggs (they were oddly undercooked in some sort of fat and sprinkled with ground cinnamon). Yet even though $20/night is nothing to spend on a hotel – ok, weak a/c, weaker WiFi and it’s the third world – it should include… Perhaps he needs to ask the Ta Prohm Strangler what life in the jungle should include.
Siem Reap, Cambodia, is not far from the 19th century. Just outside the town are dusty small villages still in that time warp. French annexation of the Angkor Wat region over a century ago assured its discovery as one of Earth’s great man-made sites, and Siem Reap developed a modest tourist industry. A few elegant hotels, such as the 1929 Grand Hotel d’Ankor, guest houses and a very modest Royal Residence were sprinkled on tree-lined streets in what was just a large village.
The survival of Angkor, and Siem Reap, through World War II, the French Indochina War, the Vietnam War, Pol Pot and the civil war (total war years: 1939 -1989) is miraculous although like all urban areas, the town and its population suffered greatly. Yet what is Siem Reap without Angkor, what is Angkor without the Khmer Empire, and what is empire without war?
The meters of bas-relief carved on many walls of the over 200 temple complexes at Angkor Thom tell the story that this was the center of an empire – political, military, economic and religious – as well as the home to thousands of people for hundreds of years. Since 1989, stability under the restored monarchy has made tourism safe again at Angkor. Still, visiting the UNESCO site at night is neither allowed nor advisable. Driving, or even being driven, at night for any long distance in rural areas outside Siem Reap is not a good idea. Bus travel to the Lao border a couple hundred miles north can take a full day. It has been this way for hundreds of years, ever since the Khmer Empire moved its capital south and the Ta Prohm Strangler moved in.
The expansionist Thais of Siam put an end to the westward growth of the Khmers in the 15th century by sacking and eventually occupying most of the Empire’s capital at Angkor Thom. Then the French took it from the Thais (1907) and gave it back to the new Khmer kingdom of Cambodia (under their “protection”). Except there’s still this issue over the 11th centuryPreah Vihear temple right on the border created after the French annexed the land so…
Siem Reap exploded during the last decade developing from a modest town into a chaotic jumble of village/tacky/new high-end without sufficient infrastructure. A new strip of luxury resort hotels, lining the road from the airport to town, seriously serving bus tours, seem incongruous interspersed with rice paddies and no beach. The old French Quarter’s charm is hidden behind questionable electrical lines and examples of exuberant marketing.
Dusty unpaved roads with small houses and even smaller tailor shops, fruit stands and tall narrow guest houses intersect with a boulevard and the ATM across the street. The night-time scene is classic: locals hawking cheap wares while children watch TV on someone’s laptop, “tuk-tuk? where are you going?” the smells of grilled meat and humid air, music thumping from dozens of open bar/restaurants, “2 dollars foot message?” lights of all shapes and colors illuminating a kaleidoscope of swirling Australians, French and Japanese dodging the motor bikes and tuk-tuks. The gods and demons of ancient Angkor would prefer if Siem Reap was grander, but I’m confident they’d approve the activity – after all, it is once again Cambodia’s cash cow. Could the Strangler be failing?
Creating a sustainable economy is difficult in a region both exhausted by strife and whose fame is based on ruins. Artisans d’Angkor operates both training facilities and retail outlets for high-end traditional Khmer silk, wood and stone arts and crafts. Training those with special physical needs is part of their mission as well. Touring both the craft shops and the silk farm is instructive and a pleasant break from tracking down the Ta Prohm Strangler.
Southeast Asians eat all the time – a grilled banana, nibble fresh pineapple, sip some cane juice, a fresh baked fish in salt, a coke, a few dried strawberries. There’s always food, and no one’s fat. Yet KFC’s here and Australian beef burgers but so are frog’s legs and sautéed freshly picked morning glory greens from the river bank.
There’s a quiet side, the banks of the Siem Reap River. The town’s best restaurant and small hotel, Bopha, is located at 512 Acharsva Street facing the east bank. It’s a haven of calm with rooms and the restaurant surrounding and within several lush tropical garden courtyards. A private pool adds to the relaxation of spending less than $US60/double and US$20/couple for haute Khmer cuisine (US$10-20/wine).
The lure is still the past – the Royal City of Angkor Thom, the vast complex of 243 temple cities once populated with over one million people ruling an empire covering much of present day Southeast Asia. Started by Khmer kings and Hindu priests in the 9th century, reaching its zenith in the 13th as the capital of a Buddhist empire, sacked by the Thais in the 15th century, it has been sustained and ultimately saved by monks from the strangulation of neglect, changing politics, wars and the jungle.
The Strangler Fig (strangler vine to the locals) sends dozens of roots deep into the ground around rocks and buildings for hundreds of feet. It encases and crushes whatever it encounters. To kill the vine, all roots must be severed. To restore a temple, the vines must be killed.
A metaphor for the restored Khmer Kingdom of Cambodia? Can all the destructive roots of the past 500 years be severed and the orderly, yet bloody, grandeur of nationhood be reborn? Or will Siem Reap be a new Khmer model: play it day-by-day, see what happens, hope, sweat and keep the Ta Prohm Strangler at bay.
Chiang Maiin a muggy late February haze: the ancient, once fortified, city still sits surrounded by a watery moat and the highest mountains in Thailand. The hills provided vantage points warning of potential invasions from its arch-enemy, the Burmese (and their Thai cousins from Ayutthaya in the south). Yet the Ping River that nourishes the valley’s abundant agriculture inexorably continues its cycle of – all too frequent for some – annual floods.
It’s no wonder that one of Thailand’s most sacred Buddhist temples (site selected by a White Elephant and whose golden chedi emblazons the Royal Standard) should top one of these mountains. Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep’s founding dates from the late 14th century. Inside the temple grounds, visitors must remove their shoes (like all temples the interior is immaculate) and must be appropriately dressed – no shorts, short skirts, sleeveless blouse or shirt. Within the site are pagodas, statues, bells and shrines displaying the eclectic mix of Hindu/Buddhist craftsmanship common in Thailand. Tourism and worship, even texting, blends seemlessly within the atmosphere of common respect temples generate.
Bhubing Palace is only a few miles from the Wat. Both are less than an hour’s drive up scenic Mount Doi Suthep through Doi Inthanon National Park (offering great outdoor activity potential). The extensive Palace gardens run the gamut from common perennials to roses, orchids and a tropical rain forest yet all are seemlessly blended within the natural landscape by a small army of professional gardeners. The gardens are open to the public whenever members of the Royal Family are not in residence (information is available through your hotel or the tourist offices in the city). The Palace itself is rather modest reflecting its role as a home to get away from it all. Bhubing Palace is a popular site for foreign and Thai tourists, and with Chiang Mai’s position next to ethnic hill tribes, there’s often a colorful mix of clothing.
Wiang Kum Kam had been a Buddhist settlement long before the late 13t century when it was chosen as the first capital for King Mangrai’s Lanna Kingdom (Kingdom of Million Rice Fields: 13th – 18th centuries). Yet frequent flooding caused even the King to move – Chiang Mai. With its rural complex of 20 temples and chedi, Wiang Kum Kam remained important throughout the Lanna period, but repeated assaults by the course-changing Ping River forced most of the temples to be abandoned during the 15th century.
With assistance from UNESCO, archeological excavations started in the 1980’s removing on average 3 – 4 feet (1 – 1.3 meters) of mud and silt deposited over the past 500 years. With on-going restoration and preservation, Wiang Kum Kam is an historical park. Surrounded by village houses and deep green rice paddies, you understand the allure of the rural countryside when crickets, birds, locust and the sound of horse’s hooves are louder in the hot humid air than any man made noise.
The ideal method for touring Wiang Kum Kam is by horse carriage. For less than US$5-7.00(inc. a tip) with driver/guide, a couple to 3 can tour the lost city in a style that adds to its sense of time-warp, despite its location only 5 miles south of Chiang Mai. Many of the sites are mere ruins yet a closer look reveals stories in the fragments – decorative carvings of sea snails as stair rails, sea monsters or evidence of mortar covering thick, wide brick construction. The Wat Chedi Liamis the starting/ending point for the carriages. Remarkably, this Wat survived the destructive floods over the centuries and has remained a living temple.
Moved and restored, the 19th/early 20th century farmers elevated house and barn is a fine example of life for many people in Wieng Kum Kam over the past 1500 years. Constructed almost entirely of light but flexible bamboo, including flooring, these elevated structures prevented both unwanted animals and moderate flooding from doing major damage to the home. Rice and grains were stored in the upper floor of the barn along with light tools, while larger tools remained on the open ground floor.
The Hmong, Yao, Lahu, Akha and Karen (otherwise known as the long neck people) are collectively the ancient hill tribes speaking pre-Lanna/Thai languages. Comprising nearly 15% of the Chiang Mai area’s population and known for their craft skills, they’ve become somewhat a tourist attraction. Standard tours to villages frequently are nothing more than staged shopping trips. Check around for alternative tours or best option is to arrange through your hotel a private car/driver/tour guide. This allows for custom designed touring avoiding what’s obviously staged and explotative. Cost for a 7 – 8 hour day average US$40/60 depending on itinerary. It’s the most comfortable way to travel as well.
On the ethnically diverse east bank of the Ping River is the venerable temple, monastery and school complex of Wat Gate Ket Karem and its museum. Established within the past decade in a renovated 19th century wooden building on the temple grounds, the museum is the gift of “Uncle Jack” Jarin Bain, an octogenarian who can still be seen offering his services as a docent. Many of the artifacts and collectables were acquired by an early 20th century German expat business man. A major source of knowledge on the artifacts come from the extensive writings of Prince Damrong Rajanpub (1862-1943) regarded as the father of Thai archaeology and history. In 1962 this 57th son of King Rama IV (1804-1868) was selected by UNESCO for its World’s Most Important Person’s List.
The Lanna Architectural Center’s Khum Chai Burirat house (1893/early 20th century renovations) is not only a fitting site for a museum of pre-20th century Thai architecture, but an excellent example of “ruen kalae” or mansion style. An extension of Lanna University’s architecture department, the house-museum is free and open most days. Sitting in a walled park just blocks from the Old City, Khum Chai Burirat house was donated to the University. The smooth highly polished teak hardwood, Buddhist chapel, curved main staircase, wide covered 2nd floor wraparound porch and wood lace decorative touches tell of a time when buildings compensated for the hot climate rather than attempted control. That rarely works; just ask the Ping River.
A quintessential Chinatown – winding narrow streets packed with people, motor vehicles and wooden carts, the ornate red and gilt gate, the smells of grilled meat and steaming soups, the sellers of dragon fruit, dried strawberries and grilled bananas, whole plucked chickens and spotted eggs, smoked ducks and dried fish, sunglasses, Apple iPods, Nike logo T-Shirts, apartment size refrigerators. Expect this isn’t part of San Francisco or New York; this is in Chiang Mai, the Kingdom of Thailand’s second largest city.
The Chinese have been investing in Southeast Asia long before its current economic boom. Since the 13th century they have been a major presence in the city on both sides of the Ping River. The market on the west bank is jammed with hundreds of vendors both in large indoor markets and nearly every square inch of the sidewalks selling literally, just about everything.
Chiang Mai, like many Southeast Asian cities, offer an abundance of shops offering custom-made clothing and shoes. Often high quality clothing can be made within 24 to 36 hours. Shops offering “2-hour” service make me question the quality of the product. The best shops offer a sizable selection of high quality materials and well designed clothing displayed on many mannequins giving you that essential “gut” feeling of confidence. The process of cloth selection, design choices, measurement and a minimum of two fittings, as well as good craftmanship, takes time (and if the store’s good they’re also busy). I was not aware that most of the sewing is accomplished using treadle machines – real hand/foot-made. It makes sense in a region of the world where power outages can be common and demand for the products are high. High quality custom hand-made clothing can frequently range 60 – 75%less than comparable ready-to-wear clothing in North America or Europe.
new Penguin treadle sewing machines for sale
No Southeast Asian city has only one market and that is certainly true of Chiang Mai. Starting at the Thapae Gate and running the length of cobble stoned Ratchadamnoen Road through the heart of the Old City, Chiang Mai’sSunday Night Market is a major attraction for both locals and visitors alike. The street is closed to traffic its entire length from 5:00 PM to midnight, but that does not mean a lack of congestion, except this time its only people.
Although touted as a venue to find quality handmade crafts I did not find this true. Most of the “crafts” were the same low quality souvenir trinkets found in abundance everywhere albeit with some imaginative displays such as the heart made of rice with inexpensive earrings on top. The market is more important as a citywide social gathering mixing expats, tourist and all age groups of locals. There’s traditional street food foods grilling and simmering and deserts rarely found on North American Thai menus. Try creamy sweetened steamed rice blended with banana, melon or pumpkin wrapped in a banana leaf cone (bottom center) or (bottom right) Kaw Tom Mud – sticky rice with sweetened coconut milk and banana or soy bean paste wrapped in a banana leaf package. Both are delicious. Most restaurants on this major Old City road are open late and become part of the market scene considering that with warm/hot evenings outside seating is common. Some of the oldest Buddhist Temples are open and beautiful to see at night.
Lights, live music and lots of sounds, aromas, colors, children scurrying about, yet there are poignant reminders of wars that past generations endured. A group of elderly musicians, playing traditional music. were raising funds for victims of land mines. The soft music and chants were in sharp contrast to the riot of noise in the market, but the real impact was the reality that the musicians were all land mine victim survivors. The yin and yang of reality, it’s all in the Sunday Night Market.
The Night Market is 7 days a week 5:00 PM – Midnight (not trafffic free) and is the real center of northern Thailand’s handmade crafts. Occupying a permanent space on the west bank of the Ping River just a couple blocks south of the Iron Bridge (great night-time views walking over the Ping River – there are sidewalks on the bridge), the market space has permanent shops, stalls, open air restaurants and live music on a central stage. Fine quality silks and decently made cotton and linen clothing are in abundance (I bought a pair of well made linen pants and a linen shirt – $10US total). Wood carvings, marionette puppets (a beloved craft), cut leather art works, some imaginative jewelry, an eclectic selection of old and new decorative art, lots of bright lamps, more smoked ducks – a lot of goods available. Of course there’s the food, and at the Night Market, fish and seafood are a specialty.
Giant prawns – as large as lobster tails – sea snails, calamari, oysters, a variety of fresh fish – many still swimming – Pacific lobsters and crabs are all available. A customer chooses exactly the specimen and quantity they want and pay by weight. The cost? Less than a third what it would be in North America or Europe. The preparation? Grilled with garlic and fresh herbs, steamed and added to an entrée salad with cucumbers, tomatoes and fresh herbs, stir-fried with fresh vegetables and/or a variety of mushrooms, deep-fat fried tempura style – you can decide, you can create. Add an ice-cold local beer and enjoy the warm night.
After dinner perhaps you’ll want a massage – outdoors (I didn’t so I can’t comment on their quality). A foot massage may cost $2.00US (30 – 60 minutes) whereas a Thai massage – more like an hour on the rack without death – does limber your muscles and may cost as much as $7.00US/hour. Gentler Swedish or Shiatsu methods are available if you don’t want to plunge too soon into a Thai massage. Or how about tiny little fish nibbling on your feet and legs? I didn’t try it – return trip – but devotees swear that it not only feels terrific, it’s more effective than a pumice stone – and I guess fun…
(Next: Chiang Mai Part 3 – attractions in the countryside)
PS: (1) spicy chicken feet are akin to chicken wings and summer b-b-q season’s soon.
(2) take normal precaution eating raw foods in a hot, humid climate.
Actually the Buddha never visited Chiang Mai no less move there, but legions of his devotees have over the centuries from around the world – India, Laos, Vietnam, China, Australia, France, England, Canada, America. Not all of these expats are Buddhist. Hinduism from India arrived first, a few thousand years ago, followed by Buddhism somewhere around 500 AD, and all had no real issue with local Animist practices, Confucianism brought by Chinese merchants and Christianity when Europeans arrived after 1500 AD. After all, what we know today as Chiang Mai has been an important city since its turbulent days as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, wars with its arch-enemy Burma, Japanese occupation during World War II, its rise as the cultural heart of ancient northern Thailand and even the onslaught of overfed Western expats looking for a low cost of living and cheap facelifts.
As flexible as Buddhism is, modern Thai’s have few issues with Starbucks, cell phones or even fat expats, but the shorts for sale in the upper right picture are strictly for foreign women (unless you want to be a Thai woman with a tarnished reputation) and no Thai guy would go shirtless unless at the beach – which is no where close to Chaing Mai. That said, Chiang Mai is not an attractive city. Many of its old teakwood structures are found scrunched tightly among mold stained concrete buildings of more recent vintage. Like most Southeast Asian cities, sidewalks crumble under persistent floods of the Ping River during rainy season, their primary use as motor bike parking lots and spontaneous “stores” for sellers of everything from sunglasses to spicy hot chicken feet.
Like most of regions of the world with hot sunny weather, walking would seem to be the obvious choice to see the city, but this is Southeast Asia. Although many people do walk – certainly far more than any American city – “pedestrian friendly” is a concept that’s not part of Asian consciousness. With few walkable sidewalks, one shares the often narrow streets with cars, trucks, motor bikes and other forms of public transportation in a devil-may-care free-for-all. Chiang Mai has few traffic lights, except in some places on the modern expressways in the new outer parts of the city, and fewer police to calm the constant rushing traffic. To cross the street a pedestrian simply crosses the street into the traffic which frequently comes from all directions. Although daunting at first, this is exactly what the on-coming traffic expects as it, usually, avoids both pedestrians and other vehicles with deft agility. The worst action a pedestrian can take is to get spooked and hesitate halfway across several lanes of traffic – that’s when the cars and motor bikes get spooked and “problems” occur.
Most Thai’s without their own transportation ride the Songthaews – converted small trucks that carry up to a dozen people at a fixed rate along fixed routes like buses. They’re cheap at about $.35 – $.70 US a ride. The Saamlors and Tuk-Tuks are for short distances especially within the Old City and its immediate surroundings. There is no problem getting a Saamlor or Tuk-Tuk because their drivers “believe” that no one wants to see the city by walking. They are everywhere, and you’ll be asked by nearly every one during your walk if you “want a ride?” “where are you going?” and “one hour to see the city?” The trouble is that there are no set rates and no meters and the “one hour tour” is to any number of shops selling items you do not want but for which the driver gets a cut. To say there is a “sliding scale” on the rate is an understatement. Locals know the game quite well and the distance. What will be quoted to a local frequently is 50% – 75% less than to an obvious foreign visitor. If one does not haggle over the fare before the ride expect to pay as much as the driver believes you’re gullable, or guilty enough, to pay and be asked about “a tour” or “a good shop…” (Actually you’ll be asked this even if you do settle on a price but just be firm because the shops are rarely ones you would visit on your own.) Never expect to pay the same rate for any two rides to or from the same place. Yet in 95 degree (F) heat at 3:00 PM you might not care about the fare. On the other hand, any fare over 100 BHT ($3.00 US) to just about anywhere within center city is too much. Taxis with meters exist but your hotel must call them. They’re rarely available to flag down.
So why visit such a chaotic city? The people for one thing. The average Thai is friendly and gracious even if they’re scamming you or you’re not buying something. They’re so industrious – and I’ll add the Laotians, Cambodians and Vietnamese – they make the average workaholic American seem lazy. Nearly every building is a store with family living quarters in the back or above. Motor bikes and bicycles are movable stores or “freight” haulers. Where there isn’t a motor bike parked on the sidewalk there’s most likely someone who has set up a “café,” or selling jewelry and T-shirts, or water and soda, or even making fresh dumpling pot stickers. Whether the nation’s a monarchy or a “socialist” republic, Southeast Asians can’t count on a pension (unless they’re the favored few that work for large corporations) and “social security” is an unknown concept. The extended family is one’s social security and the ability to be creative with work.
There is the beautiful green countryside with villages, farms, mountains, waterfalls – and tourist traps (oh well…). It’s not surprising that as a national medical center (and for an American inexpensive care), slightly lower temperatures than steamy Bangkok, especially November through February, along with a cost of living less than half that of North America and Europe, Chiang Mai attracts one million tourist a year, over 10,000 permanent expats and numerous seasonal residents. Like everything in Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai’s an experience worth a return visit.
He’s about four feet tall and looks like any one of a hundred classic poses of the Lord Buddha. He rests behind bars in an exterior open gallery with a twenty-something female guard sitting at a desk (no guns). Photos are forbidden. Because Laos’ a Communist nation? No… the statue’s a cultural icon, it’s worth a zillion dollars and the Luang Prabang National Museum would like visitors to buy a postcard. The statue is THE Golden Buddha – the Phra Bang – of Luang Prabang, and it’s 90% solid gold. For centuries it sat in an inconspicuous corner of Wat Ho Prabang on the Palace grounds in this city of over 40 Buddhist temples and monasteries until someone noticed it after the 1975 revolution.
For nearly a thousand years Luang Prabang, in the northern highlands at the confluence of two great rivers, the Nam Kahn and the Mekong, served as capital for the kingdoms of Lang Xang, Luang Prabang and, finally, Laos. The French, under their “protectorate,” built the 1904 Royal Palace (now the National Museum) for the revered national hero Sisavang Vong, King of Luang Phrabāng and Laos for 55 years (1904- 1959). Ironically, in 1975, it was at the same palace that Prince Souphanouvong (the “Red Prince”) arrested his half brother, KingSisavang Vatthana sending him, the Queen and Crown Prince to die in a “reeducation camp.” Prince Souphanouvong became the first President of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. It’s a much more peaceful city today.
In 1995 Luang Prabang was rightfully declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and today is the most popular tourist attraction in Laos. The city is gorgeous, at least the old historic core and the stunning surrounding countryside. Luang Prabang is a classic Southeast Asian provincial city and one of the few remaining – villas next to woven bamboo houses, residents cooking in the alleyways on charcoal and wood, aging French colonial buildings and 600 year old Buddhist stupas with monks everywhere, backpackers from Australia and Europe, people in business suits in Toyotas and motor bikes and fisherman throwing nets in the river. For me the preservation of this wonderful collage is what I hope the UNESCO designation will maintain, although there are an increasing number of upscale hotels and amenities geared to the well-heeled Western and Asian tour bus crowd which could alter this reality.
What to see? Wander into any number of the Buddhist temples and monasteries. At first sight “they all look the same,” but fix your eyes on each one’s decorations – gold leaf stencil on teak wood carvings and walls, enamel and mirrored murals depicting holy texts and everyday life, young novitiate students in saffron robes talking on cell phones while taking a break from temple chores, the beautiful sounds of temple drums and the monk’s devotional chanting several times a day.
Discover the hundreds of Spirit houses with individualistic statements – the elephant manifestation of the god Ghanish next to Japan’s “Miss Kitty,” sticky rice, glasses of water, incense and candles in trees, on walls – all of nature is sacred. Unfortunately, the much vaunted morning ritual of offering food to the monks at dawn has devolved into a mere tourist attraction/photo op. Local people now simply bring food or make cash donations directly at the Temples. (In other areas of Southeast Asia, especially in the rural countryside, this tradition is still strong.)
Climb the 350+ steps up Mount Phousie in the center of the Old City passing dozens of Buddha images – the seven daily Buddhas, a magnificent Sleeping Buddha – and a rusting anti-aircraft gun emplacement left over from the Vietnam War era – to the small 1804 That Choms – one of the city’s most revered sites. If lucky, the temple fortune teller will be present. It’s the highest point in Luang Prabang with a panoramic view of the city and countryside, even if there is a humid haze in the air caused by late winter burning in the surrounding mountains (both controlled burning of underbrush in the teak forests and clearing land for Spring planting). You can purchase, for a pittance, flowers in cone shaped banana leaves, sticky rice and incense as devotional items to leave after your prayers. Women sell pairs of small live birds in bamboo baskets that you carry to the top of the hill and, after saying your prayer, release from their cage. They will take your prayer to heaven.
At the base of the Mount Phousie is the small but exquisite museum Traditional Arts and Technology Center. The artful displays detail the ethnic groups and spiritual influences that comprise Laos. The gift shop sells excellent and authentic handmade crafts and will advise as to the best shops in town. The café offers a stunning seven course set menu consisting of classic dishes from all of Lao’s ethnic groups. There were dishes I had not seen on any menu. The cost was $12.50 for 2 people – the menu doesn’t say “for 2,” the Lao’s assume no one person would stuff themselves (don’t even try to eat everything yourself).
There are numerous eco-tourism companies that offer excursions into the beautiful surrounding hill countryside. The best is Tiger Trails – it seems every company slaps on the moniker “eco-tour” these days so make use of the internet and do some research. There are a host of “made for tourist” attractions in the area that are really not worth your time unless you’re in town for a few weeks – the “Whiskey Village,” the “Silk Village,” the Pac Ou Caves – and simply want a diversion. Whereas the Elephant Village – a non-profit that rescues abused elephants from the lumber industry – is a must see excursion.
Luang Prabang is a Mecca for well made high end silks, art, jewelry and furniture representing both traditional northern Lao and contemporary designs (prices are still a fraction of what they’d be in Europe or North America). The best shops are in the compact Old City, which is easy to navigate on foot. Do not purchase antiques since many “antique” stores sell fakes knowing full well it’s next to impossible to remove genuine antiques, and even contemporary fine art, without a difficult to obtain export license for each item.
There is the MorningMarket (4:00am – Noon) that’s a serious food emporium. Discover hundreds of foods Westerners never would think could be used in the kitchen – I will detail this market in a future blog. The lively Night Market (5:00 PM – Midnight), unfortunately like so many in Thailand and Cambodia, has devolved into a tourist attraction offering the same old cheaply made clothes, crafts and souvenirs you’ll find in any tourist shop – obviously factory made and, despite labels, probably not even in the country you’re visiting. Yet for prepared street food, the Luang Prabang Night Market is fantastic! One can feast on freshly grilled meats and fish, create a salad using dozens of greens, fresh herbs and produce or add them to savory soups and stews. Along with a refreshing Beer Lao you’ll have a banquet that will cost anywhere from a couple of dollars to maybe $5.00.
Accommodations range from $20/night guest houses (many have A/C even at that price) to boutique hotels (fortunately – cross fingers – there are no large chain hotels) surrounded by lush gardens tucked away all over the Old City that range from $55 to $155/night. Many in the $55/65 night range are just as beautiful and comfortable as those at the higher end. It’s not always easy to find these gems on the Net. I did use a good booking site – Agoda – but since hotels subscribe to booking sites it’s hardly a complete list. TripAdvisor is another good source but since it lists only ones reviewed by members, it does not have a complete list as well. My advice for anyone traveling to Southeast Asia is to book a hotel for the start of your stay in each city through a booking site and then check out what’s available. If you are pleased with the booked hotel, inquire if they’ll extend your stay at the same rate – booking sites are always discounted. If not, you can just move down the street. We stayed at The View Pavilion at over $90/night but, although it had a terrific staff, the hotel needed maintenance from its absentee owners. (Following my own advice for a change, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, at The Rimping Village Hotel they willingly extended our stay at Agoda’s discounted rate after they proved to be a mini-paradise – more on that in another blog.) Lao courtesy and concern with customer comfort is so effusive they would be insulted if you did not ask them for help making dinner reservations, advice on excursions and making the arrangements as well as securing a taxi or tuk-tuk and negotiating the fare. Take advantage – it makes them happy.
Laotian cuisine is neither as sweet as Vietnamese nor spicy hot as Thai – although they still love their chilies. This allows the abundant use of basil, cilantro, mint, green onions, garlic, roasted vegetables and dozens of flavorful greens to shine through their masterful dishes complimented by grilled and steamed fish, pork, beef, chicken, frog, prawns and many other forms of protein. Like the rest of Southeast Asia, they use a number of vegetable/herb/meat pastes, freshly made with mortar and pestle, to add additional layers of flavor. Fermented fish sauce, which in my experience the average Westerner finds disgusting, adds subtle flavor to most dishes and was/is a salt substitute. Fish sauce – of which there are many varieties – does smell vile to the Western nose, but when added to food, that smell dissipates and actually results in a slightly sweet under taste. (I will be writing an article on a wonderful all-day cooking class offered by Tamarind restaurant.) Like most Asian dining, a number of dishes should be ordered – depending on the size of the party – with all diners sharing. We found, for our own dining comfort that for two people, three dishes – along with steamed or sticky rice – was enough. One cold salad, one fish/seafood dish and one meat/poultry dish was satisfactory. Soups are usually substantial consisting of noodles, greens and protein and can be part of a main course. It is easy for a vegetarian/vegan to eat well anywhere in Southeast Asia, but don’t expect this to be the norm among locals. Dishes will be served as they are ready not in a Western order (appetizers first followed by the main course, etc.) Two people in even the most expensive restaurants in Luang Prabang would be hard pressed to spend more than $40/couple, and it is easy for most meals to cost less than $10 – $15/couple. (Note: adding a bottle of wine will more than double to triple the cost, so don’t bother unless you can’t live without wine.)
My top picks for traditional and fusion Lao restaurants in the Old City are Tamarind and Rosella Fusion Café both on the Nam Kahn river front. The Australian/Lao owned Tamarind is probably the best in the city, and it is moderately priced serving imaginative dishes (lunch or dinner for 2 $15 – $30). Reservations are essential for dinner. The young Lao staff of Rosella Fusion Café serve much better than average traditional Lao dishes at low prices ($10 – $15/couple) while you sit at attractive teak tables surrounded by orchids at the edge of the high banks overlooking the Nam Kahn. Tamnak Lao, on Sisavangvong Road (the main street) in a classic stucco and wood Lao structure offers tasty traditional Lao dishes, also at moderate prices, while Joma coffee shop on the Mekong side river road has great French coffee and imaginative thin-crust pizzas. Ignore most hotel restaurants. Although many are in attractive surroundings, they serve food geared to the tourist palate – mediocre – at high prices (unless you really crave your Angus beef steak).
There are excellent French restaurants in this Communist nation where road signs are still written in Lao and French, bilingual schools are common and the French government funds many projects. L’ Elephant is in an elegant art-deco building offering classic French and French Indochina cuisine at prices in the very high end. Unfortunately, it’s become popular with tour groups as well. Café Ben Vat Sene (my favorite) has the feel of a French bistro in the “colonial” tropics – which it is – and too small for tour groups. Under the slowly moving ceiling fans, sitting at rustic tables with brightly colored Lao fabric napkins and placemats, eating such classic French country fare as Pommes de Terre Savoyard (au gratin potatoes with smoked ham) and freshly made Tarte au Citron(lemon tart), don’t be surprised if you conjure images of Noel Coward, Somerset Maugham and Jean d’Estray at the next table enjoying an absinthe. Orchids, the tropical evening and fine food do that to you – give in.
The baritone sounds of the giant drums resonate calling monks to prayer. Soft chanting can be heard in the stillness of pre-dawn. In the near pitch blackness dozens of men and women jog, walk and exercise on modern machines one sees in any American gym except these are free and in the park. In front of the Vientiane Times, men are stacking rolls of the daily newspaper on their motor bikes for delivery. French bakeries are opening for business. There is barely a car in sight on the streets at 6:00 AM. The air is still cool and moist before the sun raises the winter temperature to 90 degrees (F) by midday. Welcome to the reincarnated city of Vientiane, capital of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic
On the South Korean financed and constructed 2.5 mile long Mekong River Promenade/flood control wall (completion by 2013) stands the largest political monument in Laos – a Pathet Lao leader? A vitriolic monument to Western imperialism? No…it’s a memorial to an early 19th century national hero, the martyred PrinceAnouvong (KingChaiya Sethathirath V: 1767 – 1829)last ruler of the Kingdoms of Vientiane and Lan Xang. He led a failed war against their enemy, Siam (the Kingdom of Thailand) who had occupied Vientiane, and he died in captivity.
After 400 years as the on-again/off-again capital of the Kingdom of Lan Xang (Land of a Million Elephants), the city of Vientiane was utterly destroyed in 1827 by Thailand and remained a wasteland until the arrival of the French in the 1890’s. They rebuilt Vientiane as the administrative capital under their colonial “protectorate” and many structures retain early 20th century French colonial designs. Where are the memorials to the 1975 Communist revolution? They exist in only two places – the former Royal Palace (National Museum) and at the former American compound of the USAID/CIA outside of the city that became the home of Kaysone Phomvihane (1920–1992) co- leader of the Pathet Lao along with the “Red Prince” Souphanouvong (brother of the last King of Laos). Thus is the complex history of this beautiful country with its stunningly friendly people, as well as an indication that modern Lao is still the traditional, conservative Buddhist culture that has been its history for over a thousand years.
Vientiane, like so many Southeast Asian cities, is undergoing an economic and building revival unheard of since the end of Western domination (the Vietnam War) in 1975. It still retains vestiges of a relaxed colonial town that has to deal with tropical weather which rarely gets cooler than 85 (F) on any day – and always humid. I was told that the number of cars has doubled in the last three years and building cranes can be seen in numerous locations. Chinese, Vietnamese, South Korean and European investment money is pouring into this Buddhist nation.
Capitalism in a Communist nation? Let’s get real. Before the creation of the unified Kingdom of Laos, after the French withdrawal, under His MajestySisavang Vong, ( King of Luang Phrabāng 1904-46 and King of Laos 1946-1959) – another celebrated national hero – the nation we know today as Laos – drop the “s” and say “Lao” – was a feudal society of several kingdoms who pledged loose allegiance to the Kings of Lan Xang and, later, to the Kings of Luang Phrabang. The monumental statue on the grounds of Luang Phrabang’s National Museum (former Royal Palace) depicts the King’s right hand in a classic Buddha position for peace and the left hand holding the 1946 constitution.
The current Lao People’s Democratic Republic is not much different, with many of the same families in power, except allegiance is to the Central Committee that resides in Vientiane. Over 90% of all Laotians are self-employed small business entrepreneurs and farmers and always have been. Buddhism and its teachings still remain the greatest cultural and political influence within the nation. There are more Buddhist temples and monasteries than I can count – independent of government influence – and travel within Southeast Asia for Laotians is unencumbered. The excessivly bureaucratic government is considered incompetent and government workers have decent middle class jobs – just like the former Royal Courts. There is a visible lack of infrastructure planning in this developing country.
All of this makes Laos, Vientiane and the ancient northern capital of Luang Phrabang (a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and another blog) a fascinating country. Laos cuisine is wonderful. Less sweet than Vietnamese and with fewer hot peppers than Thai, the dozens of flavors from herbs, meats and spices shine. This will upset vegans who believe Asians are basically vegetarians and are eating more meat due to the influence of McDonalds, but Laotians have always been large meat/fish eaters. I was told by numerous chefs that currently more vegetable dishes are becoming part of the cuisine because of Western vegetarian trends! Laotians eat EVERYTHING – beef, pork, duck, frogs, rats, some dog, river fish, shell fish, all the innards and the blood – both liquid and congealed. (OK, please don’t stop reading – I won’t add recipes.) But they lavish love on their pet dogs and cats – they don’t eat their pets – unlike other Southeast Asian cultures (although this is rarely a part of the modern urban diet).
Life is on the street and in the markets – typical of Southeast Asia. The “morning markets” are primarily food (4:00 AM – to mid day.) “night markets” tend to be crafts, clothing and prepared foods and “weekend markets” are a great mixture. At any market you will find fresh frogs and the latest Apple I-Pod – it’s “one stop shopping” – the American dream…
Inexpensive restaurants abound and spill onto the streets. Lunch or dinner for 2 will rarely cost more than US$15 – unless you stuff yourself. A large 3/4 litre bottle of Beer Lao – a pleasant lager – costs $1.25. A few outstanding restaurants exist. The best being La Silapa, owned and operated by a French Canadian with a menu that is an excellent fusion of French and Lao flavors. Lunch for two is less than $30. (Note: wines are expensive anywhere in Southeast Asia. Costs are frequently more than the entire meal.) Nos serves excellent sushi at prices that make a Westerner believe they were in a Sushi nirvana – about $.25/each with salad and miso soup. There are a number of pizza restaurants using wood fired brick ovens and make terrific paper thin crusts. For genuine Lao cuisine eat on the street. Look for the most popular, crowded street restaurants. The rapid turnover means the food is fresh and has not lingered in the heat – what, no ice to keep the food fresh? Get real – I’ve yet to get even the slighest stomach problem.
Poverty, as judged by Western standards, is the norm for most people – especially in the rural countryside – in all of Southeast Asia, but not starvation. For a visitor from the “First World,” luxury is quite affordable – beautiful hotels for less than US$70/night, restaurant meals for 2 with drinks for less than $25 (and this is the average high end.) A person/couple can travel for less than a third of that amount or waste money on ultra luxury accommodations that will run in excess of $650/night. Yet if peace and stability remain in this fabled land they just might achieve the Lord Buddha’s dream of the Middle Path – neither lose one’s self in sensual pleasure nor deny one’s self the gifts of living.