Showing posts with label Laos. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Laos. Show all posts

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Exploring Northern Thailand and Laos

For many, it’s quite difficult to travel and get away from work for more than a week. If we do get the chance, we always try to make the most out of it. Last November, I spent three weeks in Thailand and Laos.

From Bangkok we flew to Sukhothai to attend a cultural tourism workshop. The Historic Town of Sukhothai, the capital of the first Kingdom of Siam between the 13th and 15th centuries, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On the first day, we got to tour the ruins of the royal palace and ancient temples in the Sukhothai Historical Park.


Thursday, January 02, 2014

Thank you 2013! Where in the world was I last year?

Machu Picchu, Peru
It's fantastic thinking how much of the planet we've covered in the past twelve months. I've actually decided to slow it down a bit this year. But to welcome the New Year, here are highlights from international destinations I visited in 16 countries in 2013. It was quite difficult to remember every city I visited. But thanks to Instagram @ivanhenares, it's all there!

Hanoi, Vietnam: Huc Bridge, Ngoc Son Temple & Hoan Kiem Lake
In January, I led a tour group to Hanoi, Halong Bay and Tam Coc, Vietnam in pleasantly cool weather. Don't we all love that boat ride through the limestone karst formations of Halong Bay?

February saw me back in Thailand with my UP AIT students. We explored Bangkok and visited the ancient city of Ayutthaya.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in Washington, DC
I visited a new continent in the Summer of 2013 ― South America! My trip started in the US; stayed in Washington, DC for a week and visited a classmate in Baltimore, MD. Then I was off to Rio de Janeiro with tokayo Ivan Man Dy for our five-week South American adventure.

View of Sugarloaf Mountain & Rio de Janeiro from Cristo Redentor
Rio is a charming city! We made sure to visit its famed urban beaches such as Copacabana and Ipanema, and took a tram ride up Cristo Redentor where we were afforded a spectacular view of the city, Sugarloaf Mountain and Guanabara Bay.

Plaza Independencia in Montevideo, Uruguay
From Rio de Janeiro, we took a bus to São Paolo and then to Porto Alegre before crossing the border to Uruguay. Yes, it's the country famous for legalizing marijuana this year! In Uruguay, we walked the charming streets of Montevideo with its fantastic architecture, ate a sumptuous steak at the local market, and then visited old Colonia del Sacramento before taking a ferry to Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Argentine tango in Barrio San Telmo, Buenos Aires
Of course, like every visitor to Buenos Aires, we payed our respects to Evita at the Recoleta Cemetery and enjoyed the street tango at San Telmo.

Iglesia de la Compañia de Jesús in Córdoba, Argentina
Estancia de Santa Catalina, Cordoba, Argentina
The next day, we took an overnight bus and visited the Jesuit Block of Cordoba and the estancias of Alta Gracia, Jesús María and Santa Catalina. We found out that Alta Gracia is where Che Guevara grew up. His family house has been converted into a museum.

Cerro Concepción, Valparaíso, Chile
From Cordoba, we took a bus to Mendoza, and from there took another bus that crossed the Andes and the border, and finally to Santiago, Chile. After spending a night in Santiago, we moved to neighboring Valparaiso and spent two nights there before taking a 24-hour bus to San Pedro de Atacama to experience nature at its finest.

Salar de Atacama, Antofagasta, Chile
We visited the altiplano of the Antofagasta Region at the heart of the Atacama Desert and its sites such as Los Flamencos National Reserve, Laguna Miscanti, Laguna Miñiques, Salar de Atacama, Valle de la Luna, Valle de la Muerte and the Géisers de Tatio.

Plaza de Armas, Arequipa, Peru
After exploring the driest place on the planet, we hopped on another long bus ride to Arica, the border town of Chile, crossed the border by taxi to Tacna, Peru's border town, and took a bus to Arequipa from there.

Cuzco's Plaza de Armas from the Iglesia de San Cristobal
We had a few hours in charming Arequipa before taking off on another long bus ride to Cuzco. We spent several days there, highlighted by our visit to Machu Picchu. Cuzco is such a historic city with a colorful local culture.

Machu Picchiu, Peru
Casa de Pizarro, Palacio de Gobierno del Perú, Lima
So many long-distance bus rides in Peru! And we weren't done yet! From Cuzco, we traveled by bus for a day to the capital Lima. It's Plaza Mayor is stunning! Lest we forget, Lima was the capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru, which for a time covered most of South America. We also got to watch the changing of the guard at the Government Palace of Peru.

Uros Floating Islands in Puno, Peru
We then took a bus back to Arequipa (yes, another long bus ride) where we hopped on another bus to Puno, the gateway to Lake Titicaca.

Fraternidades Folklóricas de Copacabana in Copacabana, Bolivia to honor of the Señor de la Santa Cruz de Colquepata
From Puno, we crossed the border into Bolivia and stopped by Copacabana where we were lucky to witness the festivities of the Señor de la Santa Cruz de Colquepata. It wasn't easy finding a place to stay though because of the fiesta, and it wasn't cheap! But it was well worth it. We explored Lake Titicaca again the next day.

Palacio de Gobierno / Palacio Quemado in La Paz, Bolivia
Potosí, Bolivia
From Copacabana, we went to La Paz, explored the highest capital city in the world and shopped at the Witches Market before visiting Sucre and Potosi. We made an exciting border crossing into Argentina, a story we'll keep a secret!

Iguazu / Iguaçu Falls in Argentina & Brazil
In Argentina, we visited Salta and from there took a long-distance bus to Iguazu Falls, more than a day if I remember it right. It was raining really hard, but we got to ride a speed boat that took us under one of the falls. We crossed over to the Brazilian side where the better views are, before rushing back to Rio de Janeiro to catch our flight back to the US. I spent the next few days recuperating in DC, except for a one-day visit to the wineries around Aldie, Virginia where I got to enjoy basted pork ribs slow-grilled over hickory wood at a roadside grill. Yum!

Preah Vihear Temple, Cambodia
May ended with a tour to Siem Reap, Cambodia to visit the famed temples of Angkor. When the group left, I hired a car and visited Preah Vihear, a spectacular temple built on top of a mountain. Visit it while you can and before the crowds discover it!

Jatiluwih Rice Terraces, Bali, Indonesia
In June, I was back in Bali leading a tour group. We visited its famed temples and experienced its colorful culture. After the tour, I visited the Jatiluwih Rice terraces.

Paragliding in Pokhara, Nepal
Boudhanath Stupa, Kathmandu, Nepal
In August, we had another tour group, this time to Nepal. We stopped over at KL before flying to Kathmandu. We visited Nagarkot, Pokhara and Kathmandu Valley. Pokhara was an exciting destination with many activities. I went paragliding for the first time.

Durbar Square, Bhaktapur, Nepal
Aside from Kathmandu, I also got to visit Bhaktapur and Patan. Bhaktapur is my favorite!

Taj Mahal, Agra, India
The month ended with a trip to India hosted by Jet Airways. The group visited New Delhi, Agra and flew to Kashmir. Our itinerary included Srinagar, Gulmarg and Sonamarg. Indeed the place is Heaven on Earth!

Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir, India
Sonamarg, Kashmir, India
I definitely enjoyed the pony ride to the Himalayan glaciers of Kashmir Valley, the great food and the colorful culture of the region. We also got to stay in the luxurious houseboats of Dal Lake.

Khoo Kongsi, Penang, Malaysia
In September, I led UP AIT students and staff to a food and heritage experience in Penang and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Everyone was still talking about the food when we got back!

Wat Phra Singh in Chiang Mai, Thailand
We attended the 2013 Annual Meeting of the ICOMOS International Cultural Tourism Committee in Sukhothai and Chiang Mai, Thailand in October. As part of a workshop to help Sukhothai with its tourism master plan, I biked thirty kilometers through rural areas, to the Si Satchanalai Historical Park. I haven't biked in a long while, but I survived that one!

Luang Prabang, Laos
After the meeting, we explored Chiang Rai, crossed the river border at Chiang Kong, Thailand to Houai Xai. Laos. And from there, it was a grueling overnight bus to Luang Prabang, the old royal capital. Luang Prabang is still as charming as every with its colorful temples, colonial architecture and delicious street food!

Pha That Luang, Vientiane, Laos
I got explore Vientiane, met up with my SSEAYP friends and explored the city's temples, before going by land to Udon Thani for my flight back to Bangkok.

Sanam Chandra Palace, Nakhon Pathom, Thailand
I could not believe it, but I was back in Bangkok, and stranded for a week in November, experiencing my first flight cancelation ever! So I spent my time working (and eating). My only out of town trip was a visit to Nakhon Pathom's Phra Pathom Chedi and Sanam Chandra Palace.

Cishou Pagoda, Jinshan Temple, Zhenjiang, China
My last international trip for the year was to China to attend the Asia 21 Young Leaders Summit in Zhenjiang. But because of the smog problem in Shanghai, I had to deal with two flight cancelations (I was on a roll), rerouting to Xiamen were I took a flight to Shanghai, and a bullet train to Zhenjiang before arriving at the summit.

The Bund, Shanghai, China
I went around Shanghai for a day (I was planning to see Suzhou but the smog was bad) before flying back to Manila.

So there! That was 2013! Happy New Year to all! Here are more photos from my 2013 trips. Next up is my post for Philippine destinations.

Do you want to see last year's? Now where in the world was I in 2012?

Friday, April 14, 2006

Laos: Pii Mai Lao in Vientiane

It is New Year in this part of the world. That means Laos (Pii Mai Lao), Thailand (Songkran), Cambodia (Bonn Chaul Chhnam Khmer) and Myanmar (Thingyan Water Festival). While in the Philippines, everyone is silently commemorating Good Friday (except in Boracay and Puerto Galera maybe). Oh well! Hehe! I was able to call Loulou at 7 a.m. and she picked me up at the bus station a little later. Since she had to take care of her son today, Kao and Tuy took care of me today.

We (myself, Kao and her husband) joined Tuy's family for lunch at a really nice restaurant outside Vientiane. It was beside a lake with several huts built over the water. More Lao food today! Hehe! While waiting for lunch, we munched on some dry rambutan and camote chips, while I drank some Beer Lao. Lunch was plentiful. The first to arrive were green papaya salad and bamboo soup which was soooooo spicy it took quite a while for the effect to wear out.

Then came in noodles, some fried insects (they seemed to be bigger than the camaru we have in Pampanga), roasted chicken and fish roasted in salt, and of course, the ground lamb meat for good luck. I liked the taste of the roasted chicken. I'll try to find out the herbs they put in it. After lunch, it was a short nap in one of the huts. Hehe!

I think it was about 2:30 p.m.when we made our way back to town. We stopped by a market where I bought a bottle of Beer Lao for my collection and some Bastos cigarettes for pasalubong. Hehe! Then we made our way to the place where my bus to Bangkok would pick me up. This time, I learned my lesson. It may have been more expensive at THB690, but it was a no-worries ride. No need to worry for the next bus since it took you straight to Bangkok, there was dinner included (although it was only fried rice), and the seats were very comfortable and no one sat in the middle.

In fact, we left at 5:45 p.m. and got to the border by about 7:15 p.m. By 7:30 p.m., we were on our way to Bangkok stopping briefly at a riverside restaurant for dinner. In fact, the bus ride was so comfortable, the bus driver had to wake me up when it arrived at Khao San Road in Bangkok. Hehe!

Tired and sleepy, I looked for a nearby hotel. I wanted to sleep comfortably the last few days of my trip since I would be in the hotel more often and I had a lot of stuff to mind. I was able to find a room for THB550 a night. I guess that was ok but there were cheaper options but they were full or I was just too tired to walk around further. Sigh! I was off to bed as soon as I got to the room since I was going to visit another UNESCO World Heritage city, Thailand's former capital Ayutthaya, later in the morning.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Laos: Luang Prabang is a stunning old town along the Mekong River

I'm here now in Luang Prabang taking it slow after another long bus trip. After finishing up my entry yesterday, we relaxed a bit then went to the bus station only to find it full of people waiting for buses to the provinces, Luang Prabang included. Sigh! It was the holiday rush as well in Laos and getting a bus to Luang Prabang was going to be difficult. Luckily, someone tipped Kao that a extra VIP bus trip was leaving at 7:30 p.m. and we were able to get a ticket just in the nick of time before other people found out and started rushing to the ticket desk. Had we gotten it a few minutes later, I might have been in the center aisle. Hehe!

Anyway, the bus trip took about ten hours, mostly along a zigzag road through towering mountains. I'm sure the views we're stunning since I could see silhouettes because of the near full moon. I arrived in Luang Prabang at about 5 a.m.

Since the bus station was about 3 km from the town proper, I had to take a tuktuk. By the time I got to town, I was tired, sleepy and sweaty. Sigh! So I tried to look for a guest house. Lonely Planet advice, "The two most important annual events in Luang Prabang are Pi Mai Lao (Lao New Year) in April, when Luang Prabang gets packed with locals and tourists (book accomodation well in advance)..." Yup, I now know how Joseph and Mary felt since I walked from one guest house to another only to hear that they were full. While walking around, I got to witness the morning alms tradition where monks walk around town receiving rice from the locals.

Until finally, there was a lodge with a room. But they were charging me THB600. Hmmm, I was going back to Vientiane tonight so it was a difficult choice. When I was about to say yes since I really needed a shower, the caretaker told me that I had to wait since the room that would be empty at 7:30 a.m. was still occupied. Then I asked if it was OK if I just paid for a shower. He agreed. Great! So I just paid him THB100 for it. Good enough!

Luang Prabang was the former royal capital of Laos until the 1975 Communist takeover. The Town of Luang Prabang was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1995. I started the rounds of the temples early. At the tip of the peninsula is the Wat Xieng Thong, the most magnificent temple in the town. Built by King Setthathirat in 1560, it remained under royal patronage until the 1975 revolution.

Along the street, it was one temple after another! There were just so many. How I wish Intramuros was still standing today in all its glory. It was one magnificent church after another. But alas! It was carpet-bombed by the American Army and they only left the San Agustin Church standing! According to stories, Manila's old ladies were crying as they watched shells hit one church after another. I passed by some including Wat Khili, Wat Saen and Wat Nong Sikunmeuang.

The main street of Luang Prabang was lined as well with charming colonial shophouses and homes which have been converted into guesthouses (countries which promote and push for adaptive reuse reap the benefits with increased tourism arrivals). If not for the Laos text on the shops as well as the monks walking, you would think you were in a small town in France. Really nice! I had breakfast at a French bakery. Then took a walk to the Royal Palace Museum which was the former residence of King Sisavangvong.

Then it was off for more walking around and maybe find out if I could check out one of the waterfalls. When I got to the boat dock area, they were charging me US$15 since I was alone. No thanks! So I just had a drink at a cafe by the Mekong River. It was quite relaxing watching the water flow down the river.

Since I wanted to stay indoors for lunch, I just had a foot massage. At least I was abe to take a quick nap. That costed me 30,000 kip (the street exchange rate is THB100 = 25,000 kip = US$2.5), not bad for an hour. As I got out, the water wars had already started and you could see many of the foreign tourists with water guns, joining in the new year revelry. Hehe! Then trucks with pails of water were also passing by. Oh great! So I walked along the side streets since the trucks could not pass there.

So I'm here in an internet shop trying to stay dry and cool when I read a sign outside that the shop also does tours to the waterfalls for US$3 each! And it leaves in 10 minutes! Imagine the timing! Hehe! So I'm off to the Kuangsi Waterfalls. Hehe!

It was about an hour away. When we got there, I could immediately see that there were so many people. Can you think of a waterfall in the Philippines which could attract thousands of visitors everyday, half of them tourists? They even charge 15,000 kip for entrance. The DOT will really have to rethink the way they look at tourism. Backpackers should be the target more than any other group and we are the only Southeast Asian country without an established backpack route. That's why let's backpack in the Philippines to help establish that tourism trail.

The water was really clear. Greeting you were smaller falls cascading from limestone cliffs with pools in each of them just perfect for swimming. There was also a bear sanctuary where baby bears captured from poachers are nursed to better health. The main falls was a few minutes walk bu the view was magnificent. If I didn't have my backpack with me, I would have gone to the top of the falls since there was a clearly-marked trail to it.

Anyway, the tour I took set the assembly time at 5 p.m. and that would have been too late for me if I were to catch the bus back to Vientiane. So I hitched a ride with some backpackers on the way back to town and they asked me for US$1. That's the point of backpacking, every dollar counts. You try to meet other backpackers going the same way and pool in resources, organize a groups in order to lower individual costs.

The LGUs in the Philippines will have to realize that many of these foreigners are not looking for classy hotels. They'd be happy with a room, a bed and a fan with a very clean common bathroom that charges between US$3 to 5 per night. The hotel must be close to cheap, clean and delicious street food as well! You see the sights, you taste the local flavors the way the locals do, that's backpacking. They don't come to see malls. They travels to see both cultural and natural heritage. These are thus the things we have to preserve in order to attract these tourists. And until our LGU officials and priests realize that, we will continue to get the crumbs of the multi-billion dollar tourism industry.

Anyway, I was able to get a bus back to Vientiane for 85,000 kip. As always, the ride was about ten hours so we left at 7:00 p.m. and were in the capital by 5 a.m. Since it was too early to call Loulou up, I took a nap at the station. Hehe!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Laos: The Friendship Bridge to Laos PDR and around Vientiane

As I mentioned in my previous post, land travel in Southeast Asia can be difficult. Just right after I posted the last entry, Ton had to rush me to the hospital at 2:30 a.m.! Hehe! Let's not get into the details but it was sort of a result of that long trip. And the rest of the plans almost got cancelled if I did not improve. Luckily I did and I'm at it again. Hehe!

So I rested the whole morning and met up with more of my SSEAYP batchmates for lunch. I took a subway from Ton's apartment then a skytrain to Siam Square where Nun would meet me. We had lunch with Bee at See Fah restaurant. Cee joined us as well. In the photo are myself, Bee, Cee and Nun.

After lunch, Nun accompanied me around Siam Paragon, a really nice mall which is said to be the largest in Asia. That's why Mayor Atienza shouldn't have demolished heritage structures like the YMCA Building and the San Lazaro Racetrack, replacing it with two SM malls because unless SM stops building those prefab malls (no unique design whatsoever), it's no attraction at all. Sigh! I liked the greenery inside the mall. Nicely done! We had some ice cream. A lot of unique flavors like red bean and green tea, horlicks, ovaltine, roasted sesame, etc. Yummy!

It was then off to catch a skytrain to Mo Chit Station where Matong would meet me to accompany me to the bus station. I had wanted to take a train to Nong Khai so that I could sleep comfortably but it was fully-booked a long time ago since it's New Year in Thailand as well as in Cambodia and Laos. So I had to make do with a bus. Little did I know that the ride was going to be another horrible fourteen hour trip! Imagine the Holy Week rush to the provinces. In Thailand, it was the same rush for the long holiday. Sigh!

For some reason, we got a ticket easily. I got on board the bus at 4:30 p.m. It was scheduled to leave at 5 p.m. We left a little late though. When we were on our way, I slept only to wake up an hour later since we were in another bus station stuffing in more passengers. When we left the first station, we were already full. But the bus was not satisfied, they placed stools in the center!

When I thought we've loaded enough, the bus just kept on stopping trying to lure in more passengers. My God! Greedy is the only term I could think of. Thailand and the Philippines as well should enact a law against overloading. If there are no more seats, they shouldn't overload. It may be ok for those in the center that they are in the center aisle but did they care to ask those seated comfortably earlier if it was ok with them? Hmmm... And the air-conditioning wasn't that strong.

By the time we got to another station, (yes, we stopped at a third, fourth and fifth station if I remember things right) passengers were already complaining since we were always stopping! To make the long story short, I wasn't able to sleep well since we were so cramped up.

We arrived in Nong Khai at about 6:30 a.m. just in time for me to get a ticket for the 7:30 a.m. bus to Vientiane. At least it was more comfortable but just a short ride to the border and the Friendship Bridge to Laos. The Friendship Brigde is the most popular border crossing between Thailand and Laos. And at least I did not have to walk far since the bus took us to the other side.

By 8:30 a.m., we were in Laos. It's a good thing Filipinos don't need visas in all ASEAN countries except Myanmar. I didn't go to Vientiane with the bus since Loulou, another SSEAYP batchmate was at the border with Tuy to meet me. We picked up another Tuy at her house then went to Kao's shop. Since Loulou had to go to work, Kao, Tuy and Tuy would take me around.

We first went to Patuxai, an imposing concrete monument which is sort of Laos' version of the Arc de Triomphe. It was built to commemorate those who died in battle with concrete donated by the U.S. supposedly for a new airport runway. Hehe! There was a cafe underneath and you could climb up to the top but I was just too exhausted. The interior was nice but it seemed like an unfinished structure when seen up close from the outside.

After that, we proceeded to another imposing structure, the That Luang, the national symbol of Laos and its most important religious building. The present gold leaf stupa is a recreation of the 16th century temple thought to have been built by the King.

Outside the stuppa, we bought roasted honeycombs from a hawker and let me taste. Hmmm... not my type especially since there were bees roasted in it too. I thought it would taste like honey. Hehe! It had this wierd aftertaste as well. They were also selling live snakes! I had some roasted banana as well.

We then had lunch at Loulou's place since they were having a new year celebration there. Joy, another ex-PY joined us. For good luck on new year, we ate lamb aside from other dishes. There was so much food including a whole roasted-calf! It was a good introduction to Lao cuisine. In the photo are Joy, myself, Tuy, Loulou, Tuy and Kao.

Then, it was off the the Ho Phrakeo (below). This temple, built in A.D.1565 by King Xaisetathirat, is the oldest temple in Vientiane. You would notice outside a sign that the temple used to house an emerald Buddha image which has been out of the country for several centuries now. Well, that emerald Buddha is the one in Thailand after it was captured during an invasion.

Anyway, I'm resting now since I'll be off for another long bus ride to the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang. I should prepare to get wet within the next few days since the new year celebrations in this part of Southeast Asia tend to become water wars. Sigh!
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