Saturday, April 15, 2006

Thailand: The historic city of Ayutthaya

I didn't try to wake up early today since I had been travelling nightly for the past few days and this was my first time in a bed since I left Bangkok Tuesday. In fact, I don't even consider Monday night as sleep since I was rushed to the hospital early in the morning. Hehe! So I was up by about 9:20 a.m. if I'm not mistaken. It was raining! Just great! So I was pondering whether to push through with Ayutthaya.

I ate breakfast at the same place Ton and I ate dinner Monday night. This time, I had green papaya salad (the less spicy version) and phad thai. Hehe! The rain stopped so I decided to go even if it continued raining. Going tomorrow was out of the question since I did not want to be caught in the Sunday madrush back to Bangkok.

So I got dressed and took a cab to the Hualamphong Train Station which was the grand old station of Bangkok. Our main train station in the Philippines was the Tutuban Train Station. But since Filipinos think of building nothing except malls and shopping centers, that grand old station of ours is a shopping mall today. Sigh! Although I'm happy they did adaptive reuse since the old structure is still standing. I hope when the Northrail is completed, they reinclude this old building as the main entrance to the new terminal.

Ayutthaya is about an hour and a half from Bangkok. I arrived at the station in the nick of time since the next train left in ten minutes. I was charged only THB15 for the trip! It was a non-aircon train but it was quite ok since it was a short ride and there were not much people in it. On the way, it started raining again. Sigh! I arrived in Ayutthaya at about 1:30 p.m.

The train station at Ayutthaya reminded me of our own
old train stations along the Manila-Dagupan route. I hope the policy makers of the Northrail project realize that these old stations are a better attraction than any new ones they will build. They could easily equip these old structures with modern amenities inside if they wanted to. Check out the ICOMOS Philippines blog for photos of these old train stations today.

In the station, there was a sign board which detailed the tuktuk and taxi fares from the station to any particular site in the city. That is a must in every tourist city so that cheating drivers could easily be detected. At the bottom, there was also an option for a tour at THB200 an hour. Hmmmm... since it was raining, I decided to rent out a taxi for an hour and hope the rains stop a bit.

The Historic City of Ayutthaya and Associated Historic Towns was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1991. I was founded in the year 1350, and became the second Siamese capital after Sukhothai, another UNESCO site. The city was destroyed by the Burmese in the 18th century and the structures that remain are characterized by the prang (reliquary towers) and gigantic monasteries, a somber reminder of its past glory.

The nearest important site to the station was the
Wat Yai Chaya Mongkol. Entrance fee was THB20. I took quite a while inside since it was difficult to move around due to the rain. So I told the driver to bring we to the Wat Mahathat where I would take a walk to other nearby sites.

It was heavy traffic into town due to the water wars along the street. From the bridge, you could see pick-up trucks seemingly parked along the street as its passengers at the back ensued in water fights with each other. So the driver made a turn to avoid the area. We got to Wat Mahathat a few minutes later where I got off and paid him THB200 for the 1 hour. By this time, the rain stopped a bit. Good! Entrance fee to the site was THB30.

Next to the Wat Mahathat was the Wat Ratcha Burana. Entrance fee was another THB30. Hmmmm, every site had its own ticket. And that helps raise funds to maintain the sites. I wonder why the Philippines does not charge for visiting its UNESCO sites. Hehe! It reminded me of Hue since each royal tomb had a US$3 ticket. Once declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it increases market value as well. Hehe!

As soon as I had exited, the rain started to get stronger again. So I ran to the nearby restaurant to have a late lunch. It was a traditional setting since you sat on a suchion on the floor. And the view of Wat Ratcha Burana was great and relaxing. After the meal, I waited outside for a tuktuk but none passed by.

Walking to the next site was out of the question since it was raining and there were so many pick-ups just going around with new year revellers at the back with drums and pails of water looking for hapless victims to drench even further. As if the rains were not enough! Hehe! It was a very lively atmosphere with passengers at the back banging on drums and pans, shouting, chanting and singing, or dancing to the beat of the loud music being played up front the vehicle. Well, I had a camera and celphone to protect so I really avoided getting wet. Hehe!

By this time, for some reason, my camera lens fogged. And it seemed like it wasn't going to dry up within the next few minutes. Sigh! So I guess that was my signal to go home. I checked mail a bit to kill time and then took a walk to the ferry station that would bring me to the train station. On the way, I happened to pass by the bus station. Just great! Hehe! Since it was raining, I decided to take an aircon bus. It was THB50 back to Bangkok. On the train, that would have been THB40. So that was not bad at all.

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!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Cambodia & Thailand: The difficulties of land travel and crossing borders

Crossing borders in Southeast Asia can sometimes be a harrowing experience and is not for the faint-hearted. I had another 12 hour trip today from Siem Reap crossing the Cambodia-Thailand border to Bangkok. It was a good thing I rested the whole day yesterday since I did not expect the ride was going to be that bad.

Yesterday, I only went out for dinner. I had more Khmer food, this time beef amok which is a coconut milk based entree with vegetables. On the way home, I bought some jackfruit chips. Yummy! Hehe!

The service picked me up at the guest house at about 6:45 a.m. a while ago. We went to other guest houses to get the other passengers. I was expecting the vehicle we were going to use was a coaster. But I did not expect they were going to stuff it beyond capacity. Everyone on board was a foreigner and was complaining about being so cramped up. I was expecting I would be able to sleep. But I was wrong. The roads had potholes bigger than the moon's craters. For most of the way, it wasn't paved at all. The ordeal lasted six hours, with two stopovers in between.

We arrived at Poipet, the border town of Cambodia at about 1:45 p.m. I still had to endure lining up at immigration which was open-air, walking about a kilometer to the Thai border. It would have been ok, but by now, my bags were quite heavy. And the afternoon summer sun was just too much. Then we went through Thai immigration. And then we walked a few meters to where another bus would pick us up.

At least this was a much bigger bus and the roads were in much better condition. There was a store outside and the first thing I bought was cold water. Prices were much much cheaper here! Anyway, we were on our way at about 3:30 p.m. after close to two hours in transit. This time I was able to sleep better.

About two hours away from Bangkok, we made another stopover. And this is where I was able to get some Thai street food. There was so much to choose from. Anyway, I got some sausages and machang. I was very much impressed by the road network in Thailand. Maybe the DPWH could learn a thing or two.

We arrived in Bangkok at about 8 p.m. There was a slight confusion as to where we were dropped off. Anyway, I called my SSEAYP roommate Sorawit Sangsuwan (Ton) who had been waiting for me at Kao San Road which was a tourist district.

He treated me out for dinner at a Thai restaurant. And then, we went for a traditional Thai massage to get me back to my senses after that 12-hour ordeal. Thai massage is quite distinct in technique since it entails applying pressure for a few seconds in key points as well as stretching. At least that relaxed me a bit.

I'm now in Ton's apartment where I'll be staying for the night. The campaign for the Thai Senate is ongoing. And there are a lot of campaign posters all over. But the thing I like about the campaign here is they don'ty use gawgaw. They don't put posters on walls or buildings or wherever. Candidates neatly mount their posters on sticks and place them in the soil. After the elections, it would be easy to clean up.

I'll meet more of my SSEAYP batchmates tomorrow. I've been to Bangkok several times before so I'm out to explore other places. If all goes well, I should be on my way to Vientiane in the evening.

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