Travel Notes Asia ’08
From Late September ‘08
Sitting in a hotel room can be an isolating experience. This is not necessarily bad. You need times like that when travelling, because you can get yourself into a state of mind which abhors no movement, no action. And nobody can be constantly on the go and have a relaxing holiday at the same time. Is it the same as needing a radio or TV on always? Turn it off, listen to the silence. Maybe.
However, if you are sitting there isolated but grinding your teeth about the fact that the expensive hotel where you are wants 500 baht for wi-fi access, this is not relaxing. After all there are many bars and cafes around the place offering free wi-fi and all you have to do is buy a drink occasionally. It's the sort of situation that brings out the terrorist in you. Where's my axe, the can of spray paint, barrow load of dog shit? . . . bloody hell, I’d put any one of them to good use right now. Ok ok, settle down son, let's just be calm and write to the manager, a nice polite email to point out that you will never stay at his poxy shitbox hotel again. Trouble is you know that even if he does read it he won't give a shit! Still worth it though, for your own peace of mind, it'll salve the soul knowing that you've done something about the rip off. Bugger them, I'm not paying that.
But where does this leave you? You still want that internet access. Are you shooting yourself in the foot here? What about your family back home sitting at their computers just to get your news, the latest pearls to drop from your fingertips? How will they feel, ignored and forgotten? It's intolerable!
500 baht! This is 12.5% of the cost of the room – far too much! You're reminded now of the outrageous price you paid for the convenience of the hotel location – close to the airport. Makes you feel worse than ever. Looking around the room you can see other shortcomings as well. Beer in the minibar – 200 baht! Jesus wept! There’s a jug and Nescafe, but where are the biscuits? – in the meanest motel room back home you get bloody biscuits! Christ almighty!
Where am I? It's not hard to work out – I'm in the Novotel at the airport with the unpronounceable name. It's in Thailand, and I'm wondering about the fact that there is no other hotel in competition. It probably means that a fair slab of money changed hands to maintain the 'no competition' arrangements, or am I being too cynical? I decide NO.
I'm here because my flight to Japan next morning leaves at 7am and I didn't fancy a stupidly early start with timing that included a taxi ride from town. Of course the crux of the matter is that I agreed to the travel agent's suggestion of the 7am flight. I was a fool to agree to that, but at the time all this crap stuff was not thought about, not even imagined.
What I need now to smooth this situation is a nice relaxing massage. Oil variety and not too violent. That'll get my blood pressure down, no worries. After all I am in Thailand where I usually have a massage each day . . . . Oh shit, I've just realised that a massage at the Novotel is going to empty my wallet! Is there an end to this? Well, no in fact the bastards've got every base covered. I'm being screwed by experts!
Mid October ‘08
Chang beer. It's not a bad drink and you can buy it anywhere in Thailand in large or small bottles or small cans. The easy availability of it in Thailand is what I call civilised – compared with the strict laws (uncivilised and stupid) around the sale of alcoholic drinks in Aus – what's the problem with buying a bottle or two at a 7/11 or just about anywhere with a drink fridge? (A little qualification is required here – I went into a 7/11 in Korat at 3.45 pm one day and after plonking my couple of Changs on the counter I was politely shown a sign – it said I could not buy alcoholic drinks between the hours of 2pm and 5pm. Couldn't work that one out. As it happened they still took my money and allowed me to walk out the door with it!).
Chiang Mai is a great destination in the north of Thailand nestled on river flats and surrounded by rugged mountains, and when you arrive there on a plane from BKK one or two Changs is just what you need to loosen up. Loose, cool, spacious, green – words to describe my first impressions of this town – and laid back. The pic below was taken from a vantage point on Doi Suthep, a few km out of the city.
The Changs give the mood to the traveller, the town is filled with travellers young and old. I've arrived earlier during the day but now in the evening I’m relaxing in a bar in company with another patron – a POM (Aus speak for English person) who is two months into a 12 month Cooks tour. The bar is small and quiet and out of the way in a side street within the city square.
It's after 9pm and I challenge La to a game of pool. She's brought us the beer and a plate of nuts. She's not a good player but neither am I, however eventually I win this game. The bar owner Wan whips me in the next game. There's just the two of them here, this is not a pick up joint and that is one reason at least why the bar is nice and comfortable, I just want to take it easy when I go to a bar and not be hit upon. The TV announces Obama the winner, this is great news. At 10pm the temperature is a very comfortable 24 deg and unlikely to change much all night. It does get cool here apparently towards Xmas.
On a typical day (which is every day) La starts work at 9am in a hotel massage, and looking after the bar with Wan in the evening is her second job. She knocks off at the hotel at 7pm, gets to the bar around 7.30, stays there till stumps. Wan presses the button to lift the roller door around mid afternoon. She fills in her mornings doing things like servicing the rooms upstairs – there are 4 rooms up there which are nothing more than lockable boxes with a bed and a fan, but they are clean. She rents them out at 100 baht per night – and she does the washing for the occupants for free as well! The POM is staying in one of them. I ask him how he knew about these rooms as there are no signs up to advertise their existence. Word of mouth he says and Wan says that if she puts up signs the police will come along and want payment for the privilege . . . it's an unpleasant reminder of some things about this country you would rather forget. I've seen a couple of cops 'moving on' a street stall holder, presumably because he would / could not pay up today, and it was not nice. But I digress.
First job in the mornings for both of them is to make lunches for their respective sons and take them to school. These two hard working ladies will happily sit and tell you their business. Wan is 48 years old and perhaps unusually for a Thai lady she looks it because life has not been easy for her. This bar is a first time venture which took great courage 'cos it took all her money to set up. She's been all around the place over the years in and out of the country, farm work, construction jobs, service work. She's tough on the outside – a 'grin and bear it' salt of the earth type of gal.
It's a quiet night in the bar, just the POM and myself and a couple of others. I've bought myself a book from the second hand place down the road – handy that, Chiang Mai is the kind of place where you find good second hand book shops 'just down the road' which will exchange as well as sell. My exchange / purchase is a dark tale about life in Stalin's Russia – “Darkness at Noon” by Arthur Koestler, the POM's latest read is Bill Bryson 'Notes from a Small Island' – his own country being the subject of the book, which he says is amusing. I'll get it from him – I'll need some amusement after Stalin. So we discuss books for a while, have another beer, a game of pool, chat to Wan and La. It's surprising how therapeutic a good chat with a native speaker of your own language can be after weeks of deprivation. Travelling in foreign countries is great, but sometimes you get to feel a little jaded without conversation.
Wan and La want to close up shop, so the POM and I mosey off. It's time for bed, see you tomorrow. This is Chiang Mai for me, nice and easy.
Early December ‘08
Luang Prabang is a town up north in Laos. On the Mekong River, it is an unabashed tourist destination. That said, it is a great place to visit, and I enjoyed it a lot. One reason for this is that I could buy excellent bread. Sawadee2000 recently submitted a piece about bread, and I noted his physiological need for the stuff, something shared by me and the majority of westerners I reckon. A bit like the built-in need Asians have for rice perhaps.
In the picture above is a sight I have never seen in Thailand, but in LP there it was in abundance. You could have a fabulous chicken and salad roll anytime of day, and they were tops! (I had several over a few days). The bread rolls were fairly standard in nature, but nicely done with a texture fairly coarse / open, white bread and a thickish but not too hard crust. In fact just right for the purpose.
Oh dear! The picture above shows a breakfast in LP a bit like you would receive in Thailand – the menu makes it sound like something to look forward to but in fact on arrival it is less than your expectation (how do you like your eggs, sir?). There is a difference though – the bread roll, you would not get that in Thailand. It turned out that this bread roll was in fact what made the meal memorable. The soft white bread inside had a fine texture, and the crust was very thin and crisp. In fact I cannot remember consuming a nicer bread roll, and I have eaten such things in France and other European countries as well as many more mundane places. I ate it without butter or jam it was so good, and given I was about to depart for Thailand and therefore a bread drought, I asked for seconds. I discussed this later on with a Thai lady who had spent time in NZ and Aus and familiar with these matters, and she educated me by telling me that the cooking method included steam. Hmm, I might try cooking it myself.
Still in LP I happened upon a bike. I’m something of a bike freak and I can tell you this is a bloody nice machine, so I hung around till the owner appeared. Turned out he was a German, and had ridden this bike from BKK! Not a bad effort but he was not finished. His plan was to continue north and east and into Vietnam (which he did, ultimately selling the bike in Vietnam and flying back to BKK). He was totally set up for such a trip – small computer with wi-fi capability (Acer Aspire One), GPS (Garmin eTrex Legend Cx) and mobile phone internet connection device bought in BKK (USB plug in to the computer), so that he could be ripping along on a dirt back road between cane fields, come to a Y intersection and know exactly which way to go, and then later in the day he could update his blog on the internet. GPS mapping of Thailand is surprisingly good, much better than any paper map available for that country.
Luang Prabang is a town on the move, lots of building going on to increase the number of guest houses available. A lot of buildings are of a similar style, with a nice French influence prevailing. The quality of the building appears to be better than in Thailand in my estimation (not hard to arrange!).
Looks nice, eh? This one is typical of many buildings happening, and it looks over the river Nam Khan, a tributary to the Mekong. The old town is right at the confluence, a fact which gives the place a relaxed stance as you cannot drive ‘through’ it on any major roads – there aren’t any. Best way to get there is on a plane from Vientiane, the road trip being torturous and the buses and drivers suspect.
It was after this Laos visit that I found that ‘new regulations’ existed at the border into Thailand – 15 days visa, down from 30 previously. Bloody hell, what an inept government!