Around the Traps in South East Asia – Part 13
Welcome to the Circus:
It’s the latter half of November, and the high season in Phuket has well and truly kicked in to gear again. The roads are choked with traffic, the beaches are packed, and the weather has switched to its normal eastern trade winds pattern. The quiet times of the low season are a distant past and that only means one thing for me, it’s time to get the hell out of dodge. The flight to Laos was booked for the 24th of November. I’m flying with Nok Air: Phuket / Bangkok / Nakhon Phanom, then on a bus and across Friendship Bridge #3 to Thakhek. Not even bothering to stop in Bangkok for a day or two as the big smoke has become a rather tedious place for me these days. I was there for a weekend in the early part of November for a catchup with Stick and although I enjoyed the coffees and banter, three days there was well and truly enough. In an earlier time I was very much in to the City of Angels, but not anymore. The bad air quality, traffic congestion, and crowding is just too much. And to be honest, whenever I’m in Bangkok, my immediate thought is, “How the hell do people live in this place?” To my mind, people don’t actually live in big cities, they just exist. The place seems to be more crowded than ever these days and its understandable why. A taxi driver I spoke with on the way in from Suwarnabhumi told me reliably Bangkok’s population is currently 15 million. I don’t doubt it and Stick’s recent observations about the crowding at the BTS terminal are backed up by my own. It used to be the place only got jam-packed at peak hour (5 – 7 PM) but not anymore. It may be the result of high season crowding but whatever the case; it was choked with lines of commuters through the entire day. To negotiate a path to Terminal 21, it was a case of putting a shoulder forward and barging through.
It seems as though 500 THB is the new standard taxi fare from Suwarnabhumi to lower Sukhumvit these days. It may be just bad luck on my part but the last three times I’ve been to Bangkok, I’ve had taxi drivers who’ve hit me with the “500 baht include highway” routine. I don’t even bother arguing the point with them now, and it’s noticeable there’s often a hand towel covering the meter. In fairness, 500 baht isn’t exactly going to break the bank but it’s the attitude that annoys me. Almost as though “that’s the price, take it or leave it,” and no common courtesy where they will give you the option of a fixed rate, or the meter. If it wasn’t for the fact I had four bags, having just come back from an extended tour to Cambodia and Laos, I would’ve taken the BTS. To do so makes more sense anyway as the traffic snarl from the Rama 9 Road off-ramp to Sukhumvit soi 16 was a nightmare.
For my first night back in the Big Mango I decided to take a stroll down Soi Cowboy. I hadn’t done a night trip there for well over 12 months and was interested to see how one of Bangkok’s most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) was getting along. It was packed, even at 9 PM. I made a beeline for the Shark Bar, mainly because there were a couple of dancers there I’d known for a number of years. Ann and Noot are hard-core bar girls who’ve been ‘working” in the industry for over 10 years. I know Noot quite well and understand her situation as she’s got two teenagers to care for. I took a seat in the bleachers, ordered a soda water (160 THB) and within a minute Noot had come bounding down from upstairs to join me. I knew her favourite drink (Tequila) and told her one was it. At 240 THB they are seriously taking the piss. I wasn’t interested in barfining her but was interested to know what the current rates were. According to my Soi Cowboy friend, current prices and rates on “Hang Over Alley” are as follows: a lady drink is presently 200 THB or more, barfines are 700 THB, and most gals are presently asking 3,000 THB for an ST and 6,000 THB for a LT. Personally, I think these rates are nonsense anywhere in South-East Asia, apart from Singapore. Prices for a bit of slap and tickle should be relative to the standard / cost of living of a country. When the average pay rate for an 8-hour day in Thailand is somewhere between 300 – 500 THB, paying some lazy little go-go strumpet 3,000 THB for 1 hour (or less) is ridiculous. And it’s not as though the 3,000 is the end of it. When the barfine and drinks are thrown in, it’s closer to 5,000 THB. In real money that’s around USD 150. It’s up to the individual of course and some two-week millionaires are quite happy throwing money around. In times past, I’ve done the same. These days I apply an international standard to anywhere in South East Asia (apart from Singapore) which, when one considers the standard / cost of living in the region, I believe is more than adequate. A short time is USD 50, and a LT is USD 100; maximum. In places such as Cambodia, it could even be less.
I hadn’t been in Siem Reap for 5 years and on the spur of the moment, and with plenty of free time available, decided to head over there for a week to check things out. My main focus was a bit of photography around the temple sites but I was also interested in what the nightlife scene might be like and, more specifically, the pay for play action. I booked 6 nights at a hotel situated between the city and Angkor Archaeological Park, on highway no.6. In hindsight this was a mistake as I was forking out USD 5 for a round trip tuk-tuk ride to Pub Street and back every night.
The Angkor Hotel is listed as a 4-star establishment and when it was originally built, it probably was. Time has seen its splendour fade and it’s now looking a bit worn around the edges. For the price it’s still a good deal and if you’re a swimmer and need to get some laps in each day then the 20-metre pool is excellent in this regard. However, if you’re an independent western traveller be warned, this hotel is now very much an accommodation choice for the Chinese tour group hordes. The breakfast buffet is set up to suit them pretty much exclusively. Additionally, the noise these people make when coming and going from the hotel in their large groups is seriously annoying. The hotel is also approx. 2.7 km from downtown (Pub Street area) bars and restaurants and as mentioned you’ll need to grab a tuk-tuk each evening for the round trip. The upside of staying there is that it’s on the outskirts of the city and you can avoid the traffic congestion for daily trips to the temple sites. On my first day there I made a standing arrangement with one of the tuk-tuk drivers hanging around the hotel. For USD 20 I got 2 trips a day (early morning and late afternoon) to any of the sites at the Archaeological Park. Hiring a motorbike was slightly cheaper (USD 15 per day) but for the extra USD 5 I also got a knowledgeable local guide who could take me to exactly where I wanted to go each day. For those interested, an in-depth report on the Angkor Archaeological Park can be seen on my website:
Pub Street is the main bar, restaurant, and entertainment area in Siem Reap, catering to the throngs of international tourists and travellers and it has certainly got a lot busier in the 5 years since my previous visit. It’s also quite obvious that all the independent western travellers who once made their way to Thailand are now in Cambodia. On any given night the bars and restaurants were packed. There is a street with an illuminated sign over it saying “Pub Street” but this is just one of the number of streets in downtown Siem Reap catering to the hordes of hungry / thirsty tourists. It’s a vibrant, lively place and normally crowded most nights – particularly during the high season months (November – April) when the dry weather is in. Love it or hate it (it is what it is), the areas rapid development is just the result of the growing influx of tourists. If you’re a person who enjoys a cold beer or three after a hot day sightseeing around the temples, you’ll like PUB STREET. For serious imbibers, it’s beer heaven with happy hour prices for a half pint of draft ranging between US 50 cents and a dollar. And many places have happy hours which run to 11 PM.
The choices for meals are many and varied.
REAL KHMER COOK – BBQ:
If you want to eat great barbecued meats and fish, this is the best place in town. For good quality protein while you are traveling you can’t beat the chicken legs, pork ribs, vegetable and meat skewers, and my personal favourite, the slabs of fish fillet, from fish caught in the Tonle Sap. Prices are cheap: chicken legs = US 2.50 each, pork ribs = US 2.50 a rack, fish fillets = US 2.50 per chunk, vegetable and meat skewers = US 1.50 each. And to make things even better they’ve got cold, draft Angkor Beer for US 1 a half pint. Enjoy the great barbecue and cold beers while you watch the cooks flare up their hot woks and hear the oohs and aahs from passers-by on the street.
JUNGLE BURGER SPORTS BAR AND BISTRO:
If you are a rugby fan this is the best sports bar to catch the games. The owner is a kiwi so the rugby gets precedence over any other sports. The food is excellent and their burgers are a specialty. I had the bacon and avocado burger and the JB standard burger and both were seriously good. All burgers are served with a generous helping of chunky wedges as well.
Along the river front there are plenty of hawkers carts selling the same types of food you see on street carts in Thailand; barbecued chicken and pork, noodle soups, and fruit shakes all at low prices. The food must be okay because I saw plenty of locals eating at these road side eateries as well.
THE NIGHTLIFE SCENE:
On my first day in town I met a local expat at a restaurant near my hotel and he gave me the names of the most popular bars / clubs in the Pub Street area. The Temple and X bars are popular with the traveller and tourist crowd but he told me if I wanted to meet some local freelancers, the place to go to was CHEERS BAR. After a quick search on Google Maps it was easy enough to locate. After a nice BBQ feed at Real Khmer Cook I trundled along to Cheers to enjoy a cold beer or three and check out the talent. I arrived at just after 8 PM to find the place almost empty. Another expat, already there, informed me it didn’t start to fill up until around 10 PM. With draft beers going for just 50 cents a half pint until 11 PM, I decided to hang out and wait for things to kick into gear. There were a couple of rough-looking freelancers sitting at the street side tables, giving me the eye and trying to drum up some early business. I took a seat along the wall, which looks out over the street, and struck up a conversation with a Dutch guy. He’d been living in Siem Reap for a year and had all the info on the bar scene in the area. According to him, freelancer rates were basically US 30 for a ST and 50 for a LT. No doubt significantly cheaper than in Bangkok. I stayed till 11 PM and a lot of ladies did arrive at around 10 PM. But to be honest, none of them were much to look at. Over the years of being in South-East Asia I’ve met a number of guys who’ve tried convincing me that Cambodian ladies are more attractive than Thais. Sorry, but they’re not. Perhaps normal ladies in Phnom Penh are, but freelancers in Siem Reap are rough.
Back to Laos:
After in a week in Siem Reap I’d well and truly had my fill of temples, it was time to move north to Laos. I’d been considering the 4000 islands as my next stop but after finding out the only busses available for the run from Siem Reap were mini-vans, I flagged it. I don’t have the patience for an 8-hour mini-van ride these days. I switched to an alternate plan; fly to Pakse and then catch a bus down to the 4000 islands. The only flights available from Siem Reap to Pakse were with Laos Airlines and at 115 USD, not exactly a bargain. After two nights in Pakse, I was on my way to the 4000 islands.
The 4000 Islands:
This is a location in the very south of Laos which borders Cambodia. It is where the Mekong River is at its widest and is punctuated by hundreds of islands. Its most famous sightseeing attractions are the waterfalls which span the gaps between the Islands. Over the past few years it’s developed a bit of an “off the beaten track” reputation for those wanting to find an idyllic, river paradise far from the main stream tourist crowds. Getting there isn’t all that difficult, it just requires a bit of patience as bus travel is the only regular mode of transportation. From Pakse it’s a 3-hour ride in a mini-van to the bus terminal in Nakasong. From there, it’s a 400 meter walk to the jetty for the ride across to either Don Det or Don Khone. These are the two Islands where most travellers normally stay. Det Det is the closer and has more guesthouse, restaurant, and bar choices. Don Khone is further from Nakasong is generally considered to be quieter but more expensive than Don Det. If you’re interested a full trip report on 4000 islands can be seen on my travel blog: The following is a brief summary of the sightseeing attractions, restaurants, and bars at 4000 islands.
KHONE PHAPHENG FALLS:
Khone Phapheng Falls is a fantastic natural wonder and definitely should be on every travellers bucket list. However, a few points to consider: 1. The entry fee, as of November 2018, for foreigners is 55,000 LAK; 2. The observation area for these falls is on the mainland side; 3. If you are staying on the islands (Don Det, Don Khone, Don Khong) you’ll need to cross back to Nakasong and then hire a tuk-tuk to take you down to the falls. I did it this way and it is still an expensive undertaking. The round trip on the boat from Don Det was 20,000 LAK. The round trip on the tuk-tuk was 60,000 LAK. The entry fee to the falls site was 55,000 LAK; 4. Alternatively, if you are staying on the islands you can do the kayak tour which also takes in Khone Phapheng Falls. The current price for the kayak tour is 200,000 LAK; 5. The only problem with the kayak tour, if you’re a serious photographer, is that you won’t be at the falls until 3 PM. Unfortunately, at this time you’ll be looking straight into the sun; 6. Best light is at 8 AM when the gates open.
TAD SOMPHAMIT/LIPHI WATERFALLS:
These are the second biggest set of falls in the 4000 Islands area. If you are staying on Don Det or Don Khone this site is very easy to get to. Just hire a bicycle and follow the map you will be given. The best section of the falls is actually 300 meters south of the falls observation point. Just follow the track along the cliff line and you’ll eventually see the bigger picture. The only downside of this site is the number of zip-lines which seem to be running everywhere across the river. October and November are good months to visit as there’s still plenty of water surging down the Mekong.
ANLOUNG CHHEUTEAL DOLPHIN
This area is on the lower side of the falls and rapids and is where the Mekong is very wide between Laos and Cambodia. In times past it was a habitat for Irrawaddy Dolphins which lived in the area. According to local information sources, the dolphin’s numbers are greatly reduced due to increased boat traffic and recent blasting coming from a nearby dam construction. The word is most of the dolphins have moved down the river to Kratie, Cambodia. Which is generally considered to be a quieter location. The kayak tours which run out of Don Det advertise the dolphins as part of their sales pitch but the fact is you’ll be very lucky if you manage to see any. Sightings are not so common these days.
Ning’s Bar is probably the most popular watering hole on Don Det for the party hounds. It’s situated on the main laneway intersection at the northern end of Don Det (approx. 150 meters from the jetty) and seems to be a gathering point for people wanting a few warm up drinks before moving onto a party at another location on the Island.
After 4 days / 3 nights on Don Det I’d pretty much done and seen everything there was to do and see at the 4000 Islands. The kayak tour had been very good and was also an excellent day of physical activity. The tour involves approx. 8 km of paddling (mostly downstream) and takes in two of the main waterfall attractions: Khone Pa Soy and Khone Phapheng. The only down side, from a photographers perspective, is the visitation to Khone Phapheng occurs in the afternoon and as such you’re staring straight into the sun when trying to get some good shots. A note of caution for those considering doing the kayak tour (and this purely a safety issue). If you’re a solo traveller, as I was, try to get paired up someone who you can communicate with for the kayaking (2 man kayaks). Unfortunately I got teamed up with a Spanish dude who could barely speak a word of English. Obviously I couldn’t speak any Spanish and we had a couple of near misses in the kayak when it spun beam on to the strong downstream current, and we were pushed up against some river trees.
On my second full day I hired a bicycle and did the full tour around Don Det and Don Khone, which also included a visitation to the Somphamit / Liphi Falls attraction (this isn’t on the kayak tour). Bikes can be hired on Don Det for 10k LAK for the entire day. There are no sealed roads on either Don Det or Don Khone and the tracks are two-wheeled vehicles only and mainly dirt. A full trip to the southern tip of Don Khone and a loop around Don Det is approx. 25 km.
On the morning I departed from Don Det I took the early boat across to Nakasong and then hired a tul-tuk for a round trip to Khone Phapheng falls. The bus back to Pakse departs Nakasong at 11.30 AM so I had around 3 hours to get down to Khone Phapheng (8 km from Nakasong), get some good shots in the morning light, and get back in time.
THE BOLAVEN PLATEAU:
After arriving back in Pakse I had a couple of days to chill and plan my next move; a 5 day/4 night trip around the BOLAVEN PLATEAU. Full trip report:
The BOLAVEN PLATEAU is an elevated – 1350 metres at its highest point – geological area (the remnants of an extinct volcano), due east of PAKSE, which is renowned for its coffee agriculture, waterfalls, and spectacular scenery. It’s fast becoming a popular destination for off the beaten track travellers wanting to see the attractions from the seat of a motorbike. A 4 – 5 day tour has been developed by local travel companies called the BOLAVEN PLATEAU LOOP TRIP. The loop trip runs up and across the plateau and stopover points, with guesthouses, have been established at various small towns and villages to accommodate the LOOPERs as they do the circuit. One of the stopover points, and normally the first on the circuit, is an idyllic Lao village called TAD LO. At just 83 km from PAKSE, tad Lo is an easy run on a motorbike and has a gradual ascent to elevation. As you ascend the change in climate is noticeable as you leave behind the humidity of the plains and enter a dryer, cooler atmosphere. The spread of the coffee plantations is also impressive as you pass hundreds of acres of Arabica to your left and right. The key attractions at TAD LO are the waterfalls and also a daily opportunity to see elephants getting a bath in one of the local rivers near the village. Those doing the loop trip actually have two options in regards to the number of days they want to spend on the plateau. There is a SMALL LOOP and a BIG LOOP.
The BIG LOOP is the better sightseeing experience as it takes in the more remote and rugged areas on the far side of the BOLAVEN PLATEAU. It also has the single best place to go to on the plateau; TAYICSUEA. This is an off the beaten track area (at the end of a 12 km dirt road) which is set in the remotest area of the plateau and is renowned for its jungle scenery and waterfalls. The only Accommodation option here is the TAYICSUEA GUESTHOUSE. As mentioned, this location is what is normally considered, the “big loop trip.” Getting there is not so difficult in the dry season but the 12 km of dirt road to negotiate could be problematic in the rainy season. The people at Noy’s Motorbike Rentals in Pakse recommend not going in the rainy season. The guesthouse, although a bit expensive, is in a beautiful natural setting. The restaurant overlooks thick jungle and there is a stream with small waterfalls directly below. The waterfall trail they have set up is unrivalled in terms of a jungle hiking and waterfall sightseeing experience. I think it even surpasses the waterfalls around the Tad Fane area.
Over the past couple of weeks or so I’ve noted some comment on the notion of class in Thailand. Of how farangs may be perceived by Thais, and also how our choices of local girlfriends may count against us when living in the LOS. There was a time when I had a similar outlook on things but what I’ve come to realise is this silly notion of class, and how we as farangs think Thais see things, only exists in Bangkok. Yep, the big smoke with all its status conscious, pretentious folk, living oneupmanship lives and running around in tiny circles from one restaurant / bar / shopping mall to another thinking they matter. When you go out into the rural areas, and this also includes Phuket, no one really gives a shit about whether or not your girlfriend has white skin or that she might be carrying an LV handbag. In Phuket most of the locals are dark-skinned anyway. There are no pretentious hi-so ladies / actresses (so far themselves) smiling down at you from a BTS monitor and promoting skin whitening creams. All that nonsense only exists in Bangkok (just another reason why I can’t stand that fxxking place anymore). Like I said, people don’t actually have lives in the big smoke, they just exist there.
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