Around the Traps in S.E. Asia – Part 14
Back in Phuket:
In my previous “Around the Traps in S.E. Asia” report I mentioned my imminent departure to Laos to get away from the high season chaos in Phuket. It all went pretty much according to plan; by 5 PM on the evening of the 24th of November I was sitting along the banks of the Mekong River in Thakhek enjoying a cold Beer Lao while the sun set magically over Thailand. I managed to do most of the sightseeing / travel I wanted to in Central and Northern Laos and was also able to fit in a short trip to Saigon before catching a direct flight (Vietjet) back to Phuket. As I sit in my condo in Kathu writing up this report in time for Xmas, I look out the window at the overcast weather outside and wonder “Why the fxxk did I come back after only 23 days?”
A lot of people probably aren’t aware of the crap weather that seems to drag on interminably in Phuket, even when it’s supposed to be high season. In Laos and Northern Thailand it’s blue skies and sunshine. In Phuket the monsoon weather continues to drift across from the Gulf of Thailand, bringing with it heavy cloud and showers. The Russians filling the beaches are probably wondering “what the hell is going on? “Where’s the sunshine we paid for?” Suck it up, Boris. Last year the shit weather lasted until the end of January. Meanwhile in Laos, it’s cool mornings and bright, sunny days.
The traffic congestion on the roads in the lead up to Xmas is seriously bad, particularly coming out of Patong at peak hour. In fact it’s become so bad I’ve made a point of avoiding that part of the island altogether in the late afternoon. It was a route I used regularly in the low season to get to Karon Beach but I’ve now changed my daily routine and instead of heading down there for a swim and a walk, I now go in the opposite direction to Nai Harn Beach.
Why is it that Thailand always looks like a permanent construction zone? Nothing’s ever finished. Everywhere you go the roads are being dug up or there are barricades and witches hats in place, and piles of sand and concrete slabs, slowing traffic flow and causing log jams. Here in Phuket the stretch of coastal road between Patong and Karon seems as though it’s been in a state of disrepair for the past two years. I know the local authorities need to upgrade it to a four-lane carriageway but every time I head that way to Karon, there’s a bloody backhoe holding up traffic with a line of busses backed up for five meters.
In previous Around the Traps reports I gave the locals a bit of spray about their driving habits / capabilities, particularly motorbike drivers. On closer inspection it seems I was a bit harsh on them. With the exception of the odd reckless punk driving at high speed, and weaving in and out of traffic, the average Thai motorbike driver is actually quite competent. The fact most of them have been on a bike since the age of 12 probably has something to do with it. Currently, the most dangerous thing on the roads in Phuket is the young Chinese couples on motorbikes. It seems the new generation are breaking the shackles and getting away from being bussed around in groups. They’re still in groups, albeit in convoys of couples on motorbikes. And they are absolutely hazardous due to a serious lack of competence in handling gasoline-powered motorbikes. In China, gasoline-powered bikes are being completely phased out in favour of electric bikes to reduce emissions. I now understand who the police road blocks around Phuket are targeting. It’s mainly the Chinese and Russian tourists who don’t have motorbike licenses and have little, or no experience on motorbikes. I often see convoys (up to six couples on motorbikes) of these young Chinese driving around without helmets on, in flip-flops, and the girlfriend has her phone outstretched taking selfies as they make their way around the beach areas. In all cases the driver, normally the boyfriend, looks seriously shaky at the helm of the motorbike.
Speaking of the Russians, is their language one of the worst to listen to? I was sat at a hill-top café a couple of days ago, after a visit to the Big Buddha, and a bunch of Ruskies pulled up while I was quietly enjoying my espresso. Whether it was just this particular group, I have no idea but their language sounded like a bunch of people whinging and whistling. Maybe it’s just the way they form their words with the mouths but one guy in particular was constantly whistling his words. Oh yeah, if you’re in Phuket and you want to visit the Big Buddha I highly recommend going first thing in the morning to beat the crowds and the heat.
Even though it’s quite apparent the high season has started in Phuket, it’s not quite so for some people. I guess it just depends on where your business is located and what services you ae offering. Along the Beach Road and Song Roi Pee it’s as hectic as hell with crowds everywhere. Further in along Nanai Road things seem to be a bit quieter. A lass I know at a happy ending massage shop on Nanai Road told me the other day, “High season not start yet.”
An alternative means of taking a look at the Big Buddha is to do a hike up the jungle track from Soi 12 on the Karon side: http://www.megaworldasia.com/off-the-beaten-track-series/thailand/off-the-beaten-track-in-phuket/
The following part of this submission is part of an article I put on my website recently. It’s my view on how the traveller demographic in Laos is beginning to shift to mainstream tourism in some parts of the country.
Tourism versus travel:
Having visited Vientiane on a number of occasions since 2012 I think it’s fair to say Laos’ capital is in the midst of a shift from being a backpacker chill out town, to one of main stream tourism. On my first visit almost eight years ago the streets around traveller central area, and the river front, were the domain of the backpacker/traveller/hippie crowd. The laid back French style café’s which once existed along the uncrowded streets, are no more. And the backpacker/traveller/hippie crowd who once occupied the seats of those cafés, enjoying a latte, a croissant, and a quiet cigarette, are also rarely seen. What you do see however are bright new franchise coffee shops filled with middle class westerners, and Asian tour groups.
Read the extended article: http://www.megaworldasia.com/featured-articles/travel-v-tourism/
Vientiane is moving firmly into mainstream tourism and with it comes further development and, dare I say it, higher prices. Vientiane is no longer cheap and with the influx of Chinese investment the place is bound to undergo a dramatic shift from old world, rustic charm into consumer driven modernity. It was bound to happen of course but those of us who enjoyed the laid back feel of yesteryear will be sad to see the end of the less frenetic mood of the city. To be honest I think Vientiane marks a tourism dividing point in Laos. To the north, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang are also moving firmly into mainstream. The backpackers and western travellers who had these places on their must do bucket lists in South East Asia, are on the wane. Their numbers are being replaced in Vang Vieng by the Asian Tour groups who get their kicks from sober tubing, zip-lining, and haring around in motorised buggies. In Luang Prabang the dawn monks parade has become highly organised. The Chinese tour groups have designated photo stations with small, plastic seats for each member and a pre-packaged gift for the monks as they pass by. Apparently the competition to get that “proof I’ve been there shot” for the folks back home, is becoming quite aggressive.
Of course the backpacker/traveller/hippie crowd haven’t actually left, they’ve just focused their attention on the southern half of Laos. South of Vientiane things are a bit more remote and the sightseeing attractions are harder to access. The only airport in this area of the country is in Pakse. Travel is predominantly by bus or, if you’re the do-it-yourself type, on a motorbike. In Khammouane and Champasak Provinces independent travellers still rule the roost. The package tour groups aren’t up to the rougher style of travel south of Vientiane. The creature comforts of air-conditioned coffee shops and fluffy resorts are a world away from the one star guesthouses and open air river-side, local restaurants of Thakhek, Pakse, and Don Det. Adventure is the name of the game in the south with jungle trekking, rock climbing, caving, and extended motorbike trips into the interior being the activities of choice for the independent travellers seen regularly in the area.
In Khammouane Province a motorcycle loop trip, which takes in a number of caves and passes through some spectacular scenery, has been developed for the independent minded traveller. It begins and ends in THAKHEK Township, is approx. 450 km in distance, and is called appropriately the THAKHEK LOOP TRIP. For an in-depth report, follow this link: http://www.megaworldasia.com/laos/the-thakhek-loop-trip/
Up north in Vang Vieng the difference between the two areas couldn’t be starker. As I sat next to the river enjoying a sundowner the cacophony of noise coming from the continuous passing of long tail boats was relentless. One after the other they passed under the foot bridge with a bunch of Asian passengers eagerly holding their mobile phones in front of them. From the opposite direction came flotillas of hard-shelled kayaks being helmed by a Laotian tour guide while the Asian passenger either pretended to paddle, or worked away furiously banging off selfies.
Given the average Asian persons fondness for circus type joy rides, the way in which tourism in Vang Vieng is moving is hardly surprising. The immediate thrills of power boating, zip-lining, and motorised buggy driving suit their psyche more readily than a measured approach to adventure. The slog of a two-hour hike to a view-point or the idea of scrambling over slippery, jagged surfaces in a pitch black cave is far less appealing. And to be honest who’s to deny them their version of a fun holiday? Certainly not the local tour companies which have invested significantly in infrastructure (boats, buggies, and zip-line rides) to meet the thrill seeking demands of the influx of Asian tour groups. Just as with the tourism industry across the border in Thailand local operators have worked out it’s much easier to deal with large groups in a systematic way, than trying to hustle a buck off independent, fickle minded western travellers. Therein lies the difference between the two approaches to sightseeing. The Asian perspective is one which suits mainstream tourism simply because it’s group oriented. The independent westerner is normally looking for a more refined or sophisticated travel experience which focuses on an appreciation of the landscape and the quiet surrounds of a remote waterfall or cave. Circus joy rides are definitely not part of their travel agenda, although zip-lines do seem to be catching on in Pakse and the 4000 Islands. The difference between the two approaches can probably be summed up by the types of photos they take. When a traveller takes a photo, the focus is the landscape. When a tourist takes a photo/selfie the landscape is usually blocked out by the people in the shot.
On any given morning in Vang Vieng Township the streets around tourist central are a hive of activity as tour companies load up their trucks with kayaks and inflated truck tubes, readying themselves for the next thrill seeking tour group. Across the river and into the mountainous area, things are not so hectic. But the buggy tour companies will be getting their machines prepped in anticipation of the Korean groups who like to hare around the dirt roads in convoys. Some of the more enterprising operators have set up buggy tours which go on a circuit (a loop) and include zip-lining and swimming at Blue Lagoons one and three. Years ago, when there was no sealed road, Blue Lagoon One was quite an idyllic spot. The seven kilometres of dirt road from Vang Vieng seemed to keep the numbers riding out there to a minimum, especially in the dry season when clouds of choking dust were kicked up by passing Lorries. How things change. With development comes the tourist horde. Instead of just a few travellers/back packers hanging out around the lagoon there are now masses of Asian tour groups swimming (with life jackets on), eating, zip-lining, and making a serious amount of noise with it.
For the independent traveller, pursuing a less crowded sightseeing attraction around Vang Vieng, all is not lost. With a bit of preparation and effort the shrieking hordes of zip-liners can be left to their own devices as you hike up to a spectacular lookout or go exploring in one of the remote caves in the area.
For in-depth info on getting OFF THE BEATEN TRACK in Vang Vieng, follow this link: http://www.megaworldasia.com/latest-trip-report/vang-vieng/
Back to Saigon:
I hadn’t been in Vietnam for a while (March 2018) and was keen to have a short visit before coming back to Phuket. I also had a flight ticket (direct flight with Vietjet from Saigon to Phuket) which I needed to make use of before it expired. Normally when in Saigon I stay in District 1 but this time I thought I’d try something different and opted to stay in District 7. This is the area of town which is developing rapidly and has a sizeable expat community living there. I got a great price on a new 3-star hotel called the Ngan Ha Apartments in the heart of District Seven Tourist area: https://goo.gl/maps/vGwARX8vX8x
At around USD 240 for 5 nights (including breakfast) it was great value. For anyone who’s interested District 7 this isn’t much of a nightlife area for westerners, more of a Korean enclave. If you’re fond of Korean barbecue, there’s no shortage of options here. I was meeting up with an old flame for a few days and just wanted to chill out, enjoy some good female companionship, and eat some Vietnamese food. I managed to fit in a couple of trips to District 1 while there and made a couple of short videos which can be seen on YouTube. One is a hell ride I took on a motorbike taxi from District 7 to Ben Thanh Market.
SAIGON MOTORBIKE MAYHEM: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LjcJatBOiSY&t=3s
I often get emails from the readership regarding all manner of points in my submissions they liked, or disagreed with. As with most things or situations in life where you are making comment, there is a group who appreciate what you have to say and those who, for one reason or another, get their knickers in a twist. In previous submissions I made some fairly hard-hitting comments, predominantly about Thailand, which upset a few people and in light of this I’ve decided to tone things down a bit. With this in mind I’ve shifted the focus of my submissions from being Thai-centric to more regional. Something which I think is also quite obvious about my submissions is they are predominantly travel/trip reports and not naughty boys/whoremonger stories. I do touch on the P2P and girlie bar scene I find in the region as I’m traveling about but that isn’t the main feature of my reports. I suppose it has a lot to do with the fact that I live in the region and the sex industry has become a bit ho-hum for me. It’s no big deal. It’s there if I want to partake but it’s not the primary aspect in my life. I guess if you live somewhere in the world where you’re not surrounded by a sex industry and getting a bit of nooky isn’t simply a matter of walking into a bar, picking out a girl, and paying the bar fine, then one may have a more active fascination with the idea getting your rocks off. But to be honest I’ve never really had a frat boy mentality when it comes to sex. Perhaps it’s the part of the world I come from but I’ve never seen getting my end in as being a big deal. I didn’t come to Thailand originally for the sex industry. It was more about scuba diving, surfing, and the outdoor lifestyle. I was in Phuket for 5 years before venturing up to Bangkok. For some people though it seems the frat boy thing about sex never leaves them. At 60 years of age they’re still wandering around the streets of Pattaya, Patong, or Bangkok, talking about the latest bar girl they’ve shagged or the one they’re having issues with.
As it’s been said so many times on this site before, generally bar girls (prostitutes) are trouble; you’re going to have issues trying to make a relationship with them. That’s not to say they’re all bad but most, even after a relatively short time in the industry, are not relationship material. The problem for a lot of farang who seem to spend too much time around the bar scene in Thailand is that they can’t divorce the need for companionship from simply getting laid. Most for one reason or another don’t have the emotional strength to keep it as a P2P arrangement and move on. Their need for companionship sees them getting attached, and then the issues start. If you don’t want issues it’s simple, don’t get attached. Spend less time hanging around the bars and get out do something interesting. You never know what you’re going to see off the beaten track.
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