Around The Traps in South East Asia: Part 21
It’s been well over two years since my last submission. Penned just as we were entering a point in time in our recent history which most of us would never like to see again. The pandemic put us on hold for what seemed like an eternity. Two years of being quarantined, restricted and subjected to silly rules. Hopefully it’s almost done and dusted. Since that last submission in April 2020, I spent most of my time back in Australia. In July 2021 I managed to escape for a six-month respite back to Thailand. Stickman was on hold during that time, so I put a diary of my travels, trials and tribulations in the LOS on the group section of my Facebook page.
During that six-month period, I made a couple of extended road trips, through the north, east and west of Thailand and was quite fortunate to experience sightseeing attractions almost devoid of any tourists or foreigners. In many places, I was the only farang in sight. Imagine walking through Sukhothai Historical Park with no one else about, save for a few maintenance workers.
On both trips I rented a car in Bangkok and navigated my way through the provinces of Isan, Uttaradit, Phrae, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son and Tak. To help make things a bit more enjoyable I enlisted the services of a thirtyish Thai lady I’ve known for a few years. Noot was an ex-Soi Cowboy go-go gal who, having not been in a bar for the better part of twelve months, was desperate to make a bit of cash (without having to work too hard). Although a bit rough around the edges, she was an affable type that was well up for a bit of adventure (caving and hiking). After a bit of a disagreement regarding her day-rate she finally accepted my offer of 500 THB a day to be assistant tour guide, chief cook and bed warmer. I think she figured that 500 THB a day, for going sightseeing and providing sexual services, was a better proposition than 300 THB a day for eight hours in the rice fields.
Sometimes we can convince ourselves that a leopard can change its spots. It can’t. Even though Noot hadn’t worked in a bar for over a year, the mindset when it came to dealing with khun Farang, was unchanged. We’re always seen as a potential cash cow. How does it go? “You can take a girl out of the bar but you can’t take the bar out of the girl.” After years of working the bar, that way of thinking is too ingrained. In a moment of silliness, I decided to bring her down to Phuket for a month. The day rate was still the same and I thought it might be good to have someone around to cook, clean and provide sex on tap. It was okay for the first few days but then the bar-girl way started to irritate me. The lack of education is the biggest stumbling block but it’s also the sheer laziness which is so annoying. Apart from having my breakfast on the table at 9:00 AM, she had to be constantly prodded to get the iPhone out of her face and do something. There were also lifestyle issues to contend with. I’m a beach person and I enjoy getting out in the afternoon sun, going for a walk and having a swim. Being a traditional Thai, she was absolutely petrified of the sun. While I was out swimming and tanning, she’d be hiding under a tree staring into her phone and watching those idiotic Thai soap dramas.
As the days passed, she began dropping hints about the possibility of receiving a bigger stipend. A few days before she was due to head back home, the real story was revealed. She was looking for a serious lump of cash to “make family mart.” Fifty thousand THB was mentioned. Instead of laughing at the sheer absurdity of even thinking one can open a Family Mart for 50k, I just said “I’d consider it.” One thing I’ve learned over the years, when dealing with Thai women’s requests for money, is you never say yes or no straight away. It’s always better to use delaying tactics. On the morning she was due to leave I told her “I didn’t have the cash at the moment but I was going back to Australia soon and would help her when I started working.” That of course never eventuated. No doubt it caused her no end of frustration as her messaging and calls on Line were met with me pleading poor, “I can’t find a job.” Eventually the penny dropped, and she accused me of telling lies. At which point I decided to end the nonsense and gave her the old, “bad connection, sorry, cannot hear……” One of the great things about Line is you don’t need to hand out your phone number to these silly strumpets. Give them you Line ID and when you’ve had enough of their bullshit, simply block them. I haven’t heard from Noot for nearly two months.
Back in Phuket, after three months in Australia, I decided enroll on one of those dating websites. Thai Friendly is quite a good app for hooking up with freelance sex workers. It’s called a dating app but the reality is 95% of the ladies registered on it are hookers looking for some short time action. If you’re looking for a genuine girlfriend, go elsewhere. You ain’t going to find it on Thai Friendly. Within two minutes of chatting, they’ll normally give you their Line ID and ST price. The normal range is 1500 – 2000 THB for an hour of horizontal folk dancing. I normally won’t go over 1500 for a short time. It’s a price which I call the international standard for pay for play in South East Asia. Fifty USD for a ST and 100 USD for a LT. Anything else for a South East Asian farm girl is nonsense.
At the end of the day, it’s all a matter of relativity. The minimum wage for eight hours’ graft in a rice field, or a factory in Chonburi, is 330 THB. A songtaew ride around Pattaya is 20 THB. The average ride on a motor cycle taxi is 20 THB (50 THB if you’re in Phuket). Why the fxxk anyone would anyone pay some skanky little Thai hooker 3000 THB for an hour of second-rate sex, is beyond me. When you factor in the 1000 plus THB for a bar fine, it’s even worse.
A recent video on YouTube, about the freelancers who work at the Thermae, drew some interesting comments from viewers. One guy, speaking from a recent experience there, said the prices these ladies were asking were bordering on being ridiculous. The rates mentioned were ST 4000 THB, and LT 9000 THB. I’ve also seen some other stuff on YouTube where prices being asked in Pattaya go-go bars are going astronomical as well. It appears the bar girl pricing system is being elevated to make up for lost time. One can only wonder how long this will last for before all the punters’ head to other destinations.
The low season is well and truly in on Phuket Island. The south-west monsoon is up and with it comes some nice size waves along the beaches. With the lowering of entry requirements there’s been a significant increase in tourists arriving in Phuket. So much so that recent afternoon walks along Patong Beach had me considering the number of tourists I was seeing, wasn’t that much different to pre-Covid low season numbers. One can only speculate tourist arrivals will almost certainly be back to normal by the coming high season.
By mid-June (2022), entry requirements were beginning to ease around the region and I started to consider a trip to either Vietnam or Laos. In the end Laos won out. The picturesque, uncrowded landscapes of Luang Prabang seemed a lot more appealing than the manic chaos of Saigon and Da Nang. With the Lao Government dropping the strict entry requirements over the past couple of months, getting in was relatively simple. Apply for an e-visa online, upload a copy of your passport and vaccination certificate, pay US 50 dollars and your visa will be approved in three days. I got insurance to cover me for the month I was there but remarkably, the officials at Lao Immigration didn’t even bother checking that when I entered.
I took a Thai Smile flight from Phuket to Vientiane, with a three hour stop in Bangkok, and after a forty-five-minute wait to clear Lao Immigration I was back in the Land of Elephants. Note: Thai Smile (Thai Airways budget carrier) have got to be one of the crappiest airlines I’ve flown on over the past few months. During the pandemic they’ve got away with not serving any food, or water, on Thai domestic flights. The excuse they’ve been using is “it’s Covid times and everyone has to keep their mask on.” The staff have, no doubt, become quite happy with this minimal level of service. Handing out those shitty little doggy bags as you disembark is a low effort approach which I’m sure they’ll be hoping will stay in place. One can only laugh when Captain Somchai says “relax and enjoy our in-flight service.” I mean, seriously? What in-flight service.
After a two and a half years hiatus, I was back in Vientiane. Compared to when I was last there, in January 2020, the streets around the riverfront (tourist) area were very quiet. Very few foreigners to be seen about and one can only wonder how long it will take for things to pick up again. A good number of hotels, restaurants and guesthouses were still boarded up, and in a state of disrepair. In times past (pre-Covid) Vientiane was a vibrant tourist hub with travelers / backpackers staying for a couple of nights, before continuing their journeys through the north or south of the country. These days it’s quite drab and looks very much like a run-down third world city.
The Laotian currency has tanked over the past few months and is now around 450 Kip to one Thai Baht. Noticeably, prices have risen to accommodate the weakening of the currency. I booked into a place I’ve stayed at before in Vientiane; the Mixok Inn. It’s a budget level accommodation, centrally located one street back from the riverfront road. An air-conditioned double room is just US 12 dollars per night. The hotel restaurant serves a good standard of Lao and Thai food, at reasonable prices, and the coffees are cheap and strong. The only negative aspect of the place is that it seems to attract the desperado element of farang who have retired in Laos. Probably because a large bottle of Beer Lao can be bought for the equivalent of one USD. Hard-core drinkers to be sure, with their daily sessions starting just after midday and running well into the night. While I was there a couple of them brought some of the worst looking katoeys I’d ever seen back to the hotel. Think Lao men dressed as women, without the plastic, and you’ll get what I mean. Hideous doesn’t even begin to describe their appearance.
Something which I have pretty much figured out over the years of coming to Laos is that Lao women ain’t all that attractive compared to their Thai counterparts. I recently saw a photo of contestants in a recent ASEAN beauty contest and all, except for Miss Laos, were stunners. Unfortunately, Miss Laos looked a bit too well fed.
Day-time temperatures are quite high (around 35 C) in Vientiane, so the streets are fairly quiet as people look for a shady spot, or an air-conditioned café to get away from the heat. Once the sun dips towards the horizon, things come alive along the riverfront. Markets spring up in a large carpark area, between the two riverfront roads, and plenty of locals can be seen walking and exercising along the concourse.
The maximum time I normally spend in Vientiane is three nights. Having been there a number of times before, I’d seen most of the highlight sightseeing attractions. After my standard three-night stay it was time to hit the road and Luang Prabang was at the top of the bucket list. In times past any travel to locations north of Vientiane (Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang) involved a nightmare bus ride over some the worst roads I’d ever traveled on. Thankfully those bone-jarring rides are a distant memory. With the new high-speed rail line now in place, one can get to Luang Prabang in air-conditioned comfort in under three hours. The only negative aspect of booking a ticket is there’s a rather bizarre Government edict which says you can only do so, forty-eight hours before you want to travel. Additionally, you are required to go to the train station to buy the ticket. The oddities of a communist government are alive and well in Laos.
Luang Prabang has an ambience which is something akin to stepping back in time; think Thailand thirty years ago. There’s no hustle and bustle of a tourist rat race in Luang Prabang. Just a chilled out scenic destination, along the banks of the mighty Mekong River. If you’re a party hound, or monger, looking for a red-light district, LP isn’t the place to come. The only bar of significance, for westerners looking for a cold beer and a decent burger, is the OUT-BACK SPORTS BAR. Aside from that it’s mainly boutique styled restaurants and cafés, catering to the younger traveler / backpacker / hippie crowd. There are lots of cool little guesthouses along the riverfront area. Many are constructed of teak and have polished wood interiors. The Apple Guesthouse, located in one of the small sois running back from the riverfront road, is a good example of the area’s rustic style.
A couple of hundred meters back from the riverfront is the town center. The main strip is a one-km stretch of road, lined with restaurants, cafes and more guesthouses. From 5 PM every evening the section which borders the base of Phousi Hill becomes a bustling night market, filled with local handicrafts, clothing and artwork. At the western end a large, open food court offers a wide selection of tasty local food, and cold Beer Lao for the hungry shoppers. It was a location I dined at every night and notably, there was often a large contingent of Thai tourists there as well. Luang Prabang is the new travel hot spot for Thai tourism. The ease of travel on the train from Vientiane, and the excellent exchange rates they’re getting on the Baht are a definite drawcard. To see a short highlights video of the riverfront area and night market, click on this LINK
The highlight sightseeing attraction in the Luang Prabang area is the picturesque Kuang Si Falls. Located approximately thirty km south-west of the city, this scenic waterfall site has undergone a bit of a transformation recently. The actual waterfall area is still much the same as it was when I visited some eight years previously. However, the access to the site has been given an upgrade to cope with the expected throngs of tourists coming down from China on the new train line. The old days of riding right up to the main entrance on your motorbike have now been replaced by the requirement to stop at a massive car-park, one km back down the road. An entrance fee of 25000 Kip is then paid for access, and a ride up to the gate on a golf buggy. Regrettably this has the feel of mass tourism about it. The only thing they’re missing is the hordes of Chinese tourists.
For those seeking a more off the beaten track location, TAD SAE is a less developed and less visited waterfall site. While not quite as impressive as Kuang Si, Tad Sae (in the rainy season) is a picturesque landscape of small waterfalls and plunge pools. It’s also a less crowded site than Kuang Si, has a better ambiance and is a great spot for a refreshing swim. It’s located approximately 17 km from Luang Prabang and will take approximately thirty minutes of travel time to get there. Note: If you go there on a motorbike, there is approximately 2 km of rough dirt road to negotiate, from the turn-off from hwy 13, to the secure parking area next to the river.
Getting to the waterfalls involves taking a short boat ride (30,000 Kip) along the Nam Khan River. The distance is only 1 km and is a scenic ride with jungle covered terrain down to the water’s edge. Once you arrive at the boat landing, there’s a short stairway up to another ticket office where you’ll be required to pay another 15,000 LAK to enter the waterfall area. From the ticket office it’s only another 100 meters to the swimming area at the base of the main falls. To see a short highlights video of Tad Sae Falls, click on this LINK
Comment: Now that Laos and Vietnam are fully open to tourism, I won’t waste my time or money touring in Thailand again. The price of entering a place such as Tad Sae Falls is US 3.30, or 120 THB. And it’s the same price for everyone. There is no dual pricing system for foreigners. The Thai Government and the TAT are living in fantasy land thinking foreigners will continue to pay ten times the amount Thais pay, to enter their not so amazing national parks, when other locations are now a viable tourism option. And even you when you do fork out the ridiculous entry fee, you’re often confronted with run down and poorly maintained facilities, and areas which are closed off to the public. An example is the Pong Duet Hot Spring (Mae Hong Son) which I visited in January 2022. I paid the 300 THB entry fee only to find that out of the five mineral pools in the complex, only one had water in it LINK
There is nothing in Thailand which comes close to being as good as the equivalent in Laos and Vietnam. Mountains, landscapes, waterfalls and caves? It’s all bigger, better and more spectacular in Laos and Vietnam. Thailand is great for beaches, temples, spicy food and prostitutes but is a lemon for national parks. Wherever you go there’s a checkpoint and a guard waiting to collect the xenophobic based entry fee. The excuse the TAT use to justify their racist pricing policy is “foreigners are rich and Thais are poor.” Which is complete and utter horseshit. The poor of Thailand can’t afford to go to national parks. They don’t have the money or the transportation to leave their rice farms. When you arrive at a parking lot at a Thai national park, what you see is a lot of expensive SUVs and, often, European cars. The type of vehicles which the middle-class and hi-so brigade from Bangkok drive. When I toured around Isarn last September, the majority of Thais I met along the way were the type with money. They certainly weren’t “the poor.”
After eight enjoyable days in Luang Prabang I caught a Lao Airlines flight back to Vientiane. Lao Airlines domestic flights are quite cheap and the US 61 Dollar one-way fare seemed a far better option than the hassle involved getting a train ticket. Note: the station in Luang Prabang is 16 km from the town center. I had a couple of nights back in Vientiane, and then caught another Lao Airlines flight to Southern Laos.
Pakse is a place I’ve been to a number of times before. It’s a laid-back town on the eastern bank of the Mekong River, and a gateway to the Bolaven Plateau and the 4000 Islands. The primary attraction of the Bolaven is some of the best (highest) waterfalls in Laos. And in the depths of the rainy season, they were certainly at peak flow. The best way of touring the plateau is to hire a motorbike from one of the rental agencies in Pakse. With the road surfaces being a bit wet and slippery I decided to hire an off-road bike, for better stability and traction. I spent four days touring across the plateau. The waterfalls were certainly spectacular but after being constantly soaked from riding in the rain, I decided I’d had enough of the rainy season in Laos. For anyone whose interested, checkout my drone footage of the Bolaven Waterfalls by clicking this LINK
After twenty-five days in Laos I came back into Thailand via the land border at Chong Mek. The bus ride from Pakse to Ubon Ratchathani, including clearing Immigration, takes approximately four hours. I had one night in Ubon, a fairly quiet place with not much going on, and then caught another Thai Smile flight to Bangkok.
Back in Bangkok I had plans of checking out Soi Cowboy and Nana Plaza but unfortunately, my timing couldn’t have been worse. I arrived at the beginning of a two-day Buddhist holiday, and all bar areas were closed. Restaurants and cafes were still open however, they just weren’t serving alcohol. With things opening up again in Thailand, and the tourism numbers beginning to rise, the prices of hotels have risen accordingly. In the depths of the pandemic I was staying at the FuramaX Hotel on Asoke, where a decent room was just 700 THB a night. Those same rooms are now 1400 THB a night so I went back to staying at the Nana Thai Suites, at the bottom of Soi Four. The rooms rates there are 1000 THB a night, for a 40 sq meter room, and have remained unchanged for years. The hotel provides a free tuk-tuk service to the top of the Soi (Nana carpark) so you can get a bird’s eye view of the action around the Nana Hotel. Obviously with it being a Buddhist holiday the plaza was shut. However, there was still a number of freelancers hanging around the carpark. Unfortunately, none of them appear too attractive these days. They look as though they’ve been pigging out on KFC.
Until next time, safe travels.
Your South East Asian roving reporter
PS Next trip report will be on Vietnam and Cambodia.
The author can be contacted at : Megaworldasia360@gmail.com