Sunday, 31 March 2013

... Indochina: Feeling Laos-y

I was up at 5am yesterday so that I could go and watch the Tak Bat along the main street at dawn. This is where the Monks form a line to receive alms, an ancient and solemn ceremony where people make offerings in the form of food to the Monks. In return they give food to the poor. You have to make sure you do not make physical contact and you do not talk to them. It was well worth getting up for and interesting to watch. I was able to donate some sticky rice to a temple near the morning market where I was blessed by the head monk.

After that I took in the sights and sounds of the morning market.

Most of the sights in this town are in the old quarter on the peninsula bounded by the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers. The best way to explore is by bicycle and so after a light breakfast I was able to rent one for 20000 Kip including a lock for the day.

Big Brother Mouse is an organization that helps Laotians improve their literacy. Programs include heading to hard-to-reach villages armed with books for people that would otherwise rarely get the chance to read. Falangs can also hang out at the office for a few hours each day and read &/or converse with the people who attend. It was time to get my volunteer on! I jumped on my very pink bike and headed along the river to reach the office. What a wonderful experience. I spent over 2 hours there conversing with two novice Monks, 1 high school boy, a University student and a lady who told me she just wanted to speak better English in perfect English. Jallai, was 18 and was a novice Monk. He told me about his typical day and about his family back home in a village in the south. He told me all about being a Monk and what it entailed. How their robes are called "yellow robes" even though they wear predominantly orange. He was on holiday from school but was always kept busy at his temple, they're doing renovations to it. No hard hat and overalls here, they climb up bamboo ladders in their bare feet and robes. He told me that he shaves his head once a month in sync with the cycle of the moon. It was fascinating to be sat across from this young man listening to him talk so eloquently as he rested his hands on Steve Jobs memoirs - a book he had taken out from the library. He had a book on sayings and I had to laugh when he asked me to explain what "easy on the eye" meant. Win was 14 and felt it was his destiny to be a Monk for his life. It was like talking with a wise old soul. He asked me to help him with some exercises in his book and so we did that for a little while plus he had written the word "organize" on his hand, what did this mean. It was amazing to hear that all those whom I talked to had been studying English for less than 1 year with Win having only been studying for 7 months. They all wanted to know if I'd be back for the evening class, I would've loved to but unfortunately my day didn't go as planned....

I noticed it first as we were coming to the end of the session. My leg was shaking uncontrollably. Then I felt as though I was inside a furnace. I became incredibly hot and began sweating profusely. After a few minutes of this the chills kicked in and the two alternated. All of a sudden I felt like I was having an out of body experience and the migraine that followed was excruciating. I don't remember cycling back to the guest house, I felt that delirious. I somehow managed it though, fell into my bed and stayed there for 20 hours fighting a fever and soaking the bed sheets in sweat. Perhaps the Pescatarian gods are annoyed at me for eating meat and this was my punishment? Traveler's diarrhoea affects between 30 & 50% of people within two weeks of starting their trip. I managed to make it to just over a week. I wanted to die. Azithromycin, lots of water with electrolyte tablets and my bed became my three best friends.

And isn't it just fantastic that I had a 7hr journey the next day?!?

The road from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng is not in the best condition. Like a snake with the way it winds through the mountains, it is full of potholes. I'm going to need another massage after what I've just put my back through.

I am not sure how but I managed to make the entire journey without any embarrassing "incidents". After 28 hrs since my last meal I finally had some food in the form of steamed rice. I suspect that is going to be all I am eating for the next few days.

It appears that Vang Vieng is somewhat divided between the travel circles. As I type this I've just heard some chick screech about "where is the vodka?" Oh joy. Yep this is primarily a tourism-oriented town as in young backpackers looking to party. Don Khang is known as the "party island" with bars that are open until 4am. It was probably telling when you see signs posted everywhere asking the foreigners how to behave. Locals have said that the tourism is destroying their town's culture and encouraging crime amongst the children. Drugs are a problem here and are easily accessible to both travelers and locals. Some people appear to have forgotten about Laotian modesty and act like they're in Ibiza instead. I'm more of the tranquility-seeker myself and feeling a little better than I did 24hrs earlier I decided to go off and explore.

The scenery away from the town is breathtaking. To the west of the Nam Ou river you lay your eyes on the jet black jagged karsts. These are home to tunnels, caverns & lagoons and caving is one of the main attractions here. 

I'm not sure where I was going but like Dorothy I crossed a bamboo footbridge and began following the yellow dust road through rice fields and jungle. Overhead the heavens grumbled. No lightning but the thunder went on for a good hour.

I kept walking until I reached a padlocked and barbwired gate that led up one of the karsts to Lusi cave. Looks like I'll have to come back a little earlier if I want to do some caving. Still it was wonderful to be away from the hustle & bustle, the "thud thud thud" of music and screeching drunks. I listened instead to all the insects and birds before returning to reality.

Dinner was more steamed rice & water, all whilst watching Friends episodes on TV at a place by the river. If it's not Friends then it will be The Family Guy. This is apparently Westernization for you. There are a small but few places that haven't succumbed but for now, in my fragile state, this will do.

Friday, 29 March 2013

... Indochina: Water Buffalo vs. Fish...?

"... Same, same! But different!" (Laotian saying)

Luang Prabang strikes me as being the epitome of Indochina. There are monks, gilded Wats and an almost mythical air about it. This UNESCO-protected ancient city and former capital will serenely transport you back in time to old Asia.

A quick ride from the slow boat dock across from the Royal Palace Museum (Ho Kham) to my digs in the SE corner of the centre of town gave me time to freshen up before a little exploration. Lao Lao Garden looks like Vegas.... If it were ran by Tarzan.

Still, it has a good looking (food wise) and incredibly thought provoking (information wise) menu. Then there was the drinks menu. Greeted with a complimentary shot of Lao Lao, Laotian rice whiskey which admittedly tasted a lot like Buttercup syrup, this place (and it's drinks) packed a punch. Probably didn't help either that all Laotian "cocktails" were 2 for 1 and laced with this deadly liquid!

Laap, a type of Lao minced meat salad, is regarded as the National dish. The meat can come in the form of beef, pork, water buffalo, chicken and fish. Now seeing as the fish variation is usually raw and the consumption of raw fresh water fish can lead to an infection by Opisthorchis viverrini (Southeast Asian liver fluke), a parasitical flatworm that can live for many years inside the human liver, I decided to forgo my usual Pescatarianism for the evening as I often do when immersing myself in local cuisines. Served with sticky rice, the combination of cooked water buffalo flavored with fish sauce, lime juice, padaek, roasted ground rice and fresh herbs, minced and mixed with chili and mint was heavenly.

The Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre (TAEC) has an absolutely fascinating exhibition on the Hmong, Khamu and Akha tribes of Laos and where I found myself after breakfast this morning.

It promotes the ethnic heritage of these people through displays showcasing various ethnic garb and jewelry plus their marriage rituals. It really was quite the gem of a place to visit giving you an insight into the history of Laos. The exhibition is clear and descriptive and found in a 1920s house up the hill from Dara Market with an entrance fee of 20000 Kip.

One of the most spectacular sights associated with Luang Prabang is Tat Kuang Si, a series of waterfalls about 30KM/18 miles south of the town. You can either rent a bicycle or drive out there. I chose the latter primarily because it was destined to reach 42 degrees (108F) today. The ride in itself was magical. Why? Because at one point as you journeyed down the road you became surrounded by thousands of butterflies. They flew around you, landed on you and basically made you a part of their winged frenzy all the way to the Falls.

This was a fantastic way to spend later morning/early afternoon. The trail up was hardish work due to the heat, but so worth it. It is also home to the Tat Kuang Si Rescue Centre, a sun bear sanctuary, which is fascinating and informative. The bears are in such good condition with plenty of space.

The waterfall has many different plateaus and in three of them you're able to swim. It was wonderful, if a bit slippery. Wear a pair of footwear that you can go in & out of the water with, although the little fish will still try nibbling at your heels. The jade coloured water was cold but not unbearable and a nice cool down after the hike up the fall. I even embraced my inner child and jumped off one waterfalls into the pool below, praying that no part of my bikini floated to the surface before I did. It was well worth a visit, and so peaceful.

Upon my return to the town, it was time to get a massage... May be after a quick nap! After catching up on a few zzzz's I visited a small family run place just off Sisavangving Road. One hour and a measly $5 later I had been pummeled, bent and twisted in all the right places, not to mention walked on by a tiny Laotian lady who would probably be able to kick some serious arse should the need to ever arise.

Dinner was something else. A traditional Lao dinner in a local's home. Before the meal was served there was a Baci ceremony where blessings were chanted and white cotton threads tied around your wrists.  In Laos, white is the color of peace, good fortune, honesty and warmth. The white cotton thread is a lasting symbol of continuity and brotherhood in the community and permanence. The Baci threads should be worn for at least three days subsequently and should be untied rather than cut off. Usually it is preferred that they are kept until they fall off by themselves. Not sure how mine will fair combined with DEET, sunblock and sweat but I'll give it a go! The food was amazing and once again I took a day off from Pescatarianism to sample the local dishes. Eggplant, sweet chili sauce, spicy pork Laap, curry paste, river weed, Lao sausage (pork), Lao chicken curry with the creamiest coconut taste ever, glass noodles & bamboo shoots and an amazing coriander/mint based salad. Desert was at the beginning and the end: a fried flower head and a coconut & banana dumpling before the meal and a coconut & green plant thing served in a banana leaf which was absolutely amazing! In fact the entire meal is the best thing I have eaten in long time. Just goes to show what fresh organic (in the true sense) produce and free range livestock can do for your palate. I was stuffed beyond belief. Time to walk it off!

The night market, which runs from 5pm to 10pm-ish, is something not to be missed when visiting this town which I am rapidly falling in love with. It is located along Sisavangvong Road from the Royal Palace Museum. Every evening a kilometre-long stretch of road is closed to traffic and turned into a shopping street whilst the market takes place. It's a magical sight and offers the most extensive collection of handicrafts in the country.

As I type this I have been twice in less than 24 hours and am now the proud owner of some jewelry with a horrific yet amazing background, a change purse, a bag and some wannabe MC Hammer pants which will be fantastic for massaging in.... All for the grand total of.... $20! You could bleed your bank account dry here alone.

There is easily a few hundred handicraft vendors selling their hand-made products here every night and the market showcases an extensive variety of items made by local ethnic groups. You can choose from a vast array of textiles, ceramics, antiques, paintings, coffee and tea, quilts, shoes, silver, bags, bamboo lamps of different shades and sizes, and even rare spices. A lot of these items are hard to find any where else. Best of all they are cheap. The traders quote incredibly low prices considering most of the items are hand made. They are also low pressure and if you ask about their merchandise most will be cheerfully accommodate your query. So even if you're not good at bargaining, you can be sure that you will get good value. However here's a thought.... 10000 Kip is around $1.30 Cdn/USD and 84 pence Pounds Sterling. Don't get confused by all the zeros of the Kip. Stop, think and do the maths before you begin to argue about prices. You will be pleased to know that you are helping the local people when you spend your money. Buying stuff here will not only help the traders to earn a living, but it will also empower the local families who produce goods to further develop their skills and help them get out of poverty. Do you really need to barter a trader down from 35000 Kip for that handmade bag? I did not once barter for any of my items.

During the US bombing of 1964 - 73 some thirteen million tonnes of bombs were dropped on the Indochina region. THIRTEEN MILLION!!!! That's equivalent to 450 times the energy of the Hiroshima atomic bomb and equates to 256kg for every man, woman and child in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. 580344 missions were flown over Laos and, at a cost of $2.2M USD per day, two million tonnes of bombs were dropped on the country seen as "irrelevant" during the Secret War. Unfortunately at least 30% of these failed to detonate and, despite the start of clearance work in 1994 by the British Mines Advisory Group), only a tiny percent have been removed. This leaves a country still littered with unexploded ordnance (UXO) and it could take 100 years to make Laos safe. To this day Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.

My night market bracelet tells a special story. My bracelet is an aluminium Peace Bomb bracelet, an accessory that creates work for Lao artisans and repurposes war debris from the bombs dropped. The result of doing something constructive with this destructive material. The villagers of Ban Napia were originally melting bomb metal and casting it into spoons. You cannot help but be touched when learning these people were transforming bombs dropped onto them so mercilessly into spoons that are useful for their community, which eats a lot of soup! Now jewelry comes in the form of necklaces, bracelets, wraps and charms that combine human ingenuity with non-war and war scrap metal to help local families. For each product sold, Project Peace Bomb donates funds equivalent to the cost of clearing 1 to 15 square meters of land.

A true story of turning evil into good.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

...Indochina: The Little Things In Life Are Often The Most Priceless

"Greed, anger and ignorance are the basis of our afflictions" 
- The Three Poisons of Buddhism

I was back on the boat by 7am, after a quick breakfast of scrambled egg and fruit, to continue the journey down the Mekong river. There was a definite nip in the air and I sat on the boat wrapped in a blanket for the first hour or so until the sun finally peaked through the mist. The only noise was the occasional bird, the sound of water and the whir of the boat engine. It seemed quite fitting that the boat gently rocked from side to side to B. J. Thomas' "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" on my iPad. What a glorious way to spend the morning.

"...because I'm free, nothing's worrying me"

There were a few more villages dotted here and there along the river bank today than yesterday. None of which are accessible by road - the only way to and from them is by boat. We stopped at one so the boat's captain to could pick up some food supplies. The next thing I know it they are hauling this huge catfish, the size of a small child, onto the deck. Apparently they decided it was too big to eat and it is now in a bathtub in the family quarters, they're going to keep it as a pet. I never did find out what they had named it.

Many parts of this region remain mired in poverty. At around 1230pm the boat docked once more this time at the small village of Ban Tan (which translates to Village of Tan). The children raced over to greet the 'falang' (meaning French but used by Laotians to describe Caucasians with an air of respect & endearment). With help from the European Commission, the village has a school with two teachers (one being from a neighbouring village) helping the kids to speak Lao and so we had a huge bag of notepads, pens, pencils, crayons to donate to the children. None of the children speak English but it was a wonderful and humbling experience to converse with them through mime and broken Lao. They loved having their photo taken and then having you show them the wonder that is technology seen through their picture. Cue lots of giggling. I spent about an hour at the village gleaning information from Phat, a Lao tour guide.

Their nearest town, Luang Prabang, is 3 hours away by boat. Most, if not nearly all will have never been there. If anyone gets sick that's where they have to head... By boat... And if they want medical attention they have to pay for it and most cannot. They make money by panning for gold and selling produce/livestock/fish. They live in straw huts and chickens, ducks and pigs wander around the village. Beyond what they get taught in this school most of them will take their education no further and be put to work. Whilst there may be no official discrimination system in place, people in villages like this have amongst the lowest standards of living and life is a struggle. Laos, along with Cambodia, has the highest birth rate in Indochina.

Still, the villagers genuinely smiled and gratefully accepted such a simple gift. One little girl followed me around pointing to my various 'antennae' in my ears, seemingly amazed by them. When it was time to get back on the boat I ran back up the beach to her and pulled my worn-once hair tie out of my hair. Primarily with mime I explained what it was for and gave it to her to replace the tatty piece of elastic band she was using. She put both her hands together and thanked me with a bow. As she waved goodbye she was wearing it as a bracelet. Such a priceless moment.

About 25km to the north of Luang Prabang, the Pak Ou caves of Tham Ting (lower cave) and the Tham Theung (upper cave) overlook the Mekong river. I found the caves and their history to be quite fascinating. There are thousands of old Buddha statues in these caves, some in what look to be incredibly inaccessible places. Personally I thought the views combined Buddha images were stunning and it gives you a feeling of peace. For me it was worth the trip if you have the time. Note the climb up to the upper cave is via a series of fairly steep steps potentially in some intense heat & humidity. Of course I bounded up there like a gazelle. Like any good little Miss A Type would!

Just after 5pm we arrived at the dock in Luang Prabang after a wonderful two days on the mighty Mekong. An experience I will never forget!

Food For Thought:
"Cultivating a non-discriminatory mind provides the serenity for practitioners to let go of afflictions, wandering thoughts and attachments. It is difficult for us to let go due to the injustices we feel we have suffered and the grudges we thus hold. However, feeling this way only puts us at more of a disadvantage because then we suffer the consequences of our grudges. Inequalities exist in this world because of our discriminating mind." - Venerable Master Chin Kung

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

... Indochina: Slow Boat To (Indo)China

With a history filled with imperialism and war, the communist country of Laos (Lao to the Laotians as it was the French who added the "s") is sandwiched between Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and China. So, imagine a mystical country with brooding jungles home to tigers & leopards, jagged limestone cliffs and the meandering yet mighty Mekong River. Along with Cambodia and Vietnam, it wasn't too long ago that Laos was boycotted by much of the West. Despite the communist history however, leaders of all three countries seem to be embracing change with the balance of Eastern capitalism and Eastern communism. It's an exciting time to visit! Welcome to Laos!

For me it meant queuing just before 8am waiting for the Thai immigration to open at the Tha Reua Bak pier in the northern end of Chiang Khong. As you queue you can read with interest the rules of entering Laos on a huge board, which included verbatim:

"Do not have any drugs (illegal drugs), weapon, and prohibit stuff"

"If traveler has an affair with Laos people that did not been the couple - it's illegal. If infringe would be remarry detain and pay for 500 - 1000 US dollar and return that traveler back to country"

"Traveler should realize that Thai and Laos language is too closed and simply understanding. Therefore don't despise and use scathing word as a funny story or make a fight to each other between Thai and Laos"

You have been warned!

Once those formalities were done it was a long-tail boat ride across the Mekong River to Huay Xai and the Laos immigration post.

I've always told myself I would never ever get onto a boat that appeared to be overloaded with weight. Unfortunately I was already on the boat prior to them adding a bunch of cargo. Better yet, it didn't appear that well balanced either. I felt like I was riding in a boat that had been lowered and should be sporting alloy rims and blue halogen lights. There's a boom box in the back, right? Can someone please point out where the life jackets are? I'm pretty certain I was actually sat below water level. Thankfully the ride took all of 5 minutes.

Once crossing into Laos it was time to apply for my visa. Not sure why but Canadians get dinged the highest out of everyone for this visa, $42USD, and they won't accept old looking bills either. The whole process of applying for and then getting your visa was a bit of a gong show. You hand over your filled out forms (one for arrival, one for the visa), your passport and one passport photo. Then you wait.... And wait.... And wait some more until they call your name. Then you pay them your visa fee. It took around an hour thanks to the arrival of several boats at once. I was also able to finally get my hands on some Kip, the Laotian currency which you cannot get this outside of Laos. With an exchange rate of around $1USD to 7900 Kip I was almost a millionaire.

If time is on your side, like me, you take a slow boat to Luang Prabang over two days with a night in Pak Beng village. I suspect your experience will depend on the condition of the boat and the number of people on it. These boats can hold up to 70 people and there are tales of more than 100 people being crammed on like a huge floating sardine can. If you can opt for a boat with train-style seats... Yes slightly less authentic but your back will thank you after 2 days of being on a boat. Take plenty of water, something to eat and a sense of adventure!

Traveling through the highly scenic Oudomxay Provence in Northern Laos along the mighty Mekong river is something else. Thick jungle forests rise upwards to give some of Laos most rugged terrain. The river gives this eerie sense of calm yet I suspect has quite the current.

At first you think to yourself "what's with all the litter" as you see plastic bottles strewn everywhere. These are actually makeshift buoys for fishing nets. Bamboo fishing rods and nets are set up sporadically along the river bank providing a source of food. I didn't see many villages along the river however people were seen panning (for gold!), washing & fishing, water buffalo hydrated themselves and children played & enthusiastically waved at you as you sailed by.

Occasional "fast boats" overtook us (6-7hr trip to Luang Prabang) and long-tail boats provided villagers with a means to travel up and down the river. Judging from the tide marks along the bank however the water level seemed quite low, likely as a result of a huge hydroelectricity dam built north of the border in China. Laos and Cambodia seem set to follow suit, which could have a huge ecological impact on the region and it's wildlife.

You feel an utter sense of calm and contentment as you sail along feeling a gentle breeze, smelling the fresh air, perhaps reading a book (or two as was my case), listening to music and may be taking a nap. Bliss.

Pak Beng is about halfway between Huay Xi and Luang Prabang on the Mekong river. About 300 people live here and to call it sleepy would be an understatement. It is essentially one street. The most excitement is when a rooster starts crowing at dawn. It was wonderful! My digs for the night was at the wonderfully rustic Mekong River Lodge, literally perched on the slopes of the river bank, my room being a hut on stilts overlooking the river complete with mosquito netting for your bed.

The mozzies came out around 630pm but thankfully it's not monsoon season so it wasn't too bad. I suspect I'm am now oozing Deet from my pores and its somewhat keeping them at bay. It was very hot and humid upon arrival almost 7 hours after leaving Huay Xi but cooled somewhat once the sun had set. A quick walk around the village afforded nothing but genuine smiles and a sweet curiosity about you from the locals. It was market day - stalls of fresh produce, freshly caught fish from the river (still alive... How much fresher can you get!?!), chickens, pigs... It was wonderful.

Eats was, believe it or not, at a restaurant that specializes in... Indian food! However Hashan also serves a lot of traditional Laotian dishes too including water buffalo and Mekong fish. I opted for the latter, despite the extensive range of veggie options, and it was delicious. Phakdee bakery provided me with a freshly baked apple croissant (French influence?) for my lunch tomorrow.

A quick note: Laos is an incredibly conservative country. Be a mindful traveler, especially in the villages, where people have covered their bodies for centuries out of religious observation. Pack a pair of trek pants and a longer sleeved top for when you disembark the boat. No-one needs to see you shaking what your mama gave you! Besides think of it as less skin for the bugs to attack!

For those interested, one of the books I read is titled "Until I Say Good-Bye" by Susan Wendel-Spencer, a terminally-ill woman with ALS. I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

... Indochina: It's A Small World After All

Seeing as today was a 5 hour travel day to the river town of Chiang Khong, I decided a lazy morning was in order. I would have loved to lie in bed snoozing for a few hours but those Jet Lag Gods are playing havoc with me and I was awake before 5am. So I read for a bit, did some Pilates/Yoga on the patio in the sun and made sure I was packed properly - I discovered I've left my shampoo likely in Bangkok last night. One of those "you'd forget your head if it wasn't screwed on" moments I suspect.

Just before 10 I left the guesthouse with the plan to hit ye olde faithful, Starbucks. However, last night next to the fish spa I had seen a café and this morning I successfully managed to navigate myself back to it. Café de Siam had a good looking breakfast menu and as quickly as I ordered I had a healthy looking bowl of plain yoghurt with granola and fresh fruit, freshly squeezed OJ and a very good cup of coffee.... And for not much more than what a Starbucks would've cost me. I sat on the patio watching the world slowly go by and figured I'd hang around until the fish spa opened and get another "fish-icure". The store was supposed to open at 11 but didn't. I was just about to give up and leave when an older gentleman stopped on his moped. He too had wanted to come to the fish spa. We both lamented our disappointment then he said "I know of another, hop on and I'll take you there". And with that, I was racing through the streets of Chiang Mai with Ron, a 66 year old retiree from Edmonton, Canada on the back of his moped to  Dr. Fish! I can't quite say the wind was blowing through my long tresses, this was a moped people! However it was still kind of a rush weaving in and out of the Chiang Mai traffic especially when Ron decided to tell me "they don't even care if you can ride one of these things and didn't even ask to see my license!"  Perhaps not the best time to tell me that, although it was pretty obvious he could.

Chiang Mai apparently has numerous fish pedicure spas. To further elaborate on yesterday's post, the tank contains many tiny carp of a type known as doctor fish (Garra rufa). The fish nibble the dead skin off your feet. The idea is that they remove only the dead skin right down to new, living skin, which will eventually produce exceptionally smooth feet. I would need at least a month of treatment! I should note: whilst I've been  looking up information on “fishicures” to write about them, I learned that it’s not as benign a business as I initially thought. The practice is banned in several of the United States and Canadian provinces as cosmetology regulators believe the practice is unsanitary. I have to say the two places I have visited seemed very clean, they clearly stated how their tanks worked in terms of them being kept clean, when they were cleaned and further blurb to put your mind at ease. I also had my legs and feet washed before and after treatment. I still think it was very very cool to try and my feet really do feel awesome as a result.

Ron dropped me off at the entrance to the maze that consisted of small streets, somewhere inside of which was the guest house. Running for most of it in the insane heat I managed to get back in time for my minivan ride which was to consist mostly of driving through the Thai countryside to Chiang Khong but also a stop at Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai.

After a long and hot 3 hour journey from Chiang Mai, I arrived at what looked, at first glance, like something at Disneyland. This temple is very different to anything I have seen previously. Lets make that "ever". The white and mirror detail on the outside sparkled in the sun - it looked truly magnificent.

Wat Rong Khun (White Temple), a contemporary unconventional Buddhist temple, was designed by Chalermchai Kositpipat. Construction began in 1996 and is expected to be completed 60 - 90 years after the death of the artist and designer (Thanks Wiki!). Although it is still unfinished, the mural paintings on the walls inside represent a mix of traditional Thai Buddhist art and contemporary scenes. This is because the designer, who oddly enough looked a lot like Psy, refused to be confined within the framework of traditional beliefs and Art.  You see a plane crashing into the twin towers, the war for Oil, many movie/comics characters like Neo, Batman, Superman, Harry Potter and the Star Wars droids, to name but a few. Too bad photography inside the temple was not allowed (I was being carefully watched with my big camera) because it really was amazing.

Kositpipat has strong opinions that are put into his art. What the modern age has done to Society: drug and alcohol addiction, greed, fame... the whole lot. If you look closely you even see George Bush and Bin Laden within the eyes of the demon, those who changed the future of the world plus other depictions within the work. All of which you can stand and look at for ages. Then you turn your back on this and see good, the 3 images of Buddha.

The inside murals are a work in progress and I am sure in years to come it will be amazing to see it finished. But along with the negative, his love and devotion for his King, the 3 jewels and the beauty of nature are present for all to see.

After another 2 hours of driving I arrived in Chiang Khong, north east of Chiang Mai. Chiang Khong/Huay Xai is one of the most popular overland border crossings to/from Laos. At 730am tomorrow I'll be leaving Thailand via the Mekong River. In the interim however I'm going to drown myself in Deet then go grab some local fair for $1.75 at the Rimnam Guesthouse and Restaurant. It promises a view of the Mekong River and Laos as well as some very tasty food! Whether that be for me or me as food for the Mosquitos remains to be seen.

If all else fails I can apparently settle down to the "Gang Cartoon" TV station in my room at the Namkhong Resort guest house. Sounds like Gangsters need their Looney Tunes fix too!.....