Friday, December 27, 2013

Chilly Christmas in VTE

It's been a bit on the chilly side in Vientiane for the last three weeks. Even though it's technically the cool season, temperatures are 5 to 10 degrees below normal. We went out for a walk this morning and we chatted to a local lady (who speaks very good English) while she waited for the monks to pass for the morning making merit ritual. She was wrapped in a big coat and had a thick shawl draped around her head. She said to Andrew, wearing his merino jersey and shorts - you are so lucky you don't feel the cold - it's 12 degrees you know!

We know! We have not had the air conditioning on for 3 weeks, we wear trousers and socks in the evenings in the apartment and the shower never seems to actually feel hot. It's so bad there are stories in the local and Thai papers that people are dying of cold related illnesses.
 
Temperatures are ranging from 9 to 24 degrees this week, whereas the normal range for this time of year are 18 to 28 (according to the daily almanac averages since 1995)

This is what your typical lady returning from market looks like at this time of year... scarf, coat, gloves, socks

And how you rug Grandad up so he can watch the early morning traffic outside your noodle shop.  A good thick pair of towels, an acrylic woolly hat and socks in your crocs.

As well as the people being rugged up against the cold, the local pet dogs have been to the fore in doggy fashion. (My spell-check changed doggy to dodgy and that probably isn't too far wrong). We've never seen so many dogs here wearing clothing, as we have this year.

On his own he is quite cute

But a pair are cuter still

The more laid-back dog this year is sporting a casual rugby shirt

While for the lady dog, this year's colour is pink and the hair is worn in pink rubber band pigtails.

And the most vicious of the dogs I photographed was this little thing.  He/She bared it's teeth at me and yapped and growled.  But if I was having my photo taken whilst wearing a hoodie and crocheted skirt I might be a bit embarrassed too!


Christmas is not a holiday here, but the Lao love anything shiny and any excuse for a party. So there has been plenty of tinsel up in various places and sightings of Father Christmas outfits. The school next door to our apartment is 'international' (but has mainly Lao students). We have heard them singing Christmas carols for a couple of weeks. However, we would have preferred not to have heard the 3 hours of Christmas music that started blaring out at 7:30am on Saturday morning - they are now on holiday till early January. But on a sound scale, that was nothing when compared to the music on Christmas Day evening. It sounded like a major concert was happening in the street behind our apartment. So we walked around to see what was happening. It turned out to be three separate houses in the street with competing speakers, all playing at full volume. There isn't really any noise control authority to worry about here.

We followed french tradition and had a réveillon meal on Christmas eve - mainly because our favourite restaurants, all french, were closed on the 25th.  So for Christmas day we cooked at the apartment, drank a bottle of Champagne with lunch and polished off a special Portuguese red for dinner.  Not too shabby.

Even though Andrew's favourite cocktail bar is closed until mid-late January we've managed a few wines and cocktails to keep ourselves happy.


(note the Merino jersey on 2 separate occasions here;  not the normal t-shirts that Andrew is usually photographed in.  We really do feel cold at the moment)

P.S. As I write this we just received our electricity bill for the month of December.  $15.  Normally it's a hefty $30 or $40, but with no aircon needed...

Friday, December 6, 2013

Getting from Vientiane to Udon Thani

This is not really a post, rather a storing of information for us to refer back to.  And it maybe useful to someone else searching for shuttle information – at times i’ve searched and searched for this info.

It’s easy to get from Udon to Nong Khai on the limousine van service (airport counter to Friendship bridge 200 baht), but we had never managed to work out how to do it in reverse.  So this trip with time on our side we worked it out

Vientiane Bus station to Friendship bridge: 
Bus 14 (our old favourite bus) 6,000 kip, pay the driver when getting off the bus (departs every 10 –15 minutes)

Through Immigration Lao & Thai (4,000 kip for the bus over the bridge).

We departed the bus station at 7:05am and were through Lao and Thai immigration by 8:05am

Nong Khai, Friendship bridge to Udon Thani Airport
At the Nong Khai end the limousine vans drop passengers off just before the Thai immigration departure booths – you can pick up a ride there to the office.  Or can go to the offices of the van operator along the Pranangcholpratan road.  We were quoted 50 baht by a tuktuk driver to do this – we didn't bargain because we didn't plan to actually go by tuktuk – so 50 is the ballpark starting figure.

(update) I walked from the border last time because I had plenty of time.  Turn left at the corner then walk 20 minutes straight down the large road, passing through 2 sets of lights.  Office just past 2nd set, on right hand side of road

We caught a limousine van – signage only on the top front windscreen and on the rear window, not on the van itself and it is a 3 or 4 minute drive from the bridge to the office.

Here were purchased a ticket 150 baht.

Departures are 6:30am, 9:15am, 10:30 am 12:00 13:00 14:00 16:00 17:30

It is about an hour direct through to Udon airport.

The details of the operator Udon Kaewtour Ltd udonkaewtour@csloinfo.com or udonkaewtour@hotmail.com 

business card i picked up at the tour office
photo

At the other end we flew into Bangkok, Don Muang airport for the 1st time.  To get to the city we used the airport bus/ BTS combination in both directions.

From Don Muang to city
The airport bus is "A1" and is located outside the arrivals hall doors (possibly exit 6 if I remember correctly) It was a bit of an old dunger of bus and there is no space for luggage. The ticket collector comes around and collect the 30 baht fare per person.

The journey to the Mo Chit BTS/ Chatuchak Park MRT Station takes about 30 minutes depending on traffic.

There are no announcements, but the fact everyone departs the bus en-mass is a good clue you are there.

Returning to Don Muang
After exiting the BTS (on the Chatachuk Park side of the road) we stood at the bus stop and waited watching all the local buses.  Eventually A1 arrived and picked us and some other tourists up.  Then it went 50m further down the road to a sign that actually said A1 airport bus and picked up the remainder of the passengers.

 (I think I read the bus goes every 20 or 30 minutes, something like that anyway.)

Bangkok– not just eating

Between meals we endeavoured to explore places in Bangkok that we had either not been to before or had spent very little time in.

1st off was Chinatown.  We had been before but this time we set aside a day to just wander.  With a general plan and advice from the guidebooks that ‘don’t worry, you are guaranteed to get lost, but you’ll find your way again’ we headed into the masses of people and shops.

Shuffling our way down the pedestrian Sampeng shopping lane we got a good look at so many things we didn’t need to buy.  Stalls of Hello Kitty paraphernalia, plastic by the ton, materials, buttons, wigs... all of it interesting. We were always amazed that the motorcycles and delivery men pushing trolleys, kept their patience with the mass of humanity that they needed to negotiate around.  This was a weekday and it was packed.  The guidebooks say don't go on the weekend when it is REALLY busy!

quiet times in Chinatown

chinatown

Tucked away there were local Chinese temples and lots of stalls with paper replicas of worldly goods to be burnt as offerings to the ancestors – paper Chanel Shoes, paper suits, iPhones and watches.

chinatown offerings

At the end of a long days walking and dealing with crowds we wandered past Wat Traimit. 

In 1955 during a renovation of a tin shack housing a Buddha statue a piece of plaster was knocked off the statue.  It was discovered that underneath was 5.5 tonnes of gold worth a mere 250 million dollars (give or take).  In 2010 a new temple building was constructed to showcase the treasure which they think had probably laid hidden for 200 years

wat traimit

Quietly tucked away off Soi Asoke and in the shadow of Terminal 21 mall is the Khamtieng House museum.  Although when we arrived there was a wedding ceremony happening in the front yard.  We were assaulted with noise pollution by way of not one, but two MCs bantering over a very loud speaker system while the guests blessed the happy couple.  Luckily this stopped half way through our visit and we could appreciate the calm and cool house museum, as it was intended.

Khanmtieng house

It is a traditional home from Chiang Mai relocated to the capital in which there are displays of normal 19th century life.  It exceeded expectations and we enjoyed it immensely.

Khanmtieng inside

Khanmtieng rice

As most people probably know by now…we like markets.  So we went to the biggest wet market in the city Khlong Toei, and wandered around and just enjoyed sights of daily life. 

khlong toei

Also in throwing distance from Terminal 21 is Benjakiti Park.  20.8 hectares of land which was converted from warehouses to a park, when the Tobacco Monopoly moved it’s operations to the city outskirts.  It is a quiet place and you can't hear the roar of the traffic.  There is a large central lake, bike paths and exercise stations, shady planted areas and lots of flowers.

Benjakiti Park

And 2 spots i forgot from the eating in Bangkok post

Cheap Charlies on Suk 11, which has apparently been there forever so we finally sat down for a drink there.     Meh, just a beer.  They do have a single unisex toilet with a sign posted saying no pooping allowed in the toilet


cheap chalries

And excellent specialist coffee in the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Centre (BACC) at Gallery Drip coffee on the ground floor.  With filter drip coffee, single origin coffee and art – it is a perfect spot to get your caffeine fix. Andrew was particularly taken with his sugar coming on the side as a shot glass of sugar syrup.

Gallery Drip Coffee
We started each day with a coffee in the Nana BTS station at D.Cup – consistently excellent coffee and a lovely personable barista, who had been Australian trained.  By the end of our trip he knew our orders.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Bangkok…before the protests

In December we were supposed to visit Myanmar for work, but a little thing called the SEA Games put paid to that.  The South East Asia games are the Commonwealth games equivalent, and are being held in Nay Pyi Taw this year and accommodation was all booked out.  So at a loose end we headed to Bangkok for a week – its quite nice to have such problems.

We had an excellent time eating, exploring and enjoying relatively low winter temperatures which probably stayed in the 24-32 degree range, day & night.  On the bad side we were there as protest tension started to escalate and we were pleased to leave the day before things really got ugly.  While we were there the crowds were genial, but there was the potential for all sorts of unpredictability...as erupted the day after we left.

It turned out to be a food focused visit.  We eat well in Vientiane, but it was a treat to have more variety to choose from.  Thai/Lao food is always on our doorstep so we avoided ‘expensive’ local restaurant food – and either ate street food or happily paid expensive prices to get get our treat of ‘western’ food.

Highlights were a trip to Smith restaurant, a nose to tail meat restaurant which was appearing on a number of best restaurant lists.  Food prices were not excessive and the decor with it’s industrial feel was a interesting change.  There were meat-hooks (some just visible outside behind Andrew’s head below), and decorative knives and butchery tools.

We started with cocktails and moved on to boutique beers.  We did avoid the wine which was a bit overpriced.

Untitled1

Here (and somewhere else we were drinking) the beer was served in a jam jar – a bit of a current Bangkok fashion fad.  Fashion over function, as the grooves around the glass rim are not ideal.

IMG_6012

The food was delicious and we both had the pork belly and the Eton mess to follow.  mmmm juicy & flavoursome strawberries, we haven't had those in months!smith
smith2

And our other western enjoyment was the Firehouse for a couple of excellent burgers, cooked medium rare, peanuts in the shell and happy hour beers. Oh, and waitresses all had really short skirts, if you are into that sort of thing :-)

Firehouse

But probably the highlight of that night for Andrew, was sitting at the pop-up street bars, converted VW combi vans.  Cheap Mojitos & endless street traffic, he would have been happy to spend more time there!

combi drinks

combi mojito

happy cmbi aj

And at the other end of the scale we ate plenty of street food.  It was all delicious, fresh and cheap, cheap, cheap.  35 cents for a tasty sausage, $1.20 for a plate of noodles….

While searching for a good street with a variety of food, I found reference to the local food tents – places where the locals went for lunch. So after a visit to the dentist for Andrew – supposed to be a cosmetic consultation, but ended up with an appointment for a root canal – we headed to one such ‘tent’.  With a large selection of vendors around the outside and plenty of customers, food was flying off the hotplate/wok/tureen and onto the plate.

food hall
  pad thai

And this was the best Pad Thai of the trip- $2, with giant prawns – YUM

Pad thai YUM

We wandered down a side alley in Chinatown and felt the heat of the fires under this noodle stand – from about 2 meters away.  The fires were pumping and the shop was doing a roaring business so we decided to join them.

noodles

noodles chinatown

So all in all, we can say we ate well, didn’t dehydrate and with all the walking that we did we must have been in negative calorie territory!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

That Luang Festival

In the years we have been here we had never been to the annual That Luang festival – and finally this year we made it and very much enjoyed it. We would describe it as a typically Lao undertaking - simple and understated, slightly chaotic and all about the people.

It is a three day Buddhist celebration, centering around the main Stupa in Vientiane– That Luang or the Golden Stupa.  It happens during the full moon on the twelfth lunar month, this year from the 15th-17th November and people from around the country converge on the stupa and celebrate. 

balloon2

In the week leading up to the festival the stalls and carnival arrived.  There were over 500 stalls selling everything from towels to cars.  Traffic around the area became chaotic and every night we heard the music playing.  We live 2km away from the stupa, so we wondered how those a bit closer survived.  On the good side, Laos regulations stopped the music before midnight each night.

Celebrating and drink driving remain a major traffic safety problem here.  There was a quote in the local paper from a Major in the police force
“a number of drivers were found asleep at traffic lights after the lights turned red.  ‘It’s good to sleep like that because it’s better than continuing to drive.  If they fall asleep while moving, accidents might happen.  However it is better not to drive in the first place…’ ”
We missed the -activities on 1st day (work commitments and all that) but managed to see parts of days 2 & 3.  It was a very Lao experience.  First off, there was no information on what time the parade on Day 2 was due to start.  We read the paper – "the parade leaves from Patuxay travelling to That Luang" – but it didn’t say when.  Googling provided next to no more information, but one year it had started at 1:30pm, so based on that we wandered over and found a parade preparing to set-off.

The checklist for a Laos celebration goes something like this…

Officials – check (wearing formal dress)

officials

Monks – check

monks

Ethnic representation, Music, Dancing – check, check, check

dancing girls

dancing girls2

music

parade girl


The whole purpose was to take the so called ‘wax-castle’ offerings to the stupa.  They aren’t really wax castles, rather they are a mix of marigolds, wax flowers and money. There was a range from larger group structures through to individuals holding their offering.  Everyone was dressed beautifully and even though it was a serious affair, people were smiling and looking happy to be involved.

big trees

offerings

As well as the streams of bank notes in the picture below, there is a roll of toilet paper – nothing surprises us anymore!

toilet

parade ethnic

It was lovely to watch and there were plenty of spectators.

In typical Lao fashion as we were leaving, having watched the parade arrive at That Luang, there was a cavalcade of about 30 parade-cars/vans just arriving.  Either they had not been able to find the parade start time either, or they were simply working on Lao-Time.  They had flags on the vehicles and drove straight to the stupa

late

Day 3 starts at 5am with 6000 monks receiving offerings from worshipers.  We decided to forego attending (we see this on a small scale each morning on the streets outside the apartment – if we get up early) and instead just went along for the traditional TeeKhee match – sort of hockey with a big cane ball and a large number of players on each team.  Traditionally the match was villagers vs a local government team.  Lots of spectators and no idea who won.

hockey1

After the morning alms ceremony, it is customary for families to have a picnic. 

And again in typical Lao style this is the aftermath – put your mat down, eat drink and be merry and leave your rubbish – it’s all in a days fun

picnic

Everyone thinks of Vientiane being a quiet and sleepy city.  Perhaps they should see the traffic chaos after events like this (or outside schools at pickup & drop off times)

traffic

And he’s not ethnically cute, walks to beat of his drum and doesn't have any musical talent, but he does like a good parade

andrew



Saturday, November 2, 2013

Khao Lak

With a few days between contracts we headed south to the beach.  There are flights from Vientiane & Udon Thani (across the border in Thailand) down to Phuket – so it made it easy for us to fly 2 hours south.  We had been to Kata Beach in Phuket previously and enjoyed it, but it was over-run with tourists.  So this time the destination was Khao Lak about an hour’s drive north of Phuket International airport.  We arranged for a taxi to drive us there at the standard rate of 1500 baht (or NZ $60)

thailand-map

Khao Lak was badly hit by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.  80% of the casualties in Thailand were in the Khao Lak area, from along the coast from Phuket to the Burmese border.  The official number was more than 4,000, but was estimated to be closer to 10,000 due to the lack of censuses and the large number of unrecorded Burmese workers. The effects were worst here due to the topography of the land and the sea floor - very flat, so the wave could just keep going. In places, the tsunami reached over 1km inland.

There are many Tsunami warning signs around the village and markers showing how high the water was on Boxing day.  Near the beach the marker says the water was 5 metres high.  Since 2004 warning sirens have been installed.  In 2012 following an earthquake, there was a Tsunami warning – but luckily the tsunami didn't eventuate – however the warnings gave people two hours to get to the shelters and higher ground. 

tsunami


The grandson of the Thai king was killed in the 2004 Tsunmai.  A large Thai police boat was patrolling the waters near where he & his mother were staying.  the boat was swept 1 kilometre inland and has been left there as a memorial to the event and lives lost.

lifeboat

We had a fantastic break on Bang Niang beach, Khao Lak.  Our hotel (Fanari) was a short walk to the beach and a comfortable 10 minute wander away from the restaurant street or night market for evening meals.  For lunch we ate on the beach watching the blue Andaman sea.

eating

The beaches were relaxed and so uncrowded – it was blissful.

no crowds 2

The picture below is from probably the busiest day on the beach we saw – it was frantic!

no crowds

And in a relaxed manner we pretty much followed the same routine each day.  Breakfast – walk, swim – sit on verandah for an hour – walk lunch & swim,– sit on the verandah – walk & another swim – sit – dinner – sit – sleep.  Next day, do it again.

Apart from all the swimming going on, the busiest things on the beach were the crabs tunneling in the sand

crabs

crabs2

We were there late October so it was the end of the low season so the prices for accommodation were a bargain pre-high-season.  The high season started 1 November. 

It rained in the afternoon 50% of the days we were there but the rain was short and sweet, and brought the temperatures down a couple of degrees.  The only exception was the one day when the rain was torrential and lasted for a number of hours.  Sadly that day an afternoon swim was not possible.
 weather

We sat at lunch one day and waited for the rain to arrive and it was all over in 30 minutes.

weather2

The torrential day was a bit wet. 

no guns

And we can confirm we encountered none of the above.

le hair

Since returning to Vientiane, Andrew's sea swept locks have been cut back into a more manageable style at his $10 hairdresser.