Luang Prabang

 

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To stop my account going dormant I post a photo journal of a trip with my daughter to Luang Prabang six months ago.

I live in Thailand so this city in neighboring Laos really is a must see, if only to avoid the inevitable “haven’t you been to…….” question. We transited in Vientiane and stayed four days three nights and that is perfectly adequate to see most things at a very leisurely pace and get a lot of reading done. If you are time constrained, two nights is adequate given the city’s compact nature.

Expect temples, a lot of temples, nice architecture and good food. A UNESCO world heritage site with a well preserved architectural, religious and cultural heritage, with a French colonial influence during the 19th and 20th centuries. The French can always be relied upon to leave behind a good tradition of bakeries and coffee.

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The Royal Palace Museum is a good start. Built during the French colonial era for King Sisavang Vong. After his death, the Crown Prince Savang was the last to occupy the grounds. In 1975, the monarchy was overthrown by the communists and the royal family were taken to re-education camps. The palace was then converted into a museum. I’m no monarchist but I found it a little sad and certainly poignant. A really modest palace, not in comparison to the homes of the local populace naturally, but say compared to other palaces around the world. I liked it more for that.

Near the entrance is the King’s reception room which walls are covered with murals that depict scenes from traditional Lao village scenes, painted in 1930 by a French artist, Alix de Fauntereau. Each of the walls is intended to be viewed at a different time of day, depending on the light that enters the windows on one side of the room, which matches the time of day depicted. It is absolutely charming. We were forbidden to take photographs though I quite understand they need to preserve it.

I think we visited around 8 temples. Above is a flavour. Some are adorned with beautiful mosaics and gold gilted carved wood. Most is kept is a reasonable state of repair which is commendable given the tropical climate.

Some of the temples stored boats used for the annual boat racing festival held on Nam Khan river one of the two rivers on which the city is located. The other is the Mekong.

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The old heritage area is best explored on foot. There are handsome buildings all around. The one on the top right was our hotel.

We went to Pha Tad Ke botanical garden. The first in Laos and recently opened. It was lovely and very peaceful. That concerned me because it was clear that a considerable investment had gone into the place. I hope it is commercially sustainable. It’s located 15 minutes down the Mekong River by boat. We had the boat to ourselves on the way back.

In Luang Prabang you are never far from a river. This is the Nam Khan.

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One evening we had a Lao style barbecue by this river. Similar to Shabu-Shabu, Thai Suki, etc, but with more vegetables and with a Lao twist; Kaipen made from river weed harvested from the Mekong. It was delicious.

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A memorable trip. I thoroughly recommend.

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Buri Ram

p1000231When I told my Thai colleagues that I was going to this north eastern province they all 800px-thailand_buriram_locator_map-svgasked whether I was I going to watch football. Buri Ram United is the most successful and one of the most followed team of recent Thai footballing history.

Their stadium, “Thunder Castle”, seats over 25,000. Their logo gives a clue what we were really going to see:

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Yes the temple at the top.  A thousand years ago, Buri Ram was part of the Khmer Empire. Many ruins from that time are to be found mainly in the southern part of the province not far from the present Cambodian border. The two most significant being Phanom Rung and Prasat Muang Tam. It was only in the 19th century that Buri Ram was incorporated into Siam as a province. I had visited both some 30 years previously but my wife had never been. I was keen to take her and see the changes.

First Phanom Rung which sits atop a volcanic outcrop well above the rice fields stretching out as far as one can see. The approach is impressive

p1000228What had changed from my last visit was the landscaping. It was impressive especially the park and trees surrounding the complex. Logistically it cannot be easy because this would involve moving a lot of water up the hillside.

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Here is a nice Bhodi tree. It was a hot day 33 degrees C but the shade from the trees and breeze made it very pleasant.

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It was lovely. Smaller scale than the Angkor Wat complex but if you wish to see a well preserved Khmer temple in peaceful and contemplative surroundings this is the place to come. On to Prasat Muang Tam just 8 kilometres away.

This was greatly changed since I last visited. I thought it had lost a little of its previous run down charm but certainly has gained in grandeur. It was fairly open 30 years ago but now these trees have grown up all around.

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On low lying land Muang Tam (which actually means “low city”) has far more water than Phanom Rung and 4 large L shaped ponds are located within the temple

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A mature fig tree within the temple complex.

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And a 100 year old mango tree according to the temple officials sitting in the shade

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Muang Tam is famous for its lintels.

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Classic Khmer temple doorways at Muang Tam

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I thought it had changed much since I last visited in 1984 and I read that in 1997 the Thailand Fine Arts department reconstructed the temple complex using the anastylosis method. I had to look that up. Anastylosis is an archaeological term for a reconstruction technique whereby a ruined building is restored using the original architectural elements to the greatest degree possible. Actually I think they did a fantastic job.

I wanted add a temple I hadn’t visited before so we drove west about 30 kilometres southwest to Prasat Nong Hong. The advantage of going to the lesser known ones is that you generally will have the site to yourself. It is situated just below Lam Nang Rong dam which is a very popular place for locals to go and swim at the weekends.

View from the “carpark”. You can see the earth dam in the background.

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…….and here is our car parked in the shade of a beautiful rain tree.

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The closest we got to Buri Ram United and “Thunder Castle”? An excellent grilled duck restaurant directly opposite the stadium. The last meal was definitely the best; grilled duck, som tam and sticky rice.

 

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Things to do in Ubon Ratchathani

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A province full of surprises. A 10 hour drive from Bangkok or an hour’s flight – take your pick! We flew and hired a car, spending a 3 day break here last week. There’s a lot to do and see and we felt we only scratched the surface.

First have an Isarn breakfast Kay GaTa aka “Egg in a Wok”. Believe me after this you won’t need any lunch at all.

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Then visit Wat Thung Si Muang in Ubon Ratchathani city and particularly the wooden scripture hall (see first photo). It was situated in the centre of a pond to prevent ants or termites getting at the Buddhist scriptures. Unfortunately they can’t seem to keep the pigeons out.

Afterwards to the Ubon Ratchathani National Museum. I think the old town hall built in 1918 is a wonderful building built around two inner courtyards open to the sky. You can see the air vents built in to the foot of the building. It is airy and cool inside just to prove you don’t necessarily have to have modern air conditioning even in Thailand if a building is built properly and with thought.

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Then stroll around the town. Buy a newspaper..

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….and have a coke (this is not, as I initially thought, a mirror by the way)

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Drive a couple of hours eastwards to Pha Taem National Park and see the rock paintings. Walk along the two kilometre cliff top and look over the Mekong and Laos.

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Stay by the Mekong at Khong Chiam, the easternmost district of Thailand.

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It is here where the Mekong flows out from Thailand and where the Mekong and the Mun rivers converge. Apparently this forms the “two coloured current”, with the Mekong in reddish-clay colour and the Mun in blue. It all looked a bit brown to my eyes.

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Visit Wat Tham Khuha Sawan from where you can also get great views of the Mekong.

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Drive north to Sam Pan Bok the spectacular red sandstone rock structures across the Mekong. Touted by the Tourism Authority of Thailand as the Grand Canyon of Thailand. It is very interesting and a great place to visit but please do not be expecting the Grand Canyon. It’s much more human in scale!

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Stay by the Mekong

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Catch the Mekong dawn. Really lots to do in Ubon Ratchathani. I’ve missed a lot so a re-visit is in order.

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Pha Taem National Park

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Unheralded but a gem of a national park with its eponymous long cliff. About 2 hours drive west from Ubon Ratchathani city, Ba Taem covers an area of 340 sq kms. The cliffs and rock paintings are near the park headquarters. A farang visit called for the obligatory official photograph looking at the park HQ wall map. I find this quite common in the Isarn where foreign tourists are quite rare.

Best to time the visit is mid to late afternoon or early morning otherwise it will be baking hot most times of the year. However being just after the rainy season it was reasonably cool when we visited. There is a 4km circular trail from the park HQ which basically descends to and runs alongside the cliff foot for a couple of kilometers and then up again and return along the top. From the cliff top you get wonderful views across the Mekong into Laos and then descending steeply below the trail first passes this waterfall. There are numerous and I got horribly mixed up and can’t recall what this one is called.

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Then walking along the cliff face floor you pass numerous prehistoric rock paintings dating to at least 1000 BC.Mural subjects, and there are some 300 of them, include giant Mekong catfish, elephants, turtles, human hands, geometric designs and fish traps. My photographs do not do justice. I think the hands really bring the past to a ghostly present.

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The northern half of the park holds more waterfalls including Saeng Chan waterfall below. We had it to ourselves which is most unusual in Thailand. Exuberant and cavorting kids are a ubiquitous feature of most Thai waterfalls.

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The whole park is most attractive with stunning views, many wild flowers and the sandstone rock very nice underfoot. Apparently we were a month early because in December Thailand’s largest wild flower meadow starts to bloom.

First place to get the sunset! Possibly but given the aspect is mainly eastwards I think more to the point, and the location being the easternmost point, it would be the first place to see the sun rise in Thailand. But another way of looking at it.

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A beautiful and historic place. We vowed to return one day.

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Sam Pan Bok

p1000198Literally translating as ‘3000 holes’, Sam Pan Bok ia a massive red sandstone outcrop stretching across the Mekong. This is located in Ubon Ratchathani province in North Eastern Thailand and just across the border from Laos.

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During the rainy season from July to October the Mekong is full so you cannot see San Pan Bok. However from November through to May when the the waters subside this massive form is revealed. Intricate water eroded canyons with, yes, thousands of ‘pot holes’.

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At the time of our visit all the holes were full of beautifully clear water and some with trapped fish. I was only sorry I had not brought my swimming trunks. It was a hot day but very windy.

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Some of these holes have names. No prizes for guessing the below:

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At the time of our visit we had the whole place to ourselves (actually along with most of the attractions we visited in Ubon Ratchathani). It was a weekday though the place could easily swallow up hundreds of visitors. A wonderful afternoon clambering all over the rocks. A great place for kids.

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Dim Sum in Trang

 

Arriving early morning in Trang  we were soon scouting out for a  Jok (โจ๊ก) shop. This is the Thai version of congee and is as close to comfort food that I know. To my surprise I discovered that Trang is famous for Dim sum and excellent Dim sum at that. Trang food is heavily influenced by Chinese, Malay, Indonesian, and Indian cuisines. Popular dishes include Indian-style Muslim curry (Massaman), rice noodles in fish curry sauce (Khanom Jin), Southern Thai Rice Salad (Khao Yam ข้าวยำ) and chicken biryani (Khao Mok Gai).

The Chinese influence has brought Moo Yang Trang (Trang-style roasted pork), Trang cake and Dim sum. We sampled it all.  However we didn’t visit Trang just to eat so after sating ourselves on Dim sum we went exploring.

Trang’s most obvious attraction, excellent eating apart, is its coastline and islands. Here is an inlet in Hat Chao Mai National Park:

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……and a beach on Koh Kradan (I hope I have this right as we visited several islands and I may have got them mixed up). The snorkelling was pretty good as far as I could see (I have to remember in future to wear my contact lenses or get a prescription lensed pair of goggles).

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……and a karst formation island just off Pak Meng ferry pier

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Whilst most tourists are drawn to the islands there are attractions on the mainland. Kantang, the original capital of Trang Province, is worth a visit. Of note is the old governor’s residence which is now preserved as a museum. Given its age and the fact that it is entirely made of wood (teak) it was in a good  condition. I wouldn’t mind retiring there myself (provided it came with a team of gardeners).

Here is Kantang’s marvellous railway station which  rather reminded me of Hua Hin station https://pathannay.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/hua-hin/ . The Thai’s have great style when it comes to railway station design. There was even a train there when we visited. It didn’t strike me as being a particularly busy station being as it at the “end of the line” but very nice that the railway authorities have kept it operational.

On the third day of our trip we visited Khao Pra–Bang Khram Wildlife Sanctuary  which is actually 180 kms north and in Krabi province. This comprises lowland forest, an extensive broad walk area and several hot springs and pools (including the Crystal, Emerald and Blue pools). It is worthy of a visit but best to avoid weekends or public holidays as the Emerald pool becomes a bit of a public bath. Fortunately the authorities ban swimming at the other two pools. A sign by the Blue Pool warned of the “danger of sucking mud” which I didn’t believe at all but it did the trick because it was quiet and unadulterated. Whilst the Blue Pool is the last and at the end of a 2 km partly uphill walk, the effort is worthwhile. Here are the 3 pools (and I didn’t “Photoshop” the last one – that really is the colour):

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Back to Trang and we visited Tham Le Khao Kop. I don’t as a rule like caves but I was outvoted.

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It was certainly an experience and comprised a 2 km ride on a flat bottomed boat within the cave complex and a rather unnerving stretch of 500 metres where we had to lie flat on our backs in the boat to get through a very low ceilinged passage. Needless to say the complex is not open during the rainy season. It was rather like a rather scary Disneyworld ride (without any of their safety features). It was certainly an exhilarating experience (to have come out alive!).  The photo below was taken in a spot where there was actually sufficient space to lift my camera.

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I don’t want to leave on a cave shot. Below is an evening shot of Hat Yao beach on the mainland. The Lonely Planet guide describes Hat Yao as a scruffy fishing hamlet. It might be but I wouldn’t let that unnecessarily put you off. It also has a very good seafood restaurant (food on the islands generally more expensive and not as good) and a nice (if yes scruffy) beach. It is worth a visit if you have a car.

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I think I would like to return to Trang to explore more. Trang is less developed than Krabi and retains much of its original culture and charm. I leave with an unoriginal but classic shot adorning many a guidebook on Thailand.

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Kaeng Krachan National Park

IMG_20151224_072727644The largest national park in Thailand is located in Petchaburi Province south of Bangkok and on the way to Cha Am and Hua Hin. It is very accessible (but poorly signposted) at about 3 hours from Bangkok. I was amazed how quiet is was. I suppose most bypass and head on down to the beaches.

We spent two nights over Christmas there staying in one of the excellent Thai National Park bungalows. We are big fans. No frills but clean, cheap and generally well situated. Our bungalow was at the park HQ by Kaeng Krachan dam. The dam creates a lake covering an area of over 46 km2 (officially) The water levels were worryingly low given this was just at the end of the rainy season.

We were on the road at 5 AM on Christmas eve in one of the national park 4 x 4 pick-ups and you certainly need one to get up to the Khao Panoen Thung viewpoint just over 1,000 metres above sea level. The peak itself is 1,200 metres. The last third of the 2 hour journey was on graded track and was extremely steep. Not surprisingly it is closed during the rainy season.

Quite a lot of wild life to be seen. We saw (and heard); Duskyleaf Monkeys, Gibbons, Mountjac and (my personal highlight) a flock of Asian Pied Hornbills. Unfortunately we didn’t see any leopards (for which the park is famous), or, and probably fortunately, snakes. When we were leaving one of the attendants said that cobras were commonly to be found nearby the bungalows. They hadn’t told us that when we arrived. If you stay at a national park bungalow be sure to shut your bedroom door at nights.

I am a poor photographer and my camera is outdated and bettered by most mobile phones nowadays. I did manage at least to take a reasonable picture of something that wasn’t moving and/or high up in the trees:

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Our guide spotted this beside the track. An excellent spot because the flower was only a little over 15 cm across and it is rare. It was a Sapria himalayana a root parasite completely dependent on its host plant for water and nutrients. It is related to the more famous Rafflesia to be found in Malaysia and further south in Thailand but of a different species.

I would like to go back to Kaeng Krachan to do some more treks and this time armed with a better camera.

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