sunset behind Wat Mahathat in the Sukhothai Historical Park

Thailand’s other ancient capital, Sukhothai, has a fabulous collection of ancient temples, situated in a park with colourful birds and plants and trees.

The magic that was lacking in Ayutthaya we find back in Sukhothai. Here the Historical Park is a park indeed, containing the many temple ruins of this old city, but nothing else. Early morning, with very few other tourists, the low sun light, and no other traffic inside the park but our bicycles – again!! -, there is a serene atmosphere that fits such setting. We wander freely around the ruined temples, only occasionally disturbed by a busload of Italians or French, who arrive in a convoy of electric golf carts or a peloton of bicycles of their own.

part of Wat Mahathat, mirrored in the pond

colonnaded area and one of the Buddhas in Wat Mahathat

apsaras decorating a column base in Wat Mahathat

the three prangs of Wat Si Sawai

details of the central prang

decoration in Wat Traphang Ngoen

two stupas at Wat Sa Si

some column remains at a small island

water lilies

Another thing lacking in Ayutthaya, but present here, are the heads on top of the Buddha sculptures; would these be original? And if so, why have they not been chopped off here, in a place which is so much older than Ayutthaya? Unlike in Ayutthaya, the Buddhas here are individual, larger-than-life size statues, and they definitely add to the atmosphere. There are several around the largest, most important complex, Wat Mahathat, which also contains a tall single spire-like stupa, a colonnaded reception area and several collapsed brick buildings, some decorated with apsaras – the dancers also present in Khmer temples around Nachon Ratchasima, and in Angkor Wat – and other sculptures. Nearby Wat Sri Sawai is smaller, characterised by three prangs next to each other, whilst several smaller temples have just on or two stupas and a Buddha in front, like Wat Traphang Ngoen and Wat Sa Si.

The peaceful atmosphere of the park is enhanced by the many flowering trees, Bougainvillea and Frangipani, and by the many water lilies in the ponds. Besides, there is a large amount of birds around, not only the ever-present pigeons, but also more colourful species like wood peckers and king fishers. Nice contrast with the predominantly grey ruins!

one of the many birds

including a kingfisher

and trees full of these ones

wood pecker in the park

elephants at Wat Sorasak

with the trunks from behind

main tower at Wat Phra Phai Luang

and an overview of the Wat Phra Phai Luang

here Buddhas have been decapitated

gold-painted Buddha hand

a new Buddha at Wat Sri Chum

with the Buddha at the top

the path to Wat Saphan Hin

More temples are located north of the central area, a short bike ride away and just outside the old city wall. Whist the central area now fills up with tourists, fewer people bother to explore further afield, and we have Wat Sorasak, with its elephant-decorated base, and the large Wat Phra Phai Luang, to the west, almost entirely for ourselves, not counting the cows that are being let to graze in between the ruins of some of the minor temples. Here, the Buddha statues have been decapitated again, so indeed in the central area they have probably been restored, for the benefit of the tourist. The exception is Wat Sri Chum, where a large, obviously new Buddha is housed in a newly constructed, or entirely restored, building.

Even more effort, in terms of bicycle power, is needed to visit the temples west and south of the old city. To the west several ruins are located on the top of low hills, requiring a short climb. The temples themselves are perhaps less impressive than the ones we have seen so far, but the area is nice, wooded, and even I enjoy the cycling here – despite the now quickly rising temperature, we are already in the high 30s! And that with all those hills! South of the old city only Wat Chetuphon is somewhat sizable, the other ruins are all fairly small compared to the more impressive complexes.

Some 45 minutes away is a second Historical Park, Si Satchanalai, with temple remains of the same age as those in Sukhothai. But after so much stone, temple fatigue is setting is, and although I may regret it later, we decide to skip this one. There are only so many temples we can appreciate at any one time.

cattle roaming around freely

decapitated Buddha at Wat Chetuphon

some form of libella in the park

and sunset, once more

View of Wat Pra Sri Sanpeth, one of the most impressive in Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya, the first of the old Thai capitals we visit, has many impressive ruined tempels, as well as lots of active ones, but the entourage lacks the atmosphere of other some ancient temple complexes.

Of course we cannot exit Thailand without having seen the old capital cities Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, north of Bangkok. Sukhothai, established somewhere halfway the 13th Century, is considered by many Thai to be the first capital of the kingdom that became known as Siam, the old name for Thailand – although modern history traces the Thai origins further back. It started as a fairly autonomous province of the Khmer empire, then broke away and dominated large swaths of territory in its own right, from parts of present day Myanmar to Luang Prabang in Laos. But soon afterwards, from middle 14th C onwards, the Sukhothai kingdom was overshadowed by the Ayutthaya kingdom, which invaded and put Sukhothai under its control. Thai historians like to speak of a merger rather than a takeover, but fact is that the city of Sukhothai greatly diminished in importance. Ayutthaya took over as capital, and being much better located, at the intersection of international trade between China, India and the Malay peninsula, it quickly grew to be – or so it is reputed – the largest city in the world at the time, with over 1 million inhabitants around 1700. Until it was invaded by the Burmese in 1767, who burned the city to the ground, which wasn’t so difficult with almost everything built from wood. What is left now are the few stone buildings, the temples and a few of the palaces, most of which are concentrated on an island, surrounded by three rivers, of which the Chao Praya, the one that continues to Bangkok, is the biggest, and busiest.

red lanterns, in preparation for Chinese New Year

one of the small bridges connecting the island of old Ayutthaya across a minor canal

We arrive by train from Bangkok, which conveniently stops close to one of the rivers bordering the old town on the island. A little ferry brings us to the other side. The next day we rent some bicycles from our little guesthouse – yes, again! -, and explore the main temples, with the help of a map, on which many of the helpful people who all want to sell us their tours have scribbled what they think is important. So that the map has become virtually unreadable. Although the cycling to the various main temples amounts to some 20 km, we must have done a multiple of that – which, apparently, is not unusual; although the island is touted as an historical park, in fact each of the temple sites are on individual grounds, in between which major roads, industrial complexes, universities and residential areas have grown, all without much reliable sign posting.

inside the main prang, Wat Ratchaburana

main prang of Wat Ratchaburana

Having said so, the sites are definitely worth the effort. There must be hundreds of temples around, of which many of the most important ones are ruined, but others are still active places of worship. With only one full day available – even our trips do come to an end, at some time -, and with temperatures soaring into the low 30s, we limit ourselves to a handful of the bigger complexes. In all honesty, there is also only so much one can admire in terms of temples, before the good old temple fatigue sets in.

overview of Wat Phra Sri Sanpeth

and some of the smaller stupas around

one of the central buildings of Wat Phra Sri Sanpeth

I will illustrate the individual complexes more extensively at a later stage. For the time being, some pictures of the highlights, which frequently include a central temple tower, the so-called prang – which, if you don’t mind me saying, on quite a few occasions has the distinct shape of a phallus -, several secondary towers, stupas and spires distributed around the prang, and to one side the remains of a colonnaded royal enclosure. Many of the sites include Buddha sculptures, almost invariably decapitated; a sad sight, especially because many of the bodies have also cracked, or are badly eroded, beyond recognition. The claim is that the Burmese invading armies chopped all the heads off the Buddhas, but more likely looters did so afterwards, and sold the heads to collectors, who in those days were predominantly Western individuals and museums.

the red-and-white prang of Wat Phra Ram

one of the decapitated Buddha at Wat Phra Ram

and the entrance of the main prang

extensively decorated tower at Wat Mahathat

Wat Ratchaburana, the first on our list, is one of those temples with a tall central tower, mostly white. There are some decorations, although very little compared to the Khmer temples we visited earlier in Nachon Ratchasima. Wat Pra Sri Sanphet is distinct in that the complex comprises of several stupas, in the form of grey-white stuccoed steep conical spires, which in turn are surrounded by red-brick lower stupas. Wat Phra Ram is perhaps the least interesting of the main complexes, a distinctly phallus-like structure built from red brick at the lower and middle part, and a stuccoed top. The tower is surrounded by further red-brick stupas, lesser buildings and a compound wall. Wat Mahathat is the last of the big four on the island, with several impressive towers as well as lower structures – which may have been taller in the past, but have now collapsed. This is also where one of the Buddha heads have been preserved, in between the roots of a large tree.

decapitated Buddha statues

and one of the heads, trapped in the roots of a tree

the heads of the cocks serving a purpose

cocks for sale at Wat Thammikarat

Next to the ruined temples, there are also temples that are part-ruined, but also contain an active part, where worship continues, lots of local people bringing offerings. One of them in particular stands out, Wat Thammikarat, where on the platform of a collapsed structure a whole collection of cocks is being presented (no pun intended). The temple seems to generate income by selling those, and a whole lot of other paraphernalia. Which is fine, of course, but this, and even more so the endless tourist stalls at some of the large ruined complexes, as well as the elephant rides outside Wat Mahatat – there is something utterly ridiculous about a couple of foreigners sitting on top of an elephant and staring at their mobile phone screens -, all these blatant tourist businesses randomly distributed throughout the so-called Historical Park somewhat undermine the magic that such a place could evoke (and indeed does in places like Bagan and Angkor Wat).

and garlands to be sold for offerings

Buddha head in the museum

and a selection of old Buddha sculptures

we are not the only ones in the museum

The one thing not to be missed, despite the relatively high entrance fee, is the Chao Sam Phraya National Museum, also on the island. The museum displays an array of artefacts recovered from Ayutthaya temples, like a great variety of Buddha sculptures, but it is especially interesting for its large and unique collection of golden images and ornaments, many in the form of intricately decorated very thin golden leaves, which have been recovered from a couple of burial chambers (unfortunately, no photography permitted of those treasures).

this can hardly be called highrise, along the Choa Praya River

whilst most hopuses are still of wood, and on stilts

traffic of sand along the river

Back in our guesthouse we have barely enough time to recuperate, before our next activity is due, a sunset boat trip around the Ayutthaya island, visiting even more temples, and for the rest taking in the life on and along the various rivers. Boat trips are always a pleasure, especially around sunset – although unfortunately, no cocktails were presented on board. The river is lined with wooden houses, many on stilts, many well-maintained. Multi-storey buildings are rare, the concept of river-view condos hasn’t rooted here yet. The river is mostly used by huge convoys of sand ships, pulled by often more than one tow boat, plus an extra one in the back to serve as the brake, I presume. All other traffic, including our small tour-boat, stays well away from these monsters, who go pretty fast and are perhaps not so agile.

another view, close up

in well protected large barges

the golden Buddha, in Mae Nam Pa Sak temple

and the road to Nirvana, perhaps? to the top of the Buddha, for sure

Wat Phutthaisawan, from the river

large incense sticks inside the temple complex

and the reclining Buddha

also in full view, note the enormous feet

the impressive Wat Watthanaram, at sunset

the central structure its main prang

detail of the brick work

The first of the temples of the tour is called Mae Nam Pa Sak, famous for its large golden Buddha, obviously fairly new, although perhaps equally interesting is the collection of old Buddha sculptures along the walls. The second one is Wat Phutthaisawan, a combination of an old temple with a new one, the tower of the old one, in the now familiar shape, meticulously copied. Between some of the ruined walls we encounter a large reclining Buddha, and along some of the other old walls new Buddha sculptures have been placed. The third and last temple, Wat Watthanaram, is one of the main historical sites, with a number of steep conical stupas surrounding the tower, and perhaps one of the most impressive sites we have seen in Ayutthaya, although this may be influenced by the fact that we are there close to sunset.

What we didn’t have time for, were the remains of the Dutch, Japanese and Portuguese settlements, the trading posts set up during Ayutthaya’s golden age. Of which, according to one source, there is preciously little left to see. Better then, to move to that other ancient Thai capital, Sukhothai.

it is not only old and grey sculptures, in the active temples

wooden boats along the river

tree in the Khao Yai National Park

The highly overrated Khao Yai National Park is nevertheless good for a nice day out.

The Khao Yai National Park is one of superlatives. It is the oldest National Park in Thailand, established in 1962. It is the most-visited, being relatively close – two hours’ drive – from Bangkok. And it is also, as far as I am concerned, the most overrated reserve I can think of.

one of the first view points in the park

Initially we had thought of booking a tour of the park offered by one of the many tourist agencies, which would include a car safari, half a day jungle trekking, visiting a water fall and, eh, oh yes, a lunch box and free leech socks. Studying the internet resources a little further, we learned that there are three roads in the park, tarmacked and totalling less than 70 km – so much for the car safari, then. The walking trails are actually well signposted. And we don’t care much about water falls. Those enthusiastic people who did the tours had seen, eh, some deer, some monkeys, a snake and a scorpion. No elephants, unfortunately, that was not guaranteed in any of the tours. And there are not many other wild animals in the park. Oh, and a tour starts from a little over US$ 100, per person, if you are just the two of you. Hmmm.

a young deer in the semi-wild

and an older, wiser one, near the kitchen of the restaurant

baboon in a tree at the visitor centre

looking down on the youngest of the family

turtle in the stream, also visitor centre

and a bird, if you look carefully – this is how difficult it is!

Still having access to our scooter, we decide to arrange our own tour, instead. Off we go, 45 minutes to the park – riding the scooter, by the way, being far more scary than anything we did by bicycle in Hanoi. Most dangerous are the minivans, from the tour operators, who would stop anywhere along the road; as it turns out, visits to large souvenir stores are also included. Once in the park, we stop at the occasional view point before reaching the visitors centre. This is where the deer are, and the monkeys, close to the restaurant’s kitchen. And the tour groups, each with their own colour leech socks. It is dry season, and there are no leeches, but the lady at the information desk explains that the leech socks help keeping track of the different groups.

our jungle trail, not always equally clear

passing big trees, big roots

tall trees, too

and a little river to cross

a little colour from the berries

We pick up a map, and head for the trail, a 5 km walk through the jungle. A pleasant surprise, actually; where everything looks rather over-developed in the park, I had expected the trails to be well appropriated with stairs and railings wherever remotely necessary, perhaps even concrete steps, but in fact we follow a pretty narrow path, not always very clear, winding its way in between the trees. Only the sporadic large stone in the stream, to aid crossing with dry feet, shows that people have been involved, for the rest it could have been an elephant trail. Or not; the occasional large tree blocking the trail may well have been put in place to discourage elephants from following this one, thereby protecting the haphazard tourist. We thus stumble a good two, two-and-a-half hours, crossing small streams and fallen trees, working our way up in between tree roots, and down on the other side, having a great time in the jungle. We didn’t see any animals except for a few birds, but we heard the monkeys, the hornbills and some larger animal breaking free from the undergrowth. All very entertaining, even without a supporting group with colourful leech socks.

for which there is help in the form of a tree-bridge

road block!

we cannot say that we haven’t been warned

not sure where to go

chasing the scooter, perhaps?

After having been given a lift back to the visitor centre, we mount our scooter again, and tour some of the 70 km of tarmac road. Only to be blocked by a lone elephant! That’s the moment that I feel more comfortable in a car than on a scooter. But we survive, he decides that the road is, after all, less interesting than the jungle. And now we have seen an elephant! Everything else, afterwards, the pond, the waterfall, the grasslands, the tall trees, was a little less impressive. Even the traffic, on the way back, was somehow less scary.

there are some nice, and impressive spots in the park

mask on the wall of the Khao Yai Art Museum

Pak Chong, another town in Thailand’s Isaan region, has quite a few unexpected attractions to offer.

A couple of hours further down the railway line is Pak Chong, another conveniently located city in Isaan. This was going to be our base for exploring the Khao Yai Nature Reserve. But as it turned out, there was more to discover in and around Pak Chong.

We were not a little surprised to find out that the area around the Nature Reserve is also Thailand’s primary wine production area. Thai wine? Indeed, and no less than three wineries are located in the vicinity, the small family-owned Alcidini winery, the oldest and largest in the area, PB Valley winery, and the latest addition, and reputedly best one, GranMonte. Now I know that I have stated that I won’t have any South East Asian wine anymore, after the experiences with the disastrous Yunan Red and other Chinese wines, and the Vietnamese Dalat series (not to mention the Cambodian wines we tried eight years ago!), but, well, the opportunity presented itself, what can you do?

adventurers…., no, lunatics!

including roses as early warning system

and kites to scare off the birds

full bunches of grapes

in the bright sunlight

sstainless steel equipment

next to oak barrels

So we rented a scooter – at least, we have moved up from the bicycle business – and travelled the 45 minutes it took to get to the GranMonte estate, initially jut to have lunch. But soon somebody came to offer us the tour, which would start at 2 pm. She helpfully checked with the kitchen, who agreed that we would have been served our lunch well in time not to miss this specific tour. So we relented.

At two o’clock we presented ourselves at the tour departure point. We were the only ones, and we would be the only ones for the rest of the day, so much was clear. Monday afternoon in the low season. Yet, the tour had to start at two, not five or ten minutes later. Zero flexibility, this is Thailand. So we settled in an electric cart with space for 20 people, our guide picked up the microphone – even though we, the two of us, were sitting right next to him -, and off we went, on a round through the estate. It was a week before the harvest starts, so the vines were full of thick bunches of grapes, which were mostly pretty small. About half of the grapes are Syrah, and another 30% Chenin Blanc, leaving not a lot on the 60 hectares for other varieties. Everything – except harvest – is automated here, from sensors that measure soil conditions to triggers that initiate the automatic irrigation systems (I know, I know).

Of course, we were mostly anticipating the last part of the tour, all the estate and wine making process mumbo jumbo we have heard before. And here we were pleasantly surprised: they actually make quite acceptable wine in GranMonte, from a reasonable Verdejo and a light rose from Syrah to quite decent mature blends of red. Its just that, with a starting price of close to 20 US$ per bottle and their flagship Asoka well over 100 US$, this is never going to be a successful export product.

the vineyards of the GranMonte winery

original sculpture at the Khao Yai Art Museum

another sculpture, with the museum at the back

and a view of the sculpture garden

On the way back to Pak Chong we stopped off at the delightful Khao Yai Art Museum, a large villa with three rooms of paintings. One of the rooms is entirely dedicated to images of the young new King, and perhaps lacks some variety of subject matter, and the other two contain contemporary Thai works of art, of some variety. The real gem, though, are the corridors and garden, and every corner outside the gallery rooms, which are stuffed with sculptures, many of which are quite nice indeed, and definitely original.

inside, one of the original art works

as well as more classical styles, a water colour

Back in Pak Chong, in our search for food, we encountered the night market, which presented a delightful selection of stalls, all serving yet something else again, from grilled pork to pancakes and fabulous fresh fruit. You could do worse for dinner in Thailand!

You see, a day filled with totally unexpected attractions. The beauty of traveling.

grilled fish in the night market

and some peculiar fishes, too

fresh fruit as desert

woman preparing

and you have all those things you have never seen before!!!

and from the balcony of our room in Pak Chong

statue of Thao Suranaree, heroine of Nachon Ratchasima

Nachon Ratchasima is the perfect base to explore the surrounding Khmer temples of Phimai, Phanom Rung and Muang Tam, each individually a great example of ancient glory.

One of the larger towns in Isaan, Nachon Ratchasima, or Korat, as it is more often informally called, is an excellent base for visiting some of the spectacular Khmer temples in the region. Of course, these are small fry compared to the fabulous Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia, but they are attractive enough in their own right to warrant some time on our travels. It is anticipated that they formed part of the northern route to Angkor Wat, and were part of, or at least under the influence of, the Khmer empire at the time.

 

main temple at Prasat Hin Phimai

small-scale wall carving

Perhaps the most important temple is Prasat Hin Phimai, built in the 11th or 12th Century. The main temple building, perhaps 15 meters high, is intricately decorated with friezes and sculptures depicting stories from the Ramayana, the most important Hindu book, and from Buddhist history. It is surrounded by other buildings, several platforms, and a wall, mostly constructed from red sandstone. When we arrive it is pretty busy, mostly with local visitors – there are very few foreign tourists in Isaan -, but somehow they rotate much more quickly through the complex than we do, and soon we have the place almost for ourselves. Which gives the experience just that extra atmospheric feeling.

the grounds need to be kept, too

‘old look’ corner stones in a distant corner of the complex

Wandering to the side of the complex I came across more than 40 old headstones, neatly stacked together; there is clearly still some restoration to be done, I thought. Until I noticed one that had fallen over, and cracked, displaying the reinforcement metal inside the concrete. These are not old headstones, these are new ones getting an ‘old look’ by weathering, in the corner of the complex, until they look authentic enough to be installed at some corner of the temple! In fact, many of the real old pieces are being kept in the museum nearby, which has an extensive collection of friezes, lintels, headstones and pillars. Some of them heavily weathered, some of the images almost invisible, from hundreds of years of erosion from water and wind. Perhaps putting some fake, but well-faked, stones onto the temple isn’t such a bad idea after all.

a yellow umbrella to provide some shade – and colour

approach of the main sanctuary of Phimai

window at the Prasat Phanom Rung

the long walkway, approach to the temple

and the stairs – we are not the only ones today

the temple sanctuary itself

The next day is a Sunday; the second temple we visit, the Prasat Phanom Rung, is more crowded. For the first time in Isaan we spot some elevation, the hill – which turns out to be an extinct volcano – on which the temple is built, at approximately the same time as the Phimai temple. The approach to the temple is a long walkway of red-coloured laterite blocks, flanked by sandstone pillars with tops in the form of lotus buds. At the end of the walkway, steep stairs lead to the inner courtyard, and the main temple building, which is not as tall as the one in Phimai. Here, too, Hindu scenes provide the subject matter of the decorations. Secondary buildings and arched gateways surround the temple in four directions. Most visitors limit themselves to the main temple, but these surrounding buildings are also interesting, and as they are almost deserted, a wonderful way to escape the humble crowds.

the entrance to the main building

and the decorations overhead

peek through the entrance to Prasat Muang Tam

the main sanctuary

the four towers inside, and the fifth, collapsed one in the middle

one of the pools surrounding the sanctuary

and one of the water lilies, introducing some colour

and unexpectedly, even more colour

several doors to the tree

Alternatively, one could move to Prasat Muang Tam, the third Khmer temple we explore; Muang Tam means ‘lower city’, as opposed to Phanom Rung, five or ten minutes by car and situated on top of the volcano. We did, and we encountered, once again, a very impressive complex, somewhat smaller, and markedly less popular with the locals, perhaps because there is no tall central temple here. Instead the main courtyard contains five lower towers, of which the middle one has collapsed over time. What is nice here, too, are the four ponds that occupy the corners of the courtyard; some even have groups of pink water lilies. Altogether, these temples are, each of them in their own way, fabulous examples of a forgone civilisation, tastefully and unobtrusively restored by the Thai.

which is dominated, somehow, by cables

houses in Nachon Ratchasima

like here, too, in front of the only colourful front

1960s concrete housing (and more cables)

more concrete, more cables

Korat – Nachon Ratchasima – itself is, to put it mildly, less of an architectural highlight. The centre of the city, surrounded by a moat, looked inviting, but in the end proved to be a collection of 1960s buildings in various states of decline. I have to admit that I like this type of buildings, concrete colossi desperately trying to show some distinct detail, whether in the balcony or the gables, or anywhere really, without being able to shed the impression of ugliness. Despite it being Saturday, the night market was a sorry affair, and not because of the opening of the Korat International Art and Culture Festival the same evening, which was attended by no more that 20 or 30 people. Far more attention was given to Thao Suranaree, 19th Century heroine of the city, who is honoured with a – rather small – statue at the central square, where lots of people come to pray and make offerings of incense and flowers, asking Yamo, as she is affectionately known, for luck.

only the market is real colourful

with laterns in the run-up to Chinese New Year

and plastic-wrapped offering flowers

little railway station along the NE line in Thailand. between Nong Khai and Nachon Ratchasima

From the Thai border crosssing at Nong Khai we travel by train through the Isaan, NE Thailand.

We are back in Thailand, where we started this journey. But for the first time we are in Thailand as travellers, not just for a quick stop in Bangkok or the beach. Nong Khai, across the Mekong from Vientiane, is not the most exciting place on earth, with the inevitable sleaziness of a border town, but it is a convenient entry point into the Isaan, the name that represents the collective NE provinces of the country. And the Mekong-side does provide a couple of pleasant hang-outs, and even a boulevard-like stretch where people do evening dance classes, or just a little strolling.

sunset from Nong Khai, with the Friendship bridge border crossing in the distance

fishermen on te Mekong

our train being announced

and finally arriving

As means of transport we have settled for the train, this time. Thailand has quite an extensive rail network, with lines radiating from Bangkok to the south, the north, and the northeast, the latter ending in Nong Khai. Thai trains, we read, are notorious for being late, except when departing from their station of origin. As trains don’t go any further than Nong Khai, this could be considered station of origin for the return journey, right? Not our train, which arrived more than half an hour late, to turn around immediately, back to where it came from. We were on the third-class train to Nachon Ratchasima. Stopping at every station in between. Every five or ten minutes, or so. For seven hours.

countryside view from the train

and another one, water buffalo

slum-like living conditions near the tracks

And yet, I like traveling by train, even by local slow train. It beats the bus hands down, if you are not in a hurry. Comfortable, even in third class – although after seven hours every seating becomes somewhat painful -, you can get up whenever you want, walk around. Hawkers are selling food and drinks, and there are good views of the landscape outside, especially because we were on the open window aircon system, again. Not that the landscape is very attractive, all flat, with rice paddies and other agriculture, interspersed with the occasional water buffalo and cow. But I suppose we are looking at an authentic piece of Thailand here.

and new rail track, ready to be laid

jolly, not very colonial, architecture in Vientiane

Vientiane, equally laid-back as Luang Prabang was, and this entire country, is a pleasant place to break our journey to Thailand.

On our way to Thailand we stop off in Vientiane, a place we had also visited eight years ago. Then I called it a sleepy town that was slowly waking up. Not much has changed, or it must be that there is less of the old French colonial architecture – many of those buildings are no longer used, or seem to have collapsed -, and more of the new Chinese developments. Outside the centre is a whole new Chinese neighbourhood, with Chinese hotels, restaurants, shops. The latest wave of expatriates, the most recent business visitors, they come not from the west but from the east, that much is clear. Which is indeed what we have seen all around Laos, this time. Our lovely boat trip on the Nam Ou, eight years ago, is now no longer possible, with Chinese dams blocking the river. On the roads, for the first time, fast driving cars and trucks appear, often without number plates, but with Chinese characters on the side. In the vicinity of major construction sites traffic signs are not in Lao and English, but in Lao and Chinese. The new order has already arrived, here.

this, then, is one of the colonial houses in town, for as long as it lasts

shutter windows still work, at least

and another building has beer requisitioned by the communist party

little tower on the side of Wat Si Saket

Vientiane has its own, monstruous, version of the Arc deTriumph

Vientiane, if anything, has become more touristic. The strip near the Mekong is entirely given over to guesthouses and restaurants, a bit like in Luang Prabang. Yet, unlike Luang Prabang, there is little to entertain the tourist. Unlike Luang Prabang, the town has an abandoned look, poorly maintained buildings, paint flaking off, dust covering everything. A bit of a joke, for a capital city. And it is not that it is impossible: the many temples in town look impeccable, freshly painted, clean. There are almost no really old temples, since the Thai raided and burned down the town in 1828. We have a look at the one that survived the onslaught, Wat Sisaket, a wooden structure from 1818 which is wonderfully decorated inside (no photographs permitted, unfortunately), with frescos and roof decorations. Some of the frescos are being redone, which may not be an improvement. Outside the temple hundreds of Buddha sculptures are being exhibited, large and small, and many pretty old, perhaps 15th or 16th Century. Behind the bigger sculptures lots of small niches are filled with two little sculptures each. Quite a few have their heads chopped off, something we have seen before when religions clash – or when treasure hunters can only carry small pieces -, but all together this is a very impressive collection.

one of four walls full of Buddha sculptures inside the compound of Wat Si Saket

a corner Buddha, another one in front, and the many niches behind

more of niches, all filled with two small sculptures

and one of the older sculptures (I think)

The centre of town is no more than two parallel streets, with very few cars. Rush hour doesn’t really seem to exist. There is no high rise, except for the sporadic new apartment building overlooking the Mekong, which is not very attractive here. The occasional bookstore sells books in English, which very much looks like illegally photocopied books. The State Bookstore sells the same photocopied books. Other shops display artisan products, artefacts, and antiques – perhaps, but nothing looks very attractive, masks are coarsely carved. And yet, Vientiane, too, is a very pleasant place to while away a few days; relaxed, sleepy indeed.

a moment’s scare, not another SE Asian wine producer!, but luckily, this is just a wine merchant

this is a laid-back country: tuk-tuk driver waiting for clientiele

A comfortable bus, really VIP with air-conditioning this time, carries us over the Friendship Bridge across the Mekong, past perhaps the easiest border crossing formalities we have ever experienced, and into Thailand.

food stall and cook, equally relaxed

one of the vessels on the Plain of Jars

We finally made it to Phonsavanh, and the mysterious Plain of Jars, which is really the only attraction here, the rest being rather underwhelming.

We had bought tickets on the airconditioned VIP bus for the six-to-seven hour bus ride to Phonsavanh. The bus turned out a 25 seater, five of them fold-down seats in the isle, where the aircon was operated through opening and closing the windows. When we arrived in the bus station, almost all seats had already been taken, that is to say, had been covered with a plastic bag or a rucksack, indicating someone had claimed the place. Which, when the bus fills up, is no deterrent for Laotians, who casually remove the bag and put it on another seat. And then put their own bag down. As there had been too many tickets sold, everybody was ordered to leave the bus, with all their bags, and then boarding started all over again. Being big, and assertive, helps, at these moments. We had a comfortable ride, never mind that it took closer to eight hours to arrive.

the idea of a plain, with scattered jars around

three jars on the first site

another view of site number 1

and this is one of the biggest jars around

again, more and more jars…

it says everywhere, ‘don’t climb into the jars’ – but it gives an idea about the size

Because Phonsavanh is so much of a detour, we had skipped it last time we were in Laos. The main point of interest here is what is called the Plain of Jars, which I had imagined to be a vast barren expanse of land, with outsized vessels scattered around. In fact, the areas open to visitors are three sites, fenced off and well-controlled. The first, and largest site has a small museum, and a number of groups of jars, some bigger, some smaller, and quite a few partly broken. The origin of the jars, probably dating from around 300 BC to 300 AD, remains the subject of speculation, although most people now seem to agree that they are funerary monuments, possibly for cremating human bodies and subsequent reburial of the remains elsewhere. The jars have been carved from local rocks, mostly sandstones and conglomerates, which must have been quite an exercise; it also looks likely that at least some have been moved uphill, which will have been an even greater exercise, as the biggest will easily weigh 10-15 tons or so.

jars on the site number 2 hillside

and more…

and more.

there are also a few carved plates around, which are, apparently, not the lids, but other burial indicators

The two other sites are a little further from Phonsavanh, and are in fact much nicer, as they as less developed, and less visited. Site number two has several jars on two separate hill tops, whilst to reach site number three involves a ten-minute walk through rice paddies to another hill, where a collection of jars is located under a group of trees; this is definitely the most atmospheric of the three sites, especially if you are there entirely on your own, without any other visitors. No regrets that we came back for this!

and the most atmospheric site, site number 3

the surroundings of site 3 are also attractive, lots of paddy terraces

and some of the tree leaves coloured red

all around Phonsavanh ammunition remains are used for decoration

Phonsavanh itself has next to nothing to offer. It is a new town, erected after the original place had been obliterated by American bombing during the Vietnam War – as was much of eastern Laos. Never mind that the country was not involved in the war, the Viet Cong used it to transport troops and weapons, along parts of the Ho Chi Min trail, south to infiltrate the enemy, whereupon the Americans and their allies decided to turn the place into a parking lot. It is estimated that between 1964 and 1973 Laos was bombed on average every eight minutes; when the campaign ended, a tenth of the Laotian population had died. But many more would suffer in the years after, from what is called UXO, unexploded ordinance, cluster bombs that have buried themselves in the ground and only slowly get back to the surface, where they are found by children, or stuck by farmers, either killing or maiming them. Even today large parts of eastern Laos are still not save, even now unexploded ammunition is still being found, sometimes by professional organisations, NGOs that specialize in clearing, sometimes by unlucky victims. 45 years after the war.

A small local NGO in Phonsavanh, QLA (Quality of Life Association), helps victims from UXO accidents, with access to medical services and protheses, small business loans and other initiatives to rebuild their lives. They have an impressive exhibition and video, and an attractive shop, along the main street. If anything, this is worth visiting when in town.

and an old stupa, now being restored, in Muang Khun

a Buddha sculpture as one of the scarred remains of the burned out old capital?

The tourist industry in Phonsavanh promotes trips to burned out tanks and airplanes, to parts of the Ho Chi Min trail, to war massacre caves. Not my thing. We visit what is now called Muang Khun, the old Phongsavan that was bombed, to look at the ruins. A new town has developed here; what is touted as ruins is rather underwhelming, a temple that is slowly being rebuild and a couple of stupas that are falling apart, even without suffering bombs. No need to stay any longer.

Our airconditioned VIP bus to Vientiane looks remarkably like our airconditioned VIP bus to Phonsavanh.

this is a rather rural area of Laos, lots of wooden houses

with typical radial gables

more rice paddies, and water buffalos

rice paddies and a small barn

and I have to show you another one, the last jar

wat window in Luang Prabang – temple window, in one of the many temples

For some time-off we moved to Luang Prabang, Laos’ laid-back former capital on the Mekong, with its many temples and even more restaurants.

After six weeks of traveling, we were desperately in need of a few days’ vacation. So we changed plans, and instead of traveling overland from Vietnam to Laos, another couple of days battling with train and buses, we flew from Hanoi to Luang Prabang. In a bit over an hour.

the Mekong river from the plane, arriving in Luang Prabang

the main street in town. Really!

We have been in Luang Prabang before – yet another return trip! – and we loved it then. This time, having seen the sights, done the excursions, we just did what everybody else does here: we laid back. And enjoyed four days of eating and drinking. Especially the eating is a feast, almost every lunch and diner we found another restaurant, with its own speciality dishes. Think lemongrass stuffed with minced chicken, fried river weed with sesame seeds, crispy fish, or aubergine mash. In our enthusiasm we even did some activity, one evening: we enrolled for a cooking class, where we learned to prepare several dishes we had never heard of before, let alone tasted them. And got the recipes to try at home.

 

and a tree, in the late sunlight

a familiar view, one of the temple roofs

and some of the many monks linked to the temples

another temple roof

Luang Prabang is a bit of a strange town. A former capital of Laos, it has long ago sunk in oblivion, only to have been resurrected by UNESCO, when it declared the town a World Heritage Site. Attracting massive amounts of tourists, and lots of money to ensure the town retained some of its authenticity. Nowadays, every other house in the centre is a guest house or a hotel or a restaurant, or is in one way or another related to the tourist industry, but almost all of them are indeed tastefully restored and blend in well. Apart from taking in the town’s atmosphere, which is to a large extent determined by its many Wats, the Buddhist monasteries and temples, there is not a lot to do. So to ensure the tourists stay as long as possible, a whole industry has sprouted offering not only massages, but every possible course possible; cooking classes, indeed, and dying, or weaving, or weaving and dying, sketching, batiks, you name it. Yet, the vast majority of the tourists, and there are a lot of them, seem content hanging around in bars and cafes, strolling the night market, and doing – a bit like ourselves – very little indeed. Laid back.

boats moored along the Mekong, late afternoon

the obligatory sunset, from one of the riverside platforms

and two haphazard tourists, just before sunset

monk crossing a wooden bridge across a small tributary

Buddha sculptures in Wat Xieng Thong

a Buddha sculpture in front of a window in Wat Visounnarath

an old stupa in te middle of town

the only food-related photo: sticky rice baskets drying

a monk’s robe drying in the wind

Ok, we did take a walk, so now and then. We did go back to some the most venerated Wats, the temples that Luang Prabang is famous for, the most important one being Wat Xieng Thong, and the oldest one Wat Visounnarath. We rented a boat and spent a couple of hours cruising the Mekong. Occasionally we installed ourselves on one of those terraces on the river bank, to observe the sunset. Gin-and-tonic, for old time’s sake. Or we just observed the world go by from our own hotel balcony. And did a bit of catching up for this travelogue.

Then we left again, to Phonsavanh, the reason we had in fact returned to Laos.

view through the front entrance of our river boat

some small boats on the small tributary to the Mekong

and a bigger one on the Mekong itself

fishing canoe and fisherman

and some of the nets drying onshore

final view of the Mekong, for now, an hour orr so downstream from Luang Prabang

Northern Vietnam is very much land of minorities, even in Barbie form

Looking back briefly on three weeks Vietnam, and the pros and cons of traveling out of season. Oh, and about one other major change!

Vietnam is another country we return to, this journey. We came here first in 2011, eight years ago. But then we entered in the South, travelled to the middle of the country, and never reached Hanoi, because we ran out of time. So this is not really a return, in fact we are breaking new ground. And gaining new impressions: where eight years ago we were somewhat disappointed, after coming from Laos and Cambodia, this time we were pleasantly surprised by the extraordinary friendliness of so many people, especially in the northern mountainous area, but also in Hanoi, Haiphong, Ninh Binh. After coming from China.

 

in real life they are even more colourful, these minorities

although this is perhaps even more quintessential Vietnam

There is the possibility, of course, that the friendliness is just an artificial attitude that comes with the tourist business – after all, our almost three weeks in Vietnam were, in that respect, the total opposite of China; here, everywhere touts, tours and travel agencies. But I don’t think so, in Catba, the centre of Vietnam’s prime tourist location, people were mostly indifferent, and many of the tour operators, face-to-face in Sapa or via internet contact to arrange Halong Bay cruises, were, if anything, complacent, couldn’t care less if you went elsewhere – but without ever being unfriendly, or impolite. The ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude, by the way, says quite a lot about the status of the tourist industry. It is going well, and there is loads of money being made, otherwise there would be far more competition, and willingness to negotiate, for the tourist dollar.

work in the paddies

Which makes me contemplate a little more about the experiences of those past few weeks. I know I have complained a lot about the weather, and at some moments it was indeed rather infuriating, if a time-bound opportunity was spoiled by rain or fog, but the other side of the story is, of course, that it is not for nothing that it is low season. And I would hate to be here in the high season! When the ethnic markets are crowded with foreigners, the walking trail in Sapa clogged with tourists, and every single sampan in use on the various river trips around Ninh Binh. Not to speak of Halong Bay, where so many more boats surely obscure the scenery far more than a cloud or two. Perhaps, on balance, a bit of bad weather is preferable over the big numbers during peak season. Because if one thing has changed over the last eight years, it is that Vietnam has established itself firmly on the tourist trail.

view into one temple

into a second one

and a third, thankful photo subjects

the dragon on the temple roof

the colourful parasol inside

and a tomb in the back – you know

and this sums up our weeks in Vietnam….

Oh, and there is another thing that has changed. On our last afternoon in Hanoi we, at one point, thought that our hotel had been the target of a terrorist attack. Not only from downstairs, the restaurant, came the screams, also from across the road. As it turned out, there was a football match going on, and the last minutes were a nail-biter. And when Vietnam won, which turned out to be the semi-final of a rather unimportant tournament, the Asia Football Championships for Under-23 year olds, the streets exploded into a sea of celebrating people. Cars and motorbikes carrying the Vietnamese flag, all sorts of horns an sirens, and passengers with red shirts, red stars on their cheeks and red headbands. Pedestrians were waving on street corners and banging pots and pans in an attempt to make even more noise than usual. Great atmosphere, which went on late into the night, many hours after this historic victory. Apparently, for the first time a Vietnamese football team had survived beyond the group stage of any international football tournament. Now, for Vietnam, that’s a major change!

celebrating Vietnam’s football victory

with flags, noise, motorbikes