Finding paradise

It’s a short bridge across to the island; two hundred years ago people used to make the journey by elephant-back. The spoke-like rows of rubber trees rhythmically passing by in a car today are immediately hypnotic. Upright as sentries and organised as if for parade, the trees create a canopy that looks cool and inviting. Spiky fields of squatting pineapples, almost bleached colourless by the sun, provide a sharp contrast every now and again, and great gaping red wounds of earth holding puddles of water, a legacy of the island’s marriage to tin, are also surprising.

This is Phuket, probably the most written-about island in Thailand. I’d heard so much I’d stopped listening: it would be full of resorts, lots of crowded beaches and a multitude of restaurants a la Mauritius or the Maldives. I pondered why I was holidaying here as we headed down to Phuket Town, located inland on the southeast of the island: my budget wouldn’t allow for a splurge at Le Royal Meridian or Laguna, sunning myself on a beach was out due to a recent operation, and as som tham, grilled pork sticks and freshly-cubed pineapple keep me quite happy, the restaurants would be superfluous. Well, I’d see. My partner and I would find the flip-side to all those tourist brochures if it meant learning five-tone Thai.

While Phuket and its tin was a prized asset over which the Malays, Burmese and Thais fought, it’s the influence of those who worked the mines, the Chinese immigrants, that’s lingered through to today. The shophouses left by Chinese traders are prominently dotted along central Yaowarat, Thalang and Takuapa Roads in Phuket Town. Some are dilapidated, but others are being tastefully restored as restaurants and antique shops as their value becomes appreciated by younger Thais. Colourful Chinese temples also dot the town.

While even the Novotel has a presence in Phuket Town, we chose to stay at the more budget-friendly—and more charismatic—On On Hotel. A Chinese brothel in the 1920s, the hotel today retains the grace of a faded old beauty with sweeping wooden hallways and a grandiose reception. It’s very basic, but charmingly reminiscent of a gracious bygone era.

We headed out to dinner. Kajok See, a restaurant without a signpost—always a promising sign in itself—had come recommended. Situated in an old shophouse, the peeling walls, thoughtful flower arrangements, unobtrusive music and Thai decorations create a seductive ambience. The candles that emerged due to a blackout shortly after arrival only served to heighten the mood, and the food didn’t disappoint: their crunchy green mango salad with tiny dried shrimp and cashew nuts was enough to turn a girl off street food for life.

The time had come to hit a Thai bar. We headed first to the Khon Thai, where we were punished with icy airconditioning for being way too early. Things got going by 10 pm, the cover band raised the temperature and by the time we departed it was difficult to find a seat. The cover band (why are they always covers in Thailand?) at The Timber & Rock, our next stop, was generating mass crowd singalongs as we pulled up a seat at the bar, ordered some beers and muu manao (grilled pork with chilli, lime juice, chilli, garlic and chilli), and learned how Thais let their hair down. And on a Monday night!

It would have been easy to let our days turn to nights and dance the holiday away, but we were committed to serious exploration. So we hired a motorbike and headed out to the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project at Bang Pae waterfall. Established in 1992, the program’s goal is to save gibbons and their rainforest habitat via rehabilitation and education. At the Project’s centre, visitors are treated to a short tour by a volunteer who explains the program in detail. You won’t get to see the animals up close, as the objective of the program is to actually reduce contact with humans. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm our guide showed as she regaled us with tales of various ape antics more than made up for this.

Heading back south, a stop at the National Museum was in order. Housed in a spacious building, the museum looks not just at the history of Phuket, but of all of Thailand. Look out for the intriguing maps that trace the development of Bangkok. While the English translations are not always up to scratch, the museum still provides a fair Thailand-in-a-nutshell overview. The international tourist flying directly to Phuket for what they think is a holiday in Thailand should definitely make a stop here. Unfortunately, the museum was completely deserted during our visit.

The Butterfly Garden and Aquarium was next, a tranquil comma in an otherwise hectic day. A combined tropical garden, mini-zoo, insect display and aquarium make for a pleasant Thai flora and fauna experience—although some foreign species do make cameo appearances. Watch out for the friendly mynah bird who’ll be waiting to say hello, and the glassed-in cage containing masses of writhing black scorpions.

Our second dinner in Phuket Town was also memorable. Eclectic decorations make for a unique atmosphere to feast on excellent and very well-priced Thai food at Natural Restaurant, a haunt popular with local Thais. Try the steamed prawns in tamarind juice, and the stuffed squid in green curry. And there are the not-even-trying-to-be-authentic-because-we-are Thai-desserts to finish with.

Over the course of the next few days, we ventured to a variety of other places worth recommending. Stop for lunch at Tunk Ka on Khao Rang Hill in Phuket Town for a great Thai meal with a great view of the surrounds. Make sure you try the ‘Fried cashews with dried shrimp and young pepper, Tunk Ka style’ with a cold Singha beer. A trip to Chalong Bay is a must, both for the azure-blue bay scenery, and seafood lunch at Kanaeng Restaurant. Take a peaceful and enlightening walk among the mangroves in Sirinat National Park, which can be reached by songtheaw, even though you may have to squint at the sun-faded explanatory texts. A motorbike drive from Kata Beach to Cape Promthep will give you more than enough postcard-perfect views of beaches; time your drive to finish with sunset at the cape. And a two-hour visit to Siam Safari is a way to get close to some elephants while helping to support a company that actually helps the elephants.

Sure, we flirted with the Patong beach scene. The US Navy was in town, there was some shopping to be done, I succumbed to the desire for a steak: we could have been in any international resort town in the tropics. We had, however, done more than enough to be satisfied that we knew exactly where we were. And we were more than just pleased to be there.

Information

  • The On On Hotel, at 19 Phangnga Rd has basic single rooms (with a double bed and fan) for 150 baht.
  • Kajok See is located at 26 Takuapa Rd, Phuket Town. Open Tues–Sun evenings. 300–400 baht for two people.
  • Natural Restaurant is located at 62/5 Soi Puton, Phuket Town. Open Tues–Sun, lunch and dinner. 200 baht for two people.
  • The Gibbon Rehabilitation Project is located at Bang Pae Waterfall, Pa Khlock, Thalang, and is best reached by motorbike. Free guided tour, voluntary donation appreciated. Paid volunteers run the Project, cost depends on length of stay. Contact (076) 260 492 for details.
  • The National Museum is open daily 9am–5pm. Located just east of the Heroine’s Monument. Entrance is 30 baht.
  • The Butterfly Garden and Aquarium is open daily 9am–5pm. Located 2km north of Phuket Town. Entrance is 150 baht.
  • Recommended guides: Heritage Phuket Holiday Guide by Ken Scott, available from Asia Books in Thailand for 120 baht.

Take time to unwind at Tamarind Springs

Going on a holiday? Feeling torpid, exhausted, lethargic or just plain lazy? If you’re heading to Ko Samui, the doctor would definitely prescribe a half-day treatment at Tamarind Springs, a boutique day herbal steam and massage spa.

They’ll provide everything from your sarongs to your thongs; all you need to do is present your weary, drooping body to the reception sala – after booking well in advance to get in, judging by the number of people being turned away while I was there around New Year.

Open now for nearly 18 months, the peaceful open-air spa is a beautifully-designed oasis within the oasis of Samui itself. It’s located off the main ring road leading from Lamai to Chaweng, and although you can’t see the ocean while you’re relaxing in the cool dipping pool or unwinding under your masseuse’s powerful fingers, the gently swaying coconut palms will undoubtedly convince you that you’re still on a tropical island.

The basic treatment is simply the herbal steam itself, which is reputed to improve circulation, expel bodily toxins, clear respiratory passages and assist digestion. It also soothes muscles and can act as a skin tonic.

Built snugly between two boulders on the slope of a hill, the steam room at Tamarind Springs is naturally lit by sunlight filtering through windows placed at one end, giving a sense of openness and airiness unusual in such rooms. The temperature is kept between 35 and 45 degrees, a little cooler than dry saunas, which allows you to stay inside for that little bit longer.

After your skin and your sinuses have imbibed enough of the rejuvenating mixture – which includes lemon grass, tamarind leaves, lime leaves, prai (a ginger-like root), beach morning glory and turmeric – head to the dipping pool just outside the door. A plunge in the pool seems to shock each and every pore, leaving you zapped with energy. Use the phone to order a yoghurt fruit shake, juice, beer or herbal tea from the restaurant and take it easy by the pool.

While the upright plastic chairs on offer don’t exactly encourage lounging around, the majority of clients seem to steam, dip and head for a treatment immediately afterwards anyway – a shame really, as the small area outside the steam room and by the pool would be a pleasant spot to laze for a bit.

The treatment area is located in another wooden sala , a little further up the hill. As only around a dozen people can be worked on at any one time, the space is never in any danger of losing its distinct secluded calm. Superimposed upon the relaxation music, the occasional rhythmic slapping of flesh and the odd bird call simply add to the overall ambience.

Various individual or combination treatments are on offer. I lusted after the four-hour Divine Decadence Bt1700 package – a herbal steam, 90 minute relaxation massage – which is a little less strenuous than Thai massage and places special emphasis on the neck, shoulders, and back – a khamin and prai facial, and a wild mint foot massage. Alas, I didn’t book in time and had to settle (it was tough!) for a 1200Bt Sheer Indulgence set instead – a steam, one-hour relaxation massage, and a half hour additional massage (of the face or feet). Another option is the Traditional Thai pack, with a steam and two hour traditional Thai massage.

All of the options are individually priced, so you can design your own treatment if you wish. The basic steam is priced at Bt450.

One of the biggest decisions you will be required to make should you choose a package with a relaxation massage, is which aromatic oil to use. The delicious options may leave you pondering for some time: there’s nutmeg, which is particularly good for a deep tissue massage, or perhaps relaxing ylang ylang, or prai, which is prized for its skin-conditioning qualities. Or there’s stimulating tangerine (my favourite!), invigorating wild mint or lastly, lemongrass, which is good for improving the breathing.

Certainly, the prices are not cheap when compared to your typical beach masseuse, or even some of the other spas that are springing up over the island. My foot massage was not necessarily better than others I have had, but my relaxation massage was a revelation, and the superb surroundings – the gardens, the immaculate salas, the stylish locker rooms – are worth paying extra to enjoy.

And it’s the small touches such as the friendly, helpful staff and the complimentary Tamarind Springs’ shampoos and conditioners in the showers that will keep people coming back.

After your session, you can retire to the restaurant space in the upstairs section of the reception sala, decorated with some really lovely pieces of furniture. At the moment, the restaurant offers only drinks and light snacks such as carrot cake and fruit salad.

One comment in the guestbook says it all: ‘This is not Koh Samui. I have been transported to heaven.’

Tamarind Springs is open 11am to 8pm, bookings highly recommended. Phone (077) 424 436 or 230 571. Tamarind Hill Retreat’s website is at http://www.tamarindretreat.com/

Waterways

Situated on a hill rising dramatically at the intersection of two rivers, Luang Prabang has for centuries enchanted those who arrive by boat – still probably one of the best ways to first see the former royal capital of Laos. This town dominated by wats of unspeakable beauty is somnambulent, peaceful and languid, masking a fascinating history of conquest and recapture, and only hinting at an intricate culture and complex traditions. And at designated times of year, the town springs to a life that is unique.

Pii Mai, or New Year, occurs in mid-April and is the most elaborate and vibrant of the festivals dotting the calendar year. It marks the beginning of the new agricultural year, with rain expected any day, and as if throwing back a blanket, the town wakes up and a time-honoured drama unfolds to seduce all who are lucky enough to be there. Extending for three days, the festival begins on the last day of the old year, and ends on the first day of the new. Between these days is a ‘neutral’ day, where the Lao reputedly don’t age.

On the first day of rituals, we awake with the sun. Already the street below is milling with people. There’s a palpable expectant feel in the air, and we follow the crowds to what’s known as talaat nat, where all the necessary festival items ranging from candles to live animals are for sale. Pairs of birds in tiny pink straw cages lined up neatly on mats chirp incessantly alongside tiny fish in buckets being sloshed into small plastic bags and restless turtles and frogs stretching against protective nets: the liberators of these animals will gain merit.

Traditional Lao musical instruments are also for sale, along with basketware, obscure noise-making implements, helium balloons, sweets, soups and coconut ice cream. Streams of coloured paper hand-painted with the signs of the Lao zodiac and mounted onto slim sticks are carried along by the crowd, fluttering in the slight breeze. Gambling is popular: it’s hard to work out how the odds work on the myriad of games. Throwing a tennis ball, aiming a dart, flicking a slingshot or spinning a fish can variously win you cigarettes, fish sauce, washing detergent, or, if you’re unlucky, a lolly for trying.

We stop at one of the wats along the road, and watch an older man show novices how to asperse, or wash, the temple’s Buddhas. This is one of the most serious rites of the new year, representing purity and life, as well as the renewal the rains will bring.

By midday boats are streaming across to the other side of the Mekong. We are drenched by the time we reach our boat: people line up with buckets of water or hoses outside their houses, dousing any passers-by with a good-humoured litre or two. Traditionally, this was also a symbolic rite of purification, which developed into something more fun where women would chase men to soak them. According to an 1887 description of the rite, women also pursued men with mud, oil and soot. Monks, nobles and princes were not spared, the princes apparently wearing a minimum of clothing to avoid damage to their royal best. Nowadays everyone joins in the fun.

On the other side of the Mekong, pa thaat sai, stupas made of sand, are being constructed along the bank. It’s certainly an art: sand, covered with water – one genius fills a plastic bag with holes and sprinkles this over his group’s – are built higher and higher, surrounded by small balls of mud, sprinkled with flour into which the Buddhist year is inscribed, and finally decorated with incense and candles. Each grain of sand is said to wash away a single sin of the builder. A prayer and family snaps follow upon completion, and a plunge into the Mekong to cool off may as well take place: if you don’t wet yourself, someone else is bound to.

At about four o’clock, in what feels like a finale, a Lao Aviation plane comes swooping down the river, just metres over our heads: mouths drop open in this century’s addition to tradition.

The following morning at Wat Ahaan, the ritual masks of Pu No and Na No are brought out from storage and preened for the day’s procession later on. A dozen or so children are finger-combing the straw hair of the two red-faced masks representing the devata luang, the town’s royal tutelary gods. According to one legend, the Lao kings who ruled until the mid-twentieth century were descended from the king of the heavenly gods, King Borom. The King descended from the sky on his royal elephant and landed at what is now known as Dien Bien Phu. He travelled through thick forests accompanied by Pu No and Na No, who wielded shovels and axes to demolish vegetation and hostile parties. When the party reached the site of the present Luang Prabang, Pu No and Na No became the future town’s devata luang, wielding more power than the fifteen nagas that had previously protected the area.

By early afternoon, people are lining the footpaths in order to get a good spot to see the parade through town. Water-dousing continues, with nobody spared. The tourists screaming ‘Camera! No!’ get it down their backs while elegant women wearing traditional clothes get a delicate cupful instead of a bucket. It doesn’t take long before we are spotted by some water, lipstick, charcoal and flour-wielding children. The water is a welcome relief from the heat, but it’s soon followed by flour, lipstick across the face, and charcoal on the nose. Just when I think it’s over, a group of three young girls come running up with their green pails. ‘No more!’ I plead. They shake their heads and proffer the buckets, dipping their hands in and washing their faces to show what I should do to prepare myself for the parade.

At the head of the procession are the city officials, carrying pyramids of carefully arranged banana leaves and flowers, followed by saffron streams of monks and novices who are splashed with perfumed water containing rose petals. Pu No and Na No come next, accompanied by the little lion known as Singkeo Singkham. Two pick up trucks carrying abbots in litters come next, followed by women dressed in intricately woven traditional sin and pabieng, or skirts and sashes.

A chariot of an absurdly large rat – representing of course, the year of the rat – comes next, along with the woman voted as nang sang khan. According to another legend, a God-king with a four-faced head once asked a wise young man a riddle which, if he could not answer, would result in the loss of his head. The young man was able to answer the riddle, leading to the God-king forfeiting his head and his kingdom. Being such a powerful God, however, he knew his death would wreak havoc with the earth. So he ordered the wise man to proffer his head to his seven daughters, who would store it deep in the earth, but bring it out to be paraded once a year in order for the world to live peacefully. The nang sang khan represents one of the God-king’s daughters.

We follow the parade which concludes with groups of men dancing the fon dab, a traditional Lao dance, to sprawling Wat Sieng Thong. Here there are more dancers and musicians, and stalls selling young coconuts, Pepsi and noodles have sprung up. More importantly, Pu No and Na No accept offerings from the people, before officially ending the day by performing a dance. In the meantime, monks are themselves being washed behind curtains and are peeped at by children brave enough to draw them back for a moment.

The following day is the day the spirit of the new year arrives. At sunrise, there is a special tak bat, where monks are given fruits, sweets, cakes flowers and money – rather than just the usual sticky rice. At Phu Si, the hill dominating the town, women kneeling on mats with silver bowls catching the crawling sun wait patiently for the monks to arrive. Like rays of the arriving sunlight itself, the single file monks emerge eventually and take their alms.

An hour later the attention focuses on Phu Si itself. Under the heady scent of frangipani, families arrive to walk up the hill to Wat Thaat Chom Si with rice, lollies and biscuits to propitiate the spirits. The offerings are left along the 328 steps leading all the way to the summit. A group of mischievous kids pick up the sweets as soon as possible after they’ve been laid out: some have been well-trained, bringing plastic bags for the collecting! From Thaat Chom Si, the view is stunning. Mist drifts through the impressive mountains in the distance while the Nam Khan stretches like a lover below.

In the afternoon, yesterday’s parade goes in the reverse direction. We arrive at Wat Sieng Thong well before the parade begins to observe the preparations. The masks of Pu No and Na No are brought out for display. Children in red and blue outfits sit around them, patiently waiting. Monks with black umbrellas begin to congregate. A recalcitrant monk asks one of the children to go buy him a packet of cigarettes. The men who will wear the masks tighten their pull-tie pants with a grimace and allow the masks to be placed on their heads. Lipsticked girls shade themselves under dainty umbrellas as they wait, fanned by nearby friends to stay cool.

Led by the Lao flag, the parade begins again and heads back to Wat Thaat Luang with similar crowd participation.

On the second day of the new year, after the official celebrations are over, the residents of Luang Prabang traditionally head by boat to the Pak Ou caves located twenty-five kilometres upstream. Here they pay homage to the multitudes of Buddha statues, as well as asperse them with perfumed water.

We hire a boat in the morning to take us there, through the mist and the ubiquitous frangipani scent. At the caves, children sell flowers, incense, orange candles and water perfumed with yellow, pink and white flower petals. People inside are quietly sprinkling water over the statues, the occasional boat engine the only sound intruding. In the darker cave, the atmospere is intimate, with curlicues of smoke being caught in the flickering candlelight. Footsteps are muted in the dust, people speak in hushed tones and get their photograph taken praying at the shrines – the flash a sudden reminder of what century it is.

The following day, the rituals continue, with the procession of the Pha Bang taking place. The highly revered golden image of Buddha is no more than 50cm tall and originally came from Sri Lanka, via a king of Cambodia. Moved throughout history variously between Luang Prabang, Vientiane and the then capital of Siam, Thonburi, it is now stored at the National Museum, formerly the Royal Palace. Led again by Pu No and Na No, the Pha Bang is carried from the Museum in a prasat, a small carved wooden palace-like structure, to the courtyard of Wat Mai, where a marquee has been specially erected. It’s a short but colourful and joyous procession

Here the Pha Bang will stay, illuminated by fluorescent lights, for three days and nights. Flowers, incense and candles are offered at such a rate that a few people are specially employed to remove them as they pile to unmanageable heights. The people also bless the Pha Bang with holy water through a hanglin, a hollow wooden implement carved into the shape of a naga. The water is poured through the tail of the naga, flowing through to the serpent’s mouth and then onto the Pha Bang placed below it. Until a few decades ago, the King would carry out this, along with nobles, Pu No, Na No and monks. Today Pu No and Na No and the monks still carry out this duty.

Some things may have changed in Laos, but the beauty of a resilient culture continues to live on.

Information

Getting there: Lao Aviation now flies from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. Alternatively, the 40 minute flight from Vientiane can be taken from Vientiane daily, or take a local bus from Vientiane’s central bus station for the approximately 8 hour ride – possibly a squeeze, potentially dangerous due to the hazardous road, but definitely scenic. They leave daily at 1pm. For the thoroughly adventurous, speedboats can be chartered from Vientiane. They are, however, expensive, uncomfortable, and arguably the most dangerous way of all to travel.

Where to stay: There is now plenty of low-budget accommodation in Luang Prabang, although it is advised to attempt to book somewhere if heading there during New Year. At the mid to upper range especially recommended is the Villa Santi, a charming restored hotel owned by one Laos’ former princesses (fax from Thailand +007 71 212 263).

Recommended reading (distributed by Asia Books):
Luang Prabang by Rene Sepul and Cici Olsson
Old Luang Prabang by Betty Gosling
A History of Laos by Martin Stuart-Fox
Stalking the Elephant Kings by Christopher Kremmer

Tha Khaek: Throw away your guidebook

While the guidebook says it’s called Sikhot Hotel, the sign out the front says it’s Soksoomboon Guesthouse. While the guidebook says it’s housed in a former police station from the French era, the guesthouse manager insists the building was formerly used by petty government officials. We’ve just arrived in Tha Khaek, the capital of Laos’s Khammuan Province – and we’re throwing away our guidebook.

Shown to our room in the cheaper, motel-style section of the guesthouse, we settle comfortably into our socialist version of art deco splendour: functional wooden furniture, fluorescent lights, luscious red terry towelling bedspread, and the piece de resistance: a naked blue light bulb over the bed. For 15 000 kip a night (US$6) it will do fine.

We escape the luxury for an afternoon wander around Tha Khaek’s centre, and are surprised by the peaceful, somnolent atmosphere. In fact, it’s laid back to the point of being almost ghost-townish, with a dry fountain forming the focal point of the square where only a handful of people roam aimlessly. In the cool of the green canopy of trees lining several of the criss-crossed main streets, the odd tuk tuk putters past, motorcycles zip efficiently along and bicycles glide by, riders turning their heads in curiosity. Few falangs, or westerners, stop here.

The eclectic mix of architecture we observe is due to the influences of various cultures over the decades. Although once an outpost of the Funan empire, the town was largely constructed during the French colonial period. Along with the stuccoed buildings, the French have left behind a substantial Christian population. It’s a surprise to see the cross of a Christian church among the town’s Buddhist wats.

Before the Pathet Lao took over in 1975, the population of the town was, some estimates claim, up to 85 per cent Vietnamese. They mingled with Thais from across the Mekong who frequented the town to gamble and trade—and with economic reform in full swing, the Thais are now returning in larger numbers than ever before.

With so many traders passing through Tha Khaek these days, it’s a shame they have such an arduous task at hand when it’s time for dinner—even if you can ask for your favourite dishes in Lao, there aren’t too many places to oblige you. The Kulaap Daeng (Red Rose) Restaurant has a menu in English of Lao, Thai and Chinese food, and although the MSG doses here can be especially generous, the selection is good. On the other hand, if you’re keen for noodle soup, there are a variety of stalls along the Mekong, while the fresh produce market has an excellent selection of tropical fruit.

Following a night spent listening to the cover band playing in the night club next door to our guesthouse, we ask a tuk tuk driver to take us to the collection of caves within limestone outcrops to the east of town. We settle on a price of 15 000 kip (US$6) and begin the bumpy 18 kilometre ride to the farthest of the caves, Tham Nang Aen. We only have to get out of the tuk tuk a few times to push it.

Despite still being early morning, the humidity is becoming stifling, so it’s a great relief to get to the first cave. It features a cool breeze flowing from within, justifying its popularity as a weekend destination for Laotians who just can’t take anymore of the heat. A wooden resthouse is currently being constructed at the entrance, and there’s a 2000k entrance fee. Inside the impressively-sized cave staircases with odd twists and turns take trippers to the more interesting formations. Green, pink, yellow and blue fluorescent lights tucked away in corners throw the limestone into funky relief, and a smoke machine wouldn’t be too out of place.

On our way out, the driver points out an array of cages to the left of the cave entrance. Inside are a number of deer, an intelligent monkey who poses obligingly for the camera, and a slumbering porcupine—all part of the entertainment for weekend-tripping Laos? There doesn’t seem to be any other explanation. We hope that some of the entrance fee is going towards improving the animal’s conditions.

Our next stop is at Tham Pha Xang, a large cave leading on to an open-air turquoise pond and further, inaccessible caves. A multitude of small bats roost on the cool roof, squealing ominously but keeping their distance. There’s also a small Buddha shrine: our tuk tuk driver lights candles, perhaps we irreverently think, requesting that his tuk tuk make it all the way back to town.

A surprise destination follows. The tuk tuk breaks down again and our driver waves us along the road ahead. We discover a small, emerald-green river, and can’t work out where the cave we’re expecting is. Are we meant to swim across? The driver catches up to us and explains that we’re at Tha Falang, or French Pier, a spot the French colonialists used to come to relax at. We strip off our money belts and dive in wearing our Lao swimmers—that is, our clothes. Our driver plunges in after us.

By the time we walk the 30 metres back to the tuk tuk, we’re literally steaming in the heat. Back on the road, we dodge dopey-looking cows and seesawing goats. Finally, we stop at Tham Pha Ban Tham, more of an overhang than a cave, where a Buddha shrine is located. It’s surrounded by prayer flags, burnt joss sticks and browning banana-leaf and flower arrangements, probably leftovers from Lao New Year celebrated a fortnight before our visit.

We’re hot, thirsty and hallucinating about an afternoon sipping Bia Lao, or Lao Beer, by the river, but our driver offers to also take us to Wat Pha That Si Khotabong, eight kilometres over the other side of town. We accept. One of the more important wats in the country—hard to pick from the overgrown grass surrounding it—the nineteenth century sim is supposed to feature a revered Buddha. As the sim is firmly locked when we arrive, we have to be satisfied with walking around the perimeter and examining the unusual thaat, also highly revered, which features a gilded lotus catching the glare of the afternoon sun.

Back in town, there’s not too much left to do besides make our hallucinations a reality, and while away the afternoon watching the boats amble by.

Lak Sao: Road to nowhere

If the world was flat, this town would surely be at the very edge of it. A tumbleweed or two blowing past wouldn’t be out of place, while a bar with wagon wheels adorning the facade would fit right in. It’s dusty and blisteringly hot; it’s full of ancient trucks, noisy tuktuks and disabled buses; the folorn thatched shops skirting the main square sell meagre odds and ends; and there’s a kid spraying a chicken to death with insect repellant right under my nose. This is Lak Sao. We console ourselves with the impressive limestone mountains in the distance.

‘Lak Sao is very beautiful!’ a Luang Prabang resident had told us. ‘Oh, you must visit Lak Sao,’ the men we met in Pakxane had insisted.

We’d heard only intriguing snippets about Laos’s Lak Sao, located in eastern Bolikhamsai province. Our guidebook describes it as being the ‘development’ project of a company called Phattanakhet Phu Doi, headed by a Lao general. The company is meant to have transformed Lak Sao from a sleepy village into a thriving metropolis (for Laos!) of 24 000 people. The guidebook also writes that the market is renowned for the sale of wildlife, some of it endangered.

Christopher Kremmer, in his travelogue Stalking the Elephant Kings, mentions Lak Sao when discussing the growing power of the army in Laos. A company based there and headed by General Chang Sayavong, he writes, employs a large number of the town’s population in ‘agriculture, forestry, building, infrastructure, handicrafts processing, tourism and, allegedly, cattle smuggling’. Kremmer writes that the General was meant to have started a zoo staffed by foreign experts, ‘constantly replenished with wild animals fleeing his company’s own logging activities’.

As if that wasn’t enough to make us curious, George Negus covered Lak Sao for Foreign Correspdondent! We had to see for ourselves.

Arriving at Tha Khaek’s outer bus station in the liquid-gold light of morning, the colours of the hand-painted Isuzu truck-buses are intensified, and the produce and wares for sale in the sprawling market next door take on magical hues. The bus to Lak Sao leaves at eight, but we’ve long since learned that in Laos you need to be on the bus in your seat at least an hour before it leaves to be sure of getting a seat at all.

With time to spare, we take a seat at a stall for a cup of kafeh thong, freshly brewed Lao coffee. As the stallholder stokes the fire, we watch the madness escalate. Rooves are loaded, tuk-tuks skidding to a halt spew forth scarve-cladded women clutching babies, whole families zip by on motor scooters and people queue to buy baguettes stuffed with meat, cucumber and chilli sauce. A steamed bun vendor pushes his bike past, tooting his horn loudly.

Armed with water and baguettes, we find our bus and claim seats with legroom more suited to Western infants than adults. Space is further reduced when a few boxes of fish sauce are shoved under our feet. The roof is being piled high with everything from baskets of live chickens and electric fans—we count fifteen boxes on their way up—to saucepans and sun-dried tobacco.

The rope tying all the cargo groans and creaks so ominously as we depart that at first I think it’s the roof caving in. We stop every hundred metres or so out of town to collect more people and soon we’re sitting six to rows meant for four. We don’t panic, however, as it’s only 90 kilometres to Nam Thone, the turn off to Lak Sao. Then, according to the very name Lak Sao which means ‘Kilometre Twenty’, we have just another twenty kilometres to go.

We pick up more people at the turnoff, and the bus becomes crowded, even for Laos. An hour passes. And another. An old woman two seats in front is spitting betel nut juice out the window, and great flecks of it are flying back on to my face and arm. There’s a sudden muffled thump followed by squawking; a basket of chickens has of course fallen off the roof. We back up, throw it back onto the roof and continue on our way.

The road is quite good, we pass numerous trucks hauling logs each at least the girth of a fat man’s waist, and still we push on. Then it dawns on my partner: the Kilometre Twenty Lak Sao derives its name from must refer to its location twenty kilometres from the Vietnamese border, not twenty kilometres from the Nam Thone turnoff.

Another few hours pass, during which if I hold my breath, crank my neck and stick my head out the window, the scenery is really quite lovely, with spectacular jagged mountains covered in primary-growth forest punctuating the distance. Finally, when I’m very close to throwing the boxes of fish sauce out the window after shifting my legs around them for seven continuous hours, we rumble into Lak Sao.

We carefully unfold our limbs and gingerly crawl out of the bus to wait for our luggage. The chickens are first off the roof, the fallen basket containing some rather stiff bodies. This is where the curious kid with a can of insect repellant takes particular notice of one chicken clearly struggling for breath. He sprays its head and it immediately keels over in possibly a kinder death than it was otherwise facing.

A tuk tuk takes us to Lak Sao’s sole hotel, the Phu Doi, located two kilometres from the bus station and market area. If you could get further from the middle of nowhere than where we had just been, then this would be it. It’s a spectacular example of bad architceture, but for a reasonable 10 000 kip we have a room with a fan, complimentary water and soap, and a share bathroom.

Twilight arrives early in Lak Sao, with the mountains to the west eating the sun by 5pm. Narrowly avoiding scores of flying bugs, we eventually make our way to the thatched reception hut where we ask the attendant about the possibility of hiring motorcycles. ‘Baw dai!—It’s not possible!’ he replies, and he knows nothing about a zoo, either. I flick the menacing cockroach crawling across his collar off in a gesture of goodwill before leaving anyway.

We’re the only patrons in the hotel’s restaurant for dinner until a tour group of eight destined for Vietnam arrives a little later. The English menu features ‘baked scaly anteater’, ‘sour lionsnake soup’ and ‘wild bleeding boar’ along with French champagne, Italian red wine or Australian Swan Beer. While wondering if I should take my feminism as far as ‘male cooked in hot ash’, the local Lao guide leading the group saunters over to say hello.

‘Have you come from Vietnam?’ he inquires.

‘No,’ we reply.

‘Oh, so you’re heading there tomorrow!’ he says.

‘No, we’ve just come to see Lak Sao.’ He’s speechless, so we explain about wanting to see the general’s operations, the zoo and the market. The penny drops and he shakes his head.

‘Oh! The General has been de-posted!’ he exclaims. ‘I think perhaps he cut down too many trees!’ He explains that the zoo has been closed, and the government has largely taken over other operations. He offers us a ride back to Nam Thone in his otherwise empty airconditioned mini-bus tomorrow. We accept, incredulous at such luck.

The following morning we’re up with the sun to take a walk to the market and around town. After fortifying ourselves with karfeh thong and stuffed baguettes, we wander through the open-air aisles, taken aback by the array of vegetables for sale, and the especially fine colours of the women’s pha nungs, or embroidered skirts. A baby monkey in a thatched cage chatters when we stop for a peek, and some lizards lie out on display. That’s apparently it for the wildlife, unless you’re in the know, we presume. As the market appears to be town, we retire back to our hotel.

Heading back to Nam Thone by minibus later in the day, we actually get a chance to see all the amazing scenery we missed on the way up. It’s spectacular, and we’re viewing it in air conditioned comfort—but somehow we find ourselves missing the squawking chickens, the scent of dried chillies and tobacco, and the wind in our faces.

Information
Currency: US$1=2500 kip. Baht is also usually accepted.
Visas: Are available from Laotian embassies for 30 days.
Getting There: Thai Airways flies daily to Vientiane from Bangkok for 6745 baht return. Several buses leave Vientiane and pass through Tha Khaek daily. The bus to Lak Sao leaves from Tha Khaek at eight am. The ride costs 6000 kip.
When to go: The Laos is pleasant to visit during the dry period from November to May. Although days are hot, temperatures can drop to 15 degrees Celsius at night, so do take warm clothing.

A quiet corner of paradise

When I saw the height of the winding red dirt track we were going to have to traverse, I threw down my pack in despair.

That was December, and not unusually for the time of year, the water was too rough to take a longtail to the bay from Mae Hat, where boats from Chumphon, Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan land. As taxi-drivers and motorcyclists generally retain too great a portion of their sanity to attempt the pothole-ridden road, walking is theonly option. I thought a second option might simply be staying somewhere on this side of the hill, but my partner was determined.

He arrived back with cool water, and we trudged off and up… and up. Upon reaching the summit we were rewarded with a cool breeze and a hint of the view that was to be enjoyed once we were there. Heartened, we headed down… and down.

In less than half-an-hour overall – unfit people can be melodramatic about physical activity – we arrived to a warm welcome at Hin Wong Bungalows. To our delight we discovered we’d be the only guests, and had our choice of one of their eight basic wooden bungalows that go for 100 baht a night, a fact which dispelled the myth of it being difficult to find a piece of quite paradise to yourself on Ko Tao– afterall, it’s now busier per square metre than Ko Samui.

While the western side of Ko Tao contains great stretches of smooth white sand, it also features a great number of dive shops, which, depending on your appreciation of peacefulness, are not so lovely. Hin Wong is markedly different. Giant round boulders have collected in the bay over the millennia, and form what may well become a beach – in a few millennia more. For the moment, however, the steep and lush green hills on either side of the bay give way to wild-looking boulders and then the deep blue Gulf of Thailand. And there’s not a dive shop in sight.

We strung up our hammocks, relaxed, and enjoyed the view. The wind picked up, and as the white-capped waves pummelled the rocks ferociously, our hopes of snorkelling within the near future were dashed. It’s difficult to remain distressed about small disappointments in such a pretty place, however, so we consoled ourselves with a trip to the restaurant.

The food complemented the view, and considering the hassle of lugging supplies to Hin Wong in such weather, it’s competently priced as well. In fact, the food, the view, a couple of good books and conversing with the family who run Hin Wong was enough to keep us satisfied for the three days we had to wait for the weather to settle down sufficiently to go for a snorkel.

Finally we were able to plunge into the water. Within a couple of seconds I spotted one of the largest groupers I have ever seen, along with parrot fish, damsel fish and an array of stunning coral. It was astounding. Why bother going to the hassle and expense of scuba diving when there’s so much to enjoy just below the surface?

With time ticking away, we decided to continue our search for out-of-the-way resorts. We found ourselves at Ao Thian Nok, a small beach located on the southeast of the island. Far more tranquil than the nearby Ao Chalok Ban Kao or Hat Sairee, there’s only one resort – and one dive shop – so you’re more than likely to find a piece of quiet beach to yourself to relax on.

We settled in to a white-stuccoed bungalow at Rocky Resort, rather pricey at 350 baht per night, but with a faultless view of the beach and two friendly large blue geckos in the bathroom we were content. With white bed linen, white walls, wooden shutters, and a view of the sunset literally from the bed, I couldn’t help but consider for a moment whether I might not be on Italy’s Isle of Capri. A trip to the restaurant, of course, fixed that.

Our hill-climbing days on Ko Tao were far from over – with the John Suwan viewpoint a mere half-hour’s walk away, it had to be done. By the state of the track, it became quite clear that bushwalking is not generally a second sport favoured by divers! We met not a soul clammering to the peak giving a breathtaking view back over the peninsula, nor on our return. If you can drag yourself from the beach, the viewpoint is highly recommended, particularly in the early morning.

You may, in fact, develop a taste for hiking up hills while on Ko Tao. We took the obligatory day trip to Ko Nang Yuan, famed for being the only place in the world where three islands are joined by beaches. The walk to the viewpoint here is clearly more popular than that of John Suwan’s – cement steps led all the way to the summit! Yet again, we found we had the top of the world to ourselves, and as we took in the only view of its type in the world, we realised the sweat and swearing was all worthwhile.

So when your boat pulls in to Mae Hat and you’re approached by touts from fifteen different dive shops at once, don’t despair – just tell them where to stick their O2 tanks! Then take a deep breath, make sure your shoes are comfortable, and get away from it all. And if you’re heading to Hin Wong, remember a bottle of water.

Information

The most ideal time of the year to travel to Hin Wong is May through to July, when the weather is reliably calm and snorkelling is the daily activity.
At Hin Wong, masks, snorkels and fins can be hired, but it’s recommended that you take your own, both to save some extra cash, and to be assured that you’ll get the quality you’re used to.

Huay Xai: Gateway to northern Laos

Crossing the Mekong at Thailand’s Chiang Kong to Huay Xai, Bokeo province Laos, is a casual experience. Checkout of Thailand, hand 20 baht to the sampan pilot, putter across, and check into Laos. It’s hard to believe you’ve also just made it through two international customs points.

It seems few travellers want to hang around Huay Xai, preferring instead to jump on the slowboat to Luang Prabang, or the truck to Luang Nam Tha. With its laid-back ambience and great view of the Mekong, however, Huay Xai is a great place to relax for a day or two while you ease yourself into Laotian life. It also forms a base for a day trip to Ban Nam Keung Kao, a half hour’s speed boat ride upriver, worth visiting for its hot springs and a waterfall.

Huay Xai appears to be a richer-than-average Laotian town, probably due to its proximity to neighbouring Thailand. Indeed, there was an intriguing mix of fans, refrigerators and other electrical appliances on sale at one of the restaurants we frequented. Nevertheless, in the dusty streets that criss-cross behind the main thoroughfare, modern housing gradually gives way to traditional Lao thatched bungalows. Pastel-coloured French colonial buildings, several now crumbling, give the town an overall eclectic mix of architecture.

While wandering around, check out the town’s temple, Wat Jorm Khao Manilat, situated at the top of a long flight of naga steps. With vivid, almost gaudy coloured murals decorating both the interior and exterior walls, the temple is redolent of Vietnamese Cao Dai. A little bewilderingly, they encompass the names of various American cities in Roman script. The late afternoon sun illuminated the interior murals especially beguilingly while we were there. While taking a peek at the tiny individual monks’ quarters located directly behind the temple, keep an eye out for a mischievous monkey that leaps and scratches and makes faces on a perch nearby.

One habit that’s essential to pick up while you’re in Laos is that of caffeine – so you may as well start in Huay Xai. Ubiquitous Lao coffee is addictive: usually served with two fingers of sweetened condensed milk languishing on the bottom, the brew is bitter but tempered to perfection by the saccharine milk. Do, however, remember to ask for ‘Lao karfae’, otherwise you will be served strong instant Nescafe – a very poor substitute. The arabica and robusta coffee beans grown on Laos’s Bolaven Plateau are sold for some of the highest prices on the world coffee market. Within Laos, however, you can expect to pay about 300 to 500 kip a glass.

Food, on the other hand, can be tricky to find in Huay Xai. The noodle shop opposite the Hotel Houei Sai, despite lowered awnings, does serve good food all through the day, while the Nutpop Muang Meau restaurant, a short walk away from the main street and recognisable by its thatched bungalow booths and fairy lights, is worth searching out. It serves a tantalising spicy beef laap.

There are a number of accommodation options. We stayed at the imaginatively named Hotel Houei Sai, located a block south of the temple, in a small and shabby room – the stunning vista from our window of the sunset over the Mekong, however, made it a pleasant choice. Later we discovered the excellent Arimid Guesthouse, situated across the road from the slowboat pier. With clean and spacious bungalows, it may go beyond being the best place in town and actually keep you there for longer than you expected. As an added bonus, the English- and French-speaking management are a veritable wealth of information.

From Huay Xai, charter a speedboat for the half hour ride to Ban Nam Keung Kao. Catching one is an experience in itself, as the boat slices and skates across the water, dodging precarious rocky outcrops and reaching speeds of up to eighty kilometres an hour. While motorcycle helmets are worn by some passengers, they are not always provided.

From Ban Nam Keung Kao we had heard it was possible to see some hot springs and a waterfall. Our boat pilot shook his head in consternation when we arrived there, however, telling us that it was a two hour return walk – far too long to spend in the escalating heat of the day. We headed up to the village anyway, where our pilot spotted a tractor. Within minutes, he had negotiated with the owner to take us there and back for a small sum.

A bumpy ride through laneways brightened by the vermillion of poinsettias, followed by a lengthy walk through yellowing post-harvest rice fields, and we were suddenly confronted with a strong sulfuric odour. The farmer pointed out the springs apologetically to us: as it was dry season, they were all of three, rather green, centimetres deep! Perhaps to show us things really were exciting afterall around Ban Nam Keung Kao, the boat pilot spotted a two-metre snake alongside a paddy wall. A few hair-raising minutes later, it was dead and neatly wrapped in a large leaf, ready to be taken home for dinner.

Another half hour trek and the farmer found the gushing waterfall in an isolated spot. More impressive than the waterfall, however, were the men who had floated thick logs of firewood from further upriver, heading for the village. They tossed the great chunks of wood over the cataract, before scaling the rocks and plunging in themselves to guide the chunks along.

As the sun slipped steadily behind the mountainous bank and shadows lengthened, we declined the hospitable offer of snake for dinner: the speedboats were thrilling enough during the day, let alone under a cover of darkness. With ‘Chok dees!’ all round, we headed back downriver to our guesthouse, where we savoured what had turned out to be an intriguing introduction to Laos.

Information

Getting There: There are regular buses in Thailand from both Bangkok and Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, from where you cross the river into Huay Xai.
Getting Away: Slowboats leave for Pak Beng daily between 8:30 and 10:00 am.
Accommodation: The Huay Xai Hotel has double rooms for 180 baht, while the Arimid Guesthouse has doubles with cold water for 8000 kip, or with hot water for 10000 kip. There is no accommodation at Ban Nam Keung Kao.

The occidental tourist

‘Quaint’ is the adjective travellers most frequently come up with when struggling to describe the small town of Hoi An in central Vietnam. Yes, the old trading town of Hoi An is quaint. And as Vietnam extends a welcome to more tourists, it is becoming one of the most popular stops on the easy-to-navigate mini-bus route from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.

But here’s a better way: for an unbeatable introduction to the geographical area in which Hoi An is nestled, catch the train from Hue, the former old capital of Vietnam, to Danang. In The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux writes that: "Of all the places the railway had taken [me] since London, this was the loveliest." That was in 1975 – not too much has changed since then. The journey takes around four and a half hours by local train, or three hours on the Reunification Express, the track weaving along a stunning coastline of pure turquoise and brilliant emerald.

From Danang, catch a taxi for the 45-minute drive along the Korean Highway to Hoi An. For around US$15, don’t expect seatbelts or suspension, and don’t be surprised when you’re taken to the hotel of your driver’s choice. Relax: you are probably in good hands. Our driver took us to a hotel ideally located on the edge of Hoi An’s Thu Bon River and a five-minute walk from the market. The earplug-proof karaoke from a nearby home was an extra we could have done without, but then again, enduring the strains of Japan’s most loved and hated contribution to the world is really just another part of the complete Vietnam experience.

Once settled into your hotel, prepare for an amble around town. Hoi An is small and easily explored on foot or by bicycle. A major trading port in Southeast Asia from the late sixteenth century onward, its architecture was heavily influenced by Japanese, Portuguese and Chinese traders who lingered long enough to make their presence felt. There is a remarkably close concentration of old merchant houses and shops, family chapels, temples, communal houses, pagodas. assembly halls, tombs and bridges – as well as an old town well – which serve to evoke an atmosphere reminiscent of the past which may well be unsurpassed elsewhere in Vietnam. Allow at least two to three days to see all the central sights.

Another of Hoi An’s attractions is the food. There is no menu at Cafe de Amis, one of the oldest and most popular cafes in town and located on Bach Dang Street. The rambunctious children who wait on the tables simply ask the customers, "Vegetarian or seafood?" From then on, you’re in the chef’s very capable hands. On the evening we replied "Seafood!", a shrimp mixture wrapped in round rice noodles was served, followed by two tasty tuna dishes. Get there early to secure a verandah table and watch the dusky sky turn to ink over the river while sipping a cold beer.

Another excellent restaurant is Dong Phuong, located a stroll away. Pha, the proprietor, is well-known among travellers for his hospitality. Although there are menus here, you can simply ask to eat whatever he feels like cooking. He said that one traveller suggested he rename the restaurant "Pha Out", and it wasn’t hard to see why. Among the best of the meals we sampled here was a very simple but mouthwatering whole fish grilled with ginger and lemon. When the leftovers were being cleared away, we were gently chastised for missing the delectable flesh in the fish’s cheeks.

The culinary influence of France lingers on in Hoi An, as elsewhere in the country. At first seeming strangely out of place among the fruits and vegetables in the market, the ubiquitous white baguette is a Vietnamese staple. Coupled with a fried egg or two, the meal will get you going in the morning if you need a break from more flavoursome dishes. When ordering from a restaurant near the market, don’t be surprised if your waiter saunters past to pick up the baguette and egg while you wait.

One of the most beautiful in Vietnam, the market here is bustling, but not noisy. There’s a quiet rhythm and ambience about Hoi An that even stallholders, who would be boisterous anywhere else, seem to have succumbed to. Or perhaps they are overwhelmed by the intensity of colours and smells.

Tucked away from the pungent and heady aromas of coriander, freshly baked baguettes, fresh fish and eels, sweating ducks and chicken excrement – earthy smells of life and death – on the other side of the market are the Hoi An tailors. For a very reasonable price, get your measurements taken and, if you can wait for two days while the clothes are being made, you will be well rewarded. Ao dais, the national dress of Vietnamese women, are a popular order by female travellers, as are Chinese-collared dresses. For US $55, I bought four items of silk clothing.

It was at our tailor’s that we sampled Hoi An’s most famous dish, cao lau. A crunchy mixture of bean sprouts, fresh herbs, crumbled rice paper, noodles, and slices or pork tossed in ad delicate sauce, the dish was brought to us simply because we happened to turn up for a fitting when the tailors themselves were eating. Cool mineral water and sweet fat bananas were pressed into our hands as well.

The central Tran Phu Street offers a further array of restaurant and shops: it’s easy to while away an afternoon here, browsing through art and craft shops and stopping for a bowl of Vietnam’s famous pho noodles.

There is plenty to see in the countryside and towns surrounding Hoi An. If you do use the town as a base for a few days, you can travel about with the certainty that there will be a great meal waiting for you at the end of the day. And without requiring too much luck, you’ll also have a comfortable bed where you’ll be lulled to sleep by the rhythmic creaking of an overhead fan and the lapping of the river nearby.

Information

Getting around: Hire a bike and cruise or wear comfortable shoes and cover the town on foot. Motorbikes can also be hired to get to the nearby sites of China Beach, My Son, Cua Dai and the Marble Mountains.
When to go: The dry season between January and March is considered the most pleasant time to visit.
Where to stay: Hotels are concentrated along Tran Phu St and along the Thu Bon River. For a basic double room, expect to pay around US$15 a night.
What to eat: Fresh local seafood is highly recommended, or simply trust a chef to throw whatever takes their fancy together. Fresh fruits from the market are cheap and refreshing in the heat.