Sunday, February 26, 2017

Hmong Hill Tribe

The village of Phaton where we slept the night
Paul and I signed up for an overnight trek and homestay at a Hmong village high in the mountains above Nong Khiaw. The Hmong people are one of the larger tribal groups in SE Asia having migrated south from China in the 17th century.

Children, hoping for treats, are ready to welcome us
Children seemed to have the run of the village as most adults were out working in the fields when we arrived. They were a little shy of the five tall strangers who showed up with gifts, but soon they were chasing the balloons we brought around the village.

Rather than candy, we brought balloons, pens and notebooks as gifts

We began the 2nd day of our trek high above the clouds

The 7-hour trek home took us through bamboo forests and rice fields

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Nong Khiaw

 From Luang Prabang Paul and I took a 3 hour bus ride to Nong Khiaw, a town on the banks of the river called Nam Ou. We had heard that it was in a beautiful karst mountain setting and "off the beaten track". We weren't disappointed!

 Each morning we woke to a fog that settles in over the river valley. By midday the sun had burned the fog away revealing the panorama of mountains that ring the town.

We made Nong Khiaw our base for this finally leg of our journey through SE Asia. We took a couple of excursions up river to visit smaller villages, waterfalls and a remote hill tribe living high in the mountains. Our trek to stay overnight with the Hmong people of Ban Phatam will be the subject of my next blog.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Luang Prabang

One of the many Wats or Buddhist temples in Luang Prabang
Our boat journey down the Mekong River terminated in Luang Prabang, a small city in northern Laos. Once the country's royal capital, it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site rich with architectural, cultural and religious significance.

Setting off from our guesthouse to see the sites
It was Chinese New Year when we arrived and though the city is a maze of guesthouses, we had difficulty finding accommodations. Despite this being a tourist mecca there wasn't the typical hyper-activity of other Asian cities we had visited; there was leafy tranquility about the streets that was very attractive to me.

Monks receive alms each morning from both locals and visitors
Buddhism plays a large role in Laosian life. Many boys become monks at an early age and the wat, or temple, is at the centre of community life.

Old bombs decorate the courtyard of the UXO Lao Information Centre
Laos has a big problem of un-exploded ordinance (UXO), old bombs and land mines littering the countryside. Every year more people are killed or injured by this menace but at the current rate, it will take many more decades to clear them all away.

The travertine pools of Kuang Si
One of the most beautiful places that I visited was the Kuang Si waterfall, just outside Luang Prabang. Over time the calcium in the water has created a series of terraced pools that are a delight to swim in. It's a popular destination, so if you go, go early!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Long Boating

Sunset over long boats moored on the Mekong
Travelling by river on a long boat is a bit slower than taking the bus, but much more comfortable - and fun! You have time to get to know your fellow travellers while watching the local scenery drift slowly by.

On our overland journey from Thailand to Laos, we took two river journeys: a 4 hour ride down the Kok River from Tha Ton to Chiang Rai; and a two-day trip down the mighty Mekong, from the Laos/Thai border to lovely Luang Prabang.

7 passengers board the boat to Chiang Rai: 2 Americans, 2 Canucks, a Frenchwoman, and local mother and child

On the 2-day trip down the Mekong, we shared the ride with dozens of other travellers from all over the world
(Note: click any photo to expand its size.)

A flock of stilts fly by
A gorgeous kingfisher 
The Kok River runs through an area of tribal villages, farms and a National Park.

I was fortunate to see some interesting birds along the riverbanks,

...and the Lahu village we visited was holding a New Year celebration and the villagers invited us to join them!

More beer for Paul

Sharing beer and loud disco: Lahu girls like to party!

Water buffalo like mud baths but also bathe in the rivers to cool off
The Mekong carves its way though many karst cliffs and and mountains ranges
Morning light on the Mekong

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Lod Cave

We rode our scooters 55 kms from Pai to Lod Cave and stayed the night at the Cave Lodge. Being a birder, I wanted to see the natural wonder of the returning swifts, and a tour of this fascinating cave was a bonus.
Our cave guide was also our waitress at Cave Lodge
Pre-historic coffins made of teak logs were found high in the cave
A ride on a bamboo raft through the cave to the exit
Above me the Fork-tailed Swifts returned to roost in Lod Cave
The tens of thousands of returning swifts filled the sky for over half an hour
The next morning I rose early to see the sunrise. I wasn't disappointed!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Life in Pai

The streets of Pai are quiet in the morning but become a food & drink street bazaar at night
After saying goodbye to travel companions Mark and Chuck in Chiang Mai, Paul and I were planning to head to the Laos border. Instead we met some French travellers who raved about a town called Pai and in the spirit of "going with the flow" we decided to go there too. We rented motor scooters for the 115 km (and 763 curves) ride up to Pai.
Our hut at Pai Homey had two beds, a shower and a great hammock to relax in
Pai is quite the party scene: thousands of young back-packers from around the world enjoying themselves in a bucolic setting. We found a little hut for rent for $24/night just a short walk across a bamboo bridge from the town.
A view from the road on our way to Pai
Two road warriors ready to roll!

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Elephant Encounter

Early morning at the elephant camp
I was looking forward to getting out of Chiang Mai and into the country for the day to meet the elephants at Hug Elephant, one of many similar operations in Thailand. I wasn't sure I was ready for 'hugging' such large animals but by the time I had fed them, walked with them and given them a mud bath, I was won over; elephants are amazing creatures!
Only male Asian elephants grow tusks
Asian elephants once had a major role to play in the logging industries of SE Asia. But once the remnant forests were protected from further logging by governments, the elephants found a new role as entertainment for tourists.
Everyone gets a mud bath
Perhaps working for tourists isn't such a bad thing. Local people around the world are giving up working the land to find easier jobs in tourism, so why not elephants too?
After the mud bath everyone gets a rinse off!
One negative side-effect of tourism on elephants that I heard about was that they are prone to developing diabetes. I noticed that they are fed a regular diet of sugar cane and bananas, which they love but are not usually a big part of their normal diet.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Chiang Mai

I didn't visit Chiang Mai, a small city in the north of Thailand, when I was here 46 years ago. I'm sure it would have been a smaller and quieter town then. Now its busy old quarter is chock-a-block full of small hotels, bars, cafes and massage parlours catering to the tourist trade. But it also has many wats (temples) of great significance to the local people. Here are some images of the few we visited...

Thursday, January 19, 2017


I wasn't sure I would like Cambodia: I'd heard that it was sad and depressing; that it hasn't recovered from having millions of people murdered by a government gone mad in the 1970s; that it was very poor. This all may be true but their history and culture runs deep and what I experienced was a gracious and resilient people, welcoming to strangers and getting on with their lives. I'm glad I came.

When I asked Lee, our driver, how he survived the Khmer Rouge genocide, where anyone who could read could be sent to the 'killing fields', he told me he was just a boy at the time but his father had to pretend that he was illiterate by hold a page of words upside down when being tested by a soldier. He also told me that his younger brother suffers mentally today due to starvation in the womb.

We decided not to visit the killing fields of Cambodia on this trip. Instead, like many others who come here, we went to see the great temples of Angkor and also took a side trip to a fishing village built on stilts, called Kompong Phluk.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the largest of all the temple complexes around Cambodia. In fact, at over 400 acres, it is the largest in the world! It was originally dedicated to the Hindu god Vishnu but later transformed to Buddhism. Today it is the symbol of Cambodia and graces their national flag.

The temple is visited by many buddhist monks and all visitors must dress modestly

The statues that once filled the halls of Angkor Wat are mostly gone but the walls are still decorated with enchanting apsaras, heavenly dancers whose role was to seduce the gods and men.