03.08.2010 - 09.08.2010
Tuesday 3rd August
The bus arrived in Chiang Mai about 11.45am and it was raining. As usual there was a ‘toggle’ of tuk tuk drivers (is that a good collective noun for them ?) crowding round the bus door and, not wanting to get soaked, I picked the nearest one and haggled his price down to something realistic and we set off for the city and the Anoma hotel where I have been staying before. This time they had a 3 nights for two promotion which was good.
I had lunch in the hotel as I was tired from the over-long bus journey. I then rested a while then tried to catch up on my emails. I also needed to withdraw some cash as I had almost nothing in my pocket. My Natwest bank card had ceased to work before I left Wang Saphung with a message appearing on the ATM screen saying ‘the data on your card is incomplete’ whatever that meant so I need to get it sorted out asap.
I called my bank in London. As usual, the misnamed ‘help desk’ was unable to help without asking someone else and I had two interminable waits and then I was told that my card had been cancelled even though the expiry date was not till January 2012. Then I was told in a cheery voice that all Natwest customers have had their cards cancelled because everyone has been issued with a new Visa Card. That, I said, is of absolutely no help to me because, I repeat, ‘I am in Thailand and a glance at my file on your computer would have told you that I am here until September.’ ‘Oh’ she said, ‘can you get someone to forward the letter with the new card to you ?’ ‘Yes, I could,’ I said, ‘but the letter will take one to two weeks to reach me and, meanwhile, I have nearly run out of cash.’ ‘Oh’ she said again, ‘I don’t think I can help you any more.’
Luckily, I also have a credit card which I use for paying for things but I have never used it for withdrawing cash. I went to an ATM only to discover I had forgotten my PIN. I tried the number I thought it was a few times not realising that by doing so the system automatically blocked my card.
My bank has a helpful website where you can get your PIN online IF you can jump through numerous security hoops. The website also has a facility that allows you to have a live chat with someone at the bank. I did this and after answering even more security questions I got my PIN and I duly managed to withdraw some cash much to my relief.
I called Ajarn Napapan at Wat Kheelek school and she was delighted that I can return to the school tomorrow and she said that Mr Narong would collect me in the morning from my hotel.
I had a phone call from someone I didn’t know, on a line that wasn’t very clear, who was talking about wanting me to give some English lessons and wanting to meet me on Saturday. I assumed it was someone in Lamphun and I told him I was now in Chiang Mai and would be going to Luang Prabang on Friday so Saturday was out of the question for me and he rang off. Little did I realise what was in store for me.
Later, I took a call from Mr Rhe who told me that Fern’s school in Nongbua Lamphu would like me to come and teach English there and that Mr John, the Head of the English Department, wanted to meet me on Saturday. I suddenly realised who the earlier call was from and hoped I hadn’t put my foot in it.
Wednesday 4th August
Mr Narong collected me about 8.30 an drove me to the school in Lamphun. During the journey I spoke with Ajarn Joy about the job and she had more details from Ajarn Ben who sits near her in the office at MBV school. She explained that the salary would be 30,000 baht a month (about £500) and that the school has 2,300 students and that I would be teaching Mattayom 1, 3 and 5.
Everyone was very pleased to see me again and the students called out my name when they saw me walking past their classrooms.
I was snared by Ajarn Unchalee who wanted me to show her how to resize a photo for posting on the net. It took a while to show her all the steps and by the time I finished it was lunchtime. I had lunch with Ajarn Napapan and Mr Narong and we had a good chat. After lunch I was driven to Mungwa school (where I ran the English Camp) which was fine but I regretted not being able to see more of my former students at Wat Kheelek.
The teachers and students gave me a very nice welcome and it was good to see everyone again. Some of the students at the English camp came from the school but others came from nearby villages as well as from the Children’s Home where I lived. This means that I only recognised some of the students on my return visit. I was sad to miss Mr Anan who was on a course in Chiang Mai.
Before leaving I took the opportunity to visit the adjacent temple to take a photo of the mysterious tree from India, which I mentioned in my blog during the English Camp, which has inedible fruit. I took a photo which is in my gallery. Does anyone know the name of this tree ?
I was then taken to dinner near Chiang Mai where there is an enormous Big C in which there was a Sushi and Shubu restaurant where customers are given an eating time slot of an hour and there is a conveyor belt with differently coloured platefuls of ingredients and others of sushi depending on which eating style you like. The non-Sushi plates on the belt contained things like slices of meat, a few florets of cauliflower, some lettuce, a sliver or two of fish etc etc. You take as many as you like and place the contents into the electric broiler on the table which has been filled with a stock in which to cook the ingredients. As always at these sort of places the steam came my way which is so annoying. It is not my favourite way of eating, that's for sure, but Thais seem to love it.
By this time I was keen to get back to my hotel in Chiang Mai because I needed to sort out the problem with my credit card so that I could withdraw some urgently needed cash. My heart sank when the female Ajarns said they wanted to look at the House Depot store next to Big C. They spent ages looking at hi-tech TVs and floor tiles and other items. Eventually, I decided I had to say something and told Ajarn Napapan my problem. She was happy to help and we went through the checkout to the car park and I was driven to my hotel.
As always it was sad to say a final goodbye to my fellow Ajarns. They have always been exceptionally nice to me and I will not forget them.
As for my credit card, the good news was that my PIN had been re-instated and I would be able to make a withdrawal, so, hopefully, all was well again.
Thursday 5th August
With the large carrier bag of farewell presents in front of me I decided there was no alternative but
obtain another box from the post office and send all the gifts back to London. It was very hot as I
walked slowly to the post office and back to the hotel with the empty box. The first box I selected
was far too small so I had to go back and get a bigger one. Back at the hotel once more I
packed all the presents and some books into the new box and returned to the post office where I
was charged 1640 baht for the slower service.
I also exchanged my book, The Great Game, by Peter Hopkins (well recommended!!) for another
book by the same author at Gecko Books which I am looking forward to reading.
I also visited the bank and I was happy to find my card worked ok though using a credit card to
withdraw cash isn’t the cheapest option by far.
Friday 6th August
I spent most of the morning packing, or rather redistributing the contents of my bags, for my trip to Luang Prabang. I checked out of my room at noon leaving my bags in the care of the reception desk while I went off to have lunch at the eccentrically named Elliebum’s guest house and restaurant. I can quite see why the lady owner might have such a nickname but the food is really good and inexpensive. I had the Panang Curry which is always nice.
I walked back to my hotel, gathered my four pieces of luggage and got a tuk tuk to the airport. I checked in an, to my surprise, I wasn’t charged any extra for being so wildly overweight – my suitcase alone was 37kg though that was the only stowed item, the other bags I took into the cabin with me.
I had hoped to get a window seat but I wasn’t so lucky but, even so, I got some splendid views of the heavily forested mountainous regions of Laos, some isolated villages, fertile valleys and long meandering rivers. I also got wonderful views of some terraced rice fields and wished I was in a position to take some photos.
There are only a few flights a day at Luang Prabang airport and as soon as the plane lands it zips along to the terminal building with none of those tiresome delays and hold-ups you experience elsewhere. As before on my two previous visits I queued for a visa on arrival but this time I was charged US$1 because I did not have a passport photo to hand. The fee is imposed for the scanning of the photo inside your passport but this was the first time I have ever been charged a fee for this service.
The taxi service is a bit of a swindle. You have to get a slip from the taxi desk in order to get a cab which is usually a minibus rather than a saloon car. Only one stop per cab is permitted unless you pay extra. I got chatting to a Portuguese couple on their first visit to LPB in the immigration queue. I gave them the lowdown on what to do during their two days here; joining the conversation was a guy from Israel. After Immigration we found ourselves together again at the taxi desk and I suggested we share a cab. Even though we were actually going to different hotels we said we were all going to the same hotel thinking that as most hotels are close to the centre of town it would only be a short walk to get to where we really wanted to go.
The girl at the desk told the driver to go to the Bel Air Hotel, the actual destination of the Portuguese couple. As it is a new hotel I was not sure where it was and it turned out to be some distance from the town centre overlooking the Nam Khan river. This left me and the Israeli guy to find a tuk tuk to take us into town which we did fairly quickly.
I was still sure that my hotel was in the centre of town so that is where we got dropped off. I set off to find my hotel and I asked local shopkeepers for directions but, as usual, no one ever knows anything so I resorted to finding an internet cafe and looking at the hotel’s website which had a map. My hotel was a good ten minute walk away along the road that runs next to the Nam Khan (river).
My guesthouse, the Villa Somphong, is a newly converted townhouse and, unlike many other properties in LPB, the conversion was done by the original owner who was also born in the house. It has only been open four months and is squeaky clean. My room was a bit on the small side and storage was limited to a few hangers on a rail below a high shelf as well as a couple of other shelves. Had I been staying longer than four nights it might have been a real annoyance but I was happy to make-do for four nights. The bathroom was nice, though, and very new and clean and everything worked properly.
I spent what was left of the day looking around the town and spotting the various changes since my last visit in 2009. In the evening I had an early dinner at a restaurant on Sisavanvong Street – the main shopping street – which was nice. Sometimes around the centre of LPB you get accosted by young children selling homemade souvenirs from baskets and they can be very persistent indeed. I had three approach me during dinner and I took photos of them to deter them.
Saturday 7th August
A very lazy day. I explored more of LPB and continued to wonder at the amount of construction going on. Tourism numbers are down in Laos like everywhere else and, being a landlocked country with no beaches, it attracts a different type of tourist from, say, Thailand. You still get lots of backpackers travelling around S.E. Asia or the world but you also get people interested in eco tourism which includes things like hiking, rivers, mountains, flora and fauna. The third group of tourists attracted to Laos are the retired or nearly retired who are interested in culture and temples etc.
So I was wondering if all the new hotels and guesthouses, and there are more on the way, can ever be filled ? Surely there is a saturation point. If tourist numbers recover then I suppose all will be well, but if not, then some people will get their fingers burnt.
Sunday 8th August
I hired a bicycle in the town this morning and went in search of the tiered rice fields I saw from the plane. I had enquired about them at my guesthouse and was given rough directions. Following the directions was no problem until I reached the area where the rice fields were supposed to be located. I found myself at the top of an incline. The rice fields were supposed to be nearby but I couldn’t see them. If I cycled on I would go down a very long hill and would, eventually, have to climb back up the hill again which was something I didn’t relish.
Fortunately, an alternative idea was at hand. The entrance to a driveway up to the large Wat overlooking LPB was just by where I had stopped on my bicycle so I decided to take a look. Walking around the outside of the building I noticed an upper balcony which I thought would give me a better view over LPB. I entered the Wat and went upstairs and found the balcony. Unfortunately the view was spoiled a bit by an ugly electricity pylon. Even so, I took some photos which are in my gallery.
Looking around, I noticed some stairs up to the next level and I thought there might be an even better view. So I climbed up. Nobody was around. There was no view to be had on the next floor but there were some narrow steps leading to an even higher floor. My curiosity aroused I climbed up. It was getting progressively hotter as I went higher, as humid as a sauna. Coming down the stairs were two boys who looked very sweaty. I wondered what they had been doing at the top and went to look. Once again, there were no windows offering a view, just a shrine. The boys had obviously been exploring just like me.
I met the boys again when I returned to the first floor balcony. One of them asked if I spoke English and we got chatting. One, Ying, was sixteen and the other boy was eighteen. Both were keen students of English though only Ying could converse. You can meet them too in my gallery.
After that encounter I cycled back into the town and spotted a curious sign for Beer Lao with the added slogan Make Blood. Very odd.
Monday 9th August
I discovered that my guesthouse had a bicycle of its own to hire and I used that to further explore LPB. With the waters of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers so high – but not at their highest by any means – some things were not the same as my last visit in the dry season in February 2009. For instance, the bamboo bridge across the Nam Khan, not far from my guesthouse, had disappeared being replaced by a temporary boat. Another bamboo bridge where I photographed adventurous boys leaping off it last year has also gone.
I was told that by next month the water level will rise much further. Last year, the Nam Khan was so high that it overflowed the banks reaching halfway up the walls of my guesthouse.
In the afternoon my Lao friend, Phone (pronounced Pon), took me to see some tiered rice fields on the other side of the Mekong. The rice fields are invisible from LPB and we took a boat across the fast flowing swollen river and walked through a village the other side where my friend has a sister and uncles and aunts. On the other side of the village there is a huge area given over to rice growing with some very photogenic tiered paddies. It was difficult to get a perfect viewpoint but I took a number of photos some of which are in my gallery.
My friend and I walked along the narrow footways at the edge of each small water-filled field and he took me to his old school. I peered into the classrooms and they were dusty and very rundown. At first I thought the school was abandoned, but Phone told me that as it was two months into the three-month holidays the school was empty. It looked desolate and depressing and the school is obviously very poor and has no budget for anything much.
The single storey school buildings formed three sides of a square with a large grassy area in the middle where three boys were kicking a football around. I took a photo for you to see. Phone also took me to the dormitories to one side and behind one of the buildings. The ‘dorms’ comprised small thatched huts where many of the boys live during term time. Phone showed me the hut where he stayed. All the huts were the same size. Inside they were dirty and squalid and in urgent need of repair. Phone told me that they would be cleaned up by the time term restarts next month but, even so, the huts are very basic indeed. Once again, I took some photos for you to see for yourself.
We walked back to the village via a different route avoiding the rice fields. Just as we reached the small ferry boat I heard the chanting of a boat crew. It was a long racing boat putting in some practice for the annual boat races on the Nam Khan next month and October. I have never seen any of these boat races live, only on film, but they look really exciting and I would love to photograph them.