More retro blogging from our May 2017 Baltics travels. I’m trying to catch up before we’re off on our next trip:
Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, has long been popular with tourists taking the two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki. More recently, cruise ships also discovered the picturesque Baltic port city. The result of all the boat traffic is a constant swell and ebb of humanity in the city and a very touristy, if lovely, Old Town. (In the summer, cruise ships can bring over 4600 tourists to Tallinn in a day!)
Hoping to dig just a little deeper and see the city during some of those less-crowded ebb times, I booked us a 4-night AirBnB apartment in the heart of Old Tallinn. I had trouble finding an apartment with secure, dedicated parking, but finally settled on a chic, all-white (but small) studio in a terrific location with covered, gated parking. I’m usually not a fan of studios, but this time our options were really limited and we did have a semi-private seating area we shared with two other apartments. Prices are higher in Tallinn than elsewhere in the Baltics, too, albeit still lower than you’ll find in most of Western Europe and much cheaper than Scandinavia. Anyway, our apartment and landlords turned out great and our only complaint was too much sun in the mornings.
We enjoyed wandering the cobbled streets and found simply enjoying the atmosphere to be our favorite part of Old Tallinn. The shops in Old Town are nearly all of the tourist souvenir variety and not of much interest to us, but fun if that’s what your looking for. At this stage of life and travels, we don’t buy a lot of souvenirs and are more excited to see shops and markets selling local products we might not be familiar with to locals. In this modern, small world, those sorts of shops are rarities, though.
Old Tallinn consists of both a lower and an upper town. This was most easily visible from the tower of St. Olaf’s Church, a few blocks from our apartment in Lower Town.
St. Olaf’s Church itself is simply adorned with some interesting archaeological pieces on display along the side aisles of the nave. Completed in the 1600’s, the original church dated back to the 1200’s. It’s the tallest medieval structure in Tallinn. Admission to the church is free, but there’s a €2/adult -€1/child fee to climb the tower.
Hiking up to Upper Town, we visited the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, a 19th century Russian Orthodox church with characteristic architecture including three cross-topped onion domes. Former and current mansions of Estonian aristocracy abound in this area interspersed with terraces overlooking Lower Town, where we common folk could share the view.
The oldest church in Tallinn, the medieval St. Mary’s Cathedral, with its baroque tower also sits in Upper Old Town. Coats of arms of Estonian nobility cover its interior walls. There’s a €5/adult -€3/child fee to enter the church, although you can admire many of the coats of arms from before the ticket booth.
Having time to spend in Tallinn let us extend our wanderings beyond Old Town. The modern city offers much in the way of shopping, dining, bars and coffee shops. We loved the futuristic additions to old warehouses in the Roterman City area. This chic neighborhood, in easy walking distance of Old Town, bustles with a hip young clientele.
One day, a long walk to us to Kadriorg Art Museum in a baroque palace commissioned by Peter the Great in 1718. The palace itself is as worthy of a visit as the park. The palace is surrounded by Kadrioru Park, a place popular with locals.
We enjoyed a delightful late lunch for €20 (total) at Katharienthal, just inside the park grounds. It occupies an elegant building and offers French-style patisseries downstairs and a pretty dining room upstairs.
Walking further beyond Kadriorg palace, we came to the residence of the president of Estonia, an interesting woman who had to be drafted into the job. We were surprised to find we could just walk into the front parking area to snap a photo. Guards at the front door had no problem with us.
Just beyond the president’s residence is the fantastic Kumu museum of modern art. Again, the building is as much an attraction as the art.
At last treat in Tallinn was a visit to the Estonian National Opera to see a performance of Tosca. The opera house is nowhere as ornate or large as the opera house in Riga and the staging was minimalist, but the performance was excellent and, for €31 apiece, we had front row center seats on the first balcony.
Tallinn has a great beer scene and we definitely explored that. More on beer in a soon-to-follow separate post.
The drive NNW from Valga toward Tallinn took us through woods and farmland dotted with traditional wooden houses.
The highlight of the drive was a stop at pretty Viljandi, a popular Estonian tourist town that prides itself on preserving Estonian traditions. Considered a center of culture and folk history, Viljandi hosts popular outdoor concerts in the summer in the ruins of Viljandi Castle on the banks of a deep blue lake. Water sports are popular on the lake as well and the small town is surrounded by parks and green areas.
There were no concerts or swimming on the crisp spring day we were there, but we still enjoyed wandering the ruins and admiring the gorgeous scenery. We crossed a pedestrian suspension bridge to continue our ramble on through yet another park and the modern Ugala open-air concert/theater venue.
The preserved Old Town is small, easily walkable and picturesque. We found plenty of cute restaurants and cafés in addition to a the Estonian Traditional Music Centre, a puppet theater, art center, museum and more. There’s an old brick water tower you can climb for the view for €2/adult, €1/child. The Tourist Information Centre offers free parking and free maps within eyesight of “Jaani Kirik,” the church shown in the top photo. Viljandi is a place to relax and take in the atmosphere rather than visit major sites.
We opted for lunch at stylish Kohvik Fellin on a corner across from the Tourist Information Centre. The food was excellent, if pricier than elsewhere in rural Estonia, something we found true of Viljandi in general. We liked the bread at Kohvik Fellin so much we convinced them to sell us a loaf, something they apparently don’t ordinarily do. We paid a pretty exorbitant €6, but the dense sweet bread provided several breakfasts and we did love the way our waitress wrapped it for us!
The Viljandi Tourist Information Centre is open M-F 10am-5pm and Sat.-Sun. 10am-3pm. English speakers there are happy to offer advice on sights and dining. Parking is free (and conveniently located to sights) in the lot in front of the tourist center. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone (+372) 433 0442.
Now that we’re back from our Baltic ramble, I’ll be catching up on Wanderwiles. We were just too busy and too much on the move for me to want to spend much time live-blogging. – Tamara
Our second day trip out of Vilnius was to Kaunas, the second largest town in Lithuania. It’s an easy 1h 15m drive on the E85, a well-maintained highway between the two cities. The main attraction for me was the Ninth Fort, one of a chain of a Lithuanian defensive forts that had been commandeered by both Soviets and Nazis over the years. The Nazis used it as a prison and deportation camp as well as a site of execution. There’s an enormous memorial there (see above) to the more than 30,000 victims of fascism who died there as well as a museum. At least 10,000 Jews were taken from Kaunas by the Nazis and executed there in what became known as the Kaunas Massacre.
The weather wasn’t looking too good, but we decided to go for it anyway. Despite some rain on the drive over, our luck was good and we got sunshine when we most needed it at our outdoor explore of the Ninth Fort.
The mammoth memorial is visible from the highway. Be advised that Google Maps directed us directly to the memorial (rather than the museum) and the road in that direction spans a pretty intense, but short, stretch of serious potholes. There is a small parking lot at the end of that road which is located perfectly for visiting the memorial and walking directly to the fort. Tickets are required for access to the fort’s interior, though, and those need to be purchased at the museum . [€3 for adults; €1.5 for students and seniors; children under 6 are free. There are also guided tours available for an additional fee.] Access to the memorial and the exterior portions of the fort and its extensive grounds is free.
After the Ninth Fort, we headed to Kaunas’ Old Town for lunch and a little explore. The weather quickly changed on us and we waited out a sudden snow/hail flurry in a parking space before walking to Avilys, a restaurant and brewery on the main street of Old Town that we’d read about. Avilys boasts vaulted brick ceiling and walls, copper beer tuns and a varied menu. It’s a cosy restaurant and we enjoyed excellent food and good beer brewed on site. Arriving late on a weekday, we had the place to ourselves for lunch until another party arrived mid-way through. Brewery tours are available. Avilys is located at Vilniaus g. 34, Kaunas 44287, and is open 7 days a week from noon. +370 655 02626
By the time we finished lunch, the sun was out again. We wandered down the main street, stopping to visit the Kaunas Cathedral Basilica before heading to the main square.
Old Town Kaunas is charmingly restored with many shops, cafés and restaurants. It’s definitely worth the stop and offers a restorative break after the grimness of the Ninth Fort which is only a 15 minute drive away. Pay for street parking permits at meters scattered around Old Town.
I wrote this live-time in Vilnius, but wanting to focus on our current travels and a shortage of Internet time have me posting later:
We launched our Baltic adventure with a Belgium Airlines flight from Brussels to Vilnius. We cruised through the classic train-station-like Vilnius Airport, picked up our Addcar rental (far and away the best rent car deal I found in the Baltics) and–with only a short walk with luggage in the rain to our car–we were off. Things got a little snarled after that when none of my email servers would let me send or receive the emails I needed to make contact with our AirBnB hostess’ mother. We parked behind the pharmacy she’d used as a landmark in a typical Eastern European graffiti-covered alley/parking area while I messaged our hostess, Ruta, who was vacationing in Paris to let her know I couldn’t reach her mother. Meanwhile, David wandered around asking random strangers until he actually found a co-worker of Ruta’s mom and we finally got things moving. (If only Ruta had said her mother worked in the pharmacy, there’d have been no problem at all!) In minutes, we were settled into our lovely apartment. From that moment on, things flowed smoothly. We love Vilnius!
Our apartment is just off Gedimino prospekt, a wide, elegant avenue lined with baroque buildings filled with high-end shops, cafes, restaurants and more, it’s the Champs Elysees of Vilnius. A few blocks down, Gedimino ends at the spectacular Vilnius Cathedral.
The newly-restored Grand Dukes’ Palace Museum nestles right behind the cathedral. The museum preserves archaeological ruins of the palace under glass walkways at its lowest levels.
Higher floors house collections of armor and artifacts and recreate period state rooms.
The palace tower offers views of Vilnius and the castle tower and three crosses on the hill above the city.
Old Vilnius stretches its cobblestoned streets north of the cathedral. We loved just wandering the surprisingly large Old Town. Crazily capricious spring weather had us ducking in and out of cafes and churches as sudden rain or snow descended in the midst of a sunny day!
The most grim museum of Vilnius is the Museum of Genocide Victims, more commonly known as “The KGB Museum.” The museum occupies the former KGB headquarters just off Gedimino prospekt.
In addition to exhibits and photographs memorializing victims and resistance, restored cells and an execution chamber offer a glimpse into the terrifying world of a KGB prisoner.
Two cells with sloped floors designed to be filled with freezing water and a single stool-sized raised disk in the center. Prisoners in nothing but underwear were forced to stand on the stool or in ankle-deep icy water for up to 5 days. They could not sleep or they would fall into the water.
I found a chilling video in the execution chamber hard to watch as prisoner after prisoner was sentenced then dragged into the room, shot in the head, and their body shoved out an opening in one wall into a waiting truck.
Vilnius has overtaken Budapest as Europe’s most affordable capital and we found prices to be very reasonable everywhere we went. We tried classic Lithuanian food at the schmaltzy but fun Bernelių Užeiga very near our apartment on our first night, enjoying hearty food, beer and a local music duo.
On other evenings, we ventured out for higher-end fare at Bistro 18 and stylish The Town on Gedimino prospekt.
David, of course, had to check out a local beer bar and we enjoyed our visit to Alaus Biblioteka a/k/a “the Beer Library.” It’s a unique venue with a good selection of beers from all over the world although we were disappointed to find they did not know much about the Lithuanian “kaimiskas” farm beer that we were particularly interested in trying. They had one beer on tap we were told was a kaimiskas, but we found it to be unremarkable and nothing like the beer we finally got to try a week later when we drove back into northern Lithuania from Latvia.
Alaus Biblioteka uses old library tables and chairs is a cosy place to drink beer, but we found veggie potato chips (cold and like chips straight from a Terra bag back home; fine from a bag, but not restaurant-level) and a shepherd’s pie to be underwhelming.
All in all, we loved Vilnius itself and it offers some really worthwhile and easy daytrips as well. More on those later.
Belgians love their french fries (and are the probable originators despite the name), although here they’re called “frites” in the French-speaking part of the country and “friet” in the Dutch-speaking regions. In Antwerp, our not-infrequent home-base, fries are sold at little shops called “frituur”, literally “frying pan.” Traditionally served with mayonnaise, they also come with a variety of toppings beloved by the Belgians.
Recently, there’s a new, upscale arrival on the frituur scene, an upstart from the Netherlands called “Frites Atelier Amsterdam” that’s teamed with Michelin-starred chef Sergio Herman. [Herman, formerly of Oud Sluis, is currently chef at Antwerp’s posh The Jane restaurant.] In addition to three locations in Holland (The Hague, Utrecht and Arnhem), there’s a beautiful little shop Korte Gasthuisstraat 32 in Antwerp. Yesterday, David and I couldn’t resist dropping in for a fresh-from-the-fryer box of crispy goodness. So, of course, I had to share our experience.
First off, the location itself is a gem. On a popular pedestrian street next to the wonderful old Dutch step-roofed building that houses chocolatier Mary and across from renowned bakery Goossens, Frites Atelier Amsterdam occupies a charmingly decorated space. Uniformed “waiters” and “waitresses” greet guests, explain the set-up and take your order.
Then, you wait to hear your name called by the fry chefs behind a back counter. You can choose your own seat at one of several small tables inside or out or take-away your treat.
The “menu” is strictly fries and toppings. A simple box of fries like we opted for costs €3.50 and you’re offered your choice of two out of five homemade sauces available in ceramic self-serve vats: andalouse, classic, basil, bernaise and truffle. In addition to basic fries, there’s a chef’s Seasonal Special (currently an Asian creation with kimchi, crunchy wonton, sriracha, Greek yoghurt, furikake and curry mayonnaise) for €6.50, a Flemish Beef Stew (a take on traditional “stooflees”, beef stewed with brown beer and served at the Atelier with cress and mustard) for €8.75 with mayo, Indo Peanut (peanut crunch of fried onions, peanuts, rempejek and lime zest) for €6.50 with mayo, all three, of course, served over fries. Beer, wine, bottled water and homemade teas are also on offer.
Our fries came out piping hot and they were very good although I’m not so sure I got anything extra from the vaunted Zeeland potatoes and samphire salt. In truth, what’s not to like about fresh, hot, perfectly fried, skin-on French fries, whatever the variety of potato or salt?
We chose the andalouse and bearnaise sauces and found both to be good, if not particularly remarkable. The andalouse sauce is made with tomatoes and peppers and is mildly spicy. The bearnaise is rich and tasty. In the end, though, we both would have liked plain mayo or ketchup. All in all, it was a fun stop. Service was quick and friendly and the prices fair. Still, we won’t be forsaking our other favorite frituurs for an exclusive future with Frites Atelier Amsterdam.
Since our hotel, Rendezvous Classic House, is in the old city of Chiang Mai, we decided to spend our first full day here exploring some of the many Buddhist temples (wats) the city is famous for. A moat surrounds the brick walls of Old Chiang Mai, enclosing a maze of streets and narrow alleys. First impressions of this part of Chiang Mai were mixed as we discovered a serious shortage of sidewalks or safe places to walk, even on the main roads. Walking requires weaving around stalls, parked cars and scooters meaning you’re frequently walking among the swarming traffic. It’s hot, too. Still, we made our way to the first wat on our list, Wat Chedi Luang, without any real difficulty.
Wat Chedi Luang is renowned for two things in particular: the Vihara, a building that houses the “City Pillar” or Inthakhin Pillar, and the semi-ruins of a huge ancient chedi. The main temple is also impressive with its elaborate golden facade and soaring interior.
Behind the main temple stands the crumbling ancient chedi or stupa, the largest in Chiang Mai and the largest Lanna structure at the time it was built. An earthquake in 1545 destroyed the top 30m. The Emerald Buddha, which was housed there at the time, was afterward moved to Luang Prabang, Laos, before eventually finding its way to Bangkok.
The all-wood Wat Phan Tao lies just next door to Wat Chedi Luang. It is much smaller than Wat Chedi Luang, but is a beautiful example of classic Lanna architecture.
After leaving Wat Phan Tao, we continued our walk north. The day was gorgeous, but hot and we couldn’t resist ducking into an air-conditioned little cafe for delicious iced coffees. Coffee arabica is grown in northern Thailand and we’ve found the coffee here to be really good. Refreshed and recharged, we continued our walk on to Wat Chiang Man, a beautiful temple famous for the elephant statues surrounding its gold-topped stupa.
Our stomachs were indicating lunch was in order. On impulse, we ducked into a truly unusual lunch venue: the Chiang Mai Women’s Correctional Institute Restaurant. This nice little café, shop and Thai massage parlor is run by women from the local prison as an effort to train and rehabilitate them for employment after incarceration. We enjoyed our traditional Thai lunch and the friendly service. My khao soi was the best of the trip. Khao soi is a northern Thai specialty made with a mix of deep-fried noodles and boiled egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime ground chillies fried in oil, and meat in a curry coconut milk sauce served with yellow crisp-fried curry noodles. Uniformed guards checked up on us along with waitresses in simple beige pant-and-tunic outfits.
Last on our list of must-see temples for the day was Wat Pra Singh. We’d actually seen a bit of this temple the evening before on our first stroll through Old Chiang Mai. (See lead photo above.) A large group of military-looking people in white uniforms with black arm bands were gathered there for some event. We’d peeked in, but decided not to risk intruding on what may have been yet another in the many mourning events going on around the country for the recently deceased and much-loved King Bhumibol Adulyadej (pronounced “poom ee poon ah doon yah day”).
After Wat Pra Singh, we called an end to temples for the day. We’d really enjoyed the temples of Old Chiang Mai, but we were hot and ready for a dip in the hotel pool. It is a vacation after all!
On our first full day in Chiang Rai, we opted to hit some of the city’s “biggies.” (By some accounts, we hit all of them; Chiang Rai is not a huge city and much of its tourist allure lies in the area around it.) The White Temple is the iconic Chiang Rai site, so that was definitely on our list, even though it’s really more a work of art that an active wat. I also wanted to see Wat Pra Kaew, the “Emerald Buddha Temple,” since it is a true wat and one of the most revered places in Northern Thailand. Despite warnings of temple fatigue on a trip as long as ours, it seems I don’t really tire of visiting temples. I am fascinated by the variations of religion from country to country, even within a faith, as older local customs become adapted to and incorporated within new ideas and belief systems. At the suggestion of a hotel staff member, we added the Black House to our list, a quirky art site I’d read about but wasn’t so sure was my type of thing. Still, some describe the artist who created the Black House as the national artist of Thailand, so how could I not take a peek?
The sites we’d chosen were in opposite directions from our hotel with the White Temple being a good 20 minutes away. Our hotel arranged a tuk tuk for us for 700 baht ($20) for the day. Our driver, a pleasant-faced middle-aged man, arrived promptly in a vehicle similar to Sawat’s small, puttering tuk tuk in Siem Reap. That’s where the similarity ended. We roared away from the hotel in a cloud of noise so loud David said it reminded him of high school when guys would drill holes in the mufflers of their cars for maximum machismo. This guy was a lot faster than Sawat, too. And impatient. We snaked through traffic, squeezed our way to the front of lines, drove on shoulders and thundered ahead of the “competition” at least until we got onto more open roads and the pick-up trucks could “take us.” Even then, though, our driver floored it, doing his ear-splitting best to keep up with the big boys. And, there we were in the open-air rear of the tuk tuk, no seat belts, no helmets, laughing and shaking our heads. I couldn’t help but imagine making this ride with my boys when they were younger on one of our many travels. I’d have been worried I was going to get them killed!
We bumped our way to a stop in the parking lot of the Black House (officially the Baandaam Museum), chosen as our first destination by the driver for logistical reasons. As billed, this is a really strange place. The “main” building is in the form of a wooden lanna (the traditional local ethnic group) temple, but done all in black. Animal skulls and horns, furs and crocodile hides mingle with statues and art, that drift from “normal” to bizarre.
Behind the main “temple” a number of other buildings are scattered around the surprisingly large grounds. Several dark wooden are on stilts, the space beneath them crammed full of various creations, often nearly identical pieces: horn chairs and the like, repeated over and over. There are glass-sided buildings with “furnishings” inside, often fur-covered horn beds with horn chairs or couches surrounding them. Some odd white half-domed buildings stand in a row, allowing similar glimpses through glass doors or windows.
At a far end of the grounds, I came across a modernistic black building, vaguely reminiscent of a squid or maybe Verne’s “Nautilus.” Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say. In thirty minutes, David and I had seen enough and headed back to the tuk tuk. [The Black House is free of charge although there is a gift shop selling all sorts of weird momentos.]
After the strange artsy-ness of the Black House, I was ready for a real temple. Thankfully, our next stop was Wat Pra Kaew, the Emerald Buddha Temple. The wat gets its nickname from its famous history: In 1434, lightning struck its stupa, cracking it to reveal an emerald Buddha inside. This Buddha has been revered ever since and has made its way from Thailand to Laos and back. The original is now in Bangkok, but a replica was carved from jade and is ensconced in Wat Pra Kaew.
A lovely little temple sits at the front of the wat complex and David and I couldn’t resist slipping off our shoes to look inside. Afterwards, as I was slipping my sandals back on, an older monk thanked me (for showing respect–I was also appropriately dressed to hide my scandalous knees) and asked me where I was from. He told me to be sure not to miss the Lanna Museum just around the corner within the complex. He made a point of telling me the replica Buddha was carved of Canadian jade, so he may not have understood when I told him I was American. Still, I was impressed with his friendliness and English, and David and I headed off in that direction. The two-story museum turned out to house an impressive collection in a beautiful wooden lanna-style building. Along with the Emerald Buddha replica, there are white-jade Buddhas from Myanmar, reliquaries, altars, offering containers, and other statues of sacred figures.
We strolled along a flower-lined path, past shrines and the white stupa that replaces the one struck by lightning, but not venturing into the monk school that lies in the rear of the grounds. The main temple stands before the school at the top of a steep flight of stairs. Lit green tiles line the walls surrounding the Emerald Buddha, framing murals depicting scenes of the Emerald Buddha’s history.
Back in the tuk tuk, we made our high-volume way southwest towards our final destination. The White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) is really more an art project than a temple. It replaces a temple that once sat there and we still had to take off our shoes before entering (and I wasn’t supposed to take the photo inside that I did), but still, it’s art. There’s a definite Gaudí-esque feel to the place, although the lines are sharper. It’s a fantasy brought to life in stucco and mirrored tiles, a truth reinforced by the pop-culture characters portrayed at its periphery. A bronze version of the alien from “Predator” sprouts from the ground near masks of the “Terminator,” Spiderman, etc. hanging from a tree…which sits just in front of a beautiful covered walkway from the ceiling of which thousands of thin metal prayer offerings hang. Finally, a golden “temple” constitutes possibly the fanciest most improbable public restroom building ever.
The White Temple recently started charging foreigners an entry fee, but at a mere 50 baht ($1.43), it’s hardly exorbitant and well worth it.
We stopped at one of several open-air restaurants on the way to the tuk tuk for a quick, tasty and very late lunch. I’d provide the name of the place but there was only Thai on the outside, so a photo will have to do. At 40 baht a plate ($1.14), we doubled the price of our lunch by ordering a couple of beers bringing the total to a whopping $4.57. I could get used to these prices!
Our large “taxi” tuk tuk from the immigration bridge dropped us off at Day Waterfront Hotel at dusk. The proprietress could not have been friendlier, exclaiming, “There you are!” as we arrived. Nice to be expected. She offered us cold water and some of those delicious little bananas that grow in these parts as she recorded our passport info. Then, showed us to our spacious room with balcony overlooking the Mekong. The lights of Huay Xai sparkled across the river. The room was big, clean and airy and at 800 baht ($22.86), including a light continental breakfast of local sweets and coffee, it was a great bargain.
We quickly headed out again with 2 goals: get SIM cards and find dinner. I’d done research on Thai SIM cards and word was they were easy to get at any 7-11 or other convenience store and cheap. So, I’d opted to wait until we got to Chiang Khong to buy one rather than ordering one online like I did for Japan. After the easy SIM we’d picked up in the Luang Prabang airport–in and done in minutes–, I was hoping for the same thing in Thailand. Boy, was I wrong. After a hot stroll down a sidewalk-less street busy with roadside food stalls and buzzing scooters, tuk tuks and trucks, we struck out at both a 7-11 and a pharmacy across the way. Hmm. Maybe little Chiang Khong wasn’t like the rest of Thailand. Tabling the SIM card search for the moment, we turned to finding dinner.
Our friendly hotel hostess had recommended two places: Jam and Yim. She’d made Yim–the farther of the two–sound slightly more appealing, but we found it closed…and looking more like a potential mosquito haven than anything else. So, we retraced our steps to Jam which we’d passed just after we left our hotel. We ended up really enjoying our Thai meal and the friendly young Laotian waiter who spoke fairly functional English. As with many places we’ve found in this part of the world, the cooking at Jam was done on the sidewalk where customers could buy food to go as well as eat inside in the sheltered-but-open-to-the-sidewalk restaurant. We were the only guests on this sleepy Saturday evening. Chiang Khong seemed to be a place that closes up early. Oh well, dinner was all we really had in mind for the evening anyway.
We had a lazy next morning, too, enjoying local “pastries” and coffee in the open-air lobby of our hotel while we chatted with our hostess. The pastries were really gelatinous little rice treats in pretty colors, sweetened with coconut milk; no crust or dough involved. I’ve really come to like them. We’d ask our hostess to look into finding us a private car and driver to take us to Chiang Rai (a 2-hour trip) and take us to somewhere we could buy SIM cards along the way. There is a super-cheap bus option between Chiang Khong and Chiang Rai (pronounced “shang rye”), but it’s not air-conditioned and photos I’d seen raised some real questions about where we’d put our luggage in case of a full bus. This looked to be one of those times where throwing a little money at the situation made sense. Besides, we now knew how far our money could go in these parts and we really weren’t concerned at all about the extra cost in exchange for the comfort and convenience of an air-conditioned car and a driver who knew where to find SIM cards that would meet our needs. A door-to-door service (vs. bus station-to-bus station with the attendant need for transfers to and from the stations) sounded good, too. Sure enough, our hostess lined up a driver for 1500 baht ($42.86)–a fortune in these parts…but substantially less than I used to pay for cab rides between Charles de Gaulle Airport and our apartments in Paris. The added bonus to booking a private driver was that we could choose a departure time that gave us a little time to look around Chiang Khong. So, the driver was set to come at 1:30p.m., giving us time for a walk along the Mekong, a visit to a nearby Wat (temple), and lunch.
Chiang Khong, as I mentioned, is a small, sleepy little border town with not much in the way of must-see sights. We descended the sloping driveway beside the hotel to a pleasant flower-bordered walkway along the river. The stroll was pretty, but the heat was mounting quickly. By the time we made it to the steps to Wat Phra Kaew, I was back to my tuck-a-cold-water-bottle-in-my-bra routine.
We made our way through the wat pretty quickly, exiting on the far side to the food stall-lined road down which we’d walked the night before. A small mobile phone store across the way failed to yield a SIM card to meet our needs, so we walked back towards the hotel, stopping again at Jam for lunch.
So much for Chiang Khong. We were glad we’d spent the night rather than trying to push on to Chiang Rai after arriving near nightfall, glad we’d done our little walk, and glad we hadn’t scheduled more time there.
On an entirely different note, we’re excited to try the Tile Slim and Tile Mate trackers. Using bluetooth and GPS, we’re hoping these tiny devices help us keep track of phones, wallets and keys. We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.
It was time to leave Luang Prabang and time for the biggest question mark of this long trip. Months ago, I’d booked us on a 2-day Mekong river cruise to Thailand in a big, open-air traditional wooden river boat. At $130 each, this was big money in Laos, but substantially cheaper and way more interesting than some sleep-aboard river boats I’d seen. These same type boats do a much, much cheaper “slow boat” between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai, Laos, but with frequent crowds, unreserved seats (so if the boat is full, you may have to wait a day) and a bus-like atmosphere, they sounded way less comfortable than I was willing to do. The company I chose, Mekong Smile Cruises, got good reviews and sounded like just the level of adventure I was up for. Lunch onboard was included, we stopped at a cave filled with Buddha statues and a local village en route. The overnight happened in Pakbeng, Laos, a village or small town that Google Images led me to believe was no great shakes…but online posts indicated that guest rooms were easy to come by and ridiculously cheap. I scanned Tripadvisor, seeing a few guesthouses listed and one “upscale” hotel at around $100. After his initial impulse that I should “throw money at it” and get the hotel, David came around to my way of thinking that we should try one of the guest houses. I made note of a few recommended names and posts saying that prices doubled if you book in advance, so why bother. Alright, we’d wing it. God, I hope I’m not getting us into a mess! I say this in present tense because I’m onboard the boat as I write this.
“Mr. Joy” from Mekong Smile Cruises met us at My Dream last night to fill us in on details and tell us he’d be back this morning at 6:30am to pick us up. He put my mind at ease about leaving our luggage onboard overnight since the captain and his wife sleep aboard. So, we only need to take a small over night bag. One worry checked off. He also told us we’d be the only guests for the cruise. On a 40-seat boat. Wow.
True to his word, Mr. Joy was waiting when we got to the lobby. It turns out that his name is more like “Choy” (pronounced with a sound somewhere between a “j” and a “ch”), a nickname meaning “skinny.” Since “Mr. Joy” sounds kind of creepy, it’ll be “Choy” from here on out.
Our lovely hosts at My Dream had packed us breakfast to go and the friendly young man who’d helped us with alms-giving and the tuk tuk to the waterfall walked us to the minivan. As the morning parade of monks filed by, he stood and waved until we pulled away. Did I mention I really, really like My Dream?
A ten minute ride deposited us at a fair-sized navigation office building where we descended a long flight of stairs down the riverbank to where a small fleet of river boats were parked. Our captain came out to meet us and help with the luggage before ushering us aboard.
The boat is pretty, low-slung with a gently scooped roof, ornate carvings above and below its many open-air “windows,” curtains and 2 carved daybeds and 2 pillowed benches in the front section of the guest area. David and I immediately stretched out on the daybeds, and I felt like Cleopatra cruising down the Nile as we pulled away in the early light to glide past mountains thick with greenery, villages, beaches with wading water buffalo, low rapids and more. When the writing mood hit me, I left my daybed to set up a little office space and one of the many tables fronting pairs of chairs that looks as if they might have been lifted from a retired bus.
We reached the cave shrine an hour out of Luang Prabang. Our boat docked at a woven bamboo pier below the steps to the cave. The cave is filled with Buddha statues of all sizes dating back to the 1600’s. I made a 20,000 kip donation to get a flower cone offering with candles and incense. Choy instructed me in the details of presenting my offering as my Korean Buddhist teaching didn’t apply to Laotian customs. We’ve had lots of time to chat as our boat makes its 10-hour journey today. Choy tells me that while Laos is 68% Buddhist, it’s 28% animist and that most people worship and observe important events like weddings and births in a fashion that’s a blend of the two.
Lunch, cooked by the captain’s wife, was served buffet-style and we dined at 4-seater tables way to the back of our floating domain. We had thick-crusted fried chicken legs, stir-fried chicken and onions, stir-fried vegetables, vegetable soup in a thin broth, steamed rice and fresh pineapple. She went light on the spices, but served the meal with a sauce of chopped red chilies that could set your mouth afire.
So now, I’m actually caught up with this blog and the daybed is beckoning for an after-lunch nap. There are other past things I’ve been meaning to blog about, but the world can live without I’m sure and David shouldn’t have to nap alone. 🙂
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We’re back on our Mekong river boat after our night in Pakbeng so I can report on our overnight stay:
Choy walked with us to help negotiate a guest room for the night and to show us the local market. I really appreciated his helpfulness as this night had been a nagging worry. We got off to a poor start when the first few guesthouses we talked to were fully booked by Thai group tours that had yet to arrive. I started to wonder about all that online advice about lots of rooms being available. Also, music was blaring from one guesthouse and an outdoor party tent set up in the middle of the road. I’d heard noise could be a problem and had brought earplugs, but this wasn’t looking good…and it was hot despite the setting sun.
As we wandered uphill on the main street, a lady asked us to look at her small guesthouse, Vassana, just across from Phonesony (one of the guesthouses I’d read about, but that was booked). At first asking 150,000 kip, she dropped her price to 120,000 when I said I’d read the cost was usually 100,000 kip in the area. Clearly, things were busy, so we were happy with the price. (I actually felt a little sheepish when I focused later on how little money we were haggling over: Our room came out to $14.81, give or take a fraction of a cent.) The rooms turned out to be simple, but very clean. There was no ornamentation or artwork save pretty new gold brocade patterned curtains, clean and crisply pleated. One heavy wooden chair served as a bedside table, while a wall mirror with small wooden shelf and a row of knobs served as the hanging space. The proprietress showed us two similar ground-floor rooms and we opted for the one farthest from the road. The room was hot and stuffy, but had an a/c. We started the a/c and I wasn’t sure that it was cooling much, but we crossed our fingers and left it running and headed out to dinner at an Indian restaurant, Hasan, that got great reviews.
The food at Hasan was good save for the naan and roti which, as David put it, were the “saltine crackers of the naan world.” We had a corner table of their outdoor balcony with a pretty view overlooking the Mekong. Chicken tikka masala, aloo gobi and palak “paneer” (made with tofu rather than the usual paneer cheese) were all well-seasoned and spicy. A Beer Lao rounded out the meal.
Tired, with an early morning in our future and with David feeling a little under the weather, we called it an early night and headed back to our room, hoping the a/c had done its job, but feeling doubtful. I can’t describe the thrill of opening that door to a delightfully cool room.
We showered quickly in the tiny bathroom, with a handheld shower mounted on the wall and open to the room. Drains in the floor drained not only the shower water, but also water from the sink which ran directly onto the floor from an open pipe. Basic, but again, very clean and plenty of hot water (although I was happy with cool water). The bed was big and comfortable with good pillows (an uncertain thing in Asia). The room was dark, the music had stopped outside and the “turbo” feature of the wall-mounted a/c drowned out any remaining noise. Despite my earlier misgivings, I slept like a stone for nearly 9 hours. Awesome!
Up at 6am, we packed our meager belongs and bought a huge chocolate chip “croissant” to share and coffee at Monsovanh Bakery on the road to the boat. We chatted with several other travelers who’d arrived on other “slow boats” from both directions. I’d looked at these boats before I chose our boat with Mekong Smile Cruises. Veritable river buses, they run on a first come, first served basis and are often crowded. People’s description of the heat and crowds convinced me I’d been right to go with the booked cruise, although the price was just over 3x that of the regular slow boat. For our extra money, we got lots of space and the ability to move around as our whims and incoming sunshine dictated, personalized service, lunch and no hassles. Well worth the extra $80 apiece, in our opinion, to turn 2 days of misery into 2 extraordinary days on the Mekong. [There could have been more people on our boat (up to a max of 30, which would have been too many), but everyone I’ve read about or talked to who’s done it this way reports much smaller groups.]
As we pulled away from the dock this morning, we watched handlers bringing two elephants down to the riverbank opposite Pakbeng. Beautiful in the morning mist.
Five hours flew by as we lounged on our daybeds, watching the passing scenery (and drifting off to sleep from time to time). Clouds blocked the direct sun and a breeze kept us cool and comfortable. Our boat pulled in to a sandy beach around 12:30pm where a boy and girl were digging with long poles. Choy led us up the bank pointing out holes in the sandy earth where the children had been digging for crickets, a local delicacy.
Choy led us a bit further up the hill to their village which consisted mostly of woven bamboo homes interspersed with 1 or 2 wooden and cement block buildings. Piglets, ducks and chickens roamed freely while women washed clothes in a village well.
Electricity had recently been supplied to the village, which itself was only established there in 2009 when the government moved these ethnic Khmu people (one of the largest minority groups in Laos and related to the Khmer of Cambodia) down from the mountains to try to curb slash-and-burn practices. Unfortunately, along with electricity came techno music blaring from one house. About 300 people live in the village and we felt pretty sure there must be some complaints to the village chief about the noise. We might have thought the Khmu village abysmally poor and dirty if we hadn’t been to the floating village in Kompong Khleang which, while larger, won hands down in the lack-of-sanitation department. (And, according to Choy, this was a “5-star” village, displaying signs attesting to its superiority in development, access to health care, youth programs, gender equality and such.)
Children were friendly, waving and smiling. Three small boys clustered around David, laughing when he started a high-five routine with them. There was no village temple as these people are animist (like nearly 30% of Laotians), looking to a village shaman for spiritual matters and healing. While Mekong Smile Cruise boats stop here as part of the journey, there wasn’t anything to buy and no one asking for handouts.
Lunch was ready when we got back on the boat: fried fish; chicken curry soup; shredded bamboo, noodle and chicken salad; steamed rice; red chili salsa and fresh fruit.
Having just finished that moveable feast, I’m off to the daybed for my afternoon viewing and relaxation. Have I mentioned that I’m really enjoying this boat ride?
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After lunch, it was time for more reclining and river-watching as we listened to audiobooks or dozed in the fresh breeze. We came to a provincial border line and our boat had to stop to get a stamp. Another boat was also stopped and we got a glimpse, close-up of one of the crowded bus-like slow boats. This boat was heading downstream towards Luang Prabang, and we heard later that the boats going that faster route were often the most crowded. As we tried to pull away, the swift current caught the stern of our boat and pushed it into a small shoal. When our captain had trouble getting us off, two boatmen from yet another boat ran over to help, joining the captain on the roof to push off with long bamboo poles stored on every river boat while Choy and the captain’s wife tended to the bow. There seemed to be a real camraderie among the boatmen of the Mekong River, and we saw them calling greetings as they passed and springing to help each other and each other’s passengers when needed.
The landscape changed as we neared Thailand, with the mountains and hills flattening. On the Thai side of the river, stones had been hauled in to fight erosion.
Docking at our destination, Huay Xai (“hway sigh”) was a final adventure: We arrived to a mass of sister boats crammed together like…well, like sardines. There was nowhere in sight for our boat. After a few calls from our captain to his fellows, one of the boats fired up its engine and we assumed it was pulling out and we’d take its place, although it seemed thinner than our boat. Our captain did not back up, though, and we wondered why he wasn’t giving the other boat room. Then, a small wedge began to appear between the sterns of that boat and the one to its right. We were going to try to fit between the two!
There was literally no room whatsoever. Nevertheless, out came the long bamboo poles and the other boatmen began trying to make space as we kept creeping forward. Choy and the captain’s wife pushed with both hands and soon the captain abandoned his wheel and David joined in. We scraped against our neighbors, knocking two thick wooden poles loose. Boats creaked and groaned as we were squeezed on both sides. Boatmen called or yelled to each other as they scampered about, pushing and trying to restore the wooden poles to their original place. Eventually, by some miracle, we wedged ourselves in. Surprisingly, no one seemed upset about the potential damage to their vessels and there was laughter all around.
Now, we were faced with a nearly vertical wall of grass. How were we supposed to get up that with our luggage? No problem: walk across the bow of our neighbor, hop out onto some grass and let our captain and his friends shoulder our suitcases and climb up to a waiting minivan.
The 3-year old Friendship Bridge immigration point is lovely and modern, but a 15 to 20 minute van ride (included with our cruise) back from the dock. Choy rode with us, directing us through emigration (There’s an extra $1 charge for exiting Laos on weekends and after hours.) and buying our bus ticket to the other, Thai, side of the bridge. We bid him a very grateful farewell as he head off to an overnight bus back to Luang Prabang. There was a man who earned his tip!
We entered an almost empty Thai immigration building on the other side of the bridge at dusk. A super friendly immigration officer (a rarity on the trip) asked where we were staying, then left his post to take us to the tuk tuk taxi stand and make sure we were off to our hotel in Chiang Khong with no hassles. It was a nice end to our river cruise and an auspicious start to the Thai portion of our trip.
With a better understanding of Angkor and our own preferences for touring (and tolerance for heat), we decided to do without Chantrea on our second day. Instead, we negotiated with Sawat, one of the cluster of tuk tuk drivers and their families who seemed permanently ensconced in a sort of open-air living room just across from our apartment building. [We used these tuk tuks almost exclusively during our stay, paying $2-3 to be driven to restaurants, stores, etc. Usually, we’d text them using the phone Roberto loaned us when we wanted to be picked up or arrange a time in advance. If that didn’t work, we used tuk tuks obtained by the restaurants to avoid the occasional price-change scam.]
For $15, Sawat agreed to drive us and wait while we toured. We got a leisurely start with plans to see two of the famous “root temples” of Angkor, have lunch and return home. We assured Sawat that we had no desire to stay longer than 45 minutes in any one temple, an estimate that turned out to be perfect.
I’d been afraid we’d start off hot by choosing the tuk tuk over the air-conditioned car, but the ride out to the Angkor complex was surprisingly comfortable. The breeze created by the moving tuk tuk kept us comfortable and the smooth road and open view made the trip a bonus part of the day, rather than something to be endured.
First up was Ta Prohm, the exotic and gorgeous temple used as a location for the “Tomb Raider” movie. Sawat dropped us off in front of a stone gate around which vendors and stalls clustered. A long dirt path stretched beyond the gate, under overhanging tree branches, to the temple. Unlike Angkor Wat, nature has gone a long way towards taking back Ta Prohm. Huge trees known as “spung”in the local Khmer language grow from the ruins, wrapping their roots around walls, doorways and carvings. The effect is unreal, like something straight out of a fantasy novel or an Indiana Jones film.
We loved Ta Prohm, but we weren’t so crazy about the crowds–particularly large Chinese tour groups–that flocked to the well-known temple making it hard to see much less enjoy certain parts of Ta Prohm.
The temple is marked with a route that takes you to the right as you enter, so you’re stuck dodging the groups until you reach the back courtyard of the temple ruins. There, we were able to double back toward the front, making a U that took us down the opposite side of Ta Prohm from the marked route. Finally, we had some of the magnificent ruins to ourselves or mostly so.
Walking back to meet Sawat, we arrived exactly 45 minutes after we’d left him. Perfect! I did some quick negotiating with the vendors who swarmed our tuk tuk, buying a light cotton pair of billowy pants with elasticized ankles and a t-shirt. The pants were to add to my collection of modest clothing, necessary for visiting many of the holy sights in southeast Asia. Knees, especially women’s knees, are a big concern. Skirts and pants that are easy to pull on over shorts come in very handy. (The t-shirt was more a function of an proffered two-fer during the bargaining process.) David ended up with a $1 refrigerator magnet he had no interest in, but the purchase sure made a little boy happy. It’s hard when you simply can’t buy from all of them, and you hate to just give them money when they’re working, not begging.
From Ta Prohm, Sawat took us to our next requested stop, little Ta Som. Ta Som is another root temple, much smaller than Ta Prohm, further out, and not as well known. Consequently, it’s not crowded either. We really enjoyed this pretty little temple although it’s in no way as spectacular as Ta Prohm…except for perhaps its rear gate which is almost eerily beautiful.
After Ta Som, we were ready for a late lunch. We asked Sawat for an air-conditioned restaurant inside the Angkor complex, more from lingering PTSD from the previous day’s heat than from any excessive heat we’d experienced on this outing. The day had been hot and humid, but more cloudy than the day before and more often in the shade. Sawat came through with Khmer Angkor Kitchen just across from one of the prettiest and widest stretches of the moat. The food was good and the air-conditioning so cold we were chilled by the time we left. The outdoor dining balcony which has ceiling fans and a pretty view over the moat probably would have been great, but we got our a/c.
With our touring done for the day, Sawat drove us home past more temples that dot the Angkor complex. We were back at the Dragon Royal apartments in time to enjoy the rooftop pool before heading into town for dinner and an explore of the night market.
The bustle and noise of downtown Siem Reap convinced us instantly that we’d chosen well in our apartment’s location. Old pop songs from the 70’s blared from a bar across the street from our retaurant, Khmer Touch Cuisine. The restaurant had been written up in the NY Times, and the service was super-attentive, but we thought it only good, not great. The prices were a little high for Siem Reap, but still low by home standards. Afterwards, we wandered the night market. I broke down and bought a gorgeous heavy silk scarf in royal blue and green for $9 in the covered market before heading out to the street market where I finally tried a fish pedicure for a whopping $2. The hungry little things tickled my feet like crazy, but once I got past the urge to jerk my feet out, it was fun and funny.