September 18, 2016

LAOS DIARIES PART 4: 36 hours in Vientiane

We’re not early risers but we made exceptions on our second day in Vientiane. We woke up before dawn to catch the monk’s alm procession locally known as Tak Bat. It is a ceremonial tradition inherent in Lao and Buddhist culture where in a group of monks in their bright saffron robes file in single line to receive rice and other donations from the faithful kneeling on straw mats.


We were the only tourists present at the ceremony and we maintained a polite distance as we tried our best to be inconspicuous while observing this beautiful tradition. The barefoot monks walk so silently that I didn’t even notice a group was lined up behind me and was startled when they strode past. Women cannot be in physical contact with the monks so I respectfully moved out of their way.


It was still dark when we ambled back to our hotel after the ceremony. We went back to bed and slept in waking up again when my stomach started grumbling looking for food.

Hotel breakfasts most often leave much to be desired but our breakfast that came with the room rate was delicious and the coffee strong. I had the Guatemalan farmers breakfast of beans, toast and eggs while Kimbee had the waffles served at the lovely tiled dining area adjacent to the sun drenched courtyard. While we were lingering over coffee, the staff informed us that our tuktuk driver has arrived.

We are going back to Bangkok that evening but has enough time to see more of Vientiane. We retraced our steps back to Patuxai and for an entry fee of 5,000 LAK per person, we get to go up the top floor with unobstructed view of the palm tree lined avenue and park. It was a beautiful morning and there was no trace of yesterday’s storm. Patuxai is opened weekdays from 8 AM to 4 PM, extended up to 5 PM on weekends.





Next stop is at Pha That Luang the golden sacred stupa and the most important national monument in Laos. Legend has it that this has a piece of Buddha's breastbone. Open from Tuesday to Sunday from 8am until noon & resumes accepting visitors at 1 to 4 PM. Admission is 5,000 kip.



Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda with its reclining Buddha is in a temple complex next to Pha Tat Luang.


We were about to find our way back to the exit when we heard chanting.  We entered a high ceilinged hall and saw monks sitting cross legged assembled around several low rounded tables called “ka toke” with bowls of food.  A group of local women bearing baskets and wearing scarves on their shoulders were on the sideline.



We would have wanted to stay longer and watch the gathering but it was almost past 1 PM and we need to check out of the hotel. The sight of communal dining also made me hungry.

Our hotel only serves breakfast so we grabbed late lunch at a Korean restaurant ride beside the hotel, checked out and made our way towards Thanaleng train station on board the same tuktuk we’ve commissioned since yesterday, but not before stopping at Wat Xieng Khuan or Buddha Park. The park is about 25 kilometres southeast of Vientiane, along the Mekong River. The ride though was bumpy and dusty and took over an hour. If we ever get lucky enough to go back, we’ll probably be taking a car to navigate this road, more comfortable that way.



Wat Xieng Khuan is a famous sculpture park with more than 200 religious statues. Built in 1958 by a monk who studied both Buddhism and Hinduism which explains why his park is full not only of Buddha images but also of Hindu gods as well as demons and animals from both beliefs. It’s weird. Open daily from 8 AM  to 6 PM. Admission is 5,000 LAK per person and 3,000 LAK per camera is charged.




From the quite bizaare park, we traversed about 6 kilometers east of the Friendship bridge to Thanaleng train station. We thanked our driver and paid him 1,300 Baht, more than what we previously agreed on but we were happy with his service. There was a language barrier but smiles are universal and we took the repeated bows with his hands pressed together that he found it to be a fair trade.

The station was desserted save for the railroad employees and Immigration officials. After paying the 40 Baht exit fee per person and collected our stamped out passports, we settled in the plastic chairs at the platform and made ourselves comfortable while waiting for the shuttle scheduled at 5 PM that will take us to Nong Khai.

Soon, people and backpacks have started trickling in breaking the stillness and crowding the station. It made for an interesting people watching activity to pass the time.


After a 15 minute shuttle ride and upon arrival in Nong Khai, we exited the train and lined up for Thai immigration. We have over an hour to clear passport control but the queue was extremely long and there were some people being questioned more than the usual that the process took more than 2 hours.


We were worried that we won’t be able to make our connection but Train 70 waited until everyone has been cleared and left later than the scheduled 7 PM going back to Bangkok.  We hurriedly purchased our train tickets to Bangkok after being stamped in and were relieved that our prefered firs class sleepers were still available for 1,250 Baht per person, paid for in Baht and in cash. At the time of travel, 1 USD is equals to 35 baht.


We boarded and settled in our cabins and ordered dinner right away. The stress of long lines and almost being stucked in the middle of nowhere Nong Khai made us hungry. 

August 7, 2016

LAOS DIARIES PART 3: 36 hours in Vientiane

Vientiane lies at the bank of the Mekong River and although it is the biggest city in the country, it has retained that small town charm and laid back atmosphere. Our visit only lasted for 36 hours but it wasn’t hurried and yet we feel we’ve covered and experienced enough we had to break this travelogue into parts.

It was only past 9 in the morning of February 22 when we were deposited at Hotel Khamvongsa straight out of Thanaleng train station. Our pre-booked room wasn’t ready so we deposited our bags at the reception and walked around. We found Joma’s bakery further along at the main road and joined the line for their famous freshly baked buttery French pastries and potent Lao coffee, perfect top up breakfast.


When we came back at the hotel, we were ushered to the 2nd floor and to our room at the end of the hallway. We rested (slept) for a bit and showered before heading out. The staff speaks excellent English and helped us arrange our transport to get around after lunch. We rented a tuktuk for 100,000 LAK and the hotel staff pored over the map with our driver and plotted the itinerary.

The city has wide tree lined streets dotted with French cafes and some notable Buddhist and Hindu shrines.

Our first stop was Wat Sisaket, the oldest temple in the city and houses thousands of Buddha image. Located at Lan Xang Road, it is open daily from 8 AM to 4 PM. Entrance fee is 5,000 LAK.



We ducked into the Hophakaew Museum across but it was under renovation and boarded heavily so we left to head to Patuxai (Victory Gate.) The imposing concrete monument is Lao’s version of Arc de Triomphe.


We just got there and was roaming the grounds when a freak storm descended on Vientiane and whole palm tree fronds started flying overhead narrowly missing us. My skirt did a full on Marilyn Monroe impersonation but luckily there was no audience as the tourists and locals have already scrambled to find shelter from the rain and wind. We joined them at the base of the monument crowding the pillars to prevent from getting wet from the slashing rain.

The peak of the storm lasted for less than an hour. We were a bit shaken from the unexpected experience so we decided to cut short our sightseeing. When the winds have let up and people have started moving out of Patuxai, we asked our driver to bring us back to the hotel and made arrangements for him to pick us up the next day.


While having coffee at the hotel lobby, Kim saw a days old local newspaper. Apparently, on February 19, just 3 days before our visit, a severe storm has also hit Vientiane. The storm began early morning at 5am and lasted for about 30 minutes leaving minor injuries and hundreds of houses and buildings without roofs or power. The cost of damage was estimated to be at 10 Billion LAK. At the time of our travel, 1 USD is equals to 8,120 LAK.

At sunset, the weather seemed to have calmed down. We gingerly ventured out of our room and saw some fallen tree branches and blown garbage bins but no major destruction. The community has also resumed their activities and began cleaning the debris.


Armed with scarves and rain jackets, we set off in the direction of the river and its many nightly pop up restaurants.  We sat down at still damp wooden chairs to dinner of pork sausages and barbeque while Celine Dion's "my heart will go on" karaoke Lao version is wafting in the frigid air.



We capped our eventful first day with an egg crepe dessert from one of the red tents at Ban Anou night market. The market is geared primarily to backpackers with an extensive display of fisherman’s pants and knock off sunglasses but we were able to pick out good quality souvenirs for cheap to bring home.






To be continued.


July 11, 2016

LAOS DIARIES PART 2: Hotel Khamvongsa in Vientiane

In February of 2015, we went on a quick side trip to Vientiane - the capital of Laos from its neighbor country Thailand. A 12-hour overnight train ride beginning from Bangkok bridged the gap between the two countries.

The French colonial villa mixed with the rich pattern of Lao architecture of Hotel Khamvongsa was an excellent base. The 26-room boutique hotel is conveniently situated just meters away from the Mekong River, the night market and within walking distance from other Vientiane landmarks. The hotel’s fa├žade opens to Khun Bu Lom Street and several eating options are in the area. A bank is a few steps away if you need to change currency. Bring your passport.  Baht is also accepted for trade. Across is a small temple of Wat Inpeng with its orange robed resident monks.


For $45, it is an excellent value boutique hotel. Our comfortably furnished air-conditioned room is beautiful with its high ceilings and dark wood floors. A chaise placed by the tall window oriented towards the river is perfect for lounging or reading a novel. The lamps are not suitable for reading but you can draw the shade to let light flood in. The TV and mini-fridge is discreetly tucked in a handsome armoire. Writing desk is also provided. Ensuite bathroom is spotless and has good pressure of cold and hot water.  There’s free WIFI in room and in the common areas.




It is worth to note that the 4-story building has no lift but since our room was at the second floor and we were assisted with our luggage, we didn’t mind the stairs.

A delicious breakfast sourced mostly from fresh local ingredient was included in the room rate and was served at the airy central courtyard or the elegant lounge.





Service was excellent all through out. The staff even helped us negotiate and communicate with our tuktuk driver for the tour and extended our check out time.

This is what I love about boutique hotels, there’s more warmth with the service and more character in the building. It maybe small but doesn’t lack on creature and sometimes even luxurious comforts.


June 27, 2016

LAOS DIARIES PART 1: Train Travel from Bangkok to Vientiane and Back

Train travel from Bangkok to Vientiane is comfortable, cheap and pretty straightforward. We love train travels and would take it over other forms of transport if it’s a viable option and time allows. For our train travel planning, we always refer to the man in www.seat61.com.



We bought our train tickets at Bangkok Railway Station also known as Hua Lamphong Train Station the morning of our travel. We had no problem getting our preferred lower and upper berths at a 2nd class overnight sleeper carriage leaving that night at 8 PM but pre-book if you can. Ticket cost was only $23 per person and you get your own lie-flat bed, freshly laundered blanket and pillows, and a curtain for privacy. There’s also a restaurant car and waiters move around to take your food order and bring it to your compartment.

We were at the station an hour before the scheduled departure and found our car in train 69 with no difficulty. The place is clearly sign posted in Thai and English and stewards abound and are eager to assist. The station has several stores selling food and drinks, a waiting area with plastic seats cooled by fans and a bookstore and restrooms.



We boarded at Platform 5 and settled in our seats and a few minutes after 8, we began moving along. Before 10 PM, our seats were converted into beds and I climbed into my upper bunk while Kim occupied the lower bunk. If you plan on sleeping early, it may be possible to request the on board attendant to set-up the sleeper beds immediately after getting on.


There were toilets and sinks at the end of each car. We always have our own toilet paper stash and hand soap but they were also provided. There’s a space for your luggage under the bed or at the luggage rack. For our peace of mind, our bags were secured with locks and chained into the metal post.

We woke up with the sun and breakfasted on sandwich, coffee and fruit juice on board, preordered the night before. After 12 hours, at 8 in the morning we slowed down to a stop at Nong Khai train station, still in Thailand.


After getting our Thailand exit stamps, we waited a few minutes at Nong Khai station to transfer to a shuttle to cross the Friendship Bridge and bring us to Thanaleng on the Laos side of the Bridge some 13 km from Vientiane, the city center and capital of Laos. Shuttle ride was 40 baht per person.



Philippine passport holders can enter Laos visa free for a 30 day stay but an entry and exit fee of 40 baht is required. After getting our passports stamped in, we took a 45-minute mini van ride for 600 baht to deliver us to our hotel.

Going back to Bangkok is basically the same process just done on reverse. This time, we took the first class sleeper train.


We were held up at the long immigration line and showed up at the ticket window in Nong Khai station already minutes late before the scheduled departure of 710 PM but it was just our luck that our desired first class sleeper cabins are still available.


We purchased our train tickets for 1,250 baht per person, paid for in Baht and in cash. Expected time of arrival in Thailand’s capital is at 6 am the next day.

For a negligible total difference cost of about $30 for 2, our cabin came with more privacy with a solid door that we could lock and our own in room sink. There’s a dedicated light switch that we can turn on and off at will and aircon controls to adjust the cabin temperature. The toilet at the end of our car has a shower and cleaner compared to the one at the 2nd class.




June 6, 2016

Bangkok

Between Kim and I, we’ve been to Bangkok 6 times but we want to keep coming back for more because we don’t run out of things to see and do. And eat! Food is plentiful and delicious, shopping is abundant and cheap and the culture rich if you venture out of the uber touristy Khao San.


It’s good to revisit places because then you are not too focused and rushing on the must see sights and can just absorb, really experience and appreciate the real nuisance of the place.

On this trip, aside from stuffing our faces with glorious Thai food (more on that later), we even get to participate in their custom.



Tak bat or monk's alms collection is a tradition where monks walk barefoot around the village to collect food donation for their daily meal.


A monk does not openly ask. They quietly walk the streets awaiting a donor to come to them which allows the donor to give freely and only what they can afford to provide. In return for the people's generosity, the monk blesses them. Although there’s a language barrier, I had goosies during the chant!


I also got to try my hand at this 200 year old tradition of crafting monk's bowls for tak bat at the Baan Bat or Monks bowl village. A bowl is constructed from metal slabs, hammered by hand and heated to take shape. A small bowl takes 3 long and laborious days to make. The polished bowls are purchased by the faithful and donated to monks.



Located at 71 Soi Baan Bat, this place is not on the usual tourist trail and a bit tricky to find but is a highlight and worth a visit in my book.  There were lots of pantomime mimicking pounding and begging before our tuktuk driver understood where we wanted to go.

We brought home a souvenir to remember this hundreds of years old tradition by and it now sits prettily on our coffee table to coral our remote controls.


But no matter how many times we visit Bangkok, the trip would not be complete without seeing at least a couple of its temples.

Gilded in gold, glittering in the sun with awe-inspiring architecture. These temples are not just tourist attractions but also places of worship so dress appropriately with shoulders and knees covered and footwear off. Most temples are open only until 6 PM. 

This time, aside from going back to the ever popular Wat Pho, we visited the smaller and lesser frequented temples we missed from our previous trips.

Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha). Located at 2 Sanamchai Road at he Rattanakosin district directly adjacent to the Grand Palace. Admission:  100 baht.




Wat Benchamabophit (Marble Temple). Located at 69 Nakornpathom Road at the corner of  Th Si Ayuthaya & Th Phra Ram V in Dusit district. Admission: 20 Baht.




Wat Indrawiharn (Temple of the Standing Buddha). Located at 114 Wisut Kasat Road on the northern edge of Banglamphu in Nakhon district. Free admission.



Wat Saket (Temple of the Golden Mount). Built on a man made hill located at 1344 Ban Bat in Pom Prap Sattru Phai district. Admission: 20 baht.




Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn) was under rehabilitation at the time of our travel (February 2015) so we did not cross Chao Praya river anymore. Instead we had a delicious gourmet dinner with wine and cocktails on a restaurant deck by the river fronting Wat Arun as the sun was setting on the horizon. Best to reserve in advance at your chosen riverdeck restaurant so you are guaranteed a table as the place gets packed at sunset.


That dinner was a bit pricey by local standards but it was worth it and just too romantic. It was the perfect way to cap off a day of temple hopping and sightseeing.




Bangkok ultimately is a cheap place to visit and indulge in the local cuisine even if you are on a budget. You can just walk on the streets sampling the most flavorful treats and eat until you burst without paying too much.



If you have sensitive tummy and or intimidated by street food, you can ease your way in by eating at mall food courts. They are one of the best places to sample a wide variety of tasty cheap eats but in a more hygienic air-conditioned setting. It is also often packed and patronized by locals and not just tourists so you're not missing out on the authenticity. You pick up a cash card or voucher from the cashier loaded with the value you want and then use it to pay at the food stalls. Any unused value can be redeemed when you return the card.


Bangkok, and most part of Thailand is well versed in the art of tourism and perhaps over caters to tourists but that makes it an easy country to travel to and a great value for your travel dollars.

Transport tip: The BTS sky train is an excellent way to travel around Bangkok. With 36 stations along 2 lines, it can get you to temples, food and shopping meccas, local markets and tourist places.

Another tip: Upon check in when traveling overseas especially in non-English speaking countries, I always grab a hotel's business card so that if ever we get lost, which happens all the time, we have the hotel name and address in the local language to show the driver. 

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