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Fri 20 Feb 2015

Nam Song (River), Vang Vieng.

Nam Song (River), Vang Vieng.

I stopped in Vang Vieng for a few days en route to Luang Prabang. Vang Vieng is a small town surrounded by natural beauty, set on the picturesque Nam (River) Song near hills and limestone karsts.

Another view of the Nam Song.

Another view of the Nam Song.

Numerous agencies in town offered all manner of tours, including kayaking, caving, tubing, trekking and biking. However I decided to pass on these opportunities and spend time simply walking around and appreciating the river and the scenic views.

Unfortunately my plan for a peaceful few days was foiled by a gigantic party in the paved courtyard of my hotel just outside my room. Somewhere between fifty and a hundred relatives had gathered to celebrate the death anniversary of an ancestor, and it was far from a somber occasion.

The festivities began the afternoon I arrived and continued, day and night, for the next 48 hours. My eardrums were under constant assault by a diverse range of sounds, from the joyous laughter of a family gathering to the upbeat, rhythmic thumping of Lao pop music, and (all night, until dawn) a seemingly endless call and response chanting that I presumed was part of some kind of Buddhist prayer vigil. In the daytime, every time I left or entered my room I had to squeeze past large ice chests then thread my way through an obstacle course of squatting women chopping vegetables, dressing huge bowls of rice, and tending cooking fires.

Giant bowl of rice being prepared outside my hotel room.

Giant bowl of rice being prepared outside my hotel room.

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After some badgering I finally got the hotel manager to move me to a room across the street. For a brief time I was furious with the hotel for knowingly putting me in a location that was not only incessantly noisy but awkward as well. But I was able to calm myself down and appreciate that this was a significant and meaningful event for the community of celebrants. The hotel may have made a bad decision regarding my lodgings, but I am sure the eulogized ancestor appreciated the auspicious energy generated by his or her descendants.

Nam Song, Vang Vieng, Laos.

Nam Song, Vang Vieng, Laos.

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Wed 18 Feb 2015

Victory Monument, Vientiane's version of Paris's Arc de Triomphe.

Victory Monument, Vientiane’s version of Paris’s Arc de Triomphe.

Vientiane is the small, slow-paced capital city of Laos. It is located on a bend in the Mekong, across the river from northeastern Thailand. Crossing the downtown main streets was a breeze, since even during “rush hour” (if you could call it that) the traffic was not overwhelming. The noteworthy sights were concentrated in a small area of the city, and there were but a few.

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Wat Sisaket, Vientiane.

Wat Sisaket.

Wat Sisaket.

Of course there were several Buddhist Wats, large and small, and a number of government buildings, some of which I passed during my daily walks around town. I enjoyed seeing the various quaint old French colonial buildings. But for me, the most interesting aspect of Vientiane was that it was fairly uninteresting.

The gigantic Lao National Cultural Hall.

The gigantic Lao National Cultural Hall.

Lao Presidential Palace.

Palais Presidentiel. (I tried to get a closer shot but was sent away by the guard at the gate!)

That’s not to say there was nothing to do here. Despite its small size and relaxed pace, Vientiane boasts a range of cuisine to spark the envy of cities much larger. Many of its French restaurants are highly regarded, and I took note of a number of Italian, Indian, and even Mexican options. My favorite Vientiane food: warm, crispy French baguettes and croissants.

In my opinion, a very hipster house.

An interesting looking structure, Vientiane.

Near my hotel I found a small shop, owned by a Frenchwoman, that offered a selection of several Lao and foreign teas and I dropped by on a few occasions to try some northern Lao teas.

Orange!

Orange! Found in local handicrafts and antiques shop, Vientiane.

I passed several storefront shops selling handicrafts of various sorts. Taking shelter from a sudden morning downpour, I stepped into one of these shops (I can’t recall the name now) and sat for a while at its upstairs cafe overlooking the street. Back in the shop downstairs I got lost amid the giant carved wooden sculptures, antique Chinese Mahjong games and colorful tea sets.

View from the top of the Victory Monument, Vientiane.

View from the top of the Victory Monument, Vientiane.

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Sat 14 Feb 2015

Crossing the Mekong River from Thailand to Laos.

Crossing the foggy Mekong River from Thailand to Laos.

The national flag of Laos.

The national flag of Laos.

I spent a few days in Nong Khai, Thailand, on the border of Laos. There were no real tourist attractions there, but I had found a peaceful hotel, the Mut Mee Garden Guest House, right on the Mekong River and it was a nice place to relax. There was a lively market near the river, and just off the market was a pleasant walkway along the water.

This morning I caught a tuk tuk to the Thailand-Laos Friendship Bridge about 20 minutes from Nong Khai. After getting an exit stamp by Thai immigration in my passport, I took a bus across the bridge and joined the short line of other foreigners waiting to get a Lao visa on arrival. Once I had my visa, I shared a tuk tuk to Vientiane with two friendly French women traveling together, and was checked into my hotel a short time later.

Laos!

Laos!

Although it seemed that most places in Vientiane accepted Thai Baht, I thought it would be best if I withdrew some Lao currency from the ATM near my hotel. I instantly became a millionaire! (One million Lao Kip is about $127).

I spent some already.

I spent some already.

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Wed 11 Feb 2015

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Stupa at Wat Nong Wang, Khon Kaen, Thailand.

Yesterday I traveled several hours by bus from Bangkok into the heart of Isaan, which is what the Thais call northeast Thailand. My destination was Khon Kaen, where I would stay a day before continuing my journey north to Laos.

On the way the woman next to me started a conversation in her limited English. She was a sixty-ish primary school teacher coming back from a conference in Bangkok, and was curious as to why I was traveling in northeastern Thailand (which apparently does not see as many tourists as other regions). When we reached Khon Kaen, she took it upon herself to figure out where my hotel was located, then found a taxi for me and negotiated the fare. On my own I would have eventually made it to the hotel, but her intervention expedited the process and set my mind at ease.

Khon Kaen is a small city characterized by its university and art scene. My main goal in staying the night in Khon Kaen was to break the long bus journey to Laos into smaller parts, but while I was here, I figured I would try to do something useful with myself.

Inside of Wat Nong Wang.

Inside of Wat Nong Wang.

Wood carving, Wat Nong Wang.

Wood carving, Wat Nong Wang.

Wall mural, Wat Nong Wang.

Wall mural, Wat Nong Wang.

Today I took a stroll from my hotel, heading south to the Bueng Kaen Nakhon lake. I walked a bit near the lake, and then visited Wat Nong Wang with its giant and colorful stupa. I climbed up to the top of the stupa and took some photos of the surrounding area.

View from top of stupa, Wat Nong Wang, Khon Kaen, Thailand.

View from top of stupa, Wat Nong Wang, Khon Kaen, Thailand.

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Tea

Mon 9 Feb 2015

Teapot Art at the Bangkok Art and Cultural Center.

Teapot Art at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center.

After several weeks back in the USA, I arrived again in Thailand early yesterday morning. My plan was to spend a few days in Bangkok getting over the jet lag, then travel through the northeastern part of Thailand to get to Laos.

Yesterday I stopped by the Bangkok Art and Culture Center to look at an exhibit entitled Japanese Tea. Some of the artwork was clearly tea-related but as I looked at some other work I couldn’t see a direct relationship between the piece and Japanese tea.

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Thongchai Yukantapornpong. “Words of Tea Tree.” 2014. (My photo of the print installation).

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Waranun Chutchawantipakorn. “Kinkaju- Ji Temple, Kyoto.” 2014. (My photo of a part of the artist’s digital Image).

My hotel was located in an area that I did not find very esthetically pleasing, as it was surrounded by shopping malls (I chose the hotel because it was in a safe area and very convenient to transportation). But I decided to make the best of it and see if I could find something of interest nearby.

Tea set at Ong's Tea Shop in Bangkok.

Tea set at Ong’s Tea Shop in Bangkok.

In keeping with the tea theme from yesterday, this afternoon I found a small tea shop in one of the fancy malls a few blocks from my hotel. The shop sold single origin loose tea leaves from various parts of China. The shop attendant also brewed and served tea to customers on the premises. I chose an oolong from Fujian province.

A Fujianese Oolong about to be consumed (by me).

A Fujianese Oolong about to be consumed (by me).

Oolong is a type of tea that has been partially oxidized (more oxidized than green tea but not as much as black tea). I had read that oolong tea leaves could be re-steeped several times and that instead of resulting in a weaker brew, each re-steeping would bring out different flavors of the tea. The attendant at the shop re-steeped my tea at least five times, and each time the tea tasted great. I was amazed!

Tea vessel at Ong's Tea Shop, Bangkok.

Tea vessel at Ong’s Tea Shop, Bangkok.

Looks like a fascinating book!

Looks like a fascinating book!

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Sun 21 Dec 2014

Inlay Lake.

Inlay Lake.

My original plan was to spend at least a few days in the Inlay Lake area. However I needed to make an unexpected trip back to the USA, so I spent the morning at an internet cafe booking flights online and buying a ticket for the night bus back to Rangoon.

I did not think I would have enough time to do any sightseeing today. When I explained to the proprietress of the hotel that I was planning to leave in the evening, she encouraged me to find a boatman near the river and do a quick tour of the sights on and around the lake. I took her advice and was speeding down the canal toward the lake not more than 20 minutes later.

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Crusing on the canal.

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Intha Fisherman.

Intha Fisherman.

Traditional House, Inlay Lake.

Traditional House, Inlay Lake.

Kayan women weaving their traditional textiles.

Kayan women weaving their traditional textiles.

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Nga Hpe Kyaung monastery.

The boatman took me to the usual touristy sights, including stopping at a silver shop, the Nga Hpe Kyaung monastery, and a local restaurant, where I had a pickled green tea salad. This salad, called laphet, is a famous Burmese specialty, and is made from fermented green tea leaves mixed with sesame seeds, fried peas, fried garlic, and peanuts, among other things. It was fantastic! 

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Sat 20 Dec 2014

The hills of eastern Myanmar.

The hills of eastern Myanmar.

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I traveled most of the day, going from Bagan to Nyaungshwe, by minivan. The journey of twisting turns and rapidly rising and falling terrain offered many scenic views but was not very easy on the stomach. I was relieved when we reached Nyaungshwe just before sunset.

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Nyaungshwe is a small town in eastern Burma whose main draw is its proximity to the beautiful Inlay Lake. I had booked a hotel online a few days prior to my arrival, and with a few glances at the map in my guidebook I was able to find my way to “The Little Inn.” On the walk there I met a curious beast (see photo).

Greetings!

Greetings!

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Fri 19 Dec 2014

Htilominlo Pahto in the background.

Htilominlo Pahto in the background.

Sulamani Pahto.

Sulamani Pahto.

I decided to spend a final day in Bagan since there were still areas full of temples that I had not yet visited. After breakfast I cycled away from Nyaung U armed with my guidebook and a bottle of water. This time I headed out in the direction of some of the more remote temples.

Gubyauknge Temple.

Gubyauknge Temple.

Selfie.

Selfie.

Yes. Another one.

Yes. Another one.

Not sure which temple this is!

Not sure which temple this is!

Ditto.

Ditto.

Dhammayangyi Pahto.

Dhammayangyi Pahto.

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There were many thorns on the trail waiting to ambush my well-worn bicycle tires (one of which eventually suffered the indignity of another puncture). Otherwise it was a pleasant day. Some of the temples were completely deserted, except for the occasional security guard or small group of local artisans displaying their wares. Near the end of the afternoon I crossed paths with a goat herder shepherding her crew along the trail.

Goats.

Goats.

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Thu 18 Dec 2014

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Ananda Pahto, Bagan.

Another day cycling around the Bagan temples. The area was so big that it was easy to wander from one seemingly obscure small temple to the next one while avoiding the areas crowded with people. However, in the spirit of being a good tourist I tried to make sure to see at least some of the major temples listed in my guidebook.

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Thatbiyinnyu Pahto.

Thatbiyinnyu Pahto.

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Buddha in Thatbiyinnyu Pahto.

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I was glad that the weather was very pleasant, with mostly clear skies and the temperature around 30 degrees celsius. I biked through the countryside along the dry dirt roads that carved paths through the underbrush.

Toward the end of the morning I realized that my front tire seemed to be very squishy. In fact, it seemed to have no air pressure at all! Apparently one of the many thorns strewn across the path had decided to impinge on the integrity of the aforementioned tire. I called my bike shop back in Nyaung U, and they directed me to a nearby bike repair shop next to the Tharabar gate in the wall to Old Bagan. While my tire was being repaired I had lunch across the street at a local tea shop.

A bit of surgery by the Tire Doctor and we're back in business!

A bit of surgery by the Tire Doctor and we’re back in business!

The bike repair shop even offers an outlet to recharge your smartphone!

The bike repair shop even offers an outlet to recharge your smartphone!

During the day I also took a detour towards the river and had a cup of tea at a shop overlooking the Ayeyarwaddy, which was looking a bit low on water. 

Ayeyarwaddy River, near Bagan.

Ayeyarwaddy River, near Bagan.

Another view of the thirsty Ayeyarwaddy.

Another view of the thirsty Ayeyarwaddy.

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Wed 17 Dec 2014

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Random Temple in Bagan.

It seemed that the easiest way to see the Bagan temples (while getting some exercise) was to rent a bicycle and meander around the ruins at my leisure. I rode from Nyaung U, where my hotel was located, towards the town of Old Bagan, stopping along the way at any temple that looked interesting.

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Random Temple in Bagan

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Random Temple in Bagan

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As I was cycling along the road I noticed a sign for the National League for Democracy, the previously banned party whose leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was under house arrest for many years (she now has a seat in the parliament). I took a moment to dismount from my bicycle to take a photo and wave to the NLD members working inside.

Local Headquarters of the National League for Democracy, in Nyaung U.

Local Headquarters of the previously banned National League for Democracy, in Nyaung U.

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