Saturday, September 30, 2006

Luang Prabang - Day 2

We were up at 5:00am to go see the monks again, this time during their morning pilgrimage through town. Along the way they accept offerings of rice from the public. The procession lasts an eternity as hundreds of orange-clad monks walk along, single-file down the road from their dormitories to the temples.

Next we headed to the morning market, which is decidedly NON-touristy! I suppose markets are a staple of any trip like this (so to speak) but this one was fun. What was most striking about it was the variety of things Laos find apetizing. These people will eat anything! Bamboo worms, frogs, crickets, stinky fish heads, foxes, guinea pigs, cats, snakes and of course all manner of delicious looking parts in the mix! YUM! Great way to get the appetite going before breakfast.

After said breakfast we headed out on a full-day on the Mekong River. We stopped at a couple of villages, whereupon we learned that most villages in Laos are simply known by their individual cottage industry. Today we visited the Pottery, Decorative Paper and Rice Whiskey Villages! The latter was where we witnessed a full-on throw-down going on at 2:00pm. The town was rockin'! We were invited to try some of the more potent rice liquor imaginable - spiked with some unidentified root. I thought surely we would begin hallucinating but alas that was not our fate.

The highlight of the day was our stop at the Pak Ou caves, filled with ages worth of buddhist detritus. Much looting has occurred here, but it was worth the trip. The three-hour round trip cruise on the Mekong was a delight and a welcome respite from the stiffling heat! The river has so little development along its banks that it must appear as it has for millenia. Images of Conrad's Kurtz inevitably entered my thoughts.

Back in town we snuck in a quick nap and swim before meeting our colleague, Phoung, from Trails of Indochina - a preferred business partner. Phoung is a super nice guy who took us to a fantastic restaurant, known for it's Mekong Fish - called 3 Nagas. It is owned by the attractive hotel (guest house really) of the same name directly across the street.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang

We began the day with an official site inspection of the Dhara Dhevi resort along with my buddy Savas, the inimitable resident manager. It is just impossible to detail the scope of this place. We saw the new Colonial Wing scheduled to open on October 1 with much fanfare. The resort will be complete (for now) at that time. I decided the Dhara Dhevi is the destination. The owner designed it in concert with rising star architects whom he sent all over the region to study the styles and techniques of those who came many many generations before. The entire complex is laced with antiquities and art - surely priceless. His whole idea was to create an homage to the rich history of the region - a living museum.

The finished product is astonishing. As cliche as it sounds, they a have achieved a resort which comprises of something for everyone. Swell kids' club including activities such as rice farming (!) weaving, etc. The aforementioned spa speaks for itself - etherial! There is a stellar cooking school on premises as well. This would be the perfect destination resort for a small family or, even better a couple wishing to truly get away from everything while having all manner of culture at immediate disposal. The library alone could keep me busy for weeks! Years!

We took our flight to Luang Prabang on this partly cloudy (remarkably unbumpy) afternoon. It was poignant flying over rugged, jungle-coated mountains, speckled with tiny, isolated villages. Tragically, patches of obvilously slash-and-burn agricultural clearings dot the landscape.

Landing in Luang Prabang was striking, as the red-roofs of the town emerged from the greenery along with the odd gold-gilt stupas scattered about. After a comical (endearing really) visa-issuance and customs experience we were greeted by our perpetually broadly smiling guide, Som Phone (Sum Pun). We checked in to La Residence Phou Vao around 3:00pm but still crammed in the Royal Palace and something like four temples (mostly on foot) in the next few hours. In spite of Som Phone's easy, charming, and low-key demeanor, the afternoon was precisely planned choc-a-bloc and executed minute-by-minute! Luang Prabang truly has a "Shangri La" air to it, and even though we rushed about (including a sweaty 300+ step climb to the top of Phousi Hill for sunset) it all seemed so so relaxed!

The highlight of the day - and possibly the whole trip was our visit at dusk - to a temple on the main drag to watch the novice monks chanting for some 45 minutes. Words cannot describe how magical it was. I felt self-conscious intruding on the space of these young men in at their most spiritual time. Still, the senior monk conducting the proceedings came out afterwards to engage us in 20 minutes of conversation - thrilled to know about us and to tell us all about what we had just witnessed!

We then sauntered through the night market perusing various tourist swag and (extremely well-made and inexpensive) handicrafts before heading to the hotel for a much-needed shower and dinner before crashing hard!

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Chiang Mai in a Day!

People wax rhapsodic about Chiang Mai and I fail to understand why. After a delicious breakfast of rice soup with minced pork dumplings we headed out with Van to see the main temple of the city...less than awe-inspiring but we felt we were doing the right thing anyway... it's claim to fame is a Buddha that has traveled the region more than Buddha himself ever dreamed. We next headed up to a garish temple several thousand feet and many curves later above the city most notably featuring a spectacular view of the valley below.

Chiang Mai resembles any semi-modern Asian town - featuring row upon row of concrete low-rises garnished with garish signs advertizing anything from tire patching services to noodle shops. The noodle shops were the next stop where Van took us for a magnificent bowl of bits and pieces I'd rather not identify. Fantastic!

We took the rest of the afternoon to work off the remaining jetlag back at "the complex". Laine had a manicure and I lounged around our luxuriant villa contemplating just how surreal this resort is.

We headed back into town for dinner at the stylish renovated hotel, Rachamankha. Great space, great dinner. I figure this is a good hotel for those who like style on a budget. Not bad. Walkable to the Night Market which we could not muster the strength to visit. Shopping must wait until Bangkok at the end of the trip! a

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

More Enchanting Chiang Mai

Well, we did indulge in the spa at the luxuriant Dhara Dhevi. WOW. We had a traditional Thai massage in an oppulent reproduction of a Lanna style temple complex. Someone described it as "lazy yoga", an apt description to be sure! Who could imagine that these tiny women could beat us up so! We ended the day dead asleep by 7:00pm. Up again at 5:00am for delicious coffee before heading out with our superior guide, Van...

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Arrival in "The Land of Smiles"

After a seemingly endless 37 hour journey, (including a welcome layover visit with friends in L.A.), we finally arrived in Chaing Mai. The transpacific flight was uneventful. Security is normal...everything is normal in Thailand. A few soldiers brandishing weapons roam around, but certainly no more than in many places. Everyone in the land of smiles seems to be smiling a lot these days.

Curiously, as we transited through Bangkok, we quickly learned that today was the last day of operation at the old airport! The new airport, Suvarnabhumi, is due to make its full debut tomorrow. The new terminal claims to be the largest single terminal in the world...and they will have the tallest control tower in the world....until the next one comes along! Trivia. We were there. Yay.

Chiang Mai of course is enchanting. We really breezed through before checking in to the STUNNING Dhara Dhevi and our embarrassingly opulent villa, overlooking the working rice farm at the center of the complex. The spa beckons, thus ending this update. Tomorrow we'll tour and make even more use of this lucious specimen of a resort before heading on to Luang Prabang!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Poe Traveler Heading to the "New Thailand"

After closely watching the events of the last two days in Bangkok I have decided it is perfectly safe to press on with our planned journey to Southeast Asia on Monday the 25th. Stay tuned here for updates from the theater! Hopefuly we'll figure out how to upload photos for the first time. Stay tuned for the first report on 27 September from Chiang Mai!