There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Monday, 9 November 2015

Across Isan to the Lao Border: Part 3 of Thailand and Laos


We spent the next day and a half crossing northern Thailand from Sukhothai to the Laos border. There was much driving to be done, but plenty to see on the way.
From Sukhothai to the Lao border at Vientiane

After retracing our steps to Phitsanulok we continued eastwards on Highway 12, a well-maintained dual-carriageway. En route Lynne sent a message to Mike and Alison in Australia using Shorty’s in-car Wi-Fi. There was no pressing need to communicate; she did it because she could.

As we left the central plain and started climbing into the hills we paused for a photo. The clouds appeared threatening, but the rainy season was officially over and they knew the rules so they could only glower with frustrated malice. We would climb into higher, cooler regions, but here it was still hot, much hotter than the photo makes it look.

Leaving the central plain, Phitsanulok Province
We continued climbing gently as we entered Phetchabun Province and soon turned onto a steep, narrow road up to Wat Pha Sorn Kaew (Temple on a Glass Cliff). Established in 2004 and still unfinished, the temple and monastery sit on a hill above the main road. Somewhat off the tourist route it sees few foreigners, but is popular with locals particularly on a Saturday. Apart from the car park there are, as yet, few facilities for visitors but there was a traffic jam to savour.

Strange place Wat Pha Sorn Kaew, but at least the traffic jam looks normal

There are three main parts to the complex. The most obvious is the five-Buddha statue, symbolising the stages of the Buddha's life from birth to enlightenment. The outside is complete, but work continues on the inside which remains closed to the public. The statue is huge and impressive, by far the best part of the temple.

The life of the Buddha in one statue, Wat Pha Sorn Kaew
To reach the Temple Tower you must pass Vessavana, the Guardian of the North.
Vessavana, the Guardian of the North
The ornamentation reminded me of Wat Phra Kaew in Bangkok, but whereas that merely seemed fussy this was way over the top, bordering on fantastical - a harsh critic might even say tacky. Again it is unfinished, but you can climb to a gallery giving views over the whole complex.

Wat Pha Sorn Kaew
I disliked the temple but the monastery is worse, apparently modelled on the palace of mad King Ludwig at Neuschwanstein with a nod towards Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.

Monastery, Wat Pha Sorn Kaew
According to ‘the Wat is a unique and spectacular… rivalling Notre Dame…, the Sistine Chapel… and the Taj Mahal.’ Opinion is, of course, personal and the crowds certainly flock to see it, but I thought Wat Pha Sorn Kaew had the artistic integrity of Disneyland, though unredeemed by any rides.

Ake had earlier been telling us about the sweet tamarinds for which this area is famous. Tamarinds' usual function is to introduce a note of sourness into curries but these, Ake assured us, are different and we stopped at a rural market near the temple so he could prove his point.

Ake buys sweet tamarinds
(There is no truth in the story that he was David Miliband's banana coach)
Breaking open the brittle brown shells with your fingers and peeling back the fibres reveals a fruit the colour, shape and consistency of a small turd. Undaunted, you pull off a section and suck the flesh from around the large seeds. Obviously sweet tamarind tastes far better than it looks, indeed it is very pleasant, retaining just enough acidity not to be cloying, though it does leave you with very sticky fingers.

Three quarters of an hour later we turned north off the highway and followed a winding road into the mountains. As we rose higher we passed camp sites (‘People come here for the cold,’ said Ake) and strawberry fields. It was noticeably cooler, but despite Ake's comments about snow on Thailand’s highest peaks (a counter-intuitive side effect of global warming) it was not so cool either of us thought a pullover might be a good idea. When we had enjoyed the view and drunk a cup of coffee we went back down

Looking down at the central plain
We now entered Isan, Thailand's largest region consisting of the 20 north eastern provinces in land half-encircled by Laos and Cambodia. Traditionally it is Thailand’s poorest region, though recent rapid economic growth is changing that. Isan is also Ake’s home region, though he has lived in Bangkok for decades. Noting our liking for Thai food and tolerance of chillies he wanted to buy us a traditional Isan meal, so back down in the valley we stopped for lunch at one of a group of roadside stalls with formica topped tables and cheap plastic stools.

Isan cuisine, popular all over Thailand, is based on sticky rice and chillies. Ake bought a barbecued chicken, a fiery Thai green papaya salad, an even fierier Isan green papaya salad for comparison and sticky rice.

Chicken, green papaya salad and sticky rice
Roadside stall, Isan
Isan food is traditionally eaten with the hands and the trick to balling up your sticky rice is to get your fingers good and greasy, or so Ake told us, enthusiastically pawing a piece of chicken. The meal was excellent, the chicken was tender and well-flavoured, the green papaya salads were the perfect foil, especially the Isan one, and the sticky rice was ideal for soaking up the fiery sauce. Ake had shown us Isan cooking as eaten by ordinary Isan people and we had thoroughly enjoyed it, which pleased him immensely.

Wat Neramit Wipattasana, Dan Sai 
 Less than an hour later we were in the Dan Sai district of Loei Province. Wat Neramit Wipattasana stands on a hill overlooking what may be the township of Dan Sai (Thai villages have a way of spreading themselves out so you never quite know where they are). All sources agree that the temple is new but nobody will tell me exactly how new. What they all tell me is that it is made of laterite, which we could see for ourselves as this strange, porous rock is familiar from Angkor Wat and Si Satchanalai, and that the main hall contains a copy of the Phitsanulok Buddha which we saw two days ago.

Copy of the Phitsanulok Bhudda, Wat Neramit Wipattasana, Dan Sai 
There were also some pleasing paintings of scenes from the Buddha's life and, whatever its exact age, it was good to see a modern temple that had refrained from going as far over the top as Wat Pha Sorn Kaew.

Scenes from the life of the Buddha,Wat Neramit Wipattasana, Dan Sai 
 A couple of minutes away Phra That Si Song Rak (The Stupa in Honour of Two Loves) was built in 1560 by the Kings of Thailand and Laos to celebrate a pact of mutual defence against the Burmese.

The courtyard was packed with cyclists wearing ‘Bike for Dad’ tee shirts, part of a campaign which would climax in December with the Crown Prince leading 100,000 peddlers on a 30km ride round Bangkok to celebrate his father's 88th birthday.

We set off to climb the flight of steps to the stupa but before we could start I noticed a woman running towards me and shouting; clearly I was not satisfactorily dressed.  My shorts were acceptable here, as everywhere else in Thailand, but not my shirt which was, apparently, far too red. I was loaned a pale blue jacket to wear over it, though I am at a loss to explain why this was necessary.

In a fetching powder blue jacket - and it fits so it must be kept for foreigners
Phra That Si Song Rak  Dan Sai
Unusually for Thailand the stupa was in need of a coat of paint.

The stupa
Phra That Si Song Rak  Dan Sai
We were unimpressed by the 'Lady no Entry' signs by the stupas and in front of the holiest parts of the temple. I should have stayed out in solidarity, but I didn’t, so I can inform Lynne, and the rest of the world's ladies, that they are not missing a great deal.

Lady No Entry
Phra That Si Song Rak, Dan Sai
At the front of the temple a girl was shaking out fortune telling sticks, a superstition we have seen practiced many times in Daoist temples, but not before among Buddhists. 

Rattling the fortune telling sticks
Phra That Si Song Rak  Dan Sai
I had been under the impression that our hotel would be in the town of Loei. I had misunderstood; although in Loei Province, it was a rural eco-lodge and much closer to Dan Sai. The setting was pleasant with water buffalo wandering round the extensive grounds (and in another form in our bedroom) but we were the only people staying there.

Buffalo in our bedroom, Dan Sai
There were plenty of staff to look after us and although the bar was not open, they brought us a beer in the library, which had an impressive collection of books and games. We ate dinner in solitary splendour. The chicken dish, which we were warned would be ‘spicy’, turned out to be somewhere between a stew and a soup and arrived in an elaborate boiler. It was well-flavoured and when I made the mistake off chomping up a whole chilli I discovered that although I am largely chilli-tolerant, I am not entirely fireproof.
Dining Alone. Dan Sai
Ake arrived as we were finishing. As Lynne chatted to him I decided the now reduced quantity of liquid was boiling too vigorously and attempted to blow out the spirit burner. Had my reactions been a little slower the resulting flare would have cost me my eyebrows.

Ake leaned forward, local expert that he is, took the burner out from underneath and proved that he could not blow it out either. He flipped it upside down onto a table. With no oxygen he - and we - expected it to go out, but when he lifted the burner he found he had merely transferred the fire to the wooden table. With a little more urgency he grabbed a napkin and managed to stifle the flames, leaving a circular patch of paraffin wax on the table, and presumably unseen burns below.

When the waitress came and picked up our plates she spotted the wax disc, looked at us with furrowed brow and swept out. She returned for the boiler still apparently fretting that, perhaps, all foreigners were arsonists. I did not want to take the blame, but nor did I want to point the finger at Ake, so I was relieved when he stepped into the awkward silence and did the decent thing. After a couple of minute’s explanation they were laughing about it.


In the morning we proceeded to Loei. I had been disappointed we did not stay there as the guide book describes it as 'little visited' and I like being one of the few. We shot off a few photographs as we drove through and as the picture below is the least dull, perhaps Loei is little visited with good cause.

Exciting Loei
We paused for coffee at Udon Thani, the larger capital of the next province. Filling station complexes are common throughout Thailand. As well as fuel there are shops, always including a Seven Eleven and an Amazon coffee house. Small, clean, air-conditioned and modern they are unrelated to the ubiquitous on-line retailer and non-taxpayer.

At Udon Thani we turned north to Nong Khai and the Friendship Bridge over the Mekong. Here we said goodbye to the excellent Ake and Shorty the driver and checked out of Thailand.

After passport control we bought tickets for the shuttle bus and waited with a growing crowd of foot passengers. Traffic conditions made it a stop and start journey and I had to stand on the packed bus. I had wanted to see how they manage the changeover to driving on the right but the crowd obscured my view. Somehow, though, we exited Thailand driving on the left and arrived in Laos on the right.

We were met by Phim, negotiated the reasonably straightforward ‘visa on arrival’ process and emerged into the People's Democratic Republic of Laos.

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