Going with the flow – Mekong (March 2020)
Here I am back after the most controversial trip ever. Now that I am on self quarantine for 14 days and have nothing to do, I thought to complete my next article on the Mekong cruise. Yes it was a solo trip to Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Initially I booked tickets to Korea and Japan and thought of visiting Korea for a week to stay with my friend, and later to travel around Japan for a week to see cherry blossom which was in my bucket list for quiet some time.
By end of February 2020 the Corona virus spiked in Korea and japan, and my flight ticket was on 22 Apr to Seoul. For one week my only work is to watch the status of the Korea and Japan corona updates. I was in a big dilemma weather to go or cancel the trip, since I have completely booked the tickets to Seoul, and then to Tokyo, and then to Hongkong and back to Bangalore. I generally travel on a shoe string budget, so booked all tickets in cheapest airlines, so on cancellation I wont get any money back. I have packed my backpack and was waiting for a little better news so that I can take off.
Since my family members were worried, I decided to cancel the trip. But my mind was prepared for a travel, so wondering what to do, and suddenly this cruise in Mekong (Thailand, Laos, Vietnam) which was always in my list popped up. The Mekong River is the word’s 12th longest river and Asia’s 7th longest with a length of about 2,703 miles. This trans-boundary river runs through several Asian countries including China, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. I thought that anyway Thailand gives an on arrival free visa for Indians why not use this opportunity. And Laos also has an on arrival visa for Indians and for Vietnam if I apply for e-Visa and leave, by the time I reach Vietnam which will be almost 10 days from now, I should get the visa.
So on a Sunday afternoon I decided why not to finish the Mekong cruise in passenger boat along with locals. So I booked the ticket to Bangkok at around 5 pm on Sunday evening for next day (Monday ) morning flight.
Monday morning with a minimal packing, left for the trip. It was on 23rd Feb 2020, The Bangalore international airport was so empty due to corona threat, I have never seen the airport so empty and was little worried. The flight was very empty with hardly 20 passengers may be, hardly one person in 2 to 3 rows. The whole 3.5 hrs the whole flight was calm with almost all of them wearing mask, I too wore the mask all the time I was in the flight and used my hand sanitizer every 30 mins. I arrived at Bangkok by afternoon. Once I reached, changed some currency and bought a sim card and got connected to internet and started my journey. I dint want to stay in Bangkok for a long time, due to the corona scare, so I immediately took a train to Ayuthaya.
Note: This point would help people taking visa on arrival in Bangkok. You need passport, photo, entry form and visa application both duely filled. The entry form is mandatory, if you don’t fill that you will have to leave the queue and start fresh in the queue and will waste at least 1 hr.
How to reach Ayuthaya (cheapest way)
- At the terminal take the rail link and go to Makkasan station.
- From Makkasan staion, take MRT to Lamphong station which is 7th station.
- Take a train to Ayuthaya from there which will cost approx 35 rupees in Indian currency.
- You will reach Ayuthaya in two and half hours.
This is in Ayuthaya train, which is mostly used by locals. The locals get to ride for free and it costs us approx 35 Indian rupees. There are other AC trains, costs up to 700 to 800 Indian rupees, I wanted to take the cheapest mode and to get an experience to travel with locals. I wont say its a comfortable train, but surely manageable. It is two and half hour journey.
Though I had read and had all the details in hand to take the train to Ayuthaya, the Makassan train station was a little confusing and these school girls helped me in showing direction to reach the Lamphong station.
By 5 30 checked into my hostel ‘Tamarind Guest House’. In this travel I decided to stay in hostels, since for a single traveler it works cost effective and also a chance to meet people from different parts of the Globe. This hostel was in the center of the town, and was accessible to most of the tourist places. There was a night market near the hostel, and the above picture was shot in the night market. Mostly people eat pork and beef in Thailand. Though all kinds of lip smacking non veg foods were available in the market which I love to try out, I stuck to vegetarian dishes due to corona fever all over.
Next day morning I hired a tuk tuk for 5 hrs to roam around the Town. The rate is generally 100 Bath for an hour. There are hundreds of temples in Ayuthaya, and due to time crunch chose the best few temples after going through the reviews,
- Wat Phra Si Sanphet. …
- Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon. …
- Wat Lokayasutharam. …
- Wat Phanan Choeng. …
- Wat Ratchaburana. …
- Wat Na Phra Men. …
- Wat Thammikarat.
The above temple is Wat Mahathatt, in this place there is this Budha surrounded by the tree,
Ayutthaya Historical Park covers the ruins of the old city of Ayutthaya, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya Province, Thailand. The city of Ayutthaya was founded by King Ramathibodi I in 1351. The city was captured by the Burmese in 1569.” It was the capital of the country until its destruction by the Burmese Army in 1767. In 1969 the Fine Arts Department began renovations of the ruins, which became more serious after it was declared a historical park in 1976. A part of the park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991. Thirty-five kings ruled the Ayutthaya kingdom during its existence.
The below temple is Wat Mahathatt, this place there is a Long Budha lying down,
This was again at Wat Mahathatt temple which was close to my hostel. One good way to go around the place is take a tuk tuk. It is approximately 100 bath for an hour, I hired for 6 hrs and went around all the temples. I really had to rush rush since I had a train that night to Chang mai. Ayuthaya will be good for a day stop.
This whole trip was planned in a days time, so I dint have any solid plan for the travel, so I kept planning for next day as it comes. It was even more interesting that way.
Yet another temple during sunset.
This place is called floating market, I liked it and spent some time over there. When I saw in the map Floating market, I really thought the real floating market in the river, but it is not. There were lots of shops built on water. But still its worth visiting.
By evening I reached hostel after visiting the temples, freshened up and got ready for the train which was 10 pm. The best part in hostels are they will have common showers which can be used after checking out also.
The whole train was almost filled with back packers. I was discussing with few other back packers, and found Sherloft hostel was good, so booked it for next two days. The train arrived in Chang mai next day morning 7 am, took a shared tuk tuk and went to the Sherloft hostel. Left my bag in the Hostel, took a shower in the common bath and left to see few places in Chang mai. Wat Chedi Luang temple and Doi Suthep are the two temples I chose to visit and feel its worth the visit.
Chang mai is quiet small town. It was nice town to relax for few days. Lots of backpackers stay here for weeks. I did stay for 2 days and left for Chang Rai.
This is the hot spring which is on the way to Chiang Rai. The water was literally boiling in the spring, there were around four to five of them like this.
The Wat Rong Khun is a Buddhist temple located outside the city of Chiang Rai in Thailand. It is known as the White Temple for the prevalence of white on the buildings and art pieces. It was designed and funded by Chalermchai Kositpipat, a local artist who has devoted his life to the construction of the temple.
This temple was recently built in 1997. The architecture was mind blowing.
Next we headed to Karan Village in Chiang Rai. This Karen village I was thinking for four years now after my visit to Burma few years back. I saw the long neck tribes there in Burma, and heard they live near Chang rai border of Thailand. From then on it was in my mind to visit this place, and finally could visit this time.
The Karen are a tribal group who have historically lived in the hills in Myanmar (formerly Burma) side of the Thai border. … There are still around 40,000 Karen members today, but thousands have had to flee Burma over the decades due to political unrest.
In the past, Chiang Rai Golden Triangle was once a place used for opium growing and narcotic manufacturing. There were factories around. It is believed that most people around there traded these things with gold. That is probably why the place is called ‘The Golden Triangle‘.
Here the border of Thailand, Burma and Laos meets along the Mekong.
This is the picture in the golden triangle while cruising in the Mekong. So here left of the river is Thailand, right side of the river is Laos and in the front it is Burma, so they call it Golden triangle. Lot of drug activities used to happen here long time back it seems.
In 1996, the Chiang Rail villagers decided to rebuild a temple here. The construction started in October 2005, the White Buddha was completed in 2008 while the main hall was only completed on 22th January 2016.
The Blue Temple’s official name, Wat Rong Suea Ten, doesn’t actually mean ‘blue temple’ but ‘dancing tiger temple’. Allegedly, this refers to the site before the Blue Temple was built where an old abandoned temple used to stand. This temple is a very recent addition to the landscape having only been completed in 2016. Because of this, it’s still a relatively new tourist destination so you can expect smaller crowds than at the White Temple.
The site is actually quite small with the Blue Temple in the middle surrounded by a small parking area and a few shops. You’ll also find a fairly decent toilet block within the site as well. As with all sacred sites in Thailand, you’ll need to dress respectably and cover your shoulders and knees.
These are common sights in all over Thailand, the tender coconut kept in ice box. For the hot weather there it really feels like heaven to drink these chill tender coconuts.
This is in the night market in the Chang Rai, after all the roaming and shopping. A relaxed dinner in a buzzing food court.
So now that I am done with Thailand, my next destination was Laos, the most awaited Mekong ride. The land border crossing from Thailand to Laos was in Chiang Kong town which is 2.5 hrs from Chiang Rai. Next day morning decided to leave to Huay Xai (Loas). That night reached the hostel little early, packed my bags and prepared all the documents like, hotel booking etc. This whole drive to Laos is going to be around 3 to 4 hrs bus drive. There are two ways to travel from Chiang Rai to Huay Xai,
- Take a local bus to Chiang Kong, and take a tuk tuk to Thailand exit border. Complete the immigration in Laos and again take a tuk tuk to bus stand of Huay Xai. or
- There is a bus which directly takes you to immigration waits there for you to complete the exit process in Thailand border and takes you again to Laos immigration waits for you to complete the immigration process and drops you in the Huay Xai bus stand.
I took the second option, which was more comfortable.
This is the Chiang Kong immigration of Thailand, where you exit the country by land.
This is the Loas immigration where you complete the immigration process and come into Laos. They charge 40 dollar for Indians for the visa fee. After crossing the Laos immigration, the bus dropped us in a bus station in Huay Xai. There are shared tuk tuks which for 100 baths per person dropped us in our hostels.
Note: They need crisp dollar. They don’t agree dollar with any small folding or marks. So carry crisp dollars.
Huay Xai is a small town, nothing to do much. People come here as a stop over and take the slow boat for 2 days in the Mekong river. We need to book the tickets here in Huay Xai for the slow boats, your hostel guys will help in booking the tickets. This ticket is valid for two days. First day its 8 hrs of travel and reaches a small town called Pak beng, where you stay for that night. Next day start from Pak beng and after 8 hrs of travel will reach Luang Prabang.
The above is the hostel I stayed in Huay Xai. Very small place with only 8 Dorm mixed beds, but maintained clean. One cannot expect anything better than this in such a small town. It costed me hardly 250 Indian rupees for a night.
That evening had few hours and went around the town which is only one street. I went around the place and climbed this temple, Wat Keophone Savanthanaram, from where you get a nice view of the town and the Mekong river.
Next day morning there was a tuk tuk which comes and collects all the people who have taken the slow boat ticket. We reached the piere by 9 am. The local bought the tickets directly and paid around 10 dollars for the ticket for 2 days where as we paid almost 25 dollars. Lot of locals use this means of transport for going to few villages on the way. We paid almost 25 dollars for the same ride.
We started our journey by 10.30 am. In a day only one boat leaves to Pak Beng. If one misses this boat, then have to wait till the next day for the other boat. Finally they gave our ticket and told us to board the Boat 3351 which was looking so clean and new. I dint expect such a nice boat as a passenger boat.
These are small villages on the way we saw on our ride. The boat had around 6 to 7 stops, where locals got down and new people boarded the boat. This photo shows the life on the banks of Mekong.
So here I am after 8 hrs of ride and reached Pak Beng. This is the Pierre where we were dropped and I stayed in BKC villa, which was a nice small place hardly 800 mts away from the Pierre. Went for a walking in the evening and had dinner there and returned to my hotel. I saw an Indian restaurant there, in center of nowhere. I was really surprised to see an Indian restaurant there, because Loas is not a popular touristic place and Pak Beng is even more isolated place where only back packers come here to do this Mekong river ride. I was curious to talk to that person and find out, how he landed up there.
I met the person who runs the restaurant and spent arrounf 30 mins talking to him. And surprisingly he was a Tamilian who was from Erode and he settled there 20 years back. We had discussion on how he landed, how was the business, how is this place to live etc etc.
This was the Pierre, I went in the evening and sat there for sunset and spent around 1 hour. I don’t think I will ever forget that moment in my life.
The next day morning the boat again left at 8.30 am to reach Luang Prabang. This was again another 8 hrs ride this day. The hotel guys helped in packing some lunch for me. These are few stops on the way to Luang Prabang.
There were around 6 to 7 stops today also between Pak beng and Luang Prabang. I enjoyed the whole two days ride on Mekong.
This is the second day boat, and the guy sitting behind me was such a nice guy, but Chinese. I was little worried to talk to him due to corona virus. He was trying to help where ever possible, I was trying to avoid him.
We reached Luang Prabang at around 5 pm. Most of them, no, all of them were back packers except for few locals. All the back packs were put in a godown in the boat. Finally picked up my back pack and climbed up. For almost 2.5 dollar fixed rate, pre paid tuk tuks dropped us in the hotels. That day I booked for a hostel, but they said they are full and had to walk around to find a hostel for that night. The good thing was there were few hostels located in that same location. I walked in to 3 to 4 hostels and finally picked up one.
This is the view of roads of Luang Prabang as I entered the city. It was again a small city, filled with back packers from all over the world.
I saw every where nutuella pancakes, banana pancakes etc etc attracting the western crowd. For 1 dollar had a nice nuttella pan cake. There was a night market with lots of craft items, sovigners and handloom items. There was a food market with all kinds of fishes, chicken, pork and beef. What is the fun if you don’t have a fish when you are in Mekong bank? I did took risk and had a fish roasted on charcoal fire. Though it was bland with no masala to attract the western crowd, it was tasty. Very tasty and fresh.
This is one among few temples in Luang Prabang. One can’t go to all the temples, that too for me where time was a concern. Just chose 2 temples, and this is one among them.
Next day decided to move to a cheaper hostel, since I will be leaving to Vietnam early morning next day.
Stopped by a restaurant along the Mekong bank. I chose to have safe fried rice, but the food was not that great. I realized the food courts have better and fresh food than these hi fi restaurants, except for the location which was amazing.
The road after a heavy rain fall. I did enjoy watching the rain, in the Mekong bank.
The other temple which I decided to visit.
The one important attraction, is the view from Phousi hill. By sunset I climbed the hill which was quiet steep and takes around 30 mins of climb, and got this breath taking view from the top. The beautiful town and the Mekong river.
Here I am the next day morning in the flight to Hanoi. I was with the mask fully, and used hand sanitizer every 1 hr. It was a short flight, around 1.5 hrs. By 9.30 am I was in the land filled with Con men. One should be really careful when travelling to Vietnam. One cannot escape from getting cheated. Though I was warned by my husband on this, first hour in Vietnam was cheated.
I need to explain this, since it might be useful for someone somewhere.
Beware airport bus scam: Once I came out of airport, I studied few blogs and got to know there is a airport bus which will take be almost near my hostel ‘Little Charm’ for about 20000 dong. It was 11 bus and I saw a mini bus with 11 printed on a A4 sheet and the driver hurried me to get in and took 30000 dong. I dint have any choice, gave the money and while steeping into the bus, I saw a big airport bus with green light marked 11. I was shoked how these people con the tourist. Since I already gave the money had no choice but to get in, and he dropped me 3 km away from the hostel, from where I took a grab taxi.
Little Charm hostel is the best place to stay for a shoestring travelers, since all the facilities were available here from restaurant, to concierge desk, to free city walking tours, to laundry and what not… and the place was fully bustling. The room was a 4 bed women dormitory. That whole night one girl was coughing and she had been travelling for 6 months it seems. I was really worried, my only savior was salt water gargle. Whole of this 18 days I use to gargle morning and night and do Jalneti to keep myself safe from corona virus and it really worked.
These are the sights I saw while going to my hostel.
This is the Little Charm hostel, I stayed in Hanoi. This was one of the best hostel in town. It was almost like 5 star hotel, in the services of having a travel desk, restaurant, laundary etc. It costed me around 10 dollar per night with all the services readily available. I booked a tour for Ning Bing area for the next day, and roamed around the city that evening.
The hostel had a free walking tour for 4 hrs around the city. She is the guide Mir, very sweet girl. She took me around the city of Hanoi.
After 2 hours of walking I got too tired, and suggested we will take a rick and we went around. Everywhere tourist are targeted, so one should be very careful.
The prison was built in Hanoi by the French, in dates ranging from 1886–1889 to 1898 to 1901, when Vietnam was still part of French Indochina. This prison explains how the Vietnamese were tutored during the imprisonment.
This lake was nicely lit up in the evening, and was cool to be around this place.
Mua Caves. The landscapes and historic monuments of Ninh Binh Province, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, lie just south of Hanoi. The tour was quiet expensive, it was 65 dollars. I knew if I do it myself it would cost less, but due to time crunch decided to go with the tour. But after finishing the tour, I felt it was worth spending that amount. I did climb this Mua caves, it was quiet steep and took 30 mins of climb. The view from the top was breath taking. As you see here the whole area was covered with these mountains.
Next we had lunch in a local cuisine restaurant, the food was amazing. Then we headed to Tam coc.
Tam Cốc, literally “three caves”, consists of three natural caves — Hang Cả, Hang Hai, and Hang Ba — on the Ngô Đồng River. Tourists are taken in small boats along the river from the village of Ván Lám, through rice fields and the caves, and back. Local women serve as guides and attempt to sell embroidered goods to their passengers.
After this we were dropped in the hotels back. I had a train to take at 9 pm, so hurried back to hostel, grabbed a quick dinner and left to the train station. Took a train to Da Nang, which was 17 hour journey. Trains are not very popular in Vietnam. In train station met one Vietnamese couple, and the guy said this is the first time he is going to take a train. I was really surprised, then got know from them that trains are not very common with Vietnamese.
Grab taxis are available all over Vietnam. I did use Grab bike taxi in Thailand, and now in Vietnam. I used Grab bikes to most of the local places; it worked out very cheap since I am lone traveler. I noticed there were lot of women bike taxi drivers.
In the train that whole night in four berth compartment, I was the only person and enjoyed sitting awake till late night and enjoyed the sceneries and the station stops. Next day got up by 7 am and enjoyed the sceneries, the last 3 hours from Hue city to Da Nang the view was amazing with beaches and forest layered next to next.
By 1.30 pm got out of the train, and walked to a bus station which was 1 km away. I had to take a bus to Hoi An, which was 1.5 hrs away. The blogs said the buses will charge 20000 dong, I know these guys will ask for more. So kept 20000 dong ready to take the ticket, he asked for 50000 dong, I showed him the link in the phone which showed the cost of the bus ticket. He immediately said 30000 more for the back pack, then I finally paid 40000 dong and settled. I dint have a booking here for that night, went to 3 to 4 hostels and finally settled with Vang Ann. They had a separate room with balcony, so decided to splurge on a little luxury and took that room. I was too tired by now, so wanted to really relax.
Rested for few hours, and in the evening got ready and went out. I saw groups of people going on walking tour, just followed them as the last person, and the guide took into nice old town and stopped in a popular ‘Bang Mi’ food shop. This shop was too crowed, I too took one ‘Bang Mi’ and ate, this was the meal after 24 hrs, where I had dinner in Hanoi before boarding the train. Grabbed one more and finished it in no time. Bang Mi is their favorite food made of pork. It was too good.
Next day I booked a tour to My Son, UNESCO World Heritage. My Son is a complex of Hindu temples that were constructed by the Champa kingdom, which ruled the Central and Southern part of Vietnam, from the 3rd century until 1832. After the Vietnamese defeated the kingdom, the temples were abandoned among the lush nature of Hon Quap (Cat’s Tooth Mountain) and Thu Bon River.
The whole area was surrounded by a thick forest and mountains. The Vietnamese workers after tired work, relaxing under a tree shade and chit chatting.
Thanks to the explorers like Camille Paris, who rediscovered the My Son complex during his cartography expedition in Vietnam in 1889. Later on, in 1903, Henri Parmentier, a French archeologist and his team began an excavation of the site that lasted eleven months. They documented the site of 71 rediscovered structures within two kilometres. They also managed to restore some of them, but unfortunately, the holy place full of secrets was bombarded during the Vietnam War in 1969 when American forces attacked Viet Cong that had made a base in the ancient ruins.
These two twin sisters I met in the tour were such cute and nice people. They are students studying in Holland and now travelling around.
One of Vietnam’s most iconic attractions, Hoi An’s Japanese covered bridge dates back to the 18th century and is a beautiful historical piece of Japanese architecture. It is claimed that it was created by the Japanese then living in Hoi An as a way to reach the Chinese quarter across the water.
This bridge has a fascinating history dating back to its construction in the 15th century. Since then it has undergone numerous restorations. Fortunately, the bridge is well preserved, an iconic symbol of Hoi An, part of any walking tour of the Old Town. In fact, you can find replicas of the Japanese Bridge all over town in the form of souvenirs, paintings and even 3D desserts! The Japanese Bridge, Hoi An’s town symbol and an important national monument, appears as an illustration on the 20,000 VND note. You’ll see many people holding it up while posing beside the bridge itself.
Nice pic I got on the way back to hotel.
Next I had a train to Ho Chi Minh city, my last destination by 1 pm, which was again 17 hrs journey. This time I was quiet safe and packed nice veg biriyani from an Indian restaurant for dinner. Boarded the train by 1 pm, and started my journey again, enjoying the view through the window.
Reached Ho Chi Minh city by 7 am in the morning. Took a grab and reached the hotel Silverland Hotel. Since the check in was at 1 pm, I left my baggage and decided to visit the war museum.
The War Remnants Museum is a war museum at 28 Vo Van Tan, in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. It contains exhibits relating to the Vietnam War and the First Indochina War. It was an eye opener for me to learn about the Vietnam war against USA, how people were tortured etc.
Next day I took a tour to Mekong delta. They told me to be ready by 7 am, and tour was 12 hour tour. I was ready and my guide came, and there was an Innova car. I was wondering where was the bus, and then the guide said I am the only person that day for the tour. I was happy one way because of the corona virus, its good to be in a private tour.
This whole boat was rented for me, and she took me around the Mekong delta.
We stopped in Tan Phong island and this lovely lady cooked nice local food for lunch. Enjoyed the lunch and rested for some time in their house, visited their kitchen, she showed few of their cooking.
The Mekong delta area is so fertile, and the fruits were so fresh. I saw jackfruits, longan, durian and what not… This was the first time I am seeing such fertile land and fresh fruits growing on the road side.
And finally what if being in Vietnam and not cycling, so took the cycle and cycled around the island for 2 hours. Enjoyed cycling around the thick, lush green fertile Mekong delta area.
This was how the airport of Hanoi, the day I was leaving. It was so empty and was little scary. It was March 10, I was returning back, there were so many travelers who were stranded in the airport. India had by then cancelled visas for the travelers even for people whom they had given the visa earlier they had cancelled. The travelers who were suppose to aboard with me came to airport and got to know their visas were cancelled, they dint know were to go and what to do. It was such a pathetic situation and so much of commotion in the airport. So many countries have stopped allowing tourist into their country by then. I was just in time returned, if I would have extended my trip for a week more I would have got stranded in Vietnam, for the reason all the flights were stopped to land in India from March 18th.
With this I complete my tour of Mekong, from Thailand (Golden triangle), Laos (2 days of Mekong ride) and now finally where the Mekong meets the South China Sea. With this my thirst for Mekong is done and over.
Here I am almost completing my self quarantine of 14 days which was not easy for a person like me who keeps going around all time. I am glad I used this time to complete this article.
Next will be back with my Iran trip. Though I don’t prefer writing about my family trips, Iran I wanted to share, the reason being it is most unpopular and unvisited land among tourist. People get scared to travel to this land. I feels there are few important tips to know before travelling to Iran. So will be back in few days…