February 26th - Chiang Mai

Thanks once again for all the comments. Just received one from Vicky, a friend of Don ans Pat, two of the support crew. Thank you for your kind comments, much appreciated.

Now, it appears that a certain reader of the blog seems to think that I actually do these posts at the time shown on the bottom of each post, which normally is shown as in the middle of the night. I do not! To clarify this, the time shown is that of Blogger.com in the US, and not the local time here in Thailand. Hence this posting is being done at 10pm here in Chiang Mai and the time shown at the end of the post is 7am.

February 27th - Day 21 - Chiang Mai to Nan

Firstly, I must post the comment made my friend Thavi to correct my identification of the tree at Wat Phra That Lampang Luang. He also answered my query about the poles supporting the branches:

'The tree at Wat Phra That Lampang Luang was in fact a Bo tree. Some accounts have it that the Buddha attained Enlightenment under a Bo tree, which is one reason why you often find the tree with the heart-shaped leaves in Buddhist temples.

The significance of the supporting poles is simply that by propping up the larger branches of the Bo tree, you are, through an association of ideas, helping to support Buddhism.'

Many thanks Thavi for enlightening us all. Thavi also thinks the bird we saw a few days ago, was an oriole.

Today's drive to Nan in north-eastern Thailand was about 350kms. We took the short route for the last part of the journey, as opposed to driving one of the optional loops.

We left Chiang Mai in the rush hour and the first 5kms took us half an hour. Once we were clear of the town the roads cleared and we made good progress on lovely roads winding through the hills. After about 50 kms we turned off the main road onto the 'Ghost Highway'. This road is little used and is a great driving road as it winds through the mountains. It has very little traffic and wonderful views of the surrounding countryside. Every so often we would come across a tree covered with blossom. You could see them from a long way away as they made such a contrast to the predominantly green foliage of the tropical plants and trees.

Not long after we passed this tree in full blossom, we rounded a blind bend and were confronted with half the road having been washed away. A temporary crash barrier had been erected to keep you away from a huge drop.

The drive through the hills continued for about 70kms. After we returned to the main road we saw many areas that had been burnt in the recent fires. Our view of the hills was severely restricted by the smoke haze and when we wound the windows down you could smell the smoke.

When we had gone about halfway to Nan we came across large areas of deforestation. This combined with the smoke filled air created a doomsday scenario. For the first time in Thailand the countryside was no longer a delight to see. It was all rather depressing.

As the drive continued we came back into a more forested region that the fires had not touched. We reached our destination, Nan, at around 1pm, a drive of just under six hours.

Wendy had read the Rough Guide section on Nan and found that there were two temples of interest to visit. So after checking in to our hotel, we set off for the first, a five hundred year old temple called Wat Phumin. The main temple had a four sided central dais, with four golden Buddhas. The roof of the temple was beautifully carved and decorated.

Whilst at the temple we came across a small domed building. Inside was the Buddhist version of hell. Those condemned to hell were being punished in terrible ways. It reminded me of the awful S21 detention centre in Phnom Penh. It was a very macabre place.

We moved on from the temple to another temple about 2kms out of the town. As we walked up to the temple I noticed these three monks buying a lottery ticket from a vendor. An interesting moment!

The temple is famous for its giant 55 metre golden chedi.

Inside the temple courtyard was this row of small golden Buddhas. I think they make a good photographic subject.

As we left the temple I stopped to buy some cashew nuts from a lady selling them on the lawns. Next to her was this lovely old lady, who very kindly agreed to having her photo taken. She laughed a lot when I showed it to her on the display screen of my camcorder.

We headed back to the hotel and drove past this group of young boys, dressed in scout uniforms, walking along the road holding long sticks.

The car by now had become very dirty so we stopped at a roadside car wash. Two young men set to work and in no time at all the car was spotless. They didn't speak much English but a young woman, who was valeting the cars, spoke some English and we told them about the tour and the website. We took this group photo of them, with their nephew and niece. I hope they are able to access the site to see this photo. Thank you guys for doing such a good job!

Tomorrow we head for Laos, our fifth country of the tour. We will have driven more than 4,000 miles by tomorrow evening, with nearly 2,000 to go.

February 28th – Day 22 – Nan, Thailand to Vientiane, Laos

Before posting about today’s drive, I want to update everyone on the plight of the Andrew & Sheila Marshall. Their Landrover Defender had an oil leak which meant they could not drive at more than 50mph. The replacement part they needed had to be flown out from the UK, and amazingly, it arrived yesterday, just 36 hours after being dispatched. A local dealer fitted it and they left Chiang Mai in the afternoon, arriving in Nan at about 8pm. It is another example of what you need to do, to ensure you complete an event.

Now, to today’s drive. It was a case of another day, another country. This time it is was Laos, the fifth country of the tour. When we went to our car in the hotel car park we saw Bert & Stefan Diebel’s car wrapped in pink ribbons, with a great big sign on the window saying, ‘Happy Birthday, Stefan’. This had been done yesterday evening by Simon Dedman and his co-driver, Andrew.

It was a long drive from Nan to Vientiane, just under 600kms. This meant a 6.30am start. With sunrise at 6.15am we were able to leave Nan in the light and watch the sun rise into the hazy sky due to the forest fires that are burning all over this part of Thailand.

A a bit later we came up behind Alan Crisp and John Faulkner while driving through a national park.

As we headed south, close to the Laos border our views of the hills were restricted by the smoke filled skies.

It was a sombre reminder of the cost Thailand, and the world, is paying for the clearing of the forests by farmers, turning it into arable land.

Road works on one of the minor mountain roads.

On either side of the road beautiful clumps of pampas grass were growing with their long stems often bending over the road.

We were now driving alongside a river which was the border between Thailand and Laos. At one point we came across this market which was at a border crossing. We still had over 300kms to go before we reached the Friendship Bridge crossing to Vientiane.

About 200kms from our destination we reached the banks of the mighty Mekong River. The Mekong is the third longest river in Asia after the Yangtze and the Yellow river. The car by the Mekong

We stopped by the side of the river for a short break and just as we were about to drive off, a police car with three cars following it, drove past. The police car was escorting a car, with two security cars following. When I tried to overtake, the last car pulled out to block my way. We were stuck behind them for over 70kms, before we stopped for diesel.

At one point this giant wasp attached itself to the windscreen as we were driving along at 70mph!

About 40kms from the border the route took us along the Mekong, with views of Vientiane on the opposite bank.

We had just been joined by Bob and Thelma and I took this photo of Wendy and them in front of the Mekong and with Laos in the background.

Just along the road we came across these examples of topiary with, as it turned out, our hotel in Vientiane the white building on the left.

We arrived at the Thai border crossing on the south side of the Mekong and cleared their immigration and customs quickly. We then drove across the Friendship Bridge, which has both Lao and Thai flags flying on both sides of the bridge.

When you have crossed the bridge; you have to do something which doesn’t happen very often: switch from the left to the right, as Laos drives on the right.
Clearing customs in Laos took a bit longer than leaving Thailand and Wendy took this photo of Don & Paul looking at their watches as we waited for the Lao customs to issue our visas. John Brown looks pretty pleased with himself!

The drive to the hotel was only about 20 kms.

In the evening we went to a Lao restaurant on the banks of the Mekong, for a meal that had been arranged by a friend of Felicity and Jeremy, who lives in Vientiane. A lovely way to end the day.

March 1st – Day 23 – Vientiane to Luang Prabang

Once again a stay of only one night in a capital city is simply not long enough, and looking at the itinerary, the same happens in Hanoi. What is John Brown thinking about? Still, we had a chance to see one or two of the principal sights in the city as we drove out heading north to Luang Prabang.

We left the hotel at 9.45am and almost immediately saw the ancient chedi, That Dam.

The route then took us along Vientiane’s equivalent of the Champs Elysee, the Th Lan Xang.

At the end is the Patouxay Arch, the Laotian equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe.

We then drove a short distance to the magnificent That Luang stupa.

This is located next to the National Assembly building.

We were sorry to discover that the route did not include the fine old French colonial buildings we had wanted to see, as well as missing out on the Presidential Palace. By now the morning rush hour traffic made the drive out of the city pretty tedious, and for the first 50kms we were stuck in slow traffic. Once clear of the trucks we managed to speed up a bit and were promptly stopped by the police in a radar trap for doing 94kms/hr in an 80kms/hr zone. The policeman was very polite and smiled as he warned us to keep to the limit and then waved us on. We found out later that others had been stopped but, as I write this, I don’t know if anyone was ticketed.
We came across this rather dilapidated bridge, which is being replaced by a new one that they are building, and as we waited for vehicles to cross we saw this old Landrover parked on the side, being used as an advertising hording for adventure trekking and canoeing.

We came up behind this bus and the sign on the back caught our attention.

A typical local bus, overloaded with passengers and goods!

The drive took us through some beautiful scenery.

Many villages we went through had bustling markets and this one was by a large reservoir where the main livelihood, is fishing. All the stalls had smoked fish hanging from racks.

By now it was lunchtime, so we stopped by a river and had a snack. There were people fishing in the river, as well as children swimming. It was an idyllic spot.

Shortly after we had our lunch we saw this amazing sight on the side of the road. A small muddy pool that was filled to capacity with water buffalo, wallowing in the mud. I immediately thought of the Flanders and Swann song, ‘mud, mud, glorious mud’

We drove on up into the mountains of central Laos. Lovely winding roads took us through one village after another. Here are a few of the photos we took.

All along the road there were groups of people threshing fronds of grass and then rolling them up. They were all working so hard, even the children. We learned later that they were making brooms. They do this after the harvest is collected to supplement their income.

We came across large areas of ‘slash and burn’. It really is very depressing to see areas of this beautiful county being turned into a wasteland.

Finally, were these two on top getting a free ride? If so, as the bus nearly turned over going round this bend, I think they might pay next time!

The total drive today was just under 400kms, and we arrived in Luang Prabang just before 6pm, as the sun was setting. We are here for two nights, our last rest day.