A Mekong River Meander

One of the world’s great rivers, the Mekong, rises in the Tibetan Himalayas, flows through China, provides a border between Myanmar and Laos, then Laos and Thailand, before journeying through Cambodia and Vietnam to the sea.

The 196 kilometre road journey from Nong Khai to Chiang Khan in northern Thailand keeps the river in sight for most of the trip, and Laos across the water. Travel guides rightly describe this as one of the most scenic trips in Thailand. As a drive of about 4 hours without stops, it’s an easy day trip allowing for local sights.

My journey began at Nong Khai, a small riverside city that has hosts a lively river trade, and the Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos, the closest border crossing to Vientiane, the Lao capital, about 25 kilometres north-west.

Sometimes the river valley is a few kilometres wide, while at others times forested hills plunge straight into the river. The journey offers beautiful river scenery, the varying moods of the river itself, running wide and deep, or more treacherously through rapids, islands and shallower water, bordered by fertile productive agriculture of seemingly endless mixed uses, the opposite of monoculture – rice paddies, coconut palms, fields of pineapples, many varieties of vegetables, banana palms, papayas, ponds for fish – along with sections of  lush rainforest.

There are other attractions: important and historic forest wats (Buddhist temples), riverside villages and towns far removed from urban Thailand, a waterfall in the rainforest, and the often surprising and varied sights of rural life.

Impressively along the way, there are kilometres of paved and fenced riverside walks for local use, even in tiny villages, a reminder yet again how many ‘poorer’ countries focus on improvements for the whole population as many wealthier first world countries limit access to those who can pay.

Laos always lies on the other side of the river, sometimes appearing prominently like the riverside buildings of Vientiane, but more usually in a less populated and wilder form than the Thai side.

Chiang Khan is proudly re-inventing itself, a town of 5000 or 6000 residents stretched along the river. Most old teak wooden houses and shophouses have been restored and renovated, and tourism has brought increased wealth. The style is retro chic. The bicycle is a popular form of transport and a town motif.

As a visitor who prefers that tourism does not cause a locality to overly pander to us and ultimately lose its identity, to me Chiang Khan is doing well. I have seen enough beautiful localities transformed into false and inauthentic playgrounds for short-term visitors, be they the Costa Brava in Spain, or some of the beaches and islands in Asia.

Chiang Khan currently has the advantage of being a destination mainly for Thais. I only noticed about 4 or 5 other farang (foreigners/Europeans) on my five-day visit, and certainly, signage, menus, the absence of western food and other indicators suggest the absence of a western invasion, hopefully to remain so.

Once in Chiang Khan, if you rise at 6am, it will still be hot (27 degrees celsius when I checked) and there is an opportunity to see monks receiving alms in the street over the next hour or so, as well as to view the river emerging through the morning mist.

Dawn on the Mekong at Chiang Khan
Dawn on the Mekong at Chiang Khan

Later in the day a relaxing stroll is in order after watching the fishermen negotiate the river currents, At night, particularly on weekends when Bangkok visitors arrive, things get busier. Join the promenade to sample the sights: street food everywhere, musicians playing traditional Isan (northern Thai) music as well as modern styles, girls in tribal outfits dancing in the street, cyclists and strollers enjoying the festive atmosphere, eating, drinking ….

Sunset is best seen next to the river as a few small fishing boats return home.

The hills of Laos
The hills of Laos

Practicalities

Travel Options

Car rental from Udon Thani (1 hour south of Nong Khai) is quite reasonable. Avis quoted TBT560 (about AU$22) per day plus insurance excess cover for a small automatic gearbox car.

Driving yourself might be a reasonable option, noting that Thais drive on the left. Once away from the bigger city centres, Nong Khai and Udon Thani, traffic is quite light. Most major traffic signs are in Thai and English. However, some of the sights off the road are only signposted in Thai. Also, parking could become an issue.

I opted for a car and driver. I recommend Mr Chang from Nong Khai (Phone 081-369787) whom I contacted through Mut Mee Garden Guesthouse. He is relaxed and pleasant, and drove safely and reasonably; an important attribute to me as I have had more than my share of suicidal Thai drivers whose main mission in life is to speed excessively and always opt to pass on the most dangerous corners and crests. We agreed on TBT3000 (AU$115 or US$81) for the day.

The car and driver option makes the journey more flexible and independent, while it does mean missing out on some of the experiences, positive and negative, of public transport in remoter parts of a foreign country.

A hired motorcycle an option. 

Boat travel is not available, presumably because some of the river along this stretch is not navigable.

Bus connections are available, but there is no single bus trip connecting Nong Khai with Chiang Khan. I decided that it would take too much time to be feasible in my circumstances.

Recommendations

Chiang Khan

Tonkong Guesthouse for basic inexpensive accommodation. TBT700 for a double per night (AU$28 or around US$19) with Air Con, breakfast and free WiFi. Own bathroom and toilet. Room 8 on the first floor is the best room with windows looking directly onto the river, and the room opens onto a guest terrace that also overlooks the river.

Located between Soi 2 & 3.

Nong Khai

Mut Mee Garden Guesthouse (mentioned in all the guidebooks) is a good budget choice with varying prices, TBT1400 (AU$56 or about US$38) for the best rooms (try Arun – Room A) – with Air Con, own bathroom and balcony overlooking the river. The best room is Arun (room A). The riverside restaurant is a good place to while away some time. Inform the cooks that you prefer spicy food if you prefer real Thai tastes.

Wild in Bangkok

After many visits to Bangkok over the years, last week I saw something extraordinary, something that seemed unimaginable. This was in Banglamphu, one of the oldest areas of Bangkok.

In the klong (canal) outside my hotel, the water was being churned, splashed and swirled around by what looked like a Loch Ness Monster: a long tail thrashing in and out of the water, a slender reptilian head emerging, forked tongue flashing, eddies and swirls in the water, then another head appearing.

My mind was also swirling. Perhaps it was some mutant, malformed by exposure to the less than pristine water.

I turned to point out the extraordinary event unfolding 30 metres away to some locals, who were sitting in the shade of the big trees by the canal and enjoying a cup of tea and conversation. My embarassingly meagre Thai vocabulary did not equip me to do anything other than point dramatically in the direction of the primaeval happenings, now transformed into a couple of large creatures swimming on the surface of the water. With the usual Thai response of being polite and patient when dealing with a deranged farang (foreigner), they smiled understandingly, indicating that the spectacle was the equivalent of being alerted to the fact that there were cars driving on the road. This was an everyday occurrence.

After some comments in Thai, eventually one of the spectators said ‘komodo’, and everything started to make sense. So, my astonishment was just fed by ignorance. In fact, it’s well known that Bangkok’s waterways are frequented by the Water Monitor (varanus salvator), a species that lives throughout South East Asia and can grow to 3.2 metres long. 

Thailand’s Water Monitor, hia in Thai, looks familiar to Australian eyes, because it’s a close relative of the goanna, or Lace Monitor (varanus variius), which grows up to 2.1 metres long, and is also related to Indonesia’s komodo.

A young sunbaker.
A young sunbaker.

A refreshing dip in the klong
A refreshing dip in the klong

When camping in the bush or by the sea back home in Australia, it’s always nice to be visited by a goanna or two as they wander around the campsite using their forked tongues to smell for food.

I never expected to see a similar sight in the middle of a big Asian city. Travel definitely broadens the mind.

Return to Dali: travels in Yunnan province, China

A quiet afternoon in Dali
A quiet afternoon in Dali

Two decades ago, I visited the ancient walled city of Dali in China’s Yunnan Province and left with vivid and fond memories. I returned last year, curious to see whether the city and its surrounds had changed, and a little apprehensive that my recollections would not be matched by the reality.

Then, transport to and from Dali was uncomfortable. The sleeper bus from Kunming offered a coffin-like bed on bumpy roads, so that sleep was virtually impossible. The return trip by day bus was even more challenging; no leg room, and no toilet stop for many, many hours. This time, the train from Kunming in Soft Sleeper class (the best train class in China) and then onwards to Lijiang was bliss.  Mrs Nomadic gave this mode of travel her unqualified approval.

Dali is picturesque, wedged between the impressive Cangshan mountain range (reaching 4122 metres high), and forty kilometre long Lake Erhei. Like much of Yunnan province, Dali and surrounds is famous for its ethnic minorities, and their distinctive cultures, traditions and attire.

One of the highlights of my earlier trip was to journey by boat to a village market across Erhai Lake, enjoying the reflections of the mountains in the water, seeing the old Buddhist temple located on an island, small fishing boats, and traditional cormorant fishing.  The most memorable images are of the village market: the women and girls all dressed in strikingly colourful outfits.

Twenty years ago, Dali was a popular place for backpackers. A couple of main streets had numerous cafes, restaurants, and shops catering for their interests, including the quaintly named Salvador Dali Cafe. Besides boat trips on the lake, and opportunities to see traditional village life nearby, there were, and are, many outdoor activities like cycling, walking, hiking and climbing pursuits available.

In two decades, much has changed in Dali, as in China. One of the most striking differences in Dali is the level of domestic tourism. Even in the couple of streets where westerners were so visible 20 years ago, they are now relatively rare in a sea of Chinese faces. I like seeing this change, as part of China recovering its identity.

The old town has spread, but rather well generally, in a manner reflecting increasing prosperity. A short walk of a few hundred metres outside the city walls two decades ago took you into the town’s rural fringes, up the hill to catch the view to Lake Erhei with the town in the foreground, or looking in the other direction, to the peaks of the Cangshan mountain range. A slightly longer walk allowed you to stroll around Dali’s famous 3 pagodas. Now the 3 pagodas are enclosed, with a large park for buses and cars, and access by paid admission only.

On my latest visit, I initially wondered whether the traditional dress worn by the women in Dali was part of a tourist thing. Generally this was not so, as traditional dress is still worn in the locals-only markets, both in Dali itself and in the outlying villages, whether the women and girls are working or not.

How true are recollections from twenty years ago? The lake now has a road right around it (something new, I think), the water doesn’t seem as crystal clear, cormorant fishing is now an event to see on a day tour, and motors and pulleys located on the side of the lake haul in large fishing nets dropped out far into the water by boat. Not quite so romantic and quaint, but life evolves.

Thank you Dali.

This is my contribution to Fiona’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘D’.

I have posted some tribute photos to the women of Dali here.

The Prince and I

I first encounterd the Prince in my orchard. As home was bordered on two sides by a forested national park, wildlife was common. I therefore wasn’t surprised to see a wallaby underneath one of my most prized fruit trees, but I was bothered that he was holding a ripe apple in his paw, and taking obviously enjoyable bites from it. The last thing needed in an orchard is a wallaby, so I decided to scare it off, and from a distance of about 15 metres, picked up a fallen apple from another tree, and threw it towards (not at) the wallaby.

The response of the wallaby, with eyes locked onto mine, was to drop his partly eaten apple and reach down to pick up the apple I had thrown as it rolled along the ground towards him. He then lifted the apple to his mouth and took take a large bite, all the time looking defiantly at me. So began a long and mercurial relationship.

The problem

I’ll call him the Prince now, although the name came later. The Prince particularly liked fruit, as well as the leaves of the fruit trees. To select his snacks he would grasp a tree branch in one paw, pull it down towards him and grab the fruit or leaves in the other. I don’t mind sharing a little fruit, but the Prince broke the branch on most occasions, so that years of careful pruning were transformed into disfigured and misshapen trees within days.

The Prince was also partial to the crops in the vegetable garden, although the fence was high enough to keep him out. Forgetting to close the gate meant that he would be quick to slip inside to enjoy the harvest. Over time, as his familiarity with the family grew, he would ignore attempts to remove him from the vegetable patch and continue feasting on the best of the seasons crops, particularly enjoying tomatoes and zucchini. Ultimately, I found the only way to persuade the Prince to leave the vegetable garden was by spraying him with a watering hose.

Developing trust

Slowly, a scheme was hatched to humanely deal with the Prince. A friend who is a professional in the environmental and wildlife field offered to be available on request to use a hypodermic knockout on the Prince (importantly, for his safety, a different drug to ones used on other marsupials) as we now had arrangements with a person in a nearby district who wanted to take a wallaby for re-release into the wild.

So, the plan was simple. I would befriend the Prince by feeding him fruit, and over time, once he was tame, I would telephone my environmentalist friend who would travel the 10 kilometres to use the hypodermic gun. I would then drive the sleeping Prince to the recipient for release in his new environment.

A great plan? It didn’t work. Over a year or so, the Prince and I became quite close. If he was down the paddock, I would call him, and he’d respond by hopping up to collect his piece of fruit. But, whenever he was around, my wildlife friend was not available to shoot the hypodermic gun, and when he was available, the Prince was nowhere to be seen.

The Prince became much more relaxed around the house, often sleeping on the verandah, or in a shed. In fact, he became so at home, that one day when Mrs Nomadic and I went for a short walk and failed to close the door to our kitchen/dining room, we returned to find the Prince rifling through the fruit and vegetables in the pantry about 6 metres from the door.

Over time, my relationship with Prince evolved, but not always positively. He liked me to feed him on a more level basis height-wise, so I regularly fed him from my old shed chair, as pictured below. I am feeding him with metal kitchen tongs, as the Prince never acquired good table manners, and always tended to grab or snatch at the offering with his razor sharp claws.

The Prince of Darkness
The Prince and I in our Sunday best

The naming

It is well known that urine is a good fertiliser for lemon trees. Like many country people, I apply this knowledge. On one particularly dark night, it was very cloudy, with no star or moon light, and as always, no light from a neighbouring house. During the evening I strolled outside with the purpose, to put it delicately, of applying the lemon tree fertiliser theory into practice.

In the darkness by that tree, I was suddenly in the grip of the Prince, who could not be seen in the darkness. He was only innocently seeking something to eat, but it was an unnerving experience with those sharp claws so close to a very delicate part of my body.

After that experience, and with more than a biblical nod, we decided to name him The Prince of Darkness.

The romantic Prince 

The Prince had until this time never shown any interest in his own kind. But one day to our horror, we found him showing a young female wallaby his paradise, his Garden of Eden. We could imagine generations of wallabies – baby princes and princesses –  further decimating our fruit trees.

A falling out

One afternoon, it became apparent that home was too small for the two of us. As I strolled onto the lawn at the the front of the house, the Prince jumped towards me at some speed, and lashed at my face with his paws, drawing blood. A few moments later, the Prince bound towards me again at high speed, and I knew that this was a serious confrontation.

Alpha male kangaroos (the Prince’s first cousins) fight with rivals for supremacy and access to  females, grasping them with their claws, standing as upright as possible by balancing on their tails, lifting the rival off balance, then attempt to injure or disembowel the rival by kicking, made dangerous by their large sharp toes.

As the Prince reared up, slashing his claws at my face and trying to grasp me, I remembered a move from the couple of lessons I had in Taekwando many years before. The kick I landed in the middle of the Prince’s chest to knock him over defused the situation for a while, although I don’t think that our relationship ever returned to its earlier heights.

A fatal illness?

The prince was clearly very sick. He was lying on the floor of the open garage looking feverish, unable to get up, and I quickly saw that he had an infected big toe. It was very swollen. In spite of our differences, because I have  a weakness for wildlife, I decided provide him with a little comfort in his remaining time, with water and apples.

Within two weeks, instead of dying, he was back breaking fruit tree branches, having obviously enjoyed being nursed back to health.

What happened in the end? After a while, the Prince just didn’t turn up any more.

Chengdu Old and New

Chengdu Lane
Chengdu Lane

Chengdu is large, with a population of 20 million people including the surrounding suburbs.

It follows other Chinese cities in attempting to balance the old and new in a world of rapid industralisation, population growth, and modernisation.

Just around the corner from this lane, the Narrow Lane in Central Chengdu, stands a brick wall from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Nearby is a memorial to the Tang Dynasty poet, Du Fu (712-770), one of China and Japan’s most revered poets. He is honoured by the preservation of his cottage and its surrounds. There are numerous other historic sites around the city including Buddhist and Taoist temples, and traditional gardens. They are refuges from modernity.

Chengdu is many things, like all cities.  As the capital of Sichuan Province, it’s the home of Sichuanese cuisine, claims to have the best tea houses in China, is best place to see pandas, and has an unexpectedly relaxed outlook on life.

A Quatrain by Du Fu

Against blue water birds appear more white;

On green mountains red flowers seem to burn.

Alas! I see another spring in flight.

O when will come the day of my return?

This is my contribution to Fiona’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘C’.

A-Z Guidebook Badge

A Trip to Far North Queensland

Far North Queensland is removed from the southern states of Australia by more than distance.

The Daintree Rainforest region is part of the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Site, the oldest surviving rainforest in the world, and notable for the diversity of its vegetation. Off-shore  lies the Great Barrier Reef.  The region offers wilderness, solitude, and a sense of remoteness unavailable in more populous parts.

Cape Tribulation is located 139 kilometres north of Cairns. While the drive could be completed in around 3 hours, it is better to savour at least some of the offerings on the way. The chosen vehicle for this trip was a campervan hired in Cairns, and eventually returned in Brisbane 4,000 kilometres later.

The road between Cairns and Port Douglas is claimed to be one of Australia’s most scenic: it hugs the Coral Sea, meandering, and rising and falling with the terrain as the hills plunge into the sea.

Port Douglas is a popular destination, too popular perhaps for some, but it retains vestiges of its old frontier port ambiance, a raffish past, amidst the cafes, restaurants, pubs, and upmarket clothing and tourist shops. With a permanent population of  about 1300, which quadruples in holiday season, the town has a broad beach, a scenic location and port area with extensive offerings of reef trips, diving and snorkelling,  yacht cruises, and other marine adventures.

One end of the main shopping street, Macrossan Street, reveals the town’s palm lined beach, while the other terminates at a town park,  fronting the estuary and port.

Port Douglas
Port Douglas

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mossman is the next major settlement north of Port Douglas, a farming town located in a sea of sugar cane farms, backed by forested mountains, and close to beautiful Mossman Gorge. Saturday morning is market time.

The Daintree River crossing, by ferry, marks a transition to the very far north. Things get wilder.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
No swimming is recommended

The camping ground at Cape Tribulation highlights an interesting feature of camping grounds and caravan parks in Queensland. In winter, many residents from the southern states and southern Queensland head north for the weather. Some camp grounds and caravan parks south of the Daintree are dominated by older travellers and rows of their very large caravans and matching sized tow vehicles. At times they almost resemble a retirement home where the residents occupy mobile homes/caravans instead of units or rooms.

As a contrast, the camp ground at Cape Tribulation attracts a different clientele. Adventurers in 4 wheel drives who are heading to or returning from Cape York (‘the Tip’) join a significant number of youngish overseas travellers, both backpackers and young couples and families, and Aussies of varying ages, who are all seeking elements of the rainforest, reef and wilderness experience. Most are keen to sight a cassowary, crocodile, and turtle.

Walk opportunities abound: on the beaches, into the rain forest, and beside the intertidal zone.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A trip to the Great Barrier Reef is a highlight of a north Queensland visit.

DSCN0386

DSCN0426

The soft coral surrounding this giant clam was dancing to and fro with the wave motion, like spaghetti cooking in a pot.

Cape Tribulation Recommendations

Reef trip from Cape Tribulation.

There is only one reef trip publicly available from Cape Tribulation. Professional and personable staff cater for snorkelling only with a small number of passengers (maximum 25) . At $134 the half day trip is much cheaper than those in Port Douglas.

http://www.oceansafari.com.au/

Cape Tribulation Camping

A really nice campground right on the beach with plenty of bush and rainforest. Friendly and helpful staff.  $40 per night for a powered site. Good facilities, including camp kitchens, which are a good place for informal chats with other campers, and a pub with modestly priced drinks and wood fired oven pizzas.

http://www.capetribcamping.com.au/