Monthly Archives: October 2009

Hintang – A Near Death Experience

Part two of my road trip from Thailand to Lao.

You could be forgiven for thinking you’re standing at Stonehenge or any one of Britain’s finest megalithic sights, but no you’re in Lao, atop a mountain, kilometres from the nearest village in one of the remotest corners of the world. Hintang is South East Asia’s only major collection of Menhirs (Standing Stones) and it’s a good one even by UK standards.

Over a hundred slate stones half fallen clustered together in an area little larger than a tennis court. The stones range in height from 1 metre to three and are clustered together in little groups. It is older than the Plain of Jars, estimates are between 1000 BCE to 500 CE. Any knowledge of the culture that built them has long been lost but along the ground huge circular stones cover barrow burials, the round tomb lids are very similar to the ones found at the Plain of Jars but are not carved. The site predates metal tools and it may the people moved on from erecting menhirs to carving Jars after iron tools came along.

Like with the plain of Jars this is only one of hundreds of sites spread over the surrounding area. The site probably won’t last long as the just completed American dirt road is too close and has already caused some of the stones near it to fall over. When it turns to mush in the wet season some serious damage will occur and in subsequent years?

The site was excavated once in the 1930 by a French team though the Lao government has censored the word ‘French’ on the site’s only sign, to rub the hated French out of their history and did it so people like me couldn’t mention them in blogs like this. I guess the next sign won’t mention them at all.

Amazing stuff Huh!

However I hasten to add it’s 3pm in the afternoon, I’m alone, 90 minutes walk from the road, 3 hours drive from the nearest town, wearing a t-shirt, the temperature will be below freezing soon and I’ve no idea even if any busses will come along the remote road when I get there. How did I end up in this predicament?

………. It all started at the National Museum in Vientiane, not a bad little museum up until after WWII where history disappears and anti French propaganda takes over. Wandering through the quite good prehistory department I stumbled on a small collection of menhirs, the first I’ve heard of in SE Asia. I mentally noted the obscure site name Hintang and resolved to try and find whereabouts in Lao it was.

A couple of weeks later my resolution long forgotten serendipity intervened. I was travelling on a bus down a windy little eastern Lao back road near the Vietnam border; between the pretty little village of Nam Noem, well worth a short stay in the village’s only guest house for the stunning river views alone and the ugly town of Xam Neua, a great place to give a miss, especially considering the stunning Vietnam border town Viang Xai is just two hours further up the road. The journey between the two on a windy mountain round is 6-7 hours and just about the most beautiful in SE Asia. Dozens of roadside hill tribe villages go about life ignoring the busses whizzing through their centre, valleys filled with rainforests and morning mist inspire awe at every bend and the green peaks rise up between the clouds.

It was looking out the window almost exactly halfway through the 6 hour journey that I caught a fleeting glimpse of a dirt road disappearing up a mountain and a sign outside saying Hintang. From that moment reason went on hold and I decided to return to explore the site.

Two days later at 9am I was boarding a bus at Xam Neua bus station Nam Noen bound. I told the driver where I was going and 2:45 mins later he stopped the bus I landed beside the dirt road leaving the bemused Lao passengers wandering why I was getting off in the middle of nowhere. There was hill tribe village on the road beside the entrance, I had a quick wander over but there were just houses, nowhere to buy provisions.

Next I began to walk up the dirt road, it was quite steep but after a while I got to the top, then descended a valley, it was midday and beginning to get hot. It then struck me for the first time I had no idea how far along the dirt road the site actually was, it could be 30km for all I know, 0/10 for planning

A bit further down the valley ended and it was back to a steep hill again. I passed an old Hmong couple in traditional dress speaking some strange tongue walking up the hill but with the heat and distance I began to need periods of rest on the endless steep climb and was soon overtaken by them again as I sat roadside knackered.

Checking the time it was approaching one o’clock, I’d been walking an hour and fifteen minutes still with no idea how far I had to go. I guessed walking downhill back I could do it in 45 mins. Getting home was always going to be a risk, my plan if you can call it that was to sit on the road and hope a bus came along. I had no idea what time busses passed the entrance or even if any did that afternoon or evening. Busses weren’t too common on that road and worse than that from about 4pm the weather cooled, by five it was cold and about 6 or 7 in the evening temperatures dropped down to sub zero. I planned to get to the road by 3pm to wait for a bus to be on the safe side. Plan B was to hope someone would put me up in the hilltribe village.

I ploughed on and finally reached the peak of the mountain and another downhill stretch of road came along and also a site for sore eyes, a crossroads with a road sign. One way went to the Hmong village the other to Hintang just two more kilometres.

I caught first glimpse of the site at about 1:45; having been inside Stonehenge with a small group of archaeologists a few months earlier it takes something to impress me and Hintang did just that. Instantly the hell getting there and worry of how to get back dissolved away into insignificance compared to not seeing this site. It was completely deserted and spent about half an hour just wondering around taking photos and feeling the wonder of the place.

Later a couple of Lao girls came along about 13-14 years old. They asked me if I spoke Lao, I asked them if they spoke Thai, one did, well, and we chatted for a good twenty minutes. They lived in one of a few surrounding farms and were out collecting firewood.

It was getting on to three o’clock I had been there for over an hour and a half and reluctantly I started to head home. I got about half an hour down the dirt track when I heard a vehicle coming up, it contained a Dutch guy and his Thai girlfriend, seeing me they stopped looking surprised, they were driving back to Xam Neua after visiting the site and offered me a ride. So I got to go back to the site and spend another hour there, a meal and lift back home safely. Fortune favours the brave (or stupid).

The Dutch guy worked for UNESCO and was the former manager of the Plain of Jars who that week had taken over as manager of Hintang to develop it for tourism and was visiting his charge for the first time completely surprised to find a tourist there. On the drive back I learnt an awful lot about how UNESCO runs tourism in Lao, about the Hintang site and the Plain of Jars. Definitely one of the stranger days of my life.

Chinese Dragon Dance

After nine days and nights of eating a vegan diet and keeping the 10 precepts, the Vegetarian Festival in Thailand is finally over. The festival ended with a large parade through the town of Paknam early on the morning of 27th October. At about 7 a.m., at the city hall, a gigantic “krathong” was hoisted over the river wall and down onto a makeshift raft. People then threw onto this paper lanterns and lotus flowers. While a dragon danced up and down amid the sound of firecrackers, the floating krathong was towed out into the middle of the river where it was set on fire. This ceremony, called “Loy Krathong Jae” was performed as a way to make merit for ancestors and the dead souls in the water. In the ceremony, the nine Gods are also sent back to heaven. A few minutes later everything was being packed up and people started to prepare for the main parade through town.

It was still early in the morning and so there wasn’t that many people lining the sides of the road as the parade set off. There were several marching bands in the parade including several hundred people walking behind carrying flags and banners. The noise of the bands and the firecrackers soon brought everyone out of their homes. There were also three large Chinese dragons in the parade. As you can see from this picture, the guys holding up the dragon must be very athletic as they have to dance back and forth along the two kilometre long route.

Outside the Chinese Shrine at City Pillar, two tall poles were set up for a kind of performance. I presume this was as much for the Gods and spirits residing in the shrine as it was for the hundreds of people watching. It was quite amazing to see how this very large dragon managed to go up the poll. Not only that, it was twisting and turning and reacting to someone on the second pole who was teasing the dragon with a stick. Back on the ground, the dancing dragon dashed into the shrine to pay respects. At the same time, very large firecrackers were going off.

While this performance was going on, the rest of the parade was waiting patiently to proceed. Then, as they passed the shrine they all paid respects. This went on for seemingly a long time. The last group passed the shrine at 9 a.m. I then walked back to the city hall where I had parked my car. By this time, the front of the parade was already arriving to complete their circuit of the town. It was all over by about 9.30 a.m. I have been to a number of different parades but this one was certainly the liveliest.

Visit the Samut Prakan Forums for more pictures. We also have some video clips of the parade in Paknam Video Blogs.

Expensive Karaoke Scam

(The following is a brief Thai>English translation from various local news sources)

Customers at Melody Karaoke, in the close vicinity of Prachacheurn Police Station, were originally charged an astonishing 30,000 Baht for 3 hours of karaoke. Charges included 100 Baht for a piece of candy.

It all started with a former policeman from Phayao province, Mr Atthaphan, who attended Melody Karaoke along Ngam Wong Wan Road in Bangkok with his girlfriend. After just 3 hours or so of having a fruit snack, a bottle of whiskey and enjoying a bout of karaoke, Mr Atthaphan was astounded to get a bill for approximately 30,000 Baht. After complaining of course, he was given a reduced bill with all the prices on, but it still run at an extortionate 16,350 Baht.

“This is not unique for Melody Karaoke; this thieving establishment has a well-known history for scamming patrons” says the Thai language Manager newspaper

At 12:30, last Tuesday, Pol Lt Col Suraphon from Prachacheurn Police Station received a report from a former Pol Lt cop, Mr Atthaphan, 42, that not only was he physically threatened to pay an extortionate bill, but Melody Karaoke also seized his and her mobile phones. Mr Atthaphan went on to say “We entered the karaoke at about 8:30, asked for a private karaoke room and ordered a bottle of whiskey with water and soda. Since we fancied a bit of company to help sing a few songs we also asked that a couple of hostesses come and join us”.

(After bargaining down the original bill of 30,000 Baht, Mr Atthaphon received a reduced one at just more than 16,000 Baht)

Yet, when Mr Atthaphon finally got the actual ‘correct’ bill he found that the karaoke had charged for the company of 7 hostesses, at an incredible 1-1,200 Baht per girl. With fast mouths, the girls supoosedly drank orange juice worth 3,900 Baht, sucked a few candy at 100 Baht a pop and munched on 3 plates of rose apples at 600 Baht

Even at the reduced charge of 16,350 Baht, Mr Atthaphon just did not have enough money to foot the bill – he only had 7,000 on him. He was then threatened by a bunch of bouncers to go immediately to the ATM machine next to the karaoke and withdraw the remainder. To make sure he wouldn’t do a runner, they seized the mobiles.

According to reporters, Melody Karaoke have been running a scam for a long time – just a few days previous another few gullible teenage customers got a bill for virtually 50,000 Baht – unable to pay the bill, they seized a motorbike.

Prachacheurn police claimed that they could nothing to help get any of the money back, as the couple had already willingly paid the bill. This, however, is in stark contrast to the law which specifically states that any establishment selling beverage or food must have a menu with prices on it. Melody Karaoake did not have one, and so the couple did in fact, not have to pay a single baht – Prachacheurn police looked over the matter though, and told the couple to just go home and forget about it. “16,000 Baht isn’t the end of the world” one police guy was reported to have said.

People living in the local vicinity claim that some Prachacheurn police are actually taking kickbacks from scamming karaoke bars like Melody. Prachacheurn police, however, deny this claim.

Plain of Jars – Now & Then

Fourteen year ago I crossed the border from Thailand into Lao for the first time and visited the Plain of Jars, then one of the remotest places on earth. Over the next few years I was to cross the Thai/Lao border a further six times, these visits finished 11 years ago. Many times I considered going back but was always put off by not wanting to spoil my memories of this idyllic little rural nation. A few months ago though I bit the bullet and returned to Lao for a month, one of the places high on my itinerary was a return to the Plain of Jars.

This article is a comparison of my journey there fourteen years ago and now. It is split into two parts, first an article I wrote for travel magazines on my trip, followed by a blog of my recent journey.

Xieng Khouang – The Plain of Jars (as printed 14 years ago)

Located near Phonsavan in the mountainous north east of Lao, Xieng Khouang Plain houses one of the world’s great enduring mysteries and hides one of it‘s darkest secrets. The World Heritage Site is officially rated one of the most dangerous places on earth to visit and due its isolation is one of the most inaccessible. To those who persevere though the reward of an ethereal experience awaits, wandering fenceless and alone amongst a site of the magnitude of Stonehenge or the Acropolis without tour bus, digital camcorder or even another sole in sight.

With only dirt roads and bandits residing between the capital Vientaine and the jars, travelling to Xieng Khouang by road is not easy. Getting there healthy and in one piece in the hot season after two days bouncing aback a bus-truck on dusty dirt roads is a feat in itself. In wet season the roads flood and the slowboat provides a more comfortably and lethargic two week journey. For the more brave souls in a hurry, a third option of a two-hour domestic plane ride is available. Landing on a misty mountain airstrip with no ground radar and rated the second most dangerous landing in the world. But don’t worry as the sign over the door of the boarding gate reassures you, each passenger is insured free of charge to the value of $250, and in somewhat smaller print the qualification, paid out in the local mushy currency, which is aplenty to cover the burial each and of every bit of you they find.

The Slow Boat and a Lao (wooden bench) Bus

The jars are spread over a wide of area of Xieng Khouang Plain. Sixty sites have been uncovered so far, the largest containing over two hundred and fifty jars. The only real springboard for a visit is the shrapnel strewn town of Phonsavan, a dirt road in the middle of hell, which has the serendipity to vegetate slap in middle of jar central.

Visiting the jars is difficult, only three of the sixty sites are clear enough of US ordinance to be considered safe to visit. Left over ordinance is a real problem in the area. During the Vietnam War the peasant farmers of the area lived years under a holocaust of US bombers. On this neutral country from 1964 to 1973, the US Airforce flew almost 600,000 bombing missions, one every 9 minutes for 10 years. More ordinance was dropped on this tiny country than dropped by all sides in the whole of World War II. In the genocide the United States dropped hundreds of thousands 340-kilogram bombs and 100 million cluster bombs killing nearly a quarter of the population of the whole country. Between ten and thirty percent of the bombs did not explode, leaving 8 million to 24 million unexploded bombs scattered across the country today killing and maiming up to a thousand locals, mostly children, each and every year since the war ended.

One of the great miracles of the war is that the jars, in the middle of the area of most intensive bombing, survived intact.

Bomb Craters Scattered across Xieng Khoung

There are no hard fast rules with the plain of Jars, they evocatively defy modern science and remain one of the few enduring mysteries of the world. With nothing being known about their use and construction, even the people who constructed them remain a tantalizing mystery.

Archaeological evidence is sketchy but suggests they were built between 500 and 800CE, though a recent Lao study pushes the date back another 500 years. The jars are made mostly of sandstone, however other rocks such as coral and granite are occasionally used. The jars sites seem to be in a long line, some archaeologists suggest they were along an ancient trade route to India.

The sixty sites can range from a few jars widely spread apart to large cluster of tens or over a hundred jars. The largest site lies just outside of Phonsavan containing more than two hundred and fifty jars and the largest jar, two metres high and another two metres wide. Researchers disagree on what the jars are for. The collection of rainwater for travellers and rice storage urns were some early favourite ideas. Evidence of bodies, ashes and residue of intense heat has been found inside a local cave that shows signs of being used as a crematorium, so it’s recently been suggested they were funeral urns.

Local legend also offers an explanation; a legendary King named Khun Jeuam led his army from China to fight the local race of giants. Victorious he had the jars constructed to ferment rice wine to celebrate his victory in battle. Failure to work out how an ancient people managed to carve the jars out of such hard material leads some people to support the local legend the jars are man made from soft clay then heated in a local cave used as a kiln.

As Lao becomes more assessable, so will the Plain of Jars, already many backpackers make the trip each year. Many jars are now being damaged as locals chip pieces off to sell to the tourists. Xieng Khouang is destined to become another Taj Mahal or Coliseum as thousands of tourists head there in an attempt to get away from thousands of tourists, but for now and the near future it will remain an isolated Xanadu.

The Plain of Jars – Today

It’s been over a decade years since I visited one of the last ‘remote’ places on Earth. As the years have passed I have followed the opening up of Lao, modern roads have been built and borders opened. Trade with Thailand, Japan, China and Asean flowing freely, electricity has become widespread and the roads are no-longer dirt.

When I visited 14 years ago a monthly maximum tourist visa quota was enforced at the Lao embassy in Bangkok, on a good month they would issue 50 or 100 on bad one 20 or even none. With visas lasting two weeks you could be sure you were one of only a dozen tourists at any one time in a country with a population of 4 million. Last year 1.7 million tourists visited the 6 million Lao. It took tourism 30 years to ruin Thailand and Vietnam, but they have huge populations, Lao with just 6 million the process could be very quick indeed.

To my pleasant surprise it isn’t as bad as the worst case scenario I had envisaged, the Lao Don so sparsely populated has evolved its own evil twin of the Khao San road and a few small more expensive resorts have popped up, but the land is largely unspoilt apart from the Lao government’s fencing off of just about anything they can put an exorbitant by any standards tourist entrance fee on, half of which are so poor they really should pay you to go and visit them. Some attempts at screwing tourist geld are pretty laughable as they bend over backwards to try and deny tourists the sight of one of the largest waterfalls in Asia from any potential location near or far without handing over cash. The tourist centres have also caught on to the vulnerability of tourists in currency exchange as they try and charge 180 baht for 20 baht imported Thai ice lollies to foreigners and 30 baht to locals.

The towns of the south also all have their tourist areas but are nowhere near approaching abominations such as Pai. Lamprabang and the tiny little village of Vang Vieng were really the only two places I visited which had become monstrosities. Lamprabang with its Chang Mai style market was booming attracting Thai shoppers and upmarket backpackers. Its pretty French buildings are about the only free view in the city which recently forcibly expelled poor people for selling street food so wealthy restaurateurs can continue charging four to five times the price for food as in the rest of Lao, glad to see communism works. Vang Vieng used to be a tiny village with two guest houses and one of the most stunning views in Lao. The view no-longer exists except to people on the balconies of the row of expensive hotels that make the view inaccessible. The village has doubled in size and resembles Ko Pang Ngan, most tourists seeming to go there solely to watch Seinfeld blasting out on the TV in bars at 10am in the morning. Vientiane now much more pricey than Bangkok has so far proved large enough to absorb the tourists in a small corner.

It wasn’t until I arrived in Phonsavan I truly felt I was back in Lao. The east of Lao so far has largely avoided the tourist boom and is much prettier than the north to boot.

Phonsavan once so dangerous to get to is now reachable bandit-free by road from Vientiane or the gaudy Vang Vieng by bus along a new tar road. If you take the day option it is 8 – 10 hours of the most stunning unspoilt country you’ll ever see, one can understand why the bandits wanted to keep the road to themselves for so long.

The bus starts out from Vientiane if you board at Vang Vieng the already packed bus, you may have to stand all the way. I borded in Vang Vieng but can read enough Thai to read the sign in Lao on the front saying Phonsavan. I ran towards it before anyone else realised it was the correct bus and got the last seat. The slowest onboard had to stand the whole way, still they’re young and will learn.

Phonsavan as ugly as ever, Lao bus complete with motor cycle and standing Germans

Phonsavan has lost none of its lack of charm and but now boasts a tarmac road, it also has Chrissy’s restaurant the best food in Lao serving quadruple size portions. Despite the new pristine roads in town, a few flashy new buildings and a non-working internet shop, the town is as reassuring ugly as ever perhaps even more ugly as it no-longer has the 9pm curfew it had 14 years ago so you get to see it even more often. Around the town are little more than dirt roads and wooden shacks unfeasibly clinging to the side of mountains and lots of UXBs.

Up until 2008 there were still only three jar sites cleared of ordinance, as of 2009 three more sites have opened dubbed sites 4, 5 and 6, one of these new sites being larger than main site 1 beside Phonsavan and with huger jars. However the new sites are far away and not near one another, so it’s a day trip from Phonsovan to any new one or the option of the traditional 1, 2 and 3 sites in one day.

Travelling to the Plain of Jars has changed little in the intervening years, other than the newly constructed entrances to them, two with car parks, one with a Turkey noodle shop, which means for plains 2 and 3 hidden far from the road you can find them without a local guide if you fancy driving there yourself, something it is now legal to do, though the guides in Phonsavan will tell you otherwise.

The ride to site 2 and 3 is still a slow crawl over bumpy dirt tracks and site three includes a walk through rice farms weaving in and out of water buffalo and chickens as you go. The plains themselves have lost a few jars to collectors of whole jars and many have been chipped or smashed for souvenir pieces, though the guides no longer carry hammers around to chip pieces of for their parties.

Rimology the new science

The Plain of Jars is very much now on the beaten track. The days of jar hugging for hours on end without another soul in sight is long resigned to the past, even the remote 2 and 3 sites have many dozen of visitors each day. Site 1 still carries a little grounding in reality though as it is surrounded by red ground markers showing where the UXBs start.

Still no thorough explanation of the jars exist, but thanks to recent archaeological work more is known of the plains. It’s almost certain they were funeral earns, ashes found in the jars. Intriguingly, rimology is the new science, the jars have three distinct categories of rims and trying to predict what lids the jars had the new lottery. Do the rims indicate different builders or eras, different lids indicate more ornate lids for richer diseased.

Grave marker on ground and placed upon jar, they are not lids.

The jar lids were they made of wood, hide or cloth, however several jars appear to have stone lids on top of them. There are more of these heavy stones on the ground. The guides will tell you these are lids that have fallen off jars. This is quite untrue, the stones were placed on top of the jars recently and are in fact burial marker stones. These stone are found in other parts of Lao too and are correctly found laying flat on the ground.

Only one of the jars has any kind of marking on it, a carving. Whether it is contemporary is unknown. The site was also the scene of many battles between government forces and the Pathet Lao, many jars sporting bullet holes. Many Jars also show more recent damage, this is guides in the past have chipped off lumps of jar for visitors.

Recent damage, Site 1 beyond here be UXBs, Jar with carving, Jar with bullet holes.



Road to Pai: Pong Dueat geyser

There are dozens of hot springs around Chiang Mai, some are well-known and extensively developed like Sankamphaeng, others are only just more than small pools of water in the forest.

Pong Dueat is on route 1095, one of the attractions we visited when we went to Pai with my friend in September: we were both intrigued by the signs saying “geyser” in English. I had never seen a proper natural one before. (In Samkamphaeng, it is pumped into the air artificially.) It would have been quite impossible by public transport for sure – though the road threw some surprises at us.

My big city friend wanted to turn back when we bumped into this spectacle, he was even considering reversing a few kilometres back to the main road. But eventually, we squeezed by the cattle, which refused to move even when the rear view mirror was scraping a bum. For a moment I thought it would poop on the windshield.

The “adventurous” rural road, paved but a little rough (ok for a city car), is about 6 kms. Then you pay (and bargain) the entry fee to Huay Nam Dang national park, and leave the car in the parking lot.

The geysers are about ten minutes walk on slippery elevated wooden platforms, we needed to be very careful to stay on our feet. The land below the platforms looked almost impassable, a bog, thick water-logged jungle. We did not really consider taking off on the clearly marked nine-kilometre nature trail as we had left our machetes at home. Soon we arrived at the hot springs.

Under high pressure, the water reaches a temperature of over 150 degrees under ground, and pushes up to the surface at boiling point. The fountains are said to reach about 2 metres when there is more water. The sound of the boiling water gushing forth is eerie in the otherwise quiet jungle. There are several springs in a small area. Obviously, they are fenced off as you can end up with nasty burn marks if you go too near, but, surprisingly, there was no guard around. Not many visitors, either. Unlike other hot springs I have visited, you cannot buy eggs and boil them in a side stream. It is a powerful site to hang around and consider the amazing forces of nature – never mind the food.

The hot water is channeled into a little stream (no concrete), and you can catch up with it about ten more minutes downstream (walking on more wooden platforms, like in the photo above). There are bungalows, private and public pools, a restaurant and a small massage parlour here, over a steep hill, in a landscaped area (lots of slippery steps!). According to a sign, you are supposed to pay extra for swimming in the lukewarm pools, but there was nobody around to collect the fees. As usual, Thai visitors were taking a dip all dressed up and we did not stick out. There is a paved route all the way back to the parking lot from here.

Pong Dueat is definitely not a world class attraction, but it is a beautiful, little-visited, quiet rest stop on the way to Pai. The hot springs must be a real attraction during the cold months, when mornings are positively chilly in the mountains. Also highly recommended if you want more scenery than concrete to go with your hot spring experience.

The hot springs are six kilometres off route 1095 to Pai, 56 kms from Pai, 42 kms from Mae Malai and 80 kms from Chiang Mai city itself (it is in Chiang Mai province). Entrance fees are 100/50 baht for foreigners, 50 baht for cars.

I marked this location on the Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand map, which was updated last week with lots of attractions and photos in Mae Hong Son province.