13.04.2010 - 13.04.2010 33 °C
This year, I had the opportunity to celebrate Songkran Festival and experience the festivities in a family oriented atmosphere. I was back in Ubon Ratchathani since the last visit during the Candle Festival in 2009 last year. Ubon maybe not be glamorous when compared to Bangkok, but this provincial city is distinctive in its unique way. being part of the Isaan region, the people here can speak and understand the Lao language. The food here also have very close link to the Lao style (most notable being Som Tam and Khow Neaw)and taste while Thai of Vietnamese descent can be widely found in Ubon, so are the Vietnamese originated food including pho (fur), spring rolls (fresh & deep fry) and Moo yoh (processed pork wrapped in banana leaf like sausages). I personally like all the food mentioned and cannot resist the temptation even when in Bangkok particularly the khao neaw or sticky rice which can be easy and nice with accomponiment such as moo ping (skewered pork), kai yaang (grilled chicken) or just about any thai dishes. Days before Songkran holiday, I was in Pakse, Champasak province of Southern Laos for a short travel. My previous trip to Champasak province was also during last year's Candle festival but basically, it was only several hours of day trip to shop for some goods in Vang Tao border. For this trip, I travelled further into Pakse town which was approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour drive from Vang Tao. One thing that really got me frustrated was the fact that the Lao immigration officers who shamelessly asking for "tips" to get the passport stamped, which had been boldly increased from THB20 on my last trip to THB50. I don't understand why this was a practice for travellers who get into Laos through the right way and which in turn help spur the country's economic growth through various means including on travel services, transportation, food and various others such as shoppings. Such kind of act by unscrupulous officers not only deterring travellers but will cast a foul image on Laos. I do not want to comment about bad experiences but I felt intimidated with such act when I have got all my valid travel document to enter Laos legally but was still ask to pay for something that I shouldn't. Crossing the Thai immigration was a breeze as it has better immigration structure as compared to their Lao counterpart. Many Thais cross over to Vang Tao for day trip shopping at the border market just after the Thai immigration checkpoint, about 600m away. As for the Lao immigration, there were 2 different offices, where the smaller one, about 500m walk after Thai immigration office that serves the Thais without passport (only filled-up form with photo) and another, a further 100m walk, with a larger office which serves Thais with passports as well as foreigners. Most Thais spend time to shop foro half day while others will travel into Pakse town. To get to Pakse from Vang Tao, there are several ways and the easiest being the minivan taxis that could accomodate up to 12 passengers. The cost is THB80 per person for 1 way trip. You can get the taxi to head over direct to the hotel or guesthouse if you have had your booking completed upfront. I checked into one of the largest and unique hotel in Champasak province in the centre of Pakse, the Champasak Palace Hotel.
Champasak Palace Hotel was formerly a royal palace built by King Jao Boon Oum. He was the last king of Laos. The palace was built in 1969 but was abandoned in 1975 by the king when he fled the country to take refuge in France. A Thai owned company then successfully obtained approval from the Lao government to take over the building. It was renovated and refurbished to be turned into a hotel. Most parts of the hotel building still maintains its original interior with wooden doors and windows left intact. The hotel's rear rooms overlook the beautiful Sedone River and the scenic surrounding landscape including the bridge that connects the road to Savannakhet. Another part of the hotel rooms overlook part of the Pakse town. The hotel's lobby has 2 areas seperated by a main walkway into the reception with modern yet traditional design sofas and tables. There is a large restaurant on the left side of the reception. Almost all the areas within the building were non-airconditioned except for rooms, thus giving the guests a good feel of olden days living in the palace. Just outside the restaurant facing the rear of the hotel building, there was a large open area stretching right to the banks of Sedone River. The scene from the viewpoint of this area was marvelous where guests can sit and relax to unwind and enjoy the nice atmosphere and landscapes. By south east asia standard, the river water was noted to be clean and unpolluted while the banks were not littered with rubbish. The land where the hotel building was sited was on a higher ground thus giving it the advantage of good view over the river and Pakse town. This hotel was also featured in the Thai/Lao movie, Sabaidee Luang Prabang.
Most of the guesthouses and travel agents as well as restaurants were located along No.13 South Road and No.10 Road. Travelling short distances around town costs THB20 per person. The easiest way to get around is through the samlor, a motorbike taxi with cube seats attached on the side of the vehicle, which can sits up to 2 persons. There are 2 major shopping areas in Pakse, the Dao Heuang Market and Tangs Ferrer Lao Supermart. Dao Heuang market is where travellers could board minivan taxis to Vang Tao to cross to Chong Mek to get to Ubon. There is a large wet market selling range of fresh produce and groceries as well as cooked food for instant consumption. There are also shops around the market that sell range of products including handphones. The other market, Tangs Ferrer Supermart was located in the backpackers area, therefore catering to travellers apart from locals, which many items such as clothes, tshirts, bags, souveniers and a supermarket can be found here. It is also located adjacent to Pakse Hotel offering 4 star hospitality with Xuan Mai restaurant nearby. Across the Champasak Palace Hotel is the Delta Coffee cafe and restaurant which serves thai, vietnamese and italian food. I had my dinner here, khow neaw and deep fry spring rolls accompanied with a large bottle of Beer Lao. The food and beer were good while price still within acceptable range. There were many customers dining at this cafe with many seen filling up the tables by dinner time. A big group of foreign tourists led by a tour guide walked over from Champasak Palace Hotel and get themselves seated on reserved tables inside the cafes.
Pakse town is small and not much of attractions around, mostly on wats if that was what interest you. There was a very old wat, Wat Phabat, located near the Champasak Palace Hotel, just a very short distance walk towards the Dao Heuang market. There was some construction works that took place to restore an old viharn (assembly hall), which looked very run down during my visit and the temple looked deserted. It has a very spacious grounds and a small Buddha footprint shrine in the temple premise. Another wat is located at the end of No.13 South road at the edge of Sedone River near the 2nd smaller bridge to Savannakhet. This wat has a Buddhist college within its premise and the wat main temple look contemporary yet maintaining the traditional architechtures. The college still maintains its old structres which reflected on the age of the building. Away from Pakse town, on the way to Pakse airport in the border of Champasak and Savannakhet is the Wat Chompheat Thepphanimith Vararam. Not many people were aware of this temple as it was quite a distance from the town and took about 20 minutes to reach from Pakse town with samlor. The path leading to the temple from the main road was untarred and dusty surrounded by small trees scattered around large open grounds with wooden houses and huts between here and there. Around the temple, the area look very upcountry with no building surrounding the landscapes and with only small trees around. In the temple compound, there is a huge Buddha statue on sitting position on the rear of the main temple with a spacious open ground in front of the statue. Below the Buddha statue is where the chedi were located and the devotees can offer their prayers here.
After checking out from the hotel, headed to the Nazim Restaurant, at the 13 south road near the backpackers area for lunch. Across Nazim restaurant was the Dao Coffee cafe which was one of the handful elegant cafes in Pakse. Patrons can enjoy the cosy and relax cafe atmosphere while enjoying a nice cup of Dao coffee produce from the Bolaven Plateau in north of Champasak province. Packs of coffee were also availabe for sale in various package to cater to different taste for coffee lovers. At the back of the Dao coffee were rows of old shops which were mostly abandoned but several occupants were still seen moving around the area. Walking around the area will bring some reflection of the past living. Back to Chong Mek, after crossing over from Vang Tao, took a bus from the bus terminal located after the immigration checkpoint and the border market to Phibun Mangsahan on the eve of Songkran festival. Songkran is celebrated for 3 days in Thailand and this is a new year not only for the Thais but also for others in the Indochina region including Mynmar, Laos and Cambodia. This festival was celebrated in the early days, where the young will ask for forgiveness from the elderly by pouring the water on their hands as gestures to erase the past misdeeds and seeking to start anew. However, this celebration has been turned into something wild among the teenagers and yound adults where they will travel around towns on the rear of pick-up trucks and engage in water splashing among one another while playing loud musics. Such scenes can be widely seen almost everwhere in Thailand during Songkran festival. In Bangkok and Pattaya, foreigners joined with the locals to get involve in the water splashing fun. I had the privilege of experiencing the thai new year with an extended thai family, where there was a karaoke sessions and feasting on thai food. Some did the cooking, some enjoy singing while some enjoy the food. This is a good time for thai family members and relatives to get together to catch up on things that happened over the past year, as most of them work or live in other provinces and returned to their village to celebrate the new year. Everyone enjoyed themselves during the get together just as much as I did. Joining them in belting out on thai song also added into the whole lot of festivity fun. The next day, it was the 1st day of Songkran holiday and again I was at the same house to experience yet another thai new year family reunion do.This was a family on the mother's side where only the grandmother was around. Most people will put on fresh costumes by wearing colourful shirts on Songkran Day. The day started with breakfast with thai food, including green curry, khanom jin (noodle mix with curries), kai thot (fried chicken), khow neaw, somtam (thai salad), fried pork skin and many more as well as cold drinks, beer and whisky. After food, it was time for the main occasion where all the family member and relatives will gather in the living hall with everyone seated on the floor while the grandmother (or poo yai) will be seated on the sofa. Just as in the traditional way of celebrating Songkran, everyone starting with the most senior members and their spouse and children, if there are any, will take turns to pour the water from the small water bucket on the hands of poo yai seeking for forgiveness with a Wai (thai greetings) before and after water pouring session. Each and every member present will get involved. The most senior members will then give a speech after the session ended. The small garlands will be presented to each members. I was in Bangsean, near Pattaya which is about 1 hour drive from Bangkok. Bangsean is a beach retreat for locals, who would like to take a short break from the weekday work stress and enjoy some swimming and to induldge in seafood apart from relaxing on the beach chair. Before reaching Bangsean, there is a grand chinese temple with a very beautifully crafted pillars with the dragons, a big bell, nice tiles and roofs which has very strong chinese outlook. It has 4 storeys with each storey houses different chinese Gods. Inside each floor, it has a spacious pavillion and also prayer altars for devotees to offer prayers and each with balcony which overlook the large courtyard of the temple premise. In Bangsean, it was the 3rd Songkran day when I arrived and revellers were celebrating and enjoying themselves soaking in water with the water splashing fight that took place all around the beach main road. The place look very similar to Pattaya minus the farangs and posh or luxury and fancy resorts or guesthouses.
There are several interesting places in Ubon Ratchathani. One of which was Pha Taem National Park which is located in Khong Chiam district very near to Phibun Mangsahan on the way to Chong Mek. At the Pha Taem cliff, this is the place for trekking and camping for those who are adventurous. Being at the highest peak of the mountain, Pha Taem cliff is where Thailand's witness its first sunrise of the day and also this is the place to view the sun setting down. Its temperature can be as high as over 40 degrees. From the top of the peak in which also part of the parking lots, the senery was marvelous as it overlook the Mekong river and also Laos on the opposite direction. Trekking at the base of the cliff can be very challenging yet interesting and worth the effort. It was a 4km trails from the starting point with another ending point taking about 1 to 1.5 hours of trekking time. On the wall of the cliff were some drawings which stretch up to 180m of various animal paintings which dated to pre-historic time. The walking through the cliff base was a good way to get close to the nature as the scenic view of Mekong river and Laos highlands were just on the other side. The walkways were combination of some flat area, some steep and some with big rocks. Once back on top of the cliff, adventurers will need to walk further on the flat rocks going through some small forrest, which can easily get lost, so it should be advised that trekkers should stay in group to avoid of being in trouble. Just befor reaching the exit point at Pha Mon, this is another area which offers trekkers a great full view of the Mekong river and its surrounding landscape and atmosphere that will indeed made you fall in love with this place and never want to leave. There are several other interesting places around the National Park including the 2 Colours River. Visitors can have the opportunity to take photos from the view point post at this specially designated area with a shrine on the lower ground of the viewpoint post inside a cave, where a revered monk's body was placed for devotees to offer prayers. There is another temple on the parking ground which resembles the Phra That Luang in Vientiane in Laos. Another interesting area to visit at Pha Taem national park is Sao Chaliang rockpillars. This is where you can witnessed the weird natural phenomenon where a flat rocks across top of another larger erect rocks, making it look like a mushroom shape. Exploring further inside Sao Chaliang, there are several others interesting natural findings including fossils of seashells and sand grains which historians believed that this place was formerly a seabed.
Travelling from Ubon Ratchathani to Mukdahan in the north, about 200km distance takes about 2 hours drive. This is another gateway into Laos of Savannakhet town through the 2nd Friendship Bridge. The 1st Friendship Bridge is the border crossing at Nong Khai to Vientiane. Savannakhet is situated in the north of Pakse and is a smaller town as compared to Pakse. Most travellers will get into Savannakhet as a transit to either Vientiane entering from Vietnam and to Vietnam entering from Thailand. There are buses to Hue, Danang, Dong Ha and Vinh in Vietnam from Savannakhet bus terminal. I did a short trip to Savannakhet travelling from Ubon to Mukdahan and getting into Savannakhet from the Mukdahan border post with the regular Mukdahan-Savannakhet bus costing THB60 per person. The Savannakhet immigration control has bigger and better facilities compared to the Vang Tao border though Pakse is the 2nd largest Lao town. Reaching Savannakhet town from the immigration, the bus stopped at the main bus terminal. About 200m on the east of the terminal was the savanxay market offering plenty of shopping varieties including fresh produce and daily foodstuffs and groceries. There are also many goldsmiths in the main shopping area on a different section of the market, shirts, clothes, souveniers, bags, handbags, silk and handphoneshops. Many thais travel here for shopping trips on weekends and public holidays. The are some good vietnamese food at the food stalls market at Savanxay market, the grilled pork wrapped with spring roll paper rounds (wrapper) dip into water to make it sof and combined with various vegetables and mints as well as the deep fry vietnamese spring roll. Due to the close proximity of Savannakhet with Vietnam in town such as Lao Bao, Hue and Danang, the vietnamese food in savannakhet taste very authentic.
The trips around Thailand and Laos had been tiring made worst by the scorching hot weather but having the opportunity to celebrate Songkran festival with a big thai family provide me with the good experience in blending into the thai cultures and their way of life in a closer way.