MontanaRon

Just another ordinary English teacher eclectic expat blog about nothing in particular.

Tag: trip (page 1 of 5)

USA Trip — In Montana

Great Falls

After a wonderful few days in lovely north-west Oregon, Randy, Whitney and I flew to Great Falls on the morning of Aug. 18th. It was a short hop up to Seattle and then a quick flight to Montana. Great Falls is the city where I lived as a teen, and went to junior high school and graduated from Great Falls High (go Bison!). When I lived there, it seemed like an exciting place to grow up, but after returning now (and three years ago), I thought it seemed a rather sleepy place, where downtown closed shop around 6 o’clock. Granted, high school wasn’t in session when I was there, so perhaps it’s livelier when the kids are back in school and running around with their friends in the evening.

I stayed at the Midtown Motel, which isn’t a bad place to spend a few nights, and it’s connected to Perkins Restaurant, a good, convenient little eatery. Although the restaurant didn’t open until 7 a.m., I, early riser that I am, was able to get a pot of coffee from the check-in desk of the hotel at 5 o’clock. Nice! Though the motel and restaurant are good, the location is a bit sketchy; there are a lot of homeless people wandering around here, so walking alone at night might be something to avoid doing, though the denizens of the area seemed harmless enough. Still . . . This is the Great Falls that I never saw when I was a kid. Have the homeless always been in this part of town? This seemed very different from back then. I don’t recall ever seeing homeless folks when I lived here. Is this something new, a sign of the times? Or is it something that we overlooked way back when?

Anyway, later that evening, my brothers and Whitney and I met up with a niece and her husband and a few of their kids at a Great Falls Mexican culinary institution, El Comedor Restaurant. The restaurant has been around since 1970. Of course, the food is wonderful. Give it a try if you’re ever in Great Falls, and, especially, try one of their justifiably famous fluffy tacos.

 

Glacier National Park

Then, back to the motel and to bed early, because the next day, in the wee hours, we were driving north to one of my favorite places in the world, the beautiful Glacier National Park. It turned out to be a gorgeous, clear day, and the approximately three-hour drive is far from boring. If you’re in a big hurry (and you shouldn’t be), you can take I-15 up to Shelby and then go west to the park. But the best drive is north on US Highway 89, which follows the incredible Rocky Mountain Front all the way to the park.

Once in the park, it’s up, up, up to the Continental Divide on one of the world’s most spectacular roads, the Going-to-the-Sun road. There are many places along the road to stop, get out of the car, hike, take photos and just be out in the fresh air. This was the highlight of my visit to the ‘States. It always is. I backpacked here a few times back in the day, but there are many short hikes along the road. We stopped and hiked three miles or so to St. Mary Falls, a beautiful, easy excursion. Lots of folks along the trail, as there usually are in August.

We stopped again for about an hour at (packed) Logan Pass, atop the Continental Divide, then drove down the west side to McDonald Lake and Lodge, then west out of the park, and south and east around the southern boundary of this marvelous area, and then back on US 89, we returned to Great Falls. It was a long day, but well worth the effort.

The Loss of a Friend

One thing dampened this entire trip, however. I learned that I high school buddy of mine had died recently. We had kept in touch all these years and we were able to meet up every time I had returned to Great Falls. I hadn’t heard from him in some time, and, in the back of my mind, I feared the worst. And so it was. He had died of cancer a mere month or so before this trip. We were bowling buddies from a long time ago and he was also friends with my mother before she died. In high school, we worked together as pinchasers and hung out at the long defunct Skyway Bowl, but we also bowled together at other bowling centers around town. The only center remaining in Great Falls from that time is Little’s Lanes, which is just a couple of blocks from the Midtown. After returning from Glacier, I walked to Little’s and had a couple of beers, going over old memories and reflecting on the past. Many very good memories. Rest in peace, Ken Larson.

I’ll complete part 2 of this leg of my journey in another post soon, our trip to The Gates of the Mountains. More later.

Here are a few photos of the park, just a few. I took many more and perhaps I’ll put them in a gallery when I get the chance. I’ll let you know.

Montana butte formation

This was an early morning trip, but I tried to take pictures from a moving car of some of the butte-like formations along the way to Glacier Park. This was about the only successful shot. There are many of these isolated hills, including Square Butte, one of Charlie Russell’s favorite subjects.

Rocky Mountain Front

The drive north on US 89 follows the Rocky Mountain Front the entire way. This entire area features the vast plains crashing into the Rockies to create some amazing, chaotic and awesome vistas. The several towns along the way deserve a stop, historic places like Choteau, Fairfield and Dupuyer. And don’t forget to spend some time in Browning, just outside the park, to visit the Museum of the Plains Indians.

Rocky Mountain Front

Another view of the Rocky Mountain Front along US Highway 89 on the way to Glacier National Park (Again, from a moving car, so the quality could be better).

Glaciner National Park south

The southern reaches of Glacier National Park. As you get nearer to the park, the views become ever more amazing. In certain locations on the highway, the hidden mountains seem to all of a sudden spring out of the prairie.

St. Mary Lake

We’re in the park now, and this is THE iconic photo in Glacier National Park, St. Mary Lake, looking toward Wild Goose Island, which is just to the right of the tall trees in the center of the photo. Also to the right, in the sky, you can see the moon. I thought that I might remove it, but no, that’s where it belongs. It’s difficult to take a bad photo here. It’s an amazing view and it represents everything that GNP is.

Grizzly warning

You’ll see these throughout the park. Heed them! I’ve never seen a grizzly on a backcountry trail, but that doesn’t mean they’re not around.

St. Mary Falls

This is the main waterfall, but there are smaller ones above this, and you can climb up a short, steep trail to reach them. There were lots of people here, so getting a good shot of the falls was a bit difficult. Even though it might be crowded, it’s still worth the trek to see this beautiful cascade.

Doug, Randy, Whitney

Doug, Randy and Whitney at the falls. Don’t know where my brother Bob is at–he’s probably looking for birds–that’s his hobby, a good one to have.

St. Mary Falls trail parking lot

The view from the St. Mary Falls trail parking lot is pretty awesome, too. There are so many spectacular views to be found everywhere in the park.

Glacier Park panorama

This is a panoramic shot taken on the way up to Logan Pass. I stitched a couple of photos together in Lightroom to create this, trying to give a sense to how utterly beautiful the park is.

Logan Pass

Logan Pass is quite crowded this time of year, so it was a bit of a hassle finding a parking spot. Some folks were parking farther down the Going-to-the-Sun-Road and walking back up to the pass.

Logan Pass

Another view from Logan Pass. I’ve been here in earlier months, even early July, when very large snowbanks filled the paved parking area. Fun for the kids, and adults, too, especially if you’re from the South. Snow? In July?!!

Logan Pass

Doug takes in the view from near the Logan Pass visitor center. There’s a nice gift shop here, so stock up on souvenirs. They take credit cards and accept donations to help improved the area.

Logan Pass Info Sign

Lots of signage at the pass. This one’s an information sign.

Head Bangers sign Logan Pass

In addition to the straight information signs, there are several whimsical signs around. Head Bangers, for example.

Cliff Hangers sign Logan Pass

Some more whimsy–Cliff Hangers. You can see a lot of these sure-footed creatures on the various trails leading out from the pass.

Lake McDonald

Beautiful Lake McDonald near the west entrance to the park, at the bottom of the Going-to-the-Sun Road. There are a lot of burned acres around the lake from wildfires in recent years. If you’ve ever seen the lake in past years with its lush forests, yes, the fires have created quite a blight on the landscape, but the area is still gorgeous.

Red Jammer Bus

Another park icon, the Red Jammer Buses. I’ve never been on one, but it looks like a great way to see the park, with their open tops and a driver serving double duty as a tour guide. They’re not free (I think), but they’re probably worth it.

Jammer info sign

A somewhat chopped-off Jammer info sign. Sorry, I couldn’t fit the entire sign in.

Ron at GNP entrance sign

This is near the west entrance to the park. Do I look tired? I think I was a bit. Tell you what–just let me sit here for a while and come back and pick me up next year, OK?

USA Trip–In Oregon

 

Introduction

I’m finally getting a few posts up of my visit to the United States in August. While there, I spent some time in Seaside, Oregon with my brothers Randy and Rich, who lives in California. Then Randy, his daughter Whitney and I flew over to Great Falls, Montana, where we were able to hook up with brothers Bob, from Great Falls, and Doug, from Ft. Worth, Texas. Finally, I ventured alone to Las Vegas, Nevada, Sin City in the desert.

Off I Go

In this post, I’ll write about the first part of the journey, to Oregon. I flew out of Vientiane to Bangkok on a Thai Smile Airlines Airbus A320, which carries about 150 passengers. On this particular trip there were only 25 passengers (I counted). If this is typical, Thai Smile must be losing a bundle of money on this 55 minute flight to Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok.

From Bangkok to Taoyuan airport in Taiwan aboard an EVA flight took about three and a half hours (the plane was quite full) and the EVA flight to Seattle took about 11 hours. Again, the plane was full, but at least I had an aisle seat so it was easy to get up and walk around. Best to try to avoid deep vein thrombosis on these long flights. Seattle to Portland was basically a short hop, about 30 minutes in the air.

In the Beaver State

Earlier, when planning this trip, cheapskate (thrifty?) me looked for the lowest-priced tickets I could find that had reasonable layovers. So, I got into Portland a little after midnight and stayed in the airport until 10 a.m. because Randy couldn’t pick me up any earlier. No problem; I’ve spent longer times than that in worse airports. (The Portland airport is a wonderful facility, especially if you have to spend a long time there, which I would do on a later flight–more on that when I get my Vegas post up.)

Meeting My Long-Lost Brother

Of course, after an 11-hour flight, I was pretty bedraggled as I headed down to a lower level of the airport to get my checked baggage, so I was unaware of just about anything that was going on around me. My mistake! After hanging out at PDX all night, I waited outside the terminal for Randy, who pulled up just around ten o’clock. I went to toss my bags in the back seat and when I opened the door I got a shock. There was a fellow back there holding up a sign with my name on it. What the hell! It turned out that this was my older half-brother Rich, whom I’d never met before. It turns out that he had planned a surprise for me and had been at the airport around midnight holding up that sign as I arrived, but I hadn’t noticed it. He didn’t see me either, since he thought I’d be wearing a NY Yankee baseball cap, which I didn’t have on. He had reserved a room at one of the local hotels, so I could have stayed there instead of the airport. But, I totally ruined his surprise, much to my chagrin.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get much time to hang out because he had an early afternoon flight back to California. I’m grateful that we got to spend an hour or so together–he’s a great guy and I really thank him for the time and money he spent to go up to Portland to meet me. The next time I’m able to get back to the ‘States, I want to make an effort to hook up with him for some quality time together. We had a couple of beers at the hotel, getting to know each other, then it was time for him to go and time for Randy and I to head over to Seaside, a 90-minute drive. Sorry, Rich, that I ruined your surprise.

Randy, Ron and Rich

From left to right: Randy, Ron and Rich.
Taken from Randy’s iPhone just before we dropped Rich off at his hotel. Unfortunately, he had to catch a flight back to California.

Fishing on the Mighty Columbia

I spent four days with my brother and his daughter, Whitney, at his beautiful home in Seaside. He had promised to take me out on his boat to do some fishing on the Columbia River, so after buying an Oregon fishing license online, I found myself at his boat dock at a marina near Astoria early the next morning, around 7 o’clock. A friend of his, Vern, would spend the morning with us out on the choppy river, trying to hook into a salmon or two or three.

A very strong tide was working against us, though, dragging us toward the Pacific ocean. We went with it for a while, then headed back upriver until Vern caught a nice fish, though my brother, who mainly handled the boat, and I were skunked. We called it a day around noon and put back into the marina. The next day we started out a little later to avoid the outgoing tide and the water was less choppy, so the ride was much easier. Joining us were John and Don, a couple more of Randy’s friends. This day, John would get a nice-sized salmon, but the rest of us were shut out. I had one on my pole, but it spit the hook out just as it was about to be netted and hauled into the boat. Sigh. There was quite a crowd on the river, with dozens and dozens of boats joining the hunt. Again, we put in about noon. I like to joke that I came half-way round the world to catch a Columbia River salmon and all I got was one lousy picture of a salmon. Sheesh. Maybe next time, whenever that will be.

Fishing boat

This is my brother’s fishing boat. It’s larger than it looks here, but I wouldn’t take it deep-sea fishing. Notice the color scheme and other little details? Yup, he’s a huge University of Oregon Ducks fan.

We’re heading out to the Columbia from the marina. Lots of boats docked here. The marina is about 30 minutes from my brother’s house.

Fishing the Columbia

This is the second day out. I believe that’s Don on the left. As you can see, there are lots of boats trying their luck/skills.

Cleaning the fish

Back on the first day, Randy and Vern are cleaning Vern’s fish. Kind of an unwritten rule is that you share your catch with your boat mates, so Randy got a nice filet and we ate salmon for dinner.

Early Morning Surprise

Anyway, I had a great time with my brother and my niece. We drove around and took in some of the sights, though the area was very crowded with tourists. Randy said that after Labor Day, Seaside and the surrounding environs would be back to normal, a situation he could hardly wait for.

Oregon coast

This was taken at Ft. Stevens State Park, the most north-western point in Oregon. Beautiful afternoon!

My brother and his daughter

Still at Ft. Stevens, my niece, Whitney, and my brother Randy.

I spent a few relaxing days at his home, which has a beautiful back yard with a very large vegetable garden, so we ate delicious fresh veggies, salads, salmon, clams and other local delights; my brother is, seriously, a wonderful cook and a great all-around guy. He even forgave me for setting off his house alarm early one morning. (It’s quite loud, believe me!)

A Bigger Surprise

The one surprising (to me) thing about Oregon is the state’s liberal marijuana laws. You can legally smoke it in your home and you can grow up to four plants in your yard as long as they are hidden from public view. Head shops (dispensaries) abound, but many tokers are baby-boomers who grow it in their yards and roll their own. Awesome. I didn’t have the chance to try any, and I’m not sure I would have, even if I had been offered some. It’s been more than 30 years since I’ve partaken of the herb, and I’m not sure if I’d want to start again. But, who knows?

OK, that’s Oregon. Next post I’ll write about the few days I had in Montana. See you then.

Bangkok Bound

In my previous post I mentioned, more or less, that this was my favorite time of year in Laos because of the weather. I also like it because it’s the end of the third term at the school, so that means there’s some time off, about five weeks. So, foot-loose and fancy-free, I’m bound for Bangkok with Nai for a week.

We’re crossing the border into Nong Khai, Thailand, and then taking an early morning bus to Udon Thani to catch a noon flight to Bangkok. The ride to Udon takes about an hour, so we’ll probably leave Nong Khai around 9 a.m. The flight to Bangkok takes an hour, so we’ll get into “The Big Mango” around 1:00 and be at the hotel about 2:30 or 3:00. It usually takes about an hour (everything takes an hour, eh?) to get into the city by taxi and the ride costs around $10, if I remember correctly. Not a bad deal.

As usual, we’re staying in the Silom area of the city, close to good street food, entertainment venues and the skytrain and subway. Speaking of entertainment, I’ve just gotta go see the latest Star Wars movie. I’ve heard a lot of good things about, so it’s a must-see.

Here are a few photos from previous trips to Bangkok.

Bangkok Skyline

Here’s the view outside our hotel window up on the ninth floor (out of 10). If you stay at the Silom City Hotel, be sure to get a room that’s 8th floor or higher for a great view.

Bangkok at night

Bangkok at Night. This photo was taken in 2013 and the one above in 2016. You can see that a few new buildings, including the odd one on the left, were constructed in the three years between photos.

Food vendor

Food vendor near the hotel. There are a lot of these little outfits about a block from where we stay.

Leaving, Arriving

Parting is such sweet sorrow, but it’s also quite a hassle. Packing for a three-week vacation is troublesome. Should I bring my swimming pants that are three sizes too small? How about my sunglasses? I’ve never worn them before, but maybe it’ll be really, really bright this time and my retinas might get burned out. There’s this outside chance that I might get asked to do a bit of juggling, so I’d better bring those yellow tennis balls that I “found” at the court. Right? So many non life-threatening decisions to make.

Moving permanently is a different beast altogether. In a way, it’s easier. After you’ve packed everything, you just look around your abysmally small apartment to see if anything you’ve accumulated over the past five years, including dust, food droppings, sticky notes with meaningless phone numbers written on them and your passport are still lying in hidden corners of your room. If they are, pick them up and either toss them in the garbage or keep them. There should be nothing remaining. Everything important should be in your 1995 vintage Kelty backpack or your hand-me-down suitcase, given to you by Rob, a Scottish colleague who returned home six months ago.

But, before packing, I have to decide “Do I keep it or haul it out to the trash bin?” That old, moldy coffee maker has to go of course, as do all the condiments in the ‘fridge, including the five year old jar of what used to be pickles. Incense? Gone. All that old scratch paper? Gone. Garish polyester shirts that I bought in the Dominican Republic? Hmmm, they sure pack nice (wrinkle-free) and they kind of make a statement and I sure like the day-glo colors. Keep ’em.

It was problematic, but I finally packed everything that I thought I needed to have for a permanent change of location and life. I finished all the obligations to the university, like paying my final utility bill and cleaning my apartment, and I left. For good. Never to return to South Korea, I waved it a more or less fond farewell. I hopped on the overnight bus from Yeosu to Incheon Airport with no regrets, no tears of farewell and no looking back.

The bus departs Yeosu at 11:10 pm and arrives at the airport at 4 am. Usually, I can intermittently doze off, but I never arrive at Incheon refreshed. As a matter of fact, I always need a transfusion of caffeine. You really have to experience the vast emptiness of Incheon Airport at 4 in the morning. It’s like the Sahara of Korea. Dry. Unoccupied. Trackless. Except for KFC and McDonalds restaurants. They’re open at that ungodly hour. I don’t care for fried chicken for breakfast, so I always order a McDonalds Big Breakfast. I hate McDonalds. Really, I can’t stand it. I live for Burger King, but the BK at Incheon doesn’t open until 8:00 a.m. So, the Mac breakfast has to tide me over. Especially the Huge Cup of coffee. I embrace it.

So it was, then, that I checked in at China Eastern Airline, and left Korea for Bangkok, with a brief stop at Shanghai. Four thirty in the morning is dark, of course, but the sun eventually rose on a smoggy, hazy, foggy, misty morning. What was it? Smog, haze, fog, mist. Seoul, and nearby Incheon, had been experiencing a lot of smog and dust blown over, I suspect, from China. The morning was not illuminating. Here’s a shot of the airport.

Incheon Airport smog

It’s a hazy, misty, smoggy morning at Incheon International Airport.

The plane ride to Shanghai, the only stop, was uneventful, but the view from Pudong airport wasn’t any different from Incheon. Indeed, smog seems to be taking over all of east Asia. The atmosphere seemed to be a mix of fog, mist and smog, but the rising Sun couldn’t dissipate the smog.

Smoggy Pudong Airport in Shanghai

It’s quite smoggy at Pudong Airport in Shanghai around 10 a.m. local time.

I had about a two hour layover at Pudong Airport, so, as I always do in an airport that I’ve never been to before, I walked around the concourse. It’s a stunning-looking area, but the main concourse goes on forever. I would guess the straight-line walk from end to end is at least a kilometer long and maybe closer to two. Lining almost the entire length are duty free shops, where you can buy Chinese-themed items. Stuffed panda bears? Check. Chinese tassels? Check. Chinese tea? Check. Restaurants? Not many. I didn’t go into any of the restaurants or coffee shops, mainly because I wasn’t hungry and I didn’t have any Chinese yuan on me. The businesses will exchange dollars, but the exchange rate is cruel.

Pudong Airport Concourse

The main, very long concourse at Pudong Airport in Shanghai. Walking up and down this duty-free lined passage will give you plenty of exercise.

Stuffed panda bears

Cute cuddly pandas on sale in the Panda Store at Pudong Airport in Shanghai.

Stuffed panda bears

More pandas at the panda “hangout” in Pudong Airport, Shanghai.

Chinese tassels

Chinese tassels, thousands of them, can be found at the duty free shops at Pudong.

Chinese tea

Chinese tea for sale at the duty free shops. All kinds, all tastes.

From Shanghai, it was a four-and-a-half hour flight to Bangkok. China Eastern definitely isn’t the greatest airline in the world. No in-flight movie that I could hear or understand even if I could hear it, and no great food, but the service wasn’t bad, and I had a window seat, which I always enjoy in the daytime. And the flight was on time–extra points for that.

When I stepped out of the climate-controlled, stale, dry air of the plane cabin, I knew that I was in Bangkok when the heat and humidity enclosed me in a suffocating cocoon, but I loved it after the winter temperatures of South Korea. Welcome to Thailand! More on Bangkok later.

Bicycle Ride to Jang-deung Beach, Yeosu Peninsula

Spring seems to be fully here, with the cherry blossoms beginning to bloom, and azaleas, camellias and other flowers brightening the landscape. As a matter of fact, there’s an annual azalea festival at Yeongchuisan (san = mountain) this coming weekend that I’m going to visit.

So, despite 3 inches of rain last Friday, I decided to take a bicycle trip Saturday down to Jang-deung beach here on the Yeosu Peninsula. My riding companions were a couple of the new teachers, Rob, a Scotsman, and Trevor, from Canada. Now, both of these guys are much younger than I (who isn’t?) and in much better shape (insert another rhetorical question here). Trevor, especially, is quite the athlete; he’s a dedicated football (soccer) player, rides his bicycle all over the place, jogs, plays tennis and who knows what else. Rob’s no slouch either. When they suggested the ride, I was all gung-ho. Even though it looked like a fairly long trek and that it would be my first time out on my bike in almost 6 months, I thought I’d be ok. Wrong! It turned out to be a 36-mile (60 km) round trip. I haven’t ridden that far in about 20 years. Plus, it was mostly up and down hills, hills which I mostly pushed my bike up (or maybe it was pushing me). I probably spent more time pushing than riding. And, as I said, it was the first time on the bike in quite a while, so my muscles were sorely taxed by the end of the ride. I’m still recuperating.

However, it was fun for the most part and the scenery was pretty nice. We made it to the beach and stopped at a small restaurant on the way back and had some delicious fish stew. By that time, though, anything would have tasted wonderful. I just wanna thank the young studs for waiting for me at the top of all those hills. At least they didn’t have to carry me back! Here are some photos of the ride.

First, here’s a map of the peninsula. The university, from where we started, is circled in red at the upper right and the beach is at the left center. Click for a larger image.

Here we’re getting prepared to start the trip from our dormitory. That’s Trevor on the left and Rob, already on his bike. My trusty steed is in the foreground.

Preparing for the bicycle trip

Beginning the bike trip

There are many small fishing towns and harbors sprinkling the coast. We all thought that it would be great to live in one of them as long as we didn’t have far to commute to and from work.

Yeosu fishing village

Fishing Village

There are, of course, many beautiful spots along the coast. Here’s a small sample.

South coast of Yeosu Peninsula

South Coast View

South coast of Yeosu Peninsula

South Coast Shoreline of Yeosu Peninsula

South coast of Yeosu Peninsula

Yeosu Peninsula South Coast View

South coast of Yeosu Peninsula

Yeosu Peninsula South Coast View

The above photo is actually the beginning of Jang-deung beach, which is out of sight at the bottom of the photo. Here’s a shot of the beach.

Jang-deung Beach

Jang-deung Beach

And, here’s a view from the end of the beach. As usual, it’s pretty hazy along the coast looking toward the sun.

Jang-deung Beach view

Another view from Jang-deung Beach

Rob and Trevor, showing no ill effects of the ride, mock my exhaustion. I took this shot just before I was put into the ambulance. 🙂

Rob and Trevor

Rob and Trevor

If you take a look at the map again, you can see that just to the east of Jang-deung there’s a small island called Baekyado (pronounced dough = island). Connecting the island to the mainland is this pretty little bridge. Quite a few of the islands are accessible by bridge, though many more require a ferry boat ride. Rob and Trevor are taking one of the ferries to another island this Saturday. I really wanted to go, but, like I stated earlier, I’m still recuperating and the rash I got on my, ummm, . . . well, you can guess where . . . is still bothering me, so no bike ride this weekend. The more sedate azalea festival beckons.

Baegya Island Bridge and Harbor

Baegya Island Bridge and Harbor

Our total trip time was about 7 hours, but that include dawdling on the way (the young guys waiting for the old guy to catch up) and stopping at the restaurant. I’m really looking forward to doing some other bike trips, especially later in the year when the bicycle muscles in my legs are in better shape. As always, then, more later.

Laos Friends

OK, one final post with photos from my vacation in Laos and Thailand back in December. I put up some children’s photos last time, so this one has a few photos of adults.

Most of these were taken around the New Year holiday, but the Lao people like to start celebrating several days before and continue for a few days after New Year’s Day. Here’s lunch at Nai’s house on Dec. 31st, eaten by about 7-8 family members and friends. Let’s see, what do we have here? Looks like the remains of some fish, deep-fried chicken feet, various greens, a veggie salad and, of course, Beer Lao.

Lunch at Nai's house in Laos

Lunch at Nai's House

While some of us were eating and talking (with me pretending to listen–I don’t speak or understand the Lao language, yet), other folks, including Nai, were playing cards. It looks like a Lao version of gin rummy, I guess, with small wagers included.

Laos card game

Afternoon card game

These are a few of Nai’s brother’s friends, who are working on a good-sized platter of semi-congealed cow blood soup. Various herbs are thrown into the soup, along with a couple of hands full of peanuts. Yummmm! Nai’s sister Nui is on the left.

Next are Nai’s brother Pui (Poo-ee), in the center, flanked on the right by cousin Mot (Maht) and on the left by another lovely cousin, whose name I’ve forgotten. Mot’s mother (one of Nai’s sisters) and father live and work in Thailand, but he was visiting the homestead for a few weeks. I mentioned to Nai that Mot didn’t appear too happy to be here, but Nai told me he wasn’t happy to be going back to Thailand (and to school) soon. The young lady asked me, through Nai, to find her a Western boyfriend. I told her I’d put her photo on the internet, so here it is.

Laos friends

Laos friends

The day before, on the 30th, Nai and I were in Vientiane visiting a Lao friend’s pub. While shooting pool, Nai introduced me to a friend of his from Nai’s village. He’s a policeman in Vientiane, I believe, and a very friendly fellow. Here he is, posing with Nai.

Nai with his friend

Nai and Friend

I really love this guy’s expressive face. To me, he looks like one of the characters in the early-60s hit TV comedy “Car 54, Where Are You?” Actor Joe E. Ross played my favorite character on the series, Officer Gunther Toody. Mr. Ross is on the right. On the left is Fred Gwynne as Officer Francis Muldoon. Gwynne was also famous for the Herman Munster character on “The Munsters.”

Car 54, Where Are You?

Fred Gwynne and Joe E. Ross

What do you think–resemblance or not? To help you decide, here’s another photo of Nai’s friend with me, an obligatory shot, I suppose. Nai took the photo, but he did such a lousy job. It makes me look too fat! Where’s my chin? I DO have a chin. (I must have had my head tucked into my neck on this one!)

Ron and Nai's friend

Ron and Nai's Friend

We also took a walk along the Chao Anouvong Park along the Mekong. One of the signature features of the park is a larger than life statue of King Anouvong, the last ruler of the Lan Xang (Million Elephants) Kingdom. The Vientiane Times of June 15, 2010 (by way of LaoVoices) states that:

“Since Chao Anouvong is remembered for reuniting the country, his statue will depict the strength of his leadership, and should be as close to lifelike as possible,” said Head of the Ministry of Information and Culture’s Fine Arts Department, Dr Bounthieng Siripaphanh.

The statue, which is costing about 5 billion kip to make, will stand about 8 metres high and 3 metres wide. The king will be represented holding a sword in his left hand while gesturing with his right.

One of the greatest achievements of Chao Anouvong’s reign was the construction of Vat Sisaket, Vientiane’s oldest standing temple today.

This Wikipedia article, however, is not so kind to the king:

Modern Lao nationalist movements, on the other hand, have turned Anouvong into a hero, even though his strategic and tactical mistakes combined with his hot temper led to the end of the kingdom of Lan Xang (Million Elephants) destruction of Vientiane, and a permanent division of the Lao people between the country of Laos and the Lao-speaking provinces of northeastern Thailand.

Hero or not, it’s still an impressive statue.

Chao Anouvong statue

King Anouvong Statue

That wraps up my vacation to Thailand and Laos, so we’ll be goodnight and adieu, until next time.

Photo of the Moon and Venus

The Moon and Venus at Dusk From Nai's House

Laos Kids

One of the fun subjects of travel photos is taking shots of kids. Children everywhere are ingenuous and innocent, and don’t seem to mind when some strange, old foreigner sticks a camera in their face. Most of the time, I’ve found, they like to ham it up for the lens. As usual when visiting Nai and his family in Laos, I had plenty of opportunities to take some shots of all the kids in the family area–sons and daughters of Nai’s brothers and sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews, as well as assorted neighborhood children.

While I was there, a couple of the families had birthday parties for their young daughters. Some of the photos, then, are from the parties.

Here, everyone’s getting ready for one of the parties, blowing up the balloons, preparing some of the food, with the bamboo baskets filled with sticky rice.

Children's Birthday Party

Laos Birthday Party

Earlier, the wife of Won (Wahn), one of Nai’s brothers, prepared the sticky rice. Sticky rice is eaten with your hands, generally out of a bamboo basket, and can be dipped into a hot (spicy) sauce, or can be used to grab a handful of really hot papaya salad.

Preparing Sticky Rice

Preparing the Sticky Rice

Some of the kids chowed down on a few appetizers.

Lao Kids Birthday Party

Chowing Down on a Few Appetizers

So, what exactly are they eating? Deep fried chicken feet, of course. (Never tried ’em myself)

Deep Fried Chicken Feet

Deep Fried Chicken Feet

Here’s one of the birthday girls, Took, who was 8 year old, if I’m not mistaken. Notice the money wrapped around her wrists with string–birthday gifts from the people attending the party. Most of it will probably go to her parents, to help with the party expenses, but she’ll get some of it, I’m sure.

Laos Birthday Girl

Birthday Girl, Took

Here’s Nai with his brother Guay’s (Gway) daughter.

Nai with baby

Nai with baby

Here’s a few shots of one of Won’s kids, just a cute, adorable little guy. I’d guess he’s about 4.

Lao Child

Cute Guy

Cute Lao Kid

Cute Young Guy

Hey, let’s see what those shades look like on you. Cool!

Young Lao boy with sunglasses

Cool Kid

And a few more shots. Looks like somebody got banged up. Guay’s daughter with Nui, one of Nai’s sisters.

Lao baby with slight injury.

Banged Up

Nap time?

Nap time for young girl

Nap Time

And finally, here’s Kim, never camera shy, the son of Nai’s sister Lot.

Lao Boy

Kim

I’ll try to get the final photos of my trip posted soon, so, as always, more later.

Laos-Thailand Trip Report: Nong Khai

So, if you read my previous posts about Wat Traimit and Bangkok, you probably know that I took the overnight train to Nong Khai, in northeast Thailand, just across the Mekong River from Laos. If I recall, this train used to run, more or less, on time; perhaps it was late, but usually no more than 30 minutes or so. However, the last couple of times I’ve taken it, it’s been 2 HOURS late pulling into Nong Khai. It departs from Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station at 8:30 p.m., but this trip, it didn’t pull into Nong Khai until 10:30 a.m. Hmmm, don’t know why it was so late, but perhaps the railway authorities were being cautious and slowed the train down because of possible damage done to the tracks due to the widespread flooding a few weeks before.

Anyway, I made it to Nong Khai OK and was met at the station by Nai. We checked into the Pantawee Hotel and stayed a few days there. The Pantawee had hung some new, attractive lanterns in the trees at the hotel since I’d last been there. I don’t know if they’ll be permanent decorations or if they were only seasonal, but they added a nice ambience to the property.

Pantawee Hotel Lantersn, Nong Khai, Thailand

Christmas Lanterns at Pantawee Hotel

Detracting from the usual peaceful ambience, however, was street construction going on right in front of the hotel. I usually like to sit at the outdoor patio in the morning to eat breakfast or just have a cup of coffee or two. The extreme noise and dust made it impossible to enjoy a quiet morning outside; sitting inside wasn’t too bad, though, and, occasionally work would halt for a short while, with the temporary silence standing in sharp contrast to the noise.

Nong Khai Street Construction

Street construction in front of the Pantawee Hotel

Another peaceful spot in Nong Khai is the promenade along the Mekong River. It’s quite pleasant to take a stroll, to sit in the shade of one of the gazebos, or to eat in one of the many restaurants. We usually have lunch and/or supper along here. Below are a few food photos of tom yam (tohm yahm), a spicy and sour soup, with fish, and fried rice with chicken. Nai and I shared the tom yam, and I had the fried rice. Both were delicious and cheap.

Tom Yam Thai Soup

Tom yam with fish

Thai Fried Rice with Chicken

Thai fried rice with chicken

You could also take a short excursion on the Mekong. Below are a couple of photos of boating leisure. The first was taken in Nong Khai and the second was taken last summer in Yeosu, looking down from the Dolsan Bridge. Which one would you prefer? I like both of them.

Taking a boat ride on the Mekong River

Taking a boat ride on the Mekong River

Lazy Day Fishing in Yeosu, South Korea

Lazy Day Fishing in Yeosu, South Korea

Probably the biggest highlight of the whole vacation was the chance to attend a live concert of Isaan music. Nai and I did just that on the evening of December 23rd. We enjoyed a 3 to 3 1/2 hour concert featuring traditional and modern Isaan music. Isaan is a region of northeast Thailand that features various aspects of Lao and Thai culture, including language, music and cuisine. I didn’t take any photos, but I did take about 50 minutes of video with my point-and-shoot camera. (I didn’t take the big DSLR with me on this trip.) The area in front of the stage was too crowded to get close, and I was handholding the camera in low light, so the videos aren’t all that great. But, I’m going to try to piece together the best bits into one video and get it posted here eventually. So, tune in for that and for a few photos of my visit to Laos. More later.

Wat Traimit

As I indicated in the previous Chinatown post, I did have enough time to tour Wat Traimit, one of the big attractions of Chinatown. According to the link on that post, the Golden Buddha in Traimit is the world’s largest solid gold Buddha image, weighing in at 5.5 tons and standing 15 feet tall (although the image is seated). So, at today’s gold prices, the image is worth quite a few millions of dollars!

Wat Traimit Buddha

Wat Traimit Buddha

There’s also an interesting history of the 13th century statue, a history involving deception and discovery. Again, check out the link to read about the image.

Here’s another smaller Buddha image that’s near the Golden Buddha.

Wat Traimit Small Buddha Statue

Wat Traimit Small Buddha Statue

There’s also a detailed history of Chinatown located in a second-floor exhibition, which shows 3D life-sized scenes of daily living and which also includes a scale model of Chinatown as it looked in the mid 1950s or so. This was the only photo I got of the exhibition, since most museums and similar places don’t allow you to take photos. I didn’t see any signs forbidding it, but I didn’t want to offend anyone. At the final exhibit, the scale model of Chinatown, I saw someone else taking a shot, so I figured it was ok and took the one below. As with all the photos taken this vacation trip, I had only my pocket point-and-shoot with me. It’s a good camera, but it doesn’t do too well in dark lighting, so I had to crank up the ISO to capture this shot. In post-processing, I removed most of the digital noise that’s usually present with high ISO settings, but in doing so, the image lost some of its sharpness, as you can see in the photo below. I’ll have to bring along my small tripod next time.

Wat Traimit Chinatown Exhibit

Wat Traimit Chinatown Exhibit

And, of course, here are a few shots of the exterior of the wat. As you can see, Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej is honored everywhere.

Wat Traimit exterior

Wat Traimit

Wat Traimit Bell

Wat Traimit Bell

Wat Traimit 3D Mosaic

Wat Traimit 3D Mosaic

This one is looking up to the spire from a position close to one of the outside walls.

Wat Traimit

Wat Traimit

Directly next door to Wat Traimit is a smaller temple, sort of an annex. Here’s a detail shot of the roof of that area.

Wat Traimit annex

Wat Traimit annex roof detail

Also next to Traimit is a boys’ school (well, I didn’t see any girls, so I assume it’s a boys’ school). At the entrance to the school is a statue of a scholar (again, I assume) from days gone by. Here are the kids during what appears to be recess.

Boys' school next to Wat Traimit.

Boys' School recess

And the scholar.

Boys' school statue

Boys' school scholar statue.

Finally, I did have some time to go to the Siam Paragon shopping mall to buy some reading material. They usually have some kind of display outside the center, and this year’s set-up featured an Alice in Wonderland motif. (Pretty girls not included) Quite colorful.

Siam Paragon display

Alice in Wonderland at Siam Paragon shopping center

OK, that’s about it for the Bangkok portion of the trip. It feels like I’ve kind of over-saturated the blog with too many photos of the trip already, so I’ll just post a few more from Nong Khai and Laos a bit later. In the meantime, I’ll process the new Expo 2012 photos I took this past Saturday and get those up soon. More later.

Laos-Thailand Trip Report: Bangkok’s Chinatown

In all my previous visits to Bangkok, I’d never visited Chinatown, except for a crazy tuk-tuk ride on my way to another area several years ago. I’ve read and heard that this section of Bangkok is one of the city’s most interesting and fascinating to visit. Here’s what Lonely Planet has to say about it:

“Bangkok’s Chinatown is the urban explorer’s equivalent of the Amazon Basin. The highlights here are a rather complicated web of tiny alleyways, crowded markets and delicious street stalls. Unlike other Chinatowns around the world, Bangkok’s is defiantly ungentrified, and getting lost in it is probably the best thing that could happen to you. The neighbourhood dates back to 1782 and relatively little has changed since then. You can still catch conversations in various Chinese dialects, buy Chinese herbal cures or taste Chinese dishes not available elsewhere in Thailand. Getting in and out of Chinatown is hindered by horrendous traffic but the area is a brief walk from Hualamphong Metro station.”

Although my time in Bangkok was very limited this trip, I decided to take a brief excursion to the Chinatown area, knowing full well that I wouldn’t be able to see it in depth. I had several hours to kill before I hopped aboard the overnight express to Nong Khai, so I dropped off my big bag at the luggage holding room at Hualamphong Railway Station and made the short walk (15 minutes) to Chinatown.

It’s easy to find the main road, Yaowarat–just look for the large gate marking the beginning of the area.

One of Chinatown’s main attractions is Wat Traimit, which is a short walk from the gate (I took the shot of the gate from the top of Traimit). It was on the right hand side of the road as I was walking down Yaowarat.

I wasn’t sure how much time I was going to spend browsing around the area, so I decided to visit the temple on the way back, if I had time.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have all that much time to spend in Chinatown, with its many shops, side streets and vendors’ stalls. It was extremely busy and crowded with shoppers and tourists, and walking was quite slow, although it’s probably faster than driving. Motor bikes would probably be the fastest way of traveling through the dense mass of traffic.

It’s a very popular place to buy gold, gems and other jewelry, but it appeared that, in the short time I spent there, you could buy just about anything you might be looking for. Here are a few items that caught my attention.

Traditional clothing.

Tassels

Fruit and vegetables.

Stuffed crab, anyone? Chinatown is renowned for it’s nighttime outdoor eating venues. Unfortunately, by nightfall I’d be on the train to Nong Khai. The next time I’m in Bangkok, I definitely want to visit this area at night.

Oh, and did I hear you say that you need a barber’s chair?

So, just about anything you need or want, you can probably find it here.

Yes, I did return to Wat Traimit and took the tour of the temple area. This post is getting rather long, so I’ll save the wat for next time. More later.

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