Luang Prabang, Laos…a visa run holiday
January 28, 2017
Since our visa extension was expiring soon, (see the blog on Travel Documents for Thailand), we decided to take a trip to Luang Prabang, Laos and have a visa run holiday. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, the town was described by the global body as “an outstanding example of the fusion of traditional architecture and Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its unique, remarkably well-preserved townscape illustrates a key stage in the blending of these two distinct cultural traditions.” We can certainly see what is special about it and I want to share that with you.
Trip to Laos
Laos Airlines flies directly from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang every afternoon. It only takes an hour and cost us $234 USD each which included a box lunch on the plane. It was a propeller plane, but saves a stopover in Bangkok and it was an easy flight over the forested mountains into Laos.
We had completed our visa forms and arrival/departure cards on the plane. Since I amazed myself by packing some clothes and my camera gear into my daypack, we were quick to arrive at the visa line. We had pictures, passports, forms and $42 USD ready to go and moved quickly into a new country where we would be allowed to stay for 30 days if we wanted to.
A puzzle we haven’t been able to solve is why it costs more for Canadians to enter Laos than it does for anyone else in the world. It is $35 for Americans and only $40 for citizens from Afghanistan. Another part of the puzzle is why you pay in American dollars. They do accept Thai Baht, but the exchange rate they offer would discourage most travellers so have American currency. Fortunately we exchanged some Thai money for American at the airport in Chiang Mai.
Money in general is challenging to sort out here. The kip has been so devalued, that $1 CAD is the equivalent of about 6000 kip. A million kip is about $160. Although they have a 100 000 kip note, the bank machines often run out of cash. Many places take Thai baht or American dollars, but few places take credit cards. Once you leave the country, there are few places that will take kip in exchange for another currency.
The money exchange offices do a good business exchanging mostly American dollars into kip. We didn’t bring cash except for the visa payment so we used the ATM to take out money from our account at home. The exchange rate was much better for us than if we exchanged it at the booth. We did discover, however, that the ATM’s close to the money exchangers charged a 3% fee to withdraw funds. The bank ATM’s charged a flat rate of 20 000 kip (about $3). I read later that a bank machine near the market doesn’t charge any fees for withdrawals. This could be related to the company or bank that owns the ATM, but it would be worth paying attention to the fees, depending on whether you are taking out a large or a small amount of cash.
I found a guesthouse on TripAdvisor, but chose to book it directly through the guesthouse website. I had also emailed the owner to let him know when we were arriving. For $35/night we got a room with a king size bed, tv, fridge and shower. It also included a hot egg breakfast with a large warm, white baguette and real drip coffee. The use of a bicycle and pick up and delivery to the airport were also part of the package. The webpage describes the bridge across the Nam Kham (the route to the main part of the city) as a rickety, rackety bridge. It was surprisingly sturdy, however. They have to take it down in the rainy season or it would just wash away.
The guesthouse is only 6 years old and was built where a coconut forest used to exist. It was built in the French Colonial style to match the UNESCO preservation expectations. It feels old but has wonderful wood stairs and dark furniture. The front staff here speak excellent English and went out of their way to make us feel welcome, even returning our missing phone to us at the airport.
I knew that Laos was a poor country with the GDP only $3000 per capita. During the Viet Nam War, this country was hit with more bombs by the Americans than Germany received during WW 2. The number of people living in poverty is very high as are illiteracy levels. I expected something much different that what I saw.
People here live in a fertile land. Forests cover the mountains and the Mekong River provides water, transportation and fish. The rainy season renews the land. Tourists flock here to see the old French buildings and experience a part of Asia that moves much more slowly and quietly than most other towns and cities.
The people themselves are so resourceful. Old houses are converted into guesthouses and cafes serve french food, Laotian food and even wonderful fusion food using fresh local ingredients. Silk, cotton and bamboo from Laos are woven into beautiful handmade scarves, bags and wall hangings. The textile industry is bustling here but you might not notice it for the artistic appeal of the products. Even old bombs are used to make metal items like spoons. There is a day market and a night market where they sell these products. Check the travel menu page for more pictures and details on Laos Textiles.
Farmers have terraced the land and grow lots of rice. Other fields are divided into small raised beds and grow lettuce, herbs and other fresh vegetables. We saw a water buffalo dairy on a side trip.
Kuang Si Waterfall
We rented a scooter and rode to a Natural Preserved area about 25 km away. The road was pretty smooth, although narrow considering it is the main road through the country from China to Cambodia. There were a few potholes but we did ok. The views on each side of the road were quite a contrast. The infrastructure still needs some work in Laos.
Bear Rescue Center
There was a village outside the park with lots of stalls selling fruits, grilled meat and locally made textiles. We had to pay about $3 to get in to this Area. The first thing we saw were bears! I love surprises.
The Bear Rescue Center was similar to one we visited for grizzly bears in West Yellowstone a couple of years ago. They rescue Asiatic Bears that trapped by poachers or whose mothers were killed. They are on display in large natural areas part of the time and in cages the rest of the time. We watched as a keeper placed food around the enclosure for the bears to find. These animals seemed pretty comfortable and I didn’t see any clear paths where they had been pacing. They were sleeping, eating or wrestling with each other. We saw about 12 bears altogether.
The park had many groups of people from all over the world. They were swimming in the pond, walking along the paths, taking pictures of the waterfalls and just enjoying the beauty of nature. The park contained several picnic tables, pathways, bridges, changing rooms and signs describing the importance of the many plants and animals. Like many of the places we are finding in Asia, this park could be anywhere in the world.
The falls themselves drain the mountains and eventually the water ends up in the Mekong River that starts in Tibet and after flowing through Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia, passes through Viet Nam into the South China Sea. In this area, the water flows over limestone. As the rock breaks down from the flow of water, it gets carried along. The light reflects off the calcium carbonate in much the same way as the light does on glacier water in the Rockies, giving the ponds a lovely blue color.
The overall drop is 85m. If you look carefully you can see some swimmers standing 2/3 of the way up on the highest falls. In other places, it looked like the water was just flooding into the jungle. It is such a spectacular place that is so well preserved in a part of the world where people are more attuned to trying to feed their families.
I will leave you at the park and continue in another post describing the Royal Palace and some of the amazing food we discovered in Luang Prabang, Laos.
Samoeng loop- Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens
January 21, 2017
What week in Chiang Mai would be complete without a road trip out to the jungle and an opportunity to sing to honor the Late King of Thailand. We travelled around the Samoeng Loop with a wonderful stop at the Queen Sirikit Botanical Gardens. We finished the week singing at a “We Love the King” event that I will share in another post.
The Samoeng loop is a 100 km road trip that starts in Chiang Mai, then heads north towards the little town of Mae Sa. The loop turns to the west into the mountains and loops through the Samoeng forest which is also fertile agricultural land. At the town of Samoeng it turns back to the east and ends up back in Chiang Mai. It’s the things to see and do along the way that turned a “short” drive into a full day. We rented a car for the day and upgraded to a mid size Suzuki to easily take 3 of us for the trip. Our new friend Jeanne (Leaving Eastern North Carolina) had taken a quick trip through this area and wanted to come along to see the Botanical Garden
Mae Sa Waterfall
We headed about 7:30 on a Monday morning and left Chiang Mai easily as most of the traffic was heading into the city. We turned off the highway at Mae Sa and arrived at the waterfall around 8:15 am. The man at the ticket booth didn’t have enough change for our entrance fee so he said just pay when we came out. He had no change because we were the only people in the whole park! There are 10 waterfalls along the Sa, (Mae is the word for river) that drains the mountain area and eventually flows into Mae Ping that flows through Chiang Mai. If it had been later in the day and hot, we could have swum at level 5. It was a large pool and had a nice sandy bottom. Thank you to Theblondtravels.com for the parking suggestion.
The park was quite well-developed. There were lots of picnic tables and cement paths. A wooden bridge allowed you to cross over the water to explore both sides with a large gazebo along waterfall 6. It was not what you would call accessible though because there were many large steps that would not accommodate strollers or wheelchairs, or even walkers. We heard lots of birds and found a couple of large spiders in their webs.
The quietness after the energy of the city was a much appreciated change of pace. It was cool and shady with just the sound of the water pouring over the falls. We only saw the first 6 waterfalls as we wanted to stop at a few other places along the route. There was another car entering the park as we left but we were able to put together our 330 baht fee ($13.00 for 3 of us) so we didn’t need change.
Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden
We carried on down the twisty roads past several elephant camps and tourist resorts, snake farms, insect displays and an orchid farm. The road itself was pretty quiet but the most tour vans were at the zip line place. I have ridden a zip line once as part of a tour in Mexico, but I wouldn’t spend a day in Thailand doing that when there is so many other things to explore. Each traveller has their own goals though.
Our destination was the Queen Sirikit Botanical Garden where it cost another 300 baht for the 3 of us as farangs, which was well worth it. Jeanne is over 60 so she was free. It was an unexpected treasure as it is a very large park with several sections to visit. The Botanical Garden opened in 1992 to protect and preserve natural Thai plants and named after Her Majesty the Queen Sirikit in 1994. I copied from the website the purpose of the Gardens.
The aim of QSBG and its satellite gardens are:
- to gather fundamental knowledge of Thai plants
- to conserve their genetic diversity, and
- to strengthen studies and research on Thai flora.
Canopy Walk and Greenhouses
We spent about 2 hours there but could easily have taken all day if I had been able to read every plant label as well as visit the Natural History Museum. We did spend time on the Canopy Walk. It is a walkway that’s built above the top of the trees for about 400 m through the forest and is an opportunity to look down on the trees and butterflies from above to get a sense of the canopy ecosystem. There were a few sections with glass floors and walls and the rest was metal mesh. It also provided for wonderful views of the mountains in the distance.
Our next stop were the greenhouses where I was very impressed by my restraint in not spending all day photographing every interesting plant. I really enjoyed the carnivorous plants building where there were so many pitcher plants. The orchid building had such vivid colors and the jungle plants were impressive. Many had labels to help identify those we actually see growing here. There were also buildings of arid plants and medicinal herbs with all the displays so tastefully done. It surprises me when we find such world-class facilities in a developing country.
It was about 11:30 when we left. Instead of continuing on the main loop, we decided to extend our trip by heading north after the gardens. The road was slightly narrower but paved and in good condition. There were less resorts and more agriculture. We saw coffee and tea growing as well a hydroponic lettuce growing without a greenhouse. Terraced fields were on every hillside filled with a large variety of vegetables and some corn. We didn’t see much rice growing as we moved higher up into the hills.
The first place we tried for lunch had a killer view, but was not open. It had tables and hot sauce bottles but when we found someone who knew a little English, it seemed there was no coffee or food.
It was located next to a campground. We saw several other places with small dome tents set up on a flat space as well as small raised platforms and small camping cabins. The trouble with car trips is the difficulty in snapping everything that captures your attention like you can when you are walking.
Lunch with a View
We drove on about 5 more minutes and found more views in a little eating place on the side of the road. The food was delicious, the people were kind and the menu descriptions were in English and Thai. They served the soup from the kitchen where we were, but the other meals were prepared in a bigger building about 200 m away and carried over to us.
Jeanne had pork and noodle soup where you had a choice of 6 different kinds of noodles. I had pork and shittake mushrooms with thai basil served with rice. Peter had fried rice with chicken. We shared spring rolls and 2 large beer (620 ml). Everything was delicious and we paid 300 baht which is less than $12.
Most Thai restaurants have a container of condiments on the table. There is sugar for sweet, chili infused vinegar for sour, fish sauce for salty and chili powder or flakes for spicy. This place had chili that was almost like a chipotle with a nice smokiness to it. You are given a fork and spoon but almost never a knife. You use the fork to push the food onto the spoon so I spill so much less on myself here. Chopsticks are only used for noodle dishes like Khao Soi, noodle soup, or Pad Thai.
Views on the way home
It was a direct ride home back through Sareong. The amount of food grown here in small-scale farming is impressive especially as farmers do most of the work by hand without machinery. Farm houses are small and on stilts for the rainy season. We saw some small pickups for hauling produce but the roads were very quiet on this day.
We took advantage of the rental car to pick up a few groceries on our way home. Since our comfy plastic lawn chair needed replacing, it was much easier to bring it back in a car than a songtaew.
The sing for the king event was an amazing honour and will be the topic of a post of its own.
Travel Documents for Thailand-Lots of Options
January 15, 2017
Travel Document Requirements
This post is not so much of a story as a lesson on how to obtain travel documents. My examples are specifically for Thailand, although you would probably have to follow most of the same steps to travel to another country for an extended time. I’ve included a few pictures for those of you who are not needing all this information at this time.
For those of us who travel to the United States, Mexico or even Europe, a passport is all you need to enter the country as a tourist, even if you are planning to stay for an extended time. If you plan to stay as a student or to work in another country, then you are no longer a tourist and will usually need some kind of visa. Our children had student visas when they attended university in Pennsylvania and Mississippi. Melissa has a special kind of work visa now to enable her to stay in California to teach, but only at the school that hired her. Owen married an American so he has a “green card”. This is a visa that allows him to live in and work at any job in the United States.
The purpose of the visa is a way to keep track of who is visiting and to ensure that tourists are not taking jobs away from the residents. Immigration also wants to make sure that visitors have enough money or a ticket to leave the country. Hotels have to register our passport/visa number with the police who come by several times a week to check on the location of the tourists. Although the economy here is dependent on traveller’s dollars, they also don’t want their culture disappearing by being overrun by outsiders. Northern Thailand was never captured and they don’t want to start now.
Visa Waiver Stamp
If we were visiting Thailand for less than a month, we would only need our passport and an ongoing ticket showing that we were not going to remain in the country for more than 30 days. We would receive a visa waiver stamp. Everyone entering Thailand also completes an arrival/departure card. The departure card is stapled into your passport until you leave so they can check that you haven’t over stayed. The same is true for citizens of 51 other countries. Some countries can stay 15 days or 90 days and others need a visa to enter for any length of time.
For people staying longer than 30 days as a tourist, there are options. I will share what I have learned, but the rules are changing quite frequently and I am definitely not an immigration lawyer. I will put some links to websites in the blog that I used for information. Blogs are useful on the “how to” part of the paperwork, as long as they are relatively current. We have also gained information from talking with other people who have visas that are different from ours.
Single Entry Visa
Most visas are applied for from your country of residence. You can either visit a consulate office in person, or send your documents and forms to a consulate and have them sent back to you with your visa. Fortunately for us there is a Royal Thai Consulate in Edmonton, Alberta. It has limited hours, but was able to process our visa the same day. We needed our passport to have at least 6 months before expiration. There also have to be enough blank pages remaining for the visa and the stamps when you arrive. The new Canadian 10 year passport made that part easy. We needed to complete an application form found on-line and provide 2 pictures that are 4X6 cm. This is different from Canadian passport pictures (5X7 cm). You also have to pay cash for the fee.
We chose a single entry visa. This means that we entered Thailand and stayed as a tourist for 60 days. At the end of that time, we visited the immigration office in Chiang Mai and extended it for 30 more days. It cost us $40 CAD for the visa and about $70 to extend it. If we had left Thailand before the 60 days were up, we could have paid for a re-entry permit at the immigration office, or at the airport the day of the flight. They cost about $40 and are necessary if you will still be covered by your original visa days when you return. I only just found this existed while doing some research for this post. The answer was on a blog, not an official government page.
How it works for us
This visa works just fine for us as we want to get to know Thailand first anyways. Once our 90 days are up, then we can leave the country and come back in as new tourists with the 30 day visa waiver stamp. It can also be extended for 30 days and $70 if needed. We are travelling to Laos on January 22 for 5 days. We leave for Cambodia on February 16 before the 30 days are up. After a trip to Krabi in the south with Melissa in March, we will travel to Nepal for 10 days before returning to Chiang Mai to fly home on April 1. This will ensure that we are not in Thailand more than 30 days at a time after our visa runs out. The number of times you can come and go is officially unlimited. Those who are in and out the country more often are likely to be scrutinized more carefully at immigration and can be denied entry. They really want you to apply for a proper visa from outside the country.
Visas for other countries nearby
The countries that we are visiting require visas but these are purchased at the border/airport when you arrive. They also require forms, cash and a different size picture. We paid about $15 each at home for the wrong size pictures. A local photo place here did 6 pictures each for about $4 and they are correct. Laos charges $35 USD for Americans and $42USD for Canadians. They also expect you to pay in USD. The Thai bhat price converts to a much higher amount. It can be very confusing, even with the advantage of Internet searches.
Multi Entry Visa
Canadians, and many others can also enter Thailand on a multi-entry visa. It costs $200 and requires a copy of your bank statement to show that you can afford to stay in the country for up to 6 months. ($7500 in the bank for 6 months prior to applying) This visa allows you to come and go from the country without a re-entry permit. When re-entering the country it gives you 60 more days to remain in Thailand, instead of the 30 days for the single entry. It can also be extended at the end for another 30 days at the immigration office.
I have learned most of this from people who have this type of visa. It has been in effect for about a year yet it was difficult to find anything official on this visa, except that it exists and how much it costs. Blogs and in person seem to be the best way to understand how these work. I think it is a better choice for those that want to use Thailand as a home base and travel to other countries throughout their visit here.
People who choose to live her full-time or longer than 6 months can apply for a retirement visa. You have to be 50 years old, have a pension and/or savings in the bank, a medical check, a criminal record check, and a lease agreement. This visa also requires you to check in with immigration every 90 days. It is a more complicated process as you need re-entry permits each time you leave the country and have lots of paperwork to complete in the beginning. There are some changes that may require you to have Thai health insurance which you can only obtain if you are under the age of 70. Many retirees here have international health coverage or their own emergency account. The advantage, though, once you have this visa is that you can just apply to have it renewed each year. I have met many people who are on this visa, but I don’t know as much about it yet.
I was intending to share our experience with getting our extension at the Immigration office in Chiang Mai, but I didn’t realize how much I had learned about visas. That discussion will continue in another post.
There are no exciting pictures for this topic, but being in Thailand wouldn’t be possible without a visa so I will share a few of my favorites. I have also added some pictures from the Parade of Elephants art exhibit in the city. It raises awareness for elephant care after a young elephant stepped on a land mine and received a prosthetic leg. These can be found in the menu under travel.
New Year’s in Chiang Mai-Lanterns and Champagne
January 6, 2017
New Year’s in Chiang Mai was a great experience. Now the celebrations are over and many of the local businesses that closed for the New Year’s Festival are open again. They don’t close much over Christmas, but many closed from Dec. 30-Jan 5.
New Year’s Festival
We found out about the closures when we went to the Air Asia office to pay for our flight home from Cambodia in Feb. We could pay cash, but if we wanted to use our credit card, then that wasn’t available from the 30th to the 3rd. The office was open though. This seems so different to us who can use our cards 24/7, anywhere we want. We could have booked online with our card, but there was a fee of almost $25 to use it. In the office, there is no fee, but it’s not always available. I’m so glad we are not trying to do these bookings during the old work week with a few minutes here and there for errands. We ended up having a good walk to the office then found a wonderful jungle restaurant for dinner that night.
Supper at the Residence
Dr. Smith owns Smith Suites, the newer building where we live, and Smith Residence, the older hotel a block from here. He invited all the guests from both buildings to a dinner in the lobby of the Residence. It is the same place we had the pot luck at Christmas. The entire meal was provided by Dr. Smith this time and included spicy noodles, potato salad, a delicious meat stew that tasted like home and strips of meat on a stick cooked over the grill outside. It was a chance to meet some new people. There was even some dancing after dinner.
We left about 8:30 and walked into the old city. The wats held merit making ceremonies (a Buddhist belief in earning merit for this or the next life) and candles were lit in tribute to the late King Bhumibol Aduyladej and to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun. We saw the lights on the outside of the temples and many people sitting under the lights in the courtyard were quiet and reflective.
3 Kings Monument
The statues of 3 long ago kings are in a large open space in the center of the old city of Chiang Mai. Many special events are held in this area. This space is next to the Sunday Walking Market. Every week, several blocks south and east of the 3 Kings close to traffic and a market takes place. There are many crafts available, as well as food items and is usually so crowded you can hardly make your way down the street. Even though it was a Saturday, the road closed for the lantern lighting and so a market appeared.
We were able to make our way to the monument and heard a wonderful orchestra from a university from Bangkok. They had a small choir with them and accompanied several soloists singing traditional Thai songs. I really enjoyed it. It was filmed and shared on several large screens, although there weren’t as many people there as I expected.
We could see lanterns being released into the sky at Tha Phae Gate, which is several blocks east of where we were…through the market. It took us quite a long time to make our way there. We would just find a clear spot to take a few quick steps and a busker would appear in the middle of the crowd and everyone would have to try to pass them. Some of the buskers were blind or disabled in some way and just trying to earn a living. As people here drive on the left, it is hard in a crowd to know if you should move to the left or naturally to the right to pass those coming towards you. It all depends on what country the opposing person has come from.
We saw lanterns being released in November at Loy Krathong. It was much busier for New Year’s. There were less locations for this event than in November so everyone was crowded into the gathering area around the gate over the moat. It was also cooler at this time of year, so the lanterns rose more quickly and were carried away by the wind. It was serene and exciting at the same time.
Even though the gate area was packed with people, the crowds were not rowdy or drunk. The police had a small presence but we didn’t see anyone causing problems. People were sharing lighters and helping hold the lanterns as they filled with warm air.
We arrived back to our apartment around 11:30. We took our bottle of champagne downstairs along with some disposable plastic wine glasses that we found in the market in Chinatown. At midnight we popped the cork and shared a glass with the night security man, Mr. Dang. There were a few fireworks so we went up to the 7th floor landing for the best view of the city. We found 3 other people with the same idea so we shared champagne with them as well. The views were impressive as we could see the midnight lanterns being released from a couple of km away. The fireworks are usually a much bigger event at New Year’s but were not appropriate because of the mourning period for the King.
New Year’s Day
New Year’s Day was a rainy day, which is very unusual in January in Chiang Mai. It was only 23 degrees which is the coldest day we have had so far. I put a sweater on when I was outside, but the Thais wear light down coats. It seems hard to believe that you can really adapt that much to the heat so that 30 seems normal and 20 seems really cold. The rain meant we had to have mimosas in the lobby. There were 12 of us from the building who shared guava juice and champagne to toast the new year.
Happy New Year to everyone and may you have an opportunity to travel and experience life in a new place in 2017.