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All posts for the month December, 2013

We spent a couple days in Bangkok, primarily to get visas to go to Myanmar. If we’d have known how easy it was, we’d have stayed a couple days longer in Luang Prabang and opted for the slightly more expensive same-day visa, but since it was our first experience with the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok (or anywhere, to be honest), we played it safe and gave ourselves a few days just in case something went wrong.

We’ve been in Bangkok a few times now, and strangely it’s still a city we just don’t get. It’s so big and so sprawling, with seemingly no center, no focal point, no place with a concentration of restaurants. Just a huge, sprawling megapolis with enormous shopping malls and horrible¬†traffic. And it’s weird – some things are so amazingly inexpensive, and some things are insanely expensive.

On the really inexpensive side is health care. Recall that we had our teeth cleaned in Bangkok when we passed through in October, for about $22.50 each, one quarter what we paid in the U.S. This time I had to get the third and final shot in my Hepatitis B series, a process I started a year ago. Turns out there is a good travel clinic in Bangkok that was reasonably near our hotel, so off I went. The detailed invoice is stunning. I spent a good 15 minutes discussing our travels with a doctor, after probably 15 minutes going over basic stuff with a nurse. The doctor was very helpful, with useful advice about Malaria and other tropical diseases. Cost? The total cost – vaccine, doctor, the whole thing – was under $15. That’s what I’d have paid just as the co-pay in Boston. Of that $15, over half was for the vaccine itself, while the doctor’s fee was just over $3.00. Crazy.

Here's my vaccine invoice. If this was in U.S. dollars, it would make sense, but it's in Thai bahts, which run about 30 to the dollar. So the 50 baht charge for Hospital Services is just over $1.50. Amusingly, they have a 500 baht ($16) minimum for using a credit card, and this fell below that limit. Crazy.

Here’s my vaccine invoice. If this was in U.S. dollars, it might make sense, but it’s in Thai Bahts, which run about 30 to the dollar. So the 50 Baht charge for Hospital Services is just over $1.50 and the 100 Baht charge for Doctor Fee is just over $3. Amusingly, they have a 500 Baht ($16) minimum for using a credit card, and this fell below that limit. Crazy.

Also on the really inexpensive side are hotel rooms. We stayed in a really nice place, one of my favorite rooms in a city in a long time, for $150 a night. It would have been more than twice that in almost any city, and probably four times that in NYC. You almost can’t afford not to get a hotel room in Bangkok. The only problem is that I can’t figure out why people go to Bangkok except as a transit hub. Like I said, we just don’t get the city.

Our hotel had a great bar with great Perfect Manhattans. Fortunately for my health they weren't cheap. They were good, though!

Our hotel had a great bar with great Perfect Manhattans. Fortunately for my health they weren’t cheap. They were good, though!

Apparently what a lot of people do in Bangkok is shop. And like anyone, we had some shopping to do – some clothes that needed replacement, some gear, toiletries, broken sandals, that sort of stuff. By far the easiest way to do that is to go to one of the giant malls, so off we went. What amazed us, though, is all the crazy expensive stuff there. We could walk for what felt like blocks past jewelry store after high-end clothing store after watch store after designer eyewear store after jewelry store. On and on and on, and all of it at prices that just made no sense at all. Who are these people who pay thousands of dollars for a watch or several hundred dollars for sunglasses? Again, just more of Bangkok that I don’t understand.

What blog post would be complete without a cat picture? We had dinner at Steve (sic) Cafe & Cuisine, after which this cutie joined us. She craved Mark's petting, just couldn't get enough.

What blog post would be complete without a cat picture? We had dinner at Steve (sic) Cafe & Cuisine, after which this cutie joined us. She craved Mark’s petting, just couldn’t get enough.

At any rate, with visas in hand and with me newly inoculated against Hepatitis B, we boarded a plane this morning for Yangon, the city formerly known as Rangoon. Though no longer the capital of Myanmar (itself formerly known as Burma), it’s still the major city. Our first impression was genuine surprise at how much it feels like India. I’d learned a while back that for most of the colonial era Burma was a part of British India, I still thought of it more as Southeast Asia, more like Thailand. Now, we’ll have a lot more insights after the 13-day bike trip we start on Saturday morning, but so far this sure seems more Indian than I’d expected.

Stay tuned, but first a couple more photos from our last day in Laos…

Flashback to Luang Prabang, Laos. This was the waterfall we biked to our last day in Laos, with a couple young monks enjoying the view.

This was the waterfall we biked to our last day in Laos, with a couple young monks enjoying the view.

And this is one of those young monks getting ready to swing into the pool formed by the continuing waterfall. The water color was unlike anything I'd ever seen fed by a river. We never did learn why it was so blue, but it was beautiful. And yes, Mark & I both swam in it, but we didn't swing into it...

And this is one of those young monks getting ready to swing into the pool formed by the continuing waterfall. The water color was unlike anything I’d ever seen fed by a river, more Caribbean than Southeast Asia river. We never did learn why it was so blue, but it was beautiful. And yes, Mark & I both swam in it, though we didn’t use the rope swing…

Watching kids bike to school from our breakfast table in Vang Vieng. We later spent three wonderful hours floating leisurely down this river on tractor inner tubes.

Watching kids bike to school from our breakfast table in Vang Vieng. We later spent three wonderful hours floating leisurely down this river on tractor inner tubes.

Jim loved this Buddha painting in a lunch spot

Jim loved this Buddha painting in a lunch spot

From the Lao capital of Vientiane we took an arduous, winding six-hour bus ride north to Vang Vieng. We spent three pleasant days in Vang Vieng, a place that features dramatic karst formations, strong backpacker culture, outdoor adventure, and drug-induced relaxation.

The primary activity in Vang Vieng, around which all else revolves, is floating down the river on tractor inner tubes. In recent years, the tubing became increasingly tied in with drinking, smoking, and general mayhem. Ropes appeared for swinging into the shallow river, then ziplines, and giant slides. As the scene got out of control and too many injuries and deaths occurred, the authorities stepped in and literally tore down much of the wild infrastructure.

So today, there are a few bars you can stop off at while tubing, but it’s mostly just a gorgeous place to float. There are still plenty of backpackers around, but it’s really perfect for a couple old retirees who thoroughly enjoyed three hours floating down the peaceful river, high on the stunning scenery.

At a temple in Luang Prabang

At a temple in Luang Prabang

Then another long, winding bus ride brought us to Luang Prabang, a historic Lao capital and the highlight of any visit to Laos. Set between the Mekong and a tributary, the town is bursting with monasteries, gold-covered temples, and orange-clad monks.

And all that is complemented by the best concentration of attractive restaurants and bars we’ve seen in a couple months. There seems to be a consensus here that restaurants should feature dim lighting and lots of candles and pretty colored lights. It all works to make Luang Prabang one of the most atmospheric stops on our trip and an ideal place to wrap up our three weeks in Laos.

Today we will fly back to Bangkok for a few days to refuel — and, most important, to apply for visas for Myanmar. Then we’ll fly to Yangon and celebrate the holidays on a 13-day bicycling tour of Myanmar.

Orange-clad monks help make Luang Praban a very colorful place.

Orange-clad monks help make Luang Praban a very colorful place.

Plenty of cute kids, too.

Plenty of cute kids, too.

Om my gosh, Christmas must be coming!

Om my gosh, Christmas must be coming!

Happy Hmong New Year!

Happy Hmong New Year!

We spent the day yesterday bicycling on the outskirts of Vientiane. We saw some very nice scenery, and we enjoyed smiling and waving at the ever friendly locals as we passed through villages. But the highlight was coming across a Hmong New Year celebration in a village called Nong Song Hong, where everyone was dressed to the hilt.

Lots of people seemed eager to show off their holiday finest.

Lots of people seemed eager to show off their holiday finest.

We loved these bright green patches of young rice plants

We loved these bright green patches of young rice plants

Our lunch spot had a lovely view above a river bend

Our lunch spot had a lovely view above a river bend

Ferrying across the river

Ferrying across the river