Between Nakhon Sawan and Luang Prabang

[This is the third and final post about my commutes between my favourite flight hub of Bangkok and my pied à terre in Luang Prabang. The others are Train no. 211 from Bangkok and (My) life in Nakhon Sawan. They’re memories of travels impossible and places unreachable in Covid-times.]

From Nakhon Sawan it’s a boring bus ride to Phitsanulok. I often passed through the city starting out as a tour leader in Thailand in the 1990’s, and enjoyed visits to the Buddha Casting Foundry with its traditional production methods. These days I don’t get into town, just stay overnight across the road from the bus terminal east of the city, where there is one of those clean and bright no-frills hotels  found in Thai provincial towns. The family that runs it is none too outgoing. But there is always a nod of recognition, or an ’it’s-been-a-while’ .

Nearby at an intersection is this sign:

Now this is a bit grand. No car or truck from Malaysia, China or Vietnam ever passes by. But Phitsanulok is a major domestic traffic hub. Straight west the road leads to the Myanmar border at Mae Sot, straight east to the Lao border at Mukdahan. Buses run south to Bangkok and north to each and all of the northern provinces.

Beyond Phitsanulok there are several possible routes to Luang Prabang, shown on the map below. I usually continue to Loei, and move on to Luang Prabang the next day. It is fastest and, well, cheapest.

But the route through Nan province also makes for interesting travel. This goes: bus from Phitsanulok to Nan; minivan to the Thai-Lao border at Moeng Nguen; a walk through no-man’s-land; finding some or other vehicle to Pakbeng on the Mekong; a boat down river to Luang Prabang.

I haven’t yet traveled the Uttaradit – Paklay stretch myself. Bucket list!

Text continues below map.

A geographical appendix

Each of these routes at some point must cross the divide between the Mekong and Chao Phraya basins. Interested in everything Mekong I try to figure out where exactly this divide runs, both by trying to work out the lie of the land while on the road, and by studying the unsurpassed Google Earth and following streams and rivers on its satellite images.

(Incidentally: how great an escape is Google Earth in times of lockdown. It allows me virtual travel, transports me to faraway places I’d rather be.)

It must be then that the Thai-Lao border follows the Mekong-Chao Phraya divide in the north of Thailand’s Nan Province, and the east of its Uttaradit Province.

The divide must run inside Thailand between the towns of Phitsanulok and Loei. But while traveling there, it is difficult to determine its course as there are several longer climbs and descends along the way. Google Earth also doesn’t provide a clear answer, so in this case the marking on the map is just an educated guess.

You may also be interested in an older post, describing my commutes from Luang Prabang to Bangkok in the opposite direction:

(my) life in Nakhon Sawan

[This is the second of three posts about my commutes between my favourite flight hub of Bangkok and my pied à terre in Luang Prabang. Memories of travels impossible and places unreachable in Covid-times.]

Nakhon Sawan is a busy nondescript provincial town. Nothing really goes on, but life itself. People get to and from work, to and from school, to and from shops and takeaways. There are no so-called ‘things to see’, no obligatory tourist attractions. There is nothing idyllic about it. I never see foreigners there, other than the groups of Korean golfers in my hotel. I liked it right away.

I stay for a few days, sometimes a week. Coming from travels in China I relax. Coming from Holland I try to get rid of my jet lag.

I turn right out of the hotel and a 15 minute walk gets me to Big C, the common man’s shopping mall. In the second floor supermarket I buy bread, fruit, yoghurt, peanut butter. And some small cans of Chang beer, provided I didn’t yet again forget no alcohol is being sold in Thai shops before 5.00 p.m. In which case later in the day I hop into one of the 7-Eleven stores, omnipresent in Thailand.

I turn left and after 10 minutes I get to the confluence of the Ping and the Nan Rivers. From here on they combine to be the Chao Phraya, the river that irrigates Thailand’s fertile central lowlands and flows along the past and present capitals of Ayutthaya and Bangkok. It is the kind of place that fascinates me. Such geographical significance.

I walk along the river bank. I walk the streets. I see characteristically Chinese shops. Around Chinese New Year large dragons decorate the centre of town. A sizeable part of the people must be ethnic Chinese. But I can pick out few by their features. I never hear anyone speak Mandarin. They are not part of the wave of newcomers from China that now rolls across the world, but descend from immigrants that settled here generations or even centuries back. They have long since integrated in Thai society.

I love my hotel. Rooms are large and white and brightly lit and functional. Thankfully no effort has been made to make them somehow atmospheric or cosy.

The desk stretches forever along the wall. On one end, next to the fridge, is a tray with glasses. Next comes some of my food, fruit, biscuits; then my clean folded laundry. I sit at the other end with my laptop, near the door to the balcony, in the comfortable office chair. When coming from China I spread out tickets, receipts, invoices and keep my accounts. I spread out my notebooks, maps, hotels’ and drivers’ name cards and type out the travel info gathered on this trip.

Laundry I hang out to dry in the open closet in the small hallway. When there is not enough space I spread out the rest on the plastic sofa.

I prefer high hotel floors, always stay on the fifth or sixth here. A couple of times a day I walk down to the lobby to make my instant coffee, tea or Milo – provided for free as is the custom in provincial Thai hotels.

For dinner I go to the local eateries that spill out onto the pavement. Food isn’t as good as usual in Thailand though, and sometimes I end up in one of Big C’s chain restaurants.

The town’s songthaews can be spotted from far away, coming in bright colours that correspond with their routes. I get on Yellow for the bus station, when I feel it’s time to move on.

Train no. 211 from Bangkok

Train no. 211 coveniently leaves Bangkok’s central Hua Lamphong station at midday. That leaves time to slowly find my way through the city’s traffic jams, slowly drink coffee at the balcony of the station’s waiting hall. A station hall as station halls should be, with an arched roof.

It’s crowded. But there is a Thai calmness in the air. No noisy or running people. Subdued voices. Every now and then a message about an arriving, departing or delayed train.

Distinct Thai-ness comes from the royal portrait, and from the orange robed monks in their separate waiting area. Not far away a group of ethnic Malay passengers, with the women wearing head scarves, is waiting for a train to the Islamic provinces in the deep South.

There is a window for same day tickets. No queue. No passport needed. A dollar and a half for the 200 kilometres. Third class only.

Departure. Slow clatter of steel wheels, steel tracks, steel carriage couplings. Poor housing hugs the tracks, from the train one can almost touch the roofs of corrugated iron and plastic. Railway neighbourhoods are slummy the world over. But here it’s a slum with the red, white and purple of bougainvillea.

We take an hour to cover the 25 kilometres to the old Don Mueang Airport, still within the city limits. Then we gather a bit of speed.

The conductor announces himself with the click of his pliers. He adjusts his glasses so he can read my ticket. ‘Nakhon Sawan’, he says and looks up. He recognizes me, I recognize him – from a previous ride.

The storks show up early this time, before we get to Ayutthaya, old capital with temple ruins where the tourists get off the train. There are rice fields in every possible stage, from only just sown to ready to be harvested, bright green – fresh green – yellow-green – yellow.

I doze off in the afternoon heat, wake up, go catch the wind in the open door.

We often stop, at charming small old stations. At platforms a flower bed or potted plants; a railway official with a red and a green flag; signs with the distance to the next and the previous station, down to the metre. Names like Phon Thong, Nong Pho, Hua Ngiu – villages one never hears about. Schoolchildren get on, and off again.

Late in the afternoon, best part of the day. Soft light. I’m wide awake and alert. My sense of being on the road, my sense of movement, of freedom is strongest.

It’s a perfect day of travel. The day after a two month stay in China, without a care in the world.

At dusk we reach Nakhon Sawan.

[Travel notes from pre-corona times]

Pol Pot’s bathroom and other remains of the Khmer Rouge

That’s the title of a new series of photos and videos I posted on Flickr.

In Cambodia much more remains of the Khmer Rouge than the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek and Tuol Sleng prison, the two well-known and horrifying reminders of their brutal reign.
In Anlong Veng and Pailin, Khmer Rouge strongholds along the Thai border long after they lost control of the country as a whole, houses of top leaders Pol Pot, Ta Mok and Khieu Samphan can still be found. With difficulty sometimes: see the ‘live’ videos of my search for Pol Pot’s house outside Anlong Veng in the forests of the Dangrek Mountains.

At Khieu Samphan’s house in Pailin an awkward surprise: his family still lives there. Embarrassed I didn’t take photos.

As to Pol Pot the places where he was tried and cremated can also still be identified.

Some of the enormous water reservoirs the Khmer Rouge built using forced labor still exist, as does a now deserted airport built during their reign, including in its vicinity hidden silo’s and tunnels, signs maybe of the Khmer Rouge’s paranoia.

And what happend to the people who were part of the Khmer Rouge? Apart from the top leaders no one was tried. Many of their former soldiers were recruited into the Cambodian government army that they previously fought against. In an ironic twist of history they now defend Cambodia against their former supporters the Thai army, in a conflict over border temples that both countries claim.

See photos and videos here:

Or if the link doesn’t work click ‘Photos’ in the menu at the left and then ‘Albums’.

Extreme Cambodia

pieterneele | 18 February, 2015 13:22

The stunning architecture of the Angkor period. The horrific Khmer Rouge reign of terror. Cambodia is extreme. The sheer magnitude of the temple ruins is incomprehensible. So is the scale of the brutality.

As if there are no constraints on the people, no limit on good and no limit on evil.

I have often visited Angkor Wat and the many temples in the surrounding area. Each time I stood in awe. I have often visited the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge, and Tuol Sleng, their prison and torture centre in Phnom Penh. Each time I was appalled.

This time my co-traveller and me wanted to go to Pailin and Anlong Veng, strongholds of the Khmer Rouge for twenty years after their brutal reign. And to the remote Angkorian temples that are scattered around Cambodia’s north. Among them the three disputed temples on the Thai border that recently still led to armed conflict.

Unexpectedly our focus on the Khmer Rouge and our focus on the temple ruins would result in an encounter that gave insights in both.

Luang Prabang – Bangkok Commute

pieterneele | 15 February, 2015 04:58

A series of trips over the past two years. Lost count. From my pied à terre in Luang Prabang to Bangkok. To catch a cheap Air Asia flight to China or a plane to Holland, or to move on elsewhere in Southeast Asia or meet friends in Bangkok.

It can be done within 24 hours now that the international bus from Luang Prabang to Loei is running – leaving at 8.00 am, changing to a night bus in Loei and getting to Bangkok by 5.30 am. But usually I break the trip in Loei, staying in the same hotel each time, cheap and adequate. Within walking distance from the bus station if I have packed lightly. Which mostly I haven’t. The chargers alone, for laptop, smartphone, spare phone, camera, electric toothbrush, and all the equipment they serve.

Along the way in Laos I watch the Mekong from the bridge near Xayaboury, and further on the train of concrete trucks from Thailand heading to the construction site of the dam in the river. I order fried rice for lunch from the boy in the bus who calls ahead so that food is prepared when the bus pulls in at the restaurant. I see the small town of Paklay where one had to stay overnight when the international bus wasn’t yet running. From here it took five different songthaews and tuktuks to cover the final 100 kilometers to Loei – fun breezy rides. And I see the village of Nam Xong where Y. lived, in the alley behind the temple on the bank of the Mekong. She lives in Thailand now and after crossing the border and having changed to Thai sim I’m tempted to call.

A few familiar faces among the officials of Lao immigration, and to some of them I am a familiar face too. No pleasantries at the Thai side, no unpleasantries either, while customs check luggage.

I usually sleep on the night bus to Bangkok. Upon arrival at Mochit bus station, too early to go anywhere, I have a long morning coffee, same stall each time. Then make my way to the Nouvo City Hotel, New World Lodge before and New World House before that, and I am happy to meet the long-time staff I have known for many years, some over two decades.

A few notes from Canada

During a break from travel went to Canada for a holiday. Family visit.

On the flight from Amsterdam views of inaptly named Greenland. Does the earth’s curvature become more visible further up north?

Later we cross the Rocky Mountains. They’d be Rocky Hills using Himalayan standards, but they look beautiful.

The stewardess’s features are Asian, but not Chinese, Japanese, Korean. So I am puzzled. Then I decide: Inuit.

Staying in Vancouver’s West End. Lively, international, food from everywhere. Nearby is Stanley Park, encircled by the Sea Wall. Downtown waterfronts are lined with marinas. Small seaplanes come and go, fun to watch. Lots of glass in the downtown skyscrapers. Less glittering are the lives of pavement dwelling drug addicts or the people going through the rubbish left outdoors at night.

All this every guidebook no doubt would have told me. But I preferred coming unprepared and being surprised.

Scented plastic garbage bags.

Tree trunks for electricity poles.

No alcohol sold in supermarkets.

Suburbs as in American movies.

A coyote when at night walking the dog.

The TV’s coyote alert may make sense then. But this is a nanny state.

Helmets for cyclists are compulsory.

When starting a car its headlights are turned on automatically.

Printed on the glass of the rear view mirror the warning that vehicles seen in it are closer than they seem.

Warnings abound – to step over a sill, to hold on to a handrail on stairs, to watch out as ‘Docks & Ramps May Be Slippery’.

Those who haven’t used a cable car before are advised to seek assistance of staff when getting in a gondola.

If a children’s playground is unsupervised a sign will say so.

Community Against Preventable Injuries (ambiguity unintended I suppose) exists:

We take ferries up the coast, then across to Vancouver Island. They are stomach turning expensive, 60 euro or so for a car with two. On a car deck the smell of the now defunct ferries in Zeeland, province of my youth, a mixture of oil, wood, salt water – a whiff of nostalgia.

We drive through postcard Canada. Fir trees, lakes, distant snow.

It has struck me that travelers are often reminded in one place of another they visited previously, while objectively the two are hardly similar. I call them private associations. Mine here: Kham with its mountains and pine forests. The most obvious difference of course: in Kham indigenous Tibetan people form the majority of the population, here First Nations people are few and far between.

Coffee breaks in ‘Timmy’s’ = Tim Hortons = the poor man’s Starbucks = a Canadian icon. Coffees and maple syrup donuts.

Orca watching is the first and foremost must-do, says my brother. And it is amazing. As a bonus we get to see a humpback whale.

We walk through a grove of Douglas firs standing a stunning 80 meters tall. Named after Scottish discoverer David Douglas who later died while exploring in Hawaii.

We reach the edge of the continent and all but deserted Long Beach. From here on the Pacific.

2014 Preview

Hi to all!

Wishing you a happy and healthy new year.

My plans?

Awaiting publication of an article I wrote for Japanese Alpine News, detailing why I believe the new Mekong source I discovered last July together with Luciano Lepre has to be considered the river’s true source. What will reactions be?

I first introduced this source in a couple of blogs that you can find elsewhere on this page, posted between August 12 and 28, 2013.

Trips I am planning later in 2014:

In July will set out on a great China road trip. This will diagonally cut through China from the southwest (China/Laos border post at Mohan) to the northeast (China’s northernmost county of Mohe on the Russian border). Four weeks and 6,000 kilometers or so. From subtropical to Siberian latitude, crossing China’s main rivers: the Yangtze in the south, the Yellow River in the north. Public transport: battered mid-size buses, modern touring car models, the occasional high speed train. Always among the Chinese people – those still poor, those of the new middle class, those now rich. Small villages, huge cities. No better way to experience China.

Yunnan – Myanmar border trip

Will roughly follow this border, staying on the Chinese side. Starting in the south in the lands of the Wa – my current favorite tribe. Headhunters as late as the 1960’s they are now the kindest and most welcoming of people. Among other ethnic groups will be the Kachin, called Jingpo in China.

Of course there is the semi-independent (?) Wa State itself, across the border….. Accessible or not? That would be another trip.

These are exploratory trips. They will stay clear of places described in guidebooks. I believe real travel takes you to the unknown. By nature an exploratory trip does not have a fixed schedule. Just a fixed general idea.

In November I will guide a Yunnan tour. That is well researched already, but it is a tour I much like to do. It takes in the best, most interesting and most authentic places Yunnan has to offer. Ancient villages, hill tribe markets and natural beauty all are part of the itinerary.

If you wish to join any of these tours, send me an email:

Laos, a slow country speeding up, II

The first post with this title was uneventful.

Here is another reality.

Yaba kids high on speed ride their motorbikes high speed through Luang Phabang these days.

It is the Hmong who do the trading – says a young lawyer. Don’t know if that is just his experience at the office where he is working. Or if it can be backed up by hard statistics. Or if it is Laotian hearsay again. Or if it is part of the trend to blame the Hmong whenever something goes wrong in the country. They are one of Laos’ largest minorities. They fought on the American side in the Vietnam war, which secretly extended into Laos. The Americans withdrew, the communist Pathet Lao took power and relations with the Hmong have never really healed.

Related to the yaba use is the rise in crime. Stories of stolen motorbikes abound. Stories of theft from houses too. People – all people – have put fences around their property to protect the new possessions that economic progress has made available to them. Cctv camera’s now cover parts of Vientiane and Luang Phabang.

Springs to mind a visit to Laos twenty years ago. I was a tour leader for a Dutch company. Our Laotian guide told us in Laos there was no crime. And no prostitution.

That night I was invited for a drink by the Thai tour operator from Bangkok who had been hired by the Dutch to arrange the tour, and who was in Vientiane.

On the table was a bottle of Black Label. On the couches were a couple of girls. ‘For talking and entertainment’, he motioned. I wondered about the entertainment, given the remark of the guide. ‘True. Laos cannot fuck. I try many times’, he confirmed.

This was to change long before crime got on the rise. Only three years later a Laotian friend and his fellow receptionists in a Vientiane hotel made good money allowing foreign business men to take prostitutes to their rooms.