After a long 24 hour + transit involving 3 flights plus layovers, we finally arrived in Luang Prabang at 4PM. Managed to stay awake to acclimate to the new time zone and went to bed at 10PM.
We are staying in the same small hotel which is now expanding to its 4th building. We have the same room as last time with a view of the Mekong River across the road. We are in the yellow with blue trim bldg.
Laos has been a Communist country since 1975. The hammer and sickle flags fly everywhere. Curiously, most stores and hotels are owned and run by expats (European and Canadian) employing the locals.
As a former French colony, the architecture of the town is colonial French.
Our hotel has a deck over the banks of the Mekong across the street from the hotel. Here we have our breakfasts and dinner if we opt to.
The tempertures hit 100 degrees everyday with 90% humidity. Everone hunkers down between noon and 4PM. The early mornings and evenings are delightful. Some however must work between noon and 4 as the photo below illustrates.
(Starbuck’s Cup With “Tom” in Thai)
(31 Bhat = 1 USD)
(Govt. Required Images on all Packages)
This is our 5th stay at Rachamankha after discovering it. The property is roughly 3-4 acres and is one of the few hotels within the ancient walled city. Rachamankha was designed, constructed and is owned by a couple, one an architect and the other an interior designer. They also constructed their private two story home within the complex. The theme and design of the Rachamankha is “Lanna Thai” referring to neighboring Burma’s occupation of this area of Thailand for hundreds of years and the fusion of their design styles.
The hotel has only 28 rooms. Two long one story buildings run parallel along the left and right side of the center courtyard. You are seeing 1/2 of the courtyard in above photo. In the middle of the courtyard is the open air connecting sala (back of photo). The courtyard continues on other side of the sala.
(Sitting on sofa inside the sala at night)
The owners have a vast collection of Lanna Thai antiques which fill the public spaces and the guest rooms. The rooms have multiple framed contemporary Thai limited edition prints on the walls.
(Unlocking our door)
(Breakfast in the Courtyard)
This is our first Chiang Mai visit in the winter. All former visits have been in the summer. Now with relatively low humidity and temperature range of 85/65, the days and nights are pleasant. The downside to winter is full occupancy and getting pool chaise lounges. In the summer, we had the pool to ourselves. Over run with German speaking tourists. Go figure.
Paid respects to our favorite Buddhist temple Wat Prasingh which is one block from our hotel, Rachamankha. Not quite a hotel, only 25 rooms.
Wat Prasingh used to be white stucco but about 3-4 years ago it was covered in 22K gold leaf.
The architecture of this area of Thailand is called Lanna Thai. The Lanna Kingdom of neighboring Myanmar (Burma) over ran Northern Thailand in war. Burma occupied for over 200 years. The roof lines were a blend of Thai and Burmese architecture focusing on the wings and curls at ends of the roof line headers and roof peaks. So Burmese.
Devotees burning incense at Wat Prasingh.
Every Sunday, Chiang Mai does the “Sunday Walking Street”. Rachedomnoen Road’s one mile length is transformed in an open air market place with vendors lining the curbs and back to back vendors down the middle of the road. So, there are two footpaths with vendors on either side. Everything conceivable is hawked. A crazy but organized and quiet scene as only the Thais could do. We shopped for the ladies and girls in our lives.
The next two days are expected to be a washout. Typhoon Pabuk, which hit Samui and Phuket, crossed the Andaman Sea and is now hitting the Andaman islands where we were 2 days ago with 85 knot winds. The storm is expected to curve east off its current west, northwest path and cross back over Myanmar and into Northern Thailand. Lucky us. The winds will by then be below tropical storm level. Stay tuned
Now back in Kolkata after 4 days in the Islands with no wi-fi at the Taj Resort. Got out just in time. The Thailand cyclone is supposed to hit the islands tomorrow. (cyclones also followed us in Japan last summer).
Andaman & Nicobar islands are a northern extension of Sumatra (Banda Ache). The southern island is 40 miles north of the epicenter of the 9.2 earthquake in 2004 which triggered the massive Asian tsunami. Needless to say, the Andamans were devastated, many thousands died. All is now back to normal.
The Andamans comprise over 300 islands the majority uninhabited. Only 3 islands are tourist oriented, (Port Blair, Neil, Havelock) with lodging. A few are still inhabited by the original aboriginal people called Sentinelese, who are the last uncontacted people on earth. The American evangelical missionary, Mr. Chau, was killed by bow and arrow on Sentinel Island three weeks ago. He was bringing Jesus to the natives but the natives sent him back to Jesus. Sentinel Island is only 31 miles from the Port Blair airport.
We stayed on Havelock Island, reached by a 1.5 hour catamaran ferry from the Port Blair jetty. The Taj Exotica Resort opened in February, 2018. Each room is a 1,580 sq. ft. free standing building. The resort is beach front on Radahanagar Beach, one of the world’s top 10 beaches and definitely what draws us. The salt water crocs avoid the beach (people) but the north and southern ends of the beach have those signs. The biggest draw here is the world class scuba diving and snorkeling. We did neither. Enjoy the following pics.
I would say 95% of all tourists are Indians. India has a huge growing middle class (think China). The Taj was full of Indian families. There are 3 discount airlines (think Southwest) each with hundreds of new Airbus A320s and Boeing 737-800s. The flights are all full, on a few we were the only Anglos. The world is traveling.
To the east of the Andamans is the Andaman Sea which borders Myanmar, Malaysia and Thailand. To the west of the islands is the Bay of Bengal.
Tomorrow morning begins a long travel day. Flights #10,11,12. Kolkata-New Delhi-Bangkok-Chiang Mai. Worth it all for the Rachamankha, Celeste’s fav.
Back in Kolkata. Flew in from Varanasi via a plane change in Guwahati. We traveled northeast from Varanasi, basically following the border with Nepal. The Himalayas and Mt. Everest were in the horizon. Beautiful sight at 35K feet. Guwahati is in Assam state, north of Bangladesh. On our leg from Guwahati to Kolkata, we flew over Bangladesh and the Ganges River Delta flowing into the Bay of Bengal.
We had dinner at Peter Cat earlier in the week and decided to return this New Year’s Eve. I NEVER photograph restaurant meals because who cares. The issue here is value and ambience. First the ambience.
Now for the value. We ordered a side of 6 Tandori prawns (440 rupees), a side of 6 pieces of Tandori chicken (290 rupees), and a side of vegetable fried rice (210 rupees) for a total of 940 rupees. Since we got 70 rupees per dollar, our dinner tab (excluding wine) was $13.49 USD.
In bed now at 8:30 PM. New Year’s Eve? Not for us! Need to be up at 3am to leave at 5am for airport and flight #8 for Port Blair in Andaman & Nicobar Islands. I’m sure the Taj Exotica Resort on Havelock Island will get $75.00 USD for that same Peter Cat $13.49 meal.
There are four holiest of locations to visit on pilgrimage for Buddhists. One is in Nepal ( [A] his birth place) and three are in India ( [B] his place of death, [C] where he meditated under the bodhi tree and [D] where he first preached). 10 miles out of Varanasi is Sarnath, where Buddha preached giving his first sermon, established his Dharma and four principles and chose his first apostles.
Though Nepal and India are not Buddhist countries, Buddhists world wide flock there to visit these four sites. We saw groups of Buddhist monks and nuns visiting from both Nepal and Mongolia.
The following photos show the archeological digs at Sarnath. The on site museum houses a wealth of statuary and artifacts unearthed here.
The high lite is the massive grand stupa. Buddhists always walk in a clock wise direction around a religious site while praying or chanting.
There are over 3 miles of ghats on the banks of the Ganges river in Varanasi. A ghat is a large building with terraces in the back and steps down to the river bank from the terraces.
Hindus believe that bathing in the Ganges will absolve one of all their sins. Some who live in Varanasi are absolved daily. The Ganges is one huge bathtub.
Hindus also believe that if one is cremated on the banks of the Ganges and their ashes sprinkled into the water they will obtain nirvana and the cycle of rebirth will end. There are 2 ghats which are cremation ghats. Combined they burn 2-300 corpses a day. Photos are not allowed here. We watched up close as corpses covered in elaborate silk drapes are carried past us down the ghat steps on stretchers to the river where river water is poured over the corpse to saturate it. The corpse is carried back up the steps and laid on the ground next to a steel framed bin filled with sandalwood logs. The silk drapes were removed exposing the corpse wrapped in white linen but with face exposed. 4 men lifted the corpse off the ground and set it on top of the wood filled bin. Family members laid pieces of sandalwood on top of the corpse and fire was started under the bin. It takes three hours for everything to burn to ash. The following photo it of one cremation ghat from a distance.
We spent four hours on our own walking the 3 miles of ghats and back again. Another amazing cultural experience.
Tomorrow we have flights #6&7 to get back to Kolkata. We will overnight there for a raucous New Years Eve again on Park Street at The Park Hotel. The following morning we fly to Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar Island chain for beach time at the new Taj Exotica Resort.
Our 1st day in Varanasi was really cut short. The original flight from Kolkata was to get us into Varanasi at 0945. This was canceled. New flight got us in at 1600. Day lost.
At 1800 we left for the evening religious ceremony on the banks of the Ganges called the Aarti. The entire city comes to a standstill and the sound of chimes and songs reverberate in each street. This is sensory overload.
The best way to observe all that activity day or night are from small boats on the Ganges. Yesterday they went out on strike.
Enjoy our sights and sounds. Finally found the cows again. Never saw a cow in Kolkata.
The guy in the sage green coat (above photo) is our guide. Many interesting people along the way.
The Aarti ceremony was loud and smokey, filled with burning incense.
Our city tour,with our guide Aditi and driver Gopal, began at Mother Teresa’s House. Now Saint Teresa, her order of nuns which she founded is world wide. Mother Teresa is buried at her Mother House. Photos were allowed only at her grave site but not in the small museum or the rest of the convent. We saw nuns washing their saree habits with scrub brushes on concrete slabs.
When Mother Teresa started her mission, people were dying in the streets. Today that is no longer the case. Unfortunately, in the Western world that stereotype of India still exists. India, like China, is developing rapidly. Hospitals are everywhere. There still are homeless but not overwhelmingly so. Areas look like homeless encampments in Oakland or San Francisco. The Sisters of Charity now focus more on orphanages.
Our day continued to College Street, adjacent to the University of Calcutta. (Calcutta is the English name for the city, Kolkata is the proper Bengali name). College Street and adjacent alleyways are lined with booksellers. Hundreds of stalls selling used books up to current new student text books. I treated Aditi, Gopal and Celeste to a cup of coffee at the famous College Street Coffee House, a cavernous two floor space filled mainly with laptop toting students. We all had espresso “Infusion”, which set me back 90 rupees ($1.25).
Our journey continued to a part of the city where craftsmen fashion statuary from straw and then cover the straw with mud. When the mud is dry, they carve the most life like figures. People buy these statues and float them down the river during Hindu religious festivals.
The traffic is chaotic. Two lanes of traffic are really four. Every driver is jockeying for position. They come within 2-3 inches of each other but never touch. Horns blare constantly but as is the case in all Asian countries, tempers never flare. Everyone stays calm but stands their ground.
In a few hours we leave Kolkata with fond memories. We embark on flight #5 of our 15 flight holiday. We are off to Varanasi. Stay tuned.