Laos & Thailand: An Asian Fantasy
by Andy Alpine
At first consideration, appreciating Buddhist art and going scuba diving seem as different as night and day. The principles of Buddhist art encompass simplicity, devotion and meditation while scuba diving involves hi-tech equipment and activity. But there are similarities--both ask their participants to focus on the moment, contemplation that can bring serenity and relaxation. Why not try to do them both while on vacation in Southeast Asia?
Living the Dream
My fantasy came true in March 1999 when I spent three weeks in Laos and Thailand-- first floating down the Mekong River to Laos' ancient capital of Luang Prabang, and later spending ten days aboard the M.V. Sai Mai, diving Thailand's reefs and islands.
My first stop was Chiang Saen, near Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand. The town is located at the Golden Triangle, where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar are within a stone's throw of each other. The region is notorious as one of the main sources of the opium poppies that eventually find their way into distant cities as heroin. Even though many of the hill tribes such as the Akha, Yao and Muser no longer cultivate opium poppies, they maintain a traditional lifestyle and dress.
With a guide from Diethelm Travel, I spent a few days visiting tribal villages, where I saw women in richly decorated silver headdresses tending to their families and livestock. The brilliant colors of their clothing stood out amongst the flat browns of the cleared villages, often-immaculate huts and the dry rice fields at the end of the growing season.
A Friendly Welcome
From Chiang Khong, I crossed through the morning mists to the Laotian side of the Mekong and met my Laotian guide at Ban Huay Xai. I was a little apprehensive. Laos became a Communist country in 1975 after the Patet Lao took over. Considering the amount of bombs that the United States dropped on the country during the Vietnam War, I was not sure how people would feel about Americans. My concerns about how I would be received were immediately dispelled by the robust handshake from my Diethelm Travel guide and by the warm smiles from the officials and everyone I encountered.
Called Nam Khong by the Lao, the Mekong River skirts the border of Laos and Thailand after it descends from China on its way to the South China Sea. Traveling southeast by a motorized narrow boat, it took my guide and myself two days to reach Luang Prabang, but the journey was surprisingly comfortable. We ate deliciously prepared boxed lunches, and overnighted at Pak Beng. Although quite simple by Western standards, the Luangsay Lodge was clean and the food at the local restaurants was superb.
Life Along the River
Since I was traveling during the dry season, the Mekong flowed many feet below its crest, and beautiful green patchwork gardens had been planted along the banks to take advantage of the rich alluvial soil. Although the dramatic rock formations and rushing water (not exactly rapids) reminded me of Northern California, my globetrotting mind returned to Asia when I saw an elephant pushing a large tree up the embankment.
Arriving at Luang Prabang from the river is breathtaking. It was late afternoon, and the amber sun reflected off the golden roofs of Vat Xieng Thong temple as we climbed up the 100 steps from the riverbank. Palm fronds partially screened the view. Once again, my mind wandered: which was the dream--the river excursion or the temple scene?
A Royal History
Since 1353, when the first Lao kingdom was consolidated in the area around Luang Prabang, the city has been either the royal seat of Laos or of the separate kingdoms that flourished over the years. Today, Luang Prabang is a quiet tree-lined city with a population of 16,000 and a minimum of vehicular traffic.
Called "the best preserved city in Southeast Asia," Luang Prabang was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. So far, nearly 700 structures (Buddhist and French Colonial) have been cited as having historical significance.
I spent three days visiting many of the ancient temples as well as the Pak-ou cave, a riverside shrine containing thousands of antique images of the Buddha. Laos is unique in its depiction of the Buddha standing with arms at his side--the so-called "waiting for rain" position. The pose seems to reflect the importance of water to a land dependent on the seasonal monsoons to irrigate its rice crops.
On my free day, I rented a bicycle and got into the slow rhythms of the city. In addition to eating in outdoor cafes, I bargained and laughed with Hmong tribeswomen selling fine needlepoint, and visited with teenage Buddhist monks who wanted to know the meaning of "what's up, dude?"--a phrase they had heard from passing tourists.
My next stop was Vientiane, which translates as "Sandalwood City," the Laotian capital. A city of 133,000 inhabitants, its tree-lined boulevards and temples impart an atmosphere of timelessness. Parts of the city are quite attractive, especially the older section along the Mekong River. Here, I visited museums, temples, and the lotus-bud-shaped Pha That Luang (Great Holy Stupa), and shopped for the woven fabrics Laos is known for.
Laos has been described as the last quiet country in the world. One week in the country led me to agree with the description. Lao culture emphasizes jai nyen or "cool heart," and people look down upon strong emotions. One's accumulation of Kuson--Buddhist merit--rather than material success and ambition is felt to determine life's course. Although it is not necessarily a formula for a rapid growth in GNP, it provides an incredible environment for a work-weary traveler to unwind.
Having fulfilled the cultural part of my fantasy vacation, I was ready to experience the warm water, weightlessness and closeness to nature that scuba diving provides. From Vientiane, I flew to Thailand and the island of Phuket, where I would meet the dive boat.
Designed by Mathew Hendricks, the owner of Dive Asia Pacific, the M.V. Sai Mai was definitely built for diving. At 67 feet, the vessel was small enough to be maneuvered right up to most sites. This permitted "live-boat entries": diving directly from Sai Mai without having to use the rubber dingies. Since we were logging three or four dives a day, this added to the ease and convenience.
Service on board was excellent, with a crew of three plus two divemasters to tend to us seven divers. The chef, Vera-porn, prepared some of the finest Thai meals I've ever had, including coconut shrimp, chicken in sweet basil sauce and several curries. In the 11 days on the boat we never had the same dish twice. Two of our divers were vegetarians, and Veraporn prepared special recipes for them as well. The menu was not limited to Thai food-- we also had fried chicken, steak and pizza to round out meals.
Thailand is known for its abundant fish, brilliant corals and isolated pristine islands. Divers can also encounter large pelagic fish including whale sharks.
Although I have logged close to 800 dives, I had never been able to swim with, and observe, a giant Manta ray. I had my chance at Koh Ban--West Ridge on the second dive of the voyage.
On a beautiful wall with at least 100-foot visibility I was observing a large school of silversides when Marc, one of the divemasters, signaled for me to follow him out into the blue away from the reef. With his hand motions, he communicated that he had spotted a Manta.
Within a few moments, a ray with at least a 13-foot wingspan appeared from the depths with a ramorra attached. We swam with it for 10 minutes, letting it come up close to us in its inquisitive way. If we swam towards it, however, it would flap its wings and disappear for a while.
Just as it started getting bored with us, another ray appeared, and then two more. By then the rest of our dive group was all around, with the photographers wildly snapping away. We floated in 15 feet of water doing our safety stops while the mantas circled below us in what appeared to be a mating dance.
During the dry season, the waters beyond Thailand's Similan Islands are often calm enough to allow visits to the Burma Banks. These sea mounds come within 50 feet of the surface and provide lucky divers with lots of pelagic activity. This usually means good shark contact!
We spent an entire day on the Banks at Silvertip Point, named for the silvertip sharks that call it home. These broad-chested sharks, although not known to attack divers, are given a great deal of respect and "space."
Poetry in Motion
As we huddled together on the ocean bottom, these beautiful and dangerous animals circled within ten feet of us. Their grey skins glinted like the sheen on a car or an airplane--I kept thinking of the phrase "polished metal."
On our last dive of the day, a large 9-footer was swimming towards us with its characteristically fierce body posturing. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks and began floating downward. It appeared as if, like an airplane, he had gone into a stall.
In actuality, the shark had passed a "cleaning station," where smaller fish swim through the gills of larger fish and rid them of parasites and other organisms . . . a feeling, I imagine, like having someone scratch mosquito bites on your back! It's hard to look mean and tough when you are in total ecstasy. Our divemaster had once seen this behavior from a distance but never up close. We were indeed fortunate.
Other dive sites with names like "The Three Stooges" and "Breakfast Bend" also provided unique viewing opportunities. We saw four species of moray eels with their heads sticking out of the same hole, a rare mantis shrimp, a blue ribbon eel, both white and brown ghost pipe fish, several frog fish of varying colors, and several sea snakes.
At Richelieu Rock we observed several cuttlefish mating. The ritual included the courting dance and display of changing skin colors, the actual mating and finally the depositing of the eggs in a small cave.
The isolated, uninhabited islands of the Andaman Sea provided beauty above the waterline as well. As I came to the surface after a dive at Stewart Point, I saw a Sea eagle with its white head and patterned wings flying above, followed by a blue heron. The backdrop to this scene was a small green island with three rock arches opening to the sea.
Rocking on the surface, waiting for the dingy to pick me up and return to the Sai Mai, I felt as if I were dreaming. Later, I wrote in my dive log, "A Great Moment." But it was just one of many as I enjoyed living out my Southeast Asian fantasy.
To visit Laos and Northern Thailand contact: Diethelm Travel, Kian Gwan Building II, 140/1 Wireless Road, Bangkok 10330 Thailand. Phone: 011 (662) 255-9150; FAX: 011 (662) 256-0248. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: http://www.diethelm-travel.com
For bookings on the M.V. Sai Mai or its sister ship, the luxurious 115-foot M.Y. Pelagian, contact: Tropical Adventures Travel, 111 Second North, Seattle, WA 98109. Phone: 800-247-3483, or 206-441-3483; Fax: 206-441-5431. E-mail: email@example.com; Website: http://www.divetropical.com.
For reservations at the Novotel Phuket Resort, a beautiful place to stay before and after a voyage on the M.V. Sai Mai, call (800) 221-4542.
For information about additional programs and tour operators and activities, see the Geographical Index under "Laos" and "Thailand":