The Thai (and Laotians) have a hang for the cute and cheesy. The idea for this article came when I saw this in the MBK (big mall) in Bangkok:
Take this advertisment from 7-Eleven for some sausages for example. Cute, the little boy, isn’t he?
Have you seen the VIP buses yet? I mentioned them in a previous article.
The cheesyness in Thai culture does stop at nothing it seems. Traffic police boxes can easily be recognized by the giant plastic model of a police helmet that serves as its roof.
Even the military is not excluded: Like (some) Germans, Thais also like garden gnomes. They have a different style here, of course, but one of the popular shapes is a soldier-gnome. Here:
The above picture is of the Ko Chang Naval Battle Memorial (interestingly, the battle was a clear defeat on the Thai side, still if you don’t know the memorial looks something like a victory monument.)
Don’t see anything special in this thumbnail? Then click for the full image!
What about respectable monks in religion? Well, see this article about Thai religion (3rd picture). Though I have seen plenty “chibi”-monks, I have yet to encounter a Chibi-Buddha.
When I first posted pictures of my mapping efforts for OpenStreetMap in this blog, I noted that it is kinda pointless to show those maps without a before-after view. But then again, you need to take screenshots of that before because the map does not have a powerful history function. This time, I didn’t forget doing that. So here we are (click the image for a full-sized version):
On this zoom level, the changes one can see are all almost exclusively traced from Bing satellite imagery. So to improve the map on this zoom level, no GPS is needed and there is no reason to actually be there. A map based on satellite imagery is a good basis for putting in more detail:
Detail like, most importantly (in my opinion) street names and larger areas which can’t be derived from the satellite imagery alone.
If a city is already mapped from satellite imagery on the above zoom level, it makes future GPS surveys much more effective because the surveyor can for example just walk down the main street and note down the names of the side-streets from the signs instead of having to walk up every alley to trace where it is leading or to see the extend of an area.
On OpenStreetMap, one can map almost everything. It is possible to map every shop, it is possible to map every building with housenumbers, storeys, type of roof, under construction or not, what type of building etc. etc.
Because everyone decides for himself what he deems important and what not. Also, the data on OpenStreetMap can be used for quite some different purposes, not only for GPS navigation. Perhaps the name is misleading, it should be called OpenWorldMap. And unlike in the Wikipedia, there are no “relevancy discussions”.
For example there is a project that strives to add the necessary information to the database to display the map in 3D.
So when surveying, I restrict myself to note down certain points of interests that I deem relevant for myself. Most importantly, street names, but also: banks, atms, post offices and boxes, pharmacies, supermarkets, guest houses, restaurants, bars and cafes, bus stands and stops, temples, schools, hospitals, marketplaces, public buildings and the like.
So, how complete is the map in your neighborhood?
In this post, I want to show you some more exotic vehicles I found while traveling through Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.
A Vietnamese auto rickshaw, a curiosity even in Vietnam. It looks much less like a Thai Tuk Tuk than like a Laotian Skylab.
Also quite a rare construction is the motorcycle with a sidecart that is not dedicated as a cargo area but for person-transport like a Tuk Tuk. This one is a very nice specimen (note the cup holders) :-).
This crossbreed of a motorcycle and a pushcart is not a custom modification but a type of motorcycle. For some reason however they are always in such a shitty state. In Vietnam, side carts are much more popular than this construction.
This “minimalist” tractor is all over South East Asia in rural regions. I remember seeing those things in Nepal as well.
This oldtimer moped was standing in a shop that sold wedding dresses as a decoration in Vietnam. I saw it nowhere on the street though. Can you read the manufacturer? I’d be curious who once produced this.
The Honda Super Cub 50, a classic. Apparently I am not the only one who fancies the design of this one. I have seen quite a few modern replicas of this out-of-production model from Chinese companies now.
Also in Vietnam: This is a Honda Chaly, the small sister of the Honda Dream, modded into a tricycle. It is not seen too often on the streets of South East Asia but, fun fact, in contrast to the Honda Super Cub and Dream, this one was marketed in Europe as well.
I reckon that I so far only posted pictures of motorcycles and the like.
Well, after all I was in Vietnam. For change, this is a typical Super VIP bus in Thailand. Most of the upper-class inter city buses are painted all over with cheesy anime motives and quite professionally so I have to admit.
In Laos, Song Thaeos (Two rows) are the first (and in most places the only) option for public transportation around towns. They are what the name suggests: pickup trucks with a roof and two benches built in. They are also very common in Thailand.
From Na Hin at route 8 about 40 km south there is Ban Cong Lor. Of the caves I have visited, Kong Lor Cave was the most impressing one. It is actually an underground river that connects Ban Kong Lor and Ban Natan each on different sides of a mountain range (see the map!). The cave is about 8 km long and it’s dimensions are breathtaking. Dimensions of which I thought before would only exist in movies; It really boost your imagination.
While going into the mouth of the cave, I fantasized about the cave being a giant ancient (petrified) monster. Later deeper in the cave, it was easy to imagine whole settlements alongside the riverbank, like the dwarves’ caves of the Lord of the Rings movies. To quote the Lonely Planet, often the ceiling really is church-high.
What puzzles me though is that at one point I saw a trunk of a tree stuck in the ceiling in a height of about 5-10 metres. How did it get there? It seems unrealistic that the river can rise to that height, given that I already visited the cave in the (end of) rain season.
In the same valley, we also just walked around near the village one afternoon and stumbled upon another (small, “normal-sized”) cave that we wanted to explore after fetching our headlights from the guesthouse. Though, after 50 metres into the cave or so and one flipflop lost later, we gave up. It was just too muddy, slippery and tight. According to the neighbour, it is called Porcupine Cave (translated) and there ought to be an exit some 100 metres from the entrance.
Deservedly but sadly as it will transform this tranquil and authentic village somewhat, the development of this cave will bring Ban Kong Lor a tourist boom in the short future. A paved road has been finished to the village a few years ago(?) and now there is even a direct tourist bus from Vientaine.
Otherwise, it’s surrounding landscape with it’s rice fields in the flatland and steep mountains surrounding the valleys is somewhat similar to that near Vang Vieng, which is also famous for it’s many caves (amongst other things)
One particularly interesting cave near Vang Vieng one is Tham Phu Kam. With Kong Lor Cave mentioned in the same article, it is hard to use superlatives, but… well, every cave is unique. And even though it might not be, this cave feels quite untouched: Except for a few painted red arrows and one “Danger” sign in front of a bottomless pit inmidst the cave (not so much as a rail), there is nothing that guides one through there.
One is on his own and for a cave as big as this, it is a exciting experience to explore it.
Danger sign and the pit. I didn’t find a pebble.
The way in this cave is quite unclear. The cave is to a certain extent 3D and there seem to be several caverns branching off in different directions, not sure though and not sure if they’d be big enough for a human. The main way continues over several (three) “Kong Lor-huge” caverns into absolute darkness, meeting an underground stream further down. It looked like it would be possible to go even further into the cave by following the underground stream but we’d have had to cross the muddy stream first and we were too afraid to do that in our flipflops and no gear except headlights.
Also, did you know that the eyes of big cave spiders reflect light like tiny little reflectors? The reflection can be mistaken as a drop of water. Stuff that suddenly jumps from you won’t be spiders though but some kind of cave crickets.
Being a geographically big but scarcely populated and otherwise quite agrarian country, Laos has not much to offer for the sightseeing tourist.
The few towns there are, are all in the relative lowland, glued to the riverbank of the Mekong river which for the major part forms the boundary between Thailand and Laos. The town centres are all surprisingly compact.
The rest of the country is mostly mountains, jungle or both.
So apart from taking in the relaxed city centres in their colonial atmosphere, what makes Laos appealing to visit is it’s vast untouched nature, and in terms of sights, natural wonders like waterfalls, caves and the like.
And so the most impressive caves I have seen so far have all been in Laos.
Getting there is part of the adventure as (local) public transportation is somewhat scarce or inaccessible. For most caves, an own vehicle is essential.
Whenever I rented a motorbike in Laos, it was always the above model, a 4-geared Chinese-made clone of the popular and reliable Honda Wave that apparently only costs half of what the Honda costs. Well, I actually can’t say anything about the reliability of the Wave but it can be only more reliable than the Zongshen version: Each time I rented this model I found out that something was not working right. One time it was the light, clutch (just needed more force to change) and speedometer1, another time it was the fuel tank display and the rear break (wouldn’t loosen after braking). But I am not complaining, for thirty to fifty thousand kip a day (3-5€) I don’t expect they rent out anything better maintained than what normally goes on the streets in Laos.
By the way: Honda Wave and the like are not scooters. The most important differences being that they have gears (semi-automatic), that you sit on it like on a motorbike (left foot changes gears, right foot is the rear brake) and that they have better suspension with proper sized wheels which makes them eligible for the countryside. This motorbike design seems to be utterly unknown in Germany, closest relatives are the mopeds or mokicks, while on the other hand, the standard motorbike design we know is quite rare here.
So, there are a couple of caves near Tha Khaek, though I had to learn that most are not accessible during rain season (end of September). Well, at least not with a motorbike – perhaps with a 4WD.
Except for the most important national “highways”2, most of the roads in Laos are dirt tracks or compacted roads. Needless to say they can become so muddy during rain season that they are rendered unusable for anything more civilian than Landrovers and the like.
For half an hour or so I had to go through this section of an otherwise good compacted road en route to “Buddha Cave”. (It feels as if half of the caves in Laos do have this name.)
Another obstacle are rivers. Just 50 metres in front of where I took this photo, a sign said “Elephant cave this way, 300m”. Most (all?) fords are not accessible during rain season. (Also, it feels like the other half does have this name ;-))
Finally at a cave that I could access, a view to the entrance. This kinda reminds me of a particular loader screen for Clonk Rage.
This cave is quite developed, but that’s okay. There are enough others that are left untouched and for this cave, it really adds to the atmosphere. Below is an underground river, but the tide was too high to get to the boats. Rain season.
Stay tuned for the second part of this article!
1 Not implying that 90% of all speedometers in Laos are not broken anyway.
2 Even though they call it highway, for me, a non-segregated road that has only one lane in each direction with foodstalls, pedestrians and bicycles occupying the sides of it does not qualify as a highway.
There are almost no classical Tuk Tuks in Laos. Looking at state of the roads in Laos, it is no wonder why. Except for the main roads, most roads are unpaved, rocky tracks.
With those tiny wheels and bad suspension, they would break pretty quickly.
So, instead, there is the Skylab!1
It looks like a massive motorbike with broad all-terrain tires (depending on the area) and the latter part of that bike replaced with a colourful wagon with two tiny benches left and right, pretty much like a “song thaew”.
Of course, no Skylab is complete without adding lotsa colourful lights, shiny stickers and the most important thing: A hammock in the wagon-area to relax while waiting for customers. Just for the latter, it is so much cooler than a standard Tuk Tuk! :-)
1 No, I have no idea why it is called that way. Sometimes they are called Jumbos as well, that nickname is more comprehensible. It can transport up to 6 people instead of 2.
You know you are in Laos when you see…
It is interesting to see the little differences in the breeds of livestock and pets that are prevalent here.
Many cats have just a stub of a tail. Otherwise they are pretty much the same as European cats, only that most are smaller and more shy. But those may very well be young cats (stray cats don’t live that long and reproduce faster).
Chickens sport much longer legs and generally look more dangerous than the meaty European version. Though I think there are two main breeds here, one more chubby and one more chicken-fighty version cause the latter really acts more aggressive (yes, they also do it here).
By the way, if not currently “busy” being sold at the market or being slaughtered, most do run around in village (and town) freely. Just like all the other animals actually: stray cats, dogs, ducks, goose, cows, water buffaloes etc.
Especially in villages, there are loads of ducks, most of which I saw in Vietnam.
The regional differences in South East Asia are also interesting. On the topic of street dogs, I got the impression that there are much bigger ones in Laos than in Thailand (~no street dogs in Vietnam, they eat them). Also, more are black in colour rather than ochre and like in Vietnam, more dogs have ridiculously short legs. Look at this one:
Comment if you did get the reference from the title ;-)
In Nimh Binh in Vietnam, I heard about that there is quite an impressive cave 25km from the city. This was a great opportunity to try out a new flashlight I bought. Since the cave wasn’t mentioned in my travel guide or any map I had, it turned out to be more difficult than imagined to get there. Mainly because I completely underestimated the distance to the cave:
On the first day, I attempted to go there by bicycle after I visited a few other spots that I only found out about by looking at my offline-version of the openstreetmap.
To reach there, I had to go about 15 kilometres on national highway 1A (and then another 10 km to the cave) with the bicycle, which was quite stressful as the highway is quite busy with trucks and one has to evade pedestrians and other motos and bikes coming from the opposite direction (but driving on the wrong side of the highway) all the time.
It took so much time that on reaching Tam Diep, I decided to give up because I calculated that I will never reach the cave and come back from the cave before dark. Urk, so 15km back on the highway. It was the right decision though because as it turned out the cave is even further away than I thought and also one cannot just go in there by oneself but has to get a guide and a boat from the ferry boat station. Something that wouldn’t have been available at 8 o’clock in the night.
So, on the second day, I got a mototaxi to take me there and back. Since I chartered the ferry and guide (I was the only one there) that took me through the cave, it was okay that I took the mototaxi driver with me :-).
The first cave, the Galaxy Grotto, was well lit (in the sense that it looked nice, not that it was bright) which made the photos look halfway sharp but also dimmed the effect of the flashlight on the photo.
By the time we entered the second cave (Buddha cave), which was not lighted, the inner lens of my camera was so fogged from the humidity in the previous cave that I couldn’t make proper photos anymore. Given the quality of my snapshot-camera and the fact that we were on a moving boat, I probably couldn’t have anyway.
And, I mapped it! As most other things I encounter during my travels actually but anyhow.
In case you don’t know about it yet, there have been added two improvements on openstreetmap.org which make it much easier to contribute to the map recently:
- There is an easy-to-use HTML5 in-browser editor for openstreetmap now called iD.
- Without registering, it is possible to add notes to the map (e.g. “this road is a oneway street south”, “the bridge is called XYZ”), much like the discussion tab in the Wikipedia
It is only a matter of time now until you can add these notes to the map using popular apps for your smartphone.