story and photos by Yvonne Harrison (or Garry!)
Only $99, Four Piece Silk Suit, custom made in 24 hours – this sign in Bangkok’s Hotel D’Moc lobby called to me even though it was 2:00 a.m and we had been in transit for 27 hours. I knew at that moment shopping was going to compete with scenery for the next month.
After a few hours sleep and a sumptuous buffet breakfast, I herded my husband Garry into the little shop in the lobby to be measured for a navy cashmere jacket, slacks and a cotton dress shirt while I opted for the black cashmere jacket and slacks with a red silk blouse. The next poster that caught my eye was Massage – one hour for 350 baht. Realizing that was only $12 we decided the temples and spirit houses could wait for another day. Out to the pool deck we went and found the two masseuses waiting for customers. It was worth the trip to Thailand for these suits and massages!
By 7:00 that evening our suits were in the shop ready for our first fitting. How could they have been sewn so quickly? Sleeves were pinned on in the proper place, a few tucks made and our first fitting was over. The next morning, after we tried on the finished garments, Garry picked out a silk tie while I selected a silk scarf. We were the proud owners of custom-made four piece outfits.
We then met our Thai guide, Dek, and four vivacious women who had also signed up for our trip. The seven of us toured the magnificent Thai temples and cruised on the Chao Pra River. That evening, we boarded the night train to Chaing Mai, arriving early in the morning. We spent the day visiting temples ending at the famed night market, where Garry sat on a bench while I shopped. It is difficult to comprehend that he was not the least bit interested in the endless stalls selling shimmering silk and exquisite handicrafts!
Next morning we headed north through the mountains for the Thai Laos border, stopping at Chiang Rai to see a magnificent white temple. Arriving at a small border town, I realized there would be no shopping for a few days as there was no lively night market here.
In the morning, we crossed the Mekong River and entered Laos, a country that is 80% rainforest. After meeting our Lao guide who helped us secure our visas, the eight of us boarded a 70 foot long boat that could seat 30. What luxury, no other passengers and a crew of three to wait on us.
For two days, meandering down the river with dense jungle on both sides, we viewed a way of life that is quickly vanishing – animist tribal villages with no roads to link them and no amenities. Boating and walking were the only form of transportation. At dusk, we pulled into the only village on our 117 mile trip down the Mekong that had a hotel and electricity. Power was turned off from 10:00 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. except for our hotel. Tourists need lights all night! The next afternoon, we stopped at a site where we viewed 4000 Buddha statues. At dusk, we arrived at the tiny mountain kingdom nestled in a valley where the Mekong and Khan Rivers meet. Here we visited temples and a multi- layered waterfall which Garry declared the best he had ever seen. I think the 200 pictures he snapped there will attest to that. Of course, the night market beckoned us each evening. I think by this time, I was up to a count of 20 silk scarves! They take up such a small amount of space and make wonderful gifts.
A drive through the mist-filled mountains took us to a hippy backpacker’s haven, though we decided not sample the menus listing food and drink optionally mixed with marijuana, opium or mushrooms! The area’s spectacular limestone formations called karsts entranced us. Sitting by the river’s edge, on the porch of our hotel room, resting after a day’s spelunking in the caves, we watched the sun set and disappear below the jagged mountains.
When we arrived in the Laos capital city of Vientiane, we experienced culture shock. Instead of seeing hundreds of workers bent over cutting rice by hand, vehicles whizzed by us on the busy streets. After two weeks of seeing mostly local people in rural settings, the traffic, the variety of restaurants, and hotels overwhelmed us. We visited a few temples and saw an arch modelled after France’s Arc de Triomphe, then boarded a turbo-prop plane bound for Vietnam where we were to meet our new group of 14 for the second part of our trip.
Hanoi has six million people and four million scooters. I think we saw them all while we walked from our hotel in the heart of downtown for the water puppet show. And wte decided to walk to Ba Dinh Square to see Ho Chi Minh. There we queued up to have our bags and cameras scanned and left with officials at a check in counter. We, then, lined up on the red carpet outside the Mausoleum, awaiting guards to escort us in. As we entered the building a young woman beside Garry whispered to him and was quickly shushed by one of our stone-faced guards – absolute silence is required here. We stepped along the shadowy corridors to enter a cold dark room where Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body was displayed in a glass case surrounded by eight robot-like guards. No stopping – keep marching. We finally arrived outside, blinded by the sunlight, and picked up our belongings. Usually in October ‘Uncle Ho’ is sent to Russia for two months to be ‘refurbished’ so we were lucky to find him in residence.