Posted in travel

Arriving in Lao

I crossed the border into Lao late this morning. It was the first time I’d set foot in the country for exactly five years, but only my first time in the south of Lao. Last time around I crossed the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge to Vientiane, and then saw Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. This time, however, I’d crossed from Ubon Ratchathani by bus into Pakse, down in the far south, near the border with Cambodia.

It started with an alarm clock at 3:30am back in Chiang Mai, where I’d only just completed my intensive month-long CELTA course. Soon I was flying across the country to Ubon with Kan Air – a company I’d never heard of until I found their ridiculous discounts on Skyscanner last week. From there it was a hop, skip, and a jump to the border on a Nokchaiair bus. Sadly, though, this seasoned traveller was foolish enough to fall for the Oldest Scam in Siam. At the border post, I agreed to pay my visa fee in Thai Baht instead of US Dollars, and consequently overpaid by $6. It’s hardly a crippling financial loss, but embarrassing nonetheless.

By midday I was at Pakse Southern Bus Station, getting fleeced by a tuk-tuk driver for $12 just to get into town. But there was little I could do. I was too far out and too tired to walk. Needless to say, by the time I arrived in Pakse and began looking for hotels and bus tickets to the next place I was feeling like a novice on the road once again.

Pakse is an odd little city spread out across a stretch of land squeezed between jagged mountains and might river. There’s a sleepy little centre to the town where the Xe Don River converges with the big muddy Mekong as it slowly rolls towards the Cambodian border. Here, the European influence is felt in the colonial architecture along the veranda-lined streets of cafes. Elsewhere, the city more closely resembles other parts of Southeast Asia in its mix of traditional Asian and modern cement buildings. Overall, Pakse is markedly different from and more modern than the towns and cities I’d seen in the north.

After walking around a while I settled on the Lao Chaluen Hotel, which offered filthy but air conditioned rooms for about $15 per night, and then had lunch across the street at Xuanmai Restaurant, where I tried the lap lap (or laap?) chicken and a Beer Lao. Beer Lao has long been one of my favourite Asian beers and here, naturally, it is ubiquitous and inexpensive.

After lunch I took a walk around Pakse in the blazing 2pm sun. There was no one else foolish enough to be on the street at this time, and I had the city to myself. Along the banks of the might Mekong, cars had pulled up under the shade of large overhanging trees and drivers awkwardly slept with their feet dangling out of windows and doors flung open here and there. I stopped periodically to stare out over the enchanting brown waters to the mountainous jungle on the other side.

I considered staying another day in Pakse and renting a motorcycle to explore the surrounding countryside, but instead elected to move further south. Although Pakse is small and quiet, it is still too much a city for my provincial tastes. I booked a bus/ferry ride to Si Phan Don (4,000 Islands) for $7, with an alleged 8am start. After four weeks of relentless CELTA studying, I’m looking forward to relaxing in the sleepy environs of remote rural southern Lao. Besides, although Pakse isn’t without its charm, there isn’t much here to keep someone sticking around more than strictly necessary. It’s economy, for one thing, seems centered around transporting people to other places.

After an afternoon nap to escape the remainder of the heat, I ventured out for dinner and found a small hole in the wall called The Lao Restaurant, where I tried a beef and ginger dish that was simply described as “tradistionional Lao food.” I enjoyed it thoroughly, and several Beer Laos, before retiring to my hotel for the evening. On the way home I stared up into the stars, which were far more visible here than they had been in Chiang Mai, and tried to pick out a few constellations. It feels good to be in a place where a man can meander in the streets at night, staring lost into the depths of universe, without reprise.

Posted in Photography

Wat Buppharam

Last week I wandered around Chiang Mai’s old town, buying Beat books and exploring the city’s old winding backstreets. I visited a few more temples, including Wat Buppharam.

Posted in travel

Buying Beat Books in Chiang Mai

Yesterday I took the bus back to downtown Chiang Mai to further explore this tranquil little city. Last week I went to Wat Phra Singh and wandered a few other places, but I wanted to see more. After all, next weekend I’ll be leaving and I doubt I’ll be back here for a long time.

What I found were a number of fantastic little bookstores tucked away on Chiang Mai’s winding streets. I’m a literature graduate and an obsessive reader, and so having spent years in Asia, where English-language bookstores are naturally few and far between, I was very excited to find that Chiang Mai has several great shops to browse.

The Lost Book Shop

The first shop I discovered was The Lost Book Shop, which drew me in because right outside there was a special Hunter S. Thompson display! Thompson has been one of my favourite writers (perhaps my absolute favourite) since I was 18 yrs old, and this was the first time in Asia that I’d seen so many of his books collected together. I restrained myself from buying dozens of books and only purchased George Orwell’s Bumese Days and Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt.

Hunter S. Thompson collection

Next I found a bookstore with a great Beat name – On the Road Books – which is run by a nice English man, and sits across the road from the U.N. Irish Pub (which I also highly recommend).

On the Road Books

Here there was no dedicated Beat or Gonzo section, but there was a number of Beat books scattered throughout, including The Beat Book by Anne Waldman. I bought a copy of Jack Kerouac’s Lonesome Traveler.

Finally, I found the mother of all Asian bookstores – and indeed one of the best bookstores I’ve visited in my life – Backstreet Books.

Backstreet Books – the best book shop in Chiang Mai

I’d heard from a few friends that this was the bookstore to visit, but I didn’t actively look for it. I just sort of stumbled upon it, and I’m glad I did. Inside there are posters and photos from City Lights (the only other bookstore I can think of off the top of my head that is better than Backstreet). At the back of the store there is a Beat section, where they’ve collected dozens of books by or about Hunter S. Thompson (not actually a Beat writer, of course, but still…), Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs.

At this stage I was aware that although I wanted to buy dozens of books, I realistically could only buy one more, and it was a tough choice. I picked Allen Ginsberg’s Indian Journals because I actually bought it last year and had it shipped to China, but it never arrived. I believe the Chinese government, in all their censorious wisdom, objected to a book that is so sympathetic to the Tibetan cause.

After that, I retired to the U.N. Irish Pub with my purchases to have a Guinness before making the long trek back to International House, out in the countryside to the south of the city.

If you’d like to find these great bookstores for yourself, you can find them on Google Maps. I don’t know how to embed the map, so I’ll just screenshot it below:

chiang mai bookstore map
Bookstores in Chiang Mai
Posted in travel

CELTA in Chiang Mai Week 3

It is now the end of week three in my CELTA course at International House, Chiang Mai. These first three weeks have been tiring, although perhaps not as tiring or difficult as I had anticipated. Certainly, the cumulative effect of three weeks’ hard studying is palpable. I’m counting the days until I’m free.

I only have two more teaching practice lessons and one more assignment to do. In week four there is lots of free time and on Friday there is only a party to attend. The finish line is now in sight, and I’m beginning to look beyond CELTA, to my travels in August.

I still don’t know what I will do but I need to be in Cambodia in early August and my Thai visa expires on August 1st, so that helps shape things. I plan to cross the border into Laos and perhaps travel down through the southern part of the country, crossing into Cambodia after a few days. In Cambodia I’ll catch up with some friends before somehow going to Malaysia. I’ve wanted to see the Perhentian Islands for some time, and now seems like a good time to visit. After that I plan on going to Lombok in Indonesia, and perhaps to Komodo.

I’m torn between finding someplace nice to sit and relax for a month, and going out to explore the region a little bit. As you can tell from the last paragraph, I’m leaning towards the latter.

For the moment, though, I’m hoping for a few free hours this weekend to further explore Chiang Mai, which does seem like quite a cool city. Last weekend I explored a few temples and a wonderful little bookshop, called Lost Books.

Posted in travel

Wat Prah Singh

Last weekend I escaped the International House school grounds and ventured north into the city of Chiang Mai. IH is about ten kilometers south, so I walked to the nearest main road and found a little yellow truck acting as a taxi. For the very reasonable sum of 10baht ($0.35) it took me all the way into the city.

Chiang Mai’s old town is set in the middle of a moat, and lined with narrow streets harboring cafes and restaurants. It’s very touristy these days, with many businesses advertising as much in Chinese as in English, due to the high number of visitors from the Middle Kingdom.

I walked to the western edge of the old town, where I found Wat Phra Singh (The Lion Buddha Temple). Although the Lonely Planet and other guides say there’s an entrance fee of around 20baht, there was no charge when I visited, and scores of tourists milled about freely.

Wat Phra Singh is the premiere temple of Chiang Mai and it really is a beautiful place to spend an hour wandering about, admiring the ancient stone work and perfectly manicured gardens.

Posted in update

CELTA in Chiang Mai – Week Two

Today marks the halfway point in my CELTA course here in Chiang Mai. It has been an exhausting two weeks of studying and I, along with the other 30 trainees, am feeling the cumulative effects of this punishing schedule.

Thankfully, I have done well in all four of my teaching practice lessons and have completed two of the four written assignments. I just heard back that I passed the first, which was a huge surprise, as it was quite difficult. With luck, I can pass the remaining assignments and by the end of next week I should have a good idea of whether I’ve passed the course or not.

Sun set over the rice paddies next to the school.

I was reluctant to spend my summer holiday studying a notoriously tiring course – essentially teaching during my precious break from teaching – but in recent years I’ve come to love my job, and I believed that the CELTA would make me a better teacher.

From what I’ve learn already I know I am now in a better position to return to my job and help educate my students. Even if I were to fail this course, I’d have learned so much that it would’ve been worthwhile. I actually look forward to returning to work after the summer and applying my new knowledge in the next semester.

In the meantime, though, I have another hectic two weeks to finish the course and then four weeks to decompress, probably by trekking through Cambodia, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

My first Thai students and some of my fellow IH trainees.
Posted in travel, Uncategorized

Chiang Mai – week one

Last Sunday I arrived in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, to begin a one month CELTA course. This is something I’d planned on doing for a long time in order to make myself a better teacher and perhaps improve my chances of finding a better job in the future, so I signed up for the International House program in Thailand. Being close to China, it meant it was only a short, cheap flight for me.

When I first arrived at Chiang Mai airport I found that there was no driver to pick me up, which was an unfortunate start to my trip. An hour later, though, I recognized the International House company logo next to another person’s name at the arrival gate and hopped in her car to the school.

We began classes on Monday and soon were overwhelmed by information. I’d spent the previous month learning what I could about CELTA from YouTube and a couple of books I’d bought on Taobao, but I knew I wasn’t fully prepared. The CELTA is infamous because of the volume of work packed into just four weeks.

By the second day I was undergoing my first observed teaching practice with a group of 16 young Thai men and women – although actually many of them were just 17 years old. I was surprised because it’s a course for learning to teach adults and to me they’re practically children. Fortunately, my class went well, and so did the second one on Thursday.

We’ve had courses on lesson planning, phonology, classroom management, and many other areas of teaching. It’s been valuable, informative, entertaining, but above all exhausting, and we’re only now one quarter of the way through the course, with the two most difficult weeks just around the corner.


Today, I decided to escape the IH compound and explore Chiang Mai. I stopped off for breakfast at Jasmine’s Restaurant, which is only ten minutes north of the school, and then set off on a long walk to the mountains that lie west of the city.

I visited Wat Doi Kham and then followed country roads through the mountains. The weather flitted between hot and sunny and torrential downpours. I was caught in one particularly bad downpour and never managed to dry out.

The whole walk was about 30km and took eight hours. Sadly, I didn’t see much wildlife and thus didn’t take many photos, but it felt good to escape, to go a day without studying, and to finally get some exercise.