A Travellerspoint blog

The Mystery of Plain of Jars in Phonsavanh, LAO PDR

The early morning in Phonsavanh in Xiengkhouang province Laos was cool and refreshing. Honouring the deal made with my guide for the day for a tour to 3 sites of the Plains of Jars as well as a detour to the Old Kingdom of Lao PDR known as Muang Khoun, Yee Yang arrived at the guesthouse just before 8.30 am. He was in good mood and all prepared for this 6 hour tours and so was I. After he handed over the helmet to me, we headed out first to Muang Khoun, the Old Kingdom of the ancient Lao PDR. Muang Khoun's location is quite a distance from Phonsavanh. It was situated in an area which the road heading out to Paksan, the border town between Laos and Thailand, which is 5 to 7 hours journey from Phonsavanh depending on the mode of transport. The journey from downtown Phonsavanh to Muang Khoun can be summed up as wonderful with many scenes such as the rice fields, Hmong and local houses and endless mountains with lush trees that dotted the road and formed one of the most spectacular background of natural landscapes that I had ever came across.

THE LANDSCAPES DURING THE JOURNEY TO MUANG KHOUN & PLAIN OF JARS
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The nice cool morning breeze and the almost free traffic added in the marvellous moments of the journey to Muang Khoun. This once a great Laos ancient capital was established by the Phuan people of whom were of Tai-Lao ethnicity said to be migrated from south of China. What were left now in Muang Khoun for tourist such as me to experience were not significant. Muang Khoun is not a major tourist spot though it has now gained more popularity which usually being offered as a side tour apart from the main Plain of Jars sites hopping. The first stop in Muang Khoun was That Foun. It is located just above the small hill from the main road with an entrance fee of 10,000 kip. This ancient chedi has been standing against time but the structure nevertheless looked rather fragile with some overgrown bushes and small trees and could possibly crumbled just about anytime if no immediate steps taken to strengthened the structure. There was a opening entrance on the mid-base of the chedi which used to be open for visitors to get in but during my visit, it has been covered up with plank woods to block people from access to the chedi. According to Yee Yang, formany years, irresponsible people entered the chedi and digging the base of the chedi which caused damaged to the stability of its structure and that was why the local authority has barred entry into That Foun. Yee Yang added that, the chedi also suffered from structural defects due to people thought there were bronze, silver and possibly even gold bars hidden inside the base of the chedi. Attempts to search for such gold bars and to steal them caused all such defects at first and eventually, the chedi was in the state of what it is today after years of looting. Looking at the chedi, this was of no comparison with ancient chedis and temples in Ayutthaya, Thailand but non the less, it was kind of surprise to be able to see such an ancient chedi in Laos.

THE CHEDI THAT FOUN & WAT PIAWAT @ MUANG KHOUN
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Not far away from the chedi, was another historic site of Muang Khoun known as Wat Piawat. This was an ancient temple that formed part of the ancient city of Muang Khoun. There were many temples during the glory of Muang Khoun but almost all other than Wat Piawat has been completely destroyed during the Vietnam war. The degree of damages that devastated Moung Khoun was so great that almost all the ancient ruins and temples were wiped out as a consequences of the heavy bombardment during the war. I wonder if the war did not happened in Lao PDR, Muang Khoun's ancient ruins could be as massive as the one in Ayutthaya, Thailand. Taking a brief tour around Wat Piawat,it was observed that the walls of the temple were all damaged with few pillars sighted still standing within the temple structure. The large sitting Buddha structure with most parts of it still intact with some parts were seen slightly damaged. This could be one of the mystery and wonders of how the Buddha structure could have stood the test of the war possibly due to the holiness of the temple itself.

From Moung Khoun, the journey continued on to visit the mysterious Plain of Jars. There were 3 sites to visit. As Muang Khoun was located nearest to Jar Site 3, our first stop was the latter. The Plain of Jar Site 3 was one of the more remote site of which it was located within a large rice field area. To get there, we first has to passed through a long winding dusty pathways that crossed over some villages and finally reached the end of the road. Once Yee Yang parked his bike, we walked through the rice field area for possibly 500 metres before reaching the Plains of Jars Site 3. In all the 3 sites visited including the Site 3 over here, there were many small square concrete blocks with red and white markings on left and right of it with the word (MAG-the Mines Advisory Group, an NGO that provide assistance to the locals in removing unexploded ordnance). If the white marking is on the left of the concrete block, that signify the pathways on the left was safe from unexploded ordnance. If the red marking is on the right, that signify that the right pathways was filled with unexploded ordnance. This Jars site 3 was located on a higher ground surrounded by lush trees and rice fields. It was not a huge site but there were quite a number of jars found scattered around the area under the trees. The height of the jars at this Site 3 was observed to be of different sizes from low to average high and some were already broken. One of the significant experience to note here that the scene on the background of this site was serene and wonderful overlooking a massive rice fields with mountain landscapes surrounded it. A search over Wikipedia noted that archaeologists who did a study on how did the jars came into existence,it was widely believed that these jars were being used as urns to keep bodies of dead people which was known as a practice in ancient India as well as the royals of the South East Asia countries such as Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. There was also a theory created that the jars were used to collect rain water by travellers on caravan during their journey while other theory included a Lao King created the jars to brew traditional liquor to celebrate his victory. Despite all the theories, the mystery of Plains of Jars remained unanswered.

THE JOURNEY TO JARS SITE 3, ITS SURROUNDING LANDSCAPES & THE JAR STONES AT JARS SITE 3
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From Jars Site 3, we moved on to Jars Site 2. Getting to Site 2 was just as interesting as Site 3 with the long winding road that cuts through the countryside heading into the mountainous area. In fact, Site 2 was located also on a higher ground just like site 3 but without any rice fields on the background. There were many lush pine trees in surrounding with the jars being scattered mostly on a small area on this small hill area. Due to the number of pine trees around the area, the place was shielded from the sun making it cool and a good place to relax while winding down. The height of the jars were taller than those in site 1, some as high as over 180 centimetres. Site 2 also offers some magnificent view from the site itself which overlooked open fields and mountains on the other end. Here,we stopped for lunch not too far from a sole restaurant within Site 2. My lunch was a hot rice noodle soup with generous portion of mix fresh vegetables. After having that hot bowl of noodles, now I know why Laotians like their noodles so much. If you are in Laos, do not forget to get a bowl of hot soup noodle and the answer is in that hot bowl itself.

THE JOURNEY TO JARS SITE 2, ITS SURROUNDING LANDSCAPES & THE JAR STONES AT JARS SITE 2
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The final destination of my Plains of Jars tour was the Site 1. This was the largest site among the 3 sites and located within a small peak and an open fields area. There was also a cave existed within the Site 1. The height of the jars at Site 1 were mixture of high and low structures and can be seen scattered around on a small hill and the open field. Inside the cave, which was on the edge of the open field, there was an altar in the middle of the cave, commonly found in Chinese influenced temples placed in the middle of the cave. It was believed that the cave wasused for cremation of corpses in consistence with items such as human bones found around the stone jars. The overall Plains of Jars tour was an eye opening experience where this provide another edition of travel opportunity to explore and seek adventures to unknown places without much planning. I have a plan to get to Xiengkhouang but along the way, there were so many uncertainties that arise while on my journey. But the fear, the anxious and what happened next made up all the excitement to this adventure.

THE JOURNEY TO JARS SITE 1, ITS SURROUNDING LANDSCAPES & THE JAR STONES AT JARS SITE 1
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Posted by kidd27 08:34 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Yangon

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My first visit to Mynmar was when I travelled to the lesser known small border town of Tachileik slightly more than 5 years ago. Tachileik is a tiny little town which is located at the border of Mynmar and Thailand. I arrived at Tachileik from Thailand's northern most town of Mae Sai situated in the Chiang Rai province, the northern province of Thailand, which also borders another country that is Laos. Crossing the border here at Tachileik and Mae Sai at that time,a tourist visa was not required but I need to pay THB 500 entry fee and my passport deposited with the Mynmar immigration officials until the time I exited the country. Travel outside of Tachileik was however restricted at this overland border crossings. Getting to Yangon definitely brought yet another chapter of travel adventure which offer some of the most exciting discovery on this land of gold that deserve its share of wonderful, awesome and exotic travel stories to be shared. Yangon is the commercial centre and formerly the capital of Mynmar. What turned this former capital city into something which worth to be slowly and surely to be ventured upon were due to the diverse culture, which has the element and mixture between the largely Buddhist Mynmar community as well as the Indian Hindus together with that of the larger Indian continents' religion and culture which has huge Islamic influence. As well as due to the close proximity to China, Mynmar's food, costumes, beliefs and culture were also being strongly associated to that of the Chinese. Apart from that, Yangon was formerly a colonial administrative hub during the British colonisation period where a huge number of colonial government buildings could be found scattered around the city. These structures were evergreen and standing proudly at their spots even until this modern day. Though there were many pagodas that dotted the city of Yangon, I was surprised that despite the pagodas and the Buddhism religion being the official and most important culture of Mynmar, I do not feel it as much as when I was in Bangkok or Thailand. This I thought also what made Yangon special because despite it being a Buddhist country, due to its vast mixture of culture that blended into Mynmar's community and their way of life, the city is such an exotic place to be. The most convenient way to travel within Yangon city is with the taxi which vehicles mostly were used Japanese cars. The costs of travelling with Yangon taxi within the city or slightly further is inexpensive, approximately between 2,000 to 3,000 kyat. From Yangon International Airport to downtown Yangon, the taxi fare was about 7,000 to 8,000 kyat. There were various things to do in Yangon and the best way to start is to:

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A minibus in downtown Yangon

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Sule Pagoda view in downtown Yangon

1. Walk through the city to admire the heritage buildings

As I mentioned above, a walking tour within the Yangon city should not be left out when you are at the city simply because of the awesome, terrific and charming colonial buildings and architectures that would bring you back to the British rule era. One of the most important thing that I noted in Yangon when I get a close look at the old colonial heritage structures was that, most of the buildings were not confined to shop houses unlike those found in Phuket, Thailand, Penang and Melaka in Malaysia and Singapore but these former British colonial buildings were rather huge in size and mostly being colonial government offices during the British rule period. Some of the most notable colonial structures were located within the Maha Bandula Park and Sule Pagoda areas including the former High Court building, the AYA Bank building (next to the City Hall), the City Hall building, the Telegraph Office building and some of the shop houses scattered around. There were also some notable heritage buildings located at Strand Road including the Strand Hotel and the Central Post Office.

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Yangon City Hall building

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The old High Court building in Yangon

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The former Telegraph office in Yangon

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2. Try some of the local food

There were many street food vendors in Yangon which offer local snacks including the dosa, pancakes, mohinga (Mynmar national dish which is a type of noodle dish), street skewers snacks, deep fry snacks or simply just step into the small restaurants that dish out Shan noodles (with soup or dry version, a type of noodle with Chinese influence) or onh o khauk swe (similar to the northern Thailand's khao soi, a type of curry noodles). I had a try on another Chinese influence noodle called kaw yay khauk swe, which consist of noodle topped with thick soup base with eggs, chicken, ginger and mushroom ingredients. I also had a taste of the dry version of Shan noodles where noodles being topped with sweet and sour gravy (close to tomato sauce) that also mix with chicken meat.

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A bowl of kaw yay khauk swe noodle

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A bowl of Shan noodle

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A dosa street vendor in Yangon

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A skewers seller in downtown Yangon

3. Take a stroll along the Chinatown street market

The Chinatown of Yangon was in no comparison with that of Bangkok's size and version or that of any other Chinatown of South East Asia's standard but it is still worth to take a look and experience the scene and activities within the area. There was a Chinese temple located at the start of the street market, which also have a fair share of fruits and vegetables vendors offering some of the freshest items available to customers of this night market. Other than trading of fresh produce, the other highlight was the street food items including the BBQ seafood. Dining at Chinatown's street market can be yet another exciting experience where tables and stools were set just next to the main road, so you will dine while seeing cars run through or get stuck on the traffic.

FRESH FRUITS VENDORS AT YANGON CHINATOWN STREET MARKET
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BBQ SEAFOOD AT YANGON CHINATOWN
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A Chinese Temple at Yangon Chinatown

4. Stroll through the Maha Bandula Park

One of the most notable park in Yangon is the Maha Bandula Park situated just across the road from City Hall and Sule Pagoda right at the centre of downtown Yangon. At this park, people can be seen crowding in to do some early morning light work outs or just relaxed and chatting with friends. This park is also where the independence monument was located. Some of the most impressive sights at Maha Bandula Park were the heritage High Court building, the City Hall building, the AYA Bank building, Sule Pagoda and a cathedral.

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5. Walk at the Kandawgyi Lake

The Kandawgyi Lake offers visitors some of the most stunning lake view in which this lake garden is also where the Karaweik, a replica of the ancient Burmese royal barge being constructed on the centre of the lake. This ancient Burmese royal barge replica also doubles as a restaurant offering buffet dining which incorporates the ancient royal cultural show. It was interesting to take a walk along the lake garden and get a close look at the royal barge replica even if you never intended to dine here. There were also restaurants and cafes just to relax for some cold drinks, coffee or food break to enjoy the view of Kandawgyi Lake.

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6. Shop at Bogyoke Aung San Market

If you need to get some items back home as souvenirs or some of the most precious items in the world for yourself or your loved ones, head over to Bogyoke Aung San Market. This market which has shops within several blocks of covered buildings is the place to be to get the precious gems ie the jade and its related accessories as well as some souvenir items and local goodies, snacks and sweets. Everything can be found under one roof and you will be surprised on what can be found here.

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7. Visit Bohtataung Pagoda

Bohtataung Pagoda is not like any other pagoda because this is the pagoda said to be where the Buddha's hair relic was found and being kept and guarded safely. The main pagoda hall where the Buddha's hair relic being kept has a unique interior structures where the walls and ceilings were all fully built with gold and have zigzag shapes. Within the walls, there were glass panels being built in between with devotees or visitors seen inserting currency notes of any countries they were from into the gap between the gold walls and the glass panels. The highlights of Bohtataung Pagoda was the Buddha's hair relic where devotees or visitors would offer prayers or hope for their wishes to came into reality. Currency notes can be seen strewn all over inside the area where the Buddha's hair relic believed to be kept at. Another highlight at Bohtataung Pagoda is the Lord of Bohtataung Pagoda who was said to be the guardian of the pagoda. Devotees would purchase prayer items from vendors located at the entrance to the pagoda area and placed the item right in front of the guardian sculpture while offering prayers. What was unique about the structure of this Bohtataung Pagoda guardian was, it has its right hand being raised and a finger pointing out to someone. Devotees would also seen having their forehead placed on its pointing finger and ask for wishes to be fulfilled and thereafter placed currency notes on the palms. The main chedi structure was located in between the main hall where the Buddha's relic was placed and the guardian shrine,

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8. Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda

This pagoda is where the huge and stunning Reclining Buddha is located. The impressive reclining Buddha structure was within a large covered hall building where the other highlights other than the great Buddha structure was the foot sole of the reclining Buddha which were divided into 59 distinguished spots which also has its own meaning each. A walk around the hall building, one will come across some murals on Buddha, some Buddha figurines and also a small section on the edge of the hall where few Buddha sculptures were placed for devotees or visitors to offer prayers in the hope that their wishes would come true. Here, devotees or visitors would pour water on the Buddha sculptures from the large water bowls placed within each of the Buddha sculptures representing the day of which the devotees/visitors were born.

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9. Sule Pagoda

Sule Pagoda is the most easily accessible pagoda in Yangon as it is located within the centre of down town of the city. Sule Pagoda has very close resemblance of the much admired, well known and majestic Shwedagon Pagoda. It is in fact the mini version of the Shwedagon Pagoda because the structures of the pagoda building and its golden chedi, which was the main highlight of both pagodas. Just as with Shwedagon Pagoda, there were 4 entrance gate surrounding the pagoda building, the East, South, West and North gate. Each of these gate has its staircase which leads up to the main chedi area. On the upper base of the pagoda, there were 4 main prayers hall located on each of the gate. Surrounding the chedi were the small Buddha sculptures stations for each of the day within the week, where devotees or visitors could bath the Buddha sculptures, praying and asking for wishes to be fulfilled on the station of day which they were born.

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Sule Pagoda

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10. Shwedagon Pagoda

One of the most impressive, massive and marvellous pagoda found in Yangon or Mynmar. This is definitely the main highlight of every travellers itinerary in Yangon and should not be missed out at all. As the saying goes, you wouldn't have been to Yangon or Mynmar if you have not visited Shwedagon Pagoda. Shwedagon Pagoda can be termed as a gem of Mynmar because it is so well recognised by people around the world that they came to this land of gems and gold to step their foot on the ground of this golden, magnificent and majestic holy structure, not only to admire its shiny, yellowish and grand pagoda. They also came for the second reason which was to ask for their wishes to be fulfilled. You probably wouldn't want to get your eyes off from the main chedi of the Shwedagon Pagoda just as you walk on the circular flat walkways on the ground of the chedi as the view was simply amazing and outstanding. It was even much enhanced during the evening as the sky turned dark and the chedi was showered with spotlights. As I mentioned, Shwedagon Pagoda is the larger version of Sule Pagoda as the design and structure were very close or in fact similar other than the size between these 2 most visited pagodas in Yangon. There were 4 main gate to get to the ground of the Shwedagon Pagoda namely East, West, South and North Gate. To ascend the ground of the pagoda, visitors can either take the elevator or walk up from the staircase on each of the respective gates. Aside from the great pagoda structure, visitors and devotees flock to Shwedagon for another important reason, which was to offer prayers and hope that their wishes could come true. Several altar stations representing each day of the week were seen along the circular walkways on the ground of the chedi. The altar consists of a small Buddha sculpture and an animal structure below it with water bowl. Visitors would offer prayers at the altar of the day they were born in the hope that whatever they wish for would come true. This is done through bathing the Buddha and the animal sculpture with the water from the water bowl. At each of the access gates to the Shwedagon Pagoda, there were each a mid-size prayers hall for visitors or devotees to offer prayers. These halls consists of several huge and a smaller Buddha sculpture. The night view at Shwedagon Pagoda was awesome and this is the best time to visit because the weather was cooler without the scorching heat from the sun. Shwedagon Pagoda is definitely not to be missed places to visit when in Yangon.

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Posted by kidd27 10:14 Archived in Myanmar Comments (2)

Journey to The Plain of Jars in Phonsavanh, LAO PDR

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Bueng Kan province in the North East of Thailand also known as Isan was the newest and latest among all the provinces in Thailand. It was carved out from the Nong Khai province, which was most well known among foreign travellers as a border crossing point between Thailand and Laos. On the Laos side, travellers will be connected to the capital of Lao PDR, Vientiane from Nong Khai in Thailand. One of the most popular travel option to get from Thailand to Vientiane is through the train ride to Nong Khai. From Nong Khai, there are few other travel options to get to Vientiane through minivans and international bus. I have crossed on several Thailand and Laos borders overland including Chong Mek and Vangtao (Ubon Ratchathani/Pakse), Mukdahan to Savannakhet and Nakhon Phanom to Thakhek. Not many foreigner travellers have informations about Bueng Kan province and this is still not a popular travel destination among the tourists. One of the prized travel product in Bueng Kan is the Wat Phu Thok, which is a very distinctive temple located on a cave on top of the hill. To reach the peak of the hill, a hike would be required through the wooden walkways constructed on the edge of the hill. On the peak of the hill of Wat Phu Thok, the view from here were magnificent and marvellous overlooking the countryside of Bueng Kan province. My trip to Bueng Kan was to cross the border from Thailand over to Paksan in Laos continuing the journey to Xiengkhouang province or more well known as Phonsavanh. The most well known things to do in Xiengkhouang province in Laos is to visit the Plains of Jars, one of the many mysteries and wonders of the world which many answers to their existence still unanswered to date. Nevertheless, due to lack of time, the initial plan to include Wat Phu Thok into the itinerary did not materialised. But then again, there is always some other time, so I was not too concerned about it.

BUENG KAN BUS TERMINAL & SAWADEE ESAN BUS
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THE BUENG KAN BORDER IMMIGRATION CROSSING, THE MEKONG RIVER & THE BOAT CRUISE TO PAKSAN, LAOS
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The bus from Bangkok to Bueng Kan with Sawadee Esan Co. which offers a double decker 32 seaters bus service with ticket costing THB 540 on a single trip took approximately 11 hours journey. The bus left Mor Chit station at about 9 pm and reached Bueng Kan at 8 am. The Bueng Kan bus terminal should be quite recently completed based on the structure and paints on the terminal buildings and the road pavements within the terminal. Its location is not too far away from Tesco Lotus and most contemporary hotel in Bueng Kan known as The One. From Bueng Kan bus terminal, there are many tuk-tuks available for onwards travel to other destinations including to the border crossing. It cost me THB 100 to get from the bus terminal to the border crossing.

ARRIVAL ON THE PAKSAN BORDER IMMIGRATION FROM BUENG KAN
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PAKSAN BORDER IMMIGRATION CROSSING & THE BOAT PIER
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Over here in Bueng Kan, there is yet to be a Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos. So,one of the interesting thing to note is the boat crossing through the Mekong River between the two countries. The immigration border crossing building in Bueng Kan is also noted to be a newly constructed building perhaps on the same site as the old building. Perhaps, the Thai immigration has renovated the old office building, so, the building appeared to be new but not the surroundings. It was a small one storey building but just decent enough to accommodate the sizeable number of people who crossed at this international border transit. Most of the people who get in and out between Thailand and Laos here in Bueng Kan seemed to be Laotians who are immigrant workers in Thailand in various industries as well as goods transportation from Thailand to Laos. The motorised boat from Bueng Kan to Paksan cost THB 60 on single trip. The journey was a short one taking approximately 10 minutes in total. On reaching the Lao PDR side, there will be a Laos immigration official on the pier to check on the passports and border crossing pass. From the pier, I walked up to the Paksan immigration border office for a stamped into Laos. The Paksan immigration office was a very old one storey buildings which appeared to be a structure constructed either in the 70s or 80s. So, it really may brought one back into the past once stepping into the immigration office. Just like Thailand, immigration arrival and departure card need to be filled up before the passport stamping. There appear to be some fees required to be paid here of 16,000 kip before passport can be collected after the stamping. The Laos immigration officer was very much in welcoming & jovial mode here in Paksan but after learning that I have to pay the fees, now I understand better. I have not encountered many friendly immigration officer, so I should cherish the moments such as this. I thought why not since I was being welcome to a foreign country.

WAITING FOR THE MINIVAN TO XIENGKHOUANG AND THE MINIVAN FROM PAKSAN TO XIENGKHOUANG
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After checking out from Paksan Immigration office, I head out thinking there will be some tuk-tuk or songtheaw available to get to downtown or the bus station. The information I had was that there was only one bus trip from Paksan to Phonsavanh which the bus leave Paksan at 7.30 am. It was already way past 7.30 am when I reached Paksan about 9.30 am. I was not sure if I will need to put up a night in Paksan for the next morning trip to Phonsavanh or there may be some other transport options available. After a short walk from the immigration office, I saw some samlor taxis (similar to tuk tuk) on the edge of some shops opposite the immigration office. I asked one of the man on the samlor if he provides transportation to the bus station, he pointed to somewhere in front that there would be some good Samaritan who may provide a lift to the bus station. So, I walked further away and saw a woman in a pick-up truck with her child inside. I asked if she could provide a lift to the bus station and she was kind enough to reply that it should not be a problem at all. But she mentioned she was waiting for her husband who was about to cross from Bueng Kan to Paksan where upon his arrival then we will be able to proceed to the bus station. When the husband arrived with his friend (both of them were Thais), I greeted them and explained on my intention to get to the bus station. The husband, just like his wife was just as welcoming enough to offer his help to get me there, though he appeared not quite sure where that was. I then hopped into the rear of the pick-up with the husband's friend. We had a short chat and just before we knew it, the pick-up reached at the market. Because the husband and wife were not sure where the bus from Paksan to Phonsavanh could be boarded, they politely dropped me at the market and said I should asked the people around there. Left without any option, I jumped off the pick-up, thanking them and with much uncertainties, I had to continue my tasks to continue seeking for answers. That was when I came to know that people here in Paksan refers Phonsavanh to Xiengkhouang instead of the former.

THE ROAD CONDITION & LANDSCAPES FROM PAKSAN TO XIENGKHOUANG
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Phonsavanh was indeed the capital city of Xiengkhouang province but surprisingly, the people would not know where Phonsavanh was if you mentioned that name to them. As I was asking, then a young man told me that I need to walk to the main road from the market to flag down the minivan that came from Vientiane direction to get to Xiengkhouang province. After some 300 metres of walk, I then continue to ask a woman in a shop to be sure if that information provided was correct and she confirmed that it was accurate. After about another 200 metres of walk, I reached the junction of the main road and encountered a middle aged woman who sells various beverages such as coconut, sugar cane, coffees and carbonated drinks on a street stall. I was relieved that she confidently confirmed that there were regular minivans to Xiengkhouang province. Later, I learnt that the main road was just a straight walk up from the Paksan immigration office. Anxiously waiting for the minivan, a short chat with the beverage vendor provide some time killing opportunity while learning the dark and sad story that painted the life behind this enterprising woman. Its been a tough life for her making a small savings from the handful profits she made at the end of every month while struggling to pay for rental of the small piece of land just behind her pushcart stall. She set up a small cottage where she used as her home. But one thing for sure and deserved much admiration and life learning experience was that, despite her struggle and hard life, she never gave up but continue to work hard to earn a living so that she could continue with a normal living.

ARRIVAL AT NEW XIENGKHOUANG BUS STATION, THE SAMLOR TO PHONSAVANH & FROM BUS STATION TO PHONSAVANH
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At about 11 am, the minivan from Vientiane finally arrived and that was a huge relieved as now I was rather sure that I could reach Phonsavanh on the day itself without having to put up a night in Paksan. When flagged down, the minivan was already full of passengers and there was barely any seats available. There were 2 other passengers other than myself. Luckily for us, there were some on board who were about to disembark further down the road, so, all of us who boarded from Paksan managed to get a seat for ourselves. The minivan fare from Paksan to Xiengkhouang cost 100,000 kip. From Paksan, the minivan soon left for Phonsavanh. Along the way, there were some of the passengers who disembark while some new ones boarded. The driver also picked up some goods from individuals and shops for a fee to be sent to Xiengkhouang. The road condition from Paksan to Xiengkhouang can be summed up as between 30% to 40% on unpaved dirt sandy road, some which were semi paved, some were good paved road while remaining were sort of rocky and dusty. There was a main bridge which was partly damaged and was under repair, so a temporary bridge was built further down the under repair bridge. It was built narrowly barely passable by the minivan and just above the stream and if water level rises, I could not think of how big vehicles such as the minivan could pass through. The minivan stopped for lunch at one of the big restaurant and appeared to be the only one with that size at about 1 pm. One thing I learnt here was that, the locals love their noodle soup with pork or chicken which also comes with a side of generous mix of vegetables. The noodles also came on a jumbo size. Other that noodles, the other favourite would be the "larb moo" or spicy & sour minced pork with either steamed rice or sticky rice. Continuing the journey after lunch, the minivan was now heading upwards the hill. Some information available mentioned that Xiengkhuoang province was located on the highest peak within Laos of some 2700 metres above sea level. You could just imagine how strenuous and dangerous the road condition could be heading up the peak to Phonsavanh with that level of highness. There were no rail guards on the sharp corners and the pathways can get very narrow on some points which made the journey somewhat challenging. As the minivans reached near to our ultimate destination, the weather began to changed 360 degrees where it got cooler and misty. Approximately at 5.30 pm, the minivan arrived at the bus station. There were actually 2 bus stations just outside Phonsavanh which were adjacent to each other but the one the minivan stopped at was a newer one. From what I gathered, the bus station served different bus companies that provide services to several other destinations within Laos as well as to Vietnam. There were samlor or tuk-tuk available at the bus station to get into Phonsavanh from the bus station for 20,000 kip. I was not sure where exactly I would be dropped down but there was another man who was headed downtown and soon I learnt that was the main street in Phonsavanh. Phonsavanh main commercial spot was concentrated on one main long stretch of straight road dotted with mostly 2 storey shops which operate as restaurants, guesthouse, hotels, convenience stores, cafes, hardware, motorbike shops and other miscellaneous stores.

PLACES OF INTERESTS ON XIENGKHOUANG MAP IN DOWNTOWN PHONSAVANH
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On arrival at Phonsavanh, I walked around in search of a place to stay. I first came across a Xiengkhouang map which describes on the places of interests within the province. After a short study on the map, I got some ideas on where else to go apart from the Plains of Jars. Initially, I thought I would only be visiting the Plains of Jars due to the limited time but then after studying the map, it may be a good idea to include the Ancient City also known as Muang Khoun as a side tour. As I was walking around town, I came into the MAG (Mines Advisory Group) Visitors Information Centre on the opposite direction of where the map information was located. I thought of checking out what this centre will able to provide in terms of the history of Xiengkhouang. Information that I have was that Xiengkhouang was filled with tonnes of unexploded missiles, bombs, mines and rockets. Walking into the centre, I took a short tour around. (More of this later). There was a man that occupied the information counter at the entrance to MAG Centre. Since I need some information on where to stay and thought he may know better as a local to Xiengkhouang, so I asked if he knows where I could put up for the day as well as the tour information to the Plains of Jars. He introduced himself as Yee Yang who was of Hmong hilltribes descendent. Soon I learnt that there was indeed a very large Hmong community in Xiengkhouang due it its huge mountainous landscape which was of the Hmong hill tribes origin. Yee Yang told me that NamChai Hotel was one of the better choice since its located off the main road, which is less noisy. He also mentioned that he offered a bike tour to the Plains of Jars for 400,000 kip. Asked further if he could include Muang Khoun as a side trip, he gladly said yes but additional of 100,000 kip shall be added into the 400,000 kip.

THE LONG WINDING ROAD IN DOWNTOWN PHONSAVANH
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As the day has got late and dark, I told Yee Yang I would be back again later because I need to check into the place he recommended at NamChai Hotel. NamChai Hotel was situated off the main road of Phonsavanh and not difficult to locate. A check on the hotel, I found that it was a decent hotel with few rooms on a single storey building while on the rear of this building was a multi storey building appeared to be quite recently completed. A double bed non air-con room cost 80,000 kip a night which was a a good bargain with free coffee, day and night. So, I decided to check in to NamChai Hotel and settled down with my backpack. As dark falls, I walked out again to check out the Plains of Jars tour option and found out that the agents around town charged 600,000 kip for single person tour on a minivan and a further 200,000 kip to Muang Khoun side tour. And with that, I thought Yee Yang offers was reasonable, so I went back to MAG Centre and finally booked the Plains of Jars tour with him. He mentioned that the tour will starts at 8.30 am the next day and shall be back to the hotel within 6 hours. And the next morning, as promised, Yee Yang came sharp at 8.30 am and our Plains of Jars journey began.

Posted by kidd27 09:36 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Phonsavanh in Xiengkhouang, LAO PDR

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Arriving in Phonsavanh town, the capital of Xiengkhouang province of Laos, it was already past 5 in the evening. The journey in a minivan from Paksan in Bolikhamsai province bordering Thailand north east province of Bueng Kan,the journey took about 5 and a half hours. This Paksan-Phonsavanh reminded me of the journey back in 2012 when I travelled from Pleiku in Vietnam to Attapeu andonwards to Pakse in Laos.It was not a smooth journey as the road cuts through some of the most heavily mountainous landscape between Laos and Vietnam. Perhaps I thought, the Phonsavanh journey from Paksan was even more challenging as the vehicle travelled through a mixture of poor to moderate road condition, going up about 2,700 metres above sea level negotiating some very dangerous sharp bends and curves along the way. But all these adventures added up one of a kind travel experience in particular for backpackers like me. The number of passengers occupying the minivan and air-con that worked only 20% of its normal capacity caused even more notoriety to the whole journey. It could have been worst than what I had gone through but such were the situation that created whole lots of spice into road travel backpackers style. Thank God that all of us safely reached the intended destination. Just as in the Pleiku-Pakse journey, the driver also played important role in ensuring the safety of the passengers and surely, they must have done a good job in safeguarding life of the passengers. There were huge electricity dam projects undertaken by Chinese consortium within the Bolikhamsai and Xiengkhouang mountainous geopraphy. This was also noted when I went on a bicycle adventure in Thakhek. Obviously, the many signboards in Chinese characters were erected along the road of which the area where projects were on-going proof that the dam constructions were awarded to Chinese companies. I read about news that once completed, Laos will be able to sell electricity to its regional neighbours within Mekong or Indochina and even beyond the Indochina area. The dam projects nevertheless has its consequences towards the natural environment and landscapes within the provinces of which projects were taking place. What can be seen was, there were already serious pollution not only to the quality of air but the river as well because it was noted that the water has been tainted and turned reddish. Mountains and hills with thick jungles and trees were cut down which caused increment in temperature and danger of landslides during rainy season. All the damages done could not be reversed and could worsened the global warming issue which has already been at an alarming stage in certain parts of the world. Hopefully, something could be done by the Lao authority so that all the problems arise due to the projects could be managed and put under better control.

ARRIVING AT XIENGKHOUANG NEW BUS STATION FROM PAKSAN & SAMLOR TO PHONSAVANH TOWN
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Phonsavanh is the capital of Xiengkhouang province and it is not a complex town as in any other capital in other parts of the globe. Because there were very low level of modernisation and infrastructure developments, Phonasavanh maintained much of the serenity of the old world. It is peaceful without much traffics and there were no huge and tall buildings surrounded the town. Just outside the town, there were old traditional houses as well as Hmong tribes homes built on edges of rice fields and the flat terrains of low hills within the province. Getting to Phonsavanh town centre from the new bus station, the sun began to set down and the weather turned chilly. The costs of samlor from the bus station costs 20,000 kip and as the samlor reached nearer to the centre, new road with modern street lighting were seen just completed not long ago. What made Phonsavanh interesting was not only it was still very much untouched, the road leading to the town was a long winding road with shops dotted both sides of the road. I was not aware that the samlor has reached the centre of Phonsavanh town until the driver told me that it was already at the end of the town.

There were not many things to do in Phonsavanh and as in other major towns I had been to in Laos such as Pakse and Savannakhet, there was a big market (Xiengkhouang Shopping Centre) that deals mainly in consumer goods such as sundry goods, textiles, food items, kitchenwares, footwear, fashion items and many other mixture of daily necessity items available. There was also an annexed wet market (Phoukham Garden Agriculture Wet Market) to the consumer market and caters to locals within Phonsavanh as well as food operators that need to get fresh items in preparing their food for the day. A stroll along these markets just to have a look on what it has to offer could offer some insights into the culture of Lao people. Lao PDR may not be a developed country and from what was observed, the life here can be said to be dated back to 30 years or so of the place that I lived since I was a young boy but does that matter? With so much of developments taken place around the world and so many advancement in technologies and contemporary lifestyle that came with the developments, did all such advanced life made human much better off than we were 30 years ago? I was so much in admiration of being able to cycle freely in Phonsavanh, the almost free traffic without road congestion, the cool and pleasant weather, the quietness and peacefulness of the town. It was just awesome.

XIENGKHOUNG SHOPPING CENTRE & WET MARKET
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There are 2 main activities that can be done in Phonsavanh town after being done with the Plain of Jars tour. There are to visit the MAG's (Mines Advisory Group) UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) Visitor Information Centre and the UXO Survivor Information Centre. Both the centres were located with the same row of shops and separated by one shop in between them. The MAG's UXO Visitor Information Centre was set up by the non-profitable NGO,which is a voluntary group engaging the Lao PDR government assistance over the years in providing training and education to the locals in identifying areas with UXO and landmines, deployment of volunteers to clear UXO and landmines, management and destruction of recovered UXO and emergency response assistance during time in need. Xiengkhouang province,Laos was said to be the most severely affected by the USAF's assault in waging its battle with Viet Minh guerillas during the Vietnam War. Tonnes of rockets & missiles and other major destructive bombs landed here in Xiengkhouang unexploded when USAF bombarded the province in their effort to destroy the HCM trails, used by Viet Minh and Phathet Lao guerillas to travel down south from northern Vietnam to southern Vietnam, joining compatriot, Viet Cong in the battle against the US armed forces. These UXO had caused so much of pains and sufferings to the Laotians in Xiengkhouang where many have died due to the unexpected explosions, while many others lost their limbs and arms as well as eyesight or even hearing. As I wrote here, there are still massive number of UXO planted just about anywhere beneath the land of Xiengkhouang province. People here are still dangerously and highly exposed to the risks of UXO each day. Fact is, UXO not only found in Laos but also parts of Vietnam. I wonder if those responsible parties that caused such a massive sorrow and speechless agony and torments have ever done anything to help to mend their wrongdoings. There are several information put up in display for visitors to understand better the background of UXO, how it happened and how it affected the people in Xiengkhouang province, the functions and responsibilities of MAG and exhibits of some old ammunition and booklets on types of ammunition that formed various UXO as well as souvenirs. Wars still continue elsewhere with whole lots of funds being used in supporting the operations against what was deemed as terrorists. But people of Xiengkhouang continue to live dangerously everyday.

MAG INFORMATION CENTRE
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From MAG Visitor Information Centre, a walk few metres away was the UXO Survivor Information Centre. While MAG Centre provide information on the background of UXO and its role and functions in Xiengkhouang, UXO Survivor Centre is not just a plain information outlet but is a noble group that support the people affected by UXO in Xiengkhouang. There are range of items available for sale in which proceeds made from such sales were channel to assist those who were incapacitated due to UXO effects and their family members. There were also booklet and a corner dedicated for words of support and encouragement to UXO survivors and a small reading room. To those who survived UXO in Xiengkhouang, your courage to live on put you at the top most level among the others and salutations to all of you due to your high determination and never give up attitude.

UXO SURVIVOR INFORMATION CENTRE
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Posted by kidd27 08:34 Archived in Laos Comments (0)

Hua Hin Part 2

Hua Hin is a well known beach retreat resort town south of Bangkok, which is also being the home to the Klai Kangwon Summer Palace which is the residence of the King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the reigning King of Kingdom of Thailand. Other than being the most important residence to the Thai King, Hua Hin is very well known for its distinctive railways station which still maintained its traditional old wooden building structure with the iconic red and yellow colour paint that covered the train station entire blocks. I have shared this in my previous blog on Hua Hin and for this time, I would like to focus on some other interesting sights that Hua Hin has to offer. Over the years, Hua Hin has gained increasing attention from travellers to Thailand who sought a close getaways from the busy and hectic Bangkok city. Bangkok residents just like the tourists also seek to get some quiet retreat from the city that never sleeps to have some relaxation during the holiday season or just a short weekend vacation. Hua Hin was the answer for some of these alternative holiday seekers be it local or foreigners. So much developments have been taken place in this resort town as the surging holidaymakers flocked into Hua Hin mainly with the developments of interesting water parks that suits the family group of vacations. Hua Hin is doing very well in creating a decent family holiday destination, so much so that this is one of the most sought after vacation spot by those who really wanted a genuine relaxing family, independent or couple holiday.

Other than the beach and water parks, Hua Hin being a royal town has its other palace which the city can be proud of, known as the Maruekhathaiyawan Palace built during the reign of King Rama VI or King Vajiravudh period. As Hua Hin is a royal town of the King Bhumibol or King Rama IX, a visit to Hua Hin would not be complete without a tour to Maruekhathaiyawan Palace. The palace building is extraordinary which is not built in the form of the majestic building that stands on the land but it was being constructed as a long stretch of building structure above ground (similar to long house structure) which have multiple pillars to support the several main halls, offices, rooms and bathrooms on the entire palace structures. Each of these functions of main buildings which developed or designed in cluster form were being connected through the walkways which is of the same level as the cluster of the rooms of each main building. Just as each main buildings, the walkways were supported with the multiple pillars. There was a large open garden fronting the whole palace structure and a long walkways that leads to the Hua Hin beach area. Lush trees were also covering the surrounding of the palace boundary. The Maruekhataiyawan Palace were built by wood planks and the management of the palace limits the number of persons who can access to the palace building at any one time due to safety reasons. At time of visit, it was undergoing some renovations to improve the structure of the palace.

THE MARUEKHATHAIYAWAN PALACE AND ITS SURROUNDINGS

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Rajabhakti Park is the latest attractions in Hua Hin. This is a massive open space park featuring monument structures of 7 of the past rulers of Siam (ancient name of Thailand) which main objective was to pay tributes to these kings for their contributions in ruling Thailand and shaping the country into what it is today in this modern era period. The Kings' monuments constructed at the Rajabhakti Park are King Ramkhamhaeng, King Naresuan, King Narai, King Taksin, King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke, King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn. The park was impressive with the decoration of the past Great Thai Kings and most visitors seen gathering for small group photos, selfie or simply admiring the bronze statues of the Kings.

THE STATUES OF 7 OF THE GREAT KINGS OF THAILAND @ RAJABHAKTI PARK

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King Ramkhamhaeng

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King Naresuan

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King Narai

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King Taksin

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King Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke

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King Mongkut

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King Chulalongkorn

Another attractions that Hua Hin offers visitors yet another spectacular sights is the Wat Huay Mongkol. This temple brought visitors to view the gigantic Luang Phu Thuad's struture as well as to offer prayers to the sacred Thai monk, Luang Phu Thuad. The late Luang Phu Thuad was one of the most sacred monk known in Thailand because he was said to possessed certain magical power which include turning salty water from the sea into fresh drinking water. The Luang Phu Thuad massive structure were placed on the higher level with a staircase leading to the base of the structure. In the front of the structure is where visitors could perform prayers. On the ground of the Luang Phu Thuad's structure were 2 elephant structures with the sculpture of Luang Phu Thuad riding on each of the elephant structure. Visitors could be seen offering prayers at these elephant structures by going around them. Another structures seen at Wat Huay Mongkol was the King Taksin sculptures with the symbolic ancient Thai King riding on a horse. On the front of the King Taksin monument, it was being surrounded by the cocks sculptures which come in various sizes. These cock sculptures were being placed around King Taksin structure because he was said to love cock fighting competitions during his life.

WAT HUAY MONGKOL

The statues of Luang Phu Thuad

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The elephant structure at Wat Huay Mongkol

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King Taksin monument and the cock sculptures

Khao Takiab is now gaining strength in being a popular beach spot in Hua Hin. This stretch of Hua Hin beach has a very wide beach area which offer beach goers the best spot for sunbathing, beach sports or simply just for leisure activities such as horse riding and picnics. There was a temple located on the edge of Khao Takiab. The main temple buildling of Wat Khao Takiab (Khao Takiab Temple) was located on the peak of Khao Takiab Hill. From Khao Takiab beach, a large Golden Buddha could be seen on the base of Khao Takiab temple. It can be quite a challenge to get to the peak of Wat Khao Takiab as there were a strenuous level of staircase that leads to Wat Khao Takiab. However, the effort will definitely be rewarding with the stunning and marvellous bird eye view of Khao Takiab beach, which reminds me of Gold Coast in Australia with some blocks of high rise buildings on the backdrop of the beach. Midway to the peak of Wat Khao Takiab, there was a small pathways that leads to a small cave which has a Golden Buddha sculpture placed inside it. Khao Takiab also offers the best spot for fresh seafood choices with range of such establishments available. Seafood lovers could choose varieties of fresh seafood from these seafood restaurants, have them grilled and packed for take-away or simply for dining-in.

KHAO TAKIAB BEACH
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Horse riding at Khao Takiab beach

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Entrance to Wat Khao Takiab

THE STUNNING VIEW OF KHAO TAKIAB BEACH FROM WAT KHAO TAKIAB
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The Golden Buddha statue at Wat Khao Takiab

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The staircase leading to Wat Khao Takiab

THE SMALL CAVE WITH THE BUDDHA STATUE MIDWAY TO THE MAIN WAT KHAO TAKIAB
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SEAFOOD AT KHAO TAKIAB BEACH
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Cicada Market offers alternative to the regular Hua Hin night market . Cicada Market opens only from Friday to Sunday and the theme for this weekend night market focus on promoting creativity of Thai people in design, arts and other extraordinary skills. Items available at Cicada market such as souvenirs, garments, toys, footwear, daily essential items and accessories, consumer goods and entertainment mainly derived from the art and design creativity theme. There were also food kiosks section for the market goers with variety choices of food available. Entertainment activities at Cicada Market include band performance, dancing and display of arty skills.

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ITEMS AVAILABLE AT CICADA MARKET

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Performance at Cicada Market

Posted by kidd27 12:11 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

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