Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Travel (page 2 of 4)

Riding the rails in the US — The Texas Eagle from Chicago to Dallas

It was right before Thanksgiving 1990 and just a few weeks before I would fly to Korea when I boarded an Amtrak train bound for Dallas to spend the holiday with my Mom. 

It would end up being my last Thanksgiving at home before I came back to the States for a few months at the end of 2006. 

I suppose I could have flown to Dallas—which would have been easier because my Mom at the time lived in Irving right next to the DFW—but I had always wanted to take a long train trip in the States and most likely I was going to be gone for awhile and wouldn’t have the chance for sometime. I thought it would be cool to ride the rails and see a part of America that I had never seen before. 

I took the train from Princeton to Union Station in Chicago. On the way up to Chicago—about a ninety-minute ride from Princeton—the train went through Mendota and passed the Del Monte canning plant where I had worked a few weeks earlier. When I was working at Del Monte I sometimes watched the train either coming into town or heading out of town. It made me think about the previous year when I had been in Japan and many of the train trips I had taken. There was something charming about a long train journey and when I decided to visit my Mom in Dallas that is what I wanted to do. 

When I took the train from Princeton to Chicago I had a few hours to kill before the train left for Dallas. My best friend Chris Vasquez was living in Chicago at the time and we got together for lunch. It was a good thing that we did. I wouldn’t see Chris for another two years. We had hung out a few times over the summer—something we hadn’t done since before I had gone back to college in 1985. Sadly, Chris and I had drifted apart over the years and it wouldn’t be until Christmas 2001 when Chris and I would become close and best friends again. 

Until my trip to Dallas in 1990, the longest train trip I had taken in the States was back in June of 1980 when I rode The City of New Orleans from Kankakee, Illinois to Carbondale. That was only a few hours—just enough time to settle back into my seat and enjoy some of the scenery before the train arrived. It would be a few years later, in the summer of 1987 before I would take the train again. This time it was a shorter journey—from Bloomington, Illinois to Chicago when I went to the city to spend a few days with Michelle Mignone. 

Now, I had about a half-a-day train ride ahead of me and I was pretty pumped up about it.  

I spent some time hanging out in the “club car” which was on the first floor of the car I was riding in. There I bought some snacks and had a few Cokes. There was this middle-aged black man talking to the attendant behind the counter about Jimi Hendrix and other 60’s/70’s musical icons who “knocked on heaven’s door” before their time. He passed a bottle wrapped in a brown-paper bag to another middle-aged gentleman sitting next to him and they took turns enjoying whatever liquor was inside. 

Wanting to have something to eat, I had to make a reservation for dinner in the dining car later that evening. 

And then, it was settling back—once back in my seat—for the long journey to Texas.

There would be numerous stops along the way; sometimes recently boarded passengers passing by my seat. Fortunately no one would be sitting next to me for the journey. 

Looking out window as the train slowed down through many small towns along the way I caught a glimpse of Americana passing me by. Sometimes it was a town square; a few shops and bars open late—a splash of neon illuminating a dark corner of the night. Other times, towns were brightly lit up; people seen walking the streets or cars cruising this midsection of America. 

Along the way, some early Christmas decorations—up and shining brightly in the night—signaled the beginning of the holiday season.  

Sometimes, when the train slowed down and passed by some homes, the bluish glow of a TV could be seen through windows with curtains or shades drawn. You felt like a voyeur peering into the lives of people living along the steel ribbon that intersected and dissected the countryside. Each home was a living, breathing organism—filled with lives moving through the night and attending to daily routines and rituals. 

At some point I started humming Arlo Guthrie’s (originally written by Steve Goodman, a native of Chicago and a diehard Chicago Cubs’ fan who sadly passed away in 1984) City of New Orleans. Maybe that might come across a little cliché but if you have ever listened to the song you know exactly what I must have been feeling that night so long ago. 

Soon I would be leaving home again. Soon I would be getting on another airplane, like I had done the previous year and fly halfway around the world to begin, or at least continue something I had started but had not finished. 

The sound of the iron wheels upon the iron ribbons they travel on thrums the hypnotic clickety-clack that makes me feel drowsy. More towns will pass by in the night but I will soon be asleep.    

On the streets of Luang Prabang — Looking both ways

On the streets of Luang Prabang

Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham — “New Monastery of the Golden Land”

Wat Mai Suwannaphumaham

What’s an AK-47 doing on a VIP bus from Luang Prabang to Vientiane?

AK-47 on VIP bus in Laos

Good question. 

First I asked, “What’s a Korean bus doing in Savannakhet?” 

Then, I asked, “What’s up with more Korean buses in Laos?” 

Now, I want to know what’s an AK-47 doing on the VIP bus On and I took from Luang Prabang to Vientiane? 

I didn’t notice at first when On and I got on the bus, but later, when the bus stopped for everyone to get something to eat, that is when I noticed it. 

AK-47 on a VIP bus in Laos

From what I have read and heard from some people, some robbers have held up some buses from the Hmong hill tribes that you pass along the way from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. And in the past, there have also been a few murders.

That’s probably why there was an AK-47 behind the bus driver’s seat.

“Combat” on the bus to Vientiane

Combat TV series

When you take a VIP bus or similar bus for long distances in Laos there’s usually a television mounted at the front of the bus. If you’re lucky whoever is in charge of entertainment for the bus might play a decent movie (unfortunately it is probably going to be dubbed in Thai).

On the other hand, you might get stuck having to endure some Thai Karaoke Pop favorites like the ones playing on the bus On and I took from Vientiane to Paksong. 

On the return bus from Paksong to Vientiane though a Charlie Chaplin movie was played. Interestingly, some Thai dialogue had been dubbed into the silent film that was quite surreal. Nonetheless, I could at least enjoy the film if I tried to shut out the Thai dialogue. 

The Chaplin movie was followed by three episodes of that 60’s war drama Combat. I wonder if whoever was in charge of entertainment on this bus tried to choose something that would be interesting to the only foreigner on board. If that were the case, it was kind of cool watching these episodes of Combat even though the dialogue had been dubbed into Thai. 

Maybe it was all the shooting and explosions in the episodes of Combat that caused the right half of the windshield on the bus to break.

Tuk-tuks in Vientiane & Luang Prabang — Let the rider beware

Tuk-tuk in Vientiane

One thing that there’s definitely no shortage of in Vientiane and Luang Prabang are tuk-tuks plying the streets. You can’t walk down the street (at least in Vientiane) without a tuk-tuk driver inquiring where you are going and if you want a tuk-tuk. 

If you have already been to Thailand you know all about tuk-tuks (called tuk-tuks because of the sound they make, or so I have been told) and that they are a cheap form of transportation for short distances, not to mention a practical mode of transportation for weaving in and out of Bangkok’s notorious traffic gridlock. 

In Laos, it’s a different story though when it comes to taking a tuk-tuk. First of all, unless you have to go somewhere far—like the bus station or airport—in Vientiane or Luang Prabang you don’t really need to take a tuk-tuk and you are better off walking or renting a bicycle (or motorcycle). Most places in Vientiane (and to a lesser degree Luang Prabang) can easily be reached on foot.

Tuk-tuk in Vientiane

Lao tuk-tuks are generally of the Phnom Penh style (I had no idea that tuk-tuks had different styles). They come as tuk-tuks or Jumbo tuk-tuks. Jumbos have a larger 3 or 4 cylinder 4 stroke engine, many are powered by Daihatsu engines. While the smaller tuk-tuks carry similar loads to Cambodian tuk-tuks, and are geared similarly. The Jumbos’ larger engine and cabin size allow for greater loads (up to 12 seated people at a squeeze) and higher top speeds. Jumbos are almost without exception only found in Vientiane. A few Thai tuk-tuks (fully enclosed cabin) have also made their way to Vientiane.

(Phnom Penh tuk-tuks are one piece—the front end of a motorcycle comprising of steering, tank and engine/gearbox with a covered tray mounted at the back. The power is transferred by chain to an axle mounted to the modified rear fork which drives the two rear wheels. Suspended upon the rear fork is an open cabin with an in-line seat on each side. This arrangement can carry 6 people at ease, with their luggage in the leg space.) 

Most of the tuk-tuks you see on the streets in Vientiane and Luang Prabang are the smaller ones; the larger ones are found around markets and the bus stations.

Tuk-tuk in Vientiane

If you are not in the mood for a lot of walking you can hire a tuk-tuk for the day (the drivers have a price list for the fares to all the major attractions in Vientiane.) The fares are a little pricey, though. For example, the fare from Patouxai to That Louang was 100 Baht. Unless you really want to be taxied around Vientiane be ready to shell out a few hundred Baht.

If you are lucky though, you might come across a tuk-tuk driver who will give you a good rate for a few hours. On and I found such a driver who only charged us 500 Baht to go to Buddha Park (23 kilometers outside of Vientiane) and would have taken us all around Vientiane to all the major sites for the same price. It pays (pun intended) to shop around when it comes to hiring a tuk-tuk for the day.  

However, for those farther distances you have to rely on a tuk-tuk to get them. And when it comes time to take a tuk-tuk you have to be careful with how much the driver tries to charge you. For example, when On and I wanted to go the bus station from the Inter City Hotel, the tuk-tuk driver said it would cost 200 Baht when it normally costs 150 Baht. Also, if you are in Vientiane, the tuk-tuk drivers that ply Fa Ngum Road (the road that runs parallel to the Mekong River) tend to ask for more than if you catch a tuk-tuk on a side street. 

Tuk-tuk in Luang PrabangNow, I know what you are thinking—what’s a few hundred Baht for a tuk-tuk especially when you have just traveled halfway around the world and spent a thousand or more dollars to get to Laos, right? After all, that few hundred Baht you shell out for a tuk-tuk is probably not going to make too much of a dent in your budget but it could make a big difference for the driver.

On the other hand, I think some tuk-tuk drivers start off quoting a higher fare to see what you will do, if you are in the mood for a little haggling or if you simply don’t mind paying a little extra. They are not out to rip you off or anything. It’s all part of the travel experience and if you do pay a little more the next time you might get a better deal. 

Still there are some tuk-tuk drivers who give the whole tuk-tuk driving business a bad name and those that you have to watch out for—like the one who took On and I back to the Inter City Hotel in a jumbo tuk-tuk after we had come back from Luang Prabang. This tuk-tuk driver was definitely a hustler and almost got into a fight with another tuk-tuk driver over some passengers.  

We had just gotten off the bus and were looking for a smaller tuk-tuk when this driver came up to us, grabbed my suitcase and asked where we were going. On had no sooner answered Inter City Hotel when the driver tossed my suitcase into the back of the jumbo tuk-tuk and went to round up some other unsuspecting passengers. Within a few minutes the tuk-tuk was full (including the Swiss couple who didn’t want to give up their seats on the bus) but the driver wanted a few more fares and tried to steal a “fare” from a rival tuk-tuk driver. 

At this point we hadn’t even talked about the fare. On and I were thinking that it would be 150 Baht. At least that is what we thought. Fortunately the driver got our destination right and we were the first passengers to be dropped off and it turned out that the fare—40,000 Kip—was about right; however, the tuk-tuk driver said he had no change and made another 10,000 Kip because On only had a 50,000 Kip bill to pay him. 

If you do want to take a tuk-tuk when you are in Vientiane or Luang Prabang be prepared to haggle a little. If you do end up paying a little more when you think you should have paid less, just think of it as part of the travel adventure you are on in Laos.

Anti-aircraft gun on Phu Si

Russian anti-aircraft gun on Phu Si

One of the more interesting and perhaps one of the oddest things you will come across while you are visiting Luang Prabang is an anti-aircraft gun on top of Phu Si. 

Located on a crest on the southeastern side of the summit, this Russian anti-aircraft gun was most likely lugged up Phu Si during the Second Indochina War; either that or it was brought in by helicopter. 

It is definitely worth checking out either on your way up to the summit or on you way back down. You can get on it and give it a spin for a makeshift merry-go-round ride.

Luang Prabang’s Royal Palace Museum — Where Laos’s Royal past, local history, and heritage come alive

Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang

The Royal Palace Museum, also known as Haw Kham or the “golden hall” is located pretty much in the center of town and a good starting point for your exploration of old Luang Prabang. Built by King Sisavang Vong as his official residence between 1904 and 1909, after the previous palace was destroyed in 1887 by invaders, the Royal Palace is an aesthetic fusion of Lao and French styles.  

You don’t have to be an architecture aficionado to appreciate the beauty and the layout of this building (a cruciform on a multi-tiered platform)—its aestheticism is in the blend of traditional Lao motifs and French beaux-arts styles. As you walk up the Italian marble steps look above at the entrance (if you haven’t done so already) to get a glimpse of a three-headed elephant sheltered by the sacred white parasol, the symbol of the Lao monarchy. 

Royal Palace Museum in Luang Prabang

Upon entering the palace (after having first paid the entrance fee, taken off your shoes, and stowed your bags and cameras in lockers in a small room on the left side of the building) the first room you are in is a large entry hall that has a number of royal religious objects. From there visitors are directed to the king’s reception room which among other artifacts on display includes Gauguinesque paintings depicting what appears to be daily life in Old Luang Prabang.

After leaving the king’s reception room you enter the Throne Room noted for its high walls spangled with intricate multi-colored mosaics (it’s too bad photography is not allowed inside because these mosaics which were created in the 1950’s to commemorate the 2500th anniversary of Buddha’s passing into nirvana are quite awesome). 

In contrast, as you move to the rear of the palace, the banquet hall and Royal bedrooms are simply decorated in white with teak wood furnishings.  

In addition to a collection of rare Buddha images made from crystal and gold in glass cases, there are plenty of royal treasures to admire. The collection of royal regalia includes swords with hilts and scabbards of hammered silver and gold as well as the king’s own elephant saddle.

The most important item at the Royal Palace Museum is the Pha Bang Buddha image. This is the Buddha statue that gave its name to Luang Prabang. This statue is only 83 cm high, but is made from almost pure gold weighing between 43 to 54 kg of gold. According to legend, the statue was made in Sri Lanka in the 1st century AD, and was presented to the Khmers of Angkor. The King of Angkor, Jayavarman Paramesvara, gave it to his son-in-law, the great warrior Chao Fa Ngum, who founded the first Laotian Kingdom of Lan Xang. The Pha Bang Buddha was housed at Wat Wisunalat between 1513 to 1707, when King Phothisalat moved the capital to Vientiane. 

On your way out of the museum you pass through a reception room that contains gifts from nations including—perhaps one of the more interesting gifts presented by then U.S. President Richard Nixon—some pieces of moon rocks from the Apollo 11 lunar landing. Also worth noting the gifts from grouped by “socialist” and “capitalist” countries. 

Haw Pha BangBefore leaving the Royal Palace Museum most everyone stops at Haw Pha Bang, the Royal Palace Chapel that is supposed to house the Pha Bang Buddha one day. Construction of this chapel had started in 1963, but due to numerous upheavals, it was just completed two years ago in 2006.  

It features a spectacular red and gold-mirrored interior; with some Khmer influence in the windows, doors and figures. The focal point is an immense altar with gilded eagles and a pair of Nagas facing the door. The wood doors were pivoted at two points top and bottom with the central panel bearing a close similarity to the ones seen in stone on many of the temples in Cambodia.  

Despite the chapel’s modern appearance it reflects the Khmer influence in Laos’s art and architecture (Laos was part of The Khmer Empire from the 10th to 14th centuries).   

Sunset along the Mekong

Sunset along the Mekong RiverSunset along the Mekong River

It’s almost 6:00 on a Friday evening in Vientiane as On and I spend our last night together here this time.

We’ve just returned from a photo shop where we had some of our digital photos printed, had a nice stroll back to our hotel and now, thinking about where we are going to have dinner this evening. Want to have something special, perhaps some Thai or Lao food this evening.

Sunset along the Mekong River

We stop for a moment across the street from the Inter City Hotel to take some photos of the setting sun before having dinner. Every night it is the same sun-setting scene. If you miss it one night, don’t worry. There’ll be another breathtaking sunset the next day. 

Breathtaking. That pretty much sums up what the past week has been like here.

Xieng Khuan (Buddha Park) — Vientiane’s quirky, yet unique Buddhist pantheon

Buddha Park — January 2, 2008Buddha Park — January 2, 2008Buddha Park — January 2, 2008Buddha Park — January 2, 2008

Of all the places one can visit while staying in Vientiane, one of the quirkiest, yet most interesting attractions—bar none—would have to be Xieng Khuan, or Buddha Park. 

Located approximately 25 kilometers southeast of downtown Vientiane on the Mekong River, Xieng Khuan or “Spirit City” is just as much a monument to one man’s eccentric and perhaps bizarre ambition as it is an impressive collection of massive ferro-concrete sculptures dotted around a riverside meadow.

Buddha Park — January 2, 2008

Although the brontosaurian reclining Buddha and strange edifice resembling a pumpkin—with what looks like a dead tree sprouting from its crown—near the park’s entrance are two of the park’s more obvious attractions, there are statues of every conceivable deity in the Buddhist/Hindu pantheon. Even if you are not up on your Buddhist/Hindu deities, you will more than likely enjoy strolling around some of the more fantastic shapes.

 Xieng Khuan was designed and built in 1958 (I knew there was something more compelling me to visit here—I was born in 1958!) under the direction of Louang Pou Bunleua Sulilat, a self-styled holy man who took Hindu and Buddhist philosophy and merged it—in a somewhat cryptic whole with mythology and iconography. It’s no wonder than, that the pumpkin-shaped structure (which you can enter and climb to the top) kind of calls to mind Dante’s Inferno.

Buddha Park — January 2, 2008

(Do yourself a favor and climb to the top for a panoramic view of the park. Afternoon might be the best time; I was there in the morning and it was a little too hazy for photographs.) 

Although one might think the park is nothing more than a tacky tourist trap, if you have run out of things to do while in Vientiane before you head to Luang Prabang, Siem Reap, or other destinations, it would be worth your while to take a trip out here.

To get there, you can take a bus (Bus #14 from Vientiane’s main bus station) which run about every 40 minutes. Be careful with hiring a tuk-tuk though; more than likely you will be charged an exorbitant amount to get there and back. On and I were lucky: we hired a tuk-tuk driver—who did not wait for unsuspecting tourists coming out of their hotels—for only 500 Baht. 

There is also a small riverside restaurant that serves coffee, tea, and beer as well as grilled chicken and spicy papaya salad.

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