Published: April 3rd 2011March 31st 2011
This morning was a 7am start so that I had enough time for a TRX workout on the balcony of the hostel. I did get a few funny looks as I sweated it out in the glorious morning sun - it looked like it was going to be a beautiful day. With the prospect of being in transit to Laos for twenty two hours in what I was expecting to be a small cramped minivan, I thought it best to expend some energy. I grabbed a quick shower and was sat bag packed, towel drying in the sun and coffee in hand by 9am with a whole hour to go before my pickup. I sat basking in the glorious sunshine in the garden of Jai dii house wishing I could have had an extra day in Chiang Mai to enjoy the sudden change in weather. As I sat there I suddenly realised that it was mothers day on Sunday and although I'd spoken to Will about organising something, I'd totally forgotten to do it yesterday morning. I hurriedly logged on and organised flowers and cards for home as it was a lot more important than breakfast.
The minivan arrived just as I finished and it was better than I expected. There were three seats to a row and as I was one of the first on I managed to grab a single seat so I could get comfy. The minivan picked up more people and we set off about an hour later. We all started comparing stories of nightmare journeys and how pleased we all were that we were actually on a minivan rather than what some of the travel agents in Southeast Asia call a minivan. We made a pitstop at Tesco Lotus to pick up fuel and I had to go in just for the novelty factor. The isle signs were exactly the same as back home but the choice was a little different. I knew Tesco's was a big company back home but I never realised that they stretched out to Asia. With snacks in hand, mainly pastries and peanuts, we set off. It was turning into a gloriously hot, sunny day and it was such a shame I had to spend it in transit. We headed up the highway passing the usual small shacks and makeshift stores but the landscape around it began to change and become more arid. Not as green as southern Thailand and a sign that the rainy season must only be around the corner.
Our first big stop was near Chiang Rai and as we all clambered over bags to get off the bus were met with the sight of the White Temple. I had been told that it was a must see and was disappointed I hadn't done a tour to it so it was most welcome surprise. It was stunning, a Wat painted entirely white and studded in places with small mirror like mosaic tiles. The glare of the early afternoon sun made it look all the more magnificent. We had enough time on this stop to have a quick wonder around it and although I had become Watted out before this was something else. The temple lay in the middle of a perfectly manicured green lawn and was surrounded by water. The entrance lay over a small bridge which was lined by sculptures of different hands reaching out of the ground - it reminded me of my A level sculpture days. I crossed the bridge and entered the small white building. It wasn't as big as some of the others I'd visited but the inside was something else. It had a large gold Buddha on the wall opposite the entrance with a waxwork figure of a monk at it's feet. Scaffolding lined the left wall where four guys were hand-painting images of people seated on clouds floating towards Buddha. Everyones attention was turned in the entrance wall though were they stared in amazement at the images covering it. It was a giant mural with tentacles and other weird and wonderful things in the background and interspersed with popular modern-day icon like Batman, Darth Vader, Superman and others. It made no sense whatsoever but it was mesmerising to look at and spot the different images. I asked one of the guys painting how long it had taken and his reply floored me. The incomplete left wall had taken two years so far. The entrance wall took four years to finish and they still had the right wall to paint yet. The love and attention that had gone into it was phenomenal and although photography in the temple was forbidden I couldn't resist taking one sneaky shot, as I knew everyone back home wouldn't believe the story. It truly was a twenty-first century temple.
We set off again and were soon at the boarder crossing. We stopped just short and a local woman opened the door and explained that we would need to pay for our visas into Laos. Fully aware of the situation already she continued to explain that it would be cheaper to do in American dollars rather than Thai baht so we didn't get stiffed. As luck would have it she just happened to have a laminated sheet with the prices for the various countries on it and a purse full of dollars. I had already changed up money into dollars the previous night, but some of the guys and girls hadn't. I calculated the exchange rate and found that she was going to sting us for about three-hundred extra baht for the privilege of her services. Everyone accepted the charge and we made our way to the boarder. The usual stamping out of one country took place and before being ushered to a longboat on the banks of Chiang Khong to cross the Mekong river to Huay Xai in Laos. Once across we climbed the hill to the small shack that was immigration. After endless paperwork, and an extra couple of dollars because they had to open later, we were granted entry to Laos. We hopped aboard a tuc tuc for transfer to the bus station which started to sound ominous.
Nick, Lisa and Nicky, from Liverpool, Tim and Matt, from Brighton, Agrettha, from Poland and myself would have been quite happy to do the journey in the airy tuc tuc and after seeing our 'VIP' bus wished we had done. The rickety old bus had clearly seen better days from the outside which was only confirmed when we took our seats. The bus had a faint smell of wee and the moth-eaten seats didn't look too appealing but hey, it's all part of the rich experience! We set off with the bus fully loaded and I mean fully loaded. Although all the seats had been taken they placed small plastic stools in the isle to seat another dozen passengers. I smiled to myself and though about all the stories I'd heard about bus travel I'm Southeast Asia and how it was all true. The roads passed over the mountains and the going was slow with the bus not going over thirty miles an hour. The roads reminded me of the last scenes if the original 'Italian Job' movie with Michael Cain, winding their way up and down the mountain side. As we progressed we were handed small plastic bags by the co-driver and I could see what was coming. Not ten minutes later the local chap I was sat next to began to cough and he produced his own plastic bag from his luggage. A seemingly endless vomiting performance ensued and I was given knowing looks from the gang.
I rummaged through my backpack for my iPod to stifle the various hacking noises issuing from the seat next to me but sadly it wasn't there. I had left it on the minivan in Thailand and thought that this part of the journey was clearly meant for me to spend time with myself without music or audio books as a distraction. I merrily sat there meditating on my travel experiences so far. I had had an amazing time and seen and experienced things some people only read or dream about. I had met some interesting people and made some good friends along the way and considered myself incredibly lucky. The next couple of days in Luang Prabang with the guys were going to be great.