An Introduction To Laos

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October 19th 2009
Published: October 30th 2009
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We booked our ticket from Pai to Chiang Khong where we would cross the border into Laos. We could have got a ticket the whole way to Luang Prabang (Laos) but decided to DIY it from the Thai border. The bus journey from Pai back to Chiang Mai is an almighty pain in the ass. You are constantly swinging from left to right because of the mountainous area we travelled through. You cant sleep either, for fear of head butting the window or the person beside you. I did both! A quick stop over in Chiang Mai and we were on our way to Chiang Khong, the Thai side of the border with Laos. The scenery again was spectacular. You could spend hours looking out of the bus in amazement at the huge rocks/mountains jutting up out of the ground. That’s what we did too as our journey was 6hrs long. When we arrived in Chiang Khong our bus stopped at one guesthouse. They were selling packages for the 2 day slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang and were very unhelpful as to how to do it yourself. We booked a room there as it was clean and cheap and ventured down the town to find out about how to get to Laos. We came across a little restaurant and had something to eat there. Again, as ever, the food was excellent. Chicken with cashew nuts, nearly as good as it gets. There was a Welsh guy in there and we got talking. He was a travel writer so we asked him what was the cheapest way to do the crossing. He gave us a few tips on how to do it cheaply and with our new knowledge felt a bit better about not having a package deal.

Next morning we were up early and had breakfast before anyone else. We were on the road early so that meant we were ahead of everyone at the border crossing. Getting out of Thailand was easy. A quick tuk tuk to the border control. A few stamps on the passport and soon we were on a long tail boat across the river to Laos, which was approximately 200m away. This is where it started to get a little bit frustrating. We were lucky we were early as the immigration is complete chaos. Instead of joining a queue and going through the formalities, it goes little more like this. Fill out arrival forms. Hand passport in through window. Guy who stamps passports hasn’t turned up yet. Wait for a while. Crowds get bigger. People get agitated. Pushing and shoving. No order. Tiny spaces. Stamp guy turns up. Processes passports. They cant say the names so you have to point through the window at yours. Small window. Lots of people. Finally I see ours. He then charged US$10 more than the visa fee as I pay in Thai Baht. It should be $35 each. We end up paying $45 each. Robbed.
Got passports. Its all over. Wait. Its not. We now fill in visa number and then hand it to border control. He stamps it. Oh thank god that’s over. Wait. Not yet. You have to show your passport to get on to the main street again. Now its over. By the way, all of that was over the space of 1.5hrs. We booked our slow boat ticket at the pier. It didn’t work out that much cheaper than a package, but it was a bit more adventurous.

Let me explain the slow boat. It takes two days by boat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. The seats are wooden and you are given a cushion for your seat. The seat is about 8 inches wide and probably not even worth sitting on. Leg room is so minimal that I had to sit with my legs out into the aisle and my back to Michelle. The boat takes up to 100 people, has seats for 80 or so and really probably tries to squeeze in 150. It stops over night in a small town and leaves early the next morning. It sounds really uncomfortable and I’ll be honest it is. But it turned out to be one of our most memorable experiences of the last 7 months. I would have it in my top 3 things I have done, along with the Inca Trail and The Great Barrier Reef. A statement in itself. We got talking to an English couple behind us called Tim and Sarah. That had only started travelling in the last few weeks and had six months in front of them. We were jealous, even though we had 8 weeks left. I remember in South America when we met people who said they had 8 weeks left and we thought to our selves that they had loads of time, even though they felt they had none. We now know how they feel. Most people would chop of their right arm for 8 weeks, well, maybe not chop of their right arm, but you know what I mean.

Soon there was a mention of the local beer ‘Beer Lao’ and as the boat moved off it created a nice breeze and everyone felt more relaxed. The scenery along the route was simply breath taking. It was easily on a par if not better than the scenery in New Zealand. As the boat slowly made its way down the Mekong everyone became more chatty and there were little groups of people joining in together. At the back of the boat there seemed to be a big party. People were cooking up food and others were covered in face paint. It all seemed so free and nobody had a care in the world. We chatted and drank with Tim and Sarah for the journey, every so often staring out the open windows at the amazing landscape. Little villages and huts would appear along the river and I wondered what their life would be like. Live off the river, grow vegetables, go to bed when its dark, get up when its bright. A very simple way of life and I’m sure a lot less complicated than our own go-go western lives. You could also picture Rambo in one of his movies, floating in the silence at night along the river, on a mission to save some soldiers who were held captive. Eventually we pulled into Pak Beng, a little town surviving off people arriving on the slow boats. It was only about 7hrs on the boat and everyone had good fun on it. We got a nice place to stay, well it was until the electricity was turned off at 10pm, along with the fans. Electricity only runs here from 6pm to 10pm and there is an 11pm curfew for everyone.

Back on board again at 9am the boat finally pulled out at 10:30am. We were all sat together again but I sat at the front of the boat outside for a small while. There is something to be said about sitting outside the boat, up the front. Regardless of weather conditions I always do it. You can see the world from a different prospective out there. There are never any man made objects in front of you and all you see is the world as it is, or as it should be. The rolling hills and valleys along the way were again spectacular. Water buffalo bathe in the water all along the river. Every now and again we would pass a little village on the banks of the river. Each time you wanted to pull in and see how they lived. Children played in the river at some of the villages, some doing back flips to show off for the passing tourists. Fishermen tended to their nets in the small canoe like boats. Sometimes the boat would stop in the middle of nowhere with no surrounding villages. A little canoe would approach and a local would get off our boat. We would wonder where they were going too. We finally pulled in to Luang Prabang at 5pm that evening. The whole journey was jaw dropping to say the least. We made plenty of new friends and what looked like it was going to be one of the most horrendous journeys of our lives, turned in to be one of the best. I’m glad we did it now and not in ten years time, when the luxury, non descript and characterless boats will probably take over.

Laos has awoken to the riches that tourism can bring, but these guys are so laid back, it might never bother them to earn a quick buck out of it. You might say they only have half an eye open yet. If you want something in Laos, you have to go look for it. Unlike other neighbouring countries where it will come find you. People are friendly, very relaxed and very unassuming. We like this place and it might just steal a piece of our hearts by the time we leave it.

In a bit. DH

Song of the blog: Whole Lotta Love - Led Zeppelin

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