Going Slow

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August 23rd 2011
Published: August 23rd 2011
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After booking the tickets I was a little unsure as to why we had paid more money to get somewhere slower. I’d read that the slow boat to Luang Prabang offered beautiful views of the Mekong River and surrounding countryside, but surely as we continue to head south, down through Laos into Cambodia and then eventually up through Vietnam, we’d see more than our fair share of the mighty Mekong.

The first day we spent six hours on a bus from Chiang Mai to Chang Khong, a small town on the Thai border. Two hours into our journey we passed “The White Temple” and were given the opportunity to look around. The White Temple was immediately different in that it is all white, as its name suggests. The skulls balancing above the custom made traffic cones gave the initial impression of hell-and-brimstone (my least preferred approach to religion), and much more was still yet to come.

At the entrance we passed a cardboard cut out of an unfamiliar Thai man. We later found out that he was the artist commissioned to undertake the design of The White Temple, which at the time of our visit was still unfinished, five years after it began, a fact we discovered from yet another unfamiliar Thai, who personally commissioned Chris to model a shirt in support of “Womens Power” on behalf of the new female Prime Minister. Oh, the joys of being Western Man in asia.

From a distance The White Temple is stunning. Upon closer inspection, it’s more gruesome than it is easy on the eyes; decapitated heads hanging from trees, hundreds of arms reaching out of the ground as if to drag you under and skulls are used as the primary decorative motif. The White Temple is indeed different.

Inside the temple has yet to be completed. A monk was sat crossed legged in deep meditation, seemingly a model of Madam Toussaud (I have since come to the horrifying realisation that he may have actually been dead, and subsequently preserved this way!). Two artists sat elevated on scaffolding painting the walls, presumably inspired by modern tattoo-culture and design. The hell-and-brimstone continued. As we turned to leave something caught our eye. It was a mural of the famous twin towers; one plane down, another to go. From the destruction rose three snake-like creatures with alien heads. Then we noticed an array of popular comic book super heroes: Superman, Spiderman, Batman. Kung Fu Panda was there too. As was Freddie Kruger and Michael Jackson. Quite strange. Quite contemporary. Chris was a fan and I wasn’t. But certainly it provoked conversation on the minibus afterwards.

In the price of our journey ticket (1,500 baht) our night’s accommodation in Chang Khong had been pre-arranged, as was our evening meal and breakfast the next morning. The room was comfortable and the food decent, but otherwise there is little else to say other than if you are ever taking the same trip and the staff at your guesthouse offer to take your passport to “get a stamp that saves you time queuing at the border for just 100 baht”, then listen to your instincts, just as we did. It’s a scam. There is no queue at the border, and you really shouldn’t be handing your passport over to anyone anyway!

The process of crossing the border into Laos was quite comical. First, Thai immigration stamps your passport. Next you’re sat on a large canoe to cross the river; this is no man’s land. Then you’re in Laos, but to be “in Laos” in the official sense, you have to climb the stairs, fill in a form, hand over your passport and wait in the midst of confusion until your name is called (as British citizens we were required to pay 35 USD for a 30 day visa, and it was also necessary for us to provide a passport picture), but there are no officials to make sure you adhere to this procedure. It’s a drug trafficker’s reverie. With that said, the first thing you will be offered upon your arrival in Laos, even before a “hello” or a friendly smile, is a bag of marijuana. And when you’re caught with it, you’ll have to extend your visa an extra three months whilst you’re detained... stupid falang!

Later we were picked up by a travel agent for the second scam attempt in just few short hours. The honest fellow told us in earnest, “I give you no bullshit! I save you time, I save you life!” He was trying to sell us a bus ticket to Luang Prabang on the provision that, because of the rain we would most likely have to spend the second night sleeping on the slow boat. As a result we would get malaria AND DIE! What we wouldn’t get however, was a refund on our already paid for boat tickets. Armed with our deet and doxycyclin, we decided to risk it!

Unfortunately, “scam-wise”, we fell at the final hurdle and paid the equivalent of one English pound for two pillows after seeing them for sale all around town, thus assuming uncomfortable seats onboard. Such fools we were! Our seats were taken straight from the back of a Ford Fiesta! But not to worry! In town we had also picked up some delicious baguettes and our first Beer Laos, which I’m delighted to say, served us well!

Over the following two days we met many other like-minded travellers from destinations all over the world. We drank together, shared tales of travel experiences, gave and received advice for future travels, talked nonsense and became friends. The atmosphere on board was great, and this lasted for days afterwards, creating something of a readymade community of foreigners in Luang Prabang. And now, that is the reason why I would whole heartedly recommend paying more money to get to your destination slower!
As we spent two days on the slowboat we had to stop and spend one night in the small village of Pak Beng, on the banks of the Mekong. This wasn’t included in the price of the tickets, but good rooms came as low as 100 baht if you haggled well. Feeling over exerted by a day of beer and banterous exchange we managed to give the town only a cursory look over before dinner and bedtime, but its charm was plain to see.

If only finding a room the next evening in Luang Prabang had been as simple... To cut a long story short, we were given the run around ALL around Luang Prabang before we found a decent room at an affordable price. The only complaint I could make (For the sum of £3.75 per room, per night I am not making any complaints!) was that the infant child spending her days playing outside our room had “a set of lungs on her”, as we say back home. But that’s an observation we’ve noticed throughout Laos, thus far, the children are always screaming!

The first evening, we met our new friends for dinner at the “eating street” located just off the night market. Here we could fill our plate until it was fit to burst for just 10,000 kip (75p), and for the same price again you got yourself a big Beer Laos and you were good to go (so long is it doesn’t start raining, as we discovered a few nights later)! Afterwards we struggled to locate a bar by the name of “Utopia”, but when we did we were rewarded by cold drinks and crap tele. We made plans with another two young couples (one of which we’d met and hiked with previously in Chiang Mai) to meet the next morning and take a tuk tuk to the nearby waterfalls.

After some initial haggling we agreed on a price of 160,000 kip for a driver to take us out to the waterfalls (about an hour’s drive away, and we wouldn’t recommend anyone cycling!), wait for two hours and drive us back to town. The entrance cost for the waterfall itself was 20,000 kip which also included access to a bear sanctuary and an absent tiger haven. The waterfalls were beautiful! There is a lower area for swimming if you don’t mind being gnawed at by ravenous fish, and further up are the waterfalls themselves where you can (and we did) climb a tree and swing from a rope, dropping into the water below. However, mind the current doesn’t whisk you away! Alternatively, there is entertainment to be had in watching other people swinging and being either to nervous or stupid to let go of the rope- a foolish alternative, quickly discovered when they are suddenly reacquainted with the aforementioned tree!

That evening we reformed and took a small and unstable boat across the nearby Nam Khong River to a restaurant we believe was called “Dyen Sabai”, but we can’t remember for sure. The setting is ambient and romantic, and the food is delicious! At the time we were concerned that the food was a little expensive for our travellers budget, but when we calculated it later our bill came to just £11 with cocktails! We had such a lovely evening with great company, and were unconcerned when the storm held us hostage into the night and spoilt our plans of bowling to escape the midnight curfew.

On our final day, Chris and I decided to tackle the city, small as it is, by foot. The people were friendly, the buildings dilapidated, and the weather hot until the heavens opened, forcing us into a nearby restaurant to enjoy a Laotian variation of our favourite North-Thai dish, Khao Soi. Once again we spent the evening in the food street, picked up some decorative items at the night market and enjoyed drinks in good company. Being our last night we said good bye to our friends, being happy to have made their acquaintance and feeling quite sad to have enjoyed their companionship for such a brief time - but then that’s the way it goes!

Additional photos below
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27th August 2011
Photo 54

Photos in general
Have to say that your photos are excellent and making me slightly envious. Can I ask what equipment you are using and hoping you're not going to say a Nikon D3000 nor Canon 7D!

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