Meandering down the Mekong to a new Country

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January 15th 2013
Published: January 22nd 2013
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Once we had managed to drag ourselves away from lovely Pai, we set our minds on leaving Thailand and heading overland into Laos, but first we had to get to the border. It worked out easiest for us to go back to Chiang Mai for one night, where we ate our way around the Sunday market and met up with a guy for drinks who we first met months ago in China, then leave the next morning for Chiang Rai and stay there for one night so we wouldn't have such a long journey to the border the next day. The bus to Chiang Rai took about 3 hours and we bumped into our Japanese friend Kayzo on the way, but the minute we arrived we didn't like the feel of the place. Massage shops and girly bars reined supreme and the many older Western men we saw obviosuly only came here for one reason; guesthouses were shabby and food options overpriced - 120 Baht for a Pad Thai in a cafe?! Crazy. Luckily we found a night market and some local food stalls so we ate well, Scott went to Wat Phra Kaew which housed a replica of the original Emerald buddha inside surrounded by neon (as it is said that lightening struck the top of the temple which then fell apart to reveal this Buddha) and the clock tower had a light show at night which was quite attractive, but all this was not enough to make us wish we were staying any longer than one night here.

We decided to skip paying for an arranged trip tp get over the border to Laos and researched into doing it ourselves - mainly for the adventure but also because we knew it would be a lot cheaper this way. Up early we were on the 7am local bus bound for Chiang Khong, the border town on the Thai side, and the journey only took just over 2 hours, so by 9.15 am we were being stamped out of Thailand at immigration. We then had to get a small motor boat across the river (3 minutes) to the Laos border town of Huay Xai - behind us was Thailand, and ahead of us was Laos, but whilst on the boat we were effectively in no man's land, as we were not in Thailand but not in Laos yet either - luckily we made it accross safely! We then filled out some forms and waited in line for Laos immigration to give us our visas ($35 for UK citizens) which only took about 30 minutes, and now that we were finally in Laos we could organise getting our tickets for the 2 day slow boat to get to the city of Luang Prabang. As we started walking a guy told us we could get tickets for the boat from him and he wanted 1000 Baht each, the same price everywhere he said. Now when we hear this we know its not true, so we walked for another minute and we came to a travel agent who sold us tickets for only 900 Baht each! Tickets for the boat in hand, we got some sandwches and snacks for the journey and were taken by tuk-tuk (included in the 900 Baht ticket) to the pier about 10 minutes away. Once our bags were loaded on we found the seats we had been allocated and were pleasantly surprised that they were actually mini-van style cushioned seats and not the wooden bench seats we had expected. The boat was filling up way beyond its capacity and a few people complained (two French guys, even though they had good seats) so in the end another boat was called over and our boat left full but with no more than 80 people on it, and everyone had a seat which was good.

The scenery along the Mekong Delta was fantastic, with craggy limestone cliffs protruding out of the water and bright blue skies, and wiith just the sound of the engine and people talking it made for a nice relaxing day. Scott cracked open his first Beer Lao of the trip and we cruised along the river, snacking on sandwiches and crisps we had bought beforehand, watching local people go about their day's on the river banks and enjoying the journey. 7 hours passed quickly and before we knew it we had stopped for the evening at Pak Beng, a small town in West Laos. We found a guesthouse and went for something to eat before crashing out for the night, the early start catching up with us.

Day 2 of the slow boat began with us grabbing some more sandwiches and snacks for the journey ahead - I never like to be without supplies - and we boarded the boat which wasn't as comfortable as the one the day before. We grabbed some wooden bench seats as all the soft seats had gone already, even though we were early, but luckily they had cushions so were not too bad although leg room was scarce. A Scottish couple sat opposite us (after Scott begrudgingly moved over for them!) and we hit it off with them straight away which made for great conversation and card games all day. They (Dale and Alan) are musicians and at one point when the boat had stopped for a while, they got out their guitar and harmonica and treated everyone to a few songs which was greatly appreciated, as after 6 hours on day two we were all feeling a bit 'done' with the boat journey, even though they scenery was still very picturesque. Finally at about 6pm, after an 8 hour day on the boat and just as the sun was setting, we pulled into Luang Prabang, our first proper destination in Laos.

The slow boat was a really great way to experience the Mekong Delta and we are really glad we took this mode of transport to enter Laos, rather than an overnight bus. We met some cool people and even though both days were fairly long, the scenery along the way was amazing and we found the journey to be relaxing and enjoyable. We are now looking forward to exploring Luang Prabang and hope the weather is better than it was on our last visit 2 years ago!

S&V's Travel Info & Tips:

General Info: Approx 48 Baht to £1

Transportation: From Chiang Rai we took a local bus to the border town of Chiang Khong (65 Baht, every hour). We then took a quick Tuk-Tuk from the bus stop to immigration (30 Baht each), and once we were stamped out of Thailand we had to take a speed boat over the river to Laos (40 Baht each). The slow boat ticket for 2 days through to Luang Prabang from Huay Xai cost us 900 Baht each.

Food: Not much to comment on food - lots of sandwich stalls in Huay Xai and Pak Beng, get one or two for the boat journey. A few restaurants in Pak Beng, all serving a mix of Thai-Lao food. We found an Indian restaurant!

Accomodation: In Pak Beng we stayed at LP reccomended Santisouk Guesthouse for 450 Baht and it was nice - there were some cheaper rooms around but we didn't have the energy to search.

Other observations:

x) You can only pay for your Laos visa in US dollars - it costs $35 each for British citizens.

xx) Everywhere in Huay Xai and Pak Beng accepted Thai Baht, even though they were in Laos.

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