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Published: February 26th 2009
Cross border to Chang Rai/Hill tribe village
We breakfasted in the strange atmosphere (engendered by the dotty sisters) of the BAP guesthouse. Service was a bit haphazard and I cringed as a German went up to complain that her breakfast hadn't arrived. Gesticulations and some jabbed sharp words in Lao resulted. Our breakfast actually arrived quite promptly prompting another Englishman to jokily ask why we were getting special treatment when he had apparently been appointed fancy man to one of the sisters. The only task we had before crossing the border was to dispose of our small amount excess Laos currency which we did by buying a couple of T-shirts. We headed down to the river and got stamped out by Laos emigration having to pay only the 'overtime' fee of 5000 kip each and not the anticipated exit tax. After paying the small boat ferry fare of 10,000 each for the short crossing, we therefore still had a fivers worth of kip on reaching the Thai shore. We clambered up the steep bank to the Thai border post. We were the only westerners and queueing seemed to be an alien concept and we were coninually queuejumped. In the end with the help of our large rucksacks we formed a blocking wedge and got served. Formalities over (and our 15 day visa obtained) we quickly found a tuk-tuk (immediately noticing our first female tuk-tuk driver - didn't see any in Cambodia or Laos) and sped off to the bus station. We were hit immediately by how much busier and modern it was on the Thai side of the border. The town (Chiang Khong) is much bigger in size and there is far more traffic. At the station we soon found the bus to Chang Rai and nipped to the ubiquitous Thai convenience store (called Seven-Eleven) for some snacks. The bus was rickety and initially the roads were just as in Laos - very uneven and potholed, so that the bus was managing only about 20-25mph, The scenery was indifferent - a plain followed by low scruffy deforested hills blurry in the heat haze. There was the occasional georgeous splash of bougainvillea. The road improved the nearer we got to Chang Rai. We found a great vegetarian restaurant just outside the bus station and had a delicious buffet of assorted dishes on rice selected simply by pointing at what looked good. We got a tuk-tuk to the town branch Akha Hill Lodge. Unfortunately a new bridge is being built right beside the lodge. We booked our transport place out to the Akha Hill Village which leaves at 4:4:30 and leaving our rucksacks behind set out for a couple of hours exploration of Chang Rai. It is a pleasant town and seems very modern compared with Laos towns. We changed some dollars into Thai baht and had our usual afternoon fruit juices. We did a little internetting and were astonished at the speed after slow Laos. We strolled back in the great heat to the lodge and joined others for the trip in the pickup out to the hill village. Jen secured an inside seat but I crammed onto the back with several others. We picked up supplies for the village on the way out. I was glad to notice several boxes of beer bottles in addition to the fruit, veg and bread. The one hour trip out was great as the breeze nullified the heat. The last 5km was along a bumpy dusty track and we had to duck occasionally to avoid low branches. On reaching the village we took a 500baht bungalow as there were insufficient 350baht ones left. We met an Australian couple called Jeff and Julie. They are dairy farmers from near Melbourne. The village is in a lovely valley. Our bungalow has a balcony (with no guard rail) looking out over it. It is basic but for our extra 150baht we have got a ceiling and a western style loo and even an electric point. We shared a few beers with the others in the communal area.
Breakfasted and then set out with Jeff and Julie plus a young Parisian called Florence to the nearby waterfall. It's setting is lovely in thick tropical forest and its three cascades look beautiful in amongst the bamboo groves. We decided to do a longer walk by following a track past the school and through tea plantations to the hot springs. We were armed only with the most basic map of too large a scale to be of much use. We walked for an hour then a passing pickup gave us a lift to the road near the hot springs. We met a Canadian couple who are staying at the village coming back the other way who said it was possible to make a circular walk back to the hill village simply by following the red signs. We first dined a lovely riverside restaurant. We had some trouble communicating that we didn't want any meat but with the help of a guide accompanying several Czechs we managed this. Jen and Julie watched the preparation of the Pad Thai. We walked on to the National Park entrance where the Canadian couple had indicated that we would find the signs for the village. They were not immediately clear so we asked a crazy looking man in a kiosk who only seemed to want to show us a picture he'd drawn of Christ on the crucifix. However another lady pointed us in the direction for the village. We found the red arrows and followed the track stopping by the river to bathe our feet (we'd decided against a dip at the hot springs as it was too hot). The track surprisingly clung to the river when I had expected it to head northwards into the hills. We were concerned so stopped several locals passing on foot or moped (none of which spoke English but who all indicated for us
carry on in our current direction when we said 'Akha Hill Village' and showed them the brochure). The red arrows continued and at last the track turned in towards the hills. We stopped further locals who continued to gesture that we should continue in our current direction. We came to a very sleepy village where most seemed to be asleep in hammocks. There was a fork in the road with signs only in Thai. There seemed to be disagreement as to which way we should head. Then mercifully a man arrived on a moped who could speak broken English but to our horror he said our hill village was a 'long long way' and that we should return in the direction we'd been walking for more than two hours. It was now only an hour to sunset. We noticed a battered old pickup and asked if we could pay someone to take us at least as far as the main road where we could meet the villages pickup as it came with the new people from Chang Rai. After some negotiation we got the price down to 300baht (60 baht each) The driver first topped up the leaky brakes with fluid and eventually got it to start. It was a huge relief and this grew as we realised quite how far it was back to the main road. It took 15-20 minutes in the pick-up and we'd never have made it back in daylight. At the turning from the main road onto the definite track to the hill village we clambered out, paid the driver and headed for a little shack restaurant that served the most delicious beer (in the company of an untethered cow). The hill villages pickup turned up as we'd hoped with some more residents and we clambered aboard for the final 5km back to the hill village. Seldom has a shower followed by a meal and a few beers felt so good. The locals put on a little impromptu show demonstrating their skills using bamboo stilts.
We bade farewell to Jeff and Julie who are heading into Laos armed with some advice from us. We decided to have a lazy day on our balcony, but late afternoon I couldn't resist climbing the steep hill opposite on my own for a view back across the village. I rather overdid it in the heat and didn't drink enough water and had a bit of a 'funny turn' on my return presumably due to the combination of too much sun, too much exertion and too little water. I'll have to accept that I'm getting older. I soon recovered however, although decided tohave a night off the ale.
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