Chiag Rai to Huay Xai, Lao*
A terribly uneventful border crossing
* The French added the ‘s’ to Lao, during their period of colonization, in an attempt to unify the kingdoms of Lao, thereby making the name plural. The ‘s’ is intended to be silent, though as anyone who visits the country will see, local mentality is to remove the letter completely when in written form…we thought we’d do the same..
The plan was to get up relatively early, have breakfast and finish up what was left to do on the webpage, to have it ready for our friends back home. We succeeded with that plan relatively well and spent the first half of the day using the internet. At 1:00PM we checked out and with our 2nd to last tuk-tuk, drove to the bus station to find a bus that would take us to Chiang Khong, the border town to get into Laos. The bus would be leaving in 15 min, which gave us just enough time to order some kind of soup from the lady street vendor and guzzle it down.
We boarded our very local bus and enjoyed the ride to the Lao border. The ride took about 3 hours and we covered the remaining distance to the immigration office (by the banks of the Mekong) with our last Thai tuk-tuk ride. At the Thai office we had a bit of a bad surprise, as we had overstayed our visa by one day and had to pay 500 baht each ($15) penalty. We filled out some very important looking paperwork, accepted our “fine” and signed on the dotted line. What else can you do?
We walked down to the waterfront and for 30 Baht each, crossed the Mekong into Lao. We got our visa and somehow the air was different. It was Sunday afternoon so the daze of a last Sunday was in the air, but what we also have learned is that this feeling permeates the entire country. Nothing is ever rushed, no one is in a hurry, and time seems to almost stand still.
Here we had arrived, and there were no driver to hassle us, no vendors to sell anything, nothing but people going about their business. We checked into the BAP Guesthouse, a place recommended in the LP as the place to go for the latest information on navigating the Mekong. Knowing we would leave the next day, we knew our first job was to investigate the options for the boat ride to Luang Prabang. Sure enough, without much effort, the solution presented itself in the form of two German travellers (Stefan and Dirk) who were trying to organize a group of people to charter a private boat for the way down to Luang Prenang. We had already been discussing…slow boat or speed boat, and neither option seemed too appealing.
If everyone showed up, then we would have our 10 people. We were in and could go to bed thinking the decision had been resolved.
Huay Xai to Pak Beng
Boat ride on the Mekong - Day I
After a decent breakfast next door, we met up with our travel group for the next two days at the hostel and took the tuk-tuks to the riverbank. Once there we had to sort out a few details on the charter and were very lucky that one of the Germans and the harbor master were both fluent in French. That was our bridge of communication, as the captain spoke only Lao. We paid the $500US fee (making the charter option only $10US more expensive per person than the other options) and were soon on our way. We succeeded in sneaking on 2 more people than were “officially” allowed which helped with reduce the per person cost. At 10:30AM we tossed the lines and started cruising down the Mekong.
With us were Greg & Jean, Gary, Emma & Jonanthan (British couple, on their way to Japan), Andrea (from the plains of Canada), the Czechs Lu and Michael and of course the two Germans mentioned above. Also included were the first mate and we think his wife and baby boy…though we are not exactly sure what relation they had with the captain. Maybe he was grandpa?
The ride was soothing and incredible beautiful. We had room to stretch our legs and move about as we pleased, even though that meant hunching over for most of us as the roof was quite low. We drifted past ragged rocks feet away from the boat, passed some amazingly strong currents swirls in the water and saw the endless jungle of Lao pass by. Every once in a while one would spot houses of the small villages on the slopes but all in all there were very few human inhabitants to be seen. After 6-7 hours, we arrived in the town of Pak Beng, where we would spend the night. Once we got situated, Alex and I took a stroll through some of the back roads of this little town and saw village life in action. Kids were playing in the street, moms were washing kids (which looked rather unhappy) at the well and a bunch of dogs were chasing each other around. One of the cutest views was this little girl (maybe 6 years old) carrying her little baby brother on her back in a sling. Whenever we passed some kids they would call out “Falang” which means foreigner and then all heads and eyes would turn toward us. But they were happy and sweet and full of smiles. The evening ended with a nice meal and great conversation at a restaurant on the main road. By 9:00 PM the entire town went to bed, as the main generator got switched off. It was a calm and very fulfilling day.
Pak Beng to Luang Prabang,
Boat ride on the Mekong - Day II
We had to get up very early today. At 5:30AM the alarm rang and we got dressed in the dark, as the generator was still off. We arrived at 6:00AM breakfast spot, the hostel where the other people from our boat stayed. We were the first to arrive (or to be awake) and the lights were still off. The owners were running around in the kitchen with flashlights, preparing the food we had ordered the night before, including sandwhiches we would take on the boat ride with us. Slowly everybody else emerged and enjoyed their breakfast. The day started to dawn around us as we sat on the terrace overlooking the Mekong and its valley below us, which was incredible to see. After this we grabbed the sandwiches and carried our bags down the slope to our boat that was scheduled to leave at 7:00AM. But we are in Lao and time is something different. It was delightful to watch 12 falang, simply wait, without impatience or frustration, for they new it would change very little.
It was colder today and the wind blowing up the valley didn’t help us as we tried to find a warmer spot on the boat to hang out. We passed more beautiful landscape until (after two hours) we stopped at a riverside village for a short visit. We were greeted by tons of little Lao kids in varying stages of disarray…the sweet smiles poked out from behind really dirty clothes, hands and faces. Some greeted us with no clothes on at all, because the rolling sand bank and the river had just been their playground. Alex and I handed out the little stickers we had bought in Singapore for encounters like this. Very soon we had given out most of our stickers as the group of children had magically grown. These little hands were in the air, anxious to get their hands on whatever the falang were handing out.
The village was semi-authentic. People lived their simple lives there but were also accustom to tourists visiting and had different textile goods for sale. Remnants of the weaving craft/trade were evident but it was clear that the textiles for sale now had been made by machine in China. Perhaps some of the tourists don’t now the difference. We boarded the boat again and the ‘welcoming committee’ waved goodbye, before they were distracted by the next approaching boa.
It would be another 5 hours until our next stop at the caves close to Luang Prabang. The Pak Ou caves are located high up in the limestone at the point where the Mekong and the Nam Ou converge. There are over 4000 Buddha statues of varying sizes and made of varying materials housed in the two caves. These caves were thought to be magical and it would bring good luck if you went to worship there, so much so that even the king of Lao would come here once a year. Now, the caves are a major tourist spot, but nonetheless a worthy and worthwhile one.
It was getting late in the afternoon and we were happy that it would only be a few more kilometers to our final destination. About 30 minutes later we disembarked the boat and said goodbye to the captain and his family (incl. the little 1 year old baby who had been entertaining us throughout the last two days). We had to find accommodation, which was not as easy as we thought as there was a festival coming up and many places were booked up. We ended finding a decent place for a mere 90.000 KIP (~$10) and stayed the next three days there. Most of the Mekong boat crew met up for dinner before we retired to bed very early. During the course of the few following days we met many travelers had take the same river route and told us the stories of their long slow boat trip to Luang Prabang. They had chosen the regular slow boat and actually had over 100 people on the boat. For 2 full days, they were sitting on the wooden benches with zero leg room and no room to move about. It made us realize many times how lucky we were to find our “Mekong Boat Crew” and share a whole boat with just 12 people.