Exit stage right: Leaving Thailand and Laos Act 1-the torturous journey to Luang Prabang.

So after almost a month in Northern Thailand it was time to move on to country number 5, Laos. Before we left we decided to visit Chiang Rai- basically just to go to the Golden Triangle (Where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet). Reading up on it though it sounded like a waste of time but maybe Chiang Rai might have some charm that we hadn’t heard about.

It didn’t.

We spent two nights there and did one trip out of it on a moped we borrowed from the guesthouse owner. That was about it.

First to a tea plantation, Choi Fueg, this was pretty cool as neither of us had been to one before.

A lovely lemon honey iced Oolong tea and a spot of Ruan Zhi Oolong.
A lovely lemon honey iced Oolong tea and a spot of Ruan Zhi Oolong.

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Drying ovens.
Drying ovens.

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They didn’t do tours, which was a pity, so it was a quick drive up for a drink on the way to what was planned to be our next stop- Doi Tung which is basically the Royal Holiday home- nice gardens, supporting local tribes, etc, and then maybe to the Golden Triangle if we had time-however as we sat drinking our tea a foreboding darkness appeared in the west, which grew more and more threatening in it’s appearance as it moved towards us. It was at this point that we decided that we would have to cut short our trip and miss out everything else and head back to Chiang Rai. The road up was quite busy and we didn’t want to risk an accident on the wet surface. In the end we should have kept going as it moved south but wasn’t worth the risk.

Evil cloud of doom. followed us for 20 mins then disappeared.
Evil cloud of doom. followed us for 20 mins then disappeared.

So eager to not waste the day we decided to try to go to the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) and Black Temple (Baan dam Museum). The Black Temple was on our way back, but for the life of us we couldn’t find the sign for it anywhere! At least we knew where the White temple was as we had passed it on the way up from Chiang Mai. After a quick drive across town and a U-turn we arrived at the temple.

It’s a pretty strange place (and still under construction), designed and owned by an artist who has spent millions (of Baht) on it and the complex has free entry as he believes everyone in the world should see it. It was quite impressive…if a bit strange.

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The walkway ceiling covered with peoples prayers
The walkway ceiling covered with people’s prayers
These are genius planters for trailing plants.
These are genius planters for trailing plants.

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I quite liked the traffic cones..
I quite liked the traffic cones..
Predator.....
Predator…..

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Heavenly body-less faces
Heavenly body-less faces
Hellish hellraiser faces
Hellish hell raiser faces
Hell...
Hell…you had to walk over it to get to heaven

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There was also a gallery displaying his work, it was mostly Buddhist imagery and views of Nirvana but then at the end of the gallery he had some paintings he did of a more “contemporary” subject matter such as Osama Bin Laden and G. W. Bush smiling and waving while riding a bomb through the air- it has not dated well. It was also roasting in there and I quickly lost interest due to the heat. The Buddhist artwork was nice and colourful though.

We also had a local speciality while in Chiang Rai- Lab Gai or Kai a minced chicken dish. Gav liked it, I didn’t care for it.

jh
Lab Gai- it was way too dry.

Also in the Night Bazaar, Gav got this:

This was called
This was called “Noodles with prawns stuffed with egg”. It looked awful but tasted nice.

After 2 days in Chiang Rai, our visa was almost up so it was time to head to Laos! We had looked around and there were a people offering a package all the way through but in fairness it didn’t sound that hard to do ourselves. So on the morning of the 13th July we got a taxi to the bus station and bordered the local bus to Chiang Khong, asking the driver to drop us at the start of the Friendship bridge.Three hours or so later after taking in some local villages and a heavy rain shower en route we arrived at the bridge. A tuk tuk was 100 B but we said only had 75 B left for the journey. After making moves to walk the 3km to the Thai border he said he’d do it for 75 B, we were lucky-it would have been a long hot boring walk.

Local bus with finest air con of open windows and occasional fan.
Local bus with finest air con of open windows and occasional fan.

On arrival we went through what must be the easiest border crossing ever, a quick check on the Thai side that we had the photos and dollars ($35 each) ready for the Laos visa, an exit stamp and we were out of Thailand! However we did have to pay an extra 5B each for the bus ticket to the Laos border as we arrived 5 minutes before 1 pm so we had arrived at lunchtime- we didn’t leave until after 1 pm either!

Overtime...
Overtime…
The lovely Mekong.. Thailand on the left, Laos on the right.
The lovely Mekong.. Thailand on the left, Laos on the right.

Anyway after a short bus ride, a small bit of form filling (as usual), form, photo and passport submission and payment within 20 mins we had our Laos visa and were on our way into Houayxay (or Huay Xai… there is about 5 variations on the spelling of this tiny town) with three Laos ladies, their groceries and a Miss Kitty bike hanging off the back while we raced down potholed roads. On more than one occasion he went the wrong way which was met by yelling from the ladies. Eventually though they all got where they needed to go and we got dropped at what we would hope to be our guesthouse for the night. This was going to be the first time we would rock up and book on the spot as for some reason Laos, despite being open for tourism for many years and wifi available in the majority of guesthouses, very few are online and are more expensive than if you just show up. Anyway our place for the night was Phonthip Guesthouse. It was pretty basic and a bit nasty (the whole place had a smell of urinal freshener) but super cheap at 60,000 kip (£4.70/$7.30), however you get what you pay for, a broken mattress and a crappy night’s sleep. Oh well.

For most people this is either their starting point for the journey further inland or a quick jaunt for the famous Gibbon Experience. Before we left the UK I was itching to do this, but it was a budget crippling $100 a day per person so we are leaving it for our next trip to Chiang Mai at some undefined future date :). So first impressions of Laos, people seemed quite laid back, smiley and generally the pace of life seemed quite slow. However it also means that service was at a snail’s pace. More on that later though. So the only thing we did here really was grab a coffee at Dream Bakery (charity for children) our first local beer at Daauw Home (a charity to support hill tribe women) and then an unremarkable dinner at a local restaurant.

The service was so slow here that the sun had actually gone down by the time our beers arrived- but it's the Lao way, relaxed and in no rush at all...
The service was so slow here that the sun had actually gone down by the time our beers arrived- but it’s the Lao way, relaxed and in no rush at all…
The beer here is really good! Hurrah! After a month of crap beer in Thailand (I was dry for the whole month) its back to tasty beer. Its the same price or cheaper than most fruit shakes....dangerous
The beer here is really good! Hurrah! After a month of crap beer in Thailand (I was dry for the whole month) its back to tasty beer. It’s the same price or cheaper than most fruit shakes….dangerous
Some interesting descriptions here.
Some interesting descriptions here clearly written by a person from Cork..like

The following morning, bleary eyed we managed to get some breakfast- our waitress was about 6 years old and once we were served she hopped on her bike to go to school- it was a bit of a random place.

sausage
Sausage with sticky rice (top right)
egg
Sticky rice with egg- like a rice omelette, very filling.
Inside was a collection of flavoured whiskey...
Inside was a collection of flavoured whiskey…
...loads of them! Wish we'd had known about this the night before would have been nice to try a few! For future reference this is was in Bar How
…loads of them! Wish we’d had known about this the night before would have been nice to try a few! For future reference this is was in Bar How, looked a bit like a really old sweet shop inside.

Then it was back to the hotel to await our tuk tuk pickup which we assumed would drop us at the boat-it instead dropped us at a shop/restaurant up the hill from the jetty where we got our actual boat tickets complete with seat numbers. We were then told there was no shop on board so we must buy any drinks and snacks we wanted there; we had already got some anyway but from reading reviews we knew there was one on board. This would not be the first lie we heard in Laos unfortunately. So after waiting around for just over an hour we were told that the boat was now there so we could walk down and get on, so off we trundled with a Swedish guy we had met on the tuk tuk. After getting on, stowing our bag and finding our seat (the three of us were together) it was now about 11 am with the departure time of 11.30 am. It’s worth mentioning that the seats were all old van seats (some more comfortable and in better condition than others) and were not bolted down as the boats are also used to transport goods to the villages up and down the Mekong. They do move around a lot so sometimes you got less or more leg room (usually less).

Our boat...
Our boat…
I'm not sure why we took this at an angle but this was the view from our seat...
I’m not sure why we took this at an angle but this was the view from our seat…
...and from the front
…and from the front

So we waited and by 11.30 the boat was full and ready to depart. Only it didn’t. Instead a guy got on, a representative of the boat company and told us that we would be delaying departure as 40 more people were about to arrive. Now at this stage all the seats were full but the local people had gone to the engine room at the back so it looked like it was only ¾ full. There were a few families on board and a very restrained argument started between a French guy, dutch parents, a Swedish gent and a dutch lady and the Lao boat rep. The boat, the rep said, was good to hold 90 people (at this point there was that on it anyway, and that his English was no good and lao was a poor country etc. Now I know fuel is expensive there but we were paying $30 each for the boat (for each foreigner) so it wasn’t cheap. When the bus loads of people arrived the dutch girl went out to explain to them what was going on and they all refused to get on. So we had a stand-off for about 20 mins- all the time more locals were going in through an adjacent boat and getting in the back- until the rep said that anyone who did not get on the boat would not get a refund, it was then that a load of arsehole party backpackers (urrggh!) broke ranks and pushed their way on. At that the French family got up and grabbed their bags and left. Then we all got up to leave and finally they put on a second boat and the French family luckily got on it. This craic is a well known thing that happens before the slow boat gets going but even with expecting it, I really did not enjoy the experience and it poisoned the whole first day for me as at that point I was quite happy to get off and get the bus. Even as we pulled out of the jetty there was at least 110 people on board and given one had sunk not long before and there clearly was not enough life jackets on board so I was tense for the entire journey to our midway stop of point of Pakbeng six hours or so later.

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The Friendship bridge
The Friendship bridge

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Gav spotted a square cloud.
Gav spotted a square cloud.
It rained heavily...
It rained heavily…
..within 5 minutes both sides were down
..within 5 minutes both sides were down

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On arrival, there was the usual dodge of the tuk tuk drivers and hotel agents at the top of the hill leading to the rather dodgy jetty and we headed up the hill to the guesthouse we heard was good and luckily they had a room. Not much happened here however we the restaurant we were in did have “happy” shakes on the menu for 50,000 kip (£3.90/$6.10). These are fruit shakes laced with either metanphetamine (yabba),cannabis or magic mushrooms. We opted for beer and banana shakes (10,000 kip/£0.78/$1.22) before you ask! We also got offered opium, well we were in the Golden Triangle after all- in this instance we opted for a chocolate cake from the bakery instead.

The next morning we awoke early and ready for another boat argument, loaded up on supplies from the surprisingly good bakery and headed for the pier. The boat was due to leave at 9.30 am and we arrived at 8.30 am to two boats ready to go. This time we picked the second boat, not the most sensible choice as there were no head rests.

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The first boat leaving-our  new one was a lot smaller...
The first boat leaving-our new one was a lot smaller…
..as you can see
..as you can see only four across this time rather than five.

We sat there for another hour with the first boat leaving at 9am while we waited for the last passenger who had unfortunately been ill in the night and vomited all over his sheets. He and his mate tried to hide it but were found out and he had to pay a sizable fine. Finally we were on our way! The first three hours were enjoyable enough, we passed some villages, picked up a guy with a massive lizard all trussed ready for dinner and the scenery was nice enough. However it then got a bit boring and it seemed to take forever to get to Luang Prabang! In all honesty the best scenery was in the last two hours as we got closer to Luang Prabang so I’d recommend getting a cruise up the river from the city rather than this tortuous two day journey.

The other way to get to Luang Prabang is by 6 hr speedboat- it is quite dangerous though and very uncomfortable. This was some locals heading up river- we did see some tourists going the other way at one point, all in crash helmets.
The other way to get to Luang Prabang is by 6 hr speedboat- it is quite dangerous though and very uncomfortable. This was some locals heading up river- we did see some tourists going the other way at one point, all in crash helmets.

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This entire village piled out on to the beach to see someone off
This entire village piled out on to the beach to see someone off

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Even in real life this mountain looked like a movie set- spectacular.
Even in real life this mountain looked like a movie set- spectacular.

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On arrival into Luang Prabang, we pulled up next to the first boat and had to negotiate getting to land by crossing from one boat to the other over a widening gap with all our bags (I had visions of ending up in the water) and then finally down a ramp to land. We were greeted at the top of the steps by a tout for a guesthouse. This time we had one booked and told him so, he didn’t seem to have had much business as shortly after speaking to us he started having a go at some young backpackers about how superior they thought they were – they were just standing there doing nothing. The dock was 15 mins from the city so we had to get a tuk tuk and Gav spotted a gap in the queue and got the tickets. As we got on the tuk tuk you could still hear the guesthouse tout ranting at the young backpackers…..

As we drove into Luang  Prabang it started raining again. The joys of rainy season...
As we drove into Luang Prabang it started raining again. The joys of rainy season…

At this point we weren’t sure about Laos…..loads of people seemed to really like it and we wanted to give it a chance so as we sped off in the rain to our guesthouse we reserved judgement, countries like good books can often take a few chapters to get into…

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