Ooh lah lah, It is local bus time again!!!! Travelling with the local Thai people on their local buses is one of the best choices i have made so far. There is no air con, no free water, no free biscuits, and certainly no toilet to use. Just a lovely time spent on a small uncomfortable seated bus with local Thai people. Sunday the 27th January i got up at 5am in order to get to the bus station early, i wanted to get the first bus out of Chiang Rai (6am). There are buses leaving every hour but the last boat to leave on the Mekong River to Luang Prabang departs at 11:30am and i did not want to risk immigration on either the Thai or Laos side delaying me. For the local buses you cannot pre-buy tickets, you just arrive and first come first serve. I was lucky enough to be the only non Thai person on the bus. Thai’s are so lovely, i boarded the bus and everyone smiled and giggled at me as i said good morning to them. Every now and again i would glance up and catch a few of them just starring at me, I would just smile and i was returned with a huge grin back.
A smooth 2 hours later i arrived in Chiang Khong. On exit out of the Thai immigration i realized stupid me that my visa expired the 26th January not the 27th…oops. I had to pay 500 bht fine (11 pounds / R150) so that was not too bad. Note to self check these things properly!!!
From there, I got a longtail boat across the river and 2 minutes later I was on the other side of the Mekong river and in Huay Xai Laos. Immigration formalities here are pure chaos. One window to hand in your passport and completed visa forms and then a second window where they will call you to pay for your visa. It does not matter if you were first to hand in your visa forms, they go through the passports, picking up one, putting it aside, picking up another and calling the person to come and pay their $30 for a visa (oh and different visa fees for different nationalities)…its their choice and you have to just wait until they decide its your turn. I got there early but took 40 minutes for them to decide that my little green book was worthy of being called to pay for the visa. What a mess!!
Laos money is KIP. I have gotten so used to Thai bht and i know what i should be paying for things so as not to be ripped off so its going to be hard getting into the flow of this new currency. I drew 1million KIP which is like 90 pounds or something. crazy. And now i have to learn the basics of a new language again, hello, thank you, goodbye in Laos.
I had not bought my ticket for the slow boat down the Mekong River. You can buy a all-in-one ticket through an agent (with an additional fee) which most travellers do, but i decided very early on (actually before the trip even began) that i wanted to figure it all out as i went along. In saying that, this also means no guarantee of tickets and i have to arrive early to make sure i can get tickets. After a short taxi ride i arrived at the slow boat ticket office and managed to get a ticket… yay 😉
I made the taxi journey with an American i met during the long wait at the visa office, so as seats were reserved on the wooden slow boat he would be my seating partner for the rest of the day. We were supposed to depart at 11:30am, but like everything in Asia, time is not important for the people living here, and so we only departed at 1pm. There are a lot of stories told by backpackers saying how they were one of upwards of 100 people on a slow boat that travelled from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. Well this is a story i can confirm. I fortunately got to the ticket office in time to get a “soft” seat (an old bus seat), some were not so lucky, some were stuck for 6 hours either sitting on a wooden bench, on the floor or stuck right at the back of the boat on plastic chairs / the floor with the noisiest boat engine i have ever heard…i don’t know how they coped as even i was uncomfortable on my seat after 2 hours!!
I expected the journey to take 8 hours to get to Pakbeng where we would be staying the night, but we made it in a record breaking time of 6 hours!!! There are moments on this trip that i think of and smile and i get that overwhelming feeling again. I want to put them in writing and want you to feel what i feel (a difficult task) and one of those moments was when i got off the boat in Pakbeng. i had to step from the boat onto a rock (which wasn’t flat) and then you had to step up these steep stairs to get to the top of the hill. It wasn’t a difficult thing to do but whenever you have a massive backpack on your back and another bag on your front you always step cautiously, anyway i was contemplating the step from the boat when these 2 little Laos boys who were full of energy, about 6 years old, each took one of my hands to help me across, and then proceeded to hold my hands all the way up the steep stairs (almost pulling me up them haha), the whole time they were saying something in Laos in lowed voices to the people in front of us…in my mind i interpreted it to “move out the way, old women coming through” . It was just a cute moment, i giggled the whole way to the top holding their hands…its something we might do to an old frail women who was about to cross the road in heavy traffic…maybe that’s how they saw me.
Not much to report on Pakbeng, its the half way point between the border town of Huay Xai and Luang Prabang. I ate dinner, slept like a baby, stocked up on food for the boat and the next morning i made sure i got to the boat early enough to get a “good” seat with more leg room as seats were not reserved for the next part of this journey. Again an uneventful journey of 8 hours and we arrived in Luang Prabang.
There are other ways of getting to Luang Prabang but most recommend taking the slow boat along the Mekong River due to the beautiful scenery. Don’t get me wrong i enjoyed the scenery of rocks, sands, water buffalo, kids playing but this on repeat for 2 days is a long boring ride…but then again the alternative is the bus which is also long and not so scenic, so i guess this is the better option.
Here are a few pictures i took along the way down the Mekong River…
I decided to pre-book one night of “luxury” for my first night in Luang Prabang…luxury meaning, my own room (not a dorm room), my own bathroom (this could be heaven) and a TV in the room. It wasn’t even about watching the TV it was just about wanting to lie in bed and having it on. Turns out the TV only had one English channel (the Australian network)…i didn’t even know about the flooding as i have not read or watched the news in over a month, so sending love to all my Australian friends and family and hope everyone is ok. This luxury hotel cost me 11 pounds for the night so i was not breaking the bank. Also i have been washing all my own clothing in the bathroom basin, so i decided to treat myself and send some of my clothing to get cleaned (i don’t have much as it is). I just felt like I’ve been travelling for a month, going budget by sleeping in hostels\dorm rooms, washing my own clothing etc and sometimes i just need to check out of the extreme budget scene and recuperate otherwise i will burn out.
So my first night in Luang Prabang all i did was hit the night market to see what its about and have dinner, i was home early, showered and then from 8pm i just lay on my bed in a proper towel with the TV on….just enjoying the small basics we normally take for granted. Not sure how long i’m staying in Luang Prabang, maybe a week…maybe 2 😉