Friday, March 19, 2010

Thailand to Laos

Crossing the border
Although Thailand was amazing and there was still so much we hadn't seen, we had to keep moving to stand any chance of completing our ambitious itinerary and seeing Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia in little more than 5 weeks.  We decided to cross the border from Chiang Khong in northern Thailand to Huay Xai, a small riverside town in northern Laos.  From there the plan was to travel south either by bus or boat to Luang Prabang - more about that later.

Pai to Chiang Khong
After a bit of research we decided the best option to get to Chiang Khong from Pai seemed to be the overnight "VIP" minibus.  We purchased tickets for 650 baht each which also included a room in Chiang Khong as we would be arriving at approximately 3am (we read that buses rarely stick to schedules so we were prepared for an arrival time anywhere between 3am and 6am).

The VIP sounds luxurious but it was far from it.  The first few hours on the bus were cramped, bumpy and mildly terrifying but other than that pretty uneventful.  At about 1am we pulled into a 7-11 in the middle of nowhere (they're everywhere in Thailand) for a quick comfort stop - food, drink, toilet, stretch, etc.  After 15 about 15 minutes we were loaded back onto the bus in preparation for getting back on the road.  The driver however decided he wasn't ready to get going yet and proceeded to mill around inside the store checking out magazines and having one or two more cigarettes.  This went on for something like 15 minutes.  Originally we thought he was just taking an extra long break, which was fine with us as our main priority was him staying awake long enough to get us to our destination in one piece, but then we discovered the real reason for his lolly-gagging - he was supplementing his bus driver salary with a bit of side business in drug-running!  The pieces started to fall into place while we watched as he participated in a well-rehearsed sequence involving himself, a 7-11 employee and two teenagers who arrived (obviously slightly late) on a motorbike.  If we had any doubts as to what was transpiring they were erased when one of the teenagers gave our driver a little nod and smile as he peeled out of the parking lot on his motorbike - another happy customer.

Another successful transaction completed, we continued on our way.  A couple of sleepless hours later we arrived in Chiang Khong.  The room that was included in our ticket was, as expected, terrible but we were so tired that we really didn't care and fell straight to sleep.  The following morning we left Thailand on a longtail boat across the Mekong which cost us a whopping 40 baht ($1.30) each.

In Huay Xai on the Laos side we grabbed a room for the night at the Saybadee Guesthouse (very nice room with a huge bed and view of the Mekong from the balcony for $9) and then set about securing transport south to Luang Prabang.  We had heard that due to the Mekong River being very low boats were not running and the only option would be a 16 hour bus ride.  However, after asking around a bit we were pleased to learn that the Chinese had opened a dam or two up river and the boats would start running the following morning.  We booked ourselves a couple of spots on the first boat out in morning, a bargain at 250,000 kip each! (only about $27 for a 2-day trip)

Taking the Slow Boat
There are so many stories about the slow boat online and in the guidebooks and the majority of them say how bad it it - overcrowded, ancient boats, unsafe drivers, scams, unpredictable schedules, etc, etc.  Faced with the prospect of another long and bumpy ride on a crowded bus on dodgy roads, we decided the boat would be the way to go.  Besides, we'd also that the boat afforded riders with views of some great scenery along the way and a glimpse of many Laos villages that are scattered along the river.

Most of what we heard about the boat was true.  The boat was decrepit, it didn't leave anywhere near on time, and it was crowded.  In fact, crowded is an understatement.  It was bursting at the seams.  From the time got on and the time we finally departed, the boat dropped about a foot or more in the water.  Luckily we were among the first people on so we had our choice of places to sit.  We chose to spread out on the floor in the front of the boat, away from the noise and fumes of the engine and more spacious than the rickety wooden benches that were crammed together in the middle section.  This was probably our best decision of the trip so far.

Just when we thought the boat was full, another tuk tuk would pull up and unload a bunch more backpackers.  Then another...and another.  They just kept coming.  Along with a few others, we attempted to protest to the driver that the boat was too full and a second boat was needed to accommodate everyone but we were completely ignored and soon after the engine was fired up and we were off.

Despite all that, we had great time!  We met a fun group of people on the boat and together we created a bit of a party atmosphere in the front section (the people stuck in the back hated us).  Day 1 of the boat trip was also Lee's birthday which Courtney wasted no time in telling everyone.  Midway through the day Lee went to the bathroom and when he returned he was surprised with a full rendition of Happy Birthday from half of the boat which concluded with Lee performing a keg stand on a can of Beerlao (orchestrated by a hilarious Belgian guy called "T-Bone" who ended up being the unofficial Entertainment Director for the duration of the trip).  At 6pm we finally arrived in Pak Beng, the midway point of the trip and the place we would be staying for the night before continuing on in the morning.

Day 2 was a little more subdued as the boaters recovered fromthe Day 1 festivities but we still enjoyed a pleasant meander down the river to Luang Prabang.


  1. holy cow! drug running... wow you guys are getting the full experience!

  2. I want to see pics of the keg stand!!

    And, picturing you passing out on the front of the boat reminded me of you sprawling out on the floor in the Athens airport for a nap :-)

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