I eventually managed to escape Chiang Mai after an excellent 6 or 7 weeks. Next on the agenda was to finally leave Thailand and actually travel. I chose Laos as the first destination.
Laos is an old French colony landlocked in the middle of Thailand, Vietnam, China, Burma and Cambodia. Different parts of the country have influence from the different surrounding countries and more or less French influence, which makes it quite a diverse and interesting country. It’s a communist country and as per Wikipedia – “Laos remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world”. Yep, I can agree with that.
I chose to take the 3 day slow boat to reach my final destination of Luang Prabang, the former capital city. The journey included a bus to Wat Rong Khun/The White Temple on the first day and then a stopover at a border town in Thailand before crossing and spending 2 days on the slow boat making our way down the Mekong river.
Wat Rong Khun
The White Temple was amazing, freaky and annoyingly full of Chinese tourists, all at the same time. Situated just outside Chiang Rai, pulling up is something of an anti-climax as it is just on the side of the main road, but as temples go it is definitely unique.
I had a banging hangover that day as Nice had kindly got me drunk for free to say goodbye the night before (we got through 17 large beers between us if I remember), so I had just a quick look around, snapped some photos and went to sit down in the shade. The architecture was cool and deep; I saw on Facebook that my friend Effy wrote about the same thing in a more intelligent, less hungover manner, so I’ll just link to her post for insight.
After the temple we got back on the minibus and drove on to the border town of Chiang Khong. When we arrived I needed to stretch my legs after sitting on a minibus for 10 hours, so I had a quick walk around town, had some food before passing out around 8pm.
It was a small town, but I found it quite charming, the locals were nice and I’m sure if I was able to speak I might have enjoyed it there for a day.
Oh yeh, I didn’t actually go to prison; the guesthouse we stayed in was an old prison. I didn’t care as it had a bed and I had a good nights sleep to come back feeling human again the next day.
The Border & Slow Boat Day 1
We were up bright and early the next day to drive to the border crossing. Having gone to bed so early, I was already up! Those who know me, will know how much I like early mornings so that is kind of a big deal.
The crossing was pretty painless, I’d heard horror stories about corrupt border crossings and all kinds of shenanigans, but that wasn’t to come until I left Laos.
After a little more driving once we got in to Laos, we arrived at the Mekong River and boarded the slow boat. The river is pretty immense and the scenery is beautiful. It’s a cool way to travel and a nice change from buses. I like being able to move around a bit and get up and wander.
I enjoyed the first day on the boat, but was glad as we pulled in to the stopover town of Pakbeng.
Pakbeng is a small village of around 500 people on the bank of the Mekong river in Northern Laos. It’s whole economy is serving tourists stopping over for the night on the slow boat. I really enjoyed this little place, it had a lovely atmosphere, was very friendly and I guess was a nice introduction to rural Laos. Upon arriving I discovered that Laos is a lot less developed than Thailand, but THEY HAVE RED MEAT!
Yeh I’d missed red meat, so after dropping our bags off at the room, we headed out for food. We ate buffalo laap with sticky rice and a Laos beer. Laap is the national dish and it was nothing short of excellent. Laos beer is the best beer I have had in Asia too. All in all, this was an excellent meal. Unfortunately it was the best meal I had in Laos and it was all downhill from there, but hey ho.
After that we had a walk around the village to explore; my friend – no names mentioned – was fascinated by the stars (pretty sure you have stars in Germany too), but it did feel very remote. The stars were pretty and I was struck by how dark it was. They don’t have much street lighting anywhere, let alone in tiny villages, and the sounds of the animals among the silence was cool. It’s a while since I’ve been properly in the countryside anywhere.
We returned to the restaurant we ate in earlier for drinks and met up with some other people from the boat, who I would go on to spend the next 5 weeks with. Anyone who has taken the slowboat will recognise whiskey guy.
In Laos they have a supposed 11pm curfew on sales of alcohol, but every town has one place that breaks it and everyone goes there. In Pakbeng, it was whiskey guy, named because he gives everyone free shots of whiskey, drinks the other half a bottle himself, smokes some opium (I’m not kidding) and parties with the westerners – every day. He was really fun and we had a good night before heading off to bed to get up bright and early for the second day of the boat.
Slow Boat Day 2 and Arriving in Luang Prabang
The second day of the boat dragged on somewhat. The river is picturesque and cool, but it’s all a bit same same, so after two full days, it starts to lose its charm. By the time we got to Luang Prabang, I was well ready to get off the boat and back on dry land.
We arrived on Saturday night, the weekend of Chinese New Year. Bad (terrible) timing. The town was absolutely rammed full of Chinese tourists. This made finding a place to stay something of a struggle.
The tuk tuk took everyone from the boat to the center of town, dropping us by the night market. In typical fashion I’d done no research and was just going to wing it, so I headed off through the market assuming that this would be the best place to find a place to stay. I walked around a bit and chatted with an American girl about where was best place to stay etc. and she pointed me in the right direction.
EVERYWHERE was full. I tried dozens of places and they were all full. The only places with rooms were actual hotels charging $40 upwards for a night. To put that in perspective you can typically get a private room in a guest house for $5-10 in South East Asia.
Anyway, it was hot, I was getting annoyed carrying my big bag around in the heat and it was starting to drop dark. I was heading further away from the town center to try and find a place with vacancies and I didn’t have a map. Not the best situation as with no street lighting, its very hard to know whether you’re walking down a street with potential guest houses; or just aimlessly out in to the countryside!
As luck would have it, I eventually found a place with a bed at a sensible price about 10 minutes away from town. It took about 2 hours all in to find somewhere to stay, but it would suffice. They even had their own monkey!