Slow Boat - and by slow I mean...drunk!
31.01.2010 - 03.02.2010 32 °C
Leaving Chiang Mai a little disillusioned I foolishly decided to continue on the tourist trail and make my way to Luang Prabang via the slow boat. Just managing to get the very last seat on the 08.30 bus for Chiang Khong it was a six and a half hour bus journey to the Thailand / Laos border (and yes I had another local Thai man decide to fall asleep on my shoulder, until I opened the curtain and made it so unbearably hot that he was unable to sleep any more). The immigration process was a fairly straightforward affair. Upon leaving the bus you are immediately whisked away by tuk-tuk to the immigration desk, where after a quick stamp in your passport it's just a short boat ride across to Laos. On the other side it was almost as quick and painless with a small arrivals desk ready to take payment of the $35 visa on arrival, followed by a passport check desk, followed by another passport security check further up the hill.
Huay Xai would not be on the top of my list of places to visit during a trip round South East Asia. Consisting of pretty much one very straight and very boring road, its sole purpose is to serve as a border post and selling point for the boat journey to Luang Prabang. Being fairly tired again, after countless hours travelling, I once again had not bothered to book a room as so simply fell into the first hostel I passed. This was probably not a good idea as it was by far the worst place I've stayed in to date. Dirty walls, not so clean bathroom, no hot water, and a ceiling fan that not only squeaked as it rotated but also hung off the ceiling to such an extent I was forever wondering when it would fall loose and cut some part of my anatomy to pieces.
After a fairly poor night sleep it was down to the boat pier early. Although we were told it was a 3km drive I have a sneaking suspicion that the driver was not going the quickest and easiest route. In actual fact I believe that the 10 minute drive simply ended up taking us a little further down the road from where we started. Huay Xai being such a boring town as it is though none of the passengers had bothered to walk to the end of the road to know for sure.
The boat was due to leave at 11am so we arrived nice and early at 9.30 for good seats by the windows, for all those amazing views to come. By 12.30, when the boat was so overloaded with passenger that it took almost a riot on board to stop any more people from coming on, the luxury of a window seat in the roasting sun seemed somewhat less appealing. In addition to this the views would also be completely overshadowed by the alcohol which was to come.
Overcrowding in progress
Although the scenery along the way is more than worth the trip I would advise anyone who doesn't like large groups, loud music, overcrowding, and lots and lots of BeerLao to avoid the route in peak season. I on the other hand quite enjoy these things and found the trip to be extremely more entertaining than simply looking at scenery for two days straight.
Children playing in the mud along the Mekong River
By sundown on the first day we arrived in Pak Beng for an over night stop. As soon as the boat touches land a swarm of children flood on board, all comandeering a bag each and then making the owner feel so guilty about their plight that they will pay the poor child to carry it up the hill for them. I was not so easily guilt-tripped and was quick to take my bag back from the little boy who probably weighed less than it did.
Sundown on Pak Beng
After another dodgy (yet cheap) hostel it was on to a night of drinking. One of the guys from the boat was celebrating their Birthday and as a result the friendly owner of the restaurant we went to decided to give us a taste of the local speciality. I don't quite know what it was but I'm surprised it didn't corrode the bottle it came in. After a quick shot each the owner then thought it would be a good idea to leave the whole bottle for us to finish. This was probably not such a good idea! The town is a friendly and fairly lively one, that is until everything closes at 11pm! You would think that a town specifically designed as a tourist stop for keen drinkers would at least have one place willing to serve after 11pm.
Day two on the boat continued much as day one left off with the BeerLao in full flow. I have to admit that I enjoy the drinking scene as much as anyone but by the time we arrived in Luang Prabang the thought of spending any more time following the drinking trail and missing out on everything else the place has to offer was not an option. I quickly disembarked and walked well away from the main street to find a great hostel just out of town. No doubt I will be bumping into fellow boat people throughout my stay in Luang Prabang but am quite glad not to have them all staying in the same hostel as me.
From first impressions Luang Prabang was far better than Chaing Mai, blending tourism and culture to a much better degree.
Not a bad view first thing in the morning
I spent most of my first day in Luang Prabang exploring the city and walking far, far off the tourist trail. Starting from the main town centre there is a great selection of temples to visit.
Continuing out of the city I found a rickety old bridge and decided to follow its path, not knowing its destination. After walking straight into the web of the biggest spider in the world (yes, "THE" biggest), spanning from the tips of my fingers to well past my wrist, I'm sure it could have taken an arm off with a single swipe.
Unpreturbed I continued on the dusty old track and came upon a group of local lads playing bouls and was invited to join them. Speaking no English was not a problem as we all shared the knowledge that I was the worst player ever to have been granted permission to play their game, much to their immense amusement. After walking for what seemed a million or more miles I finally headed back to town. Having arranged to meet a couple of people at the hill top temple Phu Si at sunset I forced my acheing limbs to climb the 200 or so steps to the top.
View from temple Phu Si
I was glad to find that the climb was certainly worth it for an amazing sunset, with the darkening sky and reddening sun casting ever changing reflections across the Mekong River. What I wasn't glad to find was that about a hundred other people also thought it would be a good idea to climb the 200 steps and also watch the sunset from temple Phu Si.
Now let's take a look at what you can't see in the above pictures.
Not so peaceful now
Despite the mad jostling of the crowd and countless camera flashes, the constant pushing and shoving for the best possible position, there's always one fool who thinks he knows better than everybody else and decides to climb the rusty old railings, precariously hanging over a hundred foot drop, yet rising above the fighing crowds and still managing to get the best pictures.
I am that fool
Useful Information - (13000 Kip = 1 pound)
Bus to Chiang Khong (Thailand / Laos border) - 211 Baht
Tuk-Tuk to immigration post (per person) - 30 Baht
Boat across to Laos (per person) - 40 Baht
Laos visa on arrival (plus $1 weekend overtime fee!) - $36
Night accomodation in Huay Xai (not good) - 40000 Kip
Slow boat to Luang Prabang - 200000 Kip
Night accomodation in Pak Beng - 200 Baht
BeerLao (can) - 10000 Kip
And with signs like these how could you say no?