23.03.2011 - 12.04.2011 27 °C
From Mae Sai, I took a packed local bus to Chiang Rai and then another to Chiang Khong, on the Lao border.
People manage to pack so much stuff onto the back of busses.
Lao, on the other side of the Mekong. To cross it, one must take a rickety wooden longtail boat.
Once past the unfriendly immigration officers, I booked a ticket for the slow boat to Luang Prabang for the next day. Later on, a few people I met and I went looking for a bar. We accidently found ourselves in someone’s garden, where a group of teenagers were sat around a fire. We asked them where to go but, instead of telling us, invited us to join them and promptly passed us all a beer. We were all stunned by this genuine friendliness shown to total strangers. Only a couple of them spoke basic English but we discovered that it was one girl’s birthday. The friends had got together for a party at the house of one of theirs, whose parents were out. For all our cultural differences, we’re not that unalike!
I was in Houay Xai when the earthquake hit Burma. We were on a raised wooden terrace bar in the evening when the ground started shaking. Everybody looked around, and then at each other, in silence for a few seconds. That’s how long it took for our brains to compute and rationalise what was happening. Then, we all jumped up from the floor, rushed down to ground level and waited for the shaking to stop. It was pretty scary; we were shaking from the adrenaline. Scarier still was when I found out, a week later, that the quake’s epicentre was in Tachileik, the Burmese town I was in less than 48 hours before, and that over 100 people had been killed there. Later on in the night, and the next morning, there were aftershocks, one of which occurred whilst I was in the shower. Again, a little scary.
Taking a two day wooden slow boat down the Mekong is one of those classic, must-do experiences in Lao.
After a lot of confusion, chaos and waiting around, our boat left – massively overladen – and we began what was to become a very pleasant journey.
There wasn’t much to do on the boat, just read, sleep and watch the world slowly drift by. I loved it – a great way to rest and recover.
At the end of the first day, the boat pulled into a tiny village called Pakbeng for the night. We all thought we’d get ripped off for accommodation in this place, as it was the only place offering beds, but were pleasantly surprised.
This room cost me 5 pounds.
At the end of the second day we pulled into Luang Prabang and everyone scurried off in search of a guesthouse. After a bit of hunting and haggling I jumped onto the back of a motorbike and was taken to a peaceful place on the end of the peninsula on which the town is built.
I really liked LP; although a little touristy, the town is full of rustic charm, monks wandering the streets and beautiful temples.
Wat Xieng Thong – the most famous temple in Lao.
This float was the centrepiece of the last king of Lao’s funeral procession. His body was placed in a foetal position inside the centre urn. Even though the country is now run by communists, there is much reverence and respect shown to this artefact.
The temple complex was incredibly tranquil.
At one point a gong was sounded and a group of monks gathered inside this shrine and played music with drums, cymbals and bells.
Some of the houses in LP are beautiful ad many have lovely gardens.
I enjoyed wandering around, soaking up the relaxed vibe.
There are countless places to eat; some of my favourite were above the banks of the Mekong with views out over the water. A perfect place to have dinner and watch the boats chug up and down the Mekong – Lao’s main transport artery.
A traditional Lao dish is laap – a ‘salad’ of shredded meat, fresh coriander leaves and chilli, served with a wicker pot of sticky rice which you roll into balls and eat with your fingers – delicious. A bottle of Beer Lao to wash it down as the sun sets – a great way to end the day.
There is a ferry linking Luang Prabang to a village on the other side of the Mekong. Setting foot on the far shore was like stepping back in time. LP is fairly affluent, with cars, paved roads and houses with western style mod cons. Over the water, there were animals wandering around and people sitting around fires outside tin shack houses. I was the only foreigner there and attracted some curiosity. It really was a world apart from the town only a few hundred metres away. I guess this was the face of traditional, rural Lao – a country, for the most part, very poor and under developed.
The main road.
Looking back across to Luang Prabang.
Scenery on the drive through the mountains to Vang Vieng. Sections of the road are in terrible condition, there are steep drops and incredibly sharp bends. It was great fun – our driver seemed to think so too and enthusiastically honked his horn at almost every passing car.
Vang Vieng has an awesome mountainous backdrop.
View from my favourite café. You sit cross-legged, propped up on cushions and eat from a low table.
The town is a big party place and there are many bars. It’s also a good place to take it easy and enjoy the scenery. Whilst there isn’t much ‘real’ Lao culture there, it’s nice to let your hair down after a gruelling few weeks of backpacking. I met up with a few people here who I’d been with in Luang Prabang and on the slow boat. That’s the thing about travelling in Asia; you’re never far away from other backpackers and company.
Lots of people rent tractor inner tubes ad float down the river, stopping at the various bars along the way. You signal to a person on the shore and they throw you a rope to pull yourself in. We made it to the third bar! Some of them have rope swings and slides down into the water.
After all that excitement, you head back to town and sit around watching Family Guy in one of the many cafes. Then, more partying in the evening and down to the river to lie in hammocks, sit around a fire playing music and watch the sun rise over the mountains. As I said before, not a particularly authentic Lao experience, but still, I met some interesting people and had a good few days.
My last stop in Lao was Vientiane, the capital. This is the smallest, most laidback capital city I’ve ever visited – it feels more like a French town. There isn’t much to see or do here, but there is some excellent food and a number of cafes. Here I bumped into a couple I’d met in Chiang Mai a few weeks before and some people from Vang Vieng.
Free communal gym in the park – a great idea.
A rather French feel.
And an English pub.
Can’t escape it.
When leaving Lao, the official wanted us to pay a “departure stamp fee” – not an official requirement; supplementing her pension no doubt. When I refused, she took my passport and wouldn’t give it back until I paid. What can you do…
Back in Thailand I caught an overnight train to Bangkok, hung around there for the morning and then a day train to Aranyaprathet, on the Cambodian border. This second train was so packed (no seat allocations) I had to sit on the floor, on my bags, for four hours, even though the section reserved for monks was almost empty.
At the border I got ripped off by someone claiming to be the only person able to issue visas on arrival. I subsequently learned, after talking to other travellers who’d had the same experience, that this was not the case and that we’d all been charged way over the odds. One of the reasons I hate borders.
In addition, I was told that the only way I could get to Siem Reap that night was by taxi – not cheap – and that there were no budget hotels or guesthouses in Poipet, the Cambodian border town. Whether or not this actually was the case, I didn’t know. However, I didn’t fancy the thought of having to wander around a dodgy border town alone at night with all of my stuff. So I paid.
That four hour taxi ride was the only time in my trip so far that I’ve felt genuinely afraid. Firstly, when I got in the car we were stopped by a policeman who took a long time questioning the driver, frowning and looking at me. Once we were underway, the driver, who claimed not to speak any English, was constantly jabbering away into his phone and shooting looks at me through the rear view mirror. After a while, he stopped, got out and started talking with some guys who’d pulled up behind us. It was the middle of the night, there was nobody else around, no one could tell me what was going on and I didn’t like it at all.
I was eventually told to get into another car but refused to until my bags were loaded into the same one. I don’t think the guys were too impressed, but finally agreed, a new driver this time, and we got going again.
More yabbering into the phone and I was convinced that a pair of headlights was following us.
After about an hour we stopped again and the driver started unloading sacks full of something onto the back of a motorbike. I kept telling myself they were potatoes.
I kept looking out for signs to Siem Reap but didn’t see any; I didn’t know where we were going. It’s unfortunate that sometimes when you suspect you’re in trouble, your mind jumps to the worst possible outcome. And there was nothing I could do, sitting in the back of a car, speeding through the night.
You can imagine my relief when I eventually spotted a sign re-assuring me that we were indeed near Siem Reap, and even more so when I finally crawled into bed.