Bonjour Laos!

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The journey from Thailand to Laos began the eve before at 8 pm in Pai with a group of 13 in an overstuffed minivan. We flew on the curves of the mountainous and sometimes unpaved roads to the Thai border town of Chiang Kong, stopping at ubiquitous 7-11’s along the drive to pee and share travel voyage stories, respective roots, cigarettes, toilet paper.  International relations at its classiest capacity. It was nearly 5 am when we park at a dumpy motel and as the odd one out I receive my own chamber to myself, choosing carefully to lay on the better of the two mildly sanitary sheeted beds and attempt to snooze for a short time before our intended wake-up call at 7 am, which in fact, never occurs and I rise by my own accord around 7:20 am. It is nearly impossible to sleep regardless for echoes of animated roosters, dogs, babies, and other forms of lunacy fill the air. There are ethereal shadows in my room that make me want to crawl deep under my dirty covers but I am grateful still for I am heading to Laos, a unique destination I know little about!

Ushered into a tuk-tuk to travel to another motel closer to the river’s edge, we enjoy the gorgeous glow of the morning Mekong river where young girls serve us white toast and powdered coffee before we jump again into another tuk-tuk to arrive at the Thai border crossing. The Thai man escorting our group from the motel/breakfast to the border insists we exchange Thai baht into US dollars for the purchase of a Laos visa upon entry vowing US dollars are mandatory. For 1400 baht he provides the requisite $35 dollars, an exchange that makes me interrogate further for $35 is only 1050 baht. After receiving my Thai exit stamp at the messy immigration office where I also collect truthful information regarding the purchase of a Laos visa, I revisit our Thai guide for a refund. He is attempting to make 350 baht per exchange, a hefty price of $11 per person, which is more than the cost of two nights in a hotel. Not kind or truthful behavior friend. I suppose he cares little about karma.

A short 5 minute boat ride across the river and we touch new soil, a new country. Good morning Laos!

It is a sea of backpackers and French speaking foreigners at the Laos immigration office where we hand our passport to one attendant, pay on a separate line, and then wait patiently until another official flashes our picture up to the glass window for appropriate pickup after the visa sticker is affixed. I exchange my remaining baht for kip and head past the gate to a travel agency stand, for lack of better words (it also sold ovaltine drinks and cheap sandwiches), where I am pushed into another tuk-tuk to head to the speed boat pier about 10 minutes afar.

The speed boat, really a canoe with a powerful motor, is at the bottom of a steep hill and I hobble down the rocks shoeless with my bag strapped on my back. I do pee first in the hut-with-a-hole on the top of the hill, uncertain how long the ride would be until we could break (shaking from lack of sleep and powdered coffee at breakfast, my latrine skills were less than able.) The bottom of pants will dry adequately in the midday heat I remind myself kindly.

It is 11:30 am and we are off!

***I had debated back and forth about whether to take the slow boat or the fast boat to Luang Prabang and I finally picked the more wild selection, one I will forever recall fondly. The two options for travel have distinct advantages…one is quicker, exciting, don’t have to waste an evening in a crummy town…one is safer. Um. Yeah.

The slow boat trip takes two days (both days on the river for about 9 hours) with an overnight stop in a Pakbeng or a 7 hour thrilling ride by speedboat. Wikitravel elaborates: “Expect to spend the night in Pakbeng if you’re taking a slow boat (the safest option), or to arrive in Luang Prabang deaf, shaken and either exhausted or exhilarated from six hours in a speedboat…. If you choose to travel on the speedboat (a light canoe with a very powerful engine), a crash helmet and life-jacket should be provided – it is not recommended to travel in a speedboat without this essential safety equipment. It is also recommended that you make your bags as waterproof/water-resistant as possible and wear a rain jacket – the boat can generate quite a bit of spray, plus any showers you might encounter along the way will sting like needles against any exposed skin. On sunny days, sunscreen is invaluable as there is no roof/shade on these speed machines.”

I am a speedboat rider, helmet wearing, stinky, with pee-pants, and loving it all as we cruise down the Mekong. The trip is breathtaking, passing mountains covered with virgin forests, local tribe communities, colorful assorted vessels. We are on a seemingly private “yacht” as we are only four passengers and two Lao drivers.

Yes indeed it is a speedboat yet we stopped no less than eight (8!) times along our route, the drivers making a bit of extra loot transporting the goods for others.

Stops:

  1. Pick up a change of clothing/ a sack of food for the younger of the two drivers.
  2. Pick up a big plastic luggage container from one ravine community.
  3. Drop off luggage.
  4. Pick up two barrels of gas.
  5. Attempt is made to transport two extra people but my companions are insistent that we do not for they have paid extra to ensure that the boat is not overloaded and super uncomfortable. (We are sitting for 7 hours on the floor of a canoe in segmented spaces not large enough truly for one.)
  6. Motor breaks, the boys paddle to the edge of the river. 20 minutes later we are back and running.
  7. Lunch where we are interestingly hurried and I wrap my food in a doggie bag.
  8. Gas is out. Switch barrels. I pick up the plastic oil container the driver dumps carelessly into the river and shake my finger at him but with a smile.
  9. Arrive in Luang Prabang at 6:30pm.

Slow boat for the curious….

With stiff knees we climb into another tuk-tuk and head to the heart of town and to a hotel. I head out to explore a bit before I crash (or shower), streaming through the main road in this UNESCO world heritage town. It is French colonialism in Asia, a place where you can eat homemade baguettes and beignets along with spicy stir-fried noodles and coconut curry. The night market is as dynamic as they all are…filled with the rainbow colored gamut of foods, silks, jewelry, etc. I am endlessly entertained and in awe of Asian delights.

The Lao people are conservative though it seems, more women wearing skirts and covering their shoulders and the overall energy more cautious and tight. Communication in English is not the easiest and I fancy French speaking skills to extend further than my ability to chat about wine.

It is all perfect.

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