Our time in Chiang Mai was a delight. Our hotel had everything we needed to be happy–in-room internet access, room service, free breakfast, an elevator, and daily cleaning service (not all hotels do!). Best of all it sat right next to a local outdoor market that offered all the cheap food and goods we could ever want. The whole family could eat a hearty Thai meal for about $5-6, including drinks. Tuktuks and songtaos (the ubiquitous red pick up trucks that serve as taxis) to other parts of the city were inexpensive and easy to hail. Because we were not in the traditional hotel district, we got a window into the life of the Thais in Chiang Mai and we loved what we saw. If Tom and I had to choose any city in Asia that we’ve visited thus far to live in, Chiang Mai would be it. People are friendly, life is easy, and amenities are abundant. In fact, we met many a Westerner who has permanently located here, usually after a brief visit that turns into a “why would I ever leave” experience.
Because we were so comfortable, we stayed in Chiang Mai an extra 3 or 4 days. This turned into a necessity as we scrambled to finalize our travel arrangements for the next few weeks. In summary, Thai trains across the Malaysian border have been cancelled as a result of the bombings in Bangkok, so our train trip to Singapore was scrapped and replaced by a flight. No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t manipulate our round the world flights to squeeze in Bali without shortchanging Laos or India, so we decided Indonesia would have to wait for our next yearlong trip…maybe in 2014.
Laos is known as “the jewel of southeast Asia,” a land where the pace is slow, the people are content, and the land is beautiful. In terms of infrastructure, it is one of the least developed nations in the world. As a result, unless you are willing to fly, which for six can be pricey, getting in and out of the country can be slow going. We opted to embrace the “slow” route from northern Thailand by taking the famed slow boat from the Laotian border town of Huay Xai to the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang. The slow boat is actually not that slow. It has a motor and when not avoiding bizarre swirling currents, moves at a decent clip. It does, however, take about 14 hours to make the 200 mile journey. Nothing happens after sunset in Laos so the trip is broken up into two days, with a pit stop in the almost nonexistent village of Pak Beng.
After the frustrations of our Mekong Delta trip from Vietnam to Cambodia (which was still a fabulous experience), we were adamant about doing this one ourselves. So instead of booking an all-inclusive trip from Chiang Mai, we handled the process one step at a time. We crossed our fingers and hoped that the fact it is still “high season” wouldn’t impede our progress. The first step was taking a bus from Chiang Mai to the border town of Chiang Khong. This we did on a clean, efficient public bus that took about 7 hours and traveled through picturesque Thai mountain terrain. The second was spending the night at the border. We ended up in a hotel that left much to be desired, but since it cost $12 for two rooms, we didn’t have much room to complain. We also realize that the grody hotels give us a greater appreciation for the nice ones, so it’s actually important to slum it every now and then. Granted, we don’t ever intend to, sometimes we simply have no other option.
We woke early to cross the border, which was a quick tuk tuk ride down the street. We got our passports stamped, hopped in a longtail ferry boat, and crossed the river to Laos in a matter of minutes. So far so good. A kind border official helped Tom and I fill in our 6 visa applications and arrival cards, which we then took up the hill to the immigration office. We forked over $210 (as in Cambodia the US dollar is an unofficially official currency in this country), got processed and stamped, and with surprisingly little effort were official visitors to Laos.
Some of the folks we crossed the border with opted to buy their boat tickets at the tour office outside the immigration office, but in our fiercely independent state of mind, we hired a truck to take us directly to the dock. There we bought our tickets for the first leg of the journey for a lower rate than they had just paid 1/2 mile down the road. We patted ourselves on the back for a job well done. The only danger now was getting stranded in Pak Beng, but it seemed unlikely they wouldn’t want to sell us tickets for the second half of the journey the next day.
We boarded the boat, which those who had prearranged through travel agents had been told would depart by 8:30 or 9:00 am. The scheduled departure time according to those on the the dock was 11:00. We left at 12:00. No surprise there. We had been warned the seats would be painfully hard, the boat dreadfully overcrowded, and the journey almost unbearably long. For some we talked to it was the worst few days of their time in southeast Asia, for others it was a highlight, a leisurely cruise through pristine mountain jungles with momentary glimpses into rural Laotian life. The first thing we noticed was the cushions. We had been unable to find any to buy, but we didn’t need them, as each narrow bench on the boat was covered by a thick flowered pillow. The seats would certainly be hard, but our tushes have grown accustomed to hard in the past four months. We could do this.
As warned, dozens of people boarded the boat, until it was completely full, about 90 people on board. As people continued to fill the shore outside, it became clear a second boat was required. Finally another arrived and enough people jumped ship to bring our total down to about 75. They were a friendly lot and the usual travelers’ camaraderie arose. No matter how bad a trip is, meeting people, sharing travel stories, and swapping valuable travel tips is always a highlight of the experience. This foray down the river was no exception.
The boat finally pulled out from the dock and we were on our way. Over the next six hours we cruised through gorgeous forests flanked by sandy beach-like banks. Every now and then a few Laotian children would be frolicking naked in the water while their mothers washed clothing or caught dinner. Once we got far enough outside of Huay Xai, there was no sign of infrastructure or modern technology…no cars, no roads, no towers or poles…nothing but trees and a periodic bungalow and farm plot.
The only interruption to our rural reverie was the occasional “fast boat” that came hurling by and was gone in a flash. Fast boats make the slow boat’s 2-day trip in about 8 hours, but taking them requires a certain degree of masochistic recklessness. The engines, which look something like a cross between a Harley and a snowblower, put out a deafening roar. Passengers wear helmets to help shield their ears, those we met who had survived the fast boat said they had trouble hearing for days. The real reason for the helmets is protection in the event of a crash, which happens frequently. The fast boats are thin fiberglass shells insulated by styrofoam that skim the surface of the rock-studded Mekong at breakneck speeds. If they hit a rock or catch a wave at the wrong angle, they are sent hurtling through the air and break up on impact. Needless to say, most tourists making the trek to Luang Prabang opt for the slow boat.
After a glorious afternoon on the water, we arrived in Pak Beng. We crossed a narrow board to the shore and hustled our way to the top of the hill to find a hotel. With only a handful of guesthouses and multiple boats ejecting passengers, they were filling up quickly. Kieran honed in right away on a brand new, gleaming structure high on the hill that had been visible from the water. The price was steep compared to the others, $15 per room, but we snatched it up figuring we needed a good night’s sleep after the previous night in Chiang Khong. We dined on excellent Indian food, a common theme throughout our Southeast Asian travels, and went to bed early, which is really your only option in Pak Beng, since the town’s generator shuts off at 10:30. We had flashlights next to the beds in case we had to get up, but we slept soundly until 6:00 am when the power was turned back on. (It went out again shortly thereafter, but we no longer needed it since we were headed back to the boat).
Our boat for the second day was not nearly as comfy as the first and we found ourselves sans cushions for the 8-hour journey. We purchased our tickets on board at the promised price and departed within an hour of boarding…much more quickly than the previous day. The kids settled in to their routines of the previous day–Dax slept, McKane read, and the little kids played with cards and asked for snacks. Once we got going, a little Laotian girl emerged–the daughter of the boat’s owners. Over the course of the journey she and McKane, Kieran, and Asher threw a ball (which of course went over the side), ran back and forth, and provided photo opps for the other travelers. The Western travelers eagerly snapped pictures of the Laotian girl, while their Asian counterparts focused only on Asher. Funny.
The boat stopped frequently along the sandy shoreline to drop people off and pick others up. The stops usually comprised no more than a few huts, at most a small village. At one stop, a family and their dog boarded, leaving a crying, heartbroken grandmother at the shore. We dropped them off only 20 kilometers or so down the river, but apparently a world away from their grieving matriarch.
At long last we arrived in Luang Prabang, again climbing the hill to a line of waiting tuktuks. We hopped on one with a pair of Australian schoolteachers we had chatted with on the boat and ended up at a decent guesthouse just as the sun went down.
Though the ride was long and the seats were hard, we would not have traded our slow boat experience for a painless plane ride on any account. For two days it felt as if we were floating through a masterpiece of nature, a lush, primitive landscape unspoiled by man and untouched by time. What a perfect introduction to this jewel of a country! …And what a great way to heighten our appreciation of padded seating!