Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang to Vientiane to Bangkok (Day 156 to 168)
Waking up in the northern border town of Chiang Khong, I think it was fair to say that neither Anne nor I were looking forward to the following two days travel and I think our feelings would have been exacerbated had we actually known what was in store for us. We had booked a 3 day journey to take us from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, right through to Luang Prabang in north-central Laos. The journey consisted of a one-day mini bus tour to the border, which we had completed the day before, followed by a further two days on a slow-boat down the Mekong River. Now, you could argue that by us booking a slow-boat, we were getting exactly what it says on the tin, however, the only other alternative was a flimsy speed-boat which can do the journey in around 3 hours. Anne decided against this option as she had heard horror stories of boats hitting rocks and people flying 30 feet in the air to their certain deaths (I may have exaggerated the last part). So, with no middle ground, our minds were made up.
All that stood between us and the beginning of our journey in Laos was the Mekong River. Our hostel, despite lacking some basic sanitary requirements and with mattresses that probably needed replacing back in 1982, was impeccably located on the banks of the river and from the eating/communal area you could gaze across the water to their Laotian counterparts, as on the other side was the Laos border town of Huay Xai, where we would go through the usual passport rigmarole before embarking on our journey down the river which so many people in South East Asia depend on in order to merely exist.
After watching Anne struggle through a rather mundane looking omelette on toast (warm bread), we picked up a cushion for the boat (as recommend by every review of the journey. I've subsequently kept the cushion and I'm actually sitting on it as I type.) and made for the Thai passport control. At this point, as with many of these tours, the whole operation seemed very suspect. We were simply ushered down a hill with a token for the ferry across to Laos and given no further instructions. Did we 'check-out' of the country and jump on a boat ourselves? Or do we wait at the dock for our 'guides' to direct us further? After briefly scanning around to see what others were doing, we thought 'sod it' and went with the former, not knowing who would be greeting us on the other side and taking over the guide responsibilities. At this point, we seemed to inspire a few others who were surely also weighing up the situation and they quickly scurried on after. Obviously, this had now put pressure on us as being the informal leaders of this particular off-shoot, if not then the decision makers at least and as soon as we set foot on Laos soil, everyone was watching our next moves curiously. Or I may have misjudged the situation and they were simply just trying to take it all in. Either way, I was half tempted to drop my bag and casually wander into the river, just to see if anyone would follow. I decided against it eventually and made for the passport office.
Two hours later, $35 poorer each, we had our Laos visa's and we were on our way into the abyss. Whilst going through the rather insipid formalities of entering the country, we had met a few girls from Canada called Kit & Lisa and Jamie & Alex from the States. They were all in their early 20's and were as unenthusiastic about the journey as we were. As soon as everyone had their passports back, we were led by a chap, who I'll name Pedro, to an office where he would be giving us some important information on Laos. This 'important information' turned out to be simply a sales pitch on how full all the guesthouses were going to be in Pak Peng, which is the half-way point in the journey and where we would be spending that night. Unfortunately, we only had the first nights accommodation included in our price and as we had to pay for the second nights, Pedro was adamant that we should reserve a room with him and not leave it to chance upon arrival. Going against all my greater judgements and morals, Anne and I reserved a room with Pedro the scaremongerer and even changed some of our US dollars into Laos kip with him. Whatever he was going to be drinking that night, I couldn't help thinking that we had just paid for it.
Eventually, we were ushered onto a large pink golf-cart, capable of seating around 18 people and taken to a shop where we could buy provisions. After sitting and waiting there for a good 45 minutes, we were finally led to our boat. However, it seemed as though the other tour groups who were sharing our vessel had been a lot more efficient with their customers, as by the time we arrived, the boat was completely full. We walked past the rows and rows of smirking westerners, content in the knowledge that they had a seat for the 6 hour journey and ventured into the engine/luggage room at the back. We decided that we weren't going to fight for space in the crowded passenger area and defiantly, Anne, myself and our four new friends all forged seats on the floor with luggage as back rests. Unfortunately for us, there were more passengers to come and what was initially a rather comfy seating area, where we could leisurely stretch our legs out became a cramped and sordid affair.
We sat in a rather pensive and disconsolate mood for the first half of the journey, trying in vain to find a comfier way to see out the journey and communicating through shouts and sign language, as the roar of the engine was merely a few feet away. We watched as speedboats whizzed past us and we couldn't help but wish we had risked the chance of death for the opportunity to be in Luang Prabang already. After consistently failing on the comfort front, we opted for a few Beer Lao's instead and played a few card games with the Canadians. Funnily enough, the second half flew by and we were soon being greeted by a dozen or so guesthouse rep's on the shore of Pak Peng who were all keen to offer us a room for the night. I knew Pedro was lying all along; I can spot a dirty sales pitch a mile off. Unfortunately, I just haven't got the balls to resist them all.
After showering in our surprisingly mediocre room (we expected much worse), we headed to the restaurant next door for a bland and lacklustre evening meal with Kit & Lisa. After asking for my buffalo curry with only tourist spice (I was thinking ahead to the 9 hour boat journey the day after), it came with not only no spice, but no flavour at all. I ate it anyway and just thought ahead to arriving in Luang Prabang the following evening. As we were given no information on the itinerary for the next leg of the trip, we asked the owner of the establishment, who we'll call Juan. He advised us that the boat would leave at 9:30 the next morning and to arrive at the dock for around 8:30 to ensure we got a seat. Unfortunately, by the time he had given us this priceless information, the restaurant had filled with our fellow passengers who were all blatantly eaves-dropping and planning an even earlier start. We therefore arranged with the Canadians to meet at 7:30 in order to be able to casually buy our provisions and get to the boat for before 8:00. However, it seemed as though others had tactfully arose even earlier than that, as by 7:30 the place was awash with westerners finishing up their breakfasts and heading off to the dock. We needed a plan and fast as we couldn't spend another 9 hours in those conditions. It was dog-eat-dog and we were eyeing up the other passengers with such disdain that one would have been forgiven for mistaking this for a life and death situation. Every person who scuttled past us was another number which was deducted from the total number of seats available. What made matters worse was that we had ordered and paid for some sandwiches, which was taking an eternity to make. Time was against us but fortunately, the Canadian girls were thinking on their feet and they arranged to head down to the boat straight away to reserve us and the American girls some seats, whilst we waited for their order. The plan worked; we arrived at around 7:50 (1 hour and 40 minutes before departure) to an already three quarter full boat but with seats saved at the back for us by the lovely Kit & Lisa. As the latecomers began to appear, there were a few arguments and bickering between the passengers. One rather arrogant German had tried to displace a Swiss girl as his ticket number corresponded with the number of the seat she was sat in, even though this system was clearly not in use as the passenger to seat ratio was somewhat distorted. He even resorted to shouting over the boat's captain (if you can call him that) and gave a exceptional impression of a primary school child when he insisted that 'This girl is sitting in my seat'. He was told to sit elsewhere, much to the delight of the boat.
The second day's journey was obviously not as bad at the previous days, but 9 long hours with no leg room on what was definitely an old car seat ripped out and installed unconvincingly on a longboat still made for a rather arduous day. Once again though, the afternoon was easier to bear as soon as the beer began to flow and we made it to Luang Prabang for around 6ish. We found accommodation with the Canadians and Americans and all six of us headed into the town for food after a quick freshen up. We ended up eating at a street buffet, which offered numerous different vegetable, noodle and rice dishes for only 10,000 kip (just under £1). You were given a dish which could be filled as high as you like but you couldn't go back for seconds. After feeling sufficiently filled, we decided to call it a night as the intense travelling over the previous three days had taken their toll on Anne.
As our Thai double-entry visa's were to expire in a week, it meant that our Laos experience was to be rather restricted so we had to choose our destinations wisely. One of the main 'highlights' in Laos is 'tubing' in a town called Vang Vieng, which is pretty much half way between Luang Prabang and the capital, Vientiane. Tubing is the art of meandering through a section of the Mekong on a rubber ring, which is littered with bars who will rope you in and chuck shots down your throat, no doubt for extortionate prices. There is also the opportunity to zip-line into the water from the rocks on the riverbank where unsurprisingly, numerous tourists are killed each year due to inebriated stunts going wrong. In fact, two Australians were killed in the week before we arrived in Laos. Wherever you travel to in South East Asia, you will see hoards of gap-year students donning their 'I survived tubing in Vang Vieng' vests. Needless to say, Anne and I were sufficiently put off by the type of persons who wear the aforementioned vests and generally just by the stories that we had heard, so we decided to give the tubing experience a miss. As jungle treks and all other experiences in Laos were all excessively priced, we opted to spend a further four nights in Luang Prabang and just one night in Vientiane, before heading back into Bangkok on the overnight train.
Luang Prabang was extremely pretty and exceeded my expectations. We spent the first full day just walking around and soaking up the beauty. Not only is it a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it is home to a number of monasteries and therefore, hundreds or possibly thousands of monks. All of which maybe don't have the right Buddhist intentions it would seem, as when we were heading out for dinner on the second night, a group of teenage monks walked past Anne, gawping at her whilst saying 'lovely' before turning to me and insisting that I was a 'very strong and powerful man'. It was all a bit too surreal. We later found out that young Buddhist males are required to spend a year in the monastery in their youth. They can then decide whether a monk's life is the life for them or not. Something tells me that those particular lads might find the earthly delights a bit too tempting to stay on.
After switching to a fancier, yet more expensive guesthouse for the final 3 nights, we spent the next two days by a pool on the outskirts of the city and organising our onwards travel respectively. Our evening meals in various restaurants recommended to us by previous visitors of the town were a real treat. Luang Prabangers & Mash (see what they did there) and Buffalo Laap with Sticky Rice were a personal favourite of ours. You actually eat the Laap (which is basically diced buffalo in a herb and spice packed marinade) with your hands, accompanied by a pinch of the rice (which as it's sticky, you can roll into a ball) with every handful. Unfortunately, the final 36 hours in the town were plagued by my temperamental stomach and so we didn't really get to see or do much more through my fear of leaving the hotel room.
On the morning of our departure to Vientiane, we were picked up at 8am sharp, as promised, and taken to the bus station. We were told that the bus would take 8-10 hours, depending on traffic and we both predicted that it would be probably full of tubing-seeking westerners stopping off in Vang Vieng along the way. How wrong we were. The only other westerner was an aging chap, who I'll call Stan, for no reason other than to break the Spanish trend I had going previously. Our first impressions of him were indifferent as he rather audibly told his Chinese girlfriend, who I think spoke limited English "You stink and you need to take a shower". This was the high point of our day and it was only 8:30. The 8-10 hour journey was in fact 13 hours of driving on some of the most precarious roads I've ever been on. We were right at the front and so we had a glorious view over the cliff side; it was like staring down the barrel of a gun. When we eventually arrived in the capital, we were dropped 6 miles or so outside of the city centre and had to negotiate our own taxi to take us into the centre. Fortunately, the driver dropped us in the heart of the tourist area, along with Stan and his girlfriend, who I shall name Rosita as I realised that I had an intentional theme going with the Spanish names and I'm keen to get back to it after previously straying. We found a bed for the night and set out for a meal as it was past 10pm and I hadn't eaten all day, due to the stomach problems I'd had, which incidentally made Stan feel like he had a kindred spirit, as he observed that I hadn't eaten the free noodle soup lunch we were given in a restaurant earlier in the day and automatically presumed that I despised all Asian food, just like him. Telling him that the reason I didn't eat was that I'd had a dodgy stomach just spurred him on. Anyway, we enjoyed a feast of Laap, Sticky Rice and Laotian Sausages for one final time before turning in for the night.
The next day, we were heading straight onto Bangkok in the evening and so we arranged a taxi to the border train station with our hotel. It was to pick us up at 3pm, so we spent the few hours perusing the local area and getting a small bite for lunch. We were accompanied in the minibus by Stan & Rosita and I had to endure Stan's ramblings of how Asian food was the anti-christ or something. In fact, I'm not sure what he said as I quickly switched off and just gave some verbal nods every once in a while. We had booked first class tickets on the train as we were intent on giving ourselves a little luxury after all this hard travelling, but our compartment wasn't as luxurious as we'd hoped and the train seemed to violently rock through the night, so upon arrival in Bangkok, we were jaded to say the least. After a few hours sleep, we headed out for what was an extremely productive day. We checked out a few of the sites, including the Golden Mount and the Golden Buddha (self-explanatory), we priced up an Asus Eee-pad (which I'm now the proud owner of and which I'm writing this on currently), I then got a haircut, which I'm happy to say is a thousand times better than the $1 Cambodian haircut I have been parading for the last 6 weeks or so.
That evening, we stumbled upon a building close to our hostel which merely had the sign 'Homemade Food' outside it. Anne decided that we should investigate further and upon entering, we were quite surprised to find that were in what appeared to be a little boutique shop, which doubled as a very small restaurant (they only had five tables). The owner was a middle aged lady, who I'll name Juanita and after asking her for a menu, she simply said that there is no menu but just ask her what we're hungry for and then come back in an hour. We both thought that this was a fantastic concept for a restaurant, one that wouldn't go amiss in our old town of Chorlton and so after agreeing on a starters and mains, we excitedly headed off to get showered and changed. When we arrived back there, we were offered some fruit punch and sat down at our table, admiring the unique plates, cutlery and generally just the whole room. Our dinner of Noodle Soup, Tomyum Curry with some Quesadilla type things and Sticky Rice, Mango and Ice Cream was exceptional. Feeling very satisfied, we headed back to the hostel to get an early night ahead of what was to be a very busy shopping day and our first real experience of the Bangkok nightlife.
I won't write too much about the shopping day, as I don't think us trundling around the Bangkok department stores and malls will be particularly good to read, but we did get a few good bargains including the aforementioned Eee-pad Tablet and a new camera for Anne which I'm insanely jealous of - it's waterproof and everything!
That evening we set off to meet with my friend Vince on Soi Cowboy, which is the street to go to if you're looking for a bit of special attention, shall we say. Vince is one of the livelier characters of that particular group of friends and I have to say, I don't think there's a better character to lead us around possibly the craziest nightlife in the world. After a few quiet ones in some of the more chilled out bars, the night slowly descended in mayhem. Before we knew it, we were passing through bar after bar of dancing girls, who were anyone's for the night just so long as they paid their 'Bar Fine', which is just a nicer way of putting a price on these girls heads. Before long, all 3 of us were merrily drunk and whizzing through the city in taxi's to other lively parts of the Sukhumvit district. All of our memories are a little hazy and so I think I'll just wrap up the night's tales by saying it was definitely the craziest night of our journey so far.
Needless to say, we awoke the next day with stonking hangovers. Nothing seemed to cure it and as we'd arranged to meet with Vince at 5pm to check out Khao San Road, which is the backpacker party area of the city, the only option to ease our heads was to indulge in a hair of the dog. After nursing the first few, we soon found our stride again and set about to enjoy the nightlife on offer. However, I don't know whether it was the fact that it was midweek or whether we hadn't hit it at the right time, but we were all a little disappointed in Khao San Road and so soon headed in a taxi back to Soi Cowboy. I decided that it would be a great laugh if we checked out a ladyboy bar, as so soon enough we were sat in a bar whilst two ladyboy's, who I'll call Dave and Steve, were grinding around in front of us, trying to lure us in to whatever they had in store for us. As soon as it got a bit too frisky, we were out of there, but all of us agreed that it had been a hilarious half an hour or so. After a couple of games of pool (where Anne beat some random guy, much to the delight of the watching Thai girls - they were literally jumping up and down), we headed back to the hostel, completely exhausted by Bangkok and her wicked yet devilishly moreish ways.
I have the feeling that Bangkok and Thailand in general can literally consume a person if they're not careful. Everyone who I've spoken to about this theory has completely agreed. Fortunately, we were able to experience the mayhem and live to tell the tales. Now we'll get the much needed recovery on the islands in the south before our flight from Singapore in less than a month. It feels weird to think that the first leg of our journey is almost complete, both of us are looking forward to reaching Australia but I think we're very much feeling slightly deflated that we've already done so much in what seems like a blink of an eye. Ah well, such is life... there's still plenty more to see after all.