Pai to Chiang Mai – Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai – Chiang Rai to Chang Khong – Chang Khong – Huay Xai (Laos) – Huay Xai to Luang Prabang. Time completed : 2 days!
My original plan after Pai was to head back into Chiang Mai (which i did) and then to take a leisurely journey up to the border, stopping off at Phrae, Nan, Chiang Rai, and possibly Chiang Saen and Chang Khong, which would have taken me approximately 1-2 weeks. However i’d received an email from James who had just arrived in Luang Prabang, and as a result i decided to be a little impulsive (heck, why not? It’s what travelling is all about!) and go on a rather large adventure by missioning it all the way to Luang Prabang in just 2 days!!!
I caught the first bus out of Pai (0830) up to Chiang Mai. We helped to stop the passengers of a broken down bus en route, and as a result ended up with a bus overflowing with people, so full there were people hanging out the doors, and if a passenger inside the bus wanted to disembark, it involved about half the people on the bus having to do the same! We also had a roof loaded with bags of rice and vegetables and random cardboard boxes with heavy contents, which meant that the bus seriously struggled as soon as it hit a hill (and it hit quite a few) and the 4 hour journey actally took over 5!
By the time i reached Chiang Rai it was dark and a swarm of touts homed in on my as soon as i stepped of the bus. I didn’t have the patience or the inclination to stand there and listen to them or to accept the handful of guesthouse flyers that were being pushed aggressively in my direction, so i walked for 20 minutes, backpack and all, to the other side of town where Chiang Rai’s cluster of guesthouses are situated. I stayed at the Lotus Guesthouse (80THB per night), which i subsequently discovered was a favourite with Korean tourists, so i was the only westerner there. The rooms aren’t up to much but the Korean owners are super friendly, and there’s a pretty garden with a restaurant that serves – no surprises here – Korean food.
I was a little disappointed by my first impressions of Chaing Rai. It reminded me of Ayuthaya : very spread out (the guesthouses are about a 20-25 minute walk from the centre of town) and very little character. Yes, Chiang Rai provides a good base from which to explore the Golden Triangle and the surrounding hilltribe villages but the town itself offers nothing unique or spectacular.
Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang
I had an incredibly early start this morning so i arrived in Chang Khong before 10:30am. Gaining entry into Laos consisted of taking a 5 minute boat journey from Chang Khong to Huay Xai, completing a couple of short forms and giving the guy at passport control a passport photo and $30. 10 minutes after leaving Chang Khong i was a legal visitor in Laos. One of the first things i noticed about Laos (apart from the different language, currency and the fact that they drive on the right hand side of the road) was how under-developed it was in comparison to Thailand, and what bad conditions the roads were in – if you could call them roads!
My journey up to this point had run fairly smoothly, but when i arrived at the speed boat pier in Huay Xai, the situation started to get a little more interesting. I was under the impression that crowds of people everyday take the same route from the border to Luang Prabang and that finding another 5 tourists to share a speed boat with would not be a problem. I was very wrong. When i pulled up at the pier in my little Lao tuk tuk, there were no other passengers waiting to charter the speed boat, which meant that the cost (should the driver take soley me) would be 6000THB! So i waited for about an hour an a half before 2 Japanese tourists arrived, and they only wanted to go as far as Pak Beng, which still meant that if they pay 1500THB each, i would still have to part with 3000THB. I needed to make a prompt decision as the speed boat would need to get into Luang Prabang before sundown. Considering i’d waited nearly 2 hours for 2 other passengers, i had no guarantee that, should i stop overnight in Huay Xai, more passengers (if any) would show up the following day. With that information, i decided to bite the bullet and pay the 3000THB. At least then i’d have the guarantee that i would be in Lunag Prabang that night.
I had paid my 3000THB on the basis that the boat takes 6 passengers, and the extra baht i was paying was supposedly to cover the fuel costs based on the under-occupancy of the craft. However, between Huay Xai and Pak Beng the driver must have picked up about 20 Lao passengers altogether (some only made short journeys with their bags of rice and vegetables) and at one point there were 9 of us (and baggage) on the boat! All of those people paid the driver, the majority handing over 100THB notes. The driver had made well over his 6000THB, so in theory the three of us (me and the 2 Japenese) should have been entitled to a partial refund. Of course, when i pointed this out to the driver, he suddenly had problems understanding English. It appeared, from my impression of Laotians thus far that they merely see tourists as pound signs, and had none of the warmth that i felt from the Thai race.
The speed boat journey down the Mekong from Huay Xai to Lunag Prabang
The speed boat journey itself has got to be the most scary, adrenalin-filled parts of my trip so far. I had read in my Lonely Planet guide, just prior to boarding the craft :
“Serious accidents, sometimes including fatalities, involving these speedboats seem to occur on an almost weekly basis.”
As soon as the boat got up to full speed, i could understand how this statement could be true. The boats travel about 60km per hour and in parts the water was so shallow the boat was literally being bumped along by the rocks. Due to the speed at which they travel, it increases the risk of the driver not seeing or not having time to avoid a rock or tree shoot in the middle of the river. We were given lifejackets, which although substandard, would have prevented us from drowning if the boat were to sink or capsize. My real worry was hiiting something in the water (which, according to James’s speed boat journey, includes dead cows and pigs as well as rocks and trees!) and being catapulted into the river or towards a large rock. My badly fitting helmet would have gone no-where towards protecting my head, and the rest of me was completely vulnerable.
On the plus side, there was a large part of the journey which was enjoyable and exhilarating and the scenery (which you could see but not really appreciate due to the speed we were travelling) was spectacular. When the boat wasn’t in contact with rocks or standing waves or the wash from another boat after it passed us, the ride was bumpy but not uncomfortable and was actually a lot of fun.
However my lingering thoughts of that journey right now are the last hour, which was completed in pitch darkness. There were no lights on the boat, the driver didn’t have a torch, and i could barely see the direction of the river, let alone the positions of rocks in our path. I was petrified i wasn’t going to come out of it alive. Fortunately i did!
I got to Luang Prabang and headed straight for an internet cafe, praying to God that James had checked his mail and had been in contact about where he was staying, as i really needed to see a friendly and familiar face. He had, so i hitched a taxi to the Silichith Guesthouse and we spent the evening sharing beer Lao and speed boat stories and a very nice meal at Tom Tom Bamboo.
Photo is of a typical Luang Prabang street, with our guesthouse just on the left.