I wasn’t sure what to expect from Laos when peering over the Mekong from our guest-house in the small Thai town of Chiang Khong, where you can hear the sound of Laotians singing karaoke late on a Friday night. With interesting background music from Laos I spent a bit of time chatting around the fire with the guest-house owner where he passed on a few warnings and tips for anyone going to Laos.
Within the first hour on Laos territory we had already learnt the guest-house owners’ first lesson: everything goes slowly. Whether it’s immigration, traffic speeds, food service times or even speed boats and busses that sometimes don’t show up. Immigration proved to be about as chaotic and painful as a trip to Cernterlink or the Department of Transport as 50 or so tourists competed for space surrounding two small windows to try and get their passports processed and pay for their visa (US $30). After a while people began passing their passports to other travellers in the direction of the front hoping that someone will call their name out when the three staff work their way through the piles of passports. With the hour mark closing in our names were finally called and we were officially in Laos!
We decided to catch the speed boat to Luang Prabang, despite most guide books and websites condemning them as dangerous, small wooden boats with a car engine attached. This is without a doubt completely true, yet it also meant that what otherwise would have been a two day journey in a slow boat took mearly six hours. It was on the journey to the boat that another of the guest-house owners warnings was realised – infrastructure is pretty bad in a lot of places and often doesn’t make sense (at least to westerners). For instance, bus stops and docking points for boats are often in seemingly illogical places – such as 10kms out of town or an hours drive down a very bumpy road. The latter was the case for our trip to the boat with the mini bus driver entertaining us with old rock music. Most worrying was that we were all singing along to the song “Tears in Heaven” on our way to these boats.
Besides losing feeling from the waist down within half an hour due to the tiny seats, the trip was surprisingly enjoyable. As the boat passed stunning mountain upon mountain and numerous riverside villages it became clear how integral the river is to the lives of the people that inhabit the area. From the 6 hours spent in the boat and a stop off in a riverside cafe we could see that the river acted as a source of food, washing machine, bath/shower, toilet, transport and playground to the locals. As the sun was beginning to set we ‘docked’ at a bunch of bamboo roped together that was barely buoyant enough to hold us as, about 5 kids come running down and start collecting the bags from the storage on the boat. I’m not a big fan of people touching my bags so I carried my own and fortunately wasn’t stung for the surprise ‘carrying bag up the stairs’ fee that everyone else was. Awaiting at the top of the stairs was a lone Tuk Tuk (never a good sign) who charged us far, far more than it was worth for a 10km trip to town.
It wasn’t the best introduction to a new country but it was clear by the end of the first day that Laos was truly ‘same same, but different’ to Thailand. Something that over the next week I learnt to truly appreciate. Seeing as this post managed to grow pretty long before I even mentioned Luang Prabang itself, I’ll write about that and the back packing mecka of Vang Vieng in my next post. On another note – there is a subscribe button down the bottom of each post which you can click on so that you get notified whenever I post something new. It’d save you coming back to a blog which I haven’t updated and make me feel like one of the popular kids. As they say here: ‘Good for me, good for you.’