Monday, 23 June 2008

Sunday 1st June

Chiang Rai early start, 2 hrs bus to Chiang Khong. Tuk Tuk, deep fried banana for take-away breky then unnecessarily cumbersome to-ing and fro-ing between the Thai and Laos boarder which was a comedy of errors and haphazard misorganisation.

Laos Immigration
... is not the most thorough affair. At the boarder, before you can make your way up the river bank onto Laos soil (although there's nothing stopping you swimming across and bypassing the whole charade if you felt like it) you have to fill in an immigration card just as if you'd landed on a plane. Curiosity got the better of me as I wondered just how lackadaisical the passport checks would be. Could I get away with a dodgy immigration card? Only one way to find out, I entered my surname correctly and then added my first name as 'The Dude' and my occupation as 'Stuntman', childish I know but it entertained the hell out of me whilst everyone else tussled with the crazy bureaucracy and general arse-about-faceness of the immigration process. Needless to say my passport was stamped and my papers given the all clear by the officials who were more interested in counting their winnings (it's $36 to get into Laos) than checking who was coming into their country.

After a short but sweaty walk of maybe 3/4k from one boat stop to the other we located the ticket office and attempted to buy a ticket for the first half of the journey on the slow boat to Pak Beng which cost 420 bhat. I had considered catching a rocket powered canoe that takes 6hrs to get to Luang Prabang but the girls had been spooked by stories of frequent deaths on these crafts and so I acquiesced and took the slow boat.

Money Money Money
The ticket girl 'accidentally' give me the wrong change (she short changed me by 500 bhat (nearly a tenner - which would feed the whole of Laos for a week) and giggled at her accidental mistake before handing me the correct change. An honest mistake surely? Nah, I'd just seen her do the same to Sarah in front of me! A word to the wise if you're going to Laos, it's not easy working in Thai bhat (63 to the pound), Laos kip (16,000 to 1GBP), US dollars (2 to 1GBP) all at once, and converting all the time back in to pounds sterling, then figuring out if you've been given the correct change (always in kip), which usually looks a lot, but in reality isn't. The local people who frequently come into contact with foreigners are adept at ripping off foreigners (biting the hand that feeds it) and will invariably try and short change you or catch you out with dodgy exchange rates. Pay in kip where possible, it just makes things so much easier.

The Slow Boat To China
We boarded the slow boat, a 40m x 5m long boat with a wooden roof, some sort of toilet and a loud throbbing Isuzu truck engine beating away towards the rear. Fortunately our fellow passengers had neglected to do their research and left the front of the boat which has no benches - just floor space, all to us. This is the quietest and most comfortable part of the boat, right behind the skipper. We felt rather pleased with ourselves. The boat was definitely overcrowded by British maritime regulations but we all just about had enough room to breathe and it was possible to step over bodies to get to the loo/bar.

Enroute we must have passed through a thousand different whirlpools and countless sets of rapids that sent the boat at speed between the jagged grey rocks that protruded menacingly out of the river bed. The words of Greg from the UN Bar in Chiang Mai kept visiting me, he was talking about the boat trip along the Mekong: 'There is *nothing to see*, there are trees and water, water and trees, there is *nothing to see*'. This view was a bit cynical but I did see his point. This route is supposed to be a backpackers right of passage. It does feel quite special to be chugging along the Mekong as fishermen and villagers go about the work in the same way they've been doing for hundreds of years. I'd recommend doing the route once, then next time just fly from Chiang Mai.

We arrived in Pak Beng tired from the long hot and moderately cramped-up journey (it would make Easy Jet's legroom policy seem positively generous). Pak Beng is a small settlement that exists purely as a stop over point roughly halfway between Huay Xia and Luang Prabang. After the strict no-drugs policy in Thailand the offer of cheap and ubiquitous narotics (weed and opium) was just too much for some farang. We ate out at a restaurant, the pungent aroma of pot came drifting over from all directions. Half an hour later there was a crash of plates as a Spanish girl passed out from over indulgence and landed with her head in her plate. Classy. The little waiter was jumping around gleefully whispering to us 'too much marijuana'. The power for the whole town is supplied by generators which are switched on 6:30pm-10:30pm, after that the whole town is engulfed in darkness. For this reason we had an early night, attempting to get to sleep before the fans shut down.

Excellent accom. in Pak Beng. We paid US$7 per room - they were nice with a balcony overlooking the Mekong from our lofty viewpoint some 50m above. Here's a lesson for those who travel out of peak season: never book ahead. If we had (and several French and Americans fell foul of this) the price for the hotel would have been $35 per night which doesn't seem a huge when you're sat online and used to paying much more for Western Hotel but it is five times the price of the dearest hotel in Pak Beng. So beware.

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