Cry me a river . . . Into Laos

21 Feb

And so it’s back on the bus. But not before I have gone into mad panic last minute sorting things out mode. Like, I need $70 to get my visa for Laos. To explain (although you will wish I hadn’t) I need to go to Laos in order to get back to Thailand in order to extend my Thailand visa so I can spend a few days in Bangkok to apply for a visa for India. With me so far? Good.

So the sensible thing to do is to turn up at a bank that does currency exchange (and I know this because it has a big sign on the door that says ‘Exchange’). Sounds sensible, but in practice, after taking a numbered ticket for a place in a line that doesn’t actually exist, and after a confusing exchange between me and the counter clerk, I find that they don’t have US dollars.

I have more success finding somewhere to take photographs for the visa, although it still means I need to run backwards and forwards before our bus arrives…

So, onto the bus. I have the bench seat next to the driver, which, to a backside numbed by cycling, is the worst form of torture. And we head out into the countryside. This time, the scenery is far more interesting – little villages, hills, forest… we really are starting to get into nature. We pass the Khao Rai National Park, which is lovely, although it does remind me a little of Scotland.

And then we rock up near Chang Rai for a stop at Wat Rong Khum temple. In contrast to most Thai temples, this is recent, begun in 1997 and still under construction. The place glitters in the distance, made of white cement and tiny mirror tiles. There’s a real ‘Heaven and Hell’ theme going on – the alien from the Predator movies is half buried in the grass, while hands reach out from a Dantean hell in front of the temple.

Wat Rong Khun (9)Wat Rong Khun (5)Wat Rong Khun (24)Wat Rong Khun (14)Wat Rong Khun (12)

Inside the Hell theme is revisited, with a crazy mural that, unlike most temples that recall the history of the Buddha, is filled with modern images – I spot neo from ‘The Matrix’, Iron Man, Superman, Spiderman and Batman, the Twin Towers on fire, a whole slew of Star Wars characters and more. It feels completely out of place and yet absolutely in keeping with the structure.

smbuddhashipsupermanneotemplemural2-568x426

(photography is forbidden inside, so I borrowed these from others)

And finally we roll into Chian Khong, on the banks of the Mekong river – wide and slow moving outside the hotel, with lorries being ferried up and down, and long tail boats ferrying folk across to the other side – which, of course, is Laos.

Mekong Sunrise (18)Mekong Sunrise (14)Mekong Sunrise (9)Mekong River (7)Mekong River (3)

The next morning we’re up early to be run to the boat. I find that I could have got currency exchanged and photographs done at the ferry.. so we pass through passport control out of Thailand, and then across the Mekong into Laos. After which we queue up to get visa forms, then queue up to apply for the visa, then wait for half an hour, then queue up to get our passports back. It feels crazy and chaotic, and a systems analyst would have a field day… but by 10 am we are allowed into Laos – at which point the frantic behaviour of the last couple of hours come to a complete stop as we wait for the boat.

Mekong Day 1 (38)Mekong Day 1 (37)

Eventually the boat is ready for boarding. There should be 70-100 people on the boat, so when they try and cram 150 on board we demand a second boat. There’s a combined protest group of Australians, Brits, French and German (including one or two people who seem worryingly good at the whole protest thing and have come equipped for the long haul. There’s a complete impasse until I go and check the numbers of seats available. There’s 7 seats, and 20 people to get on, a fact which I communicate with a lot of arm waving and holding fingers in the air. Eventually they relent, and it looks like another boat is going to happen – but no, they are just taking more seats out of another boat. It;s a minor victory, but it beats sitting on the floor. (The seats, by the way, have obviously been rescued from old cars)

And so the boat sets off – although it’s the slow boat, it’s faster than any of us expect – although when the fast boat zips past, the occupants wearing crash hats, we realise just how slow it is.

Mekong Day 1 (32)Mekong Day 1 (26)Mekong Day 1 (22)Mekong Day 1 (11)Mekong Day 1 (6)Mekong Day 1 (2)

So, five hours on the boat passing one or two little cottages, fishermen and groups of kids out for a swim. The cottages disappear, to be replaced by cows wandering the beach – it’s a beautiful journey, made even more enjoyable by the presence of a young American couple, recently engaged and travelling round Asia. And when Mack makes it big as a jazz pianist, remember you met him here first. (That’s Mack and Chelsea – and a Frenchman who worked at the same dive company I went diving with in Oz – it’s a small world – above)

And so, as the sun sets over the Mekong river, we arrive in Pak Beng, a little town that exists simply because it’s half way between Chiang Kong/Huay Xai and Luang Pra Beng, where we get off. The local kids flood the boat, carrying our bags off. I swear that my bag is heavier than the kid carrying it – and I am quite happy to pay him 100 baht just to reward his determination.

Pak Beng (5)

Our system has failed us – there doesn’t seem to be a hotel booked – but there are more than enough folk trying to sell us a room, and yet again we find ourselves in a comfortable little place – enough time for a drink, and to sleep, ready to get back on the boat again….

So, back on the boat… just as we leave the bank, my friend realises she has left her camera in Pak Beng. As time goes on it becomes clear that it’s not just the camera, it’s the credit cards too. We can’t do anything beyond juping off the boat and swimming for shore. We do not attempt this – but it does mean that nothing can be done for several hours and several hundred miles.

Mekong Day 2 (19)Mekong Day 2 (16)

However, the river is still gorgeous… every now and again we hit a spot of white water, which gets slightly exciting. We invested in a bottle of local rum last night, which means that we can drown our sorrows…

The river unfolds – little sleepy settlements, makeshift fishing lines, the occasional speedboat or cargo boat passing by and disturbing the gentle flow of the boat. In frequently there are temples, and monks, and lots of kids who wave like they’ve never seen a boat before. Sometimes we stop and drop someone off, or pick up someone with three months of shopping (or so it seems) – although the boat is mostly tourists and backpackers, there’s a healthy sprinkling of locals making their way down stream.

And so, finally, into Lua Pra Bang – the sun is setting again as we arrive, and we make our way to the hotel where we get increasingly frustrated trying to track  down the camera (what do you mean, there’s no directory enquiries? what do you mean, you won’t give us the bar’s number because they are competitors). Eventually, we surrender to the inevitable, and head off for dinner. There’s not much choice by this time in this sleepy World Heritage town, so we settle for a barbecue which is similar to Japanese Shabba Shabba cooking – cook your meat on the heated pan while cooking your meat in the stock below. Yes, I know I am a vegetarian, but needs must!

Mekong Day 2 (15)Mekong Day 2 (5)

Luang Prabang (27)Luang Prabang (24)Luang Prabang (19)Luang Prabang (14)

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