Feb 25 11

How many people can you fit in a bus?

by Emily Benjamin


Despite my flu symptoms, we’d made the decision to kick on to Laos today (Friday) and head for the hills – Luang Namtha, specifically. This meant uprooting ourselves from our brief home (or makeshift hospital bed, seeing as I spent the entire time there in my pyjamas trying to get better) in Chiang Rai and heading north-west to Chiang Khong, on the border of Thailand and Laos. We’d read suggestions online to take a more scenic route to Luang Prabang in Laos, rather than the slow or fast boat on the Mekong option, so we embraced the different idea and set forth at 8am from Chiang Rai’s bus terminal.

By 10.20am we were in Chiang Khong, and swapping bus seats for a tuk-tuk to travel the last few kilometres to the border crossing on the river. We exchanged some US dollars to Laos Kip (and are now 780,000 Kip richer! But don’t get excited because that’s only $100 worth…) had our passports stamped to exit Thailand and 10 minutes later, we were in Laos. Being an Australian, I found it quite surreal to be standing in one country and looking at another. Very odd.

We walked up to the Laos Visa booth and handed over our forms and passports, thinking that we’d had all the luck and missed the early morning queues. But after standing around for 20 minutes, then seeing a bunch of Norwegian hippies hand theirs over for immediate processing, we began to worry that we’d done something wrong. Not know exactly how to express our concern to Laos immigration officers that spoke no english, we resorted to glaring worriedly into their booth in the hope that they’d get around to reviewing our applications before we missed out 1pm bus to our next destination. Fortunately, the man in charge of the Visa stickers finally got around to hand writing our approvals, someone official came in to sign them off, and after paying US$30 (US$35 for Jamie, ha!) we were officially in Laos.

A sign detailed the bus timetable to our next stop, Luang Namtha. The owner of the accommodation we’d booked let us know that the bus will take about 3 hours and leaves Bokeo district at 1pm, which gave us 1 hour 15 minutes to find food… cos I was starving! But when we were offered tickets, we were told the bus was departing in 15 minutes, from the bus station 10 minutes away. Figuring this was just a gimmick to get us to buy our tickets quickly without questioning the price, we said yes anyway, and it was the wisest decision we made that day. Speeding down the ‘main street’ (read: ONLY street) in Huay Xai to the bus terminal, we were rushed out of our taxi and on to a waiting mini bus – a standard, 13 seater – where 13 people were already seated and ready to go. But there were no seats… hmm, this is interesting. Not as interesting as the fact that there were another 4 people behind us, waiting to hop on the mini bus as well. Those already seated looked on comfortably, while the rest of us anxiously looked around for a solution, before the makeshift aisle seats were pointed out and we were invited to sit down. So they stacked us in, counted heads, added one more person (a fragile looking old Laos man, who was offered the miniature seat currently used for luggage near the back) and we were away! A quick count revealed that they’d stacked 21 one of us into this mini bus – my back rest was the pile of luggage behind my seat, while Jamie’s ‘aisle’ seat was the size of a pre-schoolers chair. At least there were plenty of bodies to cushion the fall if we crash!

(Standing in Thailand, with Laos in the background over the river)   (The packed bus to Luang Namtha… I’m in the back row with 3 others, and all of the luggage!)

The long and dusty road to Luang Namtha took just over 4 hours, with a ‘toilet stop’ half way. No actual toilet, mind you – the driver just ducked into nearby bushes on the busy dirt road and encouraged the rest of us to do the same. Seeing no good hiding spot to go myself, I resolved to hold off on drinking any unnecessary liquids until our final destination, and snacked on my pre-purchased emergency foods – Oreos and potato chips, with tiny sips of water – to keep off my hunger and thirst. Hunger and thirst quenched for the time being, but the headache developed immediately. Dehydration and salty/sugary foods do a headache make!

We arrived in Luang Namtha around 4:30pm, exhausted from the dusty, slow, overpacked ride from the border. No accidents though, and it could have been much worse, so we were relieved to make it there and into our accommodation by 5pm for a bath and a rest… and about 2 litres of water for me, asap.

Out again an hour or so later to check out the town, and we’d seen everything there was to see just 10 minutes later. There is not much to Luang Namtha, but we did get to drink our first BeerLao tallies at $1.20 each, and eat some yummy beef larb, morning glory and sticky rice for dinner. Just one night here for us, despite my persistent headache (curiously improved while drinking BeerLao and eating dinner, but immediately returning worse than before once we were finished) and tomorrow we take two buses totalling 7 hours to Nong Khiaw, a small village north of Luang Prabang. Here, we’ll rest and recover in riverside bungalows amongst limestone cliffs that are apparently spectacular. Hopefully the headache is gone by then.


– Em :)

Filed Under → Words
Feb 24 11

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

by Emily Benjamin

We had a couple of options for how to get to Luang Prabang in Laos from Chiang Mai, as offered to us by our friends at Sawasdee Guest House. We could take the fast boat, which is notorious for sinking or crashing and considered by most guide books as ‘dangerous’, or we could take the slow boat, which does the same trip but over two days and while it is considered safer, guide books also recommend massages before and after the 14 hour boat ride. We could also fly, but where’s the fun in that!?!

After a bit more research (mainly with TravelFish) we decided on another option. Rather than following the usual tourist route, we decided to avoid the usual Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai tourist trap before making our way to Luang Prabang. We took a 3 hour bus north from Chiang Mai to Thaton, and then a 4 hour boat down to Chiang Rai. From Chiang Rai, you are able to take a short bus ride to the Laos border, and thus it is a popular stop for travellers hoping to make this crossing. But in choosing the more scenic route to get there, we were piled into a long boat with 10 other people, giving me the very first minor panic attack of the trip so far. But let’s get to the good, first.

The boat trip was beautiful. The river winds its way through northern Thailand, snaking through mountains and small villages, around bends and over rapids. We saw locals fishing, dredging and eating by the river beds, kids jumping from rocks into the water and buffalo swimming and drinking together downstream. It was surreal to be navigating rapids in an almost-submerged long boat, then turning a corner to see a herd of buffalo just 10 metres away. While the trip was long, we were blessed with perfect weather and a capable captain, who got us to Chiang Rai safely just after 4pm.

But for the first half of the journey, I was scared shitless. I don’t like to use that language publicly, but there is no other way to describe how I was feeling for the first 2 hours on that boat. When I say almost-submerged, I mean it. If I had leaned back much further, I would have tipped the boat and sunk it. About 10 minutes into the journey, the boat stopped and the captain asked people to switch seats because we were uneven. Every few minutes we’d scratch the ground, or be heading straight for a pile of trees/branches/rocks, and I would look back at the captain and see the look of anxiety on his face. Jamie will think I’m making that part up, but through my fearful eyes, that’s how I saw it. You could watch the concentration and concern on the captains face as he negotiated his way down the winding river, which literally had us zigzagging left and right to find sections deep enough to take our heavy boatload. Oh, and did I mention that our journey started with 12 people and we still collected another two on the way? My thought at the time – ‘you can NOT be SERIOUS!’

Despite all this anxiety, those who know me well will find humour in this – after my initial thought of ‘oh-my-god-we’re-going-to-die’ my second thought was ‘I’d better finish my chocolate bar, chips and can of drink to save them going to waste.’ Yes, it’s true – food is ALWAYS on my mind.

Now, twenty hours later, I can look at all of this rationally and realise that if we HAD capsized, it would have been because the river was too shallow and we’d run a ground. Which would be fine, because we’d just stand up in the shallow water and walk to the river bank. Or if we tipped in a section that was a little deeper, no problems – I’m a confident swimmer, and I could probably still swim to shore with my valuables above my head, kept dry. If not, insurance would replace them. So I can see that there was never a real threat to my life yesterday, on our semi-submerged long boat. But there was no convincing me of that at the time!

So that’s the good, the bad… now the ugly. I’m sick. This time I can see that it’s not life threatening, but it is keeping me bed bound and grumpy on an otherwise pleasant Chiang Rai day. It had been slowly building for the past 2 or 3 days, so I can now assume that this cold/flu contributed to my feelings of nausea yesterday on the boat. But now, it’s gripped me good and proper and I’ve had to dig into the emergency medical supplies for cold and flu tablets and panadol. At least the $500+ pack of pharma goodies isn’t being wasted, and I’ve got a proper excuse for staying in bed, being looked after (Jamie’s out getting me snacks and drinks, yay!) and watching movies. Tomorrow, sick or healthy, I’ll be up and moving again as we head to Laos.

Till next time,

– Em :)

Filed Under → Words
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