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.