Our plan after northern Thailand was to stylishly segue into northern Laos, to begin our two week journey through the country. The distance between Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang is only 220 miles as the crow flies… however a direct bus would purportedly take 16 to 20 hours, along twisting mountain tracks and through rural villages. We didn’t fancy a bus ride that long after our absolutely pants overnight one to Bangkok, so we split up the journey into a few different legs. Our first one was a 4 hour minibus to Chiang Rai, a town towards the border of Laos and a cool relaxed place to check out northern Thai living.
Chiang Rai isn’t a huge place, and tourists usually only stop here en route to Laos, or to organise a hill trek into the stunning mountainous jungles that cover the north of Thailand. There is also a couple of famous temples worth seeing. Staggering up muddy forest trails whilst being eaten alive by mosquitos and sweating buckets didn’t sound like our cup of tea, so we only stayed for 2 nights. Our only planned activity was to visit the very stunning White Temple which we did briefly, actually on the way into town which was handy.
That afternoon we easily whiled away a few hours after discovering a cat cafe in the centre of the town. These kind of things are popping up all over the place now, although I was surprised to find one here. It’s essentially a stylish little cafe that has like 25 cats wandering around inside, that do what cats do best – sleeping, looking at you superciliously and eating. These cats didn’t like to be petted much, but all the same it was a cool place to hang out.
We were also lucky to be in town on a Saturday, as its the only day of the week that there’s a night market in town. We headed out to explore for a bit. Jake gets rather impatient when crowds of people walk slowly though, so an Asian market isn’t really his favourite of places. After 10 minutes he was declaring he was over it and passive aggressively speed walking through groups of dawdling Chinese women. We found the main section with all the food and realised that not only was there a market but also a little stage with live music and a large square for dancing. We watched, bemused, as a group of over a hundred people danced traditionally, kind of like line dancing. It was difficult to decide who was more hilarious, the dowdy old ladies or the fabulous young guys who were getting a little bit too into it.
The next day we had to do a few things in preparation for our border crossing. We went to get some passport size photos printed, and also changed some money into USD, as that’s the cheapest way to pay for your Laotian visa. Now there are two ways to travel from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang. The first is the overnight bus, previously mentioned and vetoed. The other option was the slow boat. Infrastructure is so undeveloped in Laos that the most convenient way to get from the border is by a boat down the Mekong River. For me there was also an element of romance to the idea. We were in no rush and a two day cruise down the river sounded like quite a cool experience. So we signed up for it, meaning a 6 o’clock start the next day.
We were picked up with a few other guys from the hostel, who, because we were travelling with them for about 36 hours straight, we became fast friends with. A couple of hours in the minivan got us to the Thai – Lao Friendship Bridge near Chiang Khong. After jumping through the bureaucratic hoops to get our Laotian visa (that cost us $35 each) we entered the country, and headed to where the boat would leave, in nearby Huay Xai.
Our seats on the boat were series of old car seats, probably recycled from the same buses that we’d decided not to take. There wasn’t much to do besides look out the window and drink beer. The views were lovely though. Dramatic green hills lay all around, and the muddy brown Mekong (which was sadly very polluted, with lots of refuse floating in it) carried us past impossibly basic and remote villages where people lived in wooden shacks. Water buffalo were a common sight but otherwise we didn’t see anything. We passed the time easily enough and after about 5 and a half hours we arrived in the town we would be overnighting in, Pak Beng, which is legitimately in the middle of nowhere. After securing some accommodation we grabbed some food and migrated to the bar named Happy Bar. Because it sold weed… which although illegal, is common here, near to the old infamous golden triangle.
The next day our trip took us 6 and a half hours, and although our destination was Luang Prabang, we got dropped off about 10km out of town, just so the tuk tuk drivers could charge us 20000 Kip each to get a ride in. Lame! We’d made it to Luang Prabang though, and were excited to see what the city, and country, had to offer.