Tuesday 22 August, cloudy, foggy, mainly fine, 27°
A nice early start after a sticky night, and out to shoot the sunrise over Laos, which never really came to much. A few showers around this morning and quite a bit of low cloud. I headed back to the guesthouse to grab some breakfast ( egg noodles ) at 7:30am, and to grab our packed lunch for the boat ride ( more egg noodles ). Both of these were included in our package.
We packed up the room and checked out at 8am, and into the taxi with the other people from our guesthouse that were heading for the boat. The taxi took us to the Thai border control and left us to pass out of Thailand, which was painless. This is one of the few land border crossings ( even though the border is actually river, you know what I mean ) we have done where we have to get from one side of the no mans land to another. Other land crossings we have done on trains where the immigration officials come on and check passport on board. So it feels strange when you get stamped out of Thailand to realise that you are actually not in any country at all.
Anyway we paid our B20 ( NZ80c ) for the bus fare that would take us over the Friendship Bridge and to the Laos immigration building. As we left the Thai side of the river the bus went through a cross over intersection to change from driving on the left to driving on the right ( as most of SE Asia does ). So far we have only had driving on the left in Thailand, although Myanmar uses a lot of right hand drive cars even though they drive on the right. Or in the middle if need be. So back to the right hand side drive country we go.
So we got across the border and filled in the forms for the Visa on Arrival. This Visa requires a passport photo, a couple of forms, a valid passport and $US25. We filled in the forms, queued briefly, handed the passport, US$25, passport photo and the completed forms to the man at counter A. We then shuffled sideways to Counter B and waited for the Visa included version of our passports to arrive. We could see that between our man on Counter A and the lady on Counter B was a long desk, with 3 people sitting at it ( so 5 in a row in total included Mr A and Ms B ), and we could see the passports work their way down the desk and each person do their bit, and eventually after a few minutes the passports were ready to pick up, complete with a new Laos Visa included. Seems so simple, makes you wonder why some countries need days to process a Visa application.
We then headed to the main immigration desk ( the VoA desks were off to one side ) and, not surprisingly given the lady at this desk had watched us all queue at the VoA desks, we pretty much got waived through, but with a stamp to make our entry official. Our 2 minders from the bus / boat package met us on the Laos side and got us into a pick up truck bus and we headed off to the boat dock in Huay Xai (pronounced Hway Shai I believe ). Before the bridge was built we would have arrived by cross river boat from Chiang Khong at the dock where our boat to Luang Prabang left, but we now had a 15 minutes ride to get there.
We were dropped next to the slow boat dock at a little cafe at 9:30am ( belonging to relatives of our minders ) and we waited. The slow boat was due to depart at 11:30 so we had a couple of hours to kill.
We needed to get some money so I walked up from the boat dock to the main road looking for an ATM, which I found just along the road, but it didn't want to take my card ( even though it had a VISA symbol on it ), so I walked in the heat a bit further down the road and saw, on another parallel road, another ATM. So after negotiating the side streets, and a few stares and laughs from little children, I got to the bank where the ATM was located. I couldn't see a machine so I went into the bank. I was faced with a wall of tellers and no customers, except me, a sweating confused white man. So I asked where the ATM was and was directed to a young man who looked at my card and tried to figure out if he could give me money. At that time another man came over and told me about the ATM on the street ( which I thought he meant the one I had tried already ) but he eventually explained to me that there was that one, and their one just outside the building ( which I had missed ), so I thanked them all and headed out to their ATM. I tried a couple of times to get money ( at least it took my card ) but it just cancelled the transaction on me for no reason. At this point the young man from the bank came out to see if the confused white man had had any luck. He watched me try to use the machine and fail, and then he took my card and made a call on his mobile to try to sort it out. It turns out his bank doesn't accept VISA cards with chips on them, only magnetic stripes, even though my card had both. He suggested that I needed to use the other ATM. I thanked him for his help and let him go back into the air-conditioned safety of his bank with no customers and I headed off to the other ATM again.
This time when I tried the machine instead of following the instructions on the machine about how to put the card in I did it the normal way, and it worked. So I drew K1,000,000 ( 1 Kip = NZ$0.0002, so K1,000,000 = NZ$168 ) and headed back to Liz waiting at the cafe. I had been gone about an hour.
We boarded our boat at 11:00am and grabbed a seat. The slow boat is a long flat bottom, covered, boat with a big motor in the back, luggage storage behind that, and seats in the rest of it. There is a raised area at the front ( the boat hull curves up at each end ) and this is where the locals seemed to sit on plastic and wooden chairs and the captain pilots it from the very front. There is also some more luggage storage under the raised front portion of the boat.
The main seating area has recycled bus seats in pairs, and these aren't fixed down to the floor. This boat also has some tables with seats facing into the table ( i.e. 2 going forward and 2 going backwards ) so we managed to grab those as they had a bit more space. Once we are all on board there was just the small matters of the scooter that got loaded onto the very front of the boat being secured, and the reception desk that got loaded onto the room, and we were off.
Well I say we were off... You will see from the photos that the boats are all tied up nose first into the bank, and they are reasonably well packed together. So to get our boat out from the middle of the stack was no easy matter. It seemed harder than normal going by the looks on the faces of the locals and the skipper, but after 15 minutes of trying to reverse out we got there. An indiction of how tightly packed in we were was that as soon as we were free from the other boats you could not see the gap where we had come out of; it had closed up completely.
Oh, also during this reversing process I discovered that SE Asia has Huntsmen Spiders when one crawled along the handrail of the boat, just where I was leaning.
So we were off eventually and headed down the Mekong. The rest of the days travel was reasonably uneventful; a few stops to pick up and let off people ( which required careful manoeuvring by the captain in the fast flowing river ) and miles of green bush with the occasional village and the constant brown river. At the start of the day we had Laos to our left and Thailand to our right, but after a while we entered Laos completely.
One of the things that surprised me about the Mekong at this time of year ( the wet season ) was how turbulent it was. Even though there was shore to shore water there was obviously a lot of big rocks under the surface causing ripples and eddies all the way along the river.
We arrived at Pak Beng at 5:50pm and tied up at the 'dock', everybody grabbed there bags and headed ashore to the waiting throng of guesthouse owners, trinket sellers, opium sellers, dogs, goats and, most sadly of all, young kids looking to take our bags of rubbish in the hope of finding food scraps. We found our host for the night and jumped on the back of his truck and headed up the hill to "Donevilasuk House".
We checked into our room up the back of the complex along with a few other people from the boat, turned on the air con, and went for a walk through 'town'. The main part of Pak Beng is further up the hill and we never saw it, and the part we were in was effectively a road to the docks with guesthouses and restaurants lining both sides. We walked down to the river and took some photos then wandered back up the hill.
As we were passing one guesthouse / restaurant looking for a place to eat we saw 3 girls that we had been talking to on the boat, and they invited us to join them. The guesthouse was run by a lady and her son who had also been on the boat ( and we had also been talking to them a bit ), so we sat down for dinner. I will hopefully write a blog about the people we met on the boat soon, as there were some interesting stories / people ( good and bad! )
After dinner we walked back to our room and cooled off. We received an email to say that our Vietnam Visa had been sorted, which was a good way to finish a long day.