The following indicates just some of the perils of foolishly rejecting the worldwide ubiquity of plane travel, and instead going the long way round…
We left the idyll of Chiang Dao with some sadness, having had such a relaxing time there. But we were still excited as in front of us lay quite a journey. We were off to the Pearl of the Orient, Luang Prabang, Laos, and not just any old way – the old-fashioned way, by slow boat down the Mekong. The plan that day was to take a bus back to Chiang Mai, change bus stations, and then catch a local bus to Chiang Khong, the border town with Laos. This would enable us to rendezvous with our boat operator just across the river from Chiang Khong, in Houay Xai, the following morning. Easy, huh?
The first hiccup came as we stood in the queue for tickets in Chiang Mai, 30 minutes before our bus was due to leave, and were still there 30 minutes later. No matter, really, as we were informed the bus was full (and this on a route which apparently didn’t ever require bookings). No way to get to Chiang Khong before midday the next day.
We hightail it back into the centre of town, where a number of tour operators ply minibuses along popular routes. Standing, fretting, in a tour office, a woman tries helpfully to book us seats on minibus heading to Chiang Khong that evening (and arriving in the middle of the night) – with no luck. We stand there, bereft.
“Or,” she chirps, “there’s a bus leaving in a few minutes. Would that help?”
Yes! Stopping only to run to the ubiquitous 7-11 for something to eat (the most dire sandwich known to Creation, a chicken-floss and bologna on sweet white bread with mayonnaise fiasco), we clamber aboard the bus and finally end up in Chiang Khong, a mere 10 hours after leaving Chiang Dao.
As we’re sorting out the room at the guesthouse, Alex turns to me. “The guy next to me on the bus reckons that there are no boats to Luang Prabang. Not enough water in the river.”
We’re initially skeptical. Sure, it’s the middle of ‘winter’ (ie the dry season) but boats should be OK on the river, and besides, our boat operator assured us it was OK, and indeed had been pressing us for the AUD150 deposit.
Hang on a minute…
We ask around the two-horse town and the response is consistent – due to low water levels, boats are unable to navigate the Mekong as far as Luang Prabang. Bugger it. Still, avoiding being scammed out of our deposit was a relief.
We head back to the guesthouse where we learn that it’s making a killing running minibuses all the way to Luang Prabang (taking advantage of stranded travellers such as us). It’s either 12 hours in a minibus the following day, or we can select the public bus, which takes 17 hours. No choice – any 5 hours aboard a bus that I can avoid is well worth it.
The next morning, going through immigration and getting a visa in Laos is pretty straightforward. Well, for almost everyone. We cross paths with Universe Mermaid Lion (I shit you not, that is her name. Alex spotted it in her – shamefully Australian – passport), a late-adopting particularly ditzy patchouli-smelling hippie who seemed to be oblivious to the world around her. With her single blond dreadlock (reaching suspiciously to her waist – seriously, if there’s anything more pathetic than dreadlocks, it’s fake dreadlocks) and her pet baby rabbit (poor thing being toted around in a plastic case with a bag of lettuce), she waved her immigration paperwork at the desk clearly marked ‘Visa Processing Fee’ and then tried to pay 50 Thai baht for a visa that costs around 40 times that price. We crossed our fingers that she would be on another minibus. She was. We rejoiced.
So, onto another minibus. We’d been wondering why it took 12 hours to cover the 200km between Houay Xai and Luang Prabang. The answer became clear:
1. It’s 200km top Luang Prabang if you go by boat;
2. By road, it’s a circuitous mountain route that takes you north before veering southeast to Luang Prabang, and it’s 500km;
3. “There may be some roadwork,” said our driver.
He wasn’t wrong. Apparently, a dodgy Thai construction company built a series of roads through this inaccessible country, and they promptly washed away in the last wet season. Legions of (presumably Lao) workers were scattered throughout the route, rebuilding road which had been there just the year before. They had no tools or machinery aside from wheelbarrows, shovels, picks and sledgehammers with which to shatter huge boulders, transport the rubble along the road, and lay it again. Makeshift shelters had sprung up, little more than tarpaulins strung across ropes, the whole thing clinging precariously to the edge of the cliff. I couldn’t help but wonder if these people were desperately pissed off at having to do the whole thing again, or thrilled at the extra income. Probably the latter.
Of course, these were narrow roads to begin with, and the roadwork meant that at best there was now 1.5 lanes. There was a fair bit of crawling along behind trucks, backing up to let oil tankers come through, and nail-biting overtaking on blind corners. And to give you an idea of our average speed, it is 115km from Luang Namtha to Oudomxay, and it took 5 hours.
We arrived in Luang Prabang in the evening, found a guesthouse, some food and a beer, and collapsed. This wasn’t exactly how we’d planned it.