Thursday, January 31, 2013

How To: The Journey from Thailand to Laos

January 11-13, 2013

You have three options when traveling from Thailand to Laos.

1. You can fly. If you wait until the last second to try to buy tickets like us then you'll be forking out $400+ to fly from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. When trying to travel on $30 a day, this isn't really your best option.

2. You can take a 24 hour minivan ride to Vang Vieng. Despite the crazy minivan ride we took to Pai we almost chose this option. We had actually purchased tickets for this but our new friends convinced us to change and take option #3.

3. The slow boat option. To begin this journey you hop on a jam packed minivan and spend the next 7 hours on the windiest, craziest ride of your life. Your driver will be borderline mentally crazy and will speed up on the turns instead of slowing down. The first 3 hours will be a repeat of your drive to Pai, containing 762 consecutive curves. The second half of the journey probably doubles this figure.

At the halfway point, you will pull up to a remote 7-11 where a second van full of Korean tourists will disembark their van and try to steal your seats while you're inside buying Ovaltine cookies and cheetos for dinner. After a lot of head shaking, frowning and shuffling people around you will get back on the minivan and continue your journey. The best way to survive without having a panic attack is to pop some Dramamine, anti-anxiety pills, close your eyes and hope that the back and forth motion of swaying into your neighbor, then crashing into the window will put you in a semi coma.

At 3am you will arrive in a small border town where they have prearranged sleeping accommodations for you. Your bathroom will probably smell a little funky which you will gladly take in exchange for the hot water coming out of the shower. You will fall asleep to the sounds of the local pteredactoyl squawking, wondering why there is a pteredactoyl living at the border. Tomorrow you will find out it was a rat.

Four hours later you will be woken up and enjoy a free breakfast overlooking the Mekong, your road for the next two days. You'll smile in anticipation of cruising down the river past local villages and bonding with your fellow passengers.

The beautiful Mekong River.

Getting on the slow boat will be a 3 hour process. First there is the ubiquitous ride in the back of a pick up truck where you hold hands with the person sitting on the ledge across from you so you don't fall out. Then you will pass through Thai immigrations, take a boat across the river, go through Laos immigration, then you sit around for 2 hours.

Just riding in the back of a truck again.

And then you will finally get to board your vessel; a beautiful, distressed long boat with huge open windows. You keep walking allllll the way to the back of the boat to the engine room, to your makeshift we-will-fit-as-many-people-on-this-boat-as-possible seat. Any hope of relaxation and talking to your neighbors will quickly fade as the engine roars to life. You might try to dance to the beat of the sputtering engine to keep yourself entertained but that's only fun for a few minutes. Your iPod full max will not be able to compete with the noise and the only way to communicate with your neighbors is with sign language.

These are the first class seats.  Pictures of our steerage seats are at the bottom of the ocean.

So what is a girl to do? Fortunately safety standards are non-existent in Laos so the retired bus seats that you are sitting on aren't actually attached to the ground. Simply pick them up, turn them around so they're facing the window, and ride with your legs dangling outside the boat. This will help keep you cooler because the engine makes the back room quite toasty. It is also acceptable to start drinking Beer Lao at 10am so be sure to do that.

When you get tired of dangling your feet out the window and yelling at the person sitting 2 inches from you, make your way to the front and ask every person next to an empty seat if it's taken. Eventually you will find an empty one and you can spend the rest of the trip in cool peace and quiet. The next day, make sure to get to the boat 1 hour before it departs as there is no assigned seating on the second day.

Once you manage to get a decent seat on the boat, the 2 days pass much quicker than anticipated. The entire ride is extremely beautiful as you are surrounded by beachy shores and mountains on both sides of the river. The boat stops at small villages to pick up large bags of rice and other goods and all the local children come running out to wave at you. There are tons of cows grazing along the way, and actually, after dinner last night, I think they might have been water buffalo. And you get to drink lots of beer and eat lots of chips, the only food they sell on board. If you are lucky, there will be fun backpackers sitting next to you to play DIY boggle with. In all honesty, I think I would rather spend two days on a slow boat again then 24 hours on an airplane. Option #3 is definitely the way to go.