After roughly a week of exploring in the northernmost areas of Thailand our extended visa was down to one remaining day. Having changed our plans while in Mae Sai, we were now headed in the direction of Laos. We had heard nothing but shining review after shining review from other travelers about the country. While less developed than its neighbors (China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam) and being the only landlocked country in the water-rich region, it had plenty to offer as far as charm and activities. Our guts told us to move in that direction, and so we did.
Unexpected Stay in Chiang Khong at the FunkyBox
After saying goodbye to Sky and his kitty Maya, we once again walked about two miles to the main road and caught the first of two buses that would take us to Chiang Khong, the border town touching Laos. Our original plan was to do the crossing that very day but we still had no idea what direction we would go once we made the crossing. There were a couple options we were considering but had not yet come to any solid decision. About two miles outside of Chiang Khong there is a turnoff for the brand new border-crossing point. Being the only foreigners on the bus, they knew why we were headed in that direction – not many foreigners go to Chiang Khong unless they are going into or coming from Laos. The attendant asked us – “you go border Lao now?” We looked at eachother, searched for the gut instinct, and both simultaneously stumbled over the words: “Nah,” “no,” “tomorrow.” We weren’t really sure why we both felt it would be best to stay there that night, so we trusted our instinct. And that is how we ended up staying in Chiang Khong.
Fortunately, we had done a little homework, and there was actually a hostel in town that Ben had a bit of interest in checking out. The Funkybox was a centrally located hostel complete with dorm beds for 100 baht ($3) a night. Not knowing what to expect for $3/person we were happy to find out the place was clean, new, light, and actually very nice. Just as advertised, it was funky and cool.
We soon discovered this hostel was much more than just a normal hostel. The owner Alan Bate is a former pro cyclist from the UK who’s most well known claim to fame is holding the Around the World Cycling Record. Inside the hostel’s main building (across the street from the dorms) was a 2-story mini-museum of cycling memorabilia he had collected over the years. In it were panthenon cycles with no tubes on the wheels, antique bikes, medals, photos of the owner with Lance Armstrong, etc. This is close to Ben’s equivalent of Disneyland. Now that the owner was older, he had settled down with a local Thai woman, and had a child. When we were there the owner had a broken foot that kept him laid up, mostly in the room to the side of the cycling museum. On the other side of the cycling museum was a bar, The Hub Pub. The bar was just as simple and nice as the hostel. It had a great vibe and drew a good crowd of locals and visitors alike.
We took a stroll through the town shortly before sunset. Chiang Khong is actually very pretty, and we were surprised and impressed for a border town. There was a vibrance to the town, and it had many amenities catering to foreigners that you can appreciate when removed from western culture for a while. The Mekong River creates the natural border with Laos which lends to a nice view alongside most of the town. Sitting along the river and watching the last rays of sunlight light up Ban Houayxay (the border town on the Laos side, also known as Huay Xai or Houei Sai or a couple other variations) we were thankful for again listening to our gut and making the stop-over in this unlikely quaint spot.
We had planned to have a quiet night in, but by the time we were back at the hostel all the dorm beds had been taken (only five of the sixteen had been occupied two hours before when we had arrived) and the bar was becoming quite the social gathering. Being our definite last night in northern Thailand, we eventually ended up caving in and cutting loose. It felt right, after five weeks in Thailand to give it a good sendoff, especially with the cool place we were staying in, friendly cohabitants at The Hub, and really good SoundCloud playlist they were grooving to. We met a couple really nice guys from the Netherlands, some local cyclists, an Irish guy who had just started teaching English in the town, and many other travelers like us who planned to make the border crossing the following day.
The number of people in the group ebbed and flowed until those of us left wandered two blocks to the other ‘hot-spot’ where we met a local leather-jacket clad chopper motorcycle riding tattoo artist and his Dutch friend of his who had made Chiang Khong his home for the last month. They were both in a very giving mood and wanted to share everything from their girlfriend’s dinner to the special cigarettes they had. It was amazing how happy and friendly the vibe was in this town. Was it always like this?
Thai-Laos Border Crossing
Our night eventually wound down and we got some rest before our 9am tuk-tuk ride to the brand new 4th Thai-Laos Friendship Bridge border crossing. The border crossing here at Chiang Khong had been considered one of the easiest in SE Asia until the month before when then bridge opened. Before the bridge it had been a simple water crossing, taking a boat across the river and dealing with the immigration right where the boat dropped you off. The other advantage of the boat crossing was it took you directly from the docks of Chiang Khong and arrived on the other side directly in the town of Ban Houayxay. This had changed in December, twhen the new, large Friendship Bridge was established. As of January, foreigners were no longer allowed to cross via water and the bridge crossing is the only available option into Laos. Unlike the ferry crossing, the bridge is located approximately 10km outside of Chiang Khong with no public transportation to it – making it now a pain and added cost for travelers to get to. The same problem presented itself on the Laos side of the border – you emerged from the new border crossing 10km from the town of Ban Houayxay and no public transportation.
We wonder sometimes why they do these things that are supposed to be ‘progress’ but yet just cost lots of money to build and make everyone’s life harder. Then we read articles while writing these posts about how China financed much of the project in hopes of boosting ‘trade’ and ‘tourism’ and we start to see, like many other things in the world, how it all comes back to politics. This wouldn’t be the first or the last mark we saw the Chinese government making in Laos. And to be completely honest each time we came across one of their financed projects toward future ‘progress’ it just left us feeling sad.
Once we reached the official Thailand Immigration building we were somewhat surprised by how large the facility was. A large white building with a blue ceiling that looked like the foyer leading into a big chain hotel greeted us, and after passing the Thai exit border inspection, we loaded into a bus (the only way to cross the bridge and at a cost of 10 baht), which took us across the bridge to the Laos entry inspection. Right before the road hit the bridge it split and did an ‘X’ as the lanes changed. Both Laos and Myanmar drive on the right-hand side of the road (the same as the US), but Thailand does not. Aside from looking funny, it worked well.
Unfortunately, we had chosen a bad time to arrive, as we found ourselves waiting in a long line in the sun. Apparently, in Chiang Mai there are many tourist shops selling a trip from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, featuring the 2-day slow boat ride down the Mekong. Those who have signed up for the package all arrive together at the same time to cross the border, which also happened to be just before we arrived. As the new border crossing had only opened literally a couple weeks before we arrived, it was obvious the immigration office was either still trying to get things organized or were completely understaffed. There is a strong possibility both of those sceneros were true. We scratched our heads at the entire situation; this had gone from what was previously considered the easiest border crossing point in SE Asia to a large border crossing that at the moment might look grand but was completely disorganized without any real system in place. After waiting in a line in the sun for almost two hours we finally made it to the window to drop off our passports. From this point most of the travelers tried to sneak into the limited shade and converse with each other, take naps, or write in their journals to kill time. Nothing was moving fast and trying to understand the disorganized system was near impossible. There was no calling out or yelling of names (numbers did not exist) and there was no line for pick-up. Occationally it would circulate through the large blob of people that they were looking for a “John” from Canada or whatever country. Hopefully the message got to that person and they made their way forward to pay the visa fee and collect their passport. As you can guess this system was a very slow moving one. You would also think that passports would come out in the order in which they were dropped off as well, but that was not the case or even close to it.
Since we were waiting nearly two more hours before our names were passed back through the human blob we had plenty of time to think about what direction we wanted to travel in from this point. Our two options were to catch a bus to Luang Namtha (which was a bit east and part of the northern Laos region) or take the two day slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang (which was south and would take us to the central Laos region). After seeing the crowds of people coming from Chiang Mai for the two day boats the decision didn’t take long for us to make – we would go to Luang Namtha. We also had time to meet a nice Dutch guy and a Canadian couple that would be headed the same way. It was always nice to have some informal travel buddies to talk to and share information, tuk-tuks, and just good conversations with. After collecting our passports we again took a tuk-tuk the few kilometers to get to the bus station of Ban Houayxay. The next (and last) bus to Luang Namte would be leaving at 5pm – which gave us a good four hours to kill time. With not much to do near the bus station, it felt like an extension of our wait at the border crossing. This waiting around and relaxed way of going about a day was a small sample to how business is done and our entire time in Laos would be like. There is a reason why most people who visit Laos do so as a ‘traveler’ and not a ‘tourist’ — and that reason is because everything takes longer.
We began to settle into this relaxed mode and also had our first sampling of Laos food from a local evening market that set-up around 3pm nearby. Our first Loas meal was a noodle soup (locally called Feu or in Laos language ເຝີ). It was different from those in Thailand – more simple with the many spices, herbs, greens, and condiments being served on the side to add as you liked. We also found some fresh spring rolls to go for a snack on the bus ride. Amanda immediately fell in love with the food, especially the huge side plates of greens and herbs that came with almost all meals. With a tiny sampling of the laid back lifestyle and the fresh cuisine we boarded the bus to Luang Namtha ready to dive deeper into this gem of a country.