Laa kawn and sabaidee

November 6, 2011 - Huay Xai, Laos

Lampshades in brightly coloured buses seem quite normal in Thailand - and a nice addition to the public transport system. The wooden floor bus was so wide there were three seats on one side and two on the other. Being a 9.30am Sunday bus, I luckily didn't have to worry about crowds, and my red backpack and I made the 2 1/4 hour ride from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong in comfort.

Today was about saying laa kawn to Thailand and sabaidee to Laos. One full day in Chiang Rai was probably enough, but it was sad to leave it behind - I felt quite at home there. I've gotten used to the slow moving crazy traffic pretty quickly. It's quite okay to walk on the roads (often safer than footpaths that are falling in), because everyone expects it and navigates around you. They're going slow enough that I haven't seen any accidents - the highway speed limit is 60km/h. Much easier than the Cairo, Beijing or even Kathmandu traffic.

So I arrived in Chiang Khong after a very pleasant trip looking at rice fields and lots of tiny villages. Most Australian towns have a memorial dedicated to the fallen; in every Thai village they really emphasised the fact that it is a kingdom, with huge pictures of the King in a gold frame. There was also a large, rather seductive looking bhudda laying on her side in a town as we approached Chiang Khong.

A lady was very friendly to me and spoke pretty good English at the border. I was a little wary of her and later couldn't find my snotty tissue, so if she happened to pick my pocket - good luck to her. I'm savvy enough to keep the important stuff on me in zipped pockets and it's a tight fit, so there's no way anyone could get my passport or my money.

The last part of the journey after two planes, a bus and a songathew (sturdy ute with seats along both sides of the tray and a decorated roof) to get me to the border was to take a bum boat across the Mekong River to Huay Xai. I got the boat ticket and a lovely Lao woman who had been on the bus with me was the only other paying passenger. The driver and the woman got on the boat first by stepping on an adjacent one that was higher up the riverbank, and then onto the front of our boat. Sounds simple and it should have been, but I hadn't tightened all the straps on my backpack so I was somewhat off-balance. After a false start I managed to get on the boat without wet feet, only to hit my backpack on the roof of the boat. Not very elegant, and the other two were gesturing to me to stay where I was... I'm not sure if they thought I'd capsize the boat, but I think they were very grateful to see me sit down, still with backpack on, for the two minute ride across the river.

Turns out I could have got my visa at the border, and it was somewhat confusing to the immigration officers when they saw the visa already in my passport. However, it was a very easy process and the kind gentleman at customs gave me directions to my hotel (up the hill, turn left). Turns out I managed to book myself into one of the premium hotels and have a lovely first floor balcony room looking out onto the main street of Huay Xai. The hotel is also opposite the office for the Gibbon Experience (treehouses and zip lining), where I needed to check in this afternoon, so after a lot of concern about the land/boat border crossing, I was all settled by lunchtime.

I've only had two meals in Laos so far, but both have been delicious. I stuck with a chicken pad thai for lunch accompanied by a mango juice that appeared to have crushed ice (living dangerously not knowing where the ice water came from, but it tasted damn good and no probs so far), and then a yummy chicken and vegetable curry with sticky rice and my first Beer Lao. The beer tastes really good, and at 5% alcohol and half a litre per bottle it would be easy to do some serious damage to my head - about $1.10AUD won't hurt the hip pocket.

After lunch I walked to the end of town and saw where the cargo crossed the river at amazing speed. There's supposed to be a bridge built around here, and there's lots of references to 'friendship', but at this stage the highway between China, Laos and Thailand relies on the barge crossing.

As the sun was setting I wandered up to the bhuddist temple at the top of the town. The steps leading up the hill were decorated with dragons, and made the commitment to go up the hill a bit easier. I was greeted by a group of young monks who were very friendly and some knew a bit of English, so we had a chat. The older head monk made me feel very welcome, although I don't think he approved that I was a female travelling on my own. However, they were impressed to hear of the towns that I'm planning to visit.

Dinner tonight was at a different restaurant to lunch, called Nutpop, aimed at westerners (any restaurant advertising pizza that's in Central or South America, Africa or Asia is targeting western tourists). The Simon and Garfunkel, John Denver and other country and western covers being piped out were actually quite fitting for the expansive restaurant. To get there I had to follow a heap of lanterns down a path, so I wasn't sure what I was comitting myself to - it turned out to be perfect, except that I was the only one there for about 20 minutes. Never a good sign for 6.30pm, but I'm putting it down to the restaurant being rather hidden.

An English family - Laura, Guy and Giles - arrived at the restaurant about 8pm and it turns out they're doing the same trip as me for the next few days, so it's nice to have already met a few people out of the 11 in the Gibbon Experience group.

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On the way from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong
Bus ride to Chiang Khong
Rice fields
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