On May 31st, I took off for the border town of Chiang Khong from Chiang Rai. The day was overcast with small showers here and there and the journey was about three hours on a local bus; and like many times already, I was the only foreigner there. I sat up front with the bus driver and enjoyed the entire ride as we crossed the picturesque countryside that was full of hilly mountains in the distance dotted with rice fields and palm trees. As we made our way towards the Mekong River the bus would stop multiple times not only to pick up people but also food, laundry and other packages. Afterwards, he would make more stops along the way, this time dropping them off at stores and homes. The ride was peaceful and quite memorable in fact. Going through that lush landscape in the rain, with the quiet locals, on that old colorful bus, that would squeak and grind is something I still dream of.
We arrive at the local bus station and I began to walk north along highway 1020 and through a small neighborhood looking for a place to sleep. I find a chic looking hostel called Sleeping Well and checked into a 10-bed dorm that, through divine intervention, had all to myself. During the evening I went to a funky place called Rin Bar that had “Thai Tequila,” which is NOT tequila but strangely enough had similar notes. I then had a delicious Pad Thai down the street in a spot called Baan Yim. I retired to my bed and in the morning began to walk towards the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge. About halfway, a tuk-tuk stops and offers me a cheap ride to the border. There I passed through the Thai customs and border police and bought a bus ticket that would take you across the Mekong River into Laos.
After waiting around for half an hour, I boarded the bus with a bunch of people and in 10 minutes we were dropped off at the Lao immigration checkpoint. There I filled out two security forms, gave my passport along with a photo and paid $36 for a month-long visa. 10 minutes later my passport was handed back to me with my visa and I officially stepped into Laos. After passing through customs, I see a sales woman selling a slow boat ride down the Mekong River. I had arrived a bit too late to catch the morning boat to Luang Prabang, which caused me to stay in Huay Xai for the night. I bought a ticket from her for the following morning and also a stay at a guesthouse for 1500 Thai baht. I sat at a small plastic table and had a Beer Lao waiting for my tuk-tuk ride. When it arrived, I joined three Thai people to the town center.
Along the way I received my first impression of Laos, a country that for me, was shrouded in mystery. As we drove into the center of town, I noticed the roads were made of red soil and that many of the village houses were made of wooden planks that were nailed vertically. In these small houses were people looking out into the dirt roads. I saw many people sleeping and young girls were selling snacks and drinks of all kinds. Everywhere I looked there was lush vegetation with lots of dogs and goats running around. The town itself was very small and rural, probably the most rural I had seen in Asia yet. Along the way, one thing that really caught me off guard was the sight of a young man around the age of 15 walking down the dirt road completely naked: no underwear and no shoes. Just strolling down happily without a care in the world in the middle of the day and with other people out on the street hardly giving him a second glance.
The tuk-tuk drops me off at the B.A.P guesthouse where I check in. It was a big wooden house with many rooms and a dark cluttered living area with old stacks of paper and magazines and all kinds of trinkets, sodas and packaged snacks. A kind lady shows me to my room where I left my bag and went out for a stroll. I had to see more of this strange little town. As I walked up and down the dirt roads I would see the locals from their small houses and restaurants staring at me, some were housewives and others were groups of people watching my every step but I would just smile and nod and sometimes say Sabaidee, the greeting in Lao. I would come to learn that Thai and Lao have a lot of similarities.
I then ran into the Thai trio again and we had lunch at a nearby restaurant called Houyxai Kaew next to the Mekong river. In the river there was a large rusted and abandoned ship that was the same color as the river. There we shared a spicy papaya salad and a spicy mixed meat dish. Afterwards I walked the empty streets again and visited a temple on a hill with a steep staircase. There I made a donation and prayed for a safe journey through Asia. I then ran into an British-Indian girl also traveling through Laos. We walked around the town together and had a couple of beers by the river and then at a place called Terasse. There we talked late into the night and spoke about travel, life and everything in between. We then called it a night. We had the slow boat ride tomorrow.
A tuk-tuk picked us up in the morning from the guesthouse and then picked up other travelers along the way to the long boats. Apparently, this was a very popular way to get to Luang Prabang on a budget. We stopped at some small stores and I bought some beer and a styrofoam cooler with ice. On the tuk-tuk and on the boat I met Marek, a young guy from Weston, Florida and a bunch of young British people, some girls from Denmark and Iceland and a sweet girl named Isla from Scotland. We all got to know each other and pretty quickly we were all laughing and joking around, excited for our two day journey down the Mekong river. We were to stop at Pak Beng for a night and then continue to Luang Prabang the following day. Thus would begin my journey into Laos.