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Journey to Laos: Chiang Rai, Pak Beng & the Mekong river

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We departed Chiang Mai in style. We lugged our ever-increasing baggage down 3 flights of stairs and were greeted by a smartly dressed young man called Mr. Singh and his vehicle; a large, new Toyota with tinted windows, and 7 cream leather seats. And it was just us; our own private chauffeur for the day with segregated passenger controlled air conditioning.
After only 5 weeks of 'roughing it' (hardly) we were already practically dribbling for some flashy comforts.

It had all worked out very well considering my condition. All day I felt feverish; too hot and too cold, shaky, weak, nauseas and a constant head ache. Had we been thrown into a jam-packed mini-bus with 8 other backpackers, no air conditioning and a driver with a need for speed navigating the mountains of Northern Thailand I probably wouldn't have made it. I would have vomited and shat on something or someone.

Luckily for everyone, we were wrapped up in our own business-class style fortress where we could spread out, curl up (a bit) and get a bit of rest and enjoy the view. Mr. Singh had a penchant for Western chart music so we also got to listen to some familiar tunes à la Ellie Goulding, Adele and Demi Lovato - a fact Lauren enjoyed more than she'd like to admit.

After a couple of hours we stopped at what looked like a service station. I was glad for a toilet break but it turned out to be much more than that. In the middle of this retail-laden car park were some smalls pools of water; some with fountains in the centre. These pools were actually natural hot springs; and it wasn't fart I could smell, it was the sulphur. They are called Wiang Pa Pao springs and they were rather underwhelming. We were most impressed by the enterprising elderly Thai lady boiling baskets of eggs in the springs to sell on.

A few more hours on the road passed and our next stop was Wat Rong Khun; aka the White Temple. Our initial reaction to the sight of the temple was probably the most visceral one we've had thus far. The crisp, unblemished white of the structure shone so brightly in the midday sun it was almost blinding. It appeared almost as though it was floating as its painterly curves suggested clouds. We also so hints of the Disney Castle in there; and there certainly weren't shortages of pop-culture references as we ventured further. Encircling the contemporary temple/art installation were figures such as Hellraiser, Predator, Maleficent, Freddy Kruger, Terminator and weirdly enough; Harry Potter. In addition to these Western symbols of evil-doing (and Harry Potter), as you walk up the bridge to the temple you pass two pools of outstretched forearms grabbing upwards from whatever lies beneath. All quite hellish really; at least in a familiar Abrahamic sort of way.

We had a brief wander around the grounds of the temple and enjoyed experiencing something more contemporary after 5 weeks of all things ancient. The one thing we didn't enjoy was the onslaught of photo-obsessed Chinese tourists who repeatedly blocked our path and poked our eyes out with their flagrant flailing of selfie-sticks.

Back in our safe little Japanese carriage we sped on through the ever-mountainous province of Chiang Rai with ears popping aplenty and saw a sign for a restaurant called Cabbage and Condom. Unfortunately we didn't stop there but we did stop for lunch in a little village café where the only vegetarian dish was stir fried veggies. Lauren was happy with that, especially considering we've struggled to get in our five-a-day, but then they arrived with big juicy prawns mixed in. Ever the trooper (and not one to ever miss a meal either), Lauren commendably picked the prawns out and ate the rest of the dish. I on the other hand had zero appetite and had started to feel a little fragile and feverish, but I forced some stir fried chicken and cashew nuts knowing I wouldn't be eating again for a while, and just hoped I could keep it down.
Outside of the café was a beautiful caged mynah bird who was very good at saying 'hello' in Thai (sawadee ka), see Lauren attempting to colonise the poor thing in this video;

The next stop was Baan Si Dum; or The Black House. Again this was an art installation preoccupied with the abject and grotesque. A huge teak building painted black, as soon as you walk through you're confronted with hundreds of dead animals; their skins, their bones, their pelts - pretty much everything except their organs (although they could have been there somewhere and maybe we just didn't notice). On one very long, grand table was a complete alligator skin, topped -as you'd expect - with a much smaller wild cat skin. Then, outside of the house itself is a fairly palatial grounds with some LIVE exotic animals in very small dark cages. We saw a HUGE snake (the biggest we'd ever seen) coiled up on the floor with people gathered around trying to I suppose make eye-contact with the poor thing, and lots of unusual birds including owls. Dead animals is one thing but seeing the poor live animals on 'display' in what is only essentially a contemporary art gallery was saddening.

We quickly tired of animal carcasses and so got back in transit for our final leg of the journey to the border town of Chiang Khong. We arrived early evening at the Teak Garden hotel. This was not the hotel we'd selected (we'd picked the cheapest one on offer with the Mekong tour) but, luckily for us, we'd been bumped up as our selection was full! The Teak Garden was by far the poshest hotel either of us had stayed in (needless to say we felt a little out of place). It ha an infinity swimming pool over the Mekong, a private balcony with river-view, a mini-bar, TV, rain shower, and SPRUNG MATTRESS BEDS! Annoyingly, we were only there for one night and because I was feeling so bloody rotten all I did was sleep. Lauren found a nearby Thai-Mexican fusion restaurant (weird) and had a lonesome dinner while I decorated our fancy new bathroom.

Our included breakfast the next morning was as you'd expect extensive. So much so I cursed us for not packing Tupperware with us to rob snacks for the rest of the day. Some of the other guests at breakfast seemed a little confused by our presence with our scruffy appearance, long armpit hair and massive scraggy backpacks. In situations such as this I always make a point to talk and chew good and loud while scratching my fallulah.

We were taken to the border where we spent a good hour freezing our nips off while waiting for a bus to take us over the Friendship Bridge to Laos. Once in Laos (Huay Xai) we did a bit more waiting around for our visas to be processed and then met our tour guide for the next two days; Ka. Ka is Laotian and originally from the Hmong tribe who live in the highest villages in the mountains of Laos.

We eventually boarded our slow-boat; number 333, which had a lovely varnished walnut interior with comfy chairs, two clean toilets and endless complementary tea and coffee. We were joined by 5 other couples; two sets of Canadians, one Dutch-Lebanese, one Swedish and one Italian. And away we went along the mighty Mekong. Thankfully, the boat was very steady and didn't add to my belly bubbles.

Laos had decided to cloud over upon our entry into the country and this lack of sun coupled with being out on the open water meant for a pretty chilly ride. By the second day all of us had raided our bags for extra layers and socks. Nonetheless, the views along the Mekong were spectacular. The 8 hours of sailing flew by as simply looking out onto the hillsides, flora and fauna was mesmerising. In fact it was only after the first day on the boat that I realised we'd spent a whole day, technology-free (I'm counting my Kindle as a book - sue me), confined to one small-ish space, and we'd been perfectly content. Not a massive feat but for someone with an over-active, easily-bored brain I was fairly impressed with myself. Maybe I'm finally doing some of that 'winding down' I'd hoped for...

One our first day of sailing we stopped at a Khmu village just off from a very remote area of riverside. The Khmu people are only just getting access to electricity and a means of transport and the advent of tourism (and tours like ours) help not only financially but in bringing education and healthcare. Khmu people have their own native language that is very different to Lao and they are primarily an agricultural society. They do not practice Buddhism but instead a form of animism. It felt a little odd 'trespassing' on their land but they seemed fine and sometimes indifferent by our presence, getting on with their day to day jobs. The children were naturally a little more curious and did follow us around a bit.

By 5pm we arrived at Pak Beng; the small town were everyone (public and posh tours alike) stops for one night on their way to Luang Prabang. Our hotel was quite basic but nice and had used old US bombs as columns holding up it's balconies.

My stomach (and bottom) were gradually becoming more disobedient so after a quick nosey in the local market (where we saw live frogs, squashed chickens, eels and live tree-rats for sale to eat) and then sitting down for an Indian meal (I didn't eat), we retired to bed quite early.

Lauren took full advantage of Laos's French history and bought a selection of pastries for breakfast while I tried to understand my complete loss of appetite (a very new concept for me). Our second day of sailing was broken up with two stops; one at another village - this time the high-dwelling Hmong tribe and also the Pak Ou caves. At the Hmong village the people were much more eager to interact with us (and sell us their handicrafts). We bought some handmade bracelets from a young girl (the mother's use the cutest kids to do the selling) and I gave one of my existing bracelets back to her. She looked completely baffled when I tied it on her wrist but hopefully she'll at least be able to sell it on to someone else.

The Pak Ou caves house many hundreds of old and new Buddhist artefacts. There's very little history on the caves but they are thought to have been used by people for worship and shelter for many hundreds if not thousands of years.
Amazingly, we both survived the long and steep journey to the upper cave (Me without shitting myself and Lauren without having a heart attack) and got to marvel at the limestone formation and the proliferation of Buddhas big and small.

We arrived at Luang Prabang at around 4pm and after a bit of scrambling by our driver to find our hidden-away hotel, we made it to the little hut we were to call home for the next 5 days.

Posted by advensha 22:12 Archived in Laos Tagged thailand laos pak_beng smile_mekong_cruise chang_khong melong_river

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How wonderful............apart from your sickness of course. It's an amazing world out there, better than sitting behind a desk staring at a computer! It's snowing hard back in Manchester.

by Joanie J

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