After the trek, it was time for me to leave Thailand. I opted for the well-worn route to Luang Prabang, Laos – “the slow boat”. The route involves an evening bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong, an overnight stay, a bus to the border crossing, a bus across the border, passport control, a bus from the border crossing to the port, a 6 hour boat journey, an overnight stay in Pak Beng, then an 8 hour boat journey to Luang Prabang (the former capital of Laos some 40 years ago). [Taking the evening bus meant missing out on the impressive White Temple along the way. You can check out her pictures of the White Temple on Camille’s blog.
So before we get to that journey I still had most of a day in Chiang Mai left during which I had 3 things to accomplish*:
- Buy a ticket for the journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, leaving 6-7pm that evening
- Get a haircut
- Monk chat: take advantage of the growing movement of talking to monks in Chiang Mai
The first travel agent I went to boasted a 4.5 star, Trip Advisor rating. Good start. I explained I wanted the evening ticket for the 3 day, 2 night journey to Laos. They make a quick call; they said there’s no more tickets left, it’s full. They strongly recommended I buy the ticket for the following morning. I said I’d need to go to a cash machine. She said it’s okay we accept card. I asked what the charge is, she replied with a smile 3%. I insisted that I’d go to a cash machine. She gave another innocent smile, tapped on her calculator then said, “sir 3% is only 55 bhat [£1]”. Now not to sound cheap, but I’m a backpacker so will for but a moment, I’m not going to pay £1 more to go to a place on the wrong date. I said I would come back later. I reasoned that her bus maybe full, but the boat couldn’t possibly be full, so I just needed to find somebody with an empty bus.
A wise Liverpudlian once told me:
“Always have a contingency”
And so I proceeded with my contingency: I went to Cami’s hostel, a 4.5 Trip Advisor star hostel and would try and book through their agent. A short walk and I was there. I headed over to the reception desk. I was greeted by a very kamp and sweet Thai man who was fumbling around clumsily; with that and his tall and lanky build he reminded me of Jar Jar Binks. He sat there complaining about the internet. A young Chinese man, who looked new to travelling was waiting to check in. He kept insisting on checking in at 9 o’clock, the receptionist was trying to explain that the internet isn’t working so can’t find the reservation, but he should come back at 1pm when check-in is. After waiting and repeatedly insisting the young Chinese man decided to walk away. Despite being agitated Jar Jar [not his real name] greeted me with a big smile asking how he can help. I explained what I’d like to do, he quickly sprung into action, picking up the phone and dialling whilst explaining we need to move fast because the bus leaves in less than 10 hours. Success, I got a ticket and would leave at 7pm that night with a pick up from my hostel. I left my passport as a deposit for the ticket and said I would come back once I had visited an ATM.
When I got back I saw Camille, she said her friend would be on the same bus as me tonight and we’ll meet back up in Chiang Khong. I walked over to reception to find the young Chinese man back again having round two with Jar Jar. He insisted on going to his bed. Jar Jar kept replying check-in is at 1pm and right now people are still checking out, then they have to clean the room. Jar Jar tried to do some of the check-in process like taking down details, but he was getting very annoyed. The receptionist started to take some details down slowly explaining that his internet is slow. The young Chinese man gets impatient; in an effort to speed things up he put his passport in the scanner on the receptionist’s desk and began pushing buttons to make a photocopy. The formerly sweet Jar Jar gets from annoyed to raging like Christian Bale at a lighting engineer [or a bear with a full colon trapped in a cage 10m away from a honey nest and the woods]. “NO!” he exclaims. “No check-in. 1pm. I keep passport safe. You come back”. The Chinese man seems confused then says “Ah okay” then leaves.
The receptionist began to ferociously organise his desk, slamming the stapler down in alignment to his pen holder, harshly resetting the position of the printer/scanner into perfect alignment with the table sides, pushing the folders to align to the printer. He hadn’t calmed down. As he began to look up, I searched deep inside of me for everything I could use and amassed and manifested as much happiness, charm and sincerity into an impressively (for me) large and warm smile on my face. It takes a split second but the frustration, frowns, and tension melts from his face. He smiles and said “Ros-han, you come back :-D” [I standby that; I think it’s grammatically correct to put an emoticon as a quote rather than outside of quotation marks…discuss]. I took out the money and handed it over saying yes. Instantly he became a new person. “Safe trip Ros-han. Come back to Thailand” he said with his camp giggle. I guess a big smile goes a big way.
With that ticked off it’s time for…
A little walk around and I found a sign for a barber shop. As I drew closer the man comes out, flips the sign over to show “Closed”, dead bolts his door and walks off. A few minutes down the road and I found a very bored Thai woman sitting in her hair salon waiting. I went in, showed her a picture of the hair cut that I had had in Ancona last year (a funny story for another time), and said “Can you cut my hair like this please?”.
[The sexy pink highlights were in line with the Neon theme we had for our boat on one of the days and was not put in by the hair dresser in Ancona]
She said “No problem sir, it’s okay”. Halfway through an English guy walked in, the lady said “20 minutes, okay?” He said yes and took a seat. And the final result:
At 4 o’clock I walked into a monastery.
I was hoping to talk to an elder monk about meditation techniques but ended up talking to some of the young monks who wanted to practice his English. Even monks have to go to school, learn maths, sciences and english.
In case you’re wondering that’s my actual t-shirt and pure coincidence that I match with monks.
I said my good byes to my friends and when the bus arrived I jumped on. I was greeted by Jason, whom I had bumped into in both Chiang Mai and Pai. As I worked my way to the back of the minivan, another voice said, ah you’re the guy from the hair cutters earlier, Richard. It’s always pleasant to have a few familiar faces. Jason introduces me to a Portuguese/German person on the van – Michel. Eventually a french lady walks on the bus, and says hi everyone, I think one of you knows my friend. I volunteered, “You’re Camille’s friend?” She said “Ah, it’s you, okay. I’m Celline”.
The bus drove furiously through the night, but we would periodically stop as Richard’s friend had food poisoning. When we got to our dinner time pit stop, both Richard’s friend (food poisoning) and Richard (travel sickness) decided to stay and take the bus the following morning as it didn’t make sense to press on.
We made it to Chiang Khong at 1am, checked in, reunited to the french girls, then all went straight to bed.
The next post will give you the rest of the trip (a bus to the border crossing, a bus across the border, passport control, a bus from the border crossing to the port, a 6 hour boat journey, an overnight stay in Pak Beng, then an 8 hour boat journey to Luang Prabang).
With that you’ve now been introduced to some of the characters that have kept me company through Laos…Camille, Celine, Jason and Michelle.
*It’s because I had to accomplish these three things that I opted for the evening bus.