Saturday, 15 January 2011

River boats, rocks, warnings and Immigration

Thursday 13th January 2011

MP3 track of the day: Kingston Town - UB40

Weather: Beautiful blue skies with fluffy white clouds and not too hot

I didn't mind when my alarm woke me up at 6am; in fact, having gone to bed at 9pm the previous night, I was ready to get up. I quickly packed the rest of my things and awaiting for the mini-van to pick me up around 7:10am. 7:30am the mini-van arrived; I got in and sat down next to this Swiss girl called Fabera. We chatted for a while and it didn't take me long to realize that she was a complete, but nice, disaster area … she hadn't brought any food or warm clothes with her and it seemed that she wasn't sure what was going on. However she was lovely and it seemed that she was one of those travelers that just bumbled their way around the world.

The ride was quite bumpy; the closer we got to the boarder the less tarmac that was on the road. It wouldn't have been a problem however some other guest bags had moved and landed on top of my bag with my laptop in. We arrived at the Thai boarder town of Chiang Khong, which was more of a collection of badly made sheds than a town. The driver took us to a nice place along the Meklong river bank where we stopped for breakfast before crossing the river. Fabera was pretty happy about that as she hadn't got anything to eat where as I had already had breakfast; I sat down and spoke to an English couple who where from Essex. They where slightly annoying but pleasant enough.

It wasn't long before we where back in the van and arrived at Thai immigration. The van stopped and we had to walk the remaining few meters to a pre-fabricated building with the words 'Thailand Immigration' on it. I filled out my departure card and both the Essex couple and I were done in around five minutes. Fabera, on the other hand, had lost her departure card and so she had to spend another fifteen minutes filling out some forms to be allowed to leave Thailand. Fabera and I where given a green sticker to represent which boat we would eventually be taking; the Essex couple where given proper badges for a more luxurious service and they wasted no time to tell me that.

We all descended to the foot of the Mekong River with Laos - the town of Houayxail - on the other side … which felt a little weird to see another country so close (last time that happened was when I was at Niagara Falls – on the Canadian side- overlooking the USA). We got a boat across the river and we where in Laos.

We walked up a steep road to Laos immigration, which consisted of two rooms next to each other in an 'L' shape. The floor area in front of the offices was only four meters squared and packed with backpackers. There where no queues, no fancy barriers putting people in orderly lines … no it was every man, woman and child for themselves and I hated it. To make matters worse there where no signs indicating what the process of entry was. It took a good fifteen minutes, speaking to other travelers, to find out that I had to get two forms from 'window one', fill them both out, and then pass both forms, my passport and a photo through window one for my visa to be processed. Once this had been completed my passport would be passed through window two where I had to pay a fee depending on which country I was from (UK travelers have to pay $35.00). The problem was that the ingenious Lao authorities, with there infinite wisdom, had put both windows next to each other so the entire small area was swamped with backpackers awaiting their passports.

Now first rule of passing through border controls is always keep your luggage with you so that your luggage can't be tampered with. As you can imagine this was impossible; I put my bags down and then fought my way through the crowds to get to 'window one' to get the forms I needed. I then returned to my luggage to fill the forms out. Once this was done the bitter struggle happened once more; I fought my way back to window one and passed my passport through the slot. Unlike other travelers I then retired a few meters back from the windows to allow others in. It was at this point that I, yet again, met the Essex couple not looking too happy. Apparently their boat had already left whilst we were sat in Thailand having breakfast. They now had to get a speed boat to catch up with their boat and transfer across. Now I must admit that the next words that came out of my mouth weren't probably the most tactful however I felt they had a right to know. You see the speed boats along the Mekong, according to numerous guidebooks, had an extremely bad fatality rate and so I proceeded to let them know that, which I think they were overjoyed in hearing and made their day complete.

It took quite a while to get my passport back and I was worried that I would miss the boat to Louang Phabang. You see, YET AGAIN, no detailed information was given to me explaining my journey … all I knew was that I would be traveling on a boat, have a nights stop over somewhere and that was it. No times, boat numbers or details of where the night stop was located were given. I started to worry and I think that I've come to the conclusion that I prefer traveling in more wealthy countries where communication seems to be a lot more well practiced. Finally, heroically I got my passport back with my visa. I checked the currency converter unit behind me to see that the rate of exchange from Thai baht to Lao kip was very good indeed and so I changed all the Thai baht that I had left. I didn't really pay too much attention to whether the guy in the booth was sticking to the rate shown or not, at this point I couldn't care less and I just wanted to get out of there.

Once out of immigration Fabera and I then looked around for other backpackers with green stickers with little success. We continued to walk further up the road until a local spotted our green stickers and took us to the right meeting point. We arrived at this travel agency with around twenty other people; the travel agent was nice enough and his English was very good. He wanted all of our passports and explained why. He also said that we would get them back within the hour, however most people weren't too happy about that. He then proceeded to tell us our options; he cracked a few jokes and I must admit that I felt as though I could trust him. He then went onto to say that the boat trip we are about to take is lovely, however be careful with your luggage as it has been known that boat workers go through travelers bags searching for valuables. He continued his assault by saying that the town in which we where spending the night – Pakbeng – was extremely expensive and again it was common for hotel / guesthouse staff to go through luggage. I have to say that he was really selling Laos to me; I looked over my right shoulder to see Thailand in the distance thinking that I could be back in Chang-Mai within four hours.

He then told us that there was an alternative which would cost another 300 baht (£6) and that was a night bus leaving Houayxail at 5pm and arriving in Louang Phabang at 6am the following morning. The tour guide had done such a good job in scaring us to death that nine out of twenty people opted for the 'safe bus' compared to the 'dangerous boat' journey. I still opted for the boat as Fabera wanted to do it, however I did almost become number ten for the bus.

The time was now 11:45am; I had been up since 6am and I still hadn't got on the boat. From the tour office we where driven close to the pier where the tour operator handed our passports back with a ticket for the boat; all of us walked down to the boat and got on. As my group was one of the last on the boat all the chairs with tables had been taken and so we were sat right at the back of the boat, which was actually a really good place to be.

The wooden boat was around twenty-five meters long with an isle in the center and wooden seats, with tables, going down the boat for around 2/3's of it's length. The last third consisted of a snack bar, a table with plastic chairs (which a Lao group occupied) and more plastic chairs. We had been advised to purchase cushions before getting on the boat, which was a good idea. A group of four young travelers (two Aussie blokes and two German girls) occupied most of the floor but left a place where we could put all of our bags so that we could keep an eye on them. Fabera on I occupied two plastic chairs and awaited for the off.

Overall I was very impressed with the boat, it was extremely clean (the bathroom was pretty nice too), characterful and spacious (the tour agent had also said that the boat would be crammed with eighty people or more however there were only around fifty). We eventually left at 12:30pm, six and a half hours after I had got up.

The journey was beautiful, the sun was up in the light-blue sky with white clouds dotted all over. Due to the boat having no windows I remained cool, yet not too cold, and I was looking forward to the journey. The view from the river wasn't to dissimilar to the boat trip I took in Malaysia, through the Taman Negara National Park (actually I think the national park was better), with hills on either side covered in green vegetation. Much nearer the river there where small green mounds with local Lao people chilling out on; we waved to them as we passed them by. The Mekong itself was a muddy, fifty brown colour which had huge rocks rising from the water in big clusters; I could now understand why so many speedboat accidents occurred.

The seven hour journey was a mix between looking out at the view, stretching ones legs, talking to Fabera and reading my guidebook (which told me about all the mines - not underground mines but 'boom' mines - possible hijacking and dangerous road journeys that could present themselves to me within Laos ... great!). Also on the boat was Matt, a mate from 'SpicyThai' in Chiang-Mai, however he wasn't feeling too good and so I left him alone so that he could ride out the trip. As the trip continued Fabera and I turned out attention to cards; I taught her Yaneeve – the card game Matt and Rachael taught me – and she became quite addicted. She actually became so addicted that we played until our overnight stop.

It was almost dark when we arrived at Pakbeng. The people here seemed to have misplaced their 'piers' and we moored up against, what looked like in the dim light, a rock face … I was not looking forward to this. Big bag on my back, small bag on my front and a plastic bag with a pillow and two bottle of liquid in one hand I took my turn to climb up the rocks keeping my weight as forward as possible. The towns people had come out to meet us – which was nice - however all they where interested in was asking me if I had a room to stay in whilst I was climbing over these rocks. Slightly annoyed, I think so.

Two children grabbed hold off my hands trying to help me over the rocks; I told them that I didn't need any help but they would let go until I had made it, safely onto a concrete road (which I nearly kissed). They then wanted a 'tip' for their help to which I just said no; then one of the children, seeing my bottle of Pepsi, wanted that to which my reply was just to storm off. Fabera, a French dude she knew, and I went with Matt and a load of other backpackers to this guesthouse that someone, further up from the pier, was advertising. I walked for ten minutes with images of the worst room, and the most expensive prices, coming into my mind.

Once we had arrived at the guesthouse we where told that, per night, a three bed dorm was 25,000 kip (£2) per person. That was a pretty good deal and so Fabera, the French bloke and I opted for a three bed room. The room itself was lovely with a hot shower and a clean bathroom; we dumped our stuff in the room but made sure that we took all of our most expensive possessions with us (just encase). We then headed to the restaurant where we met Matt and his friends. Around the table were eight people; Fabera, the French dude, Matt and I plus two people from the Isle of White (the girl of which originated from Essex and, bless her, you could tell), Mike an American, who currently lives within South Korea, and another Fabera from Switzerland. We all ordered food; I took the fairly safe option of vegetable 'sweet 'n' sour' with rice … which was okay. Matt and Mike had been feeling rough all day as so they eat very little. YET AGAIN no knowledge of our departure time tomorrow was given to us; when we asked people we all got different times ranging from 8am – 10:30am. I decided that the safest option was to be to get up and ready for the first time given and so I headed to bed early (and so did quite a few others) with the target of being up at 7am tomorrow. Once back in the room I checked my bag quickly to make sure nothing was missing (all good) before getting changed and into bed. Fabera arrived shortly after me and decided to read her book. The last thing I remember was that the time was around 9pm and that Fabera was asking me what some English words meant in her book 'The Kite runner'; however if I answered or not I haven't got a clue.

Toodle Pip!

No comments:

Post a Comment