Crossing the mighty Mekong

Laos
entering through Huay Xai
visa requirements: $35, 1 photo for a one-month tourist visa
population: ± 6.5 million
capital: Vientiane
language: Lao
slogan: Simply beautiful
currency: Kip, €1 = 10.000k

Day IX – March 27

The alarm rings at 6:30am. We get into a red tuxi – the tuktuk-cabs you see driving around Chiang Mai, that should take you anywhere in the city for 20b per person – at 7.30am, and the driver takes his sweet time picking up some more customers along the way to the busstation, to fill his entire ride. But we’re still well in time.
At 8.30am we board a simple but cool bus, with many but not all locals. There is an unannounced stop at a bus station after a few hours; I guess it might be Chiang Rai? As we near Chiang Khong there are several random stops where random passenger jump of without any obvious pressing of a button or asking the driver… Just the way they do I guess? *

And then suddenly we’re there? Everyone is ‘told’ – with a bark and heavily waving hands – to get of the bus, the luggage is thrown out, and many tuktukdrivers are waiting outside, signing they’ll take you ‘there’. Everything happens so fast and it’s all so unclear, but at a good guess we sit down with several other travelers on their way to the ferry. And indeed, 10 minutes later we’re dropped near a pier and are asked to pay the 40b fee. For the tuktuk that is. Leaving Thailand is free and goes without hassle.
Then the ferry is another 40b for the 3 minute ride to the other side of the Mekong. Another set of fences and military uniforms await us. There is some paperwork to fill in and a $35 visa-fee for Dutch. Aussie Dan only pays $30.
All together this went pretty smoothly, and it’s over before you can actually realize or question what’s happening.
Right around the corner we find the Friendship Guesthouse, where we get a twin room for 70.000k, and at the Gibbon Experience office we book Dan a spot for tomorrow as well, no hassle whatsoever.

Time to chill!
It’s not yet 5pm when we get a few mangos, check out the rooftop terrace at Friendship and take a last look at Thailand as the sun slowly sets behind it’s fog and take a deep breath of Laos air.
This border town, Huay Xai, doesn’t seem very happening and a bit grey and dull, but more easygoing than Thailand. The tuktuks are prettier too, more refined in their decorations, not the gruff trucks from Chiang Mai but fragile little Nissan vans.

More and more people show up on the roof and turn out to be on the Gibbon Experience leaving tomorrow as well: the French couple Alex & Audrey, the Canadian couple Veronica & Devon and a Dutch guy who’s been having trouble with his ATM card all though Laos.
For dinner we all set out to find the local nightmarket together. We walk for a good hour, ask around a bit, but have to conclude in the end there is no nightmarket, not tonight, not in Huay Xai. Unless you’d count the lane of lottery booths we’d past.
It was a nice walk though. I like to explore my new surroundings.
And when we all felt horribly lost there for a second, when we reached the end of town in utter darkness… well, we share an adventure now.
So dinner next to the pier after all, at a somewhat chique place, with a lovely view of the Mekong and the campfire going on on the other side in Thailand, with the wind every now and then bringing us a note of their song. And an English-speaking waiter, which seems to be much more rare here in Laos.
I top it of with a 4th beer on the roof of the hostel, catching geckos with Alex. I didn’t manage, and he only caught one because he made it loose it’s tail so that’s cheat.
All adds up to very pleasant evening!

* First time on a bus, so I didn’t know. But they indeed do this ALL the time. Still, never did I hear anyone ask the driver to stop at a certain point or see them signing, so how it works is a mystery to me.

Chiang Mai captured

Before heading over to Laos I spend a day in Chiang Mai, temple hopping and market shopping. Of course I brought my camera. For more go to flickr.

Just another day in Chiang Mai

Day VIII – March 26

I wake up at 7am sharp. Today was going to be sleep in day. Well damn it.

We went out for drinks last night and looked for a pool table, but ended up just barhopping until midnight when all bars closed; apparently Chiang Mai does ‘Sunday’.
This first place we were, named Freedom, is ran by an English bloke and looked like he build it with his own bare hands. It had a really nice vibe! It was just another one of those shacks that are so surreal to us who come from a land where rules and regulations decide how a building should look. But here you see them everywhere and I feel like I’m in a fairytale; this is anything-goes Asia.
We sat at the rooftop/balcony on the 1½th floor in and open sort of veranda, I had a very good long island iced tea, and we talked of brothers and sisters while a gecko quietly listened in under a starry sky.
A little later we walked by that same backpacker central we’d been the night before and it looked like I’d expected it to be now; mellow, a reggae band playing some live tunes, and a couple of hippies on the couch with their kids running around, playing in the dirt and whatever. The fullmoon craze of the other night had died down completely. There weren’t even any fire dancers.

I try snoozing for a while but with just a fan it’s too hot for that and my sticky body disgusts me.* And it does feel like a waist; trying to spend more time in bed while Asia is right there being my oyster.

Today we’re having an easy day. After breakfast –a pineapple pancake and a mangoshake- we walk around the quarter for a bit, check out some temples, yet after three hours we’re both templed out. It’s all beautiful, but has this touristy feel about it that takes away a lot of the magic.

We spend a little time online. Or so it feels. Yet when I log out I’m charged for one and a half hour and they’re not ripping me off… Time flies, ey.

Before we have dinner at the nightmarket again, we go by the park. A nice place where one can relax. But it’s more to be used as a gym. The one path going around is the well-used running course, and at 6pm sharp the music starts banging from the speakers, a body-pump instructor steps forward and leads the crowd that has gathered. Very amusing to watch!

At the market I score my first RaiBans, to replace the shades I broke the other day. First asking price: 380b, bargained for: 160b.

We finally find that pooltable, in the free-show-alley. One game and one beer Leo and off to bed we are. Tomorrow’s going to be an early morning.

* It’ll take little over two weeks for your body to adjust to the heat and for you to get used to that sweaty feeling.

Lesson learned: Look for the fans and then pick your table.

Have you been to Chiang Mai? Any tips on what I should do next time I’m there?

A last day by the pool

Day VII – March 25

And so very welcome! A hangover with these temperatures is no fun at all!
I’m sure I’ll have a few more cocktails here and there, but I will not be downing the way I was last night, in an attempt to forget the place I was, and to just roll with it. I can do that on my own perfectly well. I am prepared now.

This morning at 09.30 I meet up with Sit, who takes me to the bus station on the back of his motorbike.
On the way there he tells me how he has to be very cautious not to run into the police. Though he’s well allowed to drive a car, they took his bike-license when he was young and stupid, and drove without a helmet – like most of the locals do by the way – and never picked it up at the station, to avoid the 500b fine – which is about €12,50.
At the bus station Sit insists on paying the parking and does all the talking for me.
I get the tickets for Daniel and me to go to Chiang Kong and then Laos next week. Looks like we’ll be sticking together for a little longer. It’s nice not to be all alone all of a sudden and to have a friend to take that jump with.

After this little trip Daniel and I go out to find ourselves a hostel.
First we walk into Backpacker Chiang Mai, a boring, semi-clean, straight building with uninviting, empty dormrooms. So we look on.
We’re actually on our way to this place I found in Lonely Planet, when we run into this little internetshop with a ‘room for 150b’ add taped to the wall, Peaceful Hostel. We take a peak into it’s hippie-painted, cozy room and simple bathrooms and decide to take it. As we walk out we see the sign being changed to ‘room for 100b’. Off to a good start.

We meet Kate on the way and hop into this little livingroom-diner for some lunch.
Literally the livingroom: next to us sits grandma watching TV. There are a few sets of tables and chairs, but more than those there are portraits of that one family you see everywhere: the very popular royal family, always in yellow.
The food is cooked right in front of us and smells amazing – due to hangover I can’t handle too much of it though. And the sodas we order apparently aren’t in stock. No problem: the husband leaves and 2 minutes later the drinks are on our table.

Then it’s time for a first big goodbye, from amazing people I shared one hell of a week with, but might never see again. However, I hope I do, we all agree we should have a reunion once back in Europe, and make sure we all have eachothers contact information.
I am sure I will never forget them and this whole experience, even if it was just a tiny week.
It’s funny how time goes so fast and slow at the same time. A whole week has already passed; merely 1/11th of my entire trip though. Just 10 more weeks to go, and I can only hope they’ll turn out to be as awesome as this one. In other words; just one week has passed. But already so much has happened; it feels like it could well be 3.

Officially we have to leave the pool as we’re all checked out now but Dan and I sneak back in telling only a tiny white lie, just saying ‘yes’ when asked ”You stayin hia?”

Lesson learned:
DO NOT look up when you’re in the shower; there will be spiders and things, and you will not be able to run, being bucknaked and all wet in a hostel etc… Just, don’t look up.

[A little hindsight word on the G-Adventures trekkingThe fancy hotels that were included, in my opinion, didn’t fit in with the trip. It could be much cheaper with a little less luxury. And the quantity of adds for trekkings I saw here in Chiang Mai made me regret booking from back home; I could have saved a lot had I just taken the big leap and not booked in advance.
Then again, I wouldn’t have met these great people. And it did save me hassle on arrival in this oh so different culture.
Next time I’ll just go on spec. But this week has been absolutely amazing and I wouldn’t have missed it, my fellow travelers, Sit and Sami, for the world! Thanks guys!]

Does any of you have experience with G-Adventures? What trip did you take? And how did you like it?

A trekking captured

I started out with G-Adventures: Northern Hilltribe Trekking, a 7 day trip starting and ending in Bangkok, taking you up to Thailands beautiful North and into the homes of the Karen tribe. Here’s a few shots of the trekking. For more of those check out my flickr.

Rafting to Lahu

Day VI – March 24

Another beautiful early morning in the jungle, another continental breakfast and after we make our way down to the water, for today is rafting day!

Our rafts are already built, thick bamboo trees tied together with rope. Sit, Sami and our extra guide for the day, mr Wi, do some last minute finetuning with their machettes as we’re getting on in those ridiculous orange vests they made us wear.
The water is calm, not very deep, and the valley of green around us is just breathtaking!
We’re having so much fun feeling like the only people alive, drifting down our own little universe, shouting jokes from one raft to the other, singing.
Suddenly Sami shushes us and sings a quiet ‘whoo’ to the hills. It comes back. We’re focussing to hear what it is. “Gibbons” he explains.
Then we pass a local family having some ceremony on the beach. It smells of the most delicious food and their faces are painted in radient colours, but their smiles are still the brightest. These people are still so in touch with nature, the real world underneath all that we –the western, first world- have hid with our buidings and piles of money. But what’s really more important?

However, as soon as we landed on this little settlement in the middle of nowhere, out of the blue come swarms of little girls to sell us their bracelets and other handmade jewelry.
I have a different plan for a souvenir. I want to give the guy who borrowed me his pocketknife a machete, a real one, with real snake blood and other jungle juices on it. So just out of interest I ask mr Wi what such a thing might cost. He in fact offers his own, which he made by hand, for a mere 300b! I don’t dare risk it yet; I have too many flights ahead of me.

I’ve walked in beautiful forests back home in Europe, in Canada, and would like to say I knew the immense being of nature I can’t hardly put into words, though this experience has shown me I knew nothing yet.

Too soon before we climb in that pickup again, heading back to what is called civilization, and all notice the strong fumes of gasoil and rubber setteling on our throats as we approach the city.

When we get back to the hotel I need a cool down, so make my way to the pool, where I find people decadently sipping their cocktails and a group of 16 year old girls slurping large beers and talking about sex the way I never have; so unholy after this experience, it makes me feel much more disgusted than I did in the back of that truck with all the sweat and dust of the hike still covering my entire body. I just can’t stand being here right now, and can’t wait to go back into the jungle next week; The Gibbon Experience, Laos baby!

I just treated myself to the necessary Thai massage after a trekking like this, and am now very relaxed on my way to the market for some dinner and a good last night with this great group I had the pleasure of spending this week with.
After the quiet nights in the jungle we decide we’ve earned a crazy night out on town. And crazy we got!
First of course there’s the difficulty of finding a bar to each of our likings, but we settle for a rather mellow rooftop bar. We have some cocktails, chats and a game of pool on the poor and torn table.
After two cocktails Sit has to excuse himself to find some midnight soup and his bed, for he felt himself too old to party with us young kids, aka started looking woozy.
We find a red taxi that takes us to a place known as backpacker central, and I’m pretty excited to get a glimpse of what my next few months are going to be like!
I’d expected modern hippies and alternative music, creative people with instruments and drawingbooks; an inspiring setting. Instead I was horribly surprised by the bad music, those club hits they play in places I go to back home only when really, really drunk. It’s just boozy, loud and futile to me. I ask Katie and she confirmes this is in fact is what it is usually like…

Somehow in the end I did have heaps of fun though; I was with good company! And I’m guessing the quantity of cheap cocktails played it’s part…
But now I’m happy I made it home safe -nothing lost, stolen or hurt– to the cool air conned room and am now going to dream of tomorrow morning and not waking up bathing in sweat, and with a late alarm at only 8.30am.

I think I’m getting settled in quite nicely into Asian time and I’m feeling ready for the big adventure; tomorrow move out to an actual hostel!

[this was day 6 of my personal experience with G-Adventures: Northern Hilltribe Trekking, a 7 day trip starting and ending in Bangkok, taking you up to Thailands beautiful North and into the homes of the Karen tribe, which I booked through Kilroy Travel]