Huay Xai recommended

This town isn’t much more than a haven between Laos and Thailand. Not much to do, not much to see.
You might spend a night before catching a slowboat to Luang Prabang. Or:

– Do:
It’s hometown to The Gibbon Experience, a zipline paradise in the beautiful Nam Kha national park. Take the time (3 days, 2 nights) and set aside the money (220 euros) to fall in love with this jungle and it’s countless inhabitants – even if some will scare you.
Make sure you get treehouse number 7, or otherwise 4.
Bring some snacks and sodas from the last village

– Eat:
If you walk a little out of the crowded area, following the main road left from the pier, you’ll find some local shacks.

– Drink:
Rigth before sunset the balcony up on Friendship Guesthouse is a nice spot to hang out.
In the main street you’ll find some entertaining bars.

– Sleep:
(don’t)Friendship Guesthouse: I caught bedbugs in two different rooms and we had some strange treatment. That’s what you get for picking the cheapest.

I however have heard good things of Sabaydee Guesthouse.

BAP did have a curfew, but I also heard it’s run by a very friendly lady.

Boring busdays pt 1

Next destination:
Luang Nam Tha, northern Laos

Day XIII – March 31

I get on the Straybus and thus the Laos adventure continues.

Last night we were supposed to meet Dett for those promised beers. We did, at the agreed bar for a brief moment, but then he went ‘to pick up his sisters’ and never came back. Too bad, but we still had a good night.
When goodbye-time came, the general closing line was “see you in Luang Prabang!” To the ones who went to other direction it was “See you when we’re 50 and still on the road!” And of course the new classic “see you on facebook.”
This morning Dan and I grab a last quick breakfast together – pancakes! – and said our goodbyes. Nothing effusive, we’ll most likely meet again in Luang Prabang in a few days.

Now this whole getting on the Straybus wasn’t as easy as I made it seem there. I was supposed to meet them in front of the Gibbon Experience office, so we had breakfast right next to it. But I didn’t see that orange bus.
I knew there was another pickup point across from the pier. So I looked over there, and met Patrick, a fellow passenger, who’s to be picked up there, fifteen minutes before, had the bus shown up…
We tried contacting the office, and finally succeeded after several attempts. They had as much trouble reaching their driver. At least an hour after the original pickup they got back to us, explaining they’d already left, and were now coming back for us. They told us to wait at Sabaydee Guesthouse. Turned out that was where they’d been waiting for us before. Or well, so they said; Gibbon Experience is just a few doors down so I couldn’t have missed them…
Well, whatever, we’re on now, and making our way to Luang Nam Tha.

Yesterday a very dear friend who’d been talking of going to Asia for a while told me he’s finally actually going to do it. So I might even see him out here! I’m looking forward to seeing a familiar face. Though it’ll be weird as well, I suppose.

I find coming back to the real world a bit hard again. After this mornings goodbye to the travelbuddy I’ve had all this trip now, it feels pretty lonely on this bus with all these chatty girls.
I’m not sure what to think of Stray yet. We only just got seated, and already this form to book accommodation for the next 2 nights is under our noses. Patrick has been out for almost a year now and advises me to take it; a lot less hassle than trying to find your own place, probably cheaper if we’d share a twin, and easier to stick with the rest for dinnerdates etc. I guess he has a point.
On the other hand I’m starting to discover how easy it is to arrange stuff with the locals right there on the spot, also here in Laos; they never stop offering you rides, slowboat tickets, rooms and so on – and usually much cheaper than with western companies.

Oh, I didn’t tell you before, but there’s something you should know about Friendship Guesthouse; it has BEDBUGS. And not just one room; I slept in room 206 the first night and woke up the next morning with a lot of bites around my knee, but didn’t quite know what to make of them yet. Last night we were in room 103 and I got those same bites around my elbow and around my bum. Nasty little buggers! I always thought they were some sort of myth… Boy did they prove me wrong.

The crappy USB MP3player I bought for this trip –you get why I didn’t want to bring my 3rd iPhone, it being stolen off of me twice already- that started out with 8gig but now holds just 200 random songs because I needed the SDmemory for photos, plays me Radiohead – High and Dry and it suits my mood. I’m in a sort of state, where I don’t feel like joining the chicks chitchat in the back or like getting to know my next two nights roommate but just want to zone out. I’m hating my seat; the worst in the whole bus, designed as a last resort and without comfort. I’m just not feeling it today.
Then Goldfinger – I Really Miss You comes up. And a smile gradually fades in. “But for now I have to dream about your smile ‘cause you’re not here and all I want to say is that I really miss you” Just what I was thinking actually…
It’s moments like these that draw my thoughts back home, to my peeps, and that boy I know is there waiting for me.
So I’m extra happy to find out the place we’re staying at tonight has a computer free for use with an internet connection. Rather than go to the spa like most of the group, I use my time online, throw a few words out there to let everyone know I made it out of the jungle again, get a few of those many requested photo’s up and most importantly talk to the homefront. That felt good, and I think I can deal now with the planned group dinner tonight.
I didn’t see him online though, while I really looked forward to talking to him. Right now I do really miss him and can’t wait to get back home and start something true. If two weeks of hanging out with a fairly handsome Australian couldn’t cure me, what will?

Lesson learned
: It kills you skin; the sun and bugs constant attacks despite deet, which is pretty bad for your skin anyway, and sun-block. Just is.

Post jungle melancholia

Day XII – March 30

Ouch, that was a little hard on all of us this morning after lasting so long last night.
When I was woken by the sound of the singing gibbons at 6.30am I turned over, knowing they wouldn’t be in sight for another while. When I did go out at 7am I only found Alex up and he’d seen nothing yet.

Yesterday we got really lucky just before dinner; one of the families was swinging around ‘our front yard’ and they came as close as 50 meters, which is about as close as they ever get. They were still hard to see with the naked eye, but we all focused real hard to make out the black (male) and brown (female) dots moving around the trees and just that was so tantelizing!

Today we’re treated on a continental breakfast; white bread of that odd structure, jam that is just a bit too sweet and scrambled egg – but to be honest I’m starting to prefer local breakfast and I’m getting good at it too.

We’ve only got until noon to zip around, and are free to go our own way as we’ve been well enough familiarized now.

When we get back to base camp: kitchen n°1, Dett and his buddies challenge the boys from our group to the promised game of ratball. It’s the local ball, woven of bamboo, and the game is a mixture of football and volleyball.
As this is where all groups come together again there’s quite an audience. The locals are confident enough to give their guests a 10-point head start, but regret that half an hour later when their asses have been publicly kicked by a bunch of white boys, and they lost a few beers.

Then it’s time to go back to the real world and leave this paradise to the next group, who are already waiting at ‘the last village’ asking us for tips, so we tell them to get some sodas, beer and salty bites and get prepared to be amazed.*
We trade rides and I end up in the back of a tuktruck. Being out in the open feels nice, that way leaving to our beloved jungle is less rigid.

We’re hardly back on the big road when the smell of traffic and the smog caused by the many controlled fires surround us. Farmers light those themselves, to clean their land before planting, and to gain new land. I somehow always had this notion it was all big bad companies doing that and hadn’t expected it to be the work of the little man; why don’t they want to preserve their beautiful forests? Well, they need to cultivete the land to survive…
It’s impossible to make out the mountains we got to meet and love anymore.
It’ll be a while now, if ever I go back. I’m considering a trekking in Vietnam, heard some good things about Sapa. And there must be a way in to the jungle of Indonesia. Just imagine how astonishing it must be after rainy season?!

The worries of a backpacker: I have practically no clean clothes left when we get back to Huay Xai and no time to wash, as my Stray bus leaves tomorrow morning.
Dan and I check back in with Friendship Guesthouse despite the weird treatment before we left – we could only leave our big backpacks in his storage if we’d book a bus or something with him, and he’d apparently been really rude to some others. I take a quick shower and check with the www. It tells me somehow I’m still ok budgetwise as long as I keep my cool.
The smell of the fires has made it’s way into the city, and I can detect quite a few from the rooftop. They help set the melancholic tone I’m in, adjusting to civilization again, feeling a bit numb after the majestic jungle.
But I am feeling more and more at home in the odd streets with their unformed curbs and funny little vehicles and happy little people always trying to sell you one thing or another, nevertheless joking.

* At the office they will tell you not to bring any extra weight in the form of drinks etc. “It’s all inclusive.” But you might like a drink and a bite at night, or after coming back from the tough walk. I would’ve, had I known.

[A hindsight note on The Gibbon Experience:
Even though this was a much more intense experience… Everyone being so much younger, including the guides; still really cool people I’m glad to have met – they were nowhere near as involved as Sit and Sami were.
Of course this one was more about the ziplines as well and thus more like an attraction, with more staff and them therefore being more distant. The Canadian house told us their guide didn’t even come over for a chat or anything. I guess the whole thing was just different from what I’d expected, and the trekking in Chiang Mai spoiled my idea of a group tour.
Doesn’t take away the fact that I just had 3 amazingly awesome days I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!
It truly is an experience I can recommend anyone! Yes it’s a expensive for Asian standards, but absolutely worth it!]

Have you been on The Gibbon Experience, Flyght of the Gibbon (Chiang Mai, Thailand) or any of the other jungle zipping trips? What did you think?

Crossing the mighty Mekong

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.