June 14, 2004

To Laos - June 14, 2004

*** Oldest trick in the book ****

To save some money, I decided to go at it alone and get to Luang Prabang (from Northern Thailand) without the help of a Tourist Agency. 90% of the backpackers i spoke to had booked the trip, but I was convinced they were overpaying. The tourist agencies touted a bus ride to the border town of Chiang Kuang, a room at the border town, a ride to the ferry (to cross the mekong), a ferry ride, someone to "streamline" the immigration process, then a ride to the slow boat, and then the slow boat ticket. I was feeling pretty smug after I booked my own bus ride, then got a room in Chiang Kuang for next to nothing. I woke up the next morning, walked the 300m to the ferry crossing, and paid the 50c to cross the mekong. Everything was going according to plan. Then, I fell for it. After he handed me back my passport, the border official pointed to a well-dressed gentleman manning a booth 30ft behind the border crossing and said "buy boat ticket from him." Who was I to argue? Well, it turns that the guy sold me a marked-up Boat Ticket. Doh!

**** Charming city of Pak Beng ******

My final destination was Luang Prabang, in Laos, but it was a two day boat ride from the border. I could have taken a speedboat that would have done the trip in six hours, but I had heard it took 2 days to get your hearing back and that the accident rate was quite high). Regardless, I'm glad I took the slow boat, since the scenery along the mekong (lush, green jungle-filled mountains) was spectacular. About seven hours after leaving the border, we arrived at Pak Beng. 50 weary travellers filed off the boat, and every kid in the village rushed onto the boat to grab whichever backpacks they could. It was a funny scene, watching 6yr olds struggle under the weight of 60L backpacks, waiting for the owner to claim it, so the kids could buy some candy. Pak Beng is a one horse town. If that. It's got one gravel road, about 6 guesthouses, one bar, a couple of stalls selling fresh pineapples, and an Indian Restaurant. I paid all of 75cents for my basic room (you had to go into the backyard, behind a rickety shed to use the bathroom) and soon discovered the town's charm. "Psst, opium.. cheap!" whispered the 12yr old who had brought me to the guesthouse. An hour later, at the indian restaurant, as I dug into my Stir-fried Buffalo with Noodles (I refused to order indian food in the middle of Lao!), the waiter repeated the mantra "psst.. you want opium?" And then, when I tried to order a beer at the "bar" across the street, I heard the same thing. I never did get that beer.