Monday, April 5, 2010

Northern Thailand and Down the Mekong

Ah, so where did I leave you last, my friends? I believe I had just arrived in Chiangmai, Thailand's "second city" of sorts and the hub for the northern region. It's a small city and I mainly stayed in the old city section, which is contained by a moat. I enjoyed a pleasant trip up the mountain to a hillside shrine, Doi Suthep where I was blessed by a monk with some holy water. Well, truth be told I walked into the shrine area and sat politely for a few seconds before a group of high school kids came in and they were getting showered with the holy water by a monk, and I happened to be in the way. Unsure of the right protocol, I just sat there and let the shower happen. I spent the evening with an Estonian and two Kiwis at Rooftop Bar, which looks out onto the city and then Reggae Bar, which had decent live reggae music. The next morning I took ill for a few hours and slept most of the day. But I did manage to crawl out of the guesthouse by 3 or so and take a walk up to the public park. At that point I decided Chiangmai didn't like me too much so I woke up early the next morning and took the public bus to Chiangrai.

Chiangrai is a smaller city, and I really enjoyed it. For the first time since I've been in Thailand not all of the signs had both English and Thai and I got the feeling I was starting to get a bit off the stereotypical backpacker route. Don't get me wrong, there were still some foreigners in Chiangrai, but I felt like Chiangmai was more centered on catering to foreigners who want to go trekking to the hilltribes and play with drugged-up tigers. I've heard wonderful things from other people about Chiangmai, but I wasn't a sworn convert. I spent a lovely night in Chiangrai and then headed to Chiangkhong on the public bus the next morning. The bus of course was probably built in 1950 and the road to Chiangkhong is paved with, well actually, parts of it don't seem to be paved with anything. The seats were far too small for my legs to actually bend at a reasonable angle, but I do think I may have invented a new yoga position. We'll call it the "Munny-on-a-bus-in-Asia" pose.

Chiangkhong is the Thai border town on the Mekong River. I enjoyed a nice lunch overlooking the Mekong before taking a ferry boat across into Lao People's Democratic Republic. After paying my visa fee and getting my passport stamped I walked up the dusty road to the main strip of town. I knew I wasn't in Thailand anymore when I failed to see a 7/11 (which is rather prevalent in Thailand). I walked the 2km stretch of town twice because it seems there is little else to do in Houayxai, Laos. Definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

Ended up in a cool old colonial style hotel that overlooked the Mekong from the roofdeck and grabbed a beer at Bar How where I spent a few hours talking politics and travel stories with two Canadians, a Brit and a girl from Hong Kong. Woke up early the next morning and made my way to the slowboat pier just north of town to catch the boat to Louang Phrabang.

The slow-boat takes two days from Houayxai to Louang Phrabang with an overnight stop in Pakbeng. I met a gang of other solo travelers on the boat and ended up having a rather enjoyable time. The Mekong is surrounded on both sides with hills and mountains, making the trip a rather memorable one. When we disembarked in Pakbeng we were immediately the most popular people in town, everyone claiming their guesthouse would give us "special deal" on a room that overlooked the Mekong. I believe it was Danny, the Swede, who said it best: "We've been looking at the Mekong all day. I think we just want a cheap room." So we found a place where the seven of us could sleep for 50 baht each ($1.62). When it came time for dinner we strolled down the dirt road and found that literally every place tries to lure you in with their offering of free Lao whiskey. We settled on the place where the owner had written in English, German, Dutch, and French "My wife is good cook." After dinner we found a bar that claimed it played hip-hop music, and this seemed like a good fit after some Beerlao and Lao whiskey. We didn't realize that in Pakbeng the Backstreet Boys counts as hip-hop. But we settled at a table and played cards until 10:00 when we realized the rest of the town was already asleep. I kid you not, I looked up and literally every other place in town had turned off the electricity. But we managed to find our guesthouse and fall into bed by 10:30.

What our guesthouse owner didn't tell us was that Pakbeng is apparently the town of 5,000 roosters. At about 4:30 am the roosters start crowing and they don't stop. It was a wooden ramshackle of a place so when the rooster crows in the backyard, it sounds like he's on your bed in your room. By 6:30 I was plenty awake and ready for some coffee. We stumbled back down to the pier and departed for the 9 hour journey to Louang Phrabang and arrived late yesterday afternoon. I have now dubbed our motely crew the Rooster Gang. We're two Americans, a Swede, and Israeli, a German, a Dutchman, and a Brit. We've gotten along quite well and it's been nice to have the extra company around. No doubt we'll be splitting up in the next couple of days, but it's been a good last few with them.

I'll save the Louang Phrabang stories for the next round.

No comments:

Post a Comment