Into Laos: Floating my way to Luang Prabang - Taking my life for a ride - CycleBlaze

August 31, 2015

Into Laos: Floating my way to Luang Prabang

Crossing the Houy Xai Friendship Bridge


Crossing the border into Laos was pain free: relatively simple and cheap. From the hotel in the downtown area of Chiang Khong downriver to the Friendship Bridge was about 6 km. I waited until after the morning rush of tourists trying to make the morning slow boat ride to Luang Prabang, so everyone at the border was relaxed and friendly and no one was in a rush. The Thaiside border officials were friendly and helpful. It cost me about 100 baht, maybe a bit more, to get myself and bike across the bridge as they won’t let you cycle it. The bus driver and assistant loaded bike and gear and unloaded it at the other end, all with a smile and encouragements for the old man farang cyclist.

Laos immigration and customs was even more laid back than the Thais. After filling out my forms and handing over my one passport sized photo, I stood watching for several minutes as one of the immigration ladies counted out thousands in USD. Never saw so many Ben Franklins in one place at one time before. Someone is making a tidy sum out of border fees, that’s for sure. I added to their stash with my $30 USD visa fee once she was finished and off I went. No customs checks or bag checks involved.

Floating to Luang Prabang
29 & 30/08/2015

Downtown Houy Xai is about an equal distance upriver from the Friendship Bridge. It’s a dusty frontier border town, without much on offer. It does have the office for The Gibbon Experience, a world class jungle forest trek, zipline and treetop lodging excursion. It costs about $100 USD per day (two and three day excursions are offered). It was a tossup between this and the luxury cruise down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. I took the luxury cruise option. Next time it will be the other way around.

The Mekong is one of the world’s iconic big rivers and cruising down it through the forest/jungle of Laos is a unique way of experiencing it. I did it in luxury, others I met in Luang Prabang took the much cheaper public slowboat option. Their reports varied. Some said it was a crowded and uncomfortable ride, another group said there were only 14 people on their boat. It all depends on which boat you are assigned.

Had an interesting heartfelt experience on the slowboat ride. We were stopped overnight at Pakbeng. The village only exists because you can't navigate the river at night and the boats need somewhere to stop and the passengers somewhere to stay. Our guide took us to the market and was explaining some of the food when one of the vege sellers approached us, almost in tears and handed the guide her mobile phone.

There was a short message in Lao and the English words “polycystic ovarian syndrome”. She wanted the guide and us to help her understand what it was. The guide gave the woman a blank look, told her he didn't know and handed the phone to us. One young Welch woman in our group had a friend with the condition and I too knew a little bit about it.

Her young 18 year old daughter had married a Chinese national and they were living in China. The daughter was breaking the news to her mum through the text message, so her mum was very worried, especially not knowing exactly what the problem was. I doubt if the daughter even knew exactly what she was facing. We told her what little we knew.

She came up to us again as we were leaving the market and said that the doctors were going to try medication for a couple of months and if that didn't help, then they were going to have to operate. The daughter is very lucky she is in China and can receive medical help. Had it been Laos, there would have been nothing they could do to help. Thailand is the nearest place for advanced medical services and most Laotians can't afford it. She thanked us one last time, crying a bit as she did so and then turned around and went back to the market.

First impressions of Luang Prabang are good. Nice quiet pace of life and tourists are well catered for. I’ve got a room for 60,000 kip; that’s about $12 AUD (I have to say “about” because the AUD continues to plunge to low depths. Why does this always happen to me when I travel?). Food is cheap and plentiful. I’ll explore this town for a few more days and plan my route south.

Photos to follow, Lao internet permitting…

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