After visiting Chaing Mai, the next logical stop for many travellers is to head up into the mountains to visit Pai. This is described in the guidebooks as a small, laid-back retreat. However most people I spoke to said that it’s mostly full of tourists lazing around in hammocks all day and smoking nefarious substances. That’s fine if you’re into that sort of thing but I decided to instead continue up towards Laos.
Laos often gets overlooked both by travellers and the international media. When I mentioned to people back home that I was visiting Laos, a fair few asked where it is. Sadly Laos is probably most famous for being heavily bombed during the Vietnam War. The statistics regarding this are astounding as they are grim. 2.5 million tonnes of bombs were dropped on Laos between 1964 and 1973. That’s equivalent to a planeload of bombs every eight minutes for nine years or a tonne of bombs for every Lao person. Laos is also a small country and doesn’t really have a headline attraction such as a Siem Reap or Halong Bay. I was almost guilty of overlooking Laos myself. Initially I’d pencilled in a trip to China around now. However the ridiculous visa cost and hassle of obtaining the said visa put me off. I can always visit China in the future, provided they don’t see this and ban me for critiquing their tourist immigration policy! As everyone I know who’s visited Laos seemed to have enjoyed it, I decided to give the Land of Sticky Rice a try. Yes that really is an official epithet of Laos!
It’s reasonably straightforward to get a bus from Chaing Mai to Luang Prabang, the main city in northern Laos. However this certainly isn’t the most interesting way to do it. Once across the Lao border you can use the Mekong River as a direct transport route. There’s a speedboat that will take you to Luang Prabang in a day. However this involves sitting with your knees around your ears and a stiff breeze blowing in your face for a good few hours. Instead the slow boat is much more relaxing and comfortable. I found an option that buses you from Chaing Mai to border in Laos, then the following day you transfer on a two-day boat trip along the Mekong, with an overnight home stay. It also stops off at the White Temple in Chaing Rai en route, which was a bonus as this place isn’t that easy to visit independently with luggage.
In between Chaing Mai and Chaing Rai we stopped off a service station. It initially appeared fairly unremarkable with the standard toilets, eateries, stalls and so on. However the natural hot springs are a surefire way to get the tourists to stop off. Some ingenious stall holder was using the hot water to boil his eggs which obviously saves a few quid on the gas bill.
Chaing Rai’s main attraction is Wat Rong Khun, or White Temple as most people seem to call it. Over the last months I’ve seen a lot of temples but the White Temple has plenty of unique features. For a start it was only built in 1997. There’s no denying that the White Temple looks spectacular and is extremely photogenic. While it’s a functioning Buddhist temple, the closer you look around the more quirks become noticeable. To enter the main temple you need to walk across a bridge surrounded by a sculpture of hands reaching out of the ground, which feels somewhat creepy. Around the site are murals featuring images of Michael Jackson, Freddie Kruger, Kung Fu Panda and Harry Potter. There’s even a bench seating a life-size Iron Man. While a little OTT, you can’t deny that the White Temple is compelling.
From here it was onto the border. We just about managed to avoid the extra dollar surcharge for arrival after 4pm, which is claimed to be used to pay staff overtime. The Laos authorities still charge you $35 for the pleasure of visiting but that still less than a third of the amount that China insists upon. You can also purchase the Laos visa at the border and they don’t require your second cousin’s maiden name, inside leg measurement and other such apparent trivial information in order to obtain a visa.
Tonight we were staying in the Laos border town of Houay Xai. We arrived in time to walk up a lot of stairs to a monastery where you also got a nice view of the sun setting over the Mekong River. Back in town it was slightly surreal to see loudspeakers on lampposts making public service announcements. This image seems to provide connotations to propaganda messages being conveyed in totalitarian regimes. Apparently tonight the local people were being informed about arrangements for the impending Lao New Year celebrations.
Afterwards we enjoyed a nice meal overlooking the river. The local food wasn’t too dissimilar to Thai fare although the rice, as would be expected, was a bit stickier. I also enjoyed my first Beerlao, having already seen loads of branded t-shirts being displayed all over South-East Asia. Afterwards I asked Chao, our tour guide, what the correct pronunciation of the name of his country is. I new it definitely wasn’t “Lay-oss” as people from a certain country have a penchant of saying. Most foreigners tend to say “L’owwww”. When I said “Louse” the other week I was corrected by an Australian who insisted that it’s definitely “L’owwww”. I’m not one to say I told you so but tonight it was confirmed by a native that the pronunciation is definitely “Louse”. “L’awww” would be used to describe the language or a product of the country, similar to England/English or France/French.
On the trip website, Houay Xai is described as a laid back town. That seems to be a polite way of saying that there’s nothing to do. I’d imagine that tourists only visit as a border stopover. We were struggling to find much in the way of nightlife so had to make do sharing a £4 bottle of whiskey on the hotel patio.
I managed to lose my camera in Laos and unfortunately hadn’t backed up any photos for a week or so. Therefore I’ve borrowed some photos from Instagram of pictures taken as close as possible to when I was in a location. I did consider asking permission to use these photos but communicating with around 50 people would have got complicated. I’ve credited all of the photos used and in some occasions cropped them to maintain a matching size ratio. If by chance anyone whose photo is used finds this blog and would like me to remove the photo please let me know and I apologise in advance.