Latest update: (This one’s a bit lazy. I’m just editing Catherine’s mail to travelogue, adding a few bits.)
We flew from New Zealand to Bangkok on the 18th of April. From Bangkok we headed for Laos via Nong Khai in North-eastern Thailand, on a comfy first-class train carriage again (spoiling ourselves!).
We then made for the Northern Thai border, passing through Vientiane, Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang.
Vang Vieng is a tiny little town which has evolved into a tourist chill-out zone for falang (foreign) and south-east Asian tourists alike — we spent a nice afternoon with a group of holidaying Thai Buddhist monks, jumping into a deep river pool on a rope swing! (Camera was out of film for that one, sorry folks). Great fun spot though.
Having said that, Luang Prabang was definitely the highlight, I would highly recommend anybody to go there. The city is crammed with Buddhist temples from the 14th to the 21st century counterbalanced with crumbling old french colonial architecture. All of this is set by the Mekong river, filled with river traffic of all descriptions from water buffalo to large chinese sampans.
After this we headed for Thailand, up the Mekong river, on a speedboat. These are a reasonably insane way to travel, hitting speeds of 80km/h, and shooting the occasional rapids! We’d heard it was possible to have to wait a day or two before getting on a boat, so we paid extra to pre-book, just to make sure it was OK.
Things started badly, with an hour and a half delay as our pre-booked tickets didn’t really seem to make a difference; eventually we persuaded our boat to get underway, with 7 passengers instead of the promised max 6.
Then we hit Pakbeng, the halfway point, had a spot of lunch, and waited another bonus 1/2 hour, before our driver informed us that we’d be changing boats after the 2 Lao passengers left, leaving 4 falang in the boat. (The passenger details may seem meaningless, but I think he’d never have embarked on the next bit if a local was around to give him a bollocking).
It turned out our new driver had a nice sideline in trading pla beuk (giant Mekong catfish) and live monitor lizards up and down the river! After about 6 stops for chats, buying and selling, our group of 4 was joined by his 2 mates, 2 sacks of live lizards, 2 2-meter-long live pla beuk and another large, live mystery fish, all thrashing about occasionally. I’d wanted to see a pla beuk, but not this much!
Eventually we lost the rag a bit, and I think this got us to Huay Xai before the border post shut for the day. Not a good experience. For reference, our tickets were booked through a ticket agent 2 doors up from the LPB Lao Aviation office (one of our co-passengers booked through the Lao Aviation office itself), and our agent had assured us that these things — or the ones we could foresee at least! — were not going to happen. Suggestion: don’t bother pre-booking, or if you do, make sure you get these assurances in writing!
Anyway, after that we made it into Thailand, pretty sure we were going to be stuck in Chiang Khong (we’d missed the last bus to Chiang Rai or Chiang Mai, our intended destination). But the good news was that an agent of Namkhong Travel was touting on the far side of the Thai border post, and got 3 of us onto a very comfortable, very reasonably-priced private air-con minibus bound for Chiang Mai — so see, touts are good! Namkhong Travel certainly get my thumbs-up anyway.
So we are currently in Chang Mai which we missed on our last visit, and ahead of schedule no less. We are not sure exactly what to do next, we have a few days to mess about with, as we are leaving SE Asia on the 11th of May to fly to Nepal.