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Huay Xai : "This is the new information for you!"

Huay Xai Travel Blog

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My first sighting, and first sunset over the mighty Mekong River: seen from the Thai side at Chiang Khong.

“This is the new information for you!”

People are getting a little nervy.  Most of us haven’t seen our passports since handing them over to the guys running the guest house at Chiang Khong last night.  Chiang Khong, sat on the east bank of the Mekong river in the far northeast of Thailand.  I travelled there from Chiang Mai yesterday, waving goodbye one final time to the much loved SpicyThai crew (Noom, Saaw, Pong & Yii) and you now find me sat in Huay Xai, having crossed the Mekong to Laos, awaiting the return of my passport along with everybody else.

It’s pretty chaotic here to say the least.  A mountain of our backpacks sits in the dust below.

Mekong balcony view at Chiang Khong
  We’ve been directed, here and there and back again a couple of times by our so called ‘guide’.  No problem.  All part of the fun.  I’ve not had a manic visa-crossing yet, so why not!  Everyone queues in amorphous blobs of sweaty limbs and faces that are anything but queues.  Everyone tries to work out their correct fee depending on country of origin ($35 USD for me).  Everyone is getting itchy to have their passports handed back.  When they are, a couple more ‘queues’ remain to get this and that stamp added to that and the other stamp you may or may not have already successfully acquired.  After an hour or so of faffing, I think Mike, Eris and I finally have permission to enter Laos!

Mike and I have come from SpicyThai together.  We’ve paid for their ‘Slowboat to Laos’ package (1,800 Baht / £36) which got us to Chiang Khong yesterday, meals, accommodation, boat across the Mekong and the 2 day Slow Boat to Luang Prabang ticket.

Crossing the Mekong for the first of many times
  I’m looking forward to the gentle, drifting introduction to Laos, floating down the great Mekong… well I was, until a man I shall refer to as Mr.Bus enters our lives.  A huge gaggle of people are gathered in a river café, all of us awaiting departure on the Slow Boat but there’s time to kill as it will take an age for everyone to get reacquainted with their passports.  In excellent English a Lao man calls for our attention (Mr.Bus) “Please could everybody taking the slow boat, please listen.  Can you hear me clearly?  Good.  Please come closer if you cannot hear me as I have very important information for you about the Slow Boat to help you.”  He has everybody’s attention duly, all of glad to hear a voice of clear authority, offering information and a promise of order and progress amidst the madness all about.
Mekong boat captain, punts us across to Laos.

What follows, all delivered in clear, slow, emphatic English is a very evocatively framed castigation of the impact on the tourist experience of the Slow Boat journey that booming tourism has apparently had.  ‘Apparently’ is an important word in the context of this tale.

“Yes, is very important.  Firstly, welcome to Laos.  My country.  We ar very happy to have you here.  Welcome.  My country is very lucky.  In last couple of years so many more people are coming to Laos.  We are happy.  But I have the new information for you!  For those of you who have ticket for the Slow Boat.  4 years ago, Slow Boat very nice.  Very empty.  Maybe 30 - 40 people on boat.  Now  maybe 100 people on boat!  Very popular! Many more tourists.

Chaos and queues at the Laos, Huay Xai visa office.

All true enough no doubt.  Laos is without doubt an ascendent tourist economy.  I hear whisperings during my time in Laos that is being touted in countries ‘back home’ as one of the hot travel destinations for 2009.  True or not, matters not, its popularity is soaring and potentially many hundreds of people cross into Laos at Huay Xai every day now in high season.  Mr.Bus moves on to the topic of Pakbeng, the village that slow boats heading both north and south along the Mekong deposit their ‘guests’ at halfway through the trip for a 1 night stop over.  He paints a classic and wholly believable picture of a destination ruined in spirit and behaviour by the impact of the ‘success’ of rampant captive audience tourism.

Monks at the dock.
  He states that guesthouses even with the poorest amenities will demand 400 Baht* per person, per night as they know you have no choice.  Likewise overpriced food and drinks.  These latter points I’m reliably informed are false.  Shared rooms can be easily secured for 200 Baht between two. 

[* Most things in most towns in northern Laos can be paid for in Thai Baht.  Less so in the south.  The U.S. Dollar is pretty much universally accepted as of course is the national currency of the Kip.]

Petty crime is now endemic in the village Mr.Bus declares.  Bags pilfered when you go to take showers or stolen at disembarkation from the Slow Boat (this latter point friends have told me is to some extent true… local children under the pretext of ‘helping’ you with your bags will run off with them and not hand them over until you pay up or get bold and give ‘em beats).

  “Travel for women on their own in Pakbeng also not safe.  Not nice people in Pakbeng anymore.”

People are getting pretty unnerved now by the fervent, ‘Board of Tourism’ style delivery of Mr.Bus’s bleak words that must be true.  Musn’t they?  He rounds off his tour de force by stating with dramatic finale flourish:

“Yes, I’m sorry to tell you this, but it is the new information that you must know.  This information could save your holiday; could save your health; could save your life!”.

“What the f**k?!?  Is this guy serious”.  Surely not?  “But what if he is?”.  Doubt seeps in.  It creeps in.

Night bus (abstract)
  But some of my friends said they loooved the Slow Boat ride.  And some of Mike’s friends quoted it on Facebook 3 days ago slating it as “utter hell!”.  What to do, what to do?  Who to believe?!  Mr.Bus has outlined various alternatives should people prefer.  Various forms of the usual buses, minibuses etc.  He’s an extremely informative guy giving out detailed information on current Laos,including some special ‘freebie’ re-entry that all Brits and (I think?) Australians get for the next month or two n their Laos visas as a ‘Thank You’ for co-funding the construction of a new tarmac highway.  Knowledgable and well-spoken?  A snake in the grass?  Somebody employed to try to alleviate undeniable pressure on the river boat route?  Nothing better than a bus company tout?  Hmmm?  In hindsight possibly… no, quite probably the latter.
Mommy and child : Team Bumble Bee :D
  An extra 300 (or was it 600 Baht?) is required anyways for the bus and various transfers.

Mike’s straight on the bus without a second thought.  He hadn’t been looking forward to ass-numbing wooden seat hell-on-the-Mekong anyways, whatever the beauty of the scenery.  Eris and I are in two minds, trapped and unable to decide… but gravitational pull of FMFs (Five Minute Friends) plus the thought of saving a day on our mutually pressured itineraries mean that we cave and join Mike on the busses.  It’s not more than about half an hour,  sat waiting for our bus to Luang Prabang to depart, that I begin to think for suspiciously of Mr.Bus’s intentions.  A full 3 hours later, chugging along the torturously bumpy and windy Route 3 (I hope we didn’t co-fund this one!) I’m beginning to curse his ever existing for - I think now - almost undoubtedly scaring me out of one of the most iconic experiences to be had in Laos.

Night bus (abstract)
  That boating down the great river.  I’m still not sure why I caved to this day?  Still a bit green around the travel ears.  A lack of adventurous conviction?  Too tempted by the itinerary ‘fastforward’ opportunity?  Just plain old gravitational pull of other people to be travelled with probably.  But it’s done now.  Eris’s skull is currently being impacted repeatedly against the bus window.  My arse has gone so numb I actually believe it really doesn’t exist anymore, and Mike’s trying to numb the pain as we wind and lurch through the night by listening to his iPod.  The Lao passengers vomit their guts out profusely most of the way into little bags provided.  All in all a pleasant day.

And people, to conclude “THIS IS THE NEW INFORMATION FOR YOU!” :  stick to your guns and don’t ever let any cheapskate tout talk you; bully you or scare you out of adventures hoped for, anticipated excitedly (and already paid for!).

Me and the Night Bus portrait
  Do the Slow Boat.  If for no other reason than now you have to tell me what it’s like!  It may be great.  It may be not so great.  It's a love or hate I think but I'll never yet know :(

sleepingsunshine says:
I am sorry that you didn't do the slow boat, I enjoyed the ride very much, even though I had a sore butt the end of the trip :) And yeah, we did heard about the stories about people sneaking into your room at night when there is no electricity and etc, they did make us very nervous, but luckily none of them happened :)
Posted on: Mar 30, 2010
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My first sighting, and first sunse…
My first sighting, and first suns…
Mekong balcony view at Chiang Khong
Mekong balcony view at Chiang Khong
Crossing the Mekong for the first …
Crossing the Mekong for the first…
Mekong boat captain, punts us acro…
Mekong boat captain, punts us acr…
Chaos and queues at the Laos, Huay…
Chaos and queues at the Laos, Hua…
Monks at the dock.
Monks at the dock.
Night bus (abstract)
Night bus (abstract)
Mommy and child : Team Bumble Bee …
Mommy and child : Team Bumble Bee…
Night bus (abstract)
Night bus (abstract)
Me and the Night Bus portrait
Me and the Night Bus portrait
This has to be the first genuine …
This has to be the first genuine …
Disco bus to Luang Prabang :)
Disco bus to Luang Prabang :)
Huay Xai
photo by: Stevie_Wes