I was back in Bangkok with a bang. It had been a wonderful month in Burma and I am still amazed at how wonderful of a country it is – and yet I feel like I barely scraped the surface. It is definitely a place that I will have to return to and explore. I cannot reiterate how much I would recommend seeing it as soon as possible. In the next year, five years, ten years, I think it will be a changed country as tourism continues to influence Burmese culture.
Anyway, I was back in Bangkok with the sole purpose of heading up to cross the land border into Laos.
So, there are several routes you can take from Thailand into Laos. I had decided to take a train up to the city of Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand and cross from the closest entry point there. I did this for two reasons:
- I really love the train journey from Bangkok up to Chiang Mai.
- I had heard about taking a slow-boat from the border through to the former capital of Laos, Luang Probang which sounded beautiful.
From Chiang Mai, it’s a fairly straightforward journey. I’ll do another list. Lists are nice.
- Take a bus from Chiang Mai to Chiang Kong. (About seven hours) You can easily book these journeys separately, but I decided to book the entire trip as one ticket (available from most guesthouses), there isn’t a great deal of difference in cost and it saves a lot of hassle.
- From Chiang Kong depending on the time of your arrival, you can either head straight to the border or, if like me, you’ve arrived at night time, spend a night in one of the guesthouses.
- The next day, a short jeep ride (organised by the guesthouse) will take you to the border. You can get your 30-day visa on arrival, but make sure you have dollars for the visa ($30) – you can pay in Thai baht/Laos kip but there is a significant mark-up in price. You will also need a passport photo.
- Another short (20 minute) bus ride delivers you to Huay Xai – a sleepy little town where you’ll begin the two day slow boat ride to Luang Probang.
- Ten or so hours later, you’ll stop for the night in a little town called Pakbeng.
- Finally, around four in the afternoon, the slow boat will meander up to the shores of Luang Probang. Hurrah
I’d really recommend this route. It was absolutely wonderful. My journey started back in Chiang Mai, meeting three wonderful Norwegian girls (Marit, Tina and Aisa) who would quickly become my travel buddies for the next five days. An innocent conversation discussing cultural traditions quickly turned into a huge discovery for me – something called Russ. (Pronounced “Roos”)
BASICALLY, Russ is an INSANE celebration that Norwegian students have just before graduation. The short of it is, they buy a bus/van/form of transport, decorate it and drive around partying for three weeks (while still studying at school every day!), with a gigantic party at the end. In addition to this, they wear special red/blue/black outfits and have to try and complete as many challenges (called “Knots”) as possible. If they complete a challenge, they are awarded a token to sew onto their hats.
A lot of the challenges are focused on drinking and sex, but as Marit informed me, there is an emphasis on safe sex; “Our teachers and the local police give us a talk at the beginning about using condoms!” Amazing.
The long hours of the boat ride melted away as Marit and Tina listed 81 challenges that they could think of that were on their lists. Many were things like “Drink 24 beers in 24 hours”, but there were so many hilarious, creative challenges too. These are some of my favourite:
- Wear bread as shoes for an entire day
- Pretend to be a tour-guide on a public bus or train for five stops
- Write a diary while you are drunk and submit it to your teacher the next day for grading
- Take a porno magazine into class. When your teacher asks the class a question, answer by reading from the magazine.
- Sit in the middle of a roundabout with a crate of beers. Bring a sign that says “1 honk, 1 sip”
- Put washing-up liquid in a fountain (the girls informed me that most cities in Norway turn off their fountains during Russ!)
- Attempt to have a party in the IKEA show-rooms
- Have sex outdoors. Or, alternatively, seek out others having sex outdoors and attempt to act as “director” and instruct them.
- Pole-dance on the subway for at least five minutes
- Buy condoms or tampons without talking. Acting only, no written signs
It’s funny; a few years ago I spent a lot of time in America being fascinated by the funny challenges that people pledging for sororities and fraternities, but I really think Russ could give America a run for its money. Or at least a few ideas!
ANYWAY, I apologise, I have completely digressed from meandering down the Mekong river in a slow boat… but wouldn’t you, if you had just learnt about Russ?!
It truly was a stunning journey. The placid waters carrying our boat downstream as we stared, speechless at the incredible view; towering mountains either side of us, shrouded in clouds, enormous green plants framing the shores of the river, little towns with people waving on the river banks. Again, I apologise for the lack of photos. It was actually this boat ride that my camera was stolen, but here are a couple that I had on my phone.
It was wonderful for the view, but equally it was a wonderful place to meet other people. It wasn’t long before we had gathered a little crew to share a guesthouse for the stopover in Pakbeng. Pumpkin curries, chocolate muffins and a few beers entertained the 15 of us before we finally passed out. It’s remarkable how tiring sitting still on a boat is!
A wonderful breakfast, eight more hours of incredible views and we finally arrived in Luang Probang. What would Luang Probang hold for us…?
Have you taken this route? Or perhaps another route into Laos – let me know if you enjoyed it! More importantly… has hearing about Russ changed your life?!