Trip 16 -- Inner Indochina and Japan
Part 2: Will we ever arrive, and why are you dropping us so far from town?
10 June 2014
A year ago, getting from the Thai frontier town of Chiang
Khong to the ancient Lao capital of Luang Prabang via the slow boat was a
straightforward process. You walked to the pier in Chiang Khong, took the
two-minute ferry across, walked up to the slow-boat landing, bought a ticket for
the two-day journey, and were dropped off the following afternoon in the heart
of Luang Prabang. Since then, the respective governments, aided by the local
taxi and tuk-tuk (noisy open-air vehicles, named for the sounds they make)
drivers, have put in place mandatory detours and extra charges that can most
charitably be called scams.
You can now take the ferry across to Laos only if you're
Thai or Lao. If not, you have to cross over on the new bridge six miles south of
Chiang Khong. There's no public transportation, of course, so you're at the
mercy of the tuk-tuk operators, who charge $3 per person. Once you stamp out of
Thailand, you are charged just under a dollar for the shuttle bus across the
Mekong River -- walking is forbidden. You wait for the shuttle to fill up,
hoping the slow boat won't leave early -- it departs sometime in the late
morning. When the shuttle finally does leave, you note with minor interest the
traffic light where the two highway lanes cross each other -- driving is on the
left in Thailand but on the right in Laos. You get your visa upon entering Laos,
paying an extra dollar because it's the weekend, and then wait for a sawngthaew
(a bigger version of the tuk-tuk) to fill up so you can fork over another $3 to
be taken the six miles back up to the Lao town of Huay Xai, where the slow boat
awaits you. You've now spent an hour and $7 on a journey that used to cost 15
minutes and $1 and didn't rely on drivers apart from the ferry operator.
You're not too upset, though, because you've lucked out:
Today the slow boat isn't the old kind with hard, wooden seats; it's been
updated with padded airplane-style seats on wooden stilts. The seats aren't
fastened to the floor, so you can move them around, either intentionally or not.
You've arrived early enough to deal with the fact that there is no exchange
office or ATM near the boat landing, so you walk back up to the main road and
turn right to find a lonely ATM. It's a Saturday morning and you hope your card
isn't swallowed by the machine like it was in Mexico a couple of months earlier.
It works and you sigh with relief.
You still have time to investigate the mini-markets lining
the side street, and you buy a couple of meager sandwiches for the ride, since
they only sell beer, soft drinks, water, and chips on the boat; dinner and a
hotel will be midway through the journey at the town of Pak Beng. The sandwiches
are on tasty baguettes -- the French left their legacy of good food when they
pulled out of Laos -- but they somehow only offer sandwiches with egg and
chicken, egg and cheese, or egg and bacon; they haven't yet realized the
potential of putting everything on one satisfying sandwich. They throw in a few
free bananas with the sandwiches. You pass a sign promising Chinese-style
steamed pork buns, but they're out.
The covered, wooden, single-story longboat holds about 75
people; there's a captain at the front and a noisy motor at the back. You ignore
the paper seat numbers, which may be intended to match your ticket number, and
sit in the middle, for maximum people-meeting. When a guy comes around offering
rooms in Pak Beng, you decline; it's the low season and there's plenty of
accommodation. You want to see it before you commit.
Our boat left a little after eleven. It was very hot, but
there was a good breeze once we got under way. We saw the old landing in Chiang
Khong, with its "Welcome to Thailand" sign in Thai and English -- the
latter now obsolete -- and, after a half hour, passed under the bridge we had
paid to cross three hours earlier.
We spent the day gazing at cows and water buffalo, waving
to naked kids swimming, and contemplating the large, bowed fishing nets that
trap dinner for the villagers onshore. We played backgammon and taught it to a
couple from Santa Cruz, in exchange for which one of them braided Charlie's
hair. We sang the Barenaked Ladies' "Crazy ABCs" -- "'A' is for
'aisle,' 'B' is for 'bdellium,' 'C' is for 'czar.'" We drank beer and
finished our sandwiches and snacks. But mainly we swung our legs over the side
of the boat and, except for the ten minutes when it rained, had a peaceful
day lost in the unchanging scenery: just the modest tree-covered hills and the
At around six we arrived in Pak Beng, a hilly town with two
main roads leading up in opposite directions from the pier. One tout brought a
bunch of us up the left hill to a guesthouse with the promise of $2.50-per-night
beds, but Charlie and I found them a little grim. Next door, for just $5 more,
we settled into very clean rooms with good air conditioning and the softest
mattress we'd had on the whole trip. We did go back to the first place for
dinner, though -- I had pork in pumpkin curry -- and for the pretty views from
its terrace, good conversation with some of the other passengers, and the star
attraction: three newborn puppies trying to extract dinner from their mom, who
growled at them and hid downstairs, for she had nothing left to give.
In the morning we stocked up on more snacks, I bought a
freshly barbecued kingfish, and we boarded a different boat from the first day.
This one had seats facing each other with tables in between, so it was possible
to play group card games. The trip was slightly longer than the first day, and
in the late afternoon we passed the striking Pak Ou caves, which house hundreds
of Buddha figures of all shapes and sizes. In a perfect world we'd have gotten
out and explored them, but even from the boat we could get a sense of the
magnitude of the lower cave.
A half hour later we experienced the final scam of this
journey. The boat stopped at a landing nearly ten miles outside of the city, and
we all scrambled up a loose wood plank and hill to a tuk-tuk waiting area, where
we paid 20,000 Lao kip (about $2.50) each for a ticket for the ride into town.
"Two, please, and what's the Lao for 'insidious
rip-off'?" I asked as I bought our tickets.
Halfway into town, Charlie realized we had left her
sneakers on the boat. A minute later the tuk-tuk had a flat tire.
The next morning the good staff at the Lao Lu Lodge
arranged for an honest tuk-tuk driver to take me out to the pier and see if the
shoes were there. They were still on the boat, which had been brought back to
the old pier in the center of the city -- where the boats docked up until about
a year ago. In other words, the sneakers had spent the night not five minutes'
walk from our hotel, and the boat had come directly where we'd wanted to go
after letting us off in the suburbs.
This is ridiculous -- even the honest tuk-tuk driver
acknowledged that the new regime was a scam put in place by the local drivers.
Imagine if trains to Manhattan started forcing people out somewhere around New
Rochelle, and the only way into the city was an overpriced taxi ride, and then
the trains continued to a maintenance yard at Penn Station anyway, and you have
an idea of the magnitude of this nonsense.
Despite the extortion and the mishap with the shoes, we
enjoyed Luang Prabang. It dates from the seventh century, it's dotted with
temples, and there's plenty of good eating, both Lao and French; we tried a
riverside grill-your-own barbecue place (with buffalo meat!) and a French
sandwich shop with great pastries, ice cream, and creamy cheese made in
Vientiane caves. Fruit-shake vendors were never far -- our favorite was the
lime, mint, and honey variety -- and there were bustling morning and night
markets. While Charlie had a much-needed massage, I walked up the steep hill for
great city views from the That Chomsi stupa, whose gilded top, visible from
anywhere in the city, helped me find my way on more than one occasion. We
crossed a bamboo bridge -- rebuilt at the start of every dry season -- to see an
especially well-painted temple, and we visited the 110-year-old royal palace to
see the Buddha figure that gives the city its name, supposedly crafted in Sri
Lanka about 2000 years ago.
At dawn I saw the daily procession of dozens of barefoot
monks accepting wads of sticky rice from residents, and at night Charlie and I
enjoyed good food and drinks, and met some interesting travelers, at the Utopia
bar. We took a day trip out to the Kuang Si waterfall, a many-level cascade with
plenty of perfect-turquoise pools for swimming. The only drawbacks were some
sharp rocks and the fish -- the same kind that nibbled the dead skin off
Charlie's feet during her "fish spa" treatment in Chiang Mai. Here, at
Kuang Si, the little fish waited like sentries, with open mouths, for people to
swim. They weren't harmful, just ticklish, and a bit of kicking kept them at
bay. The falls also were home to a sanctuary for bears, who have been the target
of poachers, partly because their bile has been used in traditional medicine.
During our stay in Luang Prabang, we kept bumping into
people we'd met on the longboat, and we acknowledged each other as having been
part of the same family experience: the single mother traveling for five months
with her two daughters; the doctors who had attended Tulane together and barely
got away with their sarcastic, chauvinistic comments; the Brits we'd met way
back in Chiang Khong who taught us card and dice games; the two friends on the
malfunctioning tuk-tuk ride into the city, who couldn't believe we'd retrieved
the sneakers; the Italian who gave just a bit too much unsolicited advice but
was charming in his own way. And the two travelers, one French and one Danish,
who met for the first time at the airport and traveled together for a few days.
The French woman promised to show us the best places for wine and cheese in
The day before we left Luang Prabang, I bought tickets for
the VIP bus -- supposedly quicker and more comfortable than the normal bus, and
with a toilet -- for the eight-hour trip to Vientiane. The capital, with its
somewhat-French-sounding, somewhat-Lao-sounding name, had held a certain
mystique for me, and we looked forward to having a good French dinner and seeing
the hybrid French-Lao architecture. The bus was scheduled for 8 a.m., and when I
booked us the day before, I saw that day's bus, a comfortable double-decker with
the giant words "King of Bus." I saw plenty of legroom in the front
row and reserved those seats for the best views.
Well, you can guess how that turned out. Our bus, the next
day, was filthy and had seats crammed together toward the front. They didn't
recline and most of the armrests had fallen off. There was no toilet. I
dutifully checked in a half hour early -- and changed our seats -- and then
rushed through a bowl of fer (noodle soup like the Vietnamese pho) while they
made Charlie another depressing sandwich. At 8:30 the bus hadn't been boarded,
so I checked in again, to be told that it had been pushed back to 9:00 because
of low passenger count. I explained that I had skipped breakfast at the hotel
(we left before it was served), lost an hour of sleep, and wolfed down a meal
that I might have enjoyed leisurely, and I managed to extract 20,000 kip from
the ticket sellers for the inconvenience.
At ten past nine we were on our way, and the family of cows
in the dirt parking lot eyed us warily as we pulled out. The bus started
chugging its way up the first of many mountain passes. The air conditioning
barely sufficed for the almost-100-degree heat.
The fan belt broke for the first time 90 minutes into the
trip, high up in the middle of nowhere. The bus operators opened the back and
lined up an assortment of noisy tools to try to fix it. We were under way in
almost an hour later, only to make a rest stop after another 30 minutes. The fan
belt broke again in a hillside village; families bathed at the town's water
source, children looked at us curiously, and a mother hen led her chicks across
the asphalt road, which was sticky from the heat. When the fan belt broke for
the third time, we were six hours into the journey and had covered just 80
Somehow a minivan pulled up and the driver offered to take
some of us the rest of the way for 60,000 kip ($7.50) per person. It filled up
quickly, just before Charlie and I had time to react. I asked if there were two
more spaces, and before the seats had been counted another tourist complained
that it was already too crowded, especially with everyone's luggage. Shame on
her; travelers should look after each other.
The driver made room, with Charlie facing forward and me
facing backward, sitting on a ledge behind the driver and leaning out the
window. But speed trumped comfort and we were happy to be in a reliable vehicle.
The driver wasn't the fastest, but after dropping half the passengers off in
Vang Vieng -- which gave us some more room -- we drove through the final stretch
of winding road, past rubber plantations, and he got us to the capital 12 hours
after we'd left Luang Prabang.
By now we knew that bus and train stations in Laos and
Thailand are rarely in the center of the cities they serve; they're usually at
least a couple of miles out. So we weren't surprised to arrive at 9:10 p.m. in
the middle of a deserted bus station with no other buildings or transportation
in sight. Fortunately by now we'd made friends with a Lao passenger whose son
was picking him up, and he kindly took us to the city center. I wonder what time
the bus finally made it. The second-worst-case scenario, I'd say, is that it
came in around midnight and there were no vehicles to get the passengers to
their hotels. The worst-case scenario is that there were, and that they followed
the example of their Luang Prabang counterparts and charged well over the odds
We hurriedly checked into the Phonepaseuth Guest House,
walked past a pretty fountain, and made it to Le Silapa in time to be their last
customers for the evening. The restaurant was spacious and sparkling-white with
minimalist decor. We feasted on veal, lamb, and wine and eked out a satisfying
ending to the day. We even joined their frequent-diner program as members #271
Getting from Vientiane, in middle Laos, to Phuket island in
southern Thailand, takes more than a full day and more than a few vehicles. We
arose in Vientiane and, after walking along the Mekong for a bit and having
lunch, we took the public bus to the Thai border, crossed back over, and took
the overnight train to Bangkok. In the morning we'd board another train for a
nine-hour ride to Surat Thani, followed by a four-hour minibus trip to Phuket
town and a connecting taxi to Karon Beach, supposedly one of the island's
The day train to Surat Thani, due to get us in at 4:45
p.m., left on time but was almost immediately an hour behind. From what I could
tell, the last ride to Phuket left anywhere between 3:00 and 6:00. In theory
there should have been a bus if we'd arrived when we were supposed to, but we
pulled into Surat Thani seconds before six.
Touts are no doubt used to the train arriving late and
preying on passengers. Charlie and I were at the mercy of a particularly
insistent character, who assured us he could get us on the last minivan to
Phuket -- he'd call the minivan driver and take us to the intersection near
where it turned away from Surat Thani. I knew his price of $27 per person was
extortionate, but what else could we do? I didn't know the correct minivan fare.
I'd booked three nonrefundable nights at the Old Phuket hotel on Karon Beach,
and while it wouldn't have been the end of the world to forfeit the first one,
we had precious little time on Phuket and were determined to have the luxury of
not changing hotels an extra night.
I made it clear that I would pay the $54 total for both of
us for transportation from the train station all the way to Karon Beach. We
boarded his covered pickup truck and the driver sped through the streets to meet
the minivan. The tout tried to exact another $12 for this short ride, but I
refused. He relented. We found the minivan, whose driver and three passengers
had been waiting for us -- I'd say for 15 to 20 minutes if it really had left at
The tout said the minivan driver would take us to the bus
station in Phuket town and then we'd have to find our own way to Karon; I knew
it would be an expensive taxi ride. I tried deducting the cost of that from the
$54, but he refused. I didn't have much of a leg to stand on, as it was now dark
and we were on a highway somewhere on the outskirts of Surat Thani. I also
didn't want to further delay the other passengers, one of whom had already
started screaming that he would miss his flight because of us. I paid up.
The minivan driver put the pedal to the metal, and we might
have made it to Phuket in under three hours if he hadn't taken a rest stop near
a series of food stalls, where a sad little monkey was short-chained to a
telephone booth, its owner charging the equivalent of 30 cents for a photo. I
noted the exact location and Charlie vowed to alert Thailand's version of the
After a detour to the airport (he made his flight) and a
smoke break for the driver (evidently we'd made up any delay), he finally let us
off at what we deemed to be the bus station in Phuket town. He offered to take
us to Karon for an additional rip-off fare, but we'd had enough of him and his
touting cohort back in Surat Thani. We left the minivan. There was nothing
around save for a few taxi drivers, and we miraculously got one who didn't
overcharge us for the half-hour trip to Karon.
Once again, our destination made up for the long day. From
the reviews I'd read, the Old Phuket seemed like a charming legacy hotel that
might barely be keeping up its old-world charm. Instead, we were delighted to
check into a four-star resort, where we were upgraded to an enormous white room
that could have been straight out of South Beach, with a shower and separate
bathtub reached via a pathway of granite steps lined with stones. It was almost
midnight, but we were able to cull dinner -- and a much-needed beer -- from the
barbecues on the beachfront.
And so we relaxed for a couple of days, enjoying the
Andaman Sea's perfect swimming temperature. I found the sea a bit rough, but
Charlie's as home in the water as the jellyfish we were warned to avoid, and she
taught me how to handle the waves. We had just enough luck with the weather --
mostly clouds, a bit of sun, and sufficient wind to keep the heat and humidity
in check. This is supposed to be the rainy season, but we've had only a total of
about 30 minutes of rain since arriving in Bangkok two and a half weeks ago. We
filled up on steamed sea bass and lemonade shakes, and we were surprised to see
as many signs in Russian as in English -- Phuket is a popular vacation spot for
Karon is fairly quiet, so our last night we headed up to
the next beach, Patong, for a little more excitement. We treated ourselves to a
candle-lit dinner at Baan Rim Pa, to the sounds of a pianist and the waves
crashing on the rocks below. Every vegetable was meticulously carved: the
carrots into flames, the radishes into cups, and the scallions into miniature
New Year's Eve noisemakers. Radish rose petals and entire watermelon carvings
greeted us at the entrance, and the food -- banana blossoms, soft-shell crab,
and more fish -- was well-spiced and beautifully presented.
That serenity was turned on its head when we walked down
the hill into Patong proper and took a lane marked "Shortcut to Walking
Street." This alley veered into a smaller, seedy alley -- Patong's answer
to Bangkok's red-light Patpong streets -- with deafening music and hawkers
blocking our path with giant placards promising cheap drinks and "ping-pong
shows" from the sex workers inside. It was all very sudden and
overwhelming, and we were relieved to emerge onto the relative calm of the
proper pedestrian street for a nightcap.
The hotel advertised a free shuttle back to Phuket town,
and we checked out and boarded it, but it let us off next to a shopping mall
quite some distance out. We boarded sawngthaew number 1, whose driver said it
was going to the bus station -- only it was the wrong bus station. Sawngthaew
number 2 got us to the long-distance bus station for the bus back to Surat Thani
and our night train to Bangkok. This bus was very comfortable and left with only
five passengers, and we reached Surat Thani with three hours to spare. There, at
the station, was our tout in sunglasses, waiting for the next arrivals to pick
We found a road lined with dozens of street stalls and sat
down as the only patrons of the Laan Baan Rao restaurant, with wooden benches
and tables and a very friendly owner. We started with two warm salads -- nam tok
(an Isaan-province specialty with pork strips, mint, onion, chilies, fish sauce,
and tiny shrimp) and larb (a similar dish with ground pork, also popular in
Laos), and then we had a sweet papaya salad. The owner took her picture with us,
and we promised to recommend the place to anyone passing through Surat Thani.
The overnight train bumped its way to Bangkok with
excessive air conditioning and breakfast vendors shouting their way through the
aisles at 6 a.m. It arrived an hour late, but at least it brought us to the
center of the city.
Go on to part 3: Omotenashi