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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 brown Mekong.

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 Paris.

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 miles.

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 for it.

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 and #272.

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 prettiest.

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 6:00.

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 SPCA.

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 Russians.

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 on.

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