Serpent Across the Mekong: Morning of the Special Transport For You My Friend

Luang Namtha to Chiang Rai via Huay Xai/Chiang Khong

Next morning, the daily haze was augmented with mist so dense you could barely see across the road, and even with a jacket on I shivered while shoveling down my breakfast of eggs and toast, regretting not going for the little noodle shop two doors down. I’d booked a seat on a public bus through a little travel agency, but I was in luck: a plush Japanese-made 8-seater minivan was on its way to Huay Xai, and since they had seats to spare I was promoted on board.

Until fairly recently, this crossing would have involved a full day of bumping about potholed dirt roads in the back of a Soviet-made truck with a few Kalashnikov-toting guards keeping an eye out for bandits, but with Chinese money the entire highway is now paved and is now one of the best roads in Laos, two lanes and paved all the way. The van sliced through the mist and down the highway, twisting and turning its way up and down valleys, neatly bisecting little villages along the way. I’d been hoping to reach Thailand before the border closed at sunset, but we made it to Huay Xai in just over three hours, meaning it was still high noon when the van dropped me off at the Mekong pier over to Thailand. I celebrated with a plate of Thai-Hainenese chicken rice and my last Beerlao, then made my way to the Lao exit immigration hut and got my passport stamped. Au revoir, Lao!

Longtail boats were waiting by the riverside and I clambered on board, followed by a Thai guy from the van who was continuing all the way to Bangkok by overnight bus and a random bunch of vegetable-toting locals. After a journey of all of 5 minutes (you could probably swim it if you’re not in a hurry), we docked in Chiang Khong.

This is where things became complicated. I’d planned to hear over to the ancient walled city of Chiang Saen, some 30 km to the north of Chiang Khong, but to my surprise there was apparently no regular public transport there. Unless I wanted to take my chances on waiting for an indeterminate time for a songthaew that may or may not exist to appear, my only choice was to head to provincial capital Chiang Rai, a good 2.5 hrs away, and then backtrack from there to Chiang Saen, which would take another 2 hours. Neither option sounded very promising, so I improvised Plan C: forget about Chiang Saen and make Chiang Rai my base.

An hour later, I was aboard a rattletrap 3rd-class Baw Kaw Saw (“The Transport Company, Ltd”) non-aircon bus, poking its way towards Chiang Rai the long way at approximately 30 km/h through minor rural roads that were in considerably poorer shape than the morning’s Laotian highway. Unlike Laos, the terrain on this side of the Mekong was mostly flat, which proved a blessing as the bus had serious trouble grinding its way up the solitary (and not very impressive) hill we did encounter. Instead, the dominant scene was one which I was to see repeated again and again in the next few days: a vista of flourescent green rice irrigated paddies, framed by dried trees and scorched, sometimes still-smoldering vegetation, fading off to the hazy horizon in gradations of brownish gray.

Around 5 PM, we finally pulled into Chiang Rai’s bus station, which fortuitously (and quite unlike most Thai cities) is located smack dab in the city center, and it was time to make a decision. I could stomp about the city center in the lingering late afternoon heat (which seemed so much worse now after the brief respite of Laotian highlands), looking for a place to stay for two nights before I checked into the fancy hotel I’d booked for Thursday night… or I could head to the fancy hotel right away and try to cut a deal there.

Like most Flyertalkers, I’m quite particular about my hotels, but instead of worrying about brand affiliation, elite levels or even price, I pick mine based on the establishment’s most prominent feature: its name. With my attention already piqued by the Porn Ping Hotel of Chiang Mai, followed by Korean-style action in the Dong Bang Hotel of Jinju, it was time to complete the Holy Trinity, a climax for the journey if you will, and stay at the Wang Come Hotel, the finest place of lodging in all Chiang Rai (when it was first built at some time in the 1970s, that is). After all, there are plenty of massage parlours in Thailand that offer their clients the “Wang Come” experience, but this is the only hotel named for it, and they’ve got not one, but two mottos to describe how good it feels: you can pick from “Wang Come Hotel — The Centre of the Action”, or “Wang Come Hotel: The Ultimate Pleasure of Staying”.

After a little negotiation at the front desk, I got the price for two extra nights down to a tolerable range and settled into my overly air-conditioned but surprisingly plush room: the “Wanker”, as I’d already lovingly dubbed the place, has evidently gotten a nice interior renovation sometime in the last few years. The location within easy walking distance of everything was also convenient, but all things considered, that’s about the last positive I can give for the place. The depressing pool is surrounded by concrete on all sides and in the shade throughout the day, while the breakfast buffet was terrible in that special way that only bad hotel buffets can be — everything tasteless, overcooked, slimy or otherwise ersatz.

More ersatz, tasteless, overcooked and slimy surprises awaited at the Chiang Rai Night Bazaar, whose outdoor food garden looks quite inviting at first glance, but on closer inspection consists mostly of stalls hawking reheated deep-fried crap. Experimenting with the limited other options, I had the worst pad thai (fried noodles) I’ve tried in Thailand yet, some distinctly mediocre som tum (papaya salad), ultra-fatty muu yang (grilled pork) and rice that was more mushy than sticky. Gah: time to go to bed.

Serpent Across the Mekong: Evening of the Co-ed Wet Sarong Herbal Sauna

Luang Namtha

Luang Namtha is a podunk little town which lives mostly off tourists and trekkers on the trail from China (60 km away) to Thailand (150 km), which means it’s endowed with a fair number of places to stay and eat, and I handed over US$5 for a night at a more than acceptable guesthouse right on the main drag. Thanks to the higher altitude, it was cool enough that even the ceiling fan proved an unnecessary luxury. A tiny little photocopied and handwritten ad plastered on the wall of the guesthouse lobby caught my eye, and I set off to look for an authentically Laotian experience.

Down a little side alley was a rickety bamboo shack, one side of which was lined in plastic, dripping with water and heated with a fire in half a rusty oil barrel. It seemed precariously suspended between two elemental forces: the water stopping the fire for burning up the wood, and the fire stopping the timber from rotting away. I clambered up the ladder, played a short game of Charades with the teenager running the place, and in exchange for 10,000 kip was handed a sarong and pointed towards the changing room. Duly denuded, I tiptoed out in my wrapper, placed my stuff in a locker-cupboard and headed inside the door of mystery. (A minor faux pas, I later learned: you’re supposed to wash yourself before you enter. Oops.)

And what was inside? A dark, wet, steamy womb, where a tiny windowpane only served to illuminate the swirls of vapor. I stumbled my way to a bench and inhaled the amazing scent of lemongrass and what I could swear was oregano, so intense that my eyeballs tingled and my pores popped open. It was absolutely amazing, like a Turkish bath on steroids. I’d made sure that I entered the “MAN ROOM” side of the sauna, and was hence a bit surprised when the door opened and two wrapped-up Lao ladies joined me. But they ignored me totally, proceeding to gossip away about (I gather) a husband’s mia noi (“small wife”, or mistress), and I zoned out and felt the steam permeate my soul.

After the ladies left I took a breather as well, and the 29 degrees outside was now refreshingly cool. I sipped on my glass of weak tea (or “tea water”, naam chaa, as the Thais call it) and, within ten minutes, was dry enough to plunge in one more, this time prefaced by a token ladling of cold water from the communal water pot in the corner. And in the end, I spent the better part of two hours there, watching dusk turn into dark and realizing that the herbs even kept the mosquitoes away. Quite possibly the best $1.20 I’ve ever spent.

I decided to continue on the path of purification and opted for dinner at the aptly named Minority Restaurant, run by some Black Tai (Tai Dam) tribesmen and specializing in tribal food. Having sampled Akha cuisine a few years back in Chiang Mai, I pretty much knew what I was in for, yet the plain, somewhat bitter soup of bamboo shoot, herbs and pork, eaten with a portion of sticky rice, hit the spot. Obviously drawn in by the lone falang customer, a group of backpackers walked in… and ordered french fries, steak, Caesar salad and Pepsi. How long until the granola bars and salad wraps make their way here as well?

Serpent Across the Mekong: Flight of the Lao Airlines QV601 Xian MA60 Seat 9D

Vientiane to Luang Namtha

Why Luang Namtha, you may ask? Good question. Indeed. the original plan was to go to Luang Prabang, Laos’s old capital, UNESCO World Heritage and the country’s top tourist draw, but the logistics of continuing onwards towards Chiang Rai without two days of put-putting up the Mekong in a canoe seemed formidable, and the wind was finally taken out of my sails by a glowing review on Wikitravel recommending the “best cafe in Luang Prabang, if not all Laos” for, and I quote, “Granola and salad wraps”. Let me repeat: Granola and salad wraps. In the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Now I know why the Hmong insurgents still fight the good fight in the remote jungles of northern Laos, and why my only chance was to escape in the same direction.

The online schedule said “MA60”, my e-ticket said “ATR72”. Which would it be? A Lao Airlines ATR-72 took off as I arrived, so I presumed the second turboprop waiting for us was another of the same, but nay: today, I would taking my first ride on the AVIC I Xi’an Modern Ark 60, a reasonably modern Chinese variant of the venerable Antonov An-26 cargo plane. It’s also easily the most obscure aircraft I’ve flown: outside China, Lao Airlines with its 4 planes is the MA-60’s largest customer, and second place goes to “Transporte Aereo Militar” in Bolivia!

Boarding couldn’t have been much simpler, as all pax trooped out the gate onto the tarmac, up the built-in stairs, and aboard the cramped two-by-two seater. Today’s flight was almost entirely full, all falang aside from myself apparently NGO types from a Lao-German forestry program, and the guy next to me their frazzled Lao handler. The garish decor was lifted directly from cheap Chinese buses, and in fact I would swear it’s exactly the same as that used by Sorya buses in Cambodia, causing flashbacks of endless Khmer karaoke. The seat pitch tight enough to keep my knees firmly jammed into the seat in front of me, and while my seat was notionally a window, I didn’t have much of a view since I was next to a propeller pod and its landing gear.

The MA60 noisily spun up its propellers, taxied down the runway and took off smoothly — oddly, this thing seems quieter in air than on ground. The wheels retracted with a clunk, improving my view a bit, and soon we were heading into the hazy clouds, the Vientiane-Luang Prabang road a thin strip amidst the rice fields.

Once in the air, the MA60 quieted down and the flight was uneventful. In-flight service consisted of a semi-dried banana “cookie” and one of those sealed plastic cups of water where the plastic is so rigid that it dents your straw when you try to poke holes into it. The vistas outside got hazier and hazier as we flew north — soon enough, there was naught by gray in sight. Just when I was starting to get worried about whether the pilot could find his way to the airport, the outlines of hills materialized and we U-turned in for a sharp landing.

Luang Namtha’s airport reopened only in 2008 after a total rebuild and the end result, while hardly opulent, is easily up to the job of handling 4 flights a week. It’s a squat little one-story building, with one door for arrivals and one for departures. With no bags to wait for, I stomped right through and hopped aboard a waiting crusty old tuk-tuk, where I was joined by a few backpackers and a Laotian guy in a suit, toting an HP laptop bag.