March 9, 2011 – March 10, 2011
We awoke at about 7.30am for breakfast at our guesthouse before taking a quick ride in a van the short distance to the Thai / Laos border crossing point of Huay Xai (which is the town on the Laos side). It was madness from go to wo as we first bolted down the hill to queu at the Thai immigration departure point before quickly discovering we hadn't been given our stickers for the slow boat trip we would need once we'd crossed over into Laos. So I went back up the hill while Sandra stayed in line, then I rejoined her, we got our passports stamped on the Thai side and then down the hill to the banks of the Mekong for a quick boat trip across to Laos immigration on the other side. Except that we hadn't been given our tickets for this boat only the slow boat! Although it was supposed to be included we had to by new tickets. This was only the beginning though...as we disembarked on the Laos side of the border it became clear that there were some 200 tourists all shoving and rushing and pushing to get to the Laos visa-on-arrival counter. No queues, no system, no signs, everybody was trying to fill out there paperwork while standing and at the same time trying to figure out which counter we were meant to stand at and how this whole bloody thing was going to work out. A few dozen queue jumping Frenchies with no qualms at all about pushing you over or elbowing to get through really had tempers frayed for a while there. While I queued the temperature rose and I was literally dripping by the time I handed over our passports and visa applications...welcome to Laos!
The funny thing was that once the crowd started to disperse and we got our passports back the Laos nobody actually bothered to check them before we entered Laos proper! We had a short van ride (a pimping oversized pink painted tuk-tuk) just around the corner to the docking point for the slow boats where we waited for another hour or more before finally getting on board around midday.
Man was the boat overpacked! With a reported capacity of 100 people there were at least 120 on ours with some forced to stand or sit in the aisles and bags piled high in the stern. Very luckily Sandra and I snared a couple of seats up the front and settled in for the long ride.
When they say 'slow boat' they really mean it! We made a lot of stops along the way to drop of locals and supplies but after a long day eventually arrived at our halfway point to Luang Prabang in the village of Pakbeng.
So far so good...until just minutes after grabbing our backpacks there was a pretty serious altercation between an American guy from our slow boat and three locals. It was pretty hectic for a minute there and although I had no idea how it had all started I was very concerned for the tourist who ended up in a 3 on 1 fight, the locals armed with clubs and the like. Eventually the tourist had to abandon his backpack and run for cover...who knows where he will sleeep or if he will be safe tonight?
After the fracas we headed up the hill to find our accommodation (which we had prepaid back in Huay Xai before boarding the slow boat). I was none too impressed to find that 2 of the 3 locals who had just been beating up a tourist were running our guest house! We had dinner away from our accommodation, and I'm pretty sure the guy overcharged us before heading back for an early night. It is a real shame that our first hours in Laos proper were so soured by the fight and hope it is no indication of what is to come.