When the Tuk tuk arrived at the front porch of the bus terminal, driver told me to go straight in and turn right where I’d find my bus to Chiang Rai. I went, and could not see a platform with Chiang Rai written on it. I came back to the entrance, eyed the queue at Green Bus counter. Then I was about to go to the information desk to see 1) where to catch my bus, and 2) whether I need to change my 7 Eleven ticket to another bus ticket, though it had my booking name, seat number and everything, when I noticed a TV monitor above. It had departure times on it. 11:30 Chiang Rai – Green bus – platform 21. I walked back to the right again, and hidden from the view behind the building was the last platform, 21, with Chiang Rai written on it.
Shortly a modern high-deck bus glided in. I showed my ticket to the guy tagging the luggage, and was on board. It was very comfortable and spacious for ‘2nd class’. Air-con was set somewhere between 17 and 20 degrees, and according to the monitor in front that keeps showing inside and outside temp, it was about 26 when we left Chiang Mai, and dropped towards 20 as we approached Chiang Rai.
The bus ran through some heavy rain patches. There was a police check point where small trucks were pulled aside (but not the bus). In the new bus terminal #2 outside of town, an officer came on board and had a look around before we took off again. The old Lonely Planet I have said the Opium has mostly died out as the business here, thanks to the government’s crop trade scheme. But maybe it still exists?
It was only drizzling like mist when I arrived in Chiang Rai. Saying no to tuk tuk and taxi drivers, I walked inside to the visitor information counter, I asked for a map, where I might find some guesthouses and how to get to the boat to Laos. This young girl, who could pass as high school student, was very helpful, had all the information in her head, including which bus to take and how often they ran (many people must be asking the same question about the Lao-bound boat) and she even came outside of office to lead me to the exit of the bus terminal, pointing which way to go – go that way, when you get to the traffic light, turn left, then next right… I like the way people do it. This is what I missed about the old Osaka.
I found a guesthouse tucked behind a large temple, off the main street where lots of western backpackers were hovering about the couch and bars. It was slightly cheaper than the other place I asked half a block earlier, at 200 baht. No A/C but that shouldn’t be an issue this time of the year. Shower and toilet of your own. I sat around trying to negotiate with the young man but it did not work, so I took it as offered. The internet did not seem to connect in the room. The wifi network is there but i cannot get through to the internet. Maybe the room is too far from where they set up the router, or as the passing European guest suggested it could be the rainy weather that brought down the network out there.
It was raining again when I walked outside. It was a late afternoon and the traffic was heavy. Kids were being picked up outside their schools. Some girls are riding bike with an umbrella in one hand.
I do not know it was the weather or because I was hoping to find faces that have now become familiar after one week at the temple, but I found Chiang Rai a little difficult. Inside shops people were kind and talkative. In the market, I was the visitor with big bag pushing people out of the way or messing up the shop front when I got my bag stuck once. I am missing Chiang Mai. Speaking to the guy at the drug store about his holiday trip to see his mother at home some 60km away or 1hr 20min by bike, he asked me if I’d seen the white temple. Yes, somebody mentioned this in Chiang Mai – where would that be? He points somewhere near the #2 terminal at the edge of town but tells me it should be pretty cheap around 20 baht on metered taxi (tuk tuk is not cheap, was his opinion). I might check it out early morning. How do I come back, I don’t know. I’m sure I can find a way. Then check out, head to the bus terminal to catch #4 or 16 to go to where I can catch the boat. Then I’ll be on my way to the border, and beyond, back the Luang Prabang.
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Now I’m writing this at 6am, Thursday the 21st. I drunk quite a bit of beer last night with Martina and a bunch of local family and friends. But after 2am, I was up after passing out while importing the photos to a lightroom library as well as another external drive, but I was done by half past 3. 4:30, it was loud out there. One truck after another, I mean these lorries stopped in front of the guesthouse, I could picture them making a queue for the cross-border loader boat. It wasn’t such a great choice for a guest house, after all. I slept very little.
Now, continue from where I left off: Chiang Rai. White temple was a pretty touristy affair. But only 20 baht on the local bus (blue bus) each way, it was not such a waste.
I asked a few people in the terminal which bus to catch, but when I saw a blue bus with Thai words all over it, I was not sure. I asked a group of students sitting nearby in the waiting area. They were extremely helpful, asking questions about where to catch my bus, how much, what time is the next service for me. Turned out they were on vacation before the university entrance exams in a couple of days. When I asked whether they were confident, some were grinning with a thumb up, while one of them just showed a shy smile. They were delighted to know that although I was from Australia I am also a Japanese, as they studied the language. Their Japanese was pretty good. Soon it was time for me to be on board, so I thanked them for their help, got them a bag of sweet roll bread from the vendor as a token of appreciation, and waved good-byes.
The girl who sat down in the bus just after me caught the walking snack seller outside and bought two sticks of bamboo shell with sticky rice. She offered me one. I offered red-bean butter roll in exchange but she didn’t want it. The rice was good and sweet. Everyone is so genuinely kind. I was filled with gratefulness.
Leaving Chiang Rai – I broke the fan in the room in guesthouse after using electric shaver in front of the mirror, bending forward for a closer look under the chin. Then when I stretched up, it was there, held against one of the pillars, at my head height. My head hit it and it just came off – must have been just clipped on or something – and hit the ground, loud light metal sound and a shuttered plastic. One of the blades came off the fan. Damn. When I was back from the temple and was checking out, I found a maid cleaning in the building, and told her what happened, gesturing me bending and straightening to hit the fan. She observed the damage, and said it was ok. I motioned paying for it, but she just kept refusing it. I felt bad. Maybe I should send something later. Photo of the guesthouse taken for reminder.
The blue bus from the bus terminal to the border town of Chiang Khong was nearly full, with several foreigners. 65 baht. I was chatting with a couple who turned out to be from Scotland, and they were going to catch a 6-hour bus to LP. I was hoping to find info on the timing of the 2-day slow boat, but that was not to be. The internet never worked at the guesthouse. Came on the same bus was a young man who looks like he was from Singapore or Malaysia, and he sat down in the vacant seat next to me. As it turned out, Ethan is from Singapore (small bag with Singtel logo was a give-away, actually), and he was the first backpacker from Singapore I’d ever met in my life. Have you met one? He also agreed that he’d never met another Singaporean backpacker. He is just going with the flow and traveling wherever the mood and opportunity strikes. Like his style. He told me about his blog. Check it out here.
He was going to meet another traveller he’d met somewhere before in the town of Chiang Khong, so we shook hands and wished each other good journey as the blue bus arrived at the border town. The two Scots and I caught the tuk tuk driver with blue vest and found out it was a shared ride of the flat rate 30 baht each. Good business. We were driven 5 min across the main street to the border control at pier. I remember reading about this but soon realise it was like this everywhere in Laos, especially – bus terminals are placed outside the city, just a few km’s away, and it seems the justification is not so much to avoid traffic congestion in the city (large vehicles like buses in old city) but to generate jobs for taxi drivers. I could be wrong and maybe they were actually thinking about modern city plans – next time we may see a public train running from bus terminal to town centre? Doubt that.
Stamp exit of Thailand on passport, then another 40 baht for the boat crossing the Mekong River. The guy behind the counter told me I do not need to pay because I have Japanese passport, so I only filled out the arrival/departure documents and made a quick clearance. I was told later that some people, like Martina I’m about to meet, had to wait for an hour while the officials juggled with multiple passports and waiting for nothing (it seemed to her). I guess I was lucky today. This is one of the reasons I do not bother with becoming an Australian. Well, Aussie passport may get as good a treatment. And Aussies are one of the only ‘western’ countries that have formal ties with North Korea. Maybe I’ll consider the option when I get tempted to try Peongyang for a weekend.
I came to the main street lined with tour services (bus, fast boat, slow boat) and restaurants and bars. I looked to one side and there was a guest house. At this point I was still not sure whether I wanted to wait until the next day’s boat (I’d just missed the 11am departure! – it was 12+ when I arrived) or catch a bus. I wanted to only ask how much the single room was. 300 baht. Went upstairs, looked inside. It was rather dark and gloomy. But it was only for sleep, that’s true. I noted the pricing and went downstairs. There was a western-looking girl sitting there in the couch at reception, and we said hellos. Perfect English. But I couldn’t place which part of Europe she’d be from. She was reading Lonely Planet, and told me she’d just arrived here herself (checked in) and was thinking of going for a walk to where the boat departs. I offered to come along. 10 min walk later, we were at another pier, and saw a boat just take off, fully loaded with visitors. It was 1pm today, the lady at ticket place said. I put my name on the top of the next day’s booking sheet, and paid 900 baht. It is not a great exchange rate but at that point my head was not working so well. I should exchange some cash soon before I ran out.
Martina was from Czech Republic but was born in the Philippines and lived in many Asian countries as a child. It was her first journey alone like this, but was in a good spirit despite the marathon from Prague, via Moscow, Bangkok, and a bus from there to Chiang Khong. She was planning on covering Thailand, Laos and Vietnam or something like that.
I found a guesthouse near the boat pier and dropped my backpack there. Then Martina and I went for a walk. We checked out a couple of temples on the hill, where we received gaze of curious boys in temple (novices) who were happy to gather around when I asked ‘do you want a picture?’.
There was also an old fort atop the hill.
Then we quickly ran out of things to do in this town. She needed to try the local beer – apparently in the old days people from Czechoslovakia brought in the methodology of pilsner beer and that’s how the local production started. I had not had much drink in recent years (I’d quit drinking while living in Singapore due to skin issue but started again while traveling in France, as mentioned in this blog.) and I tend to avoid beers and white wine, but what a heck, I played along. The beer had a good bitter taste and sharp. It tasted very much like Kirin Lager. We chatted watching the sun go down over the peak on the Thai side across the river.
When we finished, we walked up the road for some skewers and fried noodle. Good stuff. As we walked further on, we found a local open-air restaurant where karaoke machine was playing loud local music. We decided to have another drink there and check out the local action. There was a group of about 20 people in one of the long tables, and it turned out to be a birthday dinner. I walked over with my drink in hand and gave them a toast. A few of them started talking in English, and I yelled at Martina to join, though she was shying away initially. Oh how those people drink! I ended up drinking FAR MORE than I’d intended to. But it was good fun. I even got to try the soup they were having in the clay pot (very good, with vegetables and squid found in the liquid) but did not sit near enough to the Korean-style pork BBQ. We both got pretty drunk, so we shook off offers for more drinks, left a 100 baht note on the table and waved everyone good night. I hope they can find my photos as one of them Liked my Facebook page while we were at the table.
After walking Martina back to her guesthouse on the other end of the town near the border control, I came walking home tipsy (to say the least) and found the guesthouse locked already. I had to tap on the windowpane a few times before the grandma came down to let me in. Before I could go up, she pulled me towards the registration and showed me the form again. I kept pointing my key and my name, and said my name is still there, but she wouldn’t budge. In the end, I realised what she meant was now there was another guest so I should keep it quiet. I decided to leave the shower to the morning.
Sleepy bedroom town with little action to note so skip quickly by arriving by the morning bus from Chiang Rai and connect as quickly as possible? Well, think again.