I’d decided it was time to think about moving on from Luang Prabang, so I decided to continue heading north through Laos towards the border town of Huay Xai. Why Huay Xai? Well it was home to the offices of ‘The Gibbon Experience’. For around $100 a day on a 2 or 3 day course you could live in treehouses in the jungle, with an elaborate array of ziplines to go from treehouse to treehouse and place to place.
I hadn’t prebooked it so my plan was that I’d turn up at their offices and see if there was any availability, and if not, to cross the border into Northern Thailand.
To get to Huay Xai there were three options. I could take an overnight bus, a speedboat or a 2 day slow boat. I’d heard good things about the slow boat from people at the hostel like Renato that had taken it from the opposite direction so I decided a nice relaxing boat journey up the Mekong river was just what the doctor ordered.
I’d pre-booked my slow boat ticket and transfer to the pier already from a travel agent and so a Tuk-Tuk came along to pick me up. In the morning a German girl at the hostel approached me and said she’d heard I was going and wanted to get the boat too though hadn’t booked a ticket. In true Asia style, where everything is negotiable, we slipped the Tuk-Tuk driver a 20,000 kip note and he obliged in taking her to the pier where she also managed to get a boat ticket…and for cheaper than my price!
At the ‘pier’ we entered a tiny hut where we were given tickets and I found an amusing Lao version of checkers available to play…
It was around 8am when we got on the boat and set off. There isn’t really much to say about the boat apart from it floated on water and for us from A to B. The seats were like what you’d get in an old car and the only food on offer was overpriced crisps or instant noodles (and of course I hadn’t brought my own food…). For the first stage of the trip to Pak Beng it would take until around 6pm so I did a combination of sleeping and occasional talk to some of the fellow passengers. The two girls in front of me were Germans that worked in Hong Kong so we spoke a little about Hong Kong and there was a woman onboard that I’d spoken to in Vientiane.
Still, there were some nice views…
Eventually we docked at the tiny village of Pak Beng and the inevitable scramble of locals trying to sell us hotel rooms arrived. I actually needed a hotel room for the night but I have a little rule of thumb on travelling which is generally not to buy anything overtly offered to you. It’s like the universal taxi scam that applies at ANY airport in the world where the unlicensed drivers walk around the arrivals hall saying ‘taxi’ waiting for their prey, hoping you won’t go to the official taxi rank.
I found myself a room in the end for about 60,000 kip (£5), and it was a fairly decent room with double bed and toilet. By no means perfect, but decent value. Renato from Luang Prabang had shown me some pictures of the private room he got for 25000 kip and it looked like a set from a horror film so I was happy spending a little more on mine.
The German girl from the hostel had checked in the same hotel and so had a guy from New York from the boat and we decided to go get dinner together. It seemed there weren’t many places but we entered an Indian restaurant and it seemed everyone else from the boat had the same idea as us.
The service was dreadful and I had to walk up to a waiter to serve us after about 15 minutes. He hated me for that and was visibly annoyed whilst taking our order. We waited ages for the food and one of my dishes never came. No tip for him!
I looked around Pak Beng with the others and we ate mangos together on a wall by the pier whilst the American smoked weed and we just talked. I got the feeling that the American guy and German girl had more in common with each other than me but that’s part of travelling. It’s always interesting to hear another point of view from a different culture.
The next morning I was determined not to make the same mistake of not having any food so I headed out to a bakery. Looking back on Pak Beng, the one thing I can say is that the pastries in the bakeries are SUPERSIZE, I mean, one croissant was a meal in itself.
8am arrived and I boarded the boat again ready for the final part of the boat journey to get to Huay Xai. Again, nothing notable really happened on the boat other than I dozed and talked to a few people. Oh and the German girl was ill from food poisoning after our less than delightful Indian meal.
Most people on the boat wanted to immediately cross the border on arrival to Thailand and were worried the border might shut at a certain time. I on the other hand wanted to get to the Gibbon Experience office at Huay Xai to see if they had availability for zip lining. I tracked the journey with the GPS and google maps on my phone during the way and we were on course to arrive at 5:30pm.
When we arrived I said my goodbyes to everyone and made my way on my own down the Main street in Huay Xai, following google maps on my phone for the Gibbon Experience Office. Unfortunately when I got there it was closed so I decided to stay a night in Huay Xai and go to the office to enquire in the morning.
Walking down the street, a group of people that had just done the Gibbon Experience were drinking beer and invited me to join them. Of course I accepted. There was an American couple, French people, an Italian and a British guy. They advised me to check in at their hotel so I dumped my bags there and came back.
Time flew by as we drunk more and more, and we were soon at a table in a hidden location the French guy knew of, listening to weird music on an iPad.
Yes… that is Rick Astley!
Eventually when the American guy was nearly on the floor from the amount of whiskey he had drunk, I said my goodbyes and retired to my hotel room.