Huay Xai and Pakbeng

Crossing the border was more challenging than any of the other border crossings we had done thus far. It was not so because it was difficult, but just plain boring and more expensive. The bus drops you a few km away to start with, so another mode of transport is needed to take you the rest of the way. We climbed on a tuk-tuk for this purpose. From the Thai border to the Laotian one (another km), you also need to take a bus, as they will not let people cross the bridge on foot. Once on the Laotian side, we had to pay for the visa on arrival and wait for our passports to be returned along with all the other tourists. Once we got the stamps we walked right through the booths and emerged in Laos. As usual there were a few tuk tuk and bikes waiting to take people to the nearest town, another 10km away. All the touts were quoting ridiculous prices, so when a truck came by to drop some local people, we asked for a ride into town. He accepted and told us to get in, but when the taxi drivers realized it, they started yelling at him and he changed his mind. We were offended by their rudeness so we flipped them the bird and started walking away. Luckily the second ute that came past picked us up. It was full of dirt so we arrived covered in red dust, but with a big grin on our faces knowing we had once again beaten the unfair cartel system.

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Huay Xai is a quite little town on the Mekong riverside. There is not much to do in here but to  take a boat onwards, but we still stayed one day to find our feet in this new country and get a feel for the place. We were a bit surprised to find out that food was more expensive than in Thailand, and a bit sad at being unable to find real local food – not tailored to Western tastes (and prices).

We walked around the place, made plans for the next day and found the amazing French legacy: bread! After so long in Asia, getting crispy on the outside, soft on the inside baguettes was a welcomed luxury. We also realized sandwiches were the cheapest food to be found and started there and then our tradition of getting egg or vegie sandwiches for pretty much our whole Laotian trip. We were surprised to see many soviet flags hanging from people’s homes, which led us to look into the Laotian government and informed ourselves on their ‘communist’ ways

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The hotel we were staying at had a nice terrace from which to watch the sun come down over the Mekong. The river itself is wide and beautiful, specially in the dry season when the water is clear and calm. You could easily spend hours just staring at the flow and thinking about life…

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The following morning we boarded a boat that would take us and another hundred tourists all the way to Luang Prabang, with an overnight stop at Pakbeng. During the first part of the journey, the river marks the border between Laos and Thailand, so it is very interesting to see and compare the two. On the right, Thai engineers seem to have raised the banks considerably, and evidence on industry and agriculture is to be found everywhere. On the left, wild mountains, lush forest and sharp rocks make a stand. As you move further along into Laotian territory both banks are similar, wild and raw, barely touched by humans at all. It is not hard to believe only 2% of all land in Laos is being used productively… There are some villages that seem to live off fishing.

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Pakbeng is a town that only exists because the ferry does. Therefore, the whole place is dedicated to tourism, but the kind that only spends one day and moves on. It is interesting to see how the few people that have a business are well dressed and fed, and the ones that don’t, are utterly poor and malnourished. It is a strange contrast that does not give the place a very nice atmosphere. From the moment you set foot, a range of drugs is offered to you without much regard for anything: ranging from harmless weed to heroin, opium and cocaine. We found the cheapest hotel in town and had dinner at a restaurant overlooking the river. The next morning we were up nice and early to get a decent spot in the boat. We were lucky, as many people were late and had to cram on seats not designed for western body sizes and were not very happy about it. Some refused and caught a speedboat instead…

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The second part of the journey was much like the first, though we met some cool English ladies that kept us company and shared a good conversation with us. The landscape started to change a little bit, though some parts still had huge mountains with unbelievably beautiful rock formations. I would certainly recommend this trip along the Mekong to anyone that visits the area: very few times have I seen such beautiful unspoiled landscape on such a long journey: it was well worth its price.

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