Border Town, Chiang Khong
After 5 nights relaxing in Chiang Rai, it was once again time for us to move on. We had one day to spare before we were crossing over into Laos for the next country on our trek across the globe. For this next leg we were able to take even another step closer to using transportation as the locals and backpackers who are traveling on the cheap usually travel. We had grabbed the local bus to the White temple the previous day and had previously noticed that at the bus station there were regular buses running hourly to Chiang Khong, that was enough to know and we skipped bothering to stop into one of the many travel agencies along the main street to book a bus. The local bus might be a step down from a tourist bus or the VIP van, but for a 3 hour ride we knew that we could manage.
When we got to the station the morning we were leaving we noticed that there were actually two companies running buses to Chiang Khrong, each hourly conveniently and set 30 minutes off from each other. The ones on the top of the hour seemed to have been about 10 years newer then the other company, but that's not saying that they were new buses.
The local buses run differently then I would have expected, you just tuck your luggage in the back of the bus and then climb on, about 20 minutes into the journey they walk down the aisle and collect the bus fare - maybe they leave you stranded there if you can't pay - but the fare is inexpensive, 65 Baht ($2.04 USD), so we'll never know the consequences of not being able to pay.
Northern Thailand is gorgeous. Mountainous, lush jungle hills, and valleys filled with rice paddies and cultivated farmland. The bus winds its way through smaller towns, not taking the large highway that heads south and then back up to Chiang Khong, and along the way it stops at various points to drop off and pick up riders, or just to drops off a delivery from the city in exchange for some cash. Just under three hours and we are at the bus station in Chiang Khrong, and after a short bit of haggling about price for a 1/4 kilometer tuk-tuk ride, we were checking into our hotel for the night.
We took the time to wander through the town, a quaint, sleepy, little town with only two main streets. The town, being a border town, is a stopping point for people traveling in and out of Laos, and its border town of Huay Xai, and as such has good amount of guest houses and restaurants providing signs in English and picture menus. These are the little things we have come to appreciate. Appreciate, for as much as we love trying the local foods and the like, when you're just looking at a menu entirely in Thai it's hard to really know what you are ordering. ผัดไทย is Pad Thai, but I've not had good luck differentiating that from ทอมยำ and แกงไทย.
We spent our time hanging out at The Hub Pub, talking with the owners and enjoying a delicious red cabbage veggie burger and Belgian beef stew. This is when they talked about local hiking and mountain biking treks and all the outdoor activities that made us wish we had gotten here earlier and spent more time here then in Chiang Rai.
The next morning we were up and ready to get to the border and cross into Laos. The somewhat new fourth Thai-Laos Friendship bridge, opened in 2013, is the only way to cross into Laos. Five years ago the crossing was a ferry that was more central to the center of town, now it's only the bridge that is about 10 minutes south. Apparently there were more guest houses and bars previously when the crossing was more central, and we did walk by a few places that had that abandoned look of a previously happening bar/hostel.
I'd love to say the border crossing was painless, but as with any travel checkpoint I still find a way to stress out. We ordered a tuk-tuk at the hotel, it took it 20 minutes to show up (there were maybe 10 just a 5 minute walk from the hotel), he seemed to be stuck in slow the entire ride there. Shouldn't have been an issue, but we had booked the river cruise and they were meeting us at the crossing for pickup and transfer, and I wanted to be somewhat on time for that - there's always that last person to arrive that we all look at somewhat disapprovingly, I don't like it when it's me. You stamp out of Thailand easy enough, then you have to pay to take a shuttle bus across the bridge, then you easily apply for the visa on arrival in Laos and then,as you watch the workers inside play on their cell phones, you wait for them to process your passport and call you up to the window. The bus is 45 Baht ($1.40 USD), and you are required to take the shuttle, you can't walk across. There is a currency exchange on the Laos side to exchange all of your Baht, and you can change them into Laos Kip or USD which surprised me, and then you are through and off to enjoy Laos. May is low season, there were maybe 20 people on the shuttle bus, maybe 10 of them went on to the same boat cruise that we did, all that matters is that once were were processed and through, we still had to wait on another couple before we boarded the mini-van taking us to the boat where we would spend two days slowly floating down the Mekong.