Tuesday, February 20, 2007 Thailand Thailand

Chiang Mai

Bangkok to Chiang Mai [Enlarge]

With a week to kill before the Chinese embassy in Bangkok reopens from the week-long break for Chinese New Year, we came 700 kilometres north to Thailand's second city, Chiang Mai. When we were in Bangkok deciding what to do, we got the idea to take a slow boat down the Mehkong River from the Thai border to Luang Prabang in central Laos. The slow boats generally take two days to make the trip to the world heritage city, and by all accounts conditions are variable on board the different vessels: some have hard wooden seats, while others have no seats at all—you may get to sit on a crate full of chickens if you're lucky. We learned that the alternative is a speedboat which can do the journey in six hours or less. Unless it crashes, that is—which apparently they do with great regularity, as the wake from a passing boat can be enough to flip them over. Flipping over in a speedboat is not a good idea. The other disadvantage of the speedboats is the noise: their engines are unsilenced and they bounce over the waves, constantly pounding against the surface of the river. Ear plugs are essential. Apparently it's quite good fun for the first five minutes or so, but less so for the next five hours and 55 minutes.

Anyway, we wanted to actually see the magnificent jungle scenery and passing Laotian villages, and take our time. Everything we'd read said that despite the uncomfortable or non-existent seating and the need to make an overnight stay in the remote but touristy Laos village of Pak Beng, the slow boat down the Mekhong is a fantastic experience and not to be missed.

We bought our train ticket on Saturday afternoon for the Monday morning train, due to depart Bangkok at 08:30. Having left a bag containing all the non-essentials in the hotel's luggage store we walked down to the station. The train ride was pleasant: for the first two thirds of the journey we travelled relatively quickly through Thailand's flat central plains of rice paddies, tea plantations, and lakes full of waterlilies and fishing herons. The train steward came round with free cake and Pepsi and the train was comfortable, if a little grubby. Then the landscape abruptly changed to mountainous jungle and we began to twist and turn through bamboo forests and banana groves. It was everything we had imagined south-east Asia would be.

Travelling in the same carriage as us were three American college students. They were also going to Chiang Mai and they were talking about taking the slow boat down the Mehkong. They were real fratboy types who called each other Dude! without a hint of irony. Their only aim on their trip to Laos seemed to be to get as wasted as possible on Beer Lao. We hoped we wouldn't be stuck on a boat for two days with them.

Our train finally pulled into Chiang Mai station well after dark. We'd emailed our guest house to get a pick up from the station, but we hadn't checked our email again before leaving Bangkok, so we didn't know whether they would be coming or not. With our fingers crossed we went looking for someone with something like a 'Welcome Mr Glenn and Mrs Isla' sign. There were plenty of signs, but none for us. Eventually, after most of the train passengers had long since left the station, we gave up looking and went outside to get a tuk-tuk and make our own way to the guest house. There were only a few tuk-tuk drivers remaining—the ones who hadn't managed to persuade any of the new arrivals to get into their vehicles, and so because they were keen to get back into town we managed to bargain one down to 40 baht (we learned later that tourists do well if they get it down to 100!)

Our guesthouse, the Seven Suns, is cheap and spotlessly clean. The room has TV, fridge and air con, a big comfy bed, and lots of character. We love it. It turns out that they did email us, to say sorry but they no longer do station pickups, and we should get a tuk-tuk. Not a problem. We had a decent green curry at the guesthouse and a good sleep. We can't work out why sitting on a train all day doing nothing always makes us so tired.

This morning we walked into the centre of Chiang Mai to look at our options for the next few days. After peering through several travel agents' windows and studying their boards we found an agent that looked and felt reputable. The woman behind the counter knew her product and spoke excellent English, and her shop had a proper sign rather than one made of cardboard and felt-pen.

The agent offered plenty of things to do, from trekking, to visiting hill tribe villages, to watching elephants play football. We would have loved to do some trekking or mountain biking, but in the stifling heat they were definitely out. We weren't too keen on a 'human zoo' hill tribe experience or seeing anthropomorphic elephants. We found a day's programme involving a 40 kilometre quad bike ride through the jungle in the morning, followed by ten kilometres of white water rafting down the Mae Tang river in the afternoon. Perfect. While we were bargaining the price down on this, we spotted a poster for a one day, luxury slow boat down the Mekhong to Luang Prabang. We asked the agent about it. It is indeed a slow boat, like the two-day one, but it makes no stops en route, it starts a little earlier in the morning and it goes a little faster so that it can do the whole journey in one day. And it is fitted out with comfy seats and a bar, especially for soft tourists. For 3000 Baht each (GBP 44.23 / USD 86.73) (plus another USD 35.00 each for our Laos visas) we would be picked up from our guesthouse in Chiang Mai, taken the couple of hundred kilometres to the Laos border by AC minibus, stop at several of the sights of Northern Thailand en route, stay the night in a three-star hotel near the border, have our Laos visas fully taken care of by the hotel, be ferried across the Mehkong River from Chiang Khong in Thailand to Huayxai in Laos, be taken a few hundred metres upstream by minibus to our waiting slow boat, and then spend the day sailing down the mighty Mehkong to Luang Prabang. We decided to take both the tours: quad biking and rafting, and the slow boat. By paying a little bit more for the slightly faster slow boat, this should ensure that we don't have to share it with the college kids from the train.

Without much prompting at all (we must be getting good at bargaining) the price fell by 500 baht each for the boat, and 300 baht each came off the price of the quadding and rafting. We were pretty happy with that and if we get what we've been promised it will be great value. We will get soaked in the rafts so we bought a cheap t-shirt each in Chiang Mai's market so that we can change afterwards—we are now travelling so light that we don't have any spare clothes!

There is a recommended restaurant just a few doors down from our guesthouse, called Huen Phen, which specialises in Northern Thai food. We decided to try there for dinner this evening. We had a filling meal of succulent bamboo shoots stuffed with pork, salami-like sausage, sticky rice and (of course) Thai beer courtesy of Singha. As usual, Glenn found room for some dessert: warm coconut milk with banana. The whole meal was excellent. Well fed and with the next couple of days sorted we are relaxed, happy and totally back on track.

Map of Day 087

Day 087
Bangkok to Chiang Mai

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.


Emmie said...

I don't see any recent updates, but I am thoroughly enjoying reading back posts! (I just discovered your blog a couple days ago) My husband and I are heading to Thailand and Laos in about a month so I am really enjoying your posts on those two countries! Very useful! By chance do you remember the name of the travel agency you used in Chiang Mai? Or the name of the boat tour package you used from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang? We're going by the same route but would rather have a one-day boat ride. Plus, with bird flu, I'd rather not cozy up to chickens!

Hope your travels are safe and can't wait to read more!
Emmie (South Dakota, USA)

Glenn Livett said...

Hi Emmie,

Thanks for your comment!

We've replied by email.


Anonymous said...

Hi Glenn,
Liked your detailed log on Thailand and Laos, excellent.
My wife and I will be in Chiang Mai this September (2nd trip there) and we are trying to find info on the 1 day boat ride to Luang Prabang. We did not know about it last year and are keen to give it a go. Do you have any details that you can share on the travel agency or boat tour package you used?
Happy travels, take it easy, but take it anyway.
Bill (Qld, Aust)
greyfox at iinet.net.au

Glenn Livett said...

Hi Bill,

Thanks for your comment. I should have added in my reply to Emmie above, that we (sadly) cannot remember the name of the company we used, or even where it is in Chiang Mai. Very sorry!

Have a great time in Thailand and Laos anyway... Hope you can find a good agent selling this boat trip.