Chiang Rai and a Slow Boat to Laos

On the bus ride back from Pai Athena and I were stuck in the way back of a minivan, surrounded by backpacks as we careened around the twisty road. Three nauseating hours later we made it to Chiang Mai. We got in around 1pm and had originally intended to just get a bus to Chiang Rai that day, but right as we got there the last two seats on the last bus sold out. So we got tickets for the first bus the next morning and went back into Chiang Mai to find a place to stay. 

We decided to check out the northern side of the old city and tried to stay at Hug Hostel, a well known backpacker haunt, but they were booked full. Luckily right next door was a place called Inndigo which was cheaper, had recently renovated nice rooms, and was almost entirely empty. We dropped our stuff and got lunch, then found somewhere we could get $USD to pay for the boarder crossing to Laos. This was way cheaper than the MANY people who had to exchange money at the boarder and were charged almost double. 

After lunch we were walking through a parking lot and there was an old “ruin” chedi with a fence around it in the middle of the lot. I love the contrast of old and new in the cities of Thailand. It’s quite remarkable that they’ve been able to maintain the history of the land with the rapid development and growth the country has experienced over the last 10 years.

Old and New coexist in Chiang Mai

The next morning we were on a bus to Chiang Rai. 3 easy hours later we arrived. A quick walk to our hostel an we were unpacked. We took a walk around the city and saw the main sights, a clock tower and the waterfront. But I’ve got to say, this city smelt terrible. It felt like, by far, the dirtiest of any of the places we’d been in Thailand. The next day, exploring around by motorbike, we found the surrounding area is gorgeous, but Chiang Rai itself is not my cup of tea. 

Tin roofs over the houses of Chiang Rai
Stairs looking down from one of the many small temples around the city
One of the main “sights” in town is the old clock tower, luckily just around the corner from our hostel

The next day we rented a scooter so we could go check out the white temple and some of the surrounding waterfalls. By the time we got there, 10am, Wat Rong Kuhn was a zoo!! It’s one of the few, maybe only? temples in Thailand that is privately owned. Seeing past the throngs of tourists pouring off massive busses, it’s a pretty neat place. While there’s the main section, there are also a bunch of side temples to explore and hopefully get away from the crowd a bit. The theme of the whole place seems to be death and destruction. The images on the Wats depict pain and suffering, and vicious overlord type deities smattered all around. It makes for a wild juxtaposition against the beautifully ornate and blindingly white walls of the temple. 

The main temple
Ornate skulls pop up everywhere


One of the guards on the bridge to the main temple
Some more creepy imagery near the temple
Me getting in the spirit of things

The inside of the main temple is even crazier. There are signs all over saying no photography, but there was one thing that I had to try to get a picture of. As you walk in the theme of destruction continues, but when you turn around to face the wall from where you entered it gets a little….confusing? The top of the wall is a looming beast with huge black eyes, and below it are smaller motifs of bombs and explosions all intermixed with western pop culture characters. Everything from the Avengers to Pikachu riding a rocket or Keanu Reeves as Neo dodging bullets. Its all very strange, and then the I looked behind one of the doors and noticed something that really caught my eye. Two buildings, one billowing smoke, then I realized this was a motif of the twin towers complete with the second plane crashing into the building. …Surrounded by Spiderman and an Angry Bird also flying into the building. It was all pretty weird and I’m assuming a statement on the destructive power of western culture? Maybe not but either way Athena and I both came out and were like, holy crap was that a joking image of 9-11?

Best quick picture I could get. Make of it what you will

After the white temple we continued on up to the Khun Kon Waterfall. A scenic 30 minute drive up a twisty road through dense jungle and we got to the parking lot a quick 20 minute nature walk later we were at the base of 100 something foot waterfall. We had both hoped we could go swimming, but this wasn’t exactly the swimm-y kind of waterfall. Oh well. We stuck around for a sec then headed back down.

A gorgeous forest walk on our way to the waterfall
Khun Kon

We drove in towards town and along the way I stopped when I saw a massive Singha sculpture on a perfectly manicured lawn. And so we stumbled on Singha Park. It is a massive, beautifully manicured park, with tea gardens and a few restaurants. We drove in and explored for a bit, but by this point it was 2pm and we were both dying for some lunch. Luckily there were a bunch of little cafes that were nice and cheap just outside of the park. 


After lunch we took the long way back around to Chiang Rai city, but somewhere along the way we saw a sign for Huay Kaew waterfall just 17km away. Turning our back to the smelly city we zoomed off to towards the waterfall. Another gorgeous mountain road up into a hill tribe village and through hillside rice fields and we were there. We hiked up to the waterfall and this was what we had been looking for earlier in the day. It was the perfect warm, clean, large pool just dying to be swum in. Sadly by the time we got there it was 4:30 and the sun was setting in an hour and not waning to have to ride back sopping wet in the dark I chose to wait for another time. But now you know, if you’re looking for a nice waterfall to chill at for a while around Chiang Rai check out Huay Kaew. 

The sun was going down by this point so no swimming for us

After about 20 minutes we headed down and made our way back to the city. Stopping for some beautiful picturesque views.


On our way back into town just as the sun was setting we just happened to pass by a bright blue roof. I realized it was the blue temple and figuring we might as well stop and take a look I pulled off to the side. We went in and man this place was wild. Extremely ornate sculptures scatter the grounds and of course everything is blue. The detail on some of the figures (mostly dragons) was incredible.

Blue and gold
I was really digging the turtle guy


Detail work on each individual scale was awesome

Back in town we got some dinner by the clock tower and got to see a little show. Every night at 7, 8 and 9pm the clock tower in the middle of town changes color and plays music and a couple other supposes I’ll leave for the lustful traveller to find out themselves. Neither Athena nor I had any idea this happened so it was a pretty cool surprise halfway through our meal.

Same clock tower, different time of day

Back at our hostel we were planning our trip on “the slow boat” to Luang Prabang for the next day. I had done research and looked up all about the boarder crossing and how to get tickets. The boat only leaves once a day at 11am, and if you miss it you’re stuck in Huy Xi (nowhere town) until the next day. I had heard you can buy tickets once you’re there but you’re not guaranteed a seat if the boat is full. There just so happen to be tour companies all over Chiang Rai, and Pai and Chiang Mai that sell a package tour which includes getting you to the boarder and all the connections you need to cross and the boat ticket for 1600THB each. Since one of those offices was right next door to our hostel, we decided better safe than sorry, and not wanting to be stuck, we booked the tour. 

It was nice that in the morning they picked us up at the hostel and drove us directly to the boarder crossing but other than that its a total rip off. You can just as easily take the public bus that leaves Chiang Rai Bus Station every 30 minutes to Chiang Kong for 65THB. Then a quick  tuk tuk to the boarder will only cost about 20THB per person. Once at the boarder crossing they sell tickets for the same slow boat right at the boarder for only 1000THB. 25THB more and you can get the (required) bus across the “Friendship Bridge”  into Laos. Our tour just included waiting for a bunch of half drunk British Kids who had overstayed their visas and had to pay a fine. After we got across the boarder we were picked up by the tour group on the other side. The same as the people who had just  purchased their boat tickets at the boarder, and shepherded off to someones house in Huay Xi.  (We had left the British kids behind at this point so we wouldn’t miss the boat). Here they sold over priced beer, tried to have you prebook accommodation, and change currency from them at a crazy high rate. (All a small racket). Word of advice: Don’t prebook accommodation for Pakbeng since there are more than enough places all of whom will competitively lower rates to get your business once there.

We finally got back in a tuk tuk down to the boat were we boarded and were some of the last people on. When we booked in Chiang Rai the woman who owned the company said she partially owned one of the boats, and could guarantee us seats at the front of the boat in nice seats away from the engine. NOT. We got on and barely found any seats at all. Luckily someone offered to switch so Athena and we could sit next to each other, in the wooden bench seats at the back. Finally right before the boat was about to take off the British Kids rolled up in a tuk tuk and ran on. But at this point there were no seats left! So for the 6 hour trip they were stuck sitting on the floor of the boat, right by the engine and bathroom. But they made the best of it getting nice and plastered.

Our friends from the UK making the best of the situation while “Spiderman” sleeps on the food counter
Athena getting in the spirit
Our new home for the next two days

The boat ride itself was actually pretty nice. About 6 hours the first day down the Mekong river its a great time to read a book and take casual glances up to see the beauty that is the country of Laos drift by. After a few hours and a few beers we made it to Pakbeng the stopping point for that day and de-boarded. While places had tried to sell pre-bookings for hostels there are more than enough places to stay at all different budgets so theres no need to pre-book. The whole town of Pakbeng runs off the slow boat economy so things are cheap and easy to find. We paid 50,000 kip (~$5) for a private room that wasn’t great, but good enough for 8 hours of sleeping. We heard about people who had pre-booked paying over $25 USD for almost the same accommodation.

The views weren’t half bad
Along the way you pass by many small villages with people going about their lives on the Mekong River
Huge barges cruise up and down the river moving supplies, the back of which are typically full houses for the families who run them
Finally we made it to Pakbeng
Pulling into town at twilight

The next morning we woke up early to secure ourselves some good seats and snacks for the long day ahead. After everyone loads up and they thoroughly check your ticket, SO DON’T LOOSE IT, and the boat is off. Today is supposed to be about 8 hours. For the first two hours I sat and read my book enjoying the sights, but then got a little antsy and wanted to take a look around. I walked to the back of the boat and lo and behold there’s Jimmy, an Australian guy we had met crossing the boarder, and the British kids! They told me to grab a chair and chill for a bit, so I did. We were sitting in someones, the boat crews, kitchen with a 180º view out the back of the boat. Turns out these slow boots are also the people’s who work on them homes. Drive during the day, and when everyone debarks the area the luggage sits during the day becomes living room.  At night fall sleeping mats get pulled out and the space again morphs into a  bed room. Our kitchen/ lounge was fully stocked with pots and pans and burners, but they didn’t seem to mind us staying back there and leaving the people at the front of the boat alone. Before you knew it we had some more company. Two older folks who were hard partiers in their own right.  And then folks stared buying rounds of beers. 11am and we were off! While they were a bunch of wild partiers, the British folk were actually pretty chill. We talked about all manner of things and passed the time by.

Our lounge/kitchen with a great view at the back of the boat

About two hours into me leaving my seat Athena popped her head in looking for me figuring no one could take a dump that long, and making sure I hadn’t accidentally fallen off the back of the boat. Many more beers, many more hours and many good conversations later we were rounding the bend in the Mekong River and pulling up to not quite Luang Prabang.

Finally getting off the boat just outside Luang Prabang

The slow boat drops you off about 15km outside of the city from where you have to get a tuktuk into town. Of course the tuk tuk mafia is in full force, charging way more than they need to. I had read about this before hand and heard stories of people trying to boycott, but realistically it was like $2 USD each so why not? We got in our tuk tuk and headed to town. Landing in the center of town we walked through the beginnings of the night market as it was being set up, and made our way to our guesthouse, “why not hostel”. Seeing a theme yet?

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