Thursday, February 23, 2012

Happy Va-Laos-tine's Day (Crossing into Laos)

Crossing the Mekong
Colin did a bang up job writing about our border crossing and the following day, so I'm cheating and copying all his work.  

Chiang Rai is in the far north of Thailand, and from here we made a run for the Laos border in the morning.  Not knowing how long it would take to complete the formalities to enter Laos, we were loaded, ready to turn on the ignition, and pull out of the parking lot at 8:00am. 
But between us and the next stamp in our passports stood two separate, friendly, and curious groups of people who wanted to know all about our trip.  By the time we finished talking, it was 8:30 when we hit the road.  Fortunately it was a short, 60-ish mile ride to Chiang Khong, the town on the Thai side of the border.  We arrived at about 10:30 and started looking for an office to get the forms (a TM-2 and a TM-4) we supposedly would need to re-enter Thailand with the bikes after traveling through Laos and Cambodia.  Unable to locate said office, we continued toward the ferry dock (the Mekong River is the Laos-Thailand border), following the signs for the Immigration office.  

 Just before we turned down the ramp towards the dock, we spied three large BMW GSs, loaded for travel.  We soon spotted their riders, who insisted we stop so they could take our photo.  We couldn't really compare too many notes, since they only spoke Chinese but indicated they were traveling back through Laos to China.  After waving goodbye to them, we made our way to Immigration, where the official stamped us out of Thailand, and then to Customs, where they took our temporary import permits (TIPs). Colin went down to negotiate for our ferry tickets while I waited with the bikes and photographed the Chinese-plated BMWs that were now parked near ours.  I know China is changing, but wow, it was really strange to see three Chinese riders on very fancy and very expensive German motorcycles, all decked out in their BMW-branded gear to boot.  

Bikes on the ferry across the Mekong River
Since we still didn't have the TM-2 and TM-4 forms that my research said we should, we asked at Customs if we needed anything else, and they assured us we did not.  Hmmm.  They did, however, stamp and sign the pieces of paper that were stapled in our passports.  Since it was now 10:50 am, and the ferry leave every hour on the hour, I didn't feel like screwing around anymore, so instead we paid the extortionate price of 500 Baht (17 USD) per bike for the privilege of crossing the Mekong.  While we waited in line to board the ferry (which only held three trucks and four motorcycles for our trip), we met Hubert, a German rider who has already done 18 months on his Tourateched 1100GS, and Herbert, an Austrian tourist who was doing a couple of weeks of riding on a rented Honda AX-1.  We chatted for a couple of minutes, and then it was time to board the ferry. 

They loaded two of the trucks first, then Hubert, then the third truck, then Re and I followed Herbert down the wet, concrete ramp that turned to dirt before it reached the water's edge.  The deck of the boat did not actually reach the shore and required us to ride through about a 3-foot stretch of water about 18-inches deep to the edge of the boat.  A little unsure as to how riding off the mud, through the water, and onto the wet, steel deck was going to turn out, I did what all the best motorcycle riders do, and gassed it and hoped for the best.  I picked my feet up off the pegs as I hit the water and powered the mighty SYM onto the deck.  I pulled in next to Herbert and turned in time to see Re do the same.  We both made it without issue and were glad to be safely on board. 

The Mekong might be a half mile wide here, and it does have a substantial current, so once the ferry pulled free from the shore, we soon found ourselves heading downriver.  Then the boat captain floored it, and we took about a four mile long, half mile journey.  Maybe ten minutes later, we reached the other shore, and the crew held me, Re, and Herbert, while the trucks drove off the ferry and up the steep riverbank.  When it was my turn to ride off the ferry, I was surprised to see that the ramp was not actually on land, but there was a several inch gap between the steel of the boat and the dirt.  The captain was fighting the current, but the boat was slowly inching its way downstream.  I heard the captain throttle up and decided to do the same.  As the edge of the boat pushed into the shore, I scampered across to terra firma.  Re followed quickly, and we rode up the bank to the top of the hill to Customs.   

The nice lady from AGL Insurance explained which buildings we needed to go in and in what sequence.  The funny thing about Laos is that it is not a Carnet country, and you're supposed to need to do a temporary import permit (TIP), but I had read reports that a couple of other travelers had used their Carnets in lieu of a TIP.  I wanted to try this, since the TIP in Laos apparently only gives you 14 days, while your visa is good for 30 days.  While we waited in line, I mentioned this to Hubert, who was also traveling with Carnet, and since he was ahead of us in line, he tried it first.  The officer stamped his Carnet, tore out the souche, and told Hubert he didn't need to get a TIP.  Oh, and it didn't cost a dime.  Awesome!  I handed our Carnets through and got the same results.  We stopped at the final office, where we needed to be entered into the computer.  Here, they asked for our TM-2 and our TM-4, which we did not have.  The officer here did not speak enough English to explain the situation, so he flagged down some guy, who explained it to us.  Since we didn't have our paperwork, we had to pay a mysterious 100 Baht (3.33 USD) fee per bike.  Apparently, Re and I must have looked skeptical, because the guy assured us that it would, “go to the Lao Government.”  Perhaps, it will, if the Laos Government owns the company that makes Beer Lao.  Oh well. 

Having heard bad stories about riding in Laos without insurance, we did stop at the AGL office to become legal.  While I dealt with the other paperwork, Re spoke with the insurance agent, and we were able to get 30 days of minimum coverage for 10 USD per bike.  Fifteen minutes later, we were back on the bikes and riding to passenger ferry dock to go through the Immigration formalities.  Re and I rode with Hubert and Herbert, and we all worked on our visa on arrival applications together.  No hanky panky at this office, since the fees are clearly posted on the wall- 35 USD got us a one month Laos visa.  Unfortunately, here is where Herbert ran into problems.  It seems he neglected to go through Immigration when he left Thailand.  The Laos Immigration officer insisted that he return to Thailand to get his passport stamped before he could go through the process here.  Since it was now only 1:30, Re and I decided to head for Muang Sing, about 100 miles northeast of the border crossing at Huay Xai.  Hubert, Re, and I rode to the ATM we'd spotted on the way in, where Re and I became instant millionaires when we withdrew 1.7 million Laos Kip, which sounds good, but is really only about 210 USD.  We waved goodbye to Hubert and hit the road.    

One of my big worries about riding in Laos is the riding conditions.  I haven't been able to find out much information about the quality of the roads and availability of fuel.  As it turns out, today, we didn't need to worry about either.  The road leaving Huay Xai was a silky ribbon of black, brand new asphalt.  It turns out that the Chinese and Thai governments are in the process of building a bridge across the Mekong at Huay Xai in order to facilitate commerce between the countries.  Consequently, the Chinese have built a beautiful road between Huay Xai and the border crossing with China at Bo Ten.  The bridge was supposed to be completed in 2010 and is now slated for completion in 2014, but today we are the happy recipients of their largesse.  And what a road it is!  Brand new, with well cambered corners, and smooth as a baby's butt, excellent lane markings, guard rails, and it snakes through the mountains, hugging the hillsides and occasionally dipping into the valleys.  It is truly a thing of beauty.   

Dry fields on the ride
In addition to the stunning roads, the scenery was also spectacular.  Laos is a mountainous country, and soon after leaving Huay Xai, we started a slow, steady climb.  We rode around the mountains and down again, passing forests, terraces of dry fields, and tiny villages built right along the roadside.  For mile after mile, we saw bunches of some kind of grass or grain laid along the road to dry, I assumed.  As we rode, we also saw people beating and rolling these bunches of grass on the ground or against rocks.  It took several miles of pondering, but I eventually figured out what it was and what they were doing.  People don't go to Target to buy brooms here.  They make them out of a variety of grasses and twigs, depending on the what needs swept.  We first noticed them in Vietnam two years ago and wanted to bring one home as a souvenir but it wouldn't fit in a backpack.   The women, men, and children were working to remove the seeds from a soft grass in order to make brooms!  

Our one difficulty on the trip today was that my GPS did not have the cut off road to Muang Sing in its map, so instead, we watched for the signs, which we never saw.  Our new destination for the night became Luang Nam Tha.  We covered the hundred miles or so in about 3.5 hours and rolled into Luang Nam Tha at about 5:00 pm.  We missed the driveway for our first choice in guesthouses, so we stopped at our second choice first and found a great place at a great price.  Not seeing any reason to look any further, we checked in and unloaded our bikes.  

After getting cleaned up, we walked out to the night market for dinner.  There were many stands making papaya salad, while others were cooking all sorts of meats.  The whole roast chickens and ducks initially caught our eyes, but then we saw the slabs of pork (remember: it's the meat of kings).  We settled on enough pork for three people, sticky rice, a not spicy papaya salad, and one, ice cold, dripping with condensation, oh I have missed you baby, big Beer Lao.  Beer Lao, in my opinion, is the best beer in southeast Asia, and we were about to remind ourselves why.  We sat at one of the tables and enjoyed our feast.  While we were walking around, Re had spied a woman making crepes with all sorts of things.  While I used the last of the sticky rice to sop up the dressing from the papaya salad, Re went in search of a crepe.  A few minutes later, she returned with a crepe and Julien and Annie, the Canadian couple we met in Chiang Rai.  Not only were they in Luang Nam Tha, but as we talked, we realized we were all staying at the same guesthouse.  Funny.  We sat and chatted with them as they ate and were joined by four other people the Canadians had met along the way.  At one point, Julien disappeared and returned with a single rose for Annie and wished her a happy Valentine's Day.  Guess what I forgot?  Re and I split another Beer Lao and had a good time listening to other people talk about their travels.  We had to excuse ourselves to return to the room and figure out where we were going tomorrow before calling it a night.

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