Travelling to Luang Prabang, Laos
We had been in Bangkok for a few days, unwinding after our long flight from London, via an unscheduled stop in dusty Doha. We had visited my favourite places in Bangkok, namely Wat Pho and Wat Arun, the temple of Dawn. I always call in to pay my respects every time I’m in town. I never get bored of the enormous reclining Buddha at Wat Pho, it’s so big they had to build a bespoke pavilion around him in order to shelter him from the elements. In the evenings we had enjoyed some great food and experienced the mad chaotic exuberance of Khao San Road at night.
But this morning I was excited, I awoke with a slight trepidation in the stomach, we were going off into the unknown, we were off to the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos, until a few years ago a closed country and still a country that sees a fraction of the visitors of neighbouring Thailand.
We had boarded a budget Air Asia flight from Don Muang, Bangkok’s former international airport, which has since the opening of Bangkok’s new shiny International Airport, been demoted to a hub for budget internal and inter regional flights. As we flew across Thailand there stretched a patchwork of large fields as far as the eye could see, then after around 40 minutes we flew over an enormous brown river, the Mekong. The Mekong River is one of the Worlds great rivers, the 10th longest I believe, and irrigates a huge area of South East Asia, it starts on the Tibetan Plateau, flows through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia before draining into the sea forming the huge Mekong River Delta in Southern Vietnam. Along the section that we flew over it forms the border between Thailand and Laos. On the Laos side of the Mekong, the landscape looked very different, the large fields and concrete highways gave way to small field and no visible roads. This in turn gave way to wooded hillsides covered in trees. It was beautiful, I was elated, it was as if as if we were going back to a simpler time, before exponential population growth had dednuded the hillsides. Other developing countries that I visit such as mountainous Nepal have suffered this fate but in Laos the population is quite low and the pristine natural tree cover has remained.
Before long the plane began descending, we had left Bangkok in blistering heat and bright sunshine. As we came into Laos it was pouring with rain and distinctly cool, that was not the only difference. When the plane has come to a halt we ventured out, the terminal building looked like a soviet structure from the 1950’s but with a traditional pointed roof. Inside it was very quiet, a complete contrast to the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. There were lots of forms to fill in and nobody quite knew what they were supposed to do.
We filled in our forms and approach a booth staffed by an unsmiling young woman dresses in an ill fitting military uniform, reminiscent of the China’s People’s Army. She took our forms scrutinised them and passed them to a similarly dressed male colleague who simply said 107 dollars. I knew the Visa fee was 35 dollars each and, as I was travelling with my two daughters, I was expecting to pay 105 dollars, but 107? I questioned the official who spoke no English, but pointed to a sign, apparently as my youngest daughter had not brought a photo with her it was an extra 2 dollars! I handed over the money we got our visas and ventured over to a very old baggage carrousel and collected our bags.
We ventured out of the airport and I expected the usual hustle and bustle and people harassing you to get into their taxi, come to their hotel. But nothing, there was a single Songthaw, a truck with seats on the back, parked in the front of the terminal building. This was the only means of transportation into town, so we paid our 50,000 kip each ( around £5) and headed into the World Heritage City of Luang Prabang.