We arrived early afternoon in Chiang Rai and checked into a hotel very close to the bus station. Chiang Rai is a small city, with not much to do. Two notable (and free!) attractions are the White Temple and the Black House. We dropped our stuff and immediately went back to the bus station to catch a public bus about 20 minutes south the way we had come. Arriving at the White Temple, we joined dozens of other tourists to tour the most unique Wat we have seen in Thailand. The entire thing is white, hence the name, and includes some contemporary icons, including Batman and Despicable Me. Arms coming out of the ground greet you at the entrance and small mirrors adorn almost every available space.
Riki abandoned me for awhile to photograph the glittering structures and I sat in the shade under a canopy of prayers written on thin metal sheets hung with beads and bells. We took the 20 baht bus back to town and explored the city on foot. We found a few more wats, two clocktowers and a supermarket to stock up for our Laos boat trip. That evening, we did something Riki is still talking about. We set out for the night market, conveniently right near the bus station and our hotel, and discovered a ring of food stalls. A bit confusing at first, as most of the stalls just had baskets of raw vegetables and eggs. Didn’t look so great, until we realized they were for hot pots! Having never had one, we timidly ordered chicken and beef and waiting patiently as the server showed up how to set it up and cook it. We are now hoping to encounter hot pots again on our trip so we can partake.
We got up early and headed back to the bus station. Riki tracked down a bus headed north and we got on just as it was leaving. The buses have ticket takers who are in charge of taking money and telling the bus driver where everyone is going and when to stop. We told our lady twice Black House and she seemed to understand, as she nodded and told us the fare. However, 40 minutes passed, and we started getting nervous (well Riki was nervous earlier but I confidently told him “Don’t worry, she will tell us when to get off”). So I asked the ticket taker Black House? when we stopped next. She looked at me, said Black House! to the driver and pointed to the other side of the road. Obviously, she had forgotten and we were going to have to backtrack. There were only about 10 people on the bus and we were right up front by her the whole time. Rather frustrated, I insisted on getting my money back, as we were now going to have to catch another bus. She would only give me half back, but we crossed the highway and hailed a songtheuw back the way we came.
The driver of the songtheuw (which is a modified pickup with covered benches in the back) seemed to know where we wanted to go, but when we were dropped off on the side of the highway, we weren’t so sure. But we spotted a small sign across the road pointing down a thin trail crossing some wet areas with wood plank “bridges.” The Black House is an estate of 40 odd buildings, all very darkly painted, that a Thai artist worked on for years. This is not a place for animal lovers. The place is adorned with all sorts of animal hides, horns and carvings. A bear skin covered the bed in the first building we saw (head and all) and the next few buildings were similarly furnished. There’s an entire elephant skeleton laid out under one building and some incredible huge one-plank tables. We even spotted some wildlife. A bird sounding much like a small child speaking sits next to a cage with two enormous snakes and another cage with a large owl.
We made it back in time for the 11:30 bus to the Laos border, but only barely. We took some of the last seats on the bus, which happened to be in the rear. I sat behind the open door the whole 3 hour trip. The door was bungee corded open and we rested our feet in the boxes of circuit breakers in front of us. Not the least comfortable I’ve ever been on a bus and there weren’t any animal passengers. The scenery was beautiful though and we got some glimpses of karsts much like we saw in northern Vietnam.
Here is where we encountered the first of the Laotian bureaucracy at its finest. What used to be a simple boat crossing now involves quite a few steps and quite a bit more money. First, the bus drops you off conveniently in front of a row of tuk tuks who graciously offer to take you the next 2 km to the Thai immigration station. This costs 50 baht per person. They even have an official looking sign. So the 6 people going that way got on a tuk tuk and begrudgingly paid the money rather than walk with our bags. Once you arrive at the immigration station you return your departure card and then pay another 20 baht per person plus 10 baht per bag to get on a bus to take you across the border. We waited half an hour for the bus to leave even though we had a lot of people waiting.
When you arrive at the Laos immigration station, you grab your bags from the bus and then try to figure out what to do next. There are no signs, but we followed some people to fill out some papers and then pushed them through a window. We waited for the officer to get off his cell phone, scratch his belly some and generally look bored. Then he requested our $35 US, put a sticker in our passports and waved us away. Then we walked to another counter, where normally they would check your visa but were waved along again and then once more at a table near the exit. No one actually cared to confirm we got the visa. Then you get scammed again, as there is a took took (new spelling here) driver waiting to take you to town for 100 baht each, which is insane. We had read that you could just take a boat for 30 baht across the river and the whole process took only 5 minutes. Since they built the bridge, this is no longer the case. We spent almost an hour just trying to get through. But we eventually arrived in Huay Xie, found a decent room and a decent restaurant (where our food/beer runner was 6 years old and our waitress was 10, no one else around).
We liked the vibe of Laos almost as soon as we got done with the bureaucratic stuff. It is very relaxed, slow and friendly. Can’t wait to see what the rest of the country has to offer.