I’ve now spent almost two weeks backpacking SE Asia. The last two weeks in Thailand were quite chill. It was a lot of sightseeing, temple hopping and hiking around the nature. I thought I had mastered this whole backpacking concept after two weeks of travel. However, it was not until when I had to cross the border from Thailand into Laos and take a 2 day slow boat from the north into Luang Prabang did I realize the true exhausting nature of being a backpacker.
My bordercrossing journey began with a 7 hour bus ride from Chiangmai to the Thai boarder town Chiangkhong. The ride was long but the minibus was manageable with cool enough air conditioning. I’ve met a few friends from Germany and Norway on the bus ride and have learned that they were also going to Luang Prabang by taking the slow boat the next morning. We arrived at Chiangkhong around 4pm in the afternoon and checked into this simple hotel by the Mekong River. The hotel offered quite a nice view of the Mekong River at the balcony, but the room itself was less than comfortable. As soon as I opened the door, a moldy smell came straight into my nose and the room only had a couple of fans with no air conditioning. I had stayed in bad hotel rooms in the past, but this room was probably one of the worst. I chose to ignore it and learned to adapt to my one night stay here by trying to stay up at the balcony as long as possible until I was attacked by millions of bugs. I ended the night with staying in the room and playing with my phone for the next two hours since my randomly assigned roommate did not feel like talking.
The next morning, I woke up at 6:30 and could not wait to get out of the place. We ate breakfast provided by the hotel and exchanged some Laos kips and were ready to head to the border. Our hotel had about 30 backpackers mostly Europeans waiting together to go to the border. Everyone of us had a giant backpack. At around 8:30 in the morning, we were all shuffled into the back seating area of these minivans with open windows and no door. Although these minivans were not that big, somehow they were able to fit 10 to 12 of us along with our giant backpacks. We went from strangers to friends very quickly in the short 10 minute ride to the Thailand immigration boarder control to depart from Thailand.
Departing from Thailand was easy and simple, all we needed was just filling out the departure slip given to us when arriving at Thailand and then showing the officer our passports for stamping. However, there was always that one person or two who forgot where they kept the departure card and had to search through the entire backpack. Me and several friends that I met along the way made it through the Thai border control quickly. Each person then paid 20 bahts to take another bus from the Thai border control to the Laos border control. We were handed the applications for the arrival visa as well as the Laos arrival and departure slips. As soon as we arrived at the Laos border control, it was then when I felt crossing the boarder was quite exhausting. Since we had a lot of backpackers at the border by the time we arrived, the process of waiting for a visa took at least half an hour. We also had quite a few people who didn’t have brand new dollars or had received old dollars from the hotel and could not use them to pay for the visa application fees (Laos likes dollars a lot more than kips due to the continuous devaluation of the Laos kips). What’s worse was that the electricity went out at the border control and those travelers couldn’t even withdraw US dollars from the ATM. After another half an hour of talking and working with the border control officers, the officers were eventually willing to accept kips for the visa applications and allow some of my friends go through the border. I was happy for them and was also thankful that I had brought enough dollars to pay for the visa. For future travelers going to Laos and to Cambodia as well, remember to bring some fresh dollars for the visa applications.
After we crossed the border, we waited another 20 minutes for another minivan to arrive to take us to the slow boat. Again, 10-12 of us were shuffled into each minivan and we were headed to the slow boat. After taking several different transportations and constantly picking up and dropping off my giant backpack, I was truly exhausted. It was about 11:30 am by the time we arrived at the boat after 3 hours of border crossing process.
After dropping off my backpack one more time and handing it to the boat personnel for storing, I was so happy to be seated and just do nothing. At that point, everyone of us on the boat was sweaty and tired, but the overall atmosphere on the boat was still great and cheerful. People then started buying snacks and Laos beer from the only vendor on the boat. Then it was a lot of picture taking, cheering, laughing and singing. That lasted for about 2 hours until people started falling asleep and doing other business.
The boat ride to Luang Prabang from northern Laos was a 2 day boat ride with about 5-7 hours on the boat each day. The boat ride on Mekong River was quite enjoyable with beautiful scenery passing by every second. Mountains, greenery and boat houses passing by under the foggy sky were extremely mesmerizing. I almost felt surreal that I was taking a boat and enjoying such a beautiful scenery. I also could not believe I was one of the backpackers who went through this whole border crossing journey with all the sweat and anxiety and was rewarded with such a captivating scenery in front of me. As the cool breeze lifting my hair and as the boat rocking from one side to another, I wish my camera could capture all of this and all of my backpacking experience, but no matter how many pictures I take and how much I write it would still be hard to explain to others what I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen.
Was this whole border crossing journey exhausting? I would say definitely. Was it worth it? I would also say yes. I could have made this more comfortable by taking a flight from Chiangmai to Luang Prabang, but then there’s something so special about experiencing the hardship before being rewarded with the beautiful scenery of nature. It was not the first time I was scolded by my family for making things so difficult to myself, including taking a backpacking trip on my own with a low budget. Yes I could have gone to nice vacation towns and I could have stayed in beautiful resorts, but how much would I remember about those comfortable trips when I get old? I see life not as a journey to get to somewhere comfortable, but a journey to take on challenges in order to appreciate what I have in life and to grow from my experience. I want to be able to recall the experience that defines me and my value. Maybe I’m stubborn and maybe I’m different, but sometimes being different brings the most out of life.