Saturday, December 8, 2012

Lesson learned...

This post is a bit of a rant about one of the (very few thus far) negative experiences of our travels. There have been many minor annoyances, but generally things have gone smoothly and we're having a lot of fun and seeing so many amazing things, but I wanted to share this less-than-rosy experience. (But beware, it's a bit long...)

We are currently in Luang Prabang, a lovely town in the heart of northern Laos. There are many ways to get here from Thailand, and taking the 2-day slow boat down the Mekong seems to be the most popular. That said, there is a lot of hype and warning about it. Scams to avoid, where to get tickets, where not to get tickets, etc, etc. We had been planning on figuring it out on our own, spending a night in Chiang Rai en route to see the wickedly awesome Wat Rong Khun. But after searching online and finding Chiang Rai booked solid, it appeared that we might have to skip it and go straight to Chiang Khong (where you cross the river border into Laos and catch the slow-boat). But then! Our guesthouse had a tour option from Chiang Mai all the way to Luang Prabang, taking care of all transportation connections, hotel in Chiang Khong, and even a few meals, and even a quick stop en route to see Wat Rong Khun. We were skeptical, but did the math to see how much each leg would cost us on our own, and the tour seemed to be the more economical and convenient option. So we booked it.

Right at the appointed time, the mini-bus showed up at our guesthouse and we piled in. First on board, we then drove around and around Chiang Mai for about an hour and a half picking up all the passengers. No biggie, since we got on first, we got to choose the seats with the most leg room. All aboard, we then made it to Chiang Khong in record time. Despite leaving almost an hour late, we arrived almost an hour early. Our skilled yet maniacal driver, seemed determined to pass every other motorbike, car, truck, and bus on the road, no matter how fast they were already going, and if there was oncoming traffic or a blind curve. Whatev! No biggie. 

And we did get to stop at Wat Rong Khun. We had precisely 20 minutes to grab a lunch (since the one that was supposed to be supplied wasn't) and run around the complex which was even more fantastically awesome then I had imagined. Picture a Thai wat, and then decorate it with Gaudi and Dali-inspired sculpture, throw in a bit of of pop-culture, and you're on the right track... But more on that in the next post.

When we got to Chiang Khong and rolled into a dingy parking lot of a 2-storey cinder block motel advertising rooms for 200 baht, my optimism began to fade. (When we were factoring the prices to determine if the tour was a good price, we had been factoring about 500-800 for accomodation, which was what we've been playing for simple, but clean and comfortable enough places...) My optimism continued to drop as our driver peeled away and we were left to wade through the chaos of other confused backpackers, but we managed to sign in and get a room key. 

The key was for the padlock which served as the only means to close the door. Since there was no door handle. Just some patch where the door knob used to be. The room itself was filthy; stains on the walls; bug carcasses everywhere; cobwebs in the corners. The sheets and bedding were stained and dirty, and the bed was hard as a rock... the bathroom had no toilet paper, but that's actually pretty standard, and we had our own. But just generally, it was really, really bad. But hey, we had free wifi! But only if you weren't actually in your room. So we sat outside our room and chatted with the other travellers who were also coming to realize we'd all been had.

Here's a lighthearted video tour of our lovely abode:

(Though I'd like to change my star rating to a single star, by sheer fact of having a roof, four walls, and running water...)

We took a walk around town and saw the hotel the tour details said we would be at. We had looked it up, the reviews had been good. And it looked like a pretty sweet place. Must have been a typo, I guess. Anyway, we returned to our palace for dinner, but we shouldn't have bothered. Dinner consisted of rice (not bad), noodles (soggy), shrimp chips, and bananas. We could have eaten better at the 7-11.

I was quickly beginning to realize why this tour had been so economical... A classic over-promise, under-deliver scenario.

And then passed what might be one of the most uncomfortable sleeps I've ever had... Aside from the rock hard bed (seriously, I have slept on rock when camping, it felt very much the same), the window beside the door didn't close--and there was no AC, so you needed the airflow anyway--and there was so much smoke, both from cigarettes and the lingering smoke from the burning of the fields around town. The walls were paper thin so you could hear absolutely everything. Including when the late mini-buses arrived a little after midnight, honking their arrival, then the gasps and then laughter of the arriving backpackers as they were shown to their quarters. And then the roosters began at about 4am, so whatever sleep I had, there wasn't much of it. My neck is still sore from the hard bed...

If I had any shred of optimism yet, it vanished when I saw the breakfast they had for us: plates of cold, damp white bread, and partially fried, sunny up eggs. Cold. And some Tang-flavoured jelly-goo in a jar. I think that was for the bread. They had some bananas too, so I just had that.

Shuttled to the border in the back of a pickup truck, we did the departure visa business, then crossed the Mekong on a longboat ferry. At every step of this "tour" our drivers deposit us and we are left to figure out the next step on our own (which is, annoyingly, what we would have had to had we not been on a tour). So us backpackers banded together somewhat and muddled our way through the visa on arrival process, and then wondered who was supposed to meet us here to take us to the slowboat. 

We had been given little red pieces of tape to wear, and as we were leaving the ferry dock, a young boy came up to us and told us to go up the street and wait by the pink car; that's where his office was. So we went up the street, and sure enough, there was a big pink truck, parked beside a quasi-convenience store with a desk inside, and a sign saying tours. His office. A woman inside seemed to understand the significance of our red tape, and told us that we would be taken to the slowboat at 11:30 am. It was a little after 9.

At some point they requested all of our passports, and though we all protested, he said it was important, and then he drove off with them on his bike. Awesome.

We got them back, and were taken to the slowboat in the pink truck at 11:30, and the rest of the journey passed relatively uneventfully, but the whole "tour" thing was frustrating, because we could have done a better job finding food and accommodation for ourselves, and being on the tour offered absolutely no benefit, in fact it made it so, so much less enjoyable.

Long, whiny, complainy story short: don't do this on a tour*, just do it on your own, it would be easier. But no matter how you get there, you will get to see the majesty of the Mekong, and it is worth any struggle.

*For those travelling from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, this "tour" was run by Terminal Green out of Chiang Mai, but it's the same "Package A" offered by all the guesthouses and travel agencies at varying prices (1,700 to 2,000 baht). If you want any more details, feel free to leave a comment.


  1. Uggg - that had to be frustrating. Sorry you had to go through this - on the good side if this is the worst of these type of experiences then I say you are doing well.
    Chey x

  2. oh my gosh that sounds horrible!! I had a good laugh when you dropped the pillow on the bed. Hope you made it out alive;)

    k xo