Blog // Tales from the trail
Two things, the smartly-dressed border guard informed us from his booth; firstly, for a male it is pronounced "Swaadi crrrrup", somehow managing to elegantly roll his r whilst grinning from ear-to-ear, and secondly, "You do not get a 'one month' entry permit over a land border, you of course get 30 days, as a G7 passport holder". Things were looking up for the sprouts, taking the risk of travelling the scenic route overland, despite many wary travelers informing us that only a 14-day entry permit was possible overland (many also noting that actually you never knew what may happen on the borders, Thailand having somewhat inconsistent entry policies).
The day hadn't started as well however due to the previous nights' journey. "Don't worry" we were told by the local [travel] agent in the village, "my friend here will make sure you get on the bus!", before vigorously shaking our hands and screeching off into the distance, clouds of dust bellowing behind his 4x4.
With time running out on our Laos visa, and a prior engagement in Chiang Mai, we had decided to intercept the night bus to the Thai border and thus we were now sat in anticipation at a rural bus-cum-truck stop in the dark, awaiting our ride. Suddenly, a neon-lit beastie of a bus glided out of the darkness, over the potholes (at a not so insignificant velocity) and into the bus stop, triggering a flurry of activity, including - true to his word - our new friend madly waving and gesturing for us to get onto said bus.
The good news was that it was a sleeper bus, not the usual bus with upright seats; the bad news was that sleeper buses were equipped with fewer seats than tickets for the usual bus were sold. Somehow, we managed to claim 2 seats, however not together and despite considerable gesticulation (playing the married card) we weren't able to get a single local guy to switch giving the alternative seat the once-over before deciding he was in a more comfortable position - although later in the journey he did selflessly suggest Corallie could move to an empty seat so he could stretch-out over two seats (with me stuck on the lower level, in the hot seat - above the engine - next to a snoring gentleman) - unbelievable! Elsewhere on the bus was no less hectic, it not only being loaded full with people, but as the major transport connection between rural towns, their many items of weird and wonderful luggage. Also particularly popular where the many-many bags of in-season oranges; and with no where else to put them, they occupied the narrow walkway down the middle of the bus, making it impossible to move without standing on somebody's sack, thus creating a strong, but deliciously-sweet orange aroma in the bus.
After a generally disruptive and restless night on the bus we arrived at the border town of Huay Xai, inconveniently some 3 hours ahead of schedule, just before 5:00am. Figuring the border would be shut at such an antisocial hour, we did what any self-respecting sprouts would do; found a bench and crashed out for a few hours. Awakening we spied a nearby coffee shop open and also, conveniently, a bus heading through the border to Chiang Khong (avoiding the string of tuk-tuks that charge you three times; 1) for taking you to the Laos check-point, 2) across the Friendship Bridge, and then 3) finally, from the Thai border into town).
Things seemed to be going almost too well, when 20 brief minutes later we had completed all the necessary formalities (including receiving our full, 30-day stay) and with a spring in our steps we exited just in time to see our bus to Chiang Khong pulling away, the driver smiling and waving, "You get taxi from here!"...
Following a short wait for exactly the right number of people to fill a border taxi, we were on our way to the Hub Pub, a gem discovered by Poppalooie on his recent cycling adventures in the north of Thailand. Fitting you see, as the proprietor, one Alan Bate, holds the World Record for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe on a bicycle. Alan is also a fellow Scouser (Liverpudlian), although after securing sponsorship for his record attempt by a Thai brewing company, has since settled in Thailand with his lovely wife Mai, son Mario (dog, Yap-Yap and rather-large rooster, KFC). In addition to the Hub Pub, he also owns the Funky Box hostel next door and a small museum dedicated to his love of cycling (above the pub).
After a brief reminisce about our favourite town, Liverpool, it transpired that Alan had recently come across a number of bicycles (in bits) and (largely assisted by Danny and Brie, two lovely traveling cyclists) he was in the process of clearing out his bike shed and building these up. Keen to help, we offered our services, not least as assembled bicycles = bike rides!
However, not before a lighthearted critique of our previous failed attempt at volunteering at the butterfly park, during which he promised to be 'chilled-out' and in turn, we vowed to try and not get fired again. And so we proceeded, and if there was one phrase that encapsulated the Hub Pub it was definitely 'chilled-out', and as I helped Danny work his way through the bikes (at some speed), people just kept appearing. Some to stay in the Funky Box and others just for a drink in the pub - including a group of young Thais on a road trip from Bangkok (everyone gathering to toast their departure with a shot of rice-whiskey). Corallie, at one point, found herself working behind the bar as the joint filled up, as the evening played out to an eclectic mix of tunes, courtesy of the you-tube duke-box.
Like so many other cheeky Scousers we've met, Alan's enthusiasm was infectious, keen to show off the area around Chiang Khong, taking us on a mini-road-trip to a coffee shop with impressive Mekong views and a stop-in at the local falls.
The following morning, armed with a stock of freshly serviced bikes, Alan suggested we all joined him on the local, pre-dawn cycle to the Laos border and back. Despite the grogginess, not to mention slightly nauseating after-taste of the previous evening's rice-whiskey, we set off on a morning cycle through the deserted streets; led by our recording-breaking cyclist host, how good is that!
Sadly with our course in Chiang Mai looming, we could only stay a couple of nights and as Alan had a few errands to run in Chiang Rai, our brief next-stop, he kindly agreed to drop us off on his way through. Whilst short lived, we'd achieved a lot in the day and a half we'd stayed and after our previous experience volunteering we appreciated the relaxed atmosphere, lack of interference and genuine appreciation of efforts. In summary, it reminded us about the rewards of volunteering, a fun, light-hearted, mutual exchange, rather than that of a calculative arrangement.
Our ride to Chiang Rai ended in a stop at a quirky rasta-hostel, no thrills; a mattress, mosquito net and spray paint decor, complete with balcony and a steal for a private city centre room at $5 a night. The rest of the day we spent wandering town, checking out the local market (and delicious pork, noodle and lemongrass sausages) and ethnology museum before finding a local sports bar for the evening to try and catch up on some Rugby World Cup action.
Coffee the next morning was courtesy of no less than Thailand's 2015 barrista champion and we were fueled up and ready to face the bus to Chiang Mai and our permaculture course.
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