Best and Worst Hotel of the Trip

Overall the lodging was fine in Thailand and Laos, and we generally booked online using our phones or Amazon Fire tablet a day or two before arrival via or

However the two guest houses included the package from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang (on the Thai border, then in the overnight stop on the two-day slow boat) were by far the worst of the trip, especially the first, below.

It's like a soviet-era compound.

It's owned by a charming Thai who worked hard and had traveled a great deal in the hospitality industry over the years-- including a barren spot in Saudi Arabia, which gave us something to talk about. But here in Chiang Xing on the Thai border he clearly specializes in skimming a portion of proceeds from those like us who booked group travel. He also sold Laos money at a rate beneficial to him, warning of limited ATMs and high fees, etc. There were plenty of them, we found, with reasonable fees, on arrival in Laos.

By careful observation we also feel that several rooms were rented by the hour-- not for prostitutes, but for young couples eager to have some privacy in a strictly traditional nation. See those scooters and motorbikes? All young couples.

Here's a scene of us awaiting transportation to the border, ahead of our boat trip. 

 Here's our "room." I've never slept on a harder surface-- and I've slept in a bathtub. Harsh fluorescent lighting. The overhead fan was either off or gale force.

There was no what we would call sheet, and just a duvet for cover; these were not washed between uses, but we saw they were at least aired out outside the rooms.

The bathroom, heh. Flushed by hand. You scoop water into the bowl via a vessel in the dark tub by the loo, which is filled with water. No towels and any wash water drains directly into the ravine behind the guest house. 

If I had to guess, I'd say rooms were probably $6/night? I don't know as the price was included in our travel.

The nicest room was in Bangkok's Chinatown. At $110/night, quite a difference. But we had been economical most of the trip and so decided to splurge on Shangai Mansion before our departure back to Pittsburgh and winter. 

Another nice couple of night were spent in "new" Sukothai, in our own little traditional Thai-style hut:

Slow Boat to Luang Prabang, Laos, with Overnight in Pak Beng, Laos

Following several days in Chiang Mai, we booked travel to Luang Prabang, Laos, passing through Chiang Rai en route to the border (stopping very briefly to visit the White Temple), where we spent the night before crossing into Laos. 

We'd booked travel via our Chiang Mai hotel. It was about $70 each which included: bus to the Thai border (about 6 hours); "hotel" on Thai border, with dinner (skipped as we walked into town instead); breakfast at "hotel" (eh); transport to the border; once in Laos bus to the dock; lodging at the half-way point, Pak Beng; and, of course, two days on a slow boat down the Mekong. 

First, we drove through Chiang Rai, stopping to see the White Temple. 

The White Temple. Not a true temple. More of an artist's vanity project. But a popular tourist destination. It is only a dozen or so years old. Impressive. 

After spending the night on the Thai border in a dusty little town, and an awful guest house, we were driven by bus to the border where it took about one unorganized hour to get our $35 visas. The poorer the country the more elaborate the visa I find. We passed into Laos and a tour representative met us and got us on a bus to the dock to board the slow boat to Luang Prabang. It's a two-day journey with a stop in Pak Beng. 

Boarding a slow boat.

We sat near the front, here's a selfie looking back.

Departing the dock. 

In many ways the boat trip was a highlight of the trip. There was nothing to do but enjoy the views in this unique experience. We passed some very isolated villages. Mostly we looked out at verdant green hills, cliffs and karsts. Occasionally a "fast boat" would overtake us: you can do the 2-day slow boat trip in a speedboat in about 5-hours. We were told it's very uncomfortable and there are often accidents. 

Some views: 

Arrived at the Pak Beng dock near sunset. 

After finding the hotel we went for a walk for dinner and Susan found a puppy. 

Pak Beng in the early morning. Our boat was slated to leave at 9:30. I got up and looked over the balcony and saw what I thought was mist but really was fire from charcoal stoves. As in Thailand, most cooking is done outside in Laos. Most everyone uses charcoal, unlike in Thailand where canisters of gas are preferred. 

Some local women await the monks. 

Monks with their begging bowls. 

Pak Beng is a small town with just one road and seems largely supported by overnight visitors. Here's the main thoroughfare.

I went for a walk before we trekked back to the dock and not far from the guesthouse found the local market.

Then back to the boat. We had a stand off; the boat was very full, the only seating in the rear behind the noisy engines. Two dozen of us demurred. Per the "Lonely Planet" guidebook we stood our ground. Some westerners had been on board since 8am, told (like us) to "get there early to get a good seat up front." By 9am the boat owners began selling tickets to locals. By the time we arrived, not much seating left. We were told it was the only boat of the day, several times. Ground stood, firmly. Eventually they demurred and another long boat was procured, around 10:30am. We marched off and to our surprise it took off as soon as we boarded, leaving even before the original now very crowded boat! We had ample room, and we celebrated amongst ourselves (once out of ear shot of the first boat, that is...) Felt guilty, but sometimes you get the breaks. 

This was one of those magical traveler times where you gel almost seamlessly with new travel mates. A great day. 

Arriving and Disembarking at Luang Prabang, Laos. Several years ago you were dropped off right in the heart of the town. Now it requires a several dollar tuk tuk from the new "dock" several miles out of town. Frustrating and not a great welcome. (Laos, overall, has a way to go on customer service. I understand that they're relatively new as a travel destination, but it's only going to pick up.)

3rd stop, Chiang Mai

Sunset from the train window en route from Sukothai/Phitsanulok to Chiang Mai. 
Chiang Mai is the second largest city in Thailand. It was about a 7-hour ride from Phitsanulock/Sukothai. We pulled in around 9pm and took a tuk-tuk to our hotel, a modest affair, but clean, with a hot shower, about $20/night. We cleaned up and went out for a walk, beers, and, for a change, wood-fired pizza. It was Christmas Eve. 

Christmas day brought us delights like this: 

Many wats- temples- have amazingly life-like statues of holy men. Madame Tussaud's should send their artists over here to learn how to do it. Honestly very good, unusual and quite odd. A Thai Facebook friend tells me this is quite a new development, distinct to the north. 

A reclining Buddha. Much smaller than the famous one in Bangkok, which we would see at the end of the trip. 

Another wax statue.

At this way there's an area for novices who wish to practice English. Ng- not a statue- was charming and also a Chelsea fan. 

Christmas dinner, braised pork shank, rice, egg… so delicious...

Prepared by this lady in a humble street-side stand. She's quite famous, having been featured on a travel show, and the hat has become something of a trademark. 

A "thaipwriter," in the cultural Museum on Boxing Day. 

Chiang Mai noodles made a great late lunch, in a coconut curry with addictive crispy pork, deep-fried pork belly. 

Found a pub for the Chelsea-West Ham match and a late supper.