Having spent just over five weeks in Thailand I took one last bus trip 2.5 hours to Chiang Khong, a border town on the Mekong river. For years backpackers have been traveling to Chiang Khong to take the one-minute boat over to Laos.
As it happens, a new bridge opened in December 2013 and as a result the boat crossing is now closed to foreigners (but open to locals). This being Asia though, they didn't think to build the bridge between the two border towns, but 10km South. I stayed just one night in a hostel owned by a Guinness World Record holder and shared a songthaew down to the border the next morning.
Getting stamped out of Thailand was pain-free and only took about five minutes. On the other side of immigration there were just two busses to take you on the two-minute ride to Laos and as it was about 8.30am it was packed. Eventually I boarded a bus to cross, the wait somewhat offset by the very cool figure-eight road to move us into the right-hand lane.
Immigration (above). The road out of Thailand (below).
Immigration in Laos was a bit chaotic. Firstly you join a queue to hand in two forms, an arrival card and a visa-on-arrival application. Somehow this took about half an hour, though once at the window it took only 20 seconds. I had a British couple in front of me recounting tales of their backpacking trips to Iraq and Afghanistan 20 years ago to pass the time.
With the forms in you wait for your name to be called from a small window. Everyone is crowding around this so it's near impossible to hear what is being said. Hoping that the visas would be processed in order I found a spot to sit and read a book while I kept an eye on the British couples progress. It paid off; just as I saw them collect theirs I got within earshot of the window, heard my name, paid the $35 and collected my passport. I also exchanged some money just before going through passport control, my remaining 10,000 Thai Baht got me 2.4 million Lao Kip.
With all that done I got a songthaew to the bus station in Houay Xai and got a ticket to Luang Namtha. I had about two hours to wait at the station and then another four on the bus. And then another songthaew to get from the bus station into town...
I had the name of a guesthouse I wanted to stay at but seeing as only five cities in Laos have street names, I had no address or directions. I'd pretty much ruled out finding it when the final songthaew pulled up right outside it when dropping us off in town. Lucky!
So I'm now in Laos with 30 days to see what I can and make my way to the far South and the Cambodian border.
More photos on Flickr.