Each morning you rent a tube and take a taxi to the river. Then you sit on the tube and go down the river only stopping (by waving your hang at a man on the side of the river holding a stick) when you want to stop at a bar. There are numerous bars all along the river. Finally we would take another bus to Vientiane (which we hear is a ho hum city) before crossing back into Thailand to take an overnight train to Bangkok. This whole trip would take us 8 days and we have exactly 8 days available (thanks to Songkran, the Thai new year) In our itinerary we would have to cut our beach time in southern Thailand short and skip Darwin in Australia. The problem was that we are in the dry season, which means the river in Laos is low, and we have read that some of the 2 day boat trips over the past few weeks have turned into 4 day boat trips. So to make a long story short, much to my dismay (as Laos was going to be a highlight for me of this trip), Laos is out.
Now we had to deal with this visa problem. We already completed 7 days of our allotted 15, and we were planning on being in the country for another 2 weeks. So I spoke the front desk of our hotel (who has been so helpful in booking tours up till now) about extending our visa (the fine for overstaying is 500 baht/$17 per person per day) to see how we could extend our visa. We were told that we could take a "tour" that goes to the
Golden Triangle (area where Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar/Burma all meet, old opium trade route) and during the tour you could leave the group to cross into Myanmar and turn around to come right back to Thailand with a new 15 day visa. My cousin Steve recommended going to the Golden Triangle, although he stayed for a few days and continued into Burma for 10 days, so we figured this was a great way to extend our visa and if we see something cool along the way it will be a bonus. I figured this “tour” was created only for those flashpackers like us who needed to extend their visa, so maybe we will meet some fun people along the way.
Since the border is 3 hours away, our bus picked us up our hotel at 7am. Amy and I were the last 2 people to get on the bus and we notice that it is filled with 8 other non-English speaking people with an average age of 50. There is nothing wrong with non-English speakers or people above the age of 50, it just surprised me since I was expecting a lot of 20 year olds extending their visas. I guess we won't have anyone to speak to throughout the day. Also since we were the last 2 on the bus, we didn’t get to sit next to each other (thank goodness I brought my ipod). The first stop on the tour was to the hot springs about an hour outside of Chiang Mai. The hot springs are a small manmade waterfall in the back of a parking lot.
You can buy an egg and cook it in the hot springs if you missed breakfast or you can put your feet in. I gave it a try as I thought I heard the temperature of the water was 80 degrees. But after putting my feet in the water, I think they meant Celsius (or I completely misheard). The rest of the parking lot was overpriced souvenirs that can be found all over SE Asia. We were supposed to spend 30 minutes (which was about 25 minutes too long) at the hot springs, but of course we are in Asia, with a bunch of Euro-trash, so we get out of there 20 minutes late.
Next stop was the White Temple which is an hour and a half away. Oh great another temple (especially one in Chiang Rai, which isn’t in the middle of nowhere, but close). We pull up to the White Temple and are told to get out. Our tour guide (we don’t remember her name, so I will refer to her as Kim in honor of Kim Nguyen, one of my favorite commenters from our blogs from Vietnam) Kim tells us that if we need a toilet, we should go to the gold building as they have “the most beautiful toilets.” If you know Amy, you know where our first stop would be. This gold building could have been the temple it was so gaudy (we started to get the feeling that they dropped serious coin to build this whole complex). We then started to head toward the temple and I have to say that I was very impressed.
The temple was created in 1997 (it is still under construction) and is very modern, unlike any temple we have seen. The whole temple represents hell, the world, and heaven (or the Buddhists enlightened state of mind). We start to walk in (where Amy had to put on a sarong) and climb over a bridge (the world) where there are a bunch of hands reaching up towards us (people in hell). As the name implies, the whole temple is white and there are mosaics of white glass as well. There are no pictures inside, not just because of the Buddha, but also because the mural (which is still being painted). The mural was amazing as well, I could have spent a whole day looking at the different parts. The bottom represented hell. The middle represented problems of the current world (world trade center collapsing and fighting caused by the middle east oil) where superheroes such as Spiderman, Superman, Batman, and Keanu Reeves (well it was really Neo from the Matrix) are trying to solve the problems. Finally the top of the mural shows the enlightened state with what looks like utopia. The whole mural flows together. I was dragged out of there as we were now the people holding up the bus and off we went (don’t worry, there were a lot more shops around the temple sell more of the same souvenirs).
Another hour and a half and we were finally at the Golden Triangle. We get off the minibus and onto the slow boat similar to the one we would have taken to Luang Prabang. We immediately notice (and they are sure to tell us) that the water level is extremely low. On the boat if you look to your right you see Laos, if you look straight ahead you see Burma, and if you look to the left (where we just came from) obviously it is Thailand. The boat takes us up the river and tells us about each of the buildings we see.
This lasts for thirty minutes before they drop us off in Laos. We are allowed to enter a small village (I guess because there is no border crossing at this small village), but cannot go more than 5 km away (not sure we would want to if we could). This was very exciting for me, after being disappointed that Laos was cut out, I was now able to still see it. We walk up and there are small huts selling goods. You would think that the goods were local Laotian hand made goods. But instead they were copy handbags and copy shirts (guess we are still in Asia). The only thing that is local is the alcohol which is whiskey with snakes and other bugs floating around inside. They tell us we can taste, which I would normally jump at, but I have been under the weather for the last day and thought it was not the best idea.
We get back on board and only have to drive 10 minutes this time (on an unpaved road) to lunch (it was now 2pm). Kim tells us that we are going to a buffet and can eat as much as we want. There is a vegetarian table, a meat table, and a local table. She tells us to follow her to the local table if we like spicy. She likes spicy and tells us she is “one spicy girl.” We arrived at the restaurant and I immediately notice the name of the place,
“Buffet for Tourist Group” (very clever). I didn’t think we would find a bad meal in all of Asia, but here it was staring us in the face. Attached to the restaurant was a jewelry factory where you could see one guy welding together a ring. We decided once again to pass on the fine goods. Even when we are eating they are trying to sell us junk.
After lunch we go to Mae Sai, the most northern point in Thailand on the border with Burma. Finally the reason we came on the tour. For the rest of the group (who actually paid to go on this tour for fun as opposed to make a visa run) there was a market to shop at. For Amy and I, we are personally escorted across the border by Kim. We get our stamps to leave Thailand and cross a bridge to officially be in our third country of the day, Burma. Never thinking we would ever visit Burma, Amy and I are snapping away pictures underneath the “Welcome to Myanmar” sign.
Kim waves us into this small room behind a red curtain where there are 3 men staring at us. Kim says we can either pay 500 baht or $10 to get our Myanmar visa. Apparently they haven’t checked the exchange rates lately because 500 baht is about $17, so I pull out my USD and hand him an Andrew Jackson for the 2 of us, got our stamps, and turned around to cross the bridge one more time to get back into Thailand. Now we can stay in the country until May 7th.
As far as I am concerned, we could head right back to Chiang Mai at this point. But there was more to the tour (I guess I would have been ok heading right to the border as well). We drive for another hour and arrive at a hill tribe. Once again the first thing we see are items for sale (at least they are local hand crafted goods). Kim takes us around and tells us about the tribe. We first see a 16 year old girl who recently married and had a kid so she didn’t have to get an education and work. We then see a 19 year old girl who has two kids.
If we wanted (to spend another 300 baht per person) we could continue on to see the longneck tribe (they use rings to stretch out their necks). Amy and I decide against it and the rest of our group moves on. As we are waiting, we speak to a British girl who had visited Laos and was sure to tell us how amazing it was. We will definitely have to come back to see it.
Finally we are ready to go home. We have a 3 hour drive back to Chiang Mai and am recounting the day. The tour visited 6 locations and all 6 went directly to the most touristy of tourist shops. I felt bad for the people who actually paid money thinking it would be a worthwhile tour. The tour was fairly cheap though, since it must be subsidized by all of the spots we visited. At least we got our visa. We make the 250 km drive back in 3 hours since most drivers in Thailand think they are driving an F1 car.
At one point I noticed we were driving on the wrong side of the road for the sole reason of maximizing our speed through the s curve head. There must have been a total of 20 gasps by the group during this drive home since it was dark by now, but we made it safely back to Chiang Mai. Since this was our last full night in Chiang Mai, Amy and I head across the street to El Diablos (the Mexican joint we have been eyeing for the last 3 days) to get a few burritos before going to bed (as it was late at this point). The Mexican food was good but not the best in Asia. Exhausted, we call it a night.
For most nationalities (US included), you do not have to pay for a visa to get into Thailand. If you fly into the country, they give you a 30 day visa. If you are like us and entered the country overland, you only get a 15 day visa. This was not going to be a problem for us as we planned on going to Laos after visiting Chiang Mai. But for the last few weeks, we have been going back and forth whether to go to Laos. You see, to get to Laos from Chiang Mai, you have to take a bus to the border and stay the night. Then you take a 2 day boat ride (stop overnight in what used to be a fishing village, but is now a town because all of the people that spend the night) to get to Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang is supposed to be an amazing city (ask anyone who has been and they will talk about it for at least 10 minutes). After staying a few nights, we could take the bus to Veng Vieng. Veng Vieng is the new party capital of SE Asia.