Crossing the Mekong

After leaving Nan we headed once again for Chiang Rai, passing through some of the most lush mountains we had seen in Thailand. Our intent was to make one more attempt to hook up with our contact before heading for the crossing into Laos. Unfortunately, it was not to be. While in Chiang Rai though, we did run across a Swiss biker who said the best thing to do was hire someone at the border who could walk us through the various offices and paperwork needed to get the bikes into Laos. He also gave us the name of the guy he had used, and we were able to call him to let him know we would be contacting him in a day or two.
In Nan we had heard of an upcoming race of these traditional 'long tail boats'. Along our route north we encountered a number of them  being spruced up in various villages we passed.

As we approached the town of Chiang Khong we passed this distinctive chedi ringed by statues overlooking the Mekong River. We were anxious, however, to get into Chiang Khong having heard varied accounts of the difficulty that would face us with the exportation of the motorcycles.

It's funny, and also a little refreshing, how you can lose track of time and dates when you are on the road. We arrived in Chiang Khong only to realize that the next day was Easter Sunday. We were prepared for the worst, having found that border towns everywhere can often be real s%#*holes. Chiang Khong though turned out to be a thoroughly pleasant place with a few really good restaurants and friendly residents. We found a nice inexpensive hotel with balconies overlooking the river with a view towards Huay Xai on the Laos side of the river. Beside being a place to ferry across to Laos, Chiang Khong is also a place to catch slow boats for travel further down the Mekong. With the customs offices closed on Sunday we would have to hang out until monday and then get an early start when things opened. The immigration guy at the ferry dock gave us a good explanation of the offices we would have to visit, and in what order, as well as the various document we would have to get at each one. He even told us which of our documents we would need to get photocopies of for each office. We decided we would try and do everything ourselves without the expediter. It turned out that immigration guy's information was spot on, and on Monday it really sped us through the process.

We were told by most of the motorcyclists we talked to that they would just lift our bikes into a passenger ferry. We were fortunate that they recognized that our bikes were a little bigger than would go on the small passenger boats and directed us straight to the truck ferry. There is no actual 'dock' on either side, just a road that runs down to the river bank. The boat just pulls up to the bank and then drops its gate and you ride on. We had arrived at the first of the offices at 8:30 when it opened, and by 10:30 we were loaded and ready to go.

The dock still under construction behind Karen in the photo at left is the freight and passenger dock for the slow boats that head down river. At right are the passenger 'ferries'. The small motorbikes that are common here are normally just picked up and set inside.

      The trip to the Lao side took barely fifteen minutes, and then the Lao officials began putting us through our paces. Most everything was done in one area, but it involved us visiting no fewer than five offices, including one for buying Laotian insurance, and another to pay for the guy who sprayed our wheels with insect repellent as we drove off the boat. Everyone was really polite and helpful though, and made sure that we had everything we needed as far as bike documents. The whole process cost us a fraction of what the expediter wanted for putting everything together, and that was still estimated to take all day.
      The only snag came when they sent us to the immigration office about one and a half kilometers down the road for our actual passport stamp. This was to be our last stop, and when we arrived at the window there about 12:30 we were the only people there. The official was busily writing in a ledger book, and studiously avoided making eye contact with us. We waited politely for a few minutes, and then I asked him if there was a form we had to fill out for entry. He gruffly pushed a form across the counter, and I had to again ask him for a second one for Karen. This didn't improve his mood. We both began filling out the forms, and when we were almost done, he closed his book, slid the window shut, and went out the side door, locked the place and went to lunch. We later learned that these positions are often filled by old communist party hacks. After about twenty minutes he returned, saw we were still waiting there, and walked away again. After another five or ten minutes a younger guy appeared who took our forms and our passports and gave us the required stamps--a process that took all of ten seconds. To the credit of the Laotian people we met hundreds of genuinely warm people that would make up for this one miserable old man.