About 2.5 weeks ago (Dec 2018) we crossed borders from Thailand to Laos by bus. As we weren’t able to find a lot of up to date information about the fairly new direct bus from Chiang Rai Terminal 2 to Huay Xai/Bokeo/Ban Huayxai (all the same village, different spellings), I though I’d share our experience and tell you about our trip to The Gibbon Experience.
How to get here
Traveling over land into Laos has become a LOT easier, when coming from Chiang Rai by direct bus, as we did. Before starting this journey, we’ve read in guide books and blogs about having to take a bus to the Thai/Lao border, switch to a tuktuk, hour long waits at the boarder, then another tuktuk, another bus, another tuktuk and so on. Only a day or two before did we read on another travel blog that there must be a rather new bus service running directly to Huay Xai, Laos that is even waiting for you as you exit Thailand and enter Laos. Now this seemed exactly like the bus we wanted to take and so we asked at our hostel in Chiang Rai.
Chiang Rai to Huay Xai
Here’s how it works: You take the local bus for 20 Baht/Person (USD 0.60) from the Bus Terminal 1 in Chiang Rai center to Terminal 2 outside the center, where the direct bus leaves. The bus ticket only costs 220 Baht/Person ($ 6.7 and you buy the ticket at The Transport Company window shown above to Bokeo) and this bus will take you to the Thai border where you get your exit stamp, you get to leave your bags in the bus during the whole time and board the bus again after exiting Thailand. We each got handed out the Lao Immigration Papers by our bus driver in Thailand and were able to fill everything out before we even got to the border. The bus then drives you to the Lao border, where we each had to pay $35 for our visas (we had to pay an extra 1$ “fine” per person, as we dared to make them work on a Sunday). You will have enough time to get money at the ATM or money exchange there, board the bus again for a short drive and then you will eventually be dropped at the bus terminal outside of Huay Xai in Laos. The whole journey took 3 hours, we were a total of 4 people on the bus and got to watch a James Bond movie while we drove there. Not too bad, huh? I have spoken to other travelers, who went with the bus from Terminal 1. While their bus tickets were cheaper, they apparently ended up spending almost the same amount as we did in the end, because they had to spend all the tuktuk money in between the borders and apparently had quite a wait at the border. I can only recommend the direct bus and 6 bucks for a 3 hour comfortable bus ride is an excellent deal in my books.
Once you are at the bus terminal in Huay Xai you will be forced to take a Songthaew (kind of tuktuk) for the transfer to the center. Even though they would have more than enough space to build the terminals in the «centers», lao bus terminals are all about 6 kilometers outside of the respective town/village. Just a bit too far to walk and so you usually end up spending almost close to the same amount you have just paid for a 3-7 hour bus ride for a short transfer into town. It’s usually a fixed price of 20’000 KIP/Person, which is about $2.3 and you will just have to factor in that money, as there’s just no way around it.
The Gibbon Experience
Once you get dropped off in the center of Huay Xai, you will most probably be in mild shock and inevitably ask yourself, what the hell you’re doing here. This place honestly ranks among the ugliest places I have ever set foot in and there is not one decent hotel/guesthouse or hostel where you can stay at. And this is quite surprising, as Huay Xai is the starting point for all people joining either the Gibbon Experience or take the slow boat to Luang Prabang. We did hear rumors that The Gibbon Experience is currently building a Hotel in town. Let’s hope it’s better than the others or someone else is seizing this opportunity! The rooms in the hotels in Huay Xai seemingly all lack windows and are damp and smelly. Not quite a warm welcome to Laos! I have met people who have stayed at the Thai side across the Mekong, because accommodation seems to be way better over there. The down side is that you will have to leave VERY early the next day if you need to be someplace (i.e. the boat landing or Gibbon experience), at 8am and you never know how long the border formalities are going to take.
Luckily, we were only there for one night, as we booked the 3 day classic tour with the Gibbon Experience the next day. We checked in the day before, got a pair of gloves and got handed out a list of what we needed to bring. We ate at the only inviting place in town called «Terrace», which had a somewhat pretty view over the Mekong and decent food.
The next morning, we met with about 30 other travelers at the Gibbon Experience Office, where we watched a safety video, each received a reusable water bottle and a hat and got split into different groups. We set off in Songthaews for what turned out a very bumpy and dusty ride into the jungle. The ride ended at a local village, where we started our trek to the base station, where we got split up into groups of 8 people and got to choose our tree house and each group got 2 guides assigned.
Our group was set on tree house #7, because it was in the middle and we’d have to hike to the other tree houses the next day. We ended up «losing» the house to another group and got assigned to tree house #1, which actually ended up being the biggest house (3 decks!), offering the most privacy. The rest of the afternoon was spent trekking to our respective tree houses, getting ourselves installed and getting familiar with hooking ourselves up to the ziplines and getting to know the people we would share very limited space with for the next days.
I’d lie when I’d say I slept very well that night. Every time somebody walked past the platform I was sleeping on, the whole platform shook a little (mind you, we were only sleeping like 40 meters above ground!) and then there were the unfamiliar sounds of the jungle at night and not exactly knowing what was going on out there. Good thing about that was that I was up at the crack of dawn, trying to spot the Gibbon monkeys. Spoiler alert: I didn’t see any Gibbons (nor any other wild animals besides some pretty birds) during the whole 3 days in the jungle. But the first morning, after the mist slowly started to dissolve, I suddenly heard them in the distance and that was pretty magical (and cold!).
The second day was spent «house watching» in the tree tops. We took zipline after zipline to visit all the tree houses they have built in the area. Each house is unique and offers stunning views. Everything is kept impeccably clean and all staff are doing an amazing job making sure everyone is safe, well fed and happy.
The ziplining was great fun, as well as physically challenging. The longest ziplines are over 400 meters long and if you don’t make it to the platform and get stuck in the middle, you will have to progress hand over hand and pull yourself to the next platform (which happened to me like 90% of the time, and I tried so hard to make it!) This is a serious workout for your arms and abs and I had sore muscles after the first day and we were all pooped out after the second day! But fun, nevertheless.
I slept better the 2nd night, but we didn’t see nor hear any Gibbons the next morning. We were served breakfast at 8 am, packed our bags, did some last ziplines to say good-bye and then headed out of the jungle, where we got dropped off mid-way as we wanted to catch a bus to a village called Luang Namtha, which was supposed to be «the most beautiful and diverse of life and nature in Northern Laos». I’m citing the tourism brochure here, because once we got to Luang Namtha, we ended up where no traveler wants to be: in the provincial hospital. More about this experience in the next blog post.