My wife and I just returned from a 20 day trip, taking us first to Chiang Rai, Thailand, across the Mekong River to Laos, and eventually back to Thailand, for a 6 day sojourn at an island about five hour’s drive from Bangkok, called Koh Chang.
For what it’s worth, the first bit of advice I can give to travellers wanting adventure “on the cheap” is to avoid booking third world SE Asian accommodations online. My theory is this: if you’re booking online, you’ll pay more. In some cases…a lot more.
Book the first night, so you have somewhere to stay after your long flight, but after that, check things out yourself.
We arrived in Chiang Rai, Thailand, and headed straight for the hotel we booked, called “The North”.
Online pictures can be deceiving, and we ended up having to pay 1,500 baht, amounting to $50 Canadian, for a rock hard mattress, a floor with cracks large enough to swallow the leg of a chair (yes, the chair nearly fell through the floor) and a door that could have been forced open—once locked– if a drunken tourist leaned on it in the middle of the night.
Chiang Rai is set in the northern, cooler regions of Thailand, in the mountains. Home to a number of expatriate retirees looking for a cheap home, it offers the usual, wonderful Thai food and hospitality.
Jumping on a bus after our disappointing night, we headed to the Mekong River, via bus. After about an hour, we reached the river and crossed into Laos on a long narrow boat.
The first thing that struck me about the immigration on the Laos side was the fact that nobody has updated those people on the currency plunge of the U.S. dollar—or the rise of the Canadian loonie. Exchanging currencies at the outdoor border kiosk, you’d get 20% more for the greenback than you would for a Canadian dollar. As of this writing, the Canadian dollar is worth a bit more than the U.S. dollar. I couldn’t help but wonder how much money an entrepreneurial Canuck could make, selling greenbacks to those fellas, in exchange for loonies.
You don’t always get what you pay for…
Our first night in Laos saw us staying at a far nicer place than we had in Chiang Rai. And it only cost $5 per night. I thought the days of decent $5 accommodation sites were a thing of the past, but in Laos, off the tourist track, that’s the going rate for a clean room with air conditioning.
About a thirteen hour bus ride (which we split into three days) south, brought us to the very French, colonial paradise of Luang Prabang, Laos.
Cool evening temperatures, fabulous food blending Asian Cuisine with the old French colonial influence, and nice accommodations make Luang Prabang a place you can settle into for a good week.
We rented a motorbike to scoot off to some majestic waterfalls, and on another day, we kayaked down the Mekong and one of its tributaries, after organizing the Kayak trip with a superb organization called Green Discovery.
In Northern Laos, the week previous, we used the same company during a day trek, bringing us through the mountains and into an isolated village.
Off to warmer pastures—and beaches
My wife and I didn’t know how long we’d stay in Laos, and we didn’t have an itinerary. And when the Canadian friends we travelled with eventually headed for Cambodia’s Anchor Wat temples (in Siem Reap) we flew to Bangkok, instead, and stood in the airport trying to figure out where to go from there.
A booth was set up, offering minibus rides to Pattaya (a nightlife hub that’s famous for sex tourism and nice beaches) and another offer for a bus to Koh Chang.
We paid roughly $18 for the 6 hour trip to Koh Chang in a van, driven by a young Thai fellow who thought he was Mario Andretti. At one point, on a narrow road, doing 120 km/h, I asked him to slow down. He backed it off to 100. I would have preferred 60.
The drive actually took us onto a ferry, and then along a winding hilly road, on the island of Koh Chang, to a beachside chalet on a hill, overlooking the beach.
We had left Bangkok at 2:30pm and arrived at Koh Chang at about 8:30.
A majestic ocean view awaited us in the morning, but even that wasn’t enough to tempt us to stay another night in a hut on stilts that shook when you walked around. Packing up and heading out on our rented moped, we chugged along the winding mountainous roads in search of our piece of paradise, which we found at The Blue Lagoon.
For us, this island was as close to perfect as they come. Only half of the coastal section is developed. Other than the oceanside strip, the majority of the island remains lush, mountainous, and perfect for guided multi-day treks. Only half of the Oceanside drive is developed, and we rented a motorbike to explore the lower undeveloped reaches of the island.
If you remember the movie, The Beach, and you think you’d fancy a very remote chalet on the ocean for about $10 a night, I recommend The Tree House Chalets.
We took a motorbike north of the regular tourist area, and after about 45 minutes on a lonely road, ended up on a rough dirt road/pathway for 3.5km, to the “Treehouse”. There, we saw chalets on stilts, with shared bathrooms on the hillside, with showers constituting a tub of water and a bucket.
The beach was perfection….isolated and void of all but the quietest tourists/hippies. The clientele reminded me of the people (many of which were Vietnam era draft dodgers) who used to squat on Vancouver Island’s Sombrio Beach, before they were asked to move on.
After checking it out, we left (foolishly) in the dark, negotiating the dodgy potholed road, until we finally got back to the lovely paved section that took us back to The Blue Lagoon Resort, where we enjoyed hot showers, a fabulous outdoor restaurant, and a place overhanging the lagoon (and just 100 meters from the beach) for roughly $30 a night.
Koh Chang is definitely on our list of places to go back to.