We left the hotel at 0730, and were back at Nok airfield a little after 0800. There was more activity today; a Light Sport Aircraft had been pulled out to go flying (and then cancelled due to avionic failure), and what looked like a large kite with a couple of seats strapped on was doing circuits to the neighbouring airfield (an aircraft type known as a “Breezy”). I called Chiang Mai Approach to get permission to depart and, in a first for me, I was asked to nominate my own squawk code. I wasn’t expecting that, so just said “7000” – in future I’ll have to think of something more meaningful.
Ready to go from Nok
Downwind departure from Nok
Our first flight was only 90 nautical miles northeast to the city of Chiang Rai, where we had arranged to clear customs and immigration outbound. Conditions were typical, cumulus clouds dotted around over a sodden landscape. Within an hour, we were touching down from a straight-in approach to Chiang Rai International.
Arrival into Chiang Rai
We were parked at one end of the main apron, and met by BAGS Ground Handling Services who would be leading us through the immigration process. As usual, the marshaller approached our wheels, and realised that his chocks were far too big to fit under the wheel pants. I placed my own small ones, and off we went through the airport. First stop was the airport office to pay those fees (just $40), and then to pay BAGS ($110). Overall it was a very cheap stop for this part of the world, and extremely quick as well; we were back at the aircraft within 40 minutes, ready to set off early on the 130 nautical mile flight to Luang Prabang in Laos.
Leicester City football club, for some reason
Crossing the mountains of Laos
We climbed up to 9,000ft through fluffy clouds, passing the mountains that run along the border of Thailand and Laos. One of the first landmarks once in the country was the famous Mekong River, brown and swollen from the seasonal rains. At our altitude it was difficult to contact air traffic control so we cruised along for 30 minutes untroubled by the radio, until we managed to get in touch with Luang Prabang Approach and were cleared to start our descent. We touched down off the visual approach to runway 05, coming in over the city, where we had great views of the boat racing going on below; it was apparently a celebration, with people coming from all the surrounding provinces to race 30+ person canoes, all decked out in their own bright team colours.
Approaching Luang Prabang
Final approach to Luang Prabang
ATC directed us to park on the apron in front of the old terminal, now abandoned. Pleasantly, nobody at all met us so we had all the time we wanted to sort out luggage and get the cover on to the aircraft. We walked along towards the new terminal, and discovered that somebody had left the gate open and we could just walk into Laos, bypassing immigration and customs. This would probably have been a bad idea so we headed into the terminal to report our arrival, and that’s where the trouble began.
Parked up in Luang Prabang
We first met with the company who’d organised our permit, Asia Flight Services, and paid for that and also the arrival visas. It’s worth noting that we’d asked them to quote for handling the flight, but the prices were so high that we’d elected to self-handle, instead. Unfortunately it turned out that the airport seems to be very corrupt; the rep returned with immigration officials who claimed that as we’d not given them 5 days advance notice (our approved permit was apparently not enough), we would not be allowed into the country. This “requirement” is not listed anywhere in Laos law that we could find, and certainly not in the regulations covering arrival by air. Some discussions commenced and it was then decided that a payment of $500 would resolve the issue.
This was by no means the end of the saga, but that would come in the days ahead. Eventually we made it out of the airport, and into the car to the lovely Sofitel Luang Prabang. Tucked away behind high walls near the center of the town, the hotel is incredibly quiet and peaceful; every room is a little garden suite with outside bathtub, and no adjoining walls to neighbours. Heaven! For dinner we walked to the river, through the lingering festivities of the day’s racing, to “Utopia”, an open air bar and restaurant overlooking the river. Nothing was too busy, as it was the low season, but still 90% of the clientele were young, hip westerners on gap years. The food was forgettable, but the views over the river as the sun set were fabulous.
On our first day in Luang Prabang, we had arranged to take a tour to two of the main tourist sites. We were collected from the hotel at 0830, and after a short drive through the town arrived at the dock on the Mekong River where we were to board our boat. A slender, roofed motor vessel of about 30 feet, there was more than enough space for 2 tourists and a guide! We set off upriver towards our first destination for the day, the Pak Ou Caves. First, though, there was the mandatory stop in a "local village" (suspiciously well set up for tourists) with huge quantities of local whisky and weaving for sale. Before long we escaped and were back on the boat heading up river.
Temples in the tourist village
On the boat, up the Mekong
Along the way we passed a new bridge, under construction. This dramatic concrete structure is being built to take a new railway, from China to the Lao capital of Vientiane. It's funded, and being constructed, by the Chinese. The concept of driving a new rail route through the mountains, rivers, and jungle of Laos really appealed to the civil engineer in me. After a total journey of about 90 minutes, we pulled in to the dock at the Pak Ou caves.
The new Chinese rail bridge
Named for the mouth of the tributary river the caves sit opposite, the Pak Ou caves are made up of an upper and lower cave. They are a religious site, known for the hundreds (claimed to be 4,000+ but I was not fully convinced) of Buddha figures places on every possible surface within the caves. This tradition was apparently started, or at least became much more popular, after the Thai King visited in the early 1900s. We spent a while viewing the Buddhas, with a gentle accompaniment of children trying to sell us small birds in cages; apparently you buy and release these for good luck.
Lower Pak Ou cave
A coconut for lunch!
The return journey on the boat took a little less time. We were going downriver now, and the captain throttled back to save on fuel. After lunch at the Coconut Garden in Luang Prabang's small main street it was back in to the bus, and off to visit the Kuang Si waterfall. This (or rather these, as it's an extensive series of falls) are located 25km outside of town and are a major tourist attraction for both foreigners and locals. They are co-located with a bear sanctuary (hooray!), and have several swimming areas; located sensibly at the bottom of the falls, rather than the top.
At the waterfalls
That evening we ate at Manda de Laos, a beautiful open air restaurant serving Laotian cuisine at tables overlooking three beautiful lily ponds, registered as a UNESCO world heritage site. The flowers of the lilies open up in darkness, so we sat and enjoyed our meal while watching the flowers slowly reveal themselves under the steady rain of the Laotian wet season.
On our last day in Laos, we decided to explore the city a little. After a slow morning, meeting with a flying friend and enjoying a Korean lunch, we headed to the Royal Palace, now a museum about the last Lao monarch.
Korean lunch for one
Colonial buildings in Luang Prabang
The museum showcases the old royal living quarters and reception rooms, gifts received from various other countries dignitaries, and a selection of the monarch's cars. This included his "Jeep" - actually a Toyota! The royal temple was also open for viewing; sadly no photographs were allowed, as it was the most impressive we'd seen so far!
The royal temple
After visiting the museum, we crossed the road and climbed Phousi Hill, a 100m high hill in the center of Luang Prabang's old town. The Buddhist temple of Wat Chom Si sits at the top, and amazing views of Luang Prabang are to be had from every side.
It was drizzling steadily throughout the afternoon, so after Phousi Hill we headed back to the hotel. That evening we met my flying friend at dinner on Luang Prabang's main street, before turning in early. We'd be leaving the hotel at 0630 to take on chapter 2 of the Luang Prabang airport saga!