February 01, 2012

Driving to Thailand

(a rare blog from Daniel...)

Yesterday, we got back from two weeks of vacation in Thailand.   We've gone down to Chiang Mai a couple of times for medical care or to take care of passport stuff at the US Consulate, but this time we got to meet Kayla's parents and have a lot of fun.  A big part of the fun for me was that this was the first time for us to do this with our van.  Kayla and the toddlers flew down, while Bright, Zion, my good buddy John Greene, and I drove.  What started as an idea to save on airfare - which for a family of six has become increasingly unaffordable - became the adventure of a lifetime.

In the months leading up to our journey John and I looked all over the internet for suggestions about how to go about doing this and found almost nothing.  Cris, another guy in our city, had just done this a few months ago and was able to point us in the right direction.  I thought I'd post some of the details here for your enjoyment.  While most of Kayla's readers don't live in our area, some of you do and might like to give this a shot.  These details might be helpful to you.  The rest of you can at least enjoy the photos...

We set out about 7pm and drove straight down to the Laos border.  It took 10ish hours to get down, including about a 45 minute hunt for a gas station in PuEr.  The roads were surprisingly good and to my surprise the boys slept like babies until about 5am when we showed up at the border.  At that point, they were ready to roll and John and I were ready to crash.  We kind of slept while they crawled all over the van until the border opened up at 8:30am.  It closes at 5:00 so time your passing well.

Looking into the Lao border from the North

For yourself and your family, you'll need to get exit stamps in your passports first.  Then for your car all you really need is your license and the blue registration booklet that has the photo of your car in it.  For those of you who live here, you know that I actually brought every piece of paperwork I could get my hands on because who knows what random stamped slip of something they're gonna want to see.  In the same building where you get your passport stamped, they'll give you an exit card for your vehicle.  It has a place for an exit stamp and a reentry stamp.

Keep up with it, they told me I couldn't get back in if I lost it.  Anyone who is with you, then needs to walk through the border.  Then you drive through the big gate and they'll stamp your card after making sure you're not hauling a bunch of drugs or something.

Waiting for paperwork...  It took us 2 hours to cross the border into Laos, and 4 to cross into Thailand.
In Laos, as Americans you can get a visa on arrival, for 300RMB per person.  Right next to the visa shack is the car insurance shack.  I bought one month's worth for about 40USD.  While their currency is the Lao Kip, they take Kuai and USD.  Once you've got the insurance get in your car and drive into Laos.  Like last time, anyone who is with you must walk in and meet you on the other side.

Then it's a short drive to the Lao Customs office.  It straddles the road so you can't miss it.  It cost me 80,000 Lao Kips to bring my van into the country - a whopping 10USD.  After that, you're in.

Here's one problem.  Reliable maps of Laos are hard to find.  Even the Lao government doesn't make one.  They're probably too busy doing something...  else.  I hunted around and found a guy who lives in Thailand and had GPS'd his own.  He sells it for about 12USD and it was really helpful.  To my knowledge, even the Lao government recommends his map.

From the border go south on Road 13, take a right after about 15 minutes toward Luang Namtha.  There's no sign at that intersection, but it's the first paved road on the right.  Within about a 100 yards you should see a concrete pylon on the side of the road (very low to the road, and possibly covered with brush) that will tell you how far Luang Namtha is.  It took us an hour to get there, and then three more to the Thai border.

If you want to crash in Laos, John and I recommend The Boat Landing.  I couldn't believe this place was just tucked in the middle of nowhere Laos.

Our cabin was about 50USD for one night and included breakfast - really expensive for Laos but it was worth it.

Riverfront view
The place was really comfortable and romantic, I'd love to take Kayla there.  A British guy at the Lao side of the Thai border did ask John and I if we were a couple.  He was an odd man.  The roads in Laos are very windy, but well paved almost the entire time.

At the Lao side of the Thai border is Huai Xai.  It's a great little place that caters to people coming up from Thailand to get their visas extended.  Lots of little guest houses there so you could crash here as well.  Give yourself 4 hours to get your exit stamp, go through customs, and ferry your car over the Mae Kong river.

For the exit stamp, look for the Immigration office right on the river to the Southeast side of the main drag through Huai Xai.  You need to go down there first and get your exit stamp before legally leaving the country - that costs 10,000Kips or $1.25 per person.  It's located where most people come over on the small boats that bring people just coming over without a vehicle.  It's possible to ferry your car over without the stamp, then you'll have to come back over and waste a ton of time...

The next thing you need to do is drive on down the road through the town to the actual ferry crossing.  Really a cool experience.  It's 100Bhat for Thai Customs and 1500Bhat to ferry your car.  They're going to want to see the paperwork you used to enter Laos and the Lao customs papers you got when you first arrived.

To balance the ferry the guys direct the trucks to drive on at a certain times, backing up and pulling forward as other vehicles get on.  Really neat to watch.
I love how the guys take decorating their trucks seriously down here.  It says, "I deliver anything anywhere and look good doing it."

The ride was really relaxing and a nice break from the drive.
On the way down they washed my car for an extra 100Bhat.
Once into Thailand drive off the ferry, pay 25Bhat to the ferry house (for who knows what...), go up the road, take a right and Immigration is on your right.  You'll see a sign.  That's also where your car will go through customs and you'll buy car insurance.

Tip:  Don't buy car insurance from the recommended lady who has a lot of flowers around her little booth.  The flowers are nice, but it took 45 minutes.

The lady at the top of the hill on the right, who has the closest copy machine,  also sells insurance and is quite quick about it.  It cost 600Bhat for two weeks of coverage - about 19USD.  I don't think the Lao or Thai car insurance actually covers anything if you get in a wreck, but if you get stopped at a check point (which I did) they're going to want to see that you have it.

Once in Thailand, get yourself a good 3G sim card for mapping.  You'll go down through Chiang Rai and onto Chiang Mai.  Otherwise, good maps of Thailand are easy to find and the road signs there are very helpful.  For the first part of the trip down you ride right next to the Mae Kong and it is beautiful.  

The Mae Kong river, Thailand on the left, Laos on the right.

On the way back, John and I decided to stop for a swim.

Climbing down to the river proved to be a little challenge - check out the van in the top corner for scale.

The water was cold, but felt really good.

It takes about four hours to get down to Chiang Mai from the border.  Northern Thailand and Laos are really a treat to drive through.

On the way back I really wanted to try and drive through Myanmar.  The internet collectively said it was impossible and most Thai drivers I asked about it just laughed at me.  We gave it a very strong try but it was in fact impossible.  We could have driven in, but then we would have had to exit through the same point.  No passing through, or leaving the boarder town for that matter.  If they ever open it up, it would mean not having to ferry the Mae Kong and I think it would save a ton of time.

After spending a total of about an hour there, I feel like I should offer a few important things to note about Myanmar.

If you must stay there, there is apparently a VERY nice hotel:

If this tuk tuk driver mentions "Boom Boom" he is not talking about fireworks.  If you nod "Yes" in an affirming manner he will take you to a small green house filled with prostitutes.  The Boom Boom House. 

Also, GREAT NEWS - in Myanmar, somehow before Apple has even invented it themselves, the kind folks at the local night market will sell you the NEW iPhone 5 for about 100USD.  Amazing deal.

All in all, it took 29 hours including boarder crossings.  And, for a family of six cost around $1100.  That's almost a third of what we would have paid in airfare and we had a car to drive around while we were down there.  If I do it again, I would look into getting Thai and Lao visas before we go down, instead of getting them at the borders.  It would cost a little more but I think would cut down on time, especially if you could get a multiple entry Lao visa.  Also, I would break it up over two days.  One down to Luang Namtha, and then the next on down to Chiang Mai - the straight shot was pretty tough.  Good luck if you do it, we had the time of our lives.