Published: December 13th 2009December 4th 2009
The slow-boat crew
The journey from Pai in Thailand to Luang Prabang in Laos was nothing if not long. We left Pai at 8pm on Friday 4th December and didn’t arrive in Luang Prabang until 6pm on Sunday 6th December ... a mammoth journey!
The first leg was a 7 hour mini-van journey from Pai to Chang Kong on the Thai/Laos border; to say that the first few hours of this ride was windy would be an epic understatement, we were going around bend after bend after bend, often bends of more than 90o ... this took its toll on most of our fellow passengers, with one chap shouting out for an emergency pull-over so that he could see his dinner all over again. After 2-3 hours of hurtling around sharp corners and climbing up and down hills we stopped at a petrol station for a 15 minute rest-stop, much to Cate’s great relief - as she had also succumbed to the inevitable travel sickness that such a journey was sure to set-off. Luckily I’ve got much more of an iron-stomach than Cate (after having to deal with my own cooking for years) and so the drive didn’t really seem to affect me
too much (also, starting the journey with a travel sickness pill swigged down with a shot of Sangsom Whiskey must’ve helped too). I, on the other hand, didn’t take a travel sickness pill - I have no idea why and it was pretty much the worst journey I have ever been on due to my own stupidity. I felt terrible and I don’t think that it helped that we had eaten a full meal only a couple of hours before we left Pai. The meal was there for the whole journey, threatening to rear its head, and resulted in me heaving into a bag, over and over before the rest stop. Nice.
The driver tried his best to help out poor Cate ... and insisted that she sat up front with him so that she was able to see the road (and hence hopefully help with the travel sickness) ... but after two hours of sliding around in the front and experiencing firsthand the (lack of) driving skill being exhibited, Cate returned to the seat next to mine at the next rest stop! I insisted that he should find the seat belt so that I
wouldn’t go straight through the windscreen if we were to stop suddenly, which was extremely likely given the previous driving skill shown. The driver really was trying to help - he also passed a little potion bottle to me whilst driving and indicated that I should take the lid off. He pulled my hand over and took the bottle off me, then rubbed this over my hand until it was suitably damp. He motioned for me to sniff it. He really was trying his best to make me feel better. Or drug me.
First day, busy boat!
After another couple of hours of broken sleep (broken being the operative word, as I lost count of the times I was awoken by smacking my head onto the window as the driver took another bend at high speed) we wearily arrived at 3am at our guesthouse for the night. Well, I say “night” ... we were told to be up at 7am for breakfast and to head to the border. Cracking news. We wrenched ourselves out of bed after a really cold night and made our way down to breakfast. As all three options contained egg; scrambled egg on toast, fried egg on
toast or omelette, we decided to pass on this as by this point, Matt was also feeling pretty rough and although I actually felt a little bit better, I was too scared to eat as I didn’t know how smooth the boat ride would be like. I didn’t want another journey feeling like I was about to throw up.
Note the plastic garden chairs
We were driven to the Mekong River (the border between Thailand and Laos), on the back of a truck, like an Aussie ute - it was so cool!
over-charged for the necessary US dollars for our Laos visas, and then four of us (us two, Grace and Damien) jumped into a tiny (and wobbly) longtail boat for the 30 second journey across the Mekong and into Laos. This boat was really cool - I got to sit right at the front and so had nothing in my view apart from river, sky and the other side of the river.
The visa process was surprisingly straightforward and at no point did any of the border staff try to over charge us ... so we were pretty happy about that, as I’ve read stories of extra “over-time”
The photos don't really do it justice.
fees, etc. We waited around for a while, being told over and over that there would be no food on the boat for lunch so we should go to the shop across the road and stock up. We didn’t bother, then loaded ourselves and our bags onto a pickup truck and were taken nearer to the Mekong where the slow boat departed from. We were dropped off outslde a cafe/restaurant place and told to wait there. (We could get food here too as there was going to be no food on the boat.) We were now on “Laos time “ as it is called. Nothing happens quickly, nor on time. I kept on having to think of my nan’s saying: “Our time’s our own...” so as not to get too annoyed with all the waiting around. Eventually, after being given our passports back, (they’d probably taken them to photocopy them all) and booking a room for our stop- over in Pak Beng just for the ease of it, we were told we could walk down to the slow boat. A lot of people were already on the boat and when we arrived, we had to walk the plank
- literally, pass our backpacks up onto the roof to be taken to the back of the boat, and stand around arguing with the Laos boat staff who were trying to load about 30 more people (including us) onto a boat that was already full. Oh the fun. I’ve got to say though that apart from this initial stress, I really enjoyed the next two days of travelling. It is definitely on my highlight list. The views were amazing.
Docking operation while moving!
There definitely were too many people on the boat - some people were sitting on plastic garden chairs, we were sitting on a wooden bench (which was fine) and some people had paid an extra charge to sit on ‘comfy’ seats. The ‘comfy’ seat right behind our wooden bench collapsed at one point which was fairly amusing but everyone seemed to be in high spirits and it was actually a really relaxing journey. Laos is an incredibly beautiful country. Each side of the Mekong River had mountainous terrain that was covered in varying shades of green vegetation. The boat did stop over and over in random places, children came aboard briefly to sell drinks and crisps, ‘mates’ were let off
and picked up from the side of the river. It became a little rocky at times and after 7 hours of being on board, the sun set and it became dark. We were on a boat with no lights and no guidance lights like on motorways. Luckily, we soon reached our destination, Pak Beng, and thus completed the second leg of our journey. Oh, and thanks to all of those friendly Laotians who tried to feed us up before getting onto the boat but actually, there were sandwiches and drinks on the boat. So helpful.
8 hour journey ahead of us
Pak Beng is a weird little town half way between Thailand and Luang Prabang, it’s only purpose seems to be as a night-time stopover on the way to Luang Prabang and as such it’s laden with guesthouses, restaurants and shops selling you Pringles for breakfast, the electricity goes off at 10pm in the evening and doesn’t come back on in the morning (as we found out when attempting a morning shower). From what we heard from other people the standard of the accommodation varied greatly, I suppose you’re a captive-market once you’ve arrived to be met by some extremely hyperactive men and children on the sand bank
so you’ll end up having to take something grotty instead of sleeping in the streets - but as it happened we got quite lucky with our one.
So after our brief sojourn in Pak Beng we were off on the boat again, although this time it proved a much smoother start as they’d got a bigger boat with loads of open floor space, so we set up camp sitting/lying on the floor for the day.
The slow boat is basically full of travellers like us and has a really great, friendly atmosphere which can make it a great way to meet people who you’ll probably end up travelling around with for a while. However I’d be lying if I said we used this opportunity to the best of our abilities ... as those of you who know me well will be aware I’m an anti-social bugger at the best of times; take me to a house-party and I’ll more than likely spend most of the night blathering away to the people I went with in the first place rather than seeking out new people to bother, largely due to my weakly developed
social skills, but also down to the fact that I’m downright lazy and it’s easier to spend 4 hours having a drunken discussion with Crowe about Flight of the Conchords than it is to go and pester someone else with my (not so) witty banter. I had kind of hoped that travelling would help alleviate this apathetic approach to social situations, but human nature is to revert to type and as such I spent the majority of time either with people that I already knew or with Mr Sony Ericsson in my ears. So, note to self, stop being an anti-social git.
After another long day on the boat (although much more fun than the first day) we finally arrived in Luang Prabang just as night fell. A group of 12 of us trampled off into town to search for accommodation ... after finding the first guesthouses that we stumbled upon to be full we quite quickly found one that (apparently) had enough space for us all. However they later realised that there was only enough space for 10 people ... so muggins and Mrs muggins arranged to meet everyone in 45 mins for some dinner and spent the
next half an hour traipsing further around Luang Prabang looking for somewhere to sleep. After 15 minutes or so we were starting to get worried as everywhere was either full or way out of our price range. Eventually we found a damp, dank windowless room within our price range … exasperation led us to admit defeat and settle on staying there for the night.
By the time we’d got showered and sorted we’d missed our time to meet-up with the others so we wandered off for a quiet dinner together and a browse through the night markets. We’re quickly discovering that you can’t (intentionally or unintentionally) avoid anyone for long on the travelling circuit as you’re constantly bumping into the same people who are doing the same loop through the country you are, so quite soon we bumped into Kate, Kate, Damien and co and went off in search of beer with them. After a couple of beer towers (shared of course) and meeting a girl from Houghton on the Hill (who went to Beauchamp two years below me) my hangover-minder (Mrs Goddard) took us out of the running for the next two beer towers so we headed back
This character was on our boat, with his AK47!
to our grotty little room, ready to get up early the next day and find somewhere nicer!!
There are more photos below