Taking the Slow Boat Down the Mekong

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June 26th 2013
Published: June 26th 2013
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Chiang Rai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos

We have travelled on train, bus, tuk-tuk, songtaew, taxi and even elephant during our travels in Northern Thailand.The only mode of travel missing was a boat, and that’s what it was going to be. We left Chiang Rai early in the morning, headed to Luang Prabang, Laos. We thought about flying but we would have had to go back to at least Chiang Mai and probably Bangkok and backtracking didn’t fit our mood. We were up for an adventure and a Slow Boat down the Mekong River from the Thai border sounded like our ticket.

The owner of our hostel in Chiang Rai volunteered to take us to the downtown bus station. It was only a short distance of 5 or 6 blocks, but we are still packing way too many things in our bags and it was a great help. We haven’t had a day under 90 degrees in 5 months, but we still haven’t given up the idea that eventually we might need a coat or a sweatshirt somewhere later in our travels. The owner of the hostel cooked us breakfast every morning of our stay and really took extra good care of us. If you ever go to Chiang Rai, I would definitely recommend the FUN-D Hostel. You won’t be disappointed!

The downtown Chiang Rai bus station is a little rough around the edges. It seemed like a long time since we had passed through it on our way into town, although it had only been a week. The station is surrounded by the market area which was in full swing when we arrived. The buses were all 3rd class local buses, meaning no air conditioning and not much padding on the seats. It was only a 2 ½ hour bus ride to the border and the morning was cool enough and for 65 baht (about 2 dollars), it seemed like the best way to go.

We left promptly at the scheduled 8:30 departure time. It was nice to be on a bus that wasn’t full of tourists for a change. All the passengers seemed to have come to the “big town” of Chiang Rai to stock up on necessities that might not be available in the surrounding rural towns. Almost all had several plastic bags full of produce. Once we got out of town, the driver picked up speed (scarily so!) and the breeze from the open windows was cooling and the views were great. We were on our way to the town of Chiang Khong, which is located on the Northern Thai border, across the Mekong River from the Lao town of HuayXai, which is where we would spend our first night in Laos.

We were excited to visit Laos for our first time. It is a country we have always wanted to visit and we were happy to finally get our chance. Laos will be our 12th country we have visited on our trip and where we will spend our 2 year anniversary since we left in July of 2011.

We arrived early to Chiang Khong, which was amazing for any bus ride in SE Asia and it seemed like a good omen for the first leg of our journey. If the bus station in Chiang Rai seemed a little rough, it was nothing compared to Chiang Khong. The bus pulled down a small alley literally missing market stalls by inches. The street was full of vendors selling vegetables, meat and cooked food. People on scooters or walking were busily moving everywhere. Actually we weren’t sure we were at our destination until we saw the small handwritten signboard on the wall that said “Bus Station”. We got off the bus and were a little unsure of where to go. It didn’t take long for a tuk-tuk driver to find us and say “border”, which I suppose it was obvious we were headed to. We asked how much and he said 50 baht, which seemed like a fair price to take us and our heavy bags to the immigration station, which is located at the ferry dock where we would catch a ride across the Mekong to Laos.

We got our first view of the Mekong as we easily passed through Thai immigration. We walked down the boat ramp to the awaiting ferries. There were many ferries so no waiting and within 2 minutes we were in Laos. The Mekong is wide and a chocolate brown color and the water was somewhat low as the rains have not been much this year. We passed through Laos immigration without too much hassle. We had been told earlier that they wanted US dollars and had acquired the necessary US$35 dollars each from a local bank in Chiang Rai. It was the first time we had seen a dollar bill since we left for Asia and it was funny to see one again. We also had to have some passport sized photos made in Bangkok and were glad we had some extras as they asked for one from each of us.

We went up the hill to the main street of HuayXai and took our first look at Laos. Lots of guesthouses and small restaurants lined the street and we easily found our hotel for the night. It was pretty basic, but had AC and internet in the lobby and the window opened to a beautiful view over the river.

We needed to get something to eat and walked a couple of doors down to the BAP guesthouse where we met Mrs. Changpeng who runs the place. She was the stereotypical older Asian guesthouse hostess, barking orders and generally seeming grouchy. It was enjoyable listening to her dealing with the many young backpackers who were in the lobby/restaurant. All the guidebooks have warnings about scams and trickery at the border and especially warn about paying anyone for the Slow Boat that isn’t at the official boat launch and also about money changing scams. The backpackers are on pretty tight budgets and were obviously concerned that perhaps Mrs. Changpeng was perhaps dishonest. The more we listened, the more honest she seemed as she was really giving good money changing rates and her advice about things to take on the river was good. She wanted about 2 dollars extra for a boat ticket than they did at the dock, but for that she threw in a free ride in the morning. You could also avoid the tuk-tuk fee for the round trip to the boat dock and back to get your ticket. We had a couple of beers with lunch and decided to trust her and bought tickets for the boat from her.

We spent the rest of the day on the computer or enjoying the sunset over the river from our 3rd floor balcony. It was a nice sunset and we had a decent dinner in a small restaurant across the street. We got up early the next morning as Mrs. Chengpeng had told us to be at her place at 8:30 to have breakfast before we left for the boat. We had delicious banana pancakes and we ordered a couple of sandwiches to take on the boat with us. As arranged, her driver showed up right on time and we left for the boat. The driver went up and got our tickets for us from the ticket office while we waited in the shade checking out all of the slow boats at the dock. Everything went just as Mrs. Chengpeng said and we were glad to have met her.

We boarded our boat and set in our numbered seats. They were pretty comfortable and looked like the removable seats from a minivan. Most all of the passengers were tourists except for a few locals that mostly sat in the front of the boat, some on seats and some on the floor. Much of the luggage was stored under the floorboards in the bow of the boat. Unfortunately, one of the boarding passengers did not notice the removed floorboards and fell through the hole. He cut his leg quite badly but was able to continue his trip.

A man who identified himself as Mr. Funny came on at the beginning of the ride and explained that Pak Beng did not have very much electricity and hardly any of the hotels had air conditioning. He offered rooms at one of the only hotels that had 24 hour electricity, hot showers and AC in every room. All for the great price of only US$12 a night. We had such good luck with Mrs. Chengpeng that we took him up on his offer. He had an official looking badge and everything. Yeah, we know…not too smart.

The boat ride is scheduled for 2 days with an overnight stop a little less than halfway in a town called Pak Beng. The boats do not run during the night and usually travel about 7 hours on the first day and about 9 on the second day. Everyone was quite excited for the first hour and taking pictures of just about everything that moved, but soon everyone seemed to settle in to the ride, with most either napping or reading. The day was pretty overcast, which wasn’t great for pictures, but kept us pretty cool and made for a fairly comfortable ride.

We arrived in Pak Beng and as scheduled we were met at the dock just as Mr. Funny said we would be. We got help getting our bags up the steep bank and into the waiting truck, with Nanci even getting to ride in the front seat with the driver. We were whisked off to our room, just as Mr. Funny had said. The rooms were not quite what we expected. They were not very clean and the advertised TV and AC and Wi-Fi weren’t exactly located in the room. A couple of other people complained and ended up leaving. We were tired and didn’t feel like going somewhere else and since it was only one night, we decided to just stay. Our host was kind of cool and said they had Bob Marley in the outdoor restaurant and cold Lao Beers for cheap, so we decided to stay.

We ordered a couple of beers and were surprised at the extensive menu. We were starving after the long day and were excited that they even had “handmade pizza from a brick oven” available. Our mouth was watering until the waiter told us that some of the items on the menu might not be available. We went through a few choices with no luck, until he finally said they basically only had spicy rice with a choice of either pork or chicken. Oh, well. They did have Bob Marley and the beer was ice cold and cheap and the sunset over the river was beautiful, so all in all it was OK.

We wanted to read a little before bed. We turned on the overhead light in the room and after a few minutes noticed quite a few bugs flying around. They weren’t the kinds that bite, but it was a little irritating. We swatted a few away and noticed about 20 bugs flying around the light. Within about 10 minutes there was about 100 and after about 15 minutes there might have been 500. We began swatting as fast as possible. We couldn’t figure out where they were coming from but finally realized the only way to get rid of them was to turn off the light and hope for the best. It made for an early night, but got rid of the bugs at least.

The next morning the grey skies had turned much darker and a light rain was falling. As the day passed the rain got harder and turned into quite the downpour by the time we got to LuangPrabang. We were supposed to get off right in downtown, not far from our hotel. We were a little disappointed that they decided to let us off about 5 miles upstream from town on quite a steep and muddy bank. After a really long day on the river it was not really the best end to the trip. Like the hotel room adventures the night before, we tried to just make the best of it and I’m sure it will make a good travel story someday.

LuangPrabang seems to be quite a pretty town filled with lots of flowering trees and many old French influenced buildings. Our guesthouse is small and quaint, but inexpensive and right in the center of town. Our hosts seem nice and once the weather clears, I think we will enjoy ourselves here.

We wanted an adventure on the river and I guess we got what we wanted. It was a long, but beautiful ride through some of the best scenery we have found in SE Asia so far. Despite a few pitfalls we had an excellent trip and are glad we took the Slow Boat on the Mekong River as our introduction to our new home of Laos.

Additional photos below
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27th June 2013

Happy 2nd travelling anniversary Nanci and David!
The slow boat into Laos is a trip we will definitely be doing when we are ready to revisit Thailand and Vietnam. I'll have to come back and re-read this blog then! Enjoy your time in Laos :)
27th June 2013

Great portraits!
I'm actually planning to travel to Laos next year and your story serves as my inspiration.

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