I'm Gonna Get You on a Slow Boat to Laos

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Asia » Laos » West » Luang Prabang
March 6th 2016
Published: March 15th 2016
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Rob Writes:

I’m still in a state of shock. I had eaten nearly three large portions of that fried pork. On the bright side though, I’m sure I’ve unknowingly eaten worse when I’ve ordered the ‘Fried Rice & Meat’ dishes that are all too common round these parts. It ruined the following days breakfast though so I cheered myself up with French toast, bacon and maple syrup, no beetle.

Where were we?

Next up was our journey into Laos. I’d read a lot about this and felt that I knew enough and it was time to just go for it. We had played with the idea of booking a tour, arranging the entire thing through a tour agency to take the way to Luang Prabang but decided against it for a number of reasons. How hard can it be, really? If we book a tour, not only is it expensive, I lose all control of the journey. That’s the point though right... to have someone else do it all? Sounds good to me but I’m not a fan of that because what you book isn’t necessary what you get in these parts. Did I mention they’re expensive? In the end we felt it would be better for us to do it ourselves, step by step.

This was the plan:

- Up early to catch the 07:00 bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong (3 hours)

- Get from Chiang Khong and across the border into Laos.

- Arrange transport from the border into the nearby town of Huay Xai for 11:00 to catch the last slow boat of the day down the Mekong river to Luang Prabang.

- After a 6 hour journey the slow boat docks for the night in Pakbeng so we have to get off and arrange accommodation.

- The following day we were to take the same slow boat for another 6 hours before arriving in Luang Prabang.

That’s essentially what I had read but the real experience had some slight differences.

So, on schedule we caught the bus to Chiang Khong from Chiang Rai’s central bus terminal. The bus terminal was a building site at the time, so that was the first surprise. The bus was clearly signed though and there was also a guy to direct us to the correct bus. This bus cost 65 baht ( just over £1) each and payment was taken on the bus. We shared the bus with a couple of locals and a few guys from England who were also doing the same trip into Laos. Sure enough the bus took three hours.

The second surprise was the bus stopping about 3 miles short of Chiang Khong and being told to get off. This wasn’t what I had read. It was my understanding that you took the bus all the way to Chiang Khong and you then crossed the Mekong by small ferry before going through the border crossing and you’re in Huay Xai. This wasn’t going to plan already. There we were at the side of a dead motorway at the mercy of the tuk tuks. For fuck sake... Why didn’t I just refuse to get off the bus and go with what I had read on the internets.

With no other option we jumped into the tuk tuk and off we went to the boarder. This little ride cost us 100 baht (£2).

On arriving at the boarder we departed Thailand without a hitch. We then had to get into Laos which required another bus you had to pay for across the Friendship Bridge (one of many) to take you to the border. This also went without a hitch. We had to fill in a form, attaching a passport photo to it and hand it in at a window. They would then process your visa and you would be shouted forward to collect it, paying the $30 entry fee on receiving your passport. That was it, easy stuff in hind sight. At the time though I’m always nervous because the arrival forms ask how long you will be staying in Laos, where you will be staying, what’s your plan on leaving etc. I don’t have this information because I don’t know, so I just leave these fields blank and hope for the best. Everything was OK this time fortunately. Now we were in Laos we had to get another bus form the border to Huay Xai.

We were running short of time, by this point it was 10:30 and I was convinced we weren’t making it to the boat. In a bit of a flap we just got in a tuk tuk and headed into Huay Xai for the price of 100,000kip, which was an absolute rip off. That’s about £8. Now I’m more familiar with the currency I would have realised but at the time I had only just got my first handful of kip and wasn’t sure of the exchange rate, that and being in a rush I just said yes lets go!

I checked the time when we arrived in Huay Xai and it was just past 11:00. We rushed to the port and saw a boat still there. GREAT! We rushed to the ferry ticket office and bought two tickets to Luang Prabang (220,000kip/£19 each). It looked like we had a bit more time than we had thought as there were loads of back packers in the nearby shop stocking up on supplies for the journey. We needed to as well so I went to buy a couple of sandwiches and some bottles of water for the 6 hour jaunt ahead.

We were practically one of the last on the boat and what a mistake that was. Again, we had little choice though due to the time it had taken to get through the border.

Going back to that, this is what I think should have happened at the border. The initial bus should have taken us to Chiang Kong, where we would have got off and taken a ferry across the Mekong. If the bus hadn’t of been adamant we got off where we did we would not have needed the tuk tuk, the bus across the bridge or the final tuk tuk. We would have also been way ahead of time as well. I suspect that all those involved in that little operation are in allegiance. I was unhappy with this and still am, mostly for being a sucker for it.

So we’re now on the boat and it’s absolutely mobbed. There’s nowhere to sit! We were herded into the back of the boat where there were some free seats. I say free seats, there were some locals on them but they got told to sit on the floor and give us their seats, just the women and children though, the men were allowed to stay. I felt terrible. Fortunately the engine was also housed in the same room.

The boat left soon after we got on.

/moanmodeon this was horrific. The engine was deafening. We ended up with our earphones in just to suppress the noise. It was absolutely roasting, because we were in what was essentially a shed with no widows. It was about 35 degrees outside so god knows what it was in there. The seats we old car seats which is better than the wooden benches which I read they replaced I guess, but they were far from comfy. This journey ranks up there in my top 5 worst anyway. I at least sought some enjoyment from the try-hard hippie types opposite that proceeded to get wrecked and just shout and bang around for the next 6 hours, much to the local’s amusement too it seems. I would like to tell you a little about the scenic view about the Mekong but I wouldn’t know. You can’t see it through wooden panels.

I was keeping an eye on my GPS map app and when we started to approach Pakbeng for the overnight stay we made a beeline for the front of the boat to make sure we got off as soon as possible. This was essential as my head was going to explode through rattling of engine noise, American accents and dehydration. We also wanted to get off quickly so we were first to get to the guest houses as we hadn’t booked anything, so wanted first pick.

The jetty off the boat was no such thing. Instead it was a shoreline of sharp rocks. Being proficient in mountaineering I had no issue navigating the treacherous terrain with two heavy backpacks. Tina though, well of course she had her problems; I had to go back and help her walk across some stones, carrying her bag for her. We then had to walk quite quickly up a steep hill into the town. I won’t even go there.

We asked around a few guest houses and they were all OK and costing about £8 for the night. We eventually went for the expensive £20 one which was far better and included breakfast. I don’t care for this “Oh I slept on a fucking bed of nails in an ex prison cell where the guy that was in it hung himself and his ghost sexually assaulted me in the night and there was a big spider eating my face so I’m hardcore” shit, I can afford a £20 hotel room, so I’m doing it, with fucking pleasure.

I slept like a baby, arsehole and face intact and my breakfast was delicious.

I didn’t see much of Pakbeng really. After a few hours of arriving the sun went down and we only went out to get some dinner before climbing into bed. I had read it was a bit of a hole but I think that’s a little unfair. It was very small and only seemed to cater for tourists stopping off on the way to Luang Prabang, but it was more than comfortable. It even had an ATM which was surprising. The scenery from our room balcony over the Mekong was stunning and made you feel a million miles from anywhere.

We were up early the next day, stocked up on more supplies and headed for the boat at about 07:30, an hour early. We were one of the first and got a pick of the seats! Also, this was a different boat, a far better one with tables.

For this journey I was able to relax and enjoy the beautiful and tranquil scenery, with the fresh breeze of the Mekong for 6 hours straight. It was like night and day compared to the day prior and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

We arrived at Luang Prabang about 7 hours later. We didn’t arrive at Luang Prabang though did we, nah that would be too easy. I’d read about this too and as suspected we were dropped off at some sandy, clearly unofficial port about 6 miles from the town. Guess what was at the top of the hill? You got it, tuk tuks to take us the rest of the way for a little more green. It wasn’t a massive amount, about £2 per person, but I wish the ticket would just say ‘Huay Xai to 10k outside of Luang Prabang where you will have to get further transport’ so I didn’t feel as though I was getting shafted. If I was on my own I would have walked the 10k into town as a matter of principle, hoping to flag down a tuk tuk at a fraction of the price, but because I’m with princess Tina we have no choice but to take the royal chariot to comfortsville. She wouldn’t have made it 1k before vultures started circling her corpse.

It was at this point I came across a couple of guys from the UK, panicking as they too thought the boat took them to Luang Prabang so they spent their last kip on noodles on the boat with the plan of going to an ATM as soon as they arrived. Overhearing their dilemma I paid for them too. That was also probably a scam but my conscience was clear so that’s cool.

I have to explain that I don’t mind paying that little extra. I often refuse my change on small purchases or give that little bit where I feel I can and where it will be appreciated. What are fortunately small amounts of money for me go a long way for people here. I just don’t like feeling I’m being taken for a ride. That is my gripe.

We hadn’t booked anywhere in Luang Prabang but again, we had a few hotels in mind. We got out of the tuk tuk in the centre of town and off we went. Luang Prabang is quite small so there wasn’t much walking here. We soon arrived at our guesthouse but unfortunately they only had one night free, so we had to move to a different one for the following two nights.

That evening we just chilled out, it was such a relief to be here. The last couple of days were a bit chaotic but it was a lot easier than you play up in your head. I don’t think an organised tour was necessary. As much as we got shafted a bit around the boarder we still spent less than tour would have cost.

For dinner we found a street food buffet for less than £1 each and ended up eating there. It was mostly cold vegetables on closer inspection, but still fun nonetheless. Combine that with a litre of ‘Beerlaos’ and a very empty stomach and you stop caring anyway.

The following day we changed hotels and then took a Songthaew to the nearby Kuang Si waterfalls. I got hit in the side of the head by a massive black dragonfly while riding in the back on the Songthaew. Poor thing was out for the count on the deck. It felt like someone hit me around the head with a newspaper. It was the size of your hand. We were both a bit scared of it so moved up out of its way. It eventually disappeared so I assumed it regained consciousness and flew away. Thank the lord!

It took about 30 minutes to get to the falls by car and cost us 200,000kip (£17) there and back, that included the driver waiting for us for 3 hours. We paid into the falls for 20,000 each (less than £2 each) and walked around the forest looking at the various waterfalls along the way. After we had seen them all we changed into our swimmies and went for a play in the pools of water the falls run into. After we got bored of that we went to see the bears at the neighbouring rescue sanctuary before heading back to Luang Prabang.

The final day in Luang Prabang was a lazy one. We got up at 06:00 in order to try and get a glimpse of the local monks during the Tak Bat alms giving ceremony, where the locals donate food to the monks every morning. What we really saw though was bus-loads of tourists donating to the monks while taking selfies with them. I’d have rather stayed in bed to be honest, it was a bit of a farce really.

Later we booked a bus to Vang Vieng before spending the day moping around the various markets and eating all the tasty foods.

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