The Slow Boat To Luang Prabang


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Asia » Laos » West » Pakbeng
November 10th 2017
Published: November 12th 2017
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The Pier at Huay XaiThe Pier at Huay XaiThe Pier at Huay Xai

We boarded the boats here. Note the car seats in the foreground on the left. After everyone boarded, these seats are moved into the boat and positioned at the entrance where we had boarded.

Traveling While Asian




I woke up at stupid o’clock on Thursday. My plan was to catch the first bus of the morning to the border, cross into Laos, and then make my way to the boat pier to catch the 11am boat to Luang Prabang. While I was in Chiang Rai, I resisted the urge to buy my passage there as I read that it gets cheaper closer to the departure point. So, I caught the 6am bus bound for Chiang Khong near the border for 65 baht. There were about a dozen travelers, plus some locals, on that bus. The conductor collected 65 baht from all the westerners without ascertaining their destination, and then froze when she came to me. Ah, the joys of Traveling While Asian. People often hesitate because they assume I’m from Japan or Korea and hence they may not be able to communicate easily with me. Sometimes, the confusion deepens even more when I speak in fluent English or, in the case of Thailand, in their own language. Anyway, I told her pai lao. You could see the momentary confusion on her face as she processed the fact that I spoke to her in
Typical Scene on the MekongTypical Scene on the MekongTypical Scene on the Mekong

There were occasional sandy banks, and lots of rocky outcrops. I was amazed how the boat operator know which part of the river to steer clear from.
Thai, then she smiled and collected my fare.

The bus ride took about two hours. About 4km before Chiang Khong, the travelers were let off the bus where a fleet of sawngthaew was waiting to take us to Thai border control for 50 baht. After exiting Thailand, I had to pay 20 baht to take a standing room only air conditioned coach across the Friendship Bridge - overkill, really. At the Laotian side, I finally gave in and paid 1,100 baht for transport to the pier and the two day boat ride to Luang Prabang. Total cost for two days of transportation - 1,235 baht or ~USD 39. Not bad.

Fifty Shades of Green




While waiting for the sawngthaew after clearing Lao immigration, I heard an American accent, and then another. There were four of them. I joined the conversation. I was stoked to have company and to not have to speak s-l-o-w-l-y! In the sawngthaew, another American couple surfaced. All the people who had booked the slow boat with this agency were taken to a compound in Huay Xai (I came to think of it as a holding pen) where the trip was explained to us.
Scene on the BoatScene on the BoatScene on the Boat

We sat in repurposed minivan seats. They weren’t bolted to the floor.
Basically, we would set out at 11.30am and reach a town called Pak Beng in the early evening. We would overnight there and then set off for Luang Prabang the next morning. When I saw how many people would be on the boat through this agency alone, I grew concerned about accommodation, so I booked a room in Pak Beng for 500 baht through the agency. The pictures of the room looked too good to be true for that price. I also bought water and sandwiches. After about an hour at the holding pen, we set off for the pier. There were even more people there, divided between two long boats. Despite being among the last to board, the seven of us managed to find seats near one another. Near to us, we found another two Americans.

The boat set off more or less on time. It was crowded (no maximum occupancy notice was visible; I’m sure the number of people on board far exceeded most western safety standards), there were no life jackets in sight, and we sat on used minibus seats that were not bolted to the floor. The Mekong’s waters were murky, but the scenery all
The Scenery En RouteThe Scenery En RouteThe Scenery En Route

Hills, mountains, limestone cliffs. Many shades of green.
around was gorgeous. Just lots of shades of green. I spent the time chatting and getting to know my new friends, reading, snoozing, and admiring the scenery. The Spaniards at the front of the boat were having a very drunken salsa party. One of them wore a distinctive pair of black athletic shorts and quickly became a running joke among us. I observed them in amusement, as well as a Laotian guy who knocked down three beers in very quick succession and then stumbled all over the boat. He eventually joined the Spaniards. The next day, I heard that the other boat also had some partiers and they got quite out of hand, including daring one another to dunk their heads in the water.

Late in the afternoon, five of us started a drinking game. We were barely into it when we pulled in to Pak Beng, a full two hours earlier than we had been told to expect. I was a little ticked off that the lady at the bar sold me that beer so close to the end of the trip. I chugged the beer down, belched, collected my bag, stumbled off the boat, and followed a
Pak BengPak BengPak Beng

Elephants playing in the water opposite my guesthouse.
guy from my guesthouse to a sawngthaew, which deposited me at the guesthouse up the hill. As expected, the pictures I was shown earlier that day were too good to be true; they must have been for a more expensive room. No matter, it was only for one night and it was adequate. Not surprisingly, Pak Beng turned out to be a dusty one street town.

That evening, the nine of us met for dinner at an Indian/Lao restaurant. After dinner, I went to sleep serenaded by distant strains from Happy Bar. They played some of the most cliched backpacker music imaginable (think Bob Marley).

Into The Heart of Darkness




I woke up the next morning to some very odd animal sounds. I showered, went to the hotel restaurant for breakfast, and saw two elephants on the other river bank. Apparently, there is a sanctuary there. The two elephants seemed to be having a blast from all the noise they were making, After breakfast, I packed up and walked to the pier, and found a seat with my friends. The two boats didn’t look the same as yesterday’s boats. Mercifully, all the partiers congregated on the other
Disembarking at Luang PrabangDisembarking at Luang PrabangDisembarking at Luang Prabang

Finally! I was SO ready to get off at this point.
boat.

This second day of river travel was a little trying, The scenery was spectacular as expected, but it got monotonous. At my deepest moment of boredom, I started imagining that we were going into the Heart of Darkness. The horror, the horror. I just wanted to get to Luang Prabang. We were led to believe that we would arrive at Luang Prabang by 3pm. 3pm passed, and no Luang Prabang. Argh. We finally pulled in to Luang Prabang‘s boat pier around 4pm, collected our bags, walked up the hill and booked a sawngthaew for the 10km journey to Luang Prabang. We agreed to meet the next day to go to the waterfall.

Overall, this ride was a little too long and uncomfortable. I was very ready to get off the boat long before we docked. But, it was cheap (the next cheapest option was nearly $200) and I am glad I got to make new friends. Despite the many times we changed hands during this two day journey, the entire operation went remarkably smoothly, and the transfers were quite seamless.


Additional photos below
Photos: 11, Displayed: 11


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Pak BengPak Beng
Pak Beng

Washing motorcycles in the river. The guy in the middle wasn’t wearing pants.
River SceneryRiver Scenery
River Scenery

These kids came to sell souvenirs during a pitstop. Wrong crowd, kids... this is the budget travelers’ boat. On a more serious note, I was a little distressed to see kids selling tourist trinkets on what I assumed was a school day. I hope they have access to education.
On The BoatOn The Boat
On The Boat

Just a selfie with my friends behind me. The selfiebombers are Kit and Emily (partially hidden). Nathan is oblivious behind me.
The BoatThe Boat
The Boat

When I first approached the boat, I thought this was the name of the boat, transliterated from Thai or Lao. Haha.


13th November 2017
Pak Beng

Elephants!
I can't tell you how happy this photo made me... seeing elephants doing their elephanty things in peace. The slow boat on the Mekong trip is on our shortlist for our next trip to Asia, thanks for the tip to bring plenty of entertainment :)
15th November 2017
Pak Beng

It’s Not A Comfortable Ride...
Bewarned! But, with the right company, it can be a lot of fun. I am so glad there were so many Americans on board!
18th November 2017

No Going on the Roof!
Haha, very funny! It took me a while to get it too...! I love the Heart of Darkness analogy too. I hope Luang Prabang turned out better than Mr Kurtz's jungle dwelling :)
22nd November 2017

Here’s how I tried to decipher it phonetically...
Since I speak a little Thai, I tried to decipher it phonetically like that.... “nor gawng ong tha...” ah dammit it’s English!!!

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