A slowboat down the Mekong

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Asia » Laos » West » Pakbeng
June 23rd 2009
Published: June 24th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

Day 356: Saturday 20th June - The first day on a slowboat down the Mekong

Described in a number of sources as one of the essential experiences in Southeast Asia, and one of the best boat journeys in the region as well, I should be really excited about the two day trip down the Mekong River from Huayxai to Luang Prabang. This is the section of the river that passes some of the best scenery on its 3000 mile journey through 6 countries from its source in Tibet. I have heard mixed reports so my enthusiasm is checked.

I decide in the morning of my departure to buy a ticket from my guesthouse which ends up costing me $2 more than it would have from the boat pier. When will you learn, Andrew??! The price includes a sawngthaew to take me to the pier, where I arrive at 9am, two and a half hours before the boat eventually departs. At least my early arrival ensures the pick of the seats, so I choose one as far away from the uncovered engine as possible, and also one of the padded ‘car seats’ rather than the uncomfortable looking wooden benches. About two hours after I board, the boat fills up with people who have clearly crossed the border from Thailand this morning. The boat is entirely full of foreign tourists and travellers.

A Spanish girl called Maria comes and sits beside me and we are so engrossed in conversation about travelling etc that I fail to see much of the fabulous scenery we’re passing through. It takes 6 hours to reach Pakbeng, where we arrive at 5:30pm, hot and sweaty after a fairly uncomfortable journey - the boat is packed. Pakbeng is the overnight stop, and probably only exists to service this boat journey as there is nothing else to the village apart from a few guesthouses and restaurants. Chaos ensues as everyone gets off the boats and bags are unloaded on to the steep and rocky riverbank. I see a few locals heading off with suitcases trying to scam the owners, guesthouse owners are touting for business and tourists are searching to be reunited with their luggage.

After checking into the same guesthouse as Maria (and paying way over the odds in the process), the two of us walk back to the boat pier to watch the sun set over the Mekong. The spectacular oranges and reds that I’ve seen on photos, fail to materialise, nevertheless it is a beautiful night sky in a nice spot on the river. I get dinner with Maria and then manage a much needed shower just before the village is plunged into darkness when the electricity cuts out at 11pm. Laos shuts early.

Day 357: Sunday 21st June - The second day on a slowboat down the Mekong

Competition for the best seats on the boat is likely to be fierce this morning so I make sure I wake early. Despite this, I choose to take a leisurely breakfast with Maria rather than rush to the boat pier. It doesn’t matter as when we get down there just before 9am, still an hour before the boat departs, there are still some comfy seats left. I sit next to Yo-Hun and Ross, an English couple from Leeds, who I talked to a bit yesterday as they were sitting in front of us. They are doing a similar trip as me, just the opposite way around so it is really helpful to get some advice and tips and just listen to their travel experiences in India, China and Japan. After getting some tips from Maria on Vietnam yesterday as well, my excitement levels have risen on the section of my journey.

The seven hour journey today is much the same as yesterday, we pass some really beautiful scenery (when I manage to look up from my conversation with Ross and Yo-Hun), but again it isn’t the most comfortable of journey’s. My verdict on the boat trip lies somewhere in between it being an essential experience and something which should be missed as it isn’t worth doing. It is worth doing - for the scenery alone but the downsides are an uncomfortable journey in a cramped, hot and noisy environment; sharing the experience with too many other tourists, as they pack the boats too full; and finally not being able to sit on the roof and the absence of a deck area which would give you the 360 degree views and breeze which would make the journey 10 times more enjoyable.

Disembarking in Luang Prabang is again chaotic. I have a welcoming party in the form off Mike and Trudi, who are still here six days after they arrived. They love the place, and we arrange to meet later in the evening. Laos is now the fourth country we’ve met up in! Myself, Maria, Yo-Hun, Ross and another English couple get a Sawngthaew to a quieter area in the city which has a number of guesthouses. The first place me and Maria look at is good, has river views but is quite pricey, the others look at another which they say isn’t that nice and the third has only a couple of decent rooms which the others take and which Maria isn’t too impressed with anyway. I ask if the first guesthouse will do a discount for 4 days stay, but they won’t and then Maria persuades me to go to a boutique hotel which she has been told about at the pier which is $10. It looks more than a $10 a night hotel, and it is - we’re told $22 when we get there which we eventually manage to get down to 150000 kip (18 dollars). Maria is a bad influence on me. She is only on a two month trip so can afford to splash out more - she’s definitely in the flashpacker category. It is not all bad though, our family room has a nice veranda area and is equipped with a bath - only the second on my entire trip. Small things like that excite me now - it’s a bit like getting a pay rise, going on a shopping spree or having a great night out with friends back home....how times change!!

I leave Maria to get ready and tell her where I’m meeting Mike and Trudi. On the way I drop my laundry off and call home. Mike and Trudi are watching the British Grand Prix but when I get there we spend more time chatting about our adventures over the last week rather than watching the boring race. When Maria fails to turn up, we head off in search of food at the market - yummy baguettes for less than a pound, fruit shakes for 40 pence...bargain. We find a bar for a drink and continue our conversation until it shuts at 11pm. They tell me what they’ve done in Luang Prabang and how this is the best town/city they’ve been to in Southeast Asia and also their plans for the coming days - they are leaving Luang Prabang tomorrow. We agree tentatively to meet up next week in Vang Vieng to go tubing. I hope it comes off, as that would be great to do that together. In the meantime, I’m excited about the coming few days in Luang Prabang after chatting with them about it.

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