Time to relax and slow down the pace a bit... Slowboat trip on the Mekong to Luang Prabang...

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Asia » Laos » West » Pakbeng
July 11th 2013
Published: August 30th 2013
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So there it was… the time has come to leave Thailand… I just couldn’t believe how fast the month flew by! It felt as if we only arrived in Bangkok and we were leaving the country already? But then looking back at the pictures, we have actually been to quite a few places since then so it shouldn’t really be a surprise that the visa was running short and that it was time to go… As sad as it was to leave Thailand it sure was exciting to be heading to Laos! I was very curious about what this supposedly laid-back country had to offer and was really looking forward to exploring it …

There sure were many ways to get to Luang Prabang from Chiang Mai – 2 or 3 days by slowboat on the Mekong (depending on the route), faster way with the speedboat (few hours but no cover on the boat – so in case it was very sunny or if it was raining we could either get a sunburn or be totally soaked… naaah… didn’t think so!) or we could just choose another bus ride. As much fun as going by buses was (or maybe just cheap? One of the two for sure! 😉), it was time to explore some other types of transport… We thought that a slowboat trip down the Mekong could be the most interesting one in the end. After travelling with overnight buses and trains we didn’t think it was possible to travel any slower, but it looked like we were wrong… We definitely weren’t in a hurry though and after having spent almost a week in Chiang Mai we sure didn’t mind (or actually were looking forward to) a slower pace of travelling.

We were picked up from our guesthouse in the morning and set off for the Thai-Lao border. On the way we stopped in Chiang Rai at the White Temple (Wat Rong Khun). Somebody surely put a lot of effort and thought to create this place – looks absolutely stunning from the first sight! Definitely different to all the other Thai temples we have seen. But then once you get closer, more and more bizarre features start appearing right in front of you. First there were the skulls painted on the safety pins in front of the temple, then a couple of strange masks hanging from some trees at the entrance to the temple and finally the paintings inside the temple (on the wall facing the Buddha statue). At first it looked like some kind of universe, but when we looked closer, there were all sorts of weird characters painted there as well - Keanu Reeves from Matrix, Kung Fu Panda, Michael Jackson??? Not to mention the Two Towers with smoke coming from one of them… sorry but I didn’t get it… As beautiful as the temple looked like from the outside, some things were just totally misplaced… Ah well… One of these things that will always be a mystery to me – as surely somebody must have had some kind of plan when creating this place right? I have read somewhere that the general concept was to show the constant battle between good and evil (evil being all the movie characters and good represented by Buddha of course). If it was the real purpose (or design if you wish) to create this place, well… not sure if everyone would get it, I just found it to be really bizarre. As after all what kind of evil Kung Fu Panda would be then? 😉

After a quick visit to the temple we headed to the border town of Chiang Khong where we would be spending the night. Once we got to our ‘hotel’ it sure didn’t look like anything from the brochures we have seen in Chiang Mai. Very smelly room (and bathroom), rock hard straw matrass to sleep on, yep! it wasn’t going to be a pleasant night, so the less time we spent in the room the better! It was time to explore Chiang Khong then! Actually I thought that since it was a border town it would be much smaller than it turned out to be. What was even a bigger surprise was how friendly the people were in this town – all smiles, ‘good evening’ or ‘hello’ here and there! Nice feel to it for sure! Having said the town was bigger than I expected, still it wasn’t exactly a metropolis as despite us walking veeery slowly it took us half an hour to explore the whole town… Even though we had a dinner waiting for us at our guesthouse, we weren’t too eager to go back there just yet. Besides after seeing the guesthouse we weren’t exactly expecting a 5 star feast there either so we decided to treat ourselves to some proper Thai dinner, since it was going to be our last one in Thailand. So there it was – chicken coconut soup, pad Thai and red curry chicken, yum! That’s all I can say… 😊 And then then rain started… When I say rain, I mean pretty heavy downpour! Yep, monsoon was here! Well, there was nothing else to do but to have a few beers , play some pool and wait for the rain to stop. After getting crushed in pool a few times I thought that maybe it was enough for me for that day. Unfortunately it was still raining and it didn’t look like it was going to stop. Still it was time to head back to our ‘lovely’ guesthouse. We wrapped our stuff in some trash bags and headed back… Last night in Thailand and we get totally soaked! Ah well… Monsoon season right?

Crossing the border was a piece of cake actually – first we needed to ‘check out’ from Thailand, then cross the river to the Lao side and finally apply for our visas. It would seem quite obvious that you’d require your passport to apply for your visa, but then I guess it wasn’t that obvious to some people as they did remember to fill in their forms but once they were handing them in and were asked for passports suddenly they had to pull them from the bottom of their backpacks… Ah well… A few extra minutes waiting for somebody else to go through their whole bag, sure couldn’t kill anyone right? 😉 And then this was it! We were in Laos! After getting our visas we were ready to continue our journey… First we had to wait for our turn to be dropped by at the pier though… Hmmm… the boat was supposed to leave at 11.30 and we were still waiting for our vehicle at that time…No rush I guess? It looked like we got the taste of the Lao ways from the very beginning then. 😉 It sure wasn’t a great idea to be the last ones to board the slowboat as there were no sitting places left on the boat…Wasn’t the boat supposed to fit 70 people only? It sure looked like there were more than 120 in here as even the back was full of people sitting on their luggage… Eventually the ‘manager’ (the lady that was selling goodies on the boat that is) kicked out a few locals who strangely were taking two seats each and in the end we got a seat – right next to the toilet with the motor roaring straight into our ears, where else could we sit right? 😉 My first reaction to all this wasn’t that great unfortunately as I got really angry thinking about the next 7 hours in this environment, but then my senses came back to me thankfully and another thought popped in my head straight after – 7 hours in a boat full of smiley strangers cruising down the Mekong river in Laos! It sure sounded pretty amazing, so just took out my ipod, put some reggae on, had Lao beer later on and was admiring beautiful scenery around as we were passing by small fishing villages on the way, water buffalos resting on the sandy beaches, big forests all around … Boat overcrowded or not, it sure was an amazing trip!

And before we knew it, 7 hours passed by and we arrived at Pak Beng. This time our guesthouse looked a bit more similar to the brochures and even the sheets smelled like they might have been washed that week… 😉 Not bad at all! We went for a dinner to a nearby restaurant – it offered free banana whiskey and mango sticky rice, well… they had me at mango sticky rice for sure! 😊 The meal was slightly disappointing, I was definitely missing all the flavour explosions from Thailand already… We had the Lao speciality – minced meat salad, not a bad idea but it sure missed some spices… and if you don’t have some ingredients can’t you just mention that you don’t have them instead of serving something look-a-like??? Seriously pumpkin and eggplant are not the same thing! Ah well… At least I got my free dessert – not as good as I made at the cooking school in Chiang Mai, but then not too bad either… We had a sip of that whiskey as well, let me just say that I wouldn’t be trying it again… Well it was our first day in Laos after all, so sure we would have many more good meals in here!

Despite waking up early we were one of the last people on the boat again (and this time we were half an hour before planned departure!)! We had a chance to experience a relaxed pace of life here once more I guess… We definitely could’ve made it to the boat earlier, but were waiting more than half an hour for the lady in our guesthouse to make sandwiches for the road for us! Thankfully this time the boat was only a little bit overcrowded, so we got our seats without any problems. What can I say? It was another day cruising through beautiful scenery… The weather was quite diverse that day as well – sunny, raining, sunny, raining, hot and cool… Blinds were pulled up and down all the time… I guess it added a bit of excitement to the trip. 😉 Just like the previous day the beer was flowing on the boat creating a more relaxed atmosphere (for some people maybe a bit too relaxed?). We had another lovely day on the river! And then suddenly the lady behind us announced that the journey was up… We were reaching Luang Prabang...

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1st September 2013

Very beautiful blog- really loved the pictures!

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