Slow boat on the Mekong

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December 6th 2009
Published: December 17th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

Into Laos: slow-boat on the Mekong

As we drew up in the bus at the bus station in Pai we could tell straight away that this was not the same place we had left a few days previously. The place was very crowded and there were many more stalls blocking the passage of traffic along the narrowing streets. We concluded that people were visiting for the King's birthday, and continued on foot to our guest house.

Full. That was the reply to our inquiry after a room, and indeed at the other dozen establishments we asked at. It seems the Thais have a long weekend for the celebrations and Pai is becoming a popular place to go to for this - much like the Lake District on a bank holiday! Even the banks of the river were full of tents, with more people arriving every minute.

Warren and I stood at the side of the busy street in a shady spot and weighed our options. Unless we travelled to and explored well outside the town - involving hiring a motorbike which would be impossible with our bags - accommodation seemed a dead end. We could buy and tent and find a spot somewhere (the school field was filling up nicely) but neither of us had seen a store selling them. Besides, what would we do with it afterwards? Our last and best option was to see if we could get a place on the night minibus to Chiang Khong: the border crossing town before Laos. It was our intention to make our way there in the next couple of days anyway, but we thought we may as well gain a few days. The first travel company running buses disheartened us by repeating that dreaded four letter word heard so frequently earlier, but thankfully there were a couple a places left on another bus that Warren grabbed straight away.

This change of plans was rather frustrating considering it was my birthday, but we did still had a relaxing afternoon in the laid-back restaurant of Golden Hut (our original guest house) before having a nice Thai meal at one of the restaurants in town. Getting down the high street by this point was a challenge due to the heaving crowds and we were actually grateful we were leaving Pai that evening as the atmosphere had changed and was too hectic now. The only real thing that had altered in the scheme was that instead of having a nicer room than usual as a treat, I had a seat on a minibus! Memorable would be one word to describe the day.

At 7:30pm that evening we went to the travel agency to await the bus (which ended up being US going to IT as it could not get through the road blocks!). At 8:30pm we left, with the members on board hoping to get a little shut eye on the 6hr trip. Again, bet laid plans were ruined by the 'daring' driver who, despite the hair pin bends and steepness of hills still chose to drive at an indecent speed, throwing us around the vehicle and making the majority of the passengers want to regurgitate their last meal. After 2 hours we had a rest stop and it was well needed! The remaining 4 hours were slightly more sedate and on a straighter road, so napping was permitted. On arrival in Chiang Khong we were given a dorm bed each at a hotel (all part of the price) and we had 3 hours of sleep before having to get up again to get a lift to the border. Needless to say Warren and I were both a little knackered by this point!

The countries of Thailand and Laos are physically divided by the Mekong river which acts as a natural border, with prospective travellers having to use a ferry system to buy visas and go through immigration on the other side. We had our money and passport photo ready, and made sure we had our Thai visa stamped before boarding one of the narrow (and rickety looking) ferries waiting eagerly for passengers. Around 5mins later we landed at Houay Xai on the Laos border and began the long and painful process (due to a badly organised system) of getting our Laos visa. Nearly an hour later we had completed the necessary forms and had a shiny new sticker in our passports - not before paying an extra US dollar to cover 'out of hours' (weekend) working! Honestly....

Avoiding the tuk-tuks waiting for us at the top of the bank, we headed along the road for 1km towards the slow boat landing. Taking a slow boat down the Mekong river is a traveller tradition and is recommended by all the guide books. This 'not to miss experience' includes a place on a traditional 'slow boat' - used until recently to transport only cargo - which over a 2 day period takes you at a leisurely pace past beautiful scenery to Luang Prabang, stopping the night at Pakbeng where you disembark to sleep in a guest house.

We found the ticket office and bought 2 tickets at 900baht a piece - just over £16. Strangely, Laos accepts Thai Baht and US dollars in conjunction with its own currency, the Kip, but you have to keep an eye on the rates the vendors quote you as sometimes one currency works out to be a better deal than the others. As we were new to this system we lost out by around £1 - not the end of the world!

The boat was quite long, with the inside (under an open sided roof) consisting of 2 aisles of wooden 2-man benches, an engine room (very noisy if you are sitting near) and a small square room for excess luggage/seating. As you can imagine, the seats were not that comfy, and as we had to wait an hour before we left (timekeeping not a priority here) my bum was complaining before we started! Once away though we were soon admiring the gorgeous scenery: lush, tree studded mountains; herd of cows drinking by the river's edge; sandy banks and glistening rocks. The boat avoided the latter very well, but apparently the speedboats that travel on the river, taking tourists to Luang Prabang in 6hrs, often fall foul of these - glad I chose the more sedate option! The only stop we made on the way was by a little village where children flocked onto the boat trying to sell us all manner of snack food and drinks (including Beerlaos). Very like Indian buses!

After about 6 hours of sitting I the sun and alternatively taking in the sights and reading, we were treated to a lovely sunset - then it got chilly. Thankfully we were only a short distance from our stopping point at the village of Pakbeng so when we moored up, the breeze subsided and I began to defrost.

Getting off of the boat was a little precarious. The narrow (6inch) gangplank is bad enough - wobbly over the muddy water - but people were struggling to reclaim their packs from the under deck storage against others who were pushing to get off of the boat the same end. Passengers were even climbing across other moored slow-boats to reach the shore! Eventually we found our bags, shouldered then and balanced our way to the uneven and steep rocks - this being our 'jetty' - and up to the slipway. I am amazed I made it with the weight on my back.

There was a bustle of touts at the 'quayside' and we selected one to take us to a promising sounding yet cheap guest house. On further inspection it proved to be sound and we dumped our packs and headed out in search of dinner, having only had a baguette at lunchtime. Warren and I wandered along the main street that held mainly guest houses and restaurants - obviously a town built around its function as a 'stop off point' - but it was pleasant enough. Everything looked so expensive on the menus though, but this was partly due to the Kip having to be in such high numbers before it really means anything (13000 = £1). We chose a café that served the most gorgeous Laos yellow curry (very like Thai curry) and then retired to our room to catch up on our deprived sleep.

The next morning we woke up and found some sticky rice for breakfast - a portion so big we had to save some for the boat! We ate overlooking the river which was mostly covered in a mist that gave it a spooky quality, not to mention a chill. The next task was to search for supplies. As the boat does not really sell much in the way of food/drink - certainly not at cheap prices - lunch needed to be bought. Due to the French influence in the country, baguettes are sold everywhere so we stocked up on these, bananas and water, then headed to the boat for a supposedly prompt 9am departure.

At 9:30am we eventually left, squashed more like sardines than the day before with fewer benches that were smaller. However, we were lucky for a second day, managing to secure a bench each - luxury! The day passed much the same as the previous, with similar scenery and small villages with their inhabitants going about their everyday chores. We especially liked the fisherman who stick rods out from the rocks halfway across the river! Brave men. Once again, our only main stop was so that we could be sold something - this time scarves - but we also had many brief 'drop offs' where we moored for only a couple of minutes when a local or two and their often immense baggage would get off. Apparently the tourist slow boat acts as a water bus as well!

The journey on this second stretch was longer than the first, being 8hrs long - an age when there is not a lot to do. It was worth it as an experience, but gruelling due to the seats :-) Needless to say, we were glad to reach Luang Prabang, which appeared very welcoming in the early evening with lights twinkling and the smell of barbecue meat drifting across the river. Another slightly less dangerous exit from the boat and we were on dry land, though not before a climb up some more stairs....

We found a nice room in a homely looking guest house a little further along the river front, up a quiet side road, then once again went out in search of dinner. Our expedition was brief as we stumbled upon a 'buffet' style stall where you could fill a bowl with food from a large variety of dishes for 10,000 Kip (75p ish) - excellent find! After a wander around the nearby market we decided we still needed to catch up on sleep, so we had another early night.

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