Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

It was time to cross over into Laos, which required a travel day. We’d chosen to take the slow boat down the Mekong River, as we’d heard it was a slightly more characterful way to do it than simply flying.

The slow boat itself went from a town in Laos called Huay Xai, so we first had to cross the border. We hopped on a local bus – a very old red thing with open doors & windows that also doubled up as a postal route, dropping off packages in random villages on the way. The journey was a bit more rustic than the air-conditioned & tourist friendly ones we’d had so far, but this was a nice change of pace and was very enjoyable.

Local bus
The inside of the local bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong (the border).

After a couple of hours, the conductor shouted down the bus that this stop was for border crossings, so we jumped out and were promptly met by a tuk-tuk driver at the surprisingly regulated (very organised, clearly advertised fixed fees, queue of drivers) stop.

The tuk-tuk took us to the border, where we hopped off & went through the usual passport check before being sent through to the next bus stop. Having bought a ticket for this bus (which is mandatory), we went & sat with the other people with absolutely no indication of when the bus would be going, so grabbed our books & settled in.

An unexpectedly blunt warning on the tuk-tuk to the border crossing.

After about 30 minutes, the bus decided it would be leaving so we hopped on and it carried us from the Thai border, across the Mekong river via the “4th Friendship Bridge” (I have no idea what happened to 1, 2 & 3!).

We then arrived at the Lao border, where we bought our visas. This was our first experience of Lao ‘efficiency’, as the long form we filled in was taken to 1 window, approved by 1 person who then put them in a tray for someone sat next to them to take out & approve before being handed them back – all with absolutely no urgency at all, not that it was really required. When this process was complete, we hopped on our final tuk-tuk, which transported us into the town of Huay Xai, where we would be spending the night.

Huay Xai was a simple town, designed almost entirely around visitors getting on the boat after a 1 night stop off. Our hostel was nice, we had some great food in a restaurant overlooking the river & spent about an hour in a bar watching with amazement at the moped skills of the locals who, even in the pouring rain can seemingly carry an umbrella, 5 children, a 3 metre strip of aluminium and a chicken without any risk of falling off!

The next morning, after working out where the boat went from & buying tickets, we boarded and settled into our seats (which were old car seats screwed to bits of wood then placed – but not fixed as discovered if you sat down too heavily & slid across the deck – in position on the boat) among a mix of locals & tourists.

Inside of the slow boat to Luang Prabang
The inside of the slow boat.

The boat itself was pleasant enough – the seats were fairly comfortable, there was enough of it to have a walk around every so often & there was a reasonable toilet on board. The scenery was lovely, though not spectacular, with a variety of hills covered in jungle the whole way down.

One of the views from the boat. Lots of hills & lots of trees!

We stopped off every so often to drop off locals in their villages. These were for me the highlight of the trip, as they were almost without fail entertaining in some way or other. My particular favourite was the man taking his motorbike off the boat up a very steep rocky section of the bank supported by about 5 children who were all helping to prevent it tumbling back down into the river.

A man tries to get his motorbike up to the village. The children came to help after seeing his struggle.

After a number of hours (something like 8), we arrived at our destination for the night, Pakbeng. We hopped off the boat into a hoard of guest-house owners trying to get you to stay in their hotel, and settled on the least pushy of the lot who openly said his was not luxury but was clean, which is what we wanted. At 50,000 kip per room per night (about £4.50), it was also cheap & in line with what we’d heard beforehand. We were soon joined by a few others so hopped in his pick-up truck & were taken up the hill before checking in.

As it happened this guy also had a bar up the road, so all of those who were staying there headed for a quick walk around town (nothing to see at all!) before heading for drinks, bar games & some surprisingly good Indian food for dinner. It turned into a really good night with lots of opportunity to meet a load of the other people on the boat.

The next day we boarded a different but similar boat which pretty much was the same as the day before with drop-offs, nice scenery & some general chit-chat with the other tourists. By the end of the second day, the journey had become pretty dull – very monotonous with a loud engine in the background and not a lot to do to other than eat any remaining snacks to cure the boredom hunger that had set in.

Boats in Pakbeng
The boats moored up at Pakbeng.

When we arrived late that afternoon, we hopped on another tuk-tuk which dropped us off in the middle of Luang Prabang. At this point, we had nowhere to go so found a bar with some wi-fi and started looking for a hostel to stay in.

Overall it was a fun couple of days & something I’m glad we did, though I would probably not do it again in favour of simply flying. It did become fairly tedious by the end, but we met some good people and got to see more of the country and it’s people than we would have done otherwise.

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