23rd Apr 2012 - 24th Apr 2012
A Slow Boat Down The Mekong
Most of our mornings whilst travelling are alarm free, so the sound of bleeping in our ears at 4.45am was more than a little irritating!! Still it was a necessary evil if we were to make it into Laos in time to catch the mid-morning boat down the Mekong. Bleary eyed, our day started with a 2 hour bus ride from Chiang Rai to the border town of Chiang Kong. It was time to check out of Thailand and make the short boat trip across the river to Huay Xai in Laos.Once off the boat our first stop was immigration where we exchanged 35 US dollars each for our 30 day visas. With a bit of a queue this took a little longer than expected and with time ticking we thought we might end up missing the boat. Luckily though it all worked out ok, as they seem to adapt the departure time to make sure everyone is on board before they set off. We finally got away just before midday.
Pretty much everyone coming into Laos via Huay Xai heads to Luang Prabang . And with various transport options, you get to choose how long it takes and how wet you want to get! You can do the journey by bus, speed boat or slow boat. We went with the slow boat option which takes the best part of two days with an overnight stop in the Laos village of Pak Ben. This option is more scenic than the bus, and more relaxing and safer than the speed boat. The journey itself cost us 260,000kip (£20) each, which included a transfer to the boat and a baguette of our choice! We would come to learn that Laos people love a baguette.
Before getting to the boat we wondered how comfortable it was going to be. We’d heard some horror stories of them being overfilled and people having to perch on wooden benches for 7 hours. To be on the safe side we brought a couple of cushions from the town before we set sail. There wasn’t a great selection to choose from … especially for boys … but Emma made a few adjustments to mine in an attempt to make it a bit more manly!! As it turned out, we didn’t really need them after all, as the boat wasn’t as bad as we feared. Instead of wooden benches we had a boat with a selection of car seats … loosely placed in rows!! Wobbly, but not so hard!
With everyone aboard we first had a ‘safety’ briefing from a friendly Lao guy. After a very brief instruction about keeping seated during any rough water he quickly moved on to talk about guesthouses at the stop off point that night. Apparently we would be the last ones to arrive, guesthouses would already be full, it would be dark when we got there, and we wouldn’t want to drag all our stuff up the steep hill to find that the only rooms left were the rubbish ones. Unsurprisingly he had just the answer to our problems … rooms in a guesthouse for 100,000kip (£7.75). Having got a bit wise to this kind of nonsense, and with the guide book also giving us a heads up, we gave his offer a miss and decided to just turn up and see what was available.
It was at the start of our journey where we met Diane and Callum, a Scottish couple who were heading in the same direction. They’d also come via Northern Thailand, but on a bus that got them into Huay Xia in the early hours of the morning, meaning they’d had even less sleep than us!! We all got chatting and ended up sat together on the boat swapping stories from our travels. At the halfway stopover point we also got together to search out some cheap rooms. And later we all grabbed some food and beers in one of the local restaurants.
The slow boat wasn’t actually that slow and it made good speed as it chugged along the Mekong. On the way passing steep jungle clad hillsides with bamboo huts clinging precariously to the rocks, muddy children playing on the banks of the river, people panning for gold, men in boats fishing, and remote villages which are only accessible by boat. The scenery was stunning and it really felt like we’d stepped back in time, with only the occasional passing speedboat and the car seats to remind us otherwise. To make the journey that more interesting there was also the occasional rapids to pass through. We rocked a little bit, but our driver navigated it all a little too well, ruining all our fun!! As we headed down river there were also the occasional stops to let locals on and off, as well as good to be delivered and dropped off.
Once at Pak Ben, our halfway stopover point, it became obvious that turning down the room offer for 100,000kip was a smart move. With a little bit of asking around we ended up getting a room for 40,000kip (£3.10). It might only be a saving of £4.65, but that’s 4 dinners or 6 beers out here!! The room was decent enough and for a short time we thought we had the biggest bed ever, this was until we laid in it!! We realised the reason it was so big was because it had been made up the wrong way around and we were laying width ways across it. The bed couldn’t go in the other way or the door wouldn’t open or close!!
Before finding the room I came close to losing most of my stuff. Or to be more accurate having it stolen!! Once the boat was brought ashore at Pak Ben everybody started getting off and went to wait for their bags. I waited and waited, but there was no sign of mine. I was certain it must have been on the boat as I took it on myself and saw it being put in the hold. As more and more people walked away with their bags I was getting more and more worried that mine had gone missing. I even jumped back on the boat to look, but had no luck. Then it turned up. Diane and Callum had spotted a Lao guy sat on some rocks with my bag on his back!! Emma went over and retrieved it from him, whilst the man didn’t say anything and was next spotted back on the boat. We weren’t 100% sure what he was up to, but we guessed that he was waiting for me to leave … assuming my bag had gone missing. He could then get back on the boat and help himself to the contents of my bag, including my dirty pants … if that was his thing!!
Day two, and we all boarded the boat early in the morning, ready to complete the journey down to Luang Prabang. Just like the first day there was no scheduled stop, so we stocked up with sandwiches, crisps and biscuits before leaving Pak Ben. The second day has been just as scenic, but also just as hot!! Even the slight breeze from being on the boat doesn’t help that much. This, along with the travel time, can definitely leave you feeling a bit knackered now and again. Having said that, I’d still recommend this route to anyone heading this way. Just make sure you’ve already purchased a cushion before arriving, or you might also have to settle for the dog with an umbrella design!!
So we’re now into the final hour of our Mekong trip and will soon be coming ashore at Luang Prabang. After being aboard this boat for the best part of the last two days it will be nice to be back on dry land … and out of these car seats!!
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