10.04.2014 - 11.04.2014 32 °C
After crossing the border into Laos from Thailand, we were soon boarding the infamous slow boat to take us on the two day journey to Luang Prabang along the Mekong river, a long stretch of which forms the border between the two countries. We had heard much about the slow boat, so many people have mentioned it, when we told anyone we were heading to Laos everyone asked ‘are you taking the slow boat?’, it is listed as one of the top things to do on the back of our Rough Guide to SE Asia… So it’s safe to say we were looking forward to this journey, yet we really didn’t know too much what to expect.
Well, we weren’t too surprised to find ourselves somewhat squished into our seats, but hey, we had cushioned seats and had been prepared for hard benches so that was a bonus. Once we set of from Huay Xai the scenery was already pleasant, it was particularly fascinating to be looking at Laos on the left side of the river and Thailand on the right. After around an hour the scenery started to get really special. What with enjoying this and chatting to people we didn't even have to open our books which we'd expected to be reading a lot of on this journey. The beauty of this trip is that it introduces you to Laos at the pace at which Laos lives, slowly, with time to speak to those around you and take in the stunning scenery of the Mekong.
Laos is somewhat similar to Thailand, the people share their ethnicity & religion and the language and culture are similar, yet it is very much a more rural, slower-paced version of its more developed neighbour and in many ways better for it in terms of the traveller experience. SailiIng along the Mekong we felt as though we could have gone back a century or so as we passed mountains and villages and rural riverside life just doing its thing, we just sat and enjoyed the leisurely journey. Things livened up a little wherever the river narrowed and there were mini-rapids and whirlpools that rocked the boat alarmingly from side to side, but that’s all part of the adventure.
The boats that ply this route are often run by families who live on the boat, usually with the father driving, mother running the café shop and any big kids helping out. They are fairly large boats, taking around 150 tourist passengers with a good few more locals getting on and off for sections of the journey, plus 'cargo' which ranges from the odd sack or crate to loose chickens... The back end of the boat, behind the engine room is the family quarters as such, and during journeys this is mostly where local people who are travelling gather, probably to escape the weird foreigners pointing cameras at everything, having parties at the front end etc.
After around 6 hours we arrived in the small town of Pakbeng, a small wild-west type town of stilted wooden houses along a road that snakes up from the riverside and towards the hills behind. Since it is the stop off point for the slow boat there was plenty accommodation and food options, most with stunning views of the river. We shared a room with Franzesca, a German girl who we had been sat with onboard, and having arrived ahead of schedule (around 4pm rather than 6) the three of us had time to take a stroll before dark, right up through the town and out past the local houses set further back from the tourist-oriented front end which gave us our first real feel of life in Laos. We liked it.
On the second day we had breakfast and got some baguettes made up to take aboard (good thing about the French having occupied Laos is the decent bread which is hard to come by in most of Asia!) and set off to board the boat shortly before 9am. We arrived to find the boat looking pretty full already, we walked towards the back finding no seats in the main section, so we went right through the back end past the very noisy, clunky engine to the ‘family quarters’. Well, ‘we could sit in here’ we thought, but then there were no windows so we would miss the view, so on we went further still to the tiny open-sided back end section, where a small group of folks had already plonked themselves, there were several plastic seats though and room enough for us little two plus they seemed a nice bunch, so we joined them, Franzesca made her way aboard a few minutes later and joined the merry crew that had formed at the back, then another couple of folks squeezed themselves in until it really was full.
At first sight it could seem a horrendous idea to spend an 8 hour journey in a cramped little section at the back of a boat on plastic chairs (complete with bendy legs), a water tank dripping on us, and the boat lady coming leaning over us to put kettles on the tiny stove to boil behind us from time to time… But in fact this was one of the most fun journeys we have had so far and was one of those that truly makes the journey part of the adventure. We got to know our fellow passengers, played some card games, tried our first BeerLao and generally had a pleasant time. It was especially fun/worrying (depending on your perpective i.e. whether you are Rach or Tess) being at the back when the boat went through mini rapid sections, we really felt the tilting and more than once felt we may actually get wet... Definitely a marvelous and memorable day!
As a side note - there is a fast boat option that takes just 6 hours to reach Luang Prabang, but it really isn’t the better idea that it might initially sound. Passengers are provided helmets and life vests, which we thought odd as we saw people preparing to leave in one… Then when we saw a fast boat passing by us on the river, well, these are no speed boats, these are small, wooden longtails with large outboard motors, they go so fast and are so bouncy that we have neither of us ever seen anything quite like it. That must be a terrifying and uncomfortable, not to mention painfully noisy, journey. Apparently these boats do crash into rocks just beneath the surface at alarming frequency and many people are killed each year in such accidents, take head folks, don’t hurry, the slow boat is definitely the best way to enjoy the journey to LP.
By the time we landed in Luang Prabang a group of us had decided to try to find a place to stay together, us and Franzesca plus sisters Dee & Sinead from Ireland and Zelia from Switzerland. We were somewhat confused at the landing as it was still a few kms outside LP (my GPS showed me as much), even though the river goes right through it and the slow boat jetty used to be right in the old town, so that was where we had expected to end up. Less impressed were we at the 20,000 Kip per person ticket fee for a tuk-tuk the rest of the way. In defiance we set off up the road, convinced we would pick up a vehicle on the main road for a more reasonable price. Seeing us break free and start this rebellion, another fellow asks if he can join us, ‘of course’ say we, and so Kevin (another Irish) joins our gang. In the meantime some drivers have pulled up to agree a price for the whole vehicle to take us to town, some impressive bartering from Sinead gets us a ride for almost a quarter the advertised price and off we set. At the other end another good bit of bartering gets us an offer of 3 rooms between the 7 of us for 67000 Kip per night (that’s £5/$9) right in the old town (where other places were quoting $25+). A good deal indeed as here we would spend a few days because the New Year festival of Songkran was about to start.
More on that coming soon...