Meandering up the Mekong on the Slow Boat to Thailand

After Luang Prabang, our next major stop was to be Chiang Rai in Thailand. One can get there a variety of ways, including a long bus ride or a plane trip, but instead we decided to take the “slow boat” up the Mekong River. It is so named because the journey takes two fairly long days of travel just to get up to the Thai border. But, we figured that it might be more scenic and more of a unique adventure.

Day One: Luang Prabang to Pak Beng (Laos)

The Lonely Planet says that the boat dock is in town, but luckily we had done some extra research and discovered that the boats now leave from a dock 11 km north of town. We made sure to get a sŏrngtăaou (pickup taxi) to get us there in plenty of time so we could make sure to get good seats. We were the first people to get our tickets at the ticket office, but then panicked because a large group beat us down the hill to the dock. Luckily, they ended up heading to a different boat and we were able to choose good seats.

Waiting for the ticket office to open

Waiting for the ticket office to open

The boat looked as expected, a long narrow configuration with a roof. The seats seem like they should be in passenger vans and are mounted on bases which are moveable. When it became apparent that the boat was not going to be full, we spread out so each of us had a set of two chairs. A good number of locals got on board but all sat in the forward cabin. We also had to wait while some motorbikes and roofing tiles were loaded up front. They asked us to take off our shoes as well, like we were in their house.

As we cruised along the river, life moved pretty slowly. At first it was a little chilly with a cool breeze coming off the water. We managed to stay in the shade as well. We all read our various books – Eric even finished one! The only food on sale on the boat was chips and instant noodles, but we had planned ahead and had some snack foods to eat for lunch.

The scenery outside was pretty nice. Lots of wooded hills on either side. Plenty of water buffalo lounging by the water. A few fisherman using large nets in the river. Not too many other people except for at a village where we stopped and unloaded the roofing tiles.

The river moves quite fast, especially when going through some of the narrow rocky stretches. Since we were moving upstream, it was kind of fun and bumpy in these stretches.

We arrived at Pak Beng, our stop for the night, at around 4:45. There were already a lot of boats tied up at the pier, so getting off was a challenge. We first waited for them to get two motorbikes off the front, then we went off the front and had to scramble up some rocks and sand before finding steps.

As we walked through town there were plenty of guesthouses offering rooms for about the same rate. We had expected this and didn’t even book ahead, which is a first for us in a long time! Wayne had read about one called Monsovanh and zeroed in on that. They got a room with AC for 130,000 kip ($16). Eric wanted to negotiate more so we headed on further. We ended up with a room with a fan at a place called Vassana for 80,000 kip ($10). The room was pretty nice and clean actually.

As the sun set, we found a nice wat in town which gave a good vantage point over the river. Restaurant options were not very exciting in town, so we just chose one that seemed cheap and had a nice terrace looking out over the river. The food was ok, but took quite a while since there just seemed to be one person working there.

We picked up some snacks at a mini-mart in town in preparation for the next day. It was also pretty interesting to walk down to the docks and see all of the boats tied up for the night.

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Even though we didn’t have AC, it got cool in the evening and we didn’t even use the fan. Overnight we had to hush a loud cat outside our window but other than that it was a pleasant sleep.

Day Two: Pak Beng to Houay Xai (Laos)

We got up early to make sure to get to the pier in plenty of time to get a good seat… and to confirm that the seat was on the right boat, since it wouldn’t necessarily be the same one!

Even with our early arrival, we weren’t the first ones there. Most of the other people from the previous day were already on board, so we only got ok seats. (And it was a different boat with a different crew.) This time we got four seats in a group from the start. There were even less locals on board, and it seemed a few people had stayed longer in Pak Beng, so the boat felt maybe only a third full. The boat was a little less nice as well – it felt a little narrower and the railing was higher so it felt like you saw less.

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As we got going, we realized that the motor also seemed louder. We tried to have some conversations but realized that reading would just be easier. As the morning went along we all read and relaxed. The scenery was a little less impressive but the time still went by quickly. We read and relaxed – Eric finished another book – and chatted with some fellow passengers (Wayne especially).

At one point in the late afternoon, we noticed two of the passengers helping bandage the hand of a local guy on the boat. Then we realized he was missing a finger! Apparently he had just lost it in an accident – although not on the boat. Wayne dug out some extra painkiller to give to him. What was amazing was that the patient was just smiling the whole time!

We knew we were close when we went under the big cross-border bridge. After that it still took about 30 minutes to get to the jetty in Houay Xai.

Tuk-tuk drivers were waiting there to take us into town, but it seemed like it was just a kilometer so we decided to get some exercise and walk. A few other passengers from the boat had the same idea so we walked into town together. We formed a group and went door to door to a few guesthouses in the “center.” In the end we went back to the first one we had tried since it was 10,000 kip cheaper and got rooms for 70,000 kip – about 9 dollars.

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We found another basic restaurant for dinner along with our new travel friends. We were a little sad that our last meal in Laos wasn’t at a fancier place, but we were still able to get one last laab.

We returned to the room and got ready for bed. While Della was showering the power went out! We looked out in the hallway and all the lights seemed off, so we figured the whole place had lost power. But the Internet was still working, which seemed odd… We opened up the windows to let the cool night air in and headed to bed.

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Day Three: Houay Xai to Chiang Rai (Thailand)

When we woke up in the morning to roosters crowing and a loudspeaker blaring, we noticed our power was still out. Preparing to write a scathing TripAdvisor review, we then noticed that the pwer was back on in the hallway. This seemed odd… we finally went down to the front desk to ask and they saw that the circuit breaker for our room had tripped! So the whole time it was just our power and no one else’s that was out. Della is afraid that it was because her hot shower caused the breaker to flip. Oops!

The shower that might have caused the whole problem...

The shower that might have caused the whole problem…

The previous night we went ahead and booked a combination ticket through an agent in town that would get us to Chiang Rai, our first stop in Thailand. Some of our friends from the boat also booked the same thing, so we were happy to have some nice travel companions along as well.

Buying our tickets

Buying our tickets

Step one was a 15-minute sŏrngtăaou ride to the Laos immigration office, where we got stamped out of the country. Step two was then to ride a shuttle bus (included in the ticket price) over the Friendship Bridge and onto the Thailand side of the river. Getting stamped into Thailand went quite smoothly. We were especially happy because we got a 30-day visa – everything we had read suggested that land crossings would only give us 15 days, and we weren’t sure that gave us enough time in the country. But 30 days should be plenty!

Unloading from the souengthaw

Unloading from the sŏrngtăaou

The final step was a minivan transfer from the border to Chiang Rai. This seemed the most dubious step because no one accompanied us over the border. Instead, we were just given stickers with the name of some guesthouse and were told that someone in Thailand would come pick us up using the stickers to identify us. No one was waiting when we got over, so we were a little nervous. After about 30 minutes they finally showed up and turned out to be legit, so we got our ride into Chiang Rai.

The ride was pretty nice, although we were annoyed that the driver asked us for an extra payment to take us to our guesthouse in Chiang Rai. He claimed that otherwise he would have to drop us off at a bus station way outside of town! This seemed somewhat silly to us, but he was only asking about $1 a person ultimately so we just decided to pay it anyway.

Final Thoughts

We are happy that we used the slow boat to get to Thailand from Luang Prabang. It helped us see some parts of Laos that we wouldn’t have otherwise, and also to get more of a feel for the rural areas in general. The ride was very comfortable and relaxing, and allowed us plenty of time to catch up on reading and just enjoy the serenity of watching the scenery go by.

5 thoughts on “Meandering up the Mekong on the Slow Boat to Thailand

  1. it is indeed the ‘slow boat’ distinguisable from a fast boat which looked more like a water ski boat Lao style. All the guidebooks say they have a dismal safety record.

    I love all the color on the early morning and early evening pictures. That’s the compensation for having to suffer the haze the rest of the time from all the burning.

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