TAKING THE SLOW BOAT THROUGH LAOS
We’re on a boat, travelling down the Mekong River through Laos, and it’s amazing. We had some trepidations about this 2 day journey from Chiang Khong in Northern Thailand to the Laotian town of Luang Prabang, and yet it’s turning out to be one of the highlights of our trip. We’re so glad we chose to take the slow boat to Laos, despite the chaos of the Thai/Laotian border crossing and the, errrr, rustic charms (or lack thereof) of Pakbeng, the town we’ve stopped in for the night. We spent the day mesmerised by the passing scenery and relaxing as the wilds of Northern Laos floated past.
We were up early this morning, wanting to get to the border by 8:00am, right when the immigration offices on both the Thai and Laotian side open (we’d heard the border crossing could be very chaotic and hoped than an early started would help circumvent the worst of it). The joy of a 5:30am wake up is that we were up in time to see the sun rise over the Mekong River. Not a bad way to start the day really…
From our guesthouse in Chiang Khong we caught a tuk tuk to the border and got stamped out of Thailand. Like everything we’ve experienced in Thailand so far, it was a speedy, efficient process. Getting INTO Laos, however, was an entirely different proposition! First we had to fill in all the paperwork, then hand over our passports to the immigration officer who would process our application for a visa. That bit worked alright and we had been warned not to pay for our visas up-front – we knew to hang on to our $30USD until we got our passports back, otherwise you may end up paying twice as the first $30USD may mysteriously disappear… into someone’s pocket*!
*As in most poor countries, corruption is endemic in Laos. Many tourists try to speed the border crossing process up by slipping the immigration officers a little something extra. We didn’t need to as we were there so early, but given how busy the border can get, it’s understandable that some travellers may choose to pay a bit more for their visa. While we were there waiting for our passports to be returned, a large group of German tourists turned up. Their guide collected the money for their visas, as well as a predetermined additional amount from each person to help ensure they all got their visas quickly and without any fuss. Good luck to them!
The truly chaotic part was when we had to get our passports BACK. After a VERY long time, the immigration officer came back and basically just stood there holding up passports asking randomly, “Is this you? Is this you?”. It was up to us to recognise our most prized possession and elbow our way through to get our passports before it disappears into the crowd. We did eventually get our passports back, complete with Laotian visas, which we exchanged for the required $30USD visa fee. From there it was a quick dash through border control and we were through! First thing we did in Laos was exchange some money; US dollars are the way to go in this part of the world so we exchanged $150USD and instantly became millionaires*!
*$1USD = 8,000 Laotian Kip, so $150USD gave us a tidy 1,200,000 Kip!
Tuk tuks were lined up just outside the immigration office, ready to take us to Huay Xai, the Laotian town just across the river from Chiang Khong. In Huay Xai we boarded our slow boat, bags and all, ready for our 2 day journey. From the moment we boarded our boat, the scenery was amazing!
The Mekong River is the lifeline of South East Asia – especially for Laos which is land-locked. This mighty river originates in the Yunnan Province of China, travels South and forms the boundary between Laos and Thailand. The path of the Mekong then crosses through Laos and Cambodia and ends in Southern Vietnam, forming the famous Mekong Delta. An increasingly popular way to navigate through Northern Laos is by slow boat along the Mekong. These large wooden vessels take 16 hours to travel the 300km to Luang Prabang, the largest town in Northern Laos.
There are different ways to travel along the Mekong for this stretch:
• Speed boat: These lightening fast vessels make the journey in just 6 hours, but have a terrible safety record. We saw quite a few zip past during the day and they just look like death traps, speeding along the river at 60-80km/h. As well as being risky, these boats have no toilets or shelter and just look like a bad idea all round!
• 1st class slow boat: Built of jungle hard wood, these traditional boats are home and business for the families that own them. The family lives in the back of the boat and the passengers occupy the main deck. In the 1st class boats the seats are comfortable and padded, with a maximum of 20-30 passengers on board (we had 18 on our boat). We had 2 clean, Western-style bathrooms on board, and the captain’s wife even cooked us a delicious meal for lunch. Definitely a comfortable way to travel!
• 2nd class slow boat: The 2nd class boats are the same design but just have wooden benches for seating and fill the same space with 60-100 passengers. There’s no lunch provided either. These are much cheaper, but for us the price difference was well worth it. I just don’t think I would have enjoyed sitting on a wooden bench for 2 days!
At 9:30am we started our journey down the Mekong River. This part of the world is so gorgeous. On either side of the large, lazy Mekong were hills and mountains covered with lush vegetation. For the first hour, Thailand was to our right and Laos to our left, then the river turned East and we were entirely in Laos.
Around midday we made a short stop at a local Hmong village. The Hmong are a mountain tribe who migrated into South East Asia from Mongolia in the late 18th century and established themselves as semi-nomadic inhabitants of the highlands in Northern Thailand, Laos and Myanmar (Burma). They have retained their traditions and language and are a major draw card for many tourists visiting this area.
Like many minority groups across the world, however, the Hmong have been persecuted in the past. Even today they remain isolated and very poor. We could see this from the village we visited; there was no road in or out of the village and life for the villagers looked to be pretty basic. Our guide took us through the village and pointed out the traditional Hmong style of hut, made of woven palm fronds. He told us how the Laotian government has started building schools in these villages to ensure the children get at least a basic education. It must be challenge to reach out to these communities, isolated as they are.
Our group made a donation to the local school, which we all agreed was a far better use of our money than giving to the children who were begging. Begging is not a behaviour we ever want to encourage, and in Tanzania especially we saw how dehumanising it can be for people when rich tourists throw money and sweets at begging children on the side of the road.
After our village visit, we boarded the slow boat again and were served lunch. We had a magnificent spread of steamed rice, stir fried vegetables, chicken coconut curry, and deep fried Mekong River fish. The food was hot and tasty, and the flavours quite different to Thai cooking – far less spicy and aromatic and more reminiscent of simple Chinese cooking.
We had plenty of room to spread out so after our sizeable lunch most people had a nap. Shane and I read and enjoyed the views. We saw water buffalo drinking from the river; villages up on stilts, high above the river; enormous hard wood trees that dwarfed the vegetation around them; and lots of lush jungle.
The boat ride was very smooth and comfortable, though at times the river waters got choppy and the ride a bit bumpy as eddies and whirlpools formed. Overall though it was a joyous ride compared to what we had been expecting!
We continued sailing for another 4 hours or so, arriving in Pakbeng around 5:00pm. This small village lies half-way between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang, perched high on the banks of the Mekong River. We took a short walk through this 1 street town and quickly came to the conclusion that Pakbeng is NOT a nice place. For starters it’s filthy, and there were some rather unsavoury looking characters hanging around*.
*We’ve since learned that muggings are not uncommon in Pakbeng, especially after dark; and the town is a hub for drug traders who travel along the Mekong between Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, and Laos.
We visited the markets and wish we hadn’t; to say they were basic is an understatement! Needless to say we avoided the water and only ate VERY WELL cooked food tonight!
Mains electricity arrived only recently in Pakbeng, and the supply is still pretty unreliable – we’ve had a couple of power outages tonight already. But at least the guesthouse we’re staying in is spotlessly clean, and the food they served for dinner was hot and tasty. They even have internet! We’re looking forward to a good night’s sleep now, and another early start tomorrow, our 2nd day on a slow boat cruising down the Mekong.