I don’t know about you, but I’m incapable of reading about round the world trips without thinking in the back of my head, well that’s great, but how much did it cost?
The truth is, it depends. The title of this post is somewhat misleading. I can’t tell you how much it will cost you to travel around the world. I can only tell you how much it cost us to travel around the world. Everyone’s travel style and tolerance varies widely. Even in the realm of budget travel, there is a lot of variance. So much depends on things like the season, the country, the current economic state, and the strength of your local currency against the foreign currency, let alone personal factors like can you handle sharing a bathroom? Sleeping in a room with strangers? Taking cold water showers? Not having wi-fi? Going without a/c in the tropics? Taking public transport? Long haul bus rides? Eating on the street? Do you want to hop from country to country or city to city or do you like to stay in one place for a long time? Do you eat ramen to stay on budget or do you splurge on nice meals?
Besides travel style and other variables, the other thing to keep in mind when comparing long-term travel budgets is to determine what the numbers include. Some people include pre-trip costs like vaccinations and gear. Some people don’t. Some people include transport in their daily averages. Other people don’t, or only include certain types. Some people couch-surfed or stayed with friends, whereas others had to pay for all of their accommodations. What about things like prescriptions? Gear you pick up on the road? Travel insurance? Health insurance? Renter’s, home owner’s, or car insurance at home? Storage costs of keeping all your crap? Big ticket items like scuba certifications? Souvenirs for yourself? Holiday or birthday gifts for your family? Bills you have at home? Money you lost selling your home or your car at a reduced rate? There’s many direct and indirect costs that factor into how much a trip of this scale costs. When you’re checking out other people’s budgets, make sure you’re comparing apples to apples.
Even though I can’t tell you how much it costs to travel around the world, I’m sharing our numbers with you in the hopes that it may be a helpful starting point to someone who is trying to put together a budget. So without further ado, here’s our…
For the two of us to travel to 26 countries over thirteen and half months (409 days, to be precise), it cost us $71,897.46.
In this number, I’ve included the items that are most helpful for someone planning a budget:
- day to day costs (such as accommodation, meals, snacks, drinks, alcohol, activity fees, intercountry transport, tips, etc.);
- miscellaneous costs (laundry, ATM fees, exchange fees, gear and supplies picked up on the road, internet, etc.); and
- intracountry (i.e. cross-border) transport ($11,432.11).
I did not include the following items in the grand total. Many of these costs will vary widely based on your own situation. Plus, we didn’t track our pre-trip costs closely. When you are doing budget research, don’t forget to keep these costs in mind even if you don’t include them in your daily average estimate. Remember other people’s budgets may include some, none, or all of these things.
What’s not included:
- Student loan payments paid while we were away
- Minimal car insurance we kept on our car sitting at home
- Renter’s insurance for our items at home in storage (incidentally, I highly recommend looking into a renter’s insurance policy. It was cheap and turned out to cover items we brought abroad – like our stolen SLR. Our renter’s policy covered most of the loss when our World Nomads travel policy did not).
- Extra money saved as a buffer
- Cost of obtaining wills/power of attorney
- Costs of selling house/temporary housing
- Costs of selling house/stuff/car
- Costs of obtaining passports/passport photos/international drivers’ licenses
- Accountant fees for filing our tax returns while we were away
- Vaccinations, doctor co-pays for physician visits before we left, and prescriptions (guesstimate of about $2,500)
- Supplies & gear purchased before the trip (guesstimate of about $4,000 for everything except our SLR camera and camera gear)
- Storage for items we kept at home (about $1400 for the months we were away)
- High deductible health insurance we purchased to cover us in the United States (about $1,673 for the months we were away)
- World Nomads travel insurance ($1,113 for 12 months; we didn’t extend for the last 6 weeks)
- Scuba certifications ($1,201 for both of us to get our PADI certification in Koh Tao, Thailand and our advanced PADI certification in Perhentian Kecil, Malyasia)
- Gifts & souvenirs (about $2,100; includes our souvenirs, Christmas, birthday/Father’s Day/Mother’s Day/general gifts for family and friends, and shipping)
We’re pretty happy with our grand total. We never intended our budget to be firm and unyielding. Instead, we viewed it as more of a guide. We’re not the best budgeters, but it’s funny how lack of an income and a desire to keep traveling will keep you on track. We originally estimated $60,000. Had we not made the decision to add on 6 more weeks in New Zealand and Hawaii, our costs for our original plan of one year would have been about $62,710.
BUDGET IN CONTEXT
To put those numbers in context, we traveled with our budget in mind and watched expenditures, but we generally went for the best value instead of the absolute cheapest. This means, for example, that we might shell out an extra five dollars in Asia for a hotel room that was cleaner and brighter, or perhaps we would take a more expensive train instead of a bus if it got us there a lot faster. We always did our homework to be smart about our spending. We kept a close eye on ways to cut costs, like doing our own laundry when coin-op machines were available, or booking a service directly if it was just as easy to figure it out ourselves, or paying with a international fee-free credit card any place that would take it. We always had a private room and usually had private bathrooms, but from time to time we’d get a room with a shared bathroom if we were in a money saving mood. We sought out rooms with wi-fi and occasionally splurged on a/c. Because we love food and found food to be the way to the heart of a country, we ate almost all of our meals at a restaurant or on the street. We ate what the locals ate most of the time, but threw in some pricier Western style meals when we got sick of the local cuisine. We moved around a fair amount, and followed the weather even if it meant jumping around. We generally only flew when we had to, although we did take a few intercountry flights in India and one in Vietnam. We rented cars in a number of countries, but only compact or older cars. We didn’t shy away from doing activities even if they were costly, taking a when in Rome approach. (See, e.g. food and beer fest in Belgium; staying in a riad in Morocco and a ryokan in Japan; white-water rafting in Slovenia; cruising with Easy Riders in Vietnam; scuba diving in Thailand, Malaysia and Hawaii; taking a cooking class and visiting an elephant conservation center in Thailand; a candlelight tour of Petra; going up to the viewdeck on the world’s largest building in the UAE; getting up close and personal with whales in South Africa; going jetboating in New Zealand; etc.)
There’s no doubt that WHERE you travel constitutes the biggest difference in your overall trip cost. Traveling through countries that are not as developed will drastically reduce your costs. We averaged $97.54 a day in countries that were generally less developed than at home – think of the type of places where cash is king. Our average was almost double in countries that were more developed, or about $190.69 a day. On the other hand, don’t assume that just because a country is less developed that it automatically is inexpensive. We found countries like Morocco and Jordan to be much pricier than countries like Laos and India (but much cheaper than countries like Spain and South Korea).
(Note: In order to give you an idea of what it costs to travel through different types of countries, these daily averages only include day to day costs (such as accommodation, meals, snacks, drinks, alcohol, activity fees, intercountry transport, tips, etc.) and miscellaneous costs (laundry, ATM fees, exchange fees, gear and supplies picked up on the road, internet, etc.). They do NOT include intracountry (i.e. cross-border) transport).
No big shocker here, but it was our experience that your dollar stretches the furthest in Southeast Asia, which is why we spent four months in that region. You really can get really nice rooms for $12-$25 (as long as you are willing to put up with your fair share of not so great rooms in the same price range, as quality can be somewhat inconsistent). And if you are willing to eat on the street (and hopefully you are, because the food is delicious and that’s how Southeast Asians eat), you really can get dinner for two for a couple of dollars. Our daily average in Southeast Asia was $81.70 a day, and it would have been possible to go much lower. Our daily average in Asia overall was $109.09 – flanked by a very expensive Japan on one end and a very cheap Laos on the other.
By sticking mostly to Central Europe, our European daily average was $175.92. (Note: our earlier post about European costs did not include intercountry transport, which is why those figures were lower).
Fiji - $53.48
Laos – $59.82
Germany – $72.71
South Korea – $74.10
Thailand – $80.44
Malaysia – $82.92
Cambodia – $91.53
Vietnam – $100.16
India – $107.09
Hungary – $108.78
Poland – $120.63
UAE – $121.64
NYC – $129.74
France – $130.54
Czech Republic – $149.21
Jordan – $149.87
Croatia – $161.39
Slovenia – $175.83
Morocco – $180.68
Portugal – $186.78
Northern Ireland – $195.51
Spain – $202.83
New Zealand – $205.03
South Africa – $222.89
Japan - $237.02
Hawaii - $237.36
Ireland - $261.03
SETTING THE BUDGET AND MAKING IT HAPPEN
Traveling around the world sounds like a pipe dream, but all it takes is prioritizing travel above other things in your life, whether it be your car, your house, your wardrobe, your gadgets, etc. Getting Sean’s sweat equity out of our fixer-upper before we left was instrumental increasing our money stockpile, but so was living well below our means and several years of saving. If you want to do it – really want to do it in reality, not just in theory – you can make it happen. And you should make it happen. Because I can tell you, as much as it stung to find out in the middle of India that the sellers to whom we sold our house – you know, the one that we poured our hearts and souls into for four years – sold the house for $30,000 more less than a year after we sold it to them, the sting dissipates quickly when you realize, holy crap, I’m in India.
If you want to travel but don’t have the ability, desire, or time to save $60,000 or $70,000, don’t be scared by our numbers. It is absolutely possible to travel around the world for a long period of time for less than we spent. Check out two good round-ups of other traveler’s budgets here and here. If you want to or need to spend less, there are many ways to reduce the grand total. (And many ways to increase it, should you want to travel more extravagantly). For example, to cut costs, go for 11 months instead of a year. Go to fewer places for longer periods of time. Stick to countries that are less developed. Go in the off season. Skip pricey activities and stick to soaking up the atmosphere. Select accommodations where you can cook yourself. Consider couch-surfing. Don’t rent a car and take public transport. Limit the amount of fancy gear you buy in advance. There’s lots of ways to save, so don’t let money stop you from traveling. Prioritize what it important to you when traveling – location, accommodations, activities, comfort, value, lowest cost, weather – and the rest will fall into place.
We were fortunate to have enough money in the bank that we didn’t have to be slaves to our budget and could travel, for the most part, without money hindering our choices. We could have spent less, sure, but at this stage in our lives, we wanted a certain level of comfort and decided if we were going to do it, we might as well do it. And we could have spent more; there were times when we felt like spending a little more money would have allowed us to do more things or be more comfortable. But overall, we were happy with our style of travel and what it cost to travel that way. Because there are so many variables, setting your budget will not be an exact science. Once you have an idea of how much it cost other people to travel the world, you may want to pick a number that is feasible for you to save and that you feel comfortable with spending, and work from there to make your travels fit your number.
After being out of the country for 13 months, our official re-entry into the United States was rather anti-climatic. I didn’t expect our homeland to give us any sort of fanfare, of course, but a smile from the Department of Homeland Security official or even a second glance at our effort to squeeze all 26 countries onto the tiny box under the line inquiring which countries we visited might have been nice. But our immigration official clearly never got the memo that he was the “face of the United States” even though he was sitting right underneath a poster that told us just that. Hopefully the United States reserves its surliest officials for its own citizens and puts the smiley ones in the foreign lines.
As I mentioned the other day, we were experiencing the second May 3, 2011 of our lives, a mistake that luckily only cost us $44 extra dollars in extra fees. (And, of course, the cost of an extra day in Hawaii, but every day in Hawaii is priceless). The first May 3 was mostly spent in the air (unfortunately utterly upright in a tiny non-reclining seat), with a small tidbit spent on the ground in Fiji. We couldn’t resist taking a peek at Fiji during our eight hour layover, even though it meant going through immigration and customs, withdrawing Fijian dollars, and haggling with a taxi driver. It’s surprising how hard it is to find the local cuisine in many countries. Everyone we asked for a restaurant recommendation kept suggesting Indian. We finally figured out why – turns out there is a proliferation of Indians in Fiji and their business savvy makes Indian food the most visible. We ended up getting a taste of Fiji via a Mediterranean restaurant owned by an American. They fixed us up some tasty mahi-mahi in a Fijian style along with cassava chips, and we spent much of our time chatting with a really friendly Fijian waitress. Much better than hanging out in the transfer room at the airport, although I got positively attacked by Fijian mosquitoes who honed in on the fresh foreign meat that are my ankles the second I walked out of the airport. I’m still paying for our brief foray into our 26th country visited on this trip. My ankles are blotchy and swollen; the itching is so bad that it kept me up last night despite only getting a few hours sleep on our flight. Thank goodness for Asian Tiger Balm.
Luckily, May 3, Round 2 turned out to be a good day. Our first order of business in the United States was to try the pretzel M&Ms that came out during our time away and that the rest of the world is not privy to. (They get crispy M&Ms instead, a forgotten relic here at home). We found them to be crunchy, salty and sweet as promised. Our next little delight was our rental car. We had reserved a $20 a day budget car on Hotwire and despite getting the hard sell to upgrade for an extra $11 a day at the desk, the parking lot attendant gave us a free upgrade to a brand-new (and rather funky) Chevy HHR out on the lot.
Although I was cursing our laziness in not reserving accommodations in advance because it meant we’d have to try to find affordable lodging in the midst of luxury resorts in our dazed and sleepy state, finding a place to stay for the next eight nights turned out to be relatively painless. We have to be the only people that show up in Kauai without reservations. The locals are friendly and when inquiring where we were planning to stay as a conversation piece, they hid their surprise well with a quick well, that’s good, keeping it flexible! when we responded sleepily that we didn’t know. We had picked up a Kauai Revealed guidebook at the airport since we liked the Revealed series so much on our honeymoon and found that most of the accommodation recommendations had been moved on-line since then. The book is a far cry from Lonely Planet’s fly by the seat of your pants approach and is clearly geared toward advance planners (which is most of the people visiting Hawaii; hell, half of them come here in tour groups). Nevertheless, despite our wavering over whether it was ridiculous to buy a guidebook for a destination in your own country, the guidebook has already served us well several times. Most notably, one of the few accommodation suggestions it had in the book was for Kapa’a Sands Resort, our home for the next week. They’re awesome little condos right by the ocean on the east side of Kauai. Ours is just a studio with a balcony and a kitchen, but it feels like a mansion to us. All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I had my upteenth reminder on this trip not to sweat the small stuff and much of the time it’s just better to let things work themselves out.
Other than Sean having to endure an hour-long hair
cut hacking by a crazy drunk hairdresser who spoke to him at length about life forces on the island and the apparently fascinating way his hair grows, we’re enjoying our return to the States. Our culture shock at being interjected back into the United States was cushioned somewhat by our month spent in New Zealand. We already gawked at the prices and the large people (present in every car-loving country we’ve visited on this trip; food for thought) and stuffed ourselves with cheese (a food sorely lacking from our Asian diets). But culture shock is here nonetheless. Hawaii might be our most unique state but it is a state for sure. We marveled at not using a plug adapter and driving on the right (Sean’s only veered to the left once!) Our Cokes at lunch were enormous and still could be refilled for free; at dinner, the waitress automatically brought us ice waters at the beginning and our check at the end. Speaking of dinner, we had giant portions of long-awaited honest-to-goodness BBQ and (moist!) chocolate cake. We stocked up on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups at the grocery store (how could the peanut butter and chocolate taste sensation not have spread worldwide?) and chose cereal from an entire aisle of options. We’ve listened to non-stop coverage about Osama Bid Laden’s death (as opposed to a quick mention on the news in New Zealand) and there’s ridiculous reality shows and game shows that didn’t exist when we left (by the way, Mark Graff is really into his new gig). And please tell me people don’t actually wear pajama jeans?!?!
- Did you know that the rest of the world calls the letter “Z” zed? I didn’t, but it’s true.
- I’m sorry to report that we are not any better at mastering the New Zealand accent. Although it is in the same general family as the British/Irish/South African/Australian ones, the Kiwi one is definitely unique. I met an Australian woman doing laundry the other day and we got to chatting about accents and language. I mentioned that we’re learning that some of the words we use are American English (like apparently the letter z!) She replied, Honey, American English ain’t English. I refrained from replying, Honey, ain’t ain’t a word in any language.
- Speaking of laundry, doing laundry (in a machine!) every four days (coinciding with the number of underwear and socks we own) is pure decadence.
- Speaking of accents, on the radio the other day, the Kiwi radio host was making fun of quote, ridiculous British accents, end quote.
- Speaking of Britain, talk of the Royal Wedding was EVERYWHERE in New Zealand on Friday. (Yes, I watched. Yes, I loved her dress!)
- You knew it was coming, but I am over this campervan. Being hemmed in by the rain doesn’t help and we find ourselves venturing out to eat more and more despite the crazy prices. I swear the campervan is getting smaller. As I write this, winds and rain howl at our campground outside our campervan shaking it from side to side. We didn’t have power at the campground when we arrived but it came back on a few hours ago. Driving here today, the winds whipped everything sideways. Luckily, not our campervan, although it seemed like a distinct possibility at times. The tall roof is like a sail. Everywhere we go, we hear how the weather just took a turn for the worse or that it’s going to be an early winter. Except for two glorious days in Rotorua, it’s been nothing but buckets of rain since we got to the North Island.
- It’s May 1: twelve days until home and less than two days until we re-enter the United States. Insane.
- Except, really, it’s twelve or two plus one. In the most exciting news around these parts, we discovered that we’ll be time travelling on Tuesday and experiencing May 3 twice. Yesterday, we finally took a closer look at the crazy flight we booked back in January. At the time, it seemed like a good idea to add a Hawaii stopover in for super cheap prices. What we forgot about was the many legs of flying required to get those cheap prices. Going by the local time at each stop, we fly from Auckland to Fiji at around 1:00 on May 3. We then have an 8 hour layover, and take off again at 11:59 on May 3. We then land for an hour at Christmas Island (which apparently is somewhere in the Pacific Ocean and luckily is not the Christmas Island over in the Indian Ocean) around 6:30 a.m. on May 4. Then, in the really mind blowing part, we fly for a couple of hours more to Hawaii, and land around 10:30 a.m. Except, it won’t be May 4 like we thought. Because we cross the international date line, it will be 10:30 a.m. on May 3. So that means we have 8 nights in Hawaii, not 7. An extra day in Hawaii? Awesome. Too bad we booked our interisland flight from Oahu to Kauai and rental car on Hotwire starting on May 4. Oops.
We didn’t plan on doing an Easy Rider tour, exactly, but when we wandered up to Dalat from Saigon, endorsements of others ringing in our ears, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that we’d end up on the back of two stranger’s motorcycles, zooming through the Central Highlands. You don’t find the Easy Riders; they find you. In our case, My and his sidekick Mr. Pepperman found us as soon as we stepped off the bus. They’re part of the Dalat Bus Station Easy Rider gang. Neither official Easy Riders nor an official gang, they roll around town with emblemed jackets and work for the same boss, one Mr. Lee. Despite being accosted minutes after we arrived in Dalat, we didn’t hold it against My (pronounced Me). My didn’t give us the hard sell and he seemed like a nice guy. We thought about it for a day, then gave him a call. We negotiated a three day, two night trip through the Central Highlands from Dalat to Nha Trang for $61 a day, including accommodation and fees but not food, which we split down the middle. A fortune in Vietnam, but somehow we kept finding ourselves talked into tours and things we wouldn’t otherwise do in other countries. They’re good salespeople, those Vietnamese.
For three days, we zoomed around the Central Highlands on the back of their bikes, an interior region filled with mountains and forests and rice paddies. The motorcycles turned out to be much more comfortable than riding on the back of any of the scooters we’d taken, although by the end, our butts were ready to say good-bye. During our journey, we learned all about agriculture and now know where silk, coffee, rice, cocoa, sugarcane, tapioca, peppercorns, mushrooms, pineapples and rubber comes from. We saw three different waterfalls, a temple (of course!), a flower farm, and countless scenic overlooks. We watched people make silk, rice whisky, bricks, and rice paper. One night, we even slept on the floor in a wooden house on stilts in a minority village with a minority family (although curiously we never laid eyes on the family).
My promised us an insider’s look at Vietnamese culture, and for the most part, an insider’s look we got. He’d march us into people’s workplaces in the middle of their workdays and say, Ah-mee, where’s your camera, there’s a good picture over there. Then the next thing I’d know he’d be interrupting people’s work, posing photo ops, and My would be saying, Come here, Ah-mee, and I’d be wearing a conical hat or making rice paper or Sean would be pushing a wheelbarrow of bricks or driving a farm vehicle. Although we never fully got over the embarrassment of busting into someone’s life and taking pictures or regret that we were interrupting people in the middle of doing their really hard jobs, it was a side of everyday Vietnam we’d never be able to see without My and Mr. Pepperman. It was nice to be far, far away from the towns where everybody you talked to wanted to sell you something. For three days, no one tried to sell us anything.
In fact, because we were with My and Mr. Pepperman, we even got the local’s prices. More importantly, we got the local’s food. For each meal, they’d order dish after dish, and we got to try Vietnamese food outside of what appeared on the tourist menus. Some of the tastiest food we’ve had was during our Easy Rider tour, once I got over my food and utensils being touched. Back home, someone else touching your food would be rude, but in Asia, communal eating is the norm. Each meal would be begin with My selecting our chopsticks from the crock on the table and rubbing them down with the paper-like napkins to eliminate splinters. He’d clean our spoons, sometimes with his thumb, and organize all of the sauces. Then, we could begin eating. Communal eating doesn’t mean dishing food out with a clean spoon onto your plate to eat. No, communal eating means taking food from the common dish with your chopsticks, putting the food into your mouth, and taking some more food with the same chopsticks you just put in your mouth. And communal eating with My sometimes meant him taking food he with his chopsticks he thought you should have and putting it onto your plate. I suppose I should be glad he didn’t try to put it directly in my mouth.
We, too, were responsible for our share of cultural differences. I kept asking My if he’d fought in the war (thinking of the blurb in the guidebook about most of the Easy Riders being ex-Southern army men). Sean eventually kicked me and told me My was way too young to have fought in the war and I should quit asking because I wasn’t going to get any war stories. Which, really, was best. For one, it’s always good to have periodic reminders to kick preconceived notions out of your head. For two, it’s always a little awkward discussing war when your country was involved. Like when we stopped at an overlook, and My told us matter-of-factly, your country bombed this hillside and burned the whole thing down during the war. It’s kind of hard to formulate an appropriate response to that. Sorry just doesn’t seem to cut it.
Likewise when your Easy Rider guide apologizes for his county’s littering problem, or rather primitive bathrooms. One morning, after eating some tasty pho bo at a tasty roadside restaurant, I made my way back through the family’s home and used the restaurant’s bathroom, which doubles as the family’s bathroom. When I returned, My said he was sorry the bathrooms weren’t the same as what we were normally used to, and asked me what the bathrooms are like at home. Well, they usually flush by mechanics instead of pouring water down a hole, and uh, you don’t have to squat two inches off the ground or stand in a pool of let’s-pretend-it’s-water-not-pee to use them and, well, they have toilet paper and sinks with soap and hot water and, oh yeah, they’re not strewn with the proprietor’s dirty underwear or toothbrushes seemed like too much detail, so I just mumbled that they were a little different.
We’re not used to being around other people day in and day out besides each other, so My and Mr. Pepperman were an interesting addition to our traveling duo. As is usually the case with Easy Riders, My did most of the talking and Mr. Pepperman tagged along, eating an astonishing amount of peppers at every meal (hence his nickname) and every once in a while piping in with some broken English, like the time he showed us a picture of him as a young man fighting in Cambodia and bragging that he used big guns, big American guns! You never knew what was going to pop out of Mr. Pepperman’s mouth. Mr. Pepperman never stopped smiling during the entire three day trip, and as we’d come to learn, Mr. Pepperman comes prepared. At one of the lookout points, he suddenly busted out a warm can of Ba-Ba-Ba, a local beer, from his tiny bag and handed it to Sean, instructing him to drink. Later that night, after we’d finished dinner, he produced a guitar out of nowhere (albeit with only five strings) and crooned a series of ballads for the crowd.
My was much more talkative. When he wasn’t busy educating us on agriculture or telling us fun facts about the Central Highlands, he was practicing his skills as an amateur photographer – with my camera. Ah-mee, he’d say, give me your camera. This is a good shot! Sean and I had more pictures taken together as a couple during those three days than we did our entire trip. My’s favorite type of photos are jumping ones, and I could tell he had practice, as he got much higher than any of the rest of us. My periodically dropped us off to walk for a little bit, and on one of those walks, we came upon My and Mr. Pepperman posing for their own jumping photos, giggling up a storm.
Like anyone who has taken an Easy Rider tour before us, we found the three days to be a definite highlight of our travels in Vietnam. We saw beautiful scenery, got to know My and Mr. Pepperman, and saw Vietnam outside the tourism industry. If you’re thinking of going on an Easy Rider tour, do it. It’s definitely worth the money. We recommend My and Mr. Pepperman wholeheartedly. They were fun to hang out with, and very thoughtful, always making sure we were comfortable. They always went the extra mile, such as when they took us out to dinner in a cab to give us a rest from the bikes. We found them to be expert, safe drivers, which really, is the most important part. You can find My and Mr. Pepperman hanging around the Dalat bus station. Or they’ll find you.
After leaving spending Christmas in Chiang Mai, we were determined to get to Laos to ring in 2011. So of course we took the slowest way possible. Over the course of three days, we traveled from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Luang Prabang, Laos by a combination of bus and a slow boat (not to mention pick-up trucks, songtheaws, and a “ferry”). They call it the slow boat because it involves two very long days of cruising on the Mekong River, as opposed to the fast boat that makes the trip in a zippy six hours but requires motorcycle helmets and a potential death wish. Here’s how it all went down:
Day One: Ride what is a serious contender for our worst bus yet from Chiang Mai to Chiang Khong on the border. The ride was at least seven hours and I spent all seven of those hours smooshed in between Sean on my left and a Thai boy on my right because why have four seats across when you can have five? I’m certain the Thai boy had to be upset with his dumb luck getting stuck next to the two ginormous Westerners but these seats weren’t even wide enough for five Thai people to sit comfortably. Of course there was obnoxiously loud music; it is Southeast Asia, after all.
Day Two: First leg of the slow boat. On the first leg, you alternate between, this sucks and this is awesome. They say it is easy to meet new people on the slow boat to Luang Prabang and it is true; misery loves company. Shortly after departing from the border, we met our German counterparts, Rod and Lizzy, who we ended up traveling with for the better part of two weeks. Besides meeting new friends, the first leg is characterized by consumption of Beer Lao and daydreaming while gazing at the Mekong. The views are fantastic, but the seats are not. Unless you arrived at least three hours early to grab the “premium” seats (i.e., old car seats), you were stuck sitting on a “handcrafted” bench. I’m not sure what would be worse – extending the already long day by three whole hours or sitting on the benches, which are basically two narrow pieces of wood nailed to each other in a crude fashion. I really don’t know whose butt would fit on those things, but my first impression of the Lao people is that they are even smaller than the Thais so maybe it is possible that a Laotian butt would fit. If you are considering taking the slow boat, B.Y.O.C. is a must. Your butt will thank you.
Day Three: After spending the night in Pakbeng freezing in a room with a broken window, and being very confused as to why we could see our breath in the tropics, we board the slow boat for the second leg. Of course all of the “premium” seats were gone, so we snagged our own wooden bench and waited for the boat to depart. As with day one, the slow boat doesn’t leave anywhere near the time it is supposed to. Our first introduction to Laos: the land of hurry up and wait.
We sat there, getting more and more hemmed in by the never ending stream of backpackers boarding the boat, and wondering how in the hell they are going to fit all of those people. Just when you thought another person couldn’t possibly fit, someone else who slept in would straggle down the hill. I’m not sure exactly how many people filled the boat, but at one approximate count it was over 100. Here’s the thing; on the first boat leg, they split the group into two boats, but on the second leg, they put everyone on the same boat. By the time we pulled away from shore, we were down to one bench and a small space on the floor. Within the hour, Sean was sharing his bench with a local and I had to sit cross-legged in an increasingly shrinking floor space.
Remember how I wondered earlier how they could possibly fit any more people? I must have thought that at least twenty more times over the course of the day. You would think, after adding person after person after person, all of whom were toting luggage, cargo, rice sacks, and chickens, that I would learn that there’s always more room in Lao.
To sum it up, the second leg was characterized by discomfort, boredom, stir-craziness, horror at the guy on our boat who insisted on sticking his camera right in the locals’ faces as they boarded the boat, shivers, a headache from the previous day’s Beer Lao, and many thoughts of are-we-there-yet-for-the-love-of-all-that’s-holy-and-divine.
My Two Cents
If you wish to subject yourself to the three day journey from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang, here’s some tips, for whatever they’re worth:
- Although everyone on both sides of the border will try to convince you otherwise, there’s no need to book any of the transport as part of a package. In December, the high season, we bought the bus tickets at the bus station (but we did have to wait for three hours before the bus left) and we bought the boat tickets straight from the boat operator (located on the left of the path leading down to the slow boats).
- I’m serious about bringing your own cushion, unless you are able to snag a premium seat (which requires getting there as much as three hours early, according to some girls who did just that). Don’t skimp and go without the cushion, even though they work out to be almost $4. They may be cheaper in the center of Chiang Khong of Huay Xuay, but we didn’t pass by these areas so we snagged them on the path leading down to the slow boat.
- Beer Lao gets progressively more expensive the closer you get to the boat, teaching us that perhaps communist countries aren’t quite so communist after all. Beer Lao is normally about 10,000 kip, but we paid 15,000 at a restaurant close to the dock. The beer is chilled on the boat, but it will cost you anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 from the boat operator depending on what they feel like charging.
- There’s no food for sale on the boat other than some chips and ramen noodles, so bring some snacks and water. Our guesthouse in Chiang Khong boxed up fried rice for us for the first leg and we bought some Nutella and baguette sandwiches from a stand in Pakbeng.
- In December, Laos can be chilly (see comment about shivers, above), and that goes double for cruising on the river. Dress in layers.
- Accommodation in Chiang Khong and Pakbeng leave a lot to be desired. The owner of Baan Rimtaling Guesthouse meets the bus with her pick up truck. It was late, so we ended up piling in the back with others from our bus. Our room, in the “Ghost” house portion of the property, had a lovely sagging bed and a shared bathroom past the woodpile outside, but at least it was only 200 baht ($6.67 USD). Since everyone empties off the slow boat at once, our plan was to have one of us book it up the hill to try to snag a decent room while the other grabbed our backpacks. But anxieties over horror stories we’d heard about rats in the rooms in Pakbeng and exhaustion caused us to pre-book a room with a guesthouse with decent reviews on Travelfish (Villa Salika) from a guy on the boat. As mentioned, the room came with a broken window, which was fabulous with the chilly weather, and also had a majorly leaking toilet to boot. At least no rats were spotted. Anyone associated with the guesthouse disappears after you check in so you’re pretty much out of luck if you have any problems. I wish I could say the room was cheap but we way overpaid by pre-booking (500 baht, about 17 USD). Since we got our room in advance, I’m not sure if the hunt for accommodation was as bad as people make it out to be online.
- Remember, your experience on the slow boat could vary depending on the number of travelers, whether it is rainy or dry season, and the particular boat you end up on. You can research the trip all you want, but it is the type of thing that comes down to a big fat depends.
- Would we take the slow boat again? I’m not sure. There’s really no good option. Three days of bus rides sounds just as unappealing if not more and of course flying is expensive, although I’d jump on that flight in a heartbeat if we weren’t on a budget. The three day, two night slow boat experience is just that, an experience, with lovely views to boot, although I think a guy on our boat said it best: the slow boat is one of those things that royally sucks while you’re doing it and only becomes legendary later.