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.