It’s been done many times before. The tour groups have long pushed this route along the banana pancake trail and it’s in every guidebook on ‘an experience not to be missed’. The slow boat down the Mekong starts just over the border of Thailand and Laos and takes you into Luang Prabang. It’s a long journey, but after our mis-adventures in Africa I assumed we could handle it.
Chiang Rai to Chiang Kong (morning of Day 1)
The trip started easy enough out of the bus station in Chiang Rai: we showed up, hopped on a rickety, old bus and were off. This was a local bus, however, and with all things local come surprises. Just outside of the bus station we were waved down by someone trying to a hitch a ride. He had his pickup filled with produce, some rice, maybe a few motorbike parts, and a few boxes of who knows what. We loaded up, he hopped on, and we continued down the pothole-filled roller coaster road to Chiang Kong. 65 baht lighter, and 3 hours and a sore back later we had reached the Thai frontier.
Crossing the Border (afternoon of Day 1)
I was looking forward to a nice, easy border crossing into Laos, leaving us enough time to buy tickets for the next day’s slow boat. But after getting off the bus, we were accosted by tuk tuk drivers eager to take us to the new bridge in town. Just a short two weeks earlier the Thai-Laos friendship bridge had been opened, closing the old boat crossing in town, and sending Thais and farang alike 10km out of town to the new land crossing. So Kristin, myself, and a curious Turkish guy, who spoke no English, hitched a ride across the border with a smiley tuk tuk driver who must have been super excited about all the new business that would be coming his way.
We arrived at the crossing 15 minutes later and I’ve got to say, the new buildings and bridge are quite impressive. Nothing like the land crossings we had seen before, and brand-spankin’ new. There was no funny business after that and we exited Thailand, payed 20 baht for a shuttle across no man’s land, got our visas processed into Laos for $35 each, and continued onto Huay Xai.
Huay Xai to Pakbeng (Day 2)
For some, Huay Xai may warrant a stop over for more than a night. We met a German fellow who was there for the Gibbon Experience, a highly-rated trek to swim under waterfalls, zipline through the jungle, sleep in tree houses, and for the lucky- spot some local gibbons. But we had places to be and headed for the boat landing to buy tickets. Unfortunately, it was closed for the day and we made plans to get up early the next morning to make sure we got a nice seat and not one crouched inside the engine compartment as we had heard from others. Our hotel did offer to buy tickets for us at $40 a pop, including a nice $12.50 commission above the normal price of $27.50 (220,000 kip). How nice of them, but I’ll pass.
Instead, at 8:00 am flat the next morning we made our way back to the boat landing. We were the first to arrive. No sign of life besides a guy stripped down to his underwear bathing in the river. Eventually we found a guy hiding behind the ticket office and bought tickets for the day’s boat. And then we waited. And waited some more. Some people showed up. More waiting. We loaded our bags on the boat. And continued to wait. At 1:00 pm, with 200 people and 2 boats loaded up we were finally starting our journey on the slow boat down the Mekong.
It was peaceful. The sun was shining and we gazed at the sparkling temples on the hillside. We laughed at a few Thai and French children warm up to each other and then laugh and play while running up and down the aisles. But not more than an hour or two later I had gotten bored. I started to take swigs of the Thai whiskey that I had bought the night before. I ate the chicken sandwich we bought before leaving. I practiced some Thai. I went and bought an overpriced coke and then poured a liberal amount of whiskey into the can. Kristin gave me dirty looks while telling me that I looked like an alcoholic. I fell asleep.
As the day wore the sun started to hide behind the hillside. It started to get cold and I began a ritual of 15 minutes in my seat and then another 15 minutes hovered over the exhaust pipe of the engine trying to stay warm. Eventually, just a short 7 hour hours after we had left Huay Xai, we were pulling into Pakbeng.
It was dark, we couldn’t see much, but we eventually found our bags and made our way up the hill to the guesthouse that I had emailed. I should have expected it in a town like this, but we were told that the place was completely booked up and they had no record of my emails. We were out of luck and stumbled around to other places in the area trying to find a place to sleep to no avail. The one place we found with availability told us $45 / night. Another couple had just wandered into this place at the same time as us and told us they scouted the other side of town without any luck on availability. So we spent the money for a night’s sleep, an amount that we haven’t spent on a room since we were in Europe.
We ate an Indian restaurant while enjoying some Beer Lao. Our server was wearing a Cleveland Indians hat and I told him I liked it. He smiled and walked away, likely not understanding what I was saying. We watched a 10 year old cooking in the kitchen and eventually our food had arrived. The “mixed salad” was a sliced up tomato and cucumber arranged on a plate. The “naan” was a flour tortilla. Before arriving in Pakbeng, we had heard people describe the place as a bit of a hole. I’d have to agree.
Pakbeng to Luang Prabang (Day 3)
The next morning we loaded up and headed to the docks for our second day on the slow boat. This day was colder, partly due to the fact that we were leaving first thing in the morning and partly due to complete lack of sunshine. I repeated my routine from the prior day- a little whiskey, a little Thai practice, a walk back to the engine room to warm up. Nothing eventful on this trip, and I spent a lot of the time staring at the map trying to figure out how far we had traveled and when we were going to arrive.
At 4:00 pm, we were pulling into the outskirts of Luang Prabang. The boat dock has changed a little bit from what I had read and we weren’t landing directly in town. Instead, we fumbled up a muddy hill where tuk tuks were waiting to take us the 15 minutes into town where we were dropped off at the entry of the night market.
This trip took us 3 full days. Some describe the journey as either love it or hate, and I fell in the latter category. I was left sick for a week afterwards and we didn’t see too much along the way. So my recommendation for the trip- take a bus to Chiang Mai and catch the 1 hr direct flight into Luang Prabang. And then if you’re itching for a ride on the Mekong, hire a boat from town to take you to the Pak Ou caves. I wrote previously about a journey that we did the right way, from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. This time, however, we clearly took the wrong way from Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang.