An ominous notice at a second-hand bookstore in Chiang Mai warned the unwary to purchase a booklet entitled “Slow Boat to Luang Prabang” because it “might save your life.” But there were none of these booklets in evidence so we decided to take the trip anyway. We may never know how close we came to death.
A (relatively comfortable) bus transported us from Phayao to Chiang Khong through more pleasant, hilly and wooded countryside. There doesn’t seem to be a bus-station in Chiang Khong but there were tuk-tuks where we were dropped, ready to deliver us farangs to the riverside to check out of Thailand and take a little boat across the Mekong into Laos. There, a somewhat shambolic system took us a while to get a “visa on arrival.” There seemed to be a stack system – first in, last out – and I ended waiting quite a while until people who arrived after me had collected their visas. So long, in fact, that I had to pay a $1 overtime surcharge because it was after 4:00 pm when my visa was ready. Oh well…
Then, a short walk up the hill from the landing point and Bev and I were on the quiet main street of Huay Xai and got the last available room in the Sabaydee Hotel – which had sixteen gheckos on the walls and ceiling of the stairwell! – in time to get settled before dark. It felt good to be back in Laos – quiet and relaxed. (An impressive torrential downpour interrupted the quiet for half-an-hour or so.)
We walked to the boat pier early to get tickets closer to the front of the boat (and further from the engine noise), returned to the hotel to pack and check out, get some baguettes with cheese for lunch on board, and got back to the pier in time for a breakfast.
The boat was due to leave at 10:30 but, apparently, we were waiting for a tour group and didn’t actually get under way until after noon. Aside from a few local Laos, the boat was filled with (mainly Western) tourists. And they kept coming – until there were 120 of us and a second boat was commissioned for the day’s voyage to Pakbeng.
This trip has something of a reputation for its vast consumption of BeerLao by backpackers but our lot was quiet and well-behaved and we were free to concentrate on the beauty of the countryside we were passing through.
We stopped at various places to pick up or drop off Lao passengers. It seemed pretty incongruous to be stopping in the middle of an apparently timeless nowhere to drop someone off, and then see that person pull a cell-phone from their pocket and call to be picked up.
Most of the few Laotian passengers sat on the floor on a mat (by choice) at the front of the boat, wonderfully indifferent to and tolerant of the Westerners using their only form of transport between some of the isolated villages and residences close to the Mekong.
The river was low, looking about 20 feet below the high water level in the rainy season, and captain did lots of deft manouvering around submerged rocks – no mean feat with these long unresponsive boats.
We pulled in at Pakbeng for the night just before dark after an exhilarating day on the water. Magnificent!
The following morning was misty but we managed to see a couple of mahouts bring their elephants down to the far bank of the Mekong for a morning scrub whilst we ate breakfast. These elephants are used for rides at an expensive resort somewhere hidden from view; our accommodations were definitely a little more down market from this resort with prices in the $350/night range.
We had a different boat for day two, down to Luang Prabang (presumably, the boats stay on the section of the river that the captain knows). The mud deposited by the high water is used for growing vegetables and the grazing of cattle. As we proceeded downstream, and closer to Luang Prabang, we started to see some homes with tin rooves and even the occasional vehicle.
There is some clear cutting of the forest. The Chinese have a huge interest in Laos’ forestry, in exchange for the aid they provide in terms of road improvement and even a possible rail link to China. (Laos currently has no rail service except for a short – just a few kilometres – section of narrow gauge line from outside Vientiane across the Mekong and into Nakhon Phanom, over the border in Thailand.) And, way too soon, the ‘voyage’ was over and we arrived in Luang Prabang. At first, we’d had doubts about the trip and had considered a truncated, one-day, trip. I’m glad we didn’t do that – I’d go back on the boat right away!