Sabaidee my dear Hector!
After making it over the Thai-Laos border (don’t listen to the Thai border people and change your baht into U.S. Dollar with them, a foolish error!), we were all ready to begin our journey down the Mekong river. The 2 day slow boat begins from Huay Xai (a tricky one for pronunciation!) which is only a short tuk tuk ride from the border.
The difference from Thailand is noticeable almost immediately, being bounced around on the much less developed roads, and having a very rural feel to the area, despite only being across the river.
As we weren’t sure where to stay, we were dropped off in the main town area, however opted to walk up to a recommended guesthouse close to the departure point for the mornings slow boat trip to begin. Without backpacks, this would have only been around a 10 minute walk as its a very small place. We easily got a room at Phonevichith Guesthouse, which was very basic, but mostly clean, and even had tea and coffee making facilities! What a treat! It’s right on the riverside, so had beautiful views, and we could see the boats lined up ready for the following morning departures.
We dined that evening at Bar How which was in a prime location on the Main Street, and the Laos fried rice was definitely one of the best I’ve had (and let me tell you, there’s been a LOT of fried rice!). A few BeerLaos later, we found ourselves being taught how to speak Laos by the locals in a riverside karaoke bar, and I must say they were very impressed with mine! The people are ever so friendly, and were also very keen to try and improve their own English (which was leaps and bounds ahead than our Laos…)
As we didn’t have tickets for the slow boat already, we headed to the ticket office relatively early around 9am, and had no trouble buying for the same day. The only thing left to do was stock up on supplies, and with plenty of little stalls selling sandwiches this was simple enough.
Shortly after, our bags were stowed under the floorboards (!) and we were on our way. It’s best to be fairly early to ensure a seat together, and avoid being close the extremely loud engine at the back, but arriving at 10.30 for an 11am departure did mean quite a lot of waiting around. Laos time is a little more relaxed than British time!
The slow boats are far from luxury liners (definitely no silver darling here!), but are comfortable enough if you select the right seats. It’s really the amazing views that make the trip worthwhile, as the scenery is just stunning. The alternative option to do the same route is to take a speed boat which takes one day down to Luang Prabang. There’s a reason these are referred to as death traps, as the river is constantly lined with very rocky areas, and after seeing a couple fly by we were pleased with our decision to avoid this.
Early evening, we docked up at Pak Beng, another tiny little place which is essentially purely a stopping point for slow boats going to and from Luang Prabang. We hadn’t booked accommodation, but heaps of hotel owners stop by the dock, and next thing we knew we were in the back of a truck being carted up the road. This small hotel gave us a room for 3 (in other words a twin with a mattress squeezed in) for a very low price, and was only a short distance uphill from the dock itself. Again very basic, (for some reason it’s tricky to find rooms with bathrooms that aren’t wet rooms!) but perfectly fine for one night, and had the all important working air con!
Dinner that evening was at a small restaurant, Sivilai, overlooking the river, and even though we had spent the whole day looking at similar views, and the same river, it really was spectacular. The food was very fresh, so fresh we did realise they were literally cooking one dish at a time to order, but the atmosphere was very relaxed, so no rush to depart. The village only has one bar which we didn’t attempt, somehow spending a whole day sitting down is ever so tiriing.
Day 2 saw an earlier start, with the boat departing at 9, but we still made sure to be there for 8.30 armed with another load of snacks and sandwiches (really I was ready to eat anything BUT a sandwich) and again got good seats together.
The day saw much of the same, lovely views, the odd chit chat with random characters on the boat (who we soon found you WILL see again in Luang Prabang, whether you want to or not!), and lots of reading. It’s a very relaxing experience overall, but we were definitely feeling ready for being active again, and getting back to proper meals!
The one downside of the boat, was we weren’t dropped in the town as anticipated (possibly our own fault for assuming this), but 10k away. As we had spent all of our money in Pak Beng, rustling up 20,000 Kip per person was a combination of Kip, Thai baht and U.S. Dollar – eventually the man just let us go, I think he realised we were genuinely a bit stuck!
So onwards into Luang Prabang we ventured for some time back on land, and exploration of a new part of Laos. Overall the slow boat is definitely an experience to recommend, if for nothing more than the moments when you have to pinch yourself to believe you’re in such an incredible place. However, it might be a little while before any of us rush to do anything quite like it again!
Ps! There will be much better photos to come when I rejoin full technology…