Slow boat ride on the Mekong from the Thai border to Luang Prabang in Laos
Compared to its neighbours, Laos is still relatively less visited. However, due to the shape and geography of the country, there is a tourist trail that most visitors follow. It features most of the must-see sights in Laos from Buddhist temples and colonial cities to waterfalls and caves. And you can start your adventures in this beautiful country on a traditional slow boat ride that takes two exciting days.
Many tourists choose to start this route in the north after exploring the famous Thai city of Chiang Mai and perhaps the Golden Triangle. Arriving from Bangkok, you can take a night train or bus to Chiang Mai. The most convenient train is No. 9 that leaves Hualumphong Station around 7 pm. When I tried to book our tickets, there were absolutely no seats left so we took the afternoon train. A third class seat set us back only 240 baht. There are also domestic flights connecting the two cities but then it seems more practical to fly directly to Chiang Rai.
A short stop in Chiang Rai
I’d recommend Green Bus to travel on to Chiang Rai (you can also book your tickets online). It costs about 170 baht and takes 4-5 hours. Chiang Rai is much less touristy and much more hassle-free than Chiang Mai but it also offers a few nice sights.
If you break your journey here, you should check out the night market with great street food options. We tasted fried larvae with some delicious sauce besides the usual spring rolls and fried rice.
Take it easy in Chiang Khong
The town itself doesn’t have too many classic tourist attractions to offer. Its location by the mighty Mekong river and the backwater atmosphere still tempts many people to stay bit longer. For those on a tight budget, there is decent street food and Chiang Khong even boasts with its own humble bar strip. We spent two nights at Namkhong Resort and Bungalows (300 baht for a triple room with fan and free use of the resort’s pretty swimming pool).
Across the border to Laos
There is a convenient ferry connecting Thailand with Laos but sadly it is only available for locals. We, foreigners, have to cross the border on the new Friendship Bridge. This means an extra hour’s travel in the morning and higher costs. Many if not all the guesthouses in Chiang Khong offer tickets for the slow boat including transfer to the border and, in some cases, all the way to the pier. It may sound a good deal and most tourists we saw opted for this solution. We don’t fancy the idea of being driven like cattle from one tuk-tuk to the other so we decided to arrange things for ourselves.
If you know the prices, it is actually cheaper this way and certainly feels more independent. Hotels offer the combined ticket for 1250-1500 baht. The trip from Chiang Khong to the pier in Huay Xai cost us 120 baht per person and we got there faster than most others. You can buy the boat tickets at an office on the hillside on the left as you approach the pier for 220,000 kip (880 baht). However, make sure to change money somewhere in Huay Xai first because they’ll charge you 1000 baht if you pay with the Thai currency.
The slow boat
The boat was scheduled for 11.30 am and we could have a quick lunch in a riverside restaurant before departure. We could also buy Laotian kip there but the rate was awful. If I did it again, I wouldn’t exchange more than 100 dollars for three people because there are much better rates in Luang Prabang.
Traditional wooden long boats ply the waters of the Mekong. There are dozens of them in use and they are normally staffed by members of a family, who own the boat and live on it. The captain sits in the front of the boat and there are two rows of seats right behind him. In my experience, locals tend to sit here but we joined them on the first day because most of the better seats were reserved for the ‘package tourists’. We didn’t mind: it was less noisy and fresher than in the back and we had more contact with the villagers.
There are rows of old car seats in the middle section of the boat, organised pretty much like in a bus. Only these seats are not fastened to the floor! There is a very basic bar and even more Spartan toilet in the back, followed by the engine room and luggage storage (on smaller boats your bags may go under the board in the front). The living quarters of the family occupy the rear section.
Remote villages along the way
We had nice sunny weather on the first day with only a few brief showers. The river flows quite fast and there are some scary rapids with sharp rocks so we weren’t bored. Then when we saw our captain was in control we could enjoy the countryside and chat to our neighbours. It takes about 6 hours to reach Pak Beng, where you have to spend the night. You can only buy boxed noodle soup on board the slow boat (and cold beer) so it’s a good idea to buy some take-away in Huay Xai.
The scenery is interesting enough with a few villages along the way. Now and then the boat stops at one of these settlements or just by a rock and people get off and on. Young girls offered handmade jewellery at one village – unfortunately, we had no time to buy anything from them.
We arrived in Pak Beng about 6 pm. Some days before I checked room prices on the internet but they all seemed way too dear for such a small place. And there is absolutely no need to book in advance. We hardly got off board and we were approached by local kids and their parents, all waving faded photos of their guesthouses. We said yes to two smiling girls and in a minute we were sitting on the back of a van with some other tourists. A triple room only cost 60,000 kip. It was all very efficiently organised: they asked us what we wanted to have for breakfast and take away for lunch the next day, we paid and that was it.
What must have been a sleepy fishing and farming village in the past has become a (budget) traveller’s haven in the past decades. I’m sure 90 percent of the villagers either have a guesthouse or run a restaurant, a bar or a bakery. We had a pleasant dinner (fried rice with buffalo meat) with river view and then retreated to our dingy room for the night.