Tag Archives: river

Slow boat down the Mekong

Slow boat ride on the Mekong from the Thai border to Luang Prabang in Laos

Sailing past some awesome landscape

Part 1

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.

 

One of the magical Buddhist temples of Luang Prabang in Northern Laos
One of the magical Buddhist temples of Luang Prabang in Northern Laos

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

It may be a bit tacky for European eyes but no doubt the Clock Tower in Chiang Rai is a unique sight!
It may be a bit tacky for European eyes but no doubt the Clock Tower in Chiang Rai is a unique sight!

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.

Apart from the recently built White Temple, there are two lovely old Buddhist temples, too, within walking distance from the centre.

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.

The red bus to Chiang Khong
The relaxing journey in the rickety red buses to Chiang Khong by the Lao border takes you through spectacular landscape.

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).

Family shrine in front of a house in Chiang Khong
Family shrine in front of a house in Chiang Khong
The Mekong with Laos on the other side
The Mekong with Laos on the other side

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.

A row of long boats waiting at the pier in Huay Xai, Laos
A row of slow boats waiting at the pier in Huay Xai, Laos

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.

We were stopping at a small village when I daw some children playing in the water. I took my camera but this girl also noticed me and immediately posed for the photo.
We were stopping at a small village when I daw some children playing in the water. I took my camera but this girl also noticed me and immediately posed for the photo.

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.

The captain of the slow boat takes a break between two long trips.

 

The "tourist section" inside the slow boat with the reused car seats.
The “tourist section” inside the slow boat with the reused car seats.

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.

These girls were offering hand-made jewellery by the river but they were quite shy and by the time they got closer to the boat it was time to leave.
These girls were offering hand-made jewellery by the river but they were quite shy and by the time they got closer to the boat it was time to leave.

 

For many villagers the boat is still the only way to travel
For many villagers the slow boat is still the only way to travel

Pak Beng

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.

Forest fire and Albania’s worst road

Balkans cycling trip, Day 23

We get back the asphalt road for most of the day so we can concentrate on the picturesque scenery. At least until we notice the smoke of the forest fire. It drives up the mountain quickly and we spend the rest of the day struggling with the crumbling gravel road to the coast.
Day 23 (28 July): Kotë – Qeparo
Distance: 53 km
Total distance: 1321 km

We expected to wake up to the grazing sheep, a shepherd or his dog in the morning but it was the sun and the growing heat that didn’t let us sleep any longer. Then a man appeared, looking for his stray cows. He invited me for a coffee but I didn’t want to leave the other two in the tent (they were still half asleep). 

We left our emergency camping place around 8 and had to start cycling without any water or food left. The next village was only a few kilometres away so we knew we’d survive, especially when we could continue on the old but decent tarmac road.

We had our morning coffee (and Ivi) in Gjorm’s only bar. The village has a wonderful setting. It lies at the foot of a rocky hill that must be great fun to climb in less hot weather. There were some men playing a chess game on the terrace and a guest arrived on a mule while we were drinking there. 

Then we filled our bottles with cold water and carried on cycling. We just passed through the next village, Lepenicë, though it was equally pretty and inviting. The terrain was easy as we followed the course of the river and before midday we were in Brataj, where there is an inn at the beginning of the village.

A rock with the Albanian flag and the name of Brataj

Drinks given and taken

We thought we’d buy food in the village and just drink a coke here but we saw there was a kitchen. We asked the woman behind the counter about lunch options. At that moment a young man came in from the terrace and asked us in English if he could help with the translation. He was from the village but worked in the US. He was on his holiday, drinking beer and talking to his friends outside.

With his help, we learnt that the only food available was “fresh” chicken. We knew what it meant so we asksed if the woman could prepare omelettes and salad for us. The American Albanian explained the recipe to her (they don’t prepare eggs that way here, he said). Half an hour later we were enjoying the delicious, juicy omelettes in the shade of a huge tree.

We were almost ready to go when the man came over to us and asked if everything was OK. He also offered to invite us for another drink. We chose beer and more Ivi for Aron. I wanted to thank him for his kindness so I asked the woman for 5 small glasses and offered them the rest of the palinka from Hungary. They loved it and we told them a little about our trip before we said goodbye.

Entering the land of heroes

The scenery remained the same: a not too wide valley surrounded by forested mountains and meticulously cultivated land with canals and scattered houses. The people in these villages are very proud of their history. A number of important battles were fought nearby in the 19th and 20th centuries and the names of the heroes are still an important part of the local identity.

One of the many memorials remembering the heroes who fought for the land

Just before Kallarat, there is a scary-looking footbridge, one of the main attractions of the area.

We had to stop for some photos so we just left the bikes by the road and walked down to the bridge. I only dared to step on the edge of it because two of the four cables holding it had broken.

When we walked back up to the road, a policeman was examining the bicycles. He was worried what could have happened to their owners but he just smiled when he saw us and drove on.

In the village, we had an ice-cream by the shop near the petrol station. The policeman was there, too, so I asked him about the road to Kuç. He said it was fine but after that it was very very bad to Borsh. We’d have to go avash-avash (slowly), he said.

I told the others the not too good news and hoped the road wouldn’t be all that bad. We still had another 14 km before Kuç so we tried not to worry about it.

The fertile Shushica valley

Escaping from the forest fire

Then as we climbed on top of a smaller hill and stopped to get some air and enjoy the view, we caught sight of thick smoke in the distance ahead of us. It was clearly forest fire and not a small one.

It looked like a volcano eruption and then we noticed the forest was burning in at least 3 other locations. But cars were coming and going and their drivers seemed relaxed so we carried on. 

At that point the sun was really strong and the canal along the road too tempting not to have a quick dip. After a refreshing stop we got back on the bikes and we couldn’t believe out eyes. Suddenly everything turned orange. Then we saw it was the smoke that changed the colour of the sun rays. There are evergreen trees and shrubs at the lower part of the mountains  in this region and now we saw one of the hillsides was burning intensively to the right, just a few dozen metres from us. At first I wanted to stop and take a photo but then I found it wiser if we escaped as fast as we could. 

Children walking carelessly home hundrends of metres from the blazing forest

Kuç lies high above the valley and for once we were happy we had to climb. It felt safer to leave the valley with all the smoke behind us. It was weird the people in the gardens, streets and bars didn’t seem to take notice of the imminent danger. They behaved as if it was quite normal that their village was now sieged by fire from three sides as the flames spread quickly in the strong wind.

The hard part begins

No wonder we didn’t stop at the shop and the bar at the beginning of the village. Instead, we struggled up to the main square with the statue of the local hero. Kuç lies in the heart of Labëria, the region of Southern Albania. The people in these valleys are famous for opposing all sorts of conquerors throughout the centuries, whether it was Venetians, Ottomans or others. We truly hope they eventually managed to cope with the forest fires, too, without any injuries.

The hero of Kuç overlooking the smoking forests

We had a big cup of icecream in the bar and then left the village behind us.

Like a volcano eruption

Just as the policeman in Kallarat said, the asphalt road disappeared with the last houses and we had to continue on an ancient-looking mountain road. First we had to reach the pass where the road forks in two directions: you can choose to reach Borsh via Çorraj or Fterrë.

Feeling victorious on the pass after Kuç

There is no difference in the quality of the roads but the first one is 3 km shorter so we turned right. 

Rruga keq – bad road after Kuç

It was hard to imagine worse conditions but this road could always surprise us. We moved painfully slowly and it was past 5 when we arrived in the isolated village of Çorraj. The old part of the settlement is picturesquely perched on a rocky outcrop but those houses all seem abandoned. The few people who still live here are mostly over 70.

Cows in the darkness

We quickly understood why as we left the village and descended 300 metres along the hairpin bends under the last houses. The road was so bad here that it was absolutely impossible to ride our bicycles. So we pushed them for about an hour or more because then we had to climb back to the same altitude where the pass was after Kuç. To make things even worse, we were stopped by a group of cows and their calves that blocked the narrow road. They just wouldn’t move in any direction. It was mind-bogging to see the sun slowly setting as we tried to convince the animals to go.

The sun sets and we are still high in the damned mountains!

They finally did and we luckily reached Borsh in complete darkness without accidents. From there we had to go another 3 km to Qeparo, the seaside resort we had visited twice in the past. This time the plan was to stay here for 5 nights and forget about cycling a bit. It was shocking to see the number of cars parked by the beach but we soon found a nice apartment in a good location and at an affordable price so we could wash down the dust of the road and relax. 

Goats and bridges

Day 16 (21 July): Shengjin –  Ulez
Distance: 50 km
Total distance: 917 km

The last night in Shengjin I checked the map and our route once again and I noticed that the road we wanted to take was not just very low category (meaning that it could easily be a gravel road) but it meant having to climb from 200 m to over 1200 m again, a deadly combination. So I changed the route at the last minute and decided to reach Berat from the plain instead. The problem is that this area is where the capital and the second largest city (Durres) are located so it has the worst traffic. But now it seemed it was possible to avoid the worst roads and we could even spend another day by the sea near Durres.

The less attractive face of Lezhe
And one of its leafy streets

I was sorry to leave out the mountaneous part and because we won a day with the new route I thought we could take a little detour to the reservoir by sleepy Ulez. It was another place we wanted to show Anita and when we were there on our way back from the mountains with Aron we just had a drink by the water. This time we were going to sleep there.

 

But first of all, we had to find another bicycle mechanic because I felt my pedals were loose yet again. So once in Lezhe, I bought a local SIM card to have internet wherever we needed it (I chose Vodafone and its weekly 1GB package, which only cost 400 lek or roughly 3 euros) and then asked around for a servis

The one we found was run by two brothers across the road from the police station. They agreed to repair both bikes out of order at an agreeable price. Mine got a new monoblock and they replaced Aron’s worn 3-ring crank with a used set of only 2 rings but in fine condition.

A short break on the bridge in Lezhe

This meant that we had to continue cycling in the hottest part of the day but it felt great that there were no annoying sounds any more and Aron didn’t have to pedal like mad to keep a decent speed.

After Lezhe we had to cross the Mat river, the historical heartland of Albania. There is an unofficial way to reach the other bank through the now closed old bridge. Today it is mainly used by local kids who jump into the water from its arches out of boredom. 

Of course, they loved our bikes and wanted us to take their photos. Then one of them showed how he could jump headlong into the not so deep water. Knowing how Albanians treat rubbish (they simply dump it in or near a river), we knew it was far from being clean but we couldn’t resist the temptation.

We left the bridge and the boys and looked for a more quiet place to spend half an hour cooling down in the fast-flowing river. Luckily, Aron noticed the dead dog (sheep?) in the water at the last moment so we walked a few metres upstream from it.

Our midday pool

Our relaxed moments were cut short by the arrival of a truck laden with all sorts of rubbish. Two men jumped off and quickly heaped it all on the river bank. It was time to leave.

For a few kilometres we had to take the highway to Rreshen but then the Burrel road forked off to the right and soon we were back in the mountains again. We still followed the Mat, or its lower reservoir (Liqeni i Shkopetit). It is a beautiful valley.

There are several springs along the way to keep you fresh and you can see some old footbridges. The colour of the water is mesmerising.

Another team of brave boys

It was only another 20 kilometres to Ulez but we moved ahead a bit slowly because we simply forgot to have lunch. And the last 4 km just before the village were killing… 

Ulez is not what you’d expect to find at the end of such a narrow mountain road in Albania. It looks more like a Spanish town with its pretty main square, bars and church.

We sat down to empty a big bottle of Tirana beer (and an Ivi orange for Aron) and answered the curious owner’s questions. We bought some basic ingredients for the dinner and descended to the lake to see where we could camp for the night.

Fishing boat on the Lake of Ulez

To our surprise, the lake was about 10 metres lower than earlier. Later we met a young man from the village, who explained in fluent English that this is quite normal as the rivers can’t carry that much water in the summer months. He was really interested in our tour and had very modern views about society and economy. 

We also met our “neighbours”, an elderly woman, who returned home with her cow and goats and her husband, who just returned from the lake, where he spent the day fishing.

When we were alone again, we put up our tent, cooked our dinner and when it was completely dark, we walked (or stumbled) down to the shore and had a starlit bath. A  great way to end the day!