Mekong slow boat

Our journey in Laos started with the usual hurry up and wait that is the staple of travel in south-east Asia. Eventually we were across the Mekong with Joe, Phoebe, Renee, Sophie, Louisa, Vasili, Kiril and Becca and on the slow boat for the journey to Luang Prabang. The guide who met us when we stepped off the ferry boat across the river warned us that the slow boats sometimes didn’t always make it to Pakbeng on the first night. In dry season when the river is low and slow moving the boats don’t always make good time. They only go until it gets dark and if that happened we’d have to sleep on the boat. Here’s the way it works if you’ve bought a package from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang:

  • You pay the agency and get a voucher in return. The voucher gets you on the bus and into your accommodation at Chiang Khong.
  • The guest house at Chiang Khong buys your ticket across the Mekong and gives you another voucher for the slow boat.
  • A guide meets you on the Laos side, herds you though immigration and tries to persuade you to buy a bus ticket or fast boat ticket at extra expense rather than take the slow boat.
  • The guide takes your passport and buys ticket for the boat, returns your passport with ticket.
  • You find your own accommodation in Pakbeng on the first night.
  • Your ticket gets you back on the slow boat the next day.
  • If the Loatians try to pack more on the boat than will fit, mutiny and occupy another boat. So long as enough people mutiny and refuse to budge they’ll run the second boat.

Most of our gang ended up at the back of the boat near the very noisy engine while me and Hannah were near the front. We met some new friends, Marcel and Clare near the end of a westward round-the-world ticket, and Mark and Stacy also near the end of a westward round the world ticket. I picked up some useful tips for Cambodia, Vietnam, New Zealand and China.

The Mekong was brown and wide (100-300metres across) with strong undertows evident in places. The scenery on both sides was sandy beaches, rocky cliffs, green jungle and occasional villages. We stopped after an hour at a village on the Laos side where they pulled the good old marketing ploy of sending the kids onto the boat to sell snacks and drinks. We had stocked up well before boarding so had no trouble resisting the cute looking kids and their wares. We played Scrabble, read, chatted, watched the scenery go by. I guestimated the boat was making about ten knots but didn’t know how many miles it was to Pakbeng so couldn’t judge if we’d make it before dark. Actually we arrived at Pakbeng before 18:00 – an hour or so before dark. At random points along the river the boat pulled into one bank or the other to let the locals off.

We ignored the crowd of waiting touts and found our own accommodation. Joe and Phoebe, Renee and the Russians came with us. We went out for dinner and were hassled by touts outside every restaurant. They all had pretty much the same menu and all offered identical incentives – free (Lao) whiskey, free rice, discounted prices (yeah, right). We picked one at random. The Lao whiskey was so bad even the Russians wouldn’t drink it. There was nothing to do after dinner so it was an early night all round.

Next morning we were at the pier at 08:30 to find a smaller boat waiting for us. Marcel and Clare had saved us seats about half way along the boat. Anyone who turned up after about 08:45 found they had no seat. A mutiny was staged, a second boat occupied and eventually at about 09:30 – when there were still people strolling slowly down the hill to the boats – ours departed. The scenery was much the same as the first day, perhaps a bit more jungly. Again the boat stopped in random places to drop off locals. We reached Luang Prabang at about 17:00, an hour earlier than we expected.

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