Being on the road either brings you some adventures or lets you create them yourself. Our time in Chiang Mai was about to run out because of our Thai visa and we had chosen Laos as our next destination. To get there, there are different options: by plane, bus or a slow boat. You can either book a tour via an agency or you can “rough it”, and take local buses and arrange all the transport and accommodation by yourself.
Since we wanted to make sure we would cross the border in time because of our expiring visas, we booked a tour at the agency. We paid 1700 THB per person for a 3-day/2-night tour from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang in Laos, having had no experience with official tours. It was our first slow boat trip ever!
If you plan to do a similar trip in the future, you’ll want to read the official information, especially about what’s not included in the package.
So, if you decide for more “secure”, traditional option as we did, here is an experience we would like to share with you.
Sleeping in a former prison
Morning pick up.
Planned time: 10.00-10.30
Real time: 10.35
The minivan arrives, already packed with seven other people and ten backpacks. Luckily, we can just grab our carry-on luggage and put it in the aisle of the van. Forget big comfort here. “Baby won’t you take me, baby won’t you take me…” The best of the worst pop trash song is in the air. Oh, lucky Gianni with his earplugs.
After we stop for petrol, we continue until we stop at 12.20 pm at the local Full House Coffee. All purchases made here are NOT INCLUDED in the package. After 20 minutes of toilet break here, we get back into our minivan.
Wild fields, farmed rice fields, dried bushes and terracotta-coloured soil, old, yellowish billboards, shabby houses and 7/11 convenience stores on the road, which ruin this virgin countryside. Well, footprints of globalisation are inevitable, even in the villages you might not find on the map, apparently.
Stop in Chiang Rai.
Planned time: 12.00-12.20
Real time: 13.55-14.35
We stop just in front of the famous, bizarre and magnificent White Temple. Since we have already visited the place, we just walk around and take some random pictures. Time for a small refreshment in the food stalls.
Drive: apart from the sharp curves and scary moments when the driver overtakes two trucks and one car at the same time and another truck is approaching from the front side, the trip by minivan is okay.
Arrival to our hostel in Chiang Khong.
Plan time: 15.00
Real time: 16.35
What we saw in the agency’s brochure was a simple room with a bed. What they did not show us was a pigeonhole in the wall, a sink inside the room and a squat toilet with a “DIY flush”. The conclusion: we are going to sleep in a former prison. Good news: all arrested survive and are released the following morning.
The dinner is scheduled for 6.30 pm and IS INCLUDED in the package, but after we have seen the room, we prefer to find some food on our own downtown. In Chiang Khong there are a few street stalls with grilled local sausages, meat or salad, but most of them are closing as it is neither lunch time, nor dinner time. We find a nice, cosy Thai restaurant where we had a classic Pad Thai and some appetisers. Other popular options included a British or a Belgian pub.
Queuing and waiting mission
We wake up at 7 am and wait for the breakfast (scrambled eggs, toast with jam, and coffee).
Planned time: 7.00
Real time: 7.45
In case you need to change your money for dollars to pay your visa or you forget to bring your passport photo, you can do both here, at the reception of the hostel.
Departing for the border.
Planned time: 7.45
Real time: 8.30
To arrive to the border is a 15 minutes drive. When we get there, we leave our departure card (pay attention: if you cannot show this upon departure, there is usually a 2000 THB fine. One guy from our group managed to bargain the fee down to 100 THB.) After that, we get on the bus and they bring us to the border, where we fill out the application form for the arrival visa and a departure card for Laos. We are queuing to give away our application form and photo to the person at one window, before we wait 50 minutes to get our passports back. The fee depends on which country you are from. We pay 30 USD for Ivana’s visa and 35 USD for Gianni’s.
Planned time: 8.00-9.00
Real time: 8.45-10.35
“I want you to smile in my country”
After we get our pristine, new visa, a “guide” appears out of nowhere. He gives us all the instructions on how to queue, where and why to wait for him and encourages us to order some food and water in advance for the boat, because “there is nothing around the pier, so make sure you order your meal now and I will arrange it for you”.
Well, who wants to stay hungry and thirsty for seven hours on the boat, right? We order a bottle of water just in case we finish the one we have. We already start to “smell” something fishy going on and we risk making the whole journey with only our cookies, rather than getting ripped off.
We arrive to the village where the pier is, and – surprise, surprise: there are three stalls that sell the same kinds of sandwiches. The price is the same as the price that the “guide” charged, just that he “prefers” one particular seller. We actually see preparing all the lunch packages for about 60 people. We follow the instruction and wait for our “guide”. In the end, we also buy some food from the stall and wait…and wait, and wait. And wait more.
When our “guide” arrives, he gives a clear and “friendly” piece of advice not to trust strangers in Pakbeng, the village we are supposed to arrive at that evening. We listen to the stories of people who have been robbed, unsafe guesthouses and upset tourists. “I need you to smile in my country”. Well, we are doing our best. So far, so good. He is so convincing that we book a room in a guesthouse he is showing us, pay 500 THB to him and off we go to board the boat. Well, where has our instinct gone?
Planned time: 10.30
Real time: 13.05
We sit on the relatively comfortable car seats, with a small table that we share with our fellow travellers, Carlo and Florence, another digital nomad couple. The engine starts its loud and monotonous symphony; the beers and whiskey bottles appear on the tables around, the smoke of the cigarettes spreads all over the boat (yes, you can smoke there and yes, everybody around us is a smoker)!
Once you look out of the boat, the scenery is just marvelous and you can (almost) easily ignore the pub atmosphere on board. Moreover, the natural beauty is by no means all the same during the cruise. We pass tiny, forgotten villages, fishermen, boulders, lush, green jungles and other boats.
As the time passes, we read books, observe our surroundings, sleep, and enjoy the feeling of pure travelling. For us, this is the real beauty of being a nomad, to absorb and enjoy what we see. Oh yes, and we inhale all the smoke that surrounds us.
In the meantime, life on the boat gets a bit crazy. There are still a lot of beers around (yes, you can buy them on board, along with instant soups, snacks, tea and coffee, which are, as you might guess, less popular). The smell of whiskey gets stronger and stronger and the skirts of the female backpackers get shorter and shorter.
The sun slowly sets and we just cannot stop being amazed at how peaceful and meditative the Mekong River is.
Without any stop, we approach the pier in Pakbeng, two hours earlier than the “guide” reckoned, but at the exact time as was scheduled in the agency. It is 17.00.
We look for a guy holding the same poster and name of our booked guesthouse. We find him. He is actually holding the poster with the name of the guesthouse, but as he explains to us, “the guy (read: our “guide”) uses my guesthouse pictures. Bad guy!” He checks the name of the guesthouse on our receipt and points to the other man that is already waiting for us and ten other people.
Honestly, we are not that surprised about the whole situation. We are just surprised that after having read about all the scams in SE Asia, we have done what they warn you about in all the guidebooks. Good news is, that the other guesthouse exists; we get off the track and check into a nice, warm, clean room. No additional fees required.
Pakbeng has many restaurants, usually with the same menu as in Thailand. Expect the price to be about 30% higher, though. We go to the first one that is open that serves hot food… and “hot” whiskey drinks for free. Well, we skipped the whisky, and the opium and the hashish the guys hidden in the dark streets offer us.
Wild wind and sunrays on our faces
Planned time: 8.30 am
Real time: 9.20 am
We are having a warm breakfast at the guesthouse (NOT INCLUDED IN THE PRICE) and then head down slowly to the village, finding the pier to take a good seat. We are taking pictures of the unique atmosphere and we walk amidst barbecue smoke, the smell of freshly roasted bacon, croissants, muffins and coffee. When we arrive at the boat, it is unexpectedly almost full (at 8.20 am); we are glad our travel fellows have saved seats for us. This time we are sitting on the wooden bench with some cushions in the middle of the boat, a perfect spot. Those who arrive late sit or lie either at the back of the boat, on the wooden deck with the brain-rattling noise of the engine, or on the cushions at the windy, front part of the boat.
It’s the second day on the boat and we still have not had enough of the views of the river, banks, villages and genuine locals that are travelling with us on the boat. We are also shocked by the captain who tries to come closer to the coast, or better say, closer to the rocks of the coast, to pick up some locals with their huge and fully packed bags of who-knows-what.
The first couple of hours are insanely freezing; we pull down the plastic curtains on the boat and we are saved from the strong morning mountain wind. As we continue the voyage, the sun goes up and the mood of the whole crew suddenly changes with the sunrays on our faces. We feel more and more comfortable and interconnected with the waves’ movements. Fortunately, today we sit far from the all-day-drinking-party crowd.
More scam, anyone?
We make six stops on the way to Luang Prabang, so the locals get off, or our captain and his assistant exchange the bags with the mysterious who-knows-what in what would have indeed been an intriguing movie scene. We finally arrive to the pier of the Luang Prabang province.
Planned time: 17.00
Real time: 16.35
“This must be the last stop before Luang Prabang,” we assume. Wrong, wrong. Everybody disembarks and walks up the hill to queue in a line of about 160 people to take a tuk-tuk to the town. Yes, that’s right, we arrive, unexpectedly, to a pier 10 km from the main one. With luggage on our back, after seven hours on the boat, who would argue and not just simply take a tuk-tuk for 20.000 kips (2.5 USD)? Not us. We hop on and in 25 minutes, we are in the famous square of the night market in the long-awaited Luang Prabang.
The town starts its daily night market routine with the local dishes and souvenirs, with hundreds of tourist around. We arrive to a beautiful mansion, where we see a bathtub in our room after three months of travel. Welcome to Luang Prabang!
A final word of caution to travelers. Remember to bring the following on the boat trip: the warmest clothes, a roll or two of toilet paper (better keep it in your pocket rather than in the bottom of your backpack), earplugs and a good book in case you know you cannot stand an awesome view and small boat adventures on board and on the coast.
Have you ever tried the slow boat from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang? Please leave a comment below; we would like to read about your experience.