Our slow boat journey along the Mekong to Luang Prabang started in Chiang Mai, Thailand. There, we began the journey that would eventually take us to Luang Prabang in Laos.
A minibus, a border crossing, a boat, two tuk-tuks and a night in a riverside town all came before we actually started our slow boat adventure to Luang Prabang. Once we boarded the boat, we would spend two full days floating on the Mekong, along with a night spent in another small riverside town on Valentine’s Day.
Slow Boat to Luang Prabang – The Thailand Stretch
After departing Chiang Mai in the morning,we endured a long bus journey to Chiang Kong. (We had booked our bus ticket from Chiang Mai to Chiang Kong the night before, for 400 B.)
We stopped at the hot springs near the White Temple, which we had seen a few days previously. There were another couple of short stops along the way.
At the springs we enjoyed putting our feet in a little natural foot spa thing, and there was also the option to boil an egg, so that broke up our journey!
When we arrived in Chiang Kong, we had to walk down a hill to the water’s edge, where we handed in our Thai departure cards at a little hut. And with that, we left Thailand and took the very short boat ride across to Laos.
All to soon, we had to get off the boat and put our heavy backpacks on again. We climbed a hill to the visa office, where we waited to get our Laos visa on arrival, American dollars at the ready.
By the time we were leaving passports freshly stamped, more and more people had arrived, so we had gotten lucky.
Slow Boat to Luang Prabang – Huay Xai
We continued up the hill to the main street of Huay Xai.
Huay Xai was like a frontier town with colonial style old houses with wide balconies. As usual, we struggled with our bags as we searched for accommodation in the sticky heat, eager to rid ourselves of our heavy backpacks.
When we entered a hotel we were momentarily blinded as we left the bright sunlight and heat. My first impression was the dark wood on the stairs and panelling, contrasting with the yellow walls. The old woman didn’t speak English, but took dollars and led us to our room, as we waddled up behind her.
There was a large communal balcony that was wide with low, rotund railings.
I leaned over and looked left and right, taking in the dusty wide street that was basked in an orange glow, as the Mekong ran parallel, revealing the seemingly vast surface we had just crossed. The light was fading and cast a beautifully rich hue on the scene, lending a romantic atmosphere to the place.
When we went out for dinner, we turned left and ambled down the street, looking at the shops selling near-identical arrays of traveller-friendly supplies; rolls, Oreos, Lays and cushions. The shops were tiny; wooden stalls and tables at the bottom of a little buildings, but they were jam-packed with a huge amount of stock.
We walked the end of the road, and seemingly the end of the town, before finding somewhere to eat.
After a very average yet edible meal, we stopped off for supplies. The absolute essentials for any journey taken in Asia, at least for me; Oreos, those delicious vanilla wafer biscuits and my favourites, those little blue packets of amazing coconut biscuits that tasted like Nice biscuits. I loved these so much, I could have happily lived on a diet of coconut biscuits, fried rice and fruit shakes.
Later that night, we sat on the balcony, feet up and mummified in our scarves to ward off mosquitoes, taking in the scene.
Our beds were really, really hard, and a rooster crowed all night.
Slow Boat to Luang Prabang – Day One on the Mekong
When we went downstairs the next morning, the tuk-tuk was already waiting for us. We rushed around, buying cushions, more food and exchanging money.
We climbed aboard our boat at about 9.30am, and were happy to find seats together. As we settled in, I was glad to be at the edge, as I was closest to the river and had a little extra room on the pine-coloured wooden benches.
We could soon see why everyone recommended bringing cushions. My cushion had a red and white design, and I kept it with me everywhere, until I lost it on the way to Railay, which upset me more than it should have.
Today, most boats have old car seats instead of benches, but not always. I say buy a cushion anyway, you can never have too much comfort on a two day slow boat to Luang Prabang.
We soon grew impatient, as we were sitting there for hours. Knowing you have two days of slow boat travel ahead of you makes sitting without moving all the more unpleasant. There were lots of brightly coloured houseboats to distract us though.
Eventually, at about 12.30pm, we took off, slowly. It was a sunny day and the fresh air felt great. I had enough food and enough reading material, life was good.
Slow Boat to Luang Prabang – A Night in Pakbeng
After five or six hours, we stopped off at a little jetty at the side of a steep climb. Getting out took a while, as we were re-acquainted with our backpacks.
Climbing up the steep hill was a sweaty, nervy event, thanks to the ridiculous backpacks and being surrounded by travellers who could actually manage their luggage.The steep, uneven and skinny steps didn’t help. I was finding it hard to breathe, and at one stage was afraid that I would really tip backwards and fall to my death, or at least to extreme injury.
At the top was the usual sea of shouting men waving plastic covered pictures of their accommodation, trying desperately to make themselves heard over the chorus of enticing sales pitches.
All I cared about was whether there was transport included in the deal. After ensuring that was so, we followed a guy a little further up the hill, before gratefully hopping into an open-backed truck to join about eight other travellers, who all had much smaller bags, of course.
Our accommodation was pink with white tiled floors. Our room was airy and clean, with two single beds. The woman working there brought in a small mattress to accommodate the three of us.
After showering, we headed down the dark dirt road to a bright restaurant with open sides. On the way, were were handed a flyer advertising ‘the only bar in town,’ which was very enticing.
As is often the case on the backpacker circuit, we spotted three familiar faces from where we had gotten our visas. These three guys would later pop up in Vang Vieng and Don Det.
One was a quintessential surfer dude, who constantly flicked his shoulder-length blond hair out of his face with a large and lazy flick of his head. They struck up a conversation with us, and, shockingly, they also were headed to the bar after dinner.
We left the restaurant and walked up the black street to a building that was glowing red inside.
The bar was dimly lit and buzzing. Happy hour had just ended, but we managed to get an extension. Whiskey and Coke for A and I, and vodka for B.
The Americans joined us, along with an English guy they had picked up along the way.
There was an old man selling fake roses and they guys bought us some in a nod to Valentines Day. We were able to put A’s ipod for the bar, which was great, until someone demanded that they have a turn, and proceeded to turn on Will Smith.
The next morning we reluctantly woke and ate some of the pre-paid breakfast we had been coerced into buying, along with sandwiches for the journey.
Slow Boat to Luang Prabang – Day Two
Day two of our slow boat journey was harder, as the novelty had faded and the previous night’s whiskeys hadn’t helped. We didn’t get great seats, and the sun was shining directly into my eyes for ages.
When our new friends had burst on the the boat they were full of beans, and carrying large bottles of beer. We were in our long-journey travelling mode, where we usually kept to ourselves and read. They headed for the back of the boat, where there were no seats and the taste and roar of the engines was thick in the air. After a while, A and I headed back there for a change of scenery.
There was a large group of backpackers drinking beers, passing joints and cigarettes around, chatting loudly over the roar of the boat’s engine. Two or three monks sat in the back, beside all this wild behaviour (well, drinking and smoking is wild to a monk). It felt really weird as they were in the most uncomfortable place, sitting serenely as the boisterous westerners partied beside them. They were covering their mouths, which made us feel really horrible about invading their country and forcing them to endure smoke and drinking.
The journey ended sooner than I thought. We were on the Mekong for longer than the day before, but it was still a bearable journey.
Once we got off, there was, of course, another hill, but what’s new? It wasn’t as bad as the last one, but right when we had almost made it to the top, I must have gotten over-excited because I pulled a muscle in my thigh. This made walking a bit of a challenge.
A boy was advertising a guest house that sounded nice, so we got a tuk-tuk there, relieved to have made it to Luang Prabang.
We thought the guy had said 15,000 for a room, but when we arrived there we found out that he said 50,000. The place was nice, and we were tired, so we said we’d stay for one night.
After a little lie down to recover from our two day slow boat journey along the Mekong, we were ready to explore picturesque Luang Prabang.