Our last few days in Laos were spent on the slow boat, drifting down the Mekong river and taking in the views.
I’ll be honest, we didn’t initially want to do the slow boat. We were far more interested in flying from Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai. Spending 2 and a half days in transit didn’t sound like my idea of fun at all. But with flights coming in way more than we could afford, we were left with 2 options – bus or slow boat, and the boat sounded like the least worst option.
It turned out to be one of the most memorable travel experiences we’ve had on this trip.
The great thing about the slow boat is that nothing has to be booked in advance, you just need to turn up early for a good seat (departure time is 8.30am).
So we got up early and got an extortionately priced tuk tuk (one of my bug bears with Laos) to the slow boat dock. The ‘dock’ was recently moved from the centre of Luang Prabang to a location a few miles out in the middle of nowhere, purely to make a bit of money for tuk tuk drivers. A common practice in Asia and one that is totally ridiculous.
There are 2 options for tickets – the first day’s slow boat to Pak Beng (halfway to Thailand) and the speedboat which could go all the way to the border in 6 hours. Safety concerns aside, there was nothing that sounded good about sitting in a speedboat for 6 hours, so we of course got the ticket to Pak Beng for 110,000 kip each.
The next task was to scramble down the riverbank to the boat, walk across a plank (easier said than done with a backpack on) and finally we were on the boat, where we tried to find some seats. The boat wasn’t anywhere near full but a lot at the front were already taken. There were plenty towards the back though, and they were all comfy car/van seats mounted on wood so it didn’t matter where we sat.
At least that’s what we thought until the engine started. I’ve never heard anything so loud. Unsurprising when you see it:
Luckily with the addition of headphones we managed to zone it out after a while, but it could have been worse if the boat had been full – apparently people have to sit right next to it during high season.
Anyway we were soon motoring along at a dizzy 30 km/h, it isn’t called the slow boat for nothing! We quickly realised our second mistake – not bringing any food, as hunger soon came calling. There was food for sale on the boat but sadly it only consisted of overpriced instant noodles. We had to make do for the first day and it wasn’t something we were going to repeat.
Between looking at local life along the river, watching TV shows and sleeping, the time passed relatively quickly, and it was soon 5.30pm and we were pulling into Pak Beng where we would be spending the night.
There isn’t a lot to Pak Beng except a road of guesthouses and a few restaurants. We walked for a while and found Monsavanh guesthouse which had an ok room for 70,000 kip. We probably could have haggled but we were pretty tired. We popped over the road for some food, when the power went out for nearly an hour, leaving us all eating by candlelight. When it finally came back on, we headed back, noticed the entire town was dead, so went to bed.
We got up early to look for supplies to get us through the second day. We had sandwiches made for us by a cafe, and also bought a selection of sausages, 2 croissants, crisps and drinks, before realising we’d ended up spending far more than the overpriced noodles had cost us the day before…
This boat was different, seats were set up around tables which was actually more pleasant than before. It soon became clear it wasn’t going to be very full so me and Katy had a table and 4 seats to ourselves. Which was lucky because the mountain of food we had bought took up most of the table.
We were soon off again chugging along the Mekong. The day went pretty much the same as before. Looking at the river, looking at the scenery, chatting and sleeping. Towards the end though we made a new friend – a young boy who was engrossed in games on my iPhone – not so interested in us!
The time flew by on the second day, so much so I can’t remember much of it! Or perhaps that was the Lao-Lao (rice whiskey) I was sipping on during the afternoon?
Around 5.30pm again (the boats always seem to be pretty much on time) we pulled into Huay Xai. We probably should have walked for a while to find a guesthouse but we just went to one that was right by the the pier, Phonevichith Guesthouse, which was 80,000 kip per night and perfectly acceptable. The owner was friendly and arranged a minibus for all of us to get across the border and onwards to Chiang Mai the next day, which cost us 125,000 kip each.
After a sunset dinner with this view, we retired to bed.
By far the most boring day, we woke up, had breakfast and got on a songthaew to take us to the border a few kilometres down the road. It started raining heavily which continued most of the day and made it all look a bit depressing.
The border is all very new, 2 buildings connected with a friendship bridge. We first got stamped out of Laos, and had to pay the customary $1 ‘fee’. Then we were put on a shuttle bus which took us across the bridge to Thailand. There, we just had to get stamped into the country! We already had 60 day visas but you can get a visa exemption for 15 days if you don’t. There was also luckily someone who was able to change our leftover kip, which is useless once outside Laos.
After we were all through, we were put on 2 minibuses, and started the trip to Chiang Mai. The roads were good but the journey was dull with a capital D. It took around 4-5 hours with a coffee stop, and we were dropped off at Tha Phae gate in Chiang Mai around 2pm.
Finally, after nearly 3 full days of travel, we were in Chiang Mai, where we would be settling down for 5 weeks.
Though it involved 2 nights stay at guesthouses and all the extra food and drinks, the slow boat and bus combination still worked out far cheaper than flying.
Tuk Tuk from Luang Prabang to pier – 70,000 kip
Tickets from Luang Prabang to Pak Beng – 220,000 kip
Guesthouse Cost Pak Beng – 70,000 kip
Food, Drink and grocery costs for Day 1 – 231,000 kip
Tickets from Pak Beng to Huay Xai – 220,000 kip
Guesthouse cost Huay Xai – 80,000 kip
Food, Drink and grocery costs for Day 2 – 245,000 kip
Minibus to Chiang Mai – 250,000 kip
Stamping Fee out of Laos – 20,000 kip
Breakfast on Day 3 – 41,000 kip
TOTAL – 1,447,000 kip (£107 or $180)
I daresay you could do this a lot cheaper if you kept to more of a budget with regards to eating and drinking, but even with our relative extravagance it was half the cost of taking the plane.
Yes, so we ‘wasted’ 2 days but were they really wasted? Perhaps if you were on a 2 week holiday but in terms of our trip 2 days is nothing, and during those 2 days we a unique experience as opposed to a day at an airport and an hour on a plane.
So while it is much cheaper to get to Thailand this way, you’re also getting a priceless travel experience.