The south-east Asian backpacking circuit is well established. From Bangkok, travellers head North-wast to Chang Mai, Pai and the golden triangle, before heading east into the small country of Laos. Most travellers cross the border and then get on “the slow boat to Laos”. That is exactly what we did on our Five Month Trip across South-East Asia.
The Slow Boat to Laos
We bought a package from Pai. We had a van transfer to the Thai border, one night in a hotel there and then the boat tickets. The van transfer took an age. We were on the road all day and worked our way through far too many box sets on the iPod classic. (Seriously, how did we both watch such a tiny screen!)
We got to our guesthouse that backed onto the water and it was a bit rubbish, but then that’s what you get when you don’t pick it yourself. We made the mistake of going for dinner with the rest of the group and got eaten alive by huge swarms of river-dwelling mosquitoes!
It was with frustration and disappointment that we realised something was wrong with our camera. It was refusing to take any photos. We later learned that the memory card had caught a virus in a Bangkok internet cafe. It probably isn’t the only thing to leave Bangkok infected!
We stocked up on food and drink from local vendors before climbing aboard the long wooden vessel. There were benches to either side of a central aisle but the back section was a nice open space, and drenched in sun. We decided to indulge in a spot of sunbathing.
The slow boat to Laos is exactly that, slooooooow! It takes two days to chug along the Mekong from the Thai/Laos border to Luang Prabang down river. Plenty of time then to get to know our fellow passengers. The boat was only about half full and so there was plenty of room for everyone. A group of louder, younger, drunker backpackers hung out at the back, and so ensued a six hour boat party.The cheap booze flowed on deck, as the sluggish Mekong flowed beneath. It was a most leisurely way to spend a day., even if it did lead to a hangover and slight sun stroke.
We stopped in Pakbeng and checked into an utterly nondescript guest house. We popped out for some dinner but the long hours of day drinking had taken their toll. Others hit the bars in town but we hit the sheets and slept until the early morning wake up call for the boat.
The next morning, we were up and out bright and early, ready for another day on the water. It was with confusion and mild horror that we saw the waiting boat. Nearly every seat was taken. Where on earth had all these extra people come from!? We scampered down the gangplank and grabbed two of the only two seats that were left. No longer was there room for everyone to stretch out, sunbathe or host a dance party. Instead, we were sat on a hard wooden bench, with only our cheap travel pillows for comfort. It was a very different, and although still perfectly pleasant, no where near as fun.
A quick note: From looking at recent photos of the slow boat to laos, it looks like the hard wooden benches have been replaced by padded seats with full back supports. This is probably a lot more comfortable but it must be harder to socialise with those around you
The Arrival into Luang Prabang
After such a long day of relative peace drifting along the Mekong, stepping off the boat into a sea of touts was a little overwhelming. They swarmed down the concrete slope and we had to haul our stiff limbs and heavy backpack past them. We made straight for the cheapest guesthouse in our guidebook and it was with great relief and we checked in. The guest house with odd, we had to pass through the families front room clamber through a hatch and then the rooms were lined up along a wide utility corridor. At 40 kip we weren’t complaining. It seemed that Laos was going to be that little bit cheaper.
Taking the slow boat to Laos was somewhat a rite of passage into the backpacking world. There are other options so as a quick comparison., from Thailand to Lung Prabang, you can:
- The slow boat to Laos – Still a very popular option for budget travellers with time to spare.
- A speedboat down the river – This take 4-5 hours but is loud, cold, wet and after the first ten minutes, probably not all that fun.
- Some sort of bus – The roads between Thailand and Luang Prabang are long and winding. It is a vomit-inducing ride and will take about ten hours.
- A flight – Luang Prabang has expanded it’s airport. It is much bigger than when we visited. This is good option if you are short on time or flash with cash.
I would happily take the slow boat to Laos again, if I had the time I suppose. Sometimes when you are travelling at a million miles an hour, having the time to do nothing is a welcome breather. I guess that is why we like train travel too, it is the transport that gives you the time to take it all in (without the car sickness).