The slow boat to Luang Prabang
We arrive at the border in Chiang Khong in the middle of the Pai-arrivals morning rush. Our plan of going to the border from Pai independently – to cross the border in the afternoon and avoid the worst rush – failed completely as we arrived way past border closing time, resulting in one extra night in Thailand and some longer queues on the frontier. But it still doesn’t take too long, and as soon as we reach the counter we’re stamped out and given back the passport in less than 10 seconds – one nice little perk of being a Norwegian citizen.
Same same, but different
We cross the river to Houay Xai – from where we could hear some nice loud, out of tune, karaoke singing, travelling all the way across the water and over to our guesthouse the previous night when we were trying to sleep – in some small long tail boats, and then we’re in Laos. Getting out of Thailand was easy, getting our Visas to Laos end up being slightly more strenuous. After filling out the Visa-forms, pressing our way through to the counter (if you don’t press, you’ll never reach it) and handing in the passports, we have to wait with a big bunch of people for our passports to get ready. If you stand in the front you might be able to see the passports as the border woman shows them one at a time and sometimes calls out a name, if you are in the back you just have to hope someone closer recognize you and then somehow get to the front and get it (or let the people train carry it to you). We get our passports and even the right change (absolutely no extra “fees”) and make our way to the pier from where the slow boat leaves.
At first glance Laos is pretty much like Thailand, just looking slightly more worn;, there are tuk-tuk drivers, street sellers, tons of people on the same scooter, but no 7/11 (we met some French people earlier on our trip who thought 7/11 was a Thai brand cause it’s all over the place in Thailand, and apparently they don’t have it in France for some reason), and is that stand over there really selling sandwiches? We buy a chicken sandwich each (we end up buying many sandwiches during our stay in Laos) and they are actually really good; real (white, but still real) crispy baguettes, no soggy plastic bread and lots of chicken.
We pay our slow boat tickets with Thai baht (or rather I pay, Renate didn’t have any money left for some reason, we literally ran out of money during our slow boat trip and arrived very, very hungry in Luang Prabang the day after) , a sign nearby states “You are in Laos and in Laos you pay with kip” or something in that manner, which makes us feel slightly bad, but everyone takes baht in Houay Xai (and pretty much all the way to Luang Prabang) and the exchange rates are horrible around the border (whereas when you use baht to pay for something the rate is better and consistent, 10 000 kip = 40 baht).
Down the river
The boat is a bigger version of the long tail boats, and filled with car seats (not fastened to the floor we soon discover), no horribly hard wooden benches that have resulted in many sore traveler arses in the past. For some unknown reason we end up with some seats almost in the front, we’re the last to enter the boat and we get the best seats. It’s not until we have to go to the toilet in the back that we realize just how lucky we are, the noise from the motors is terribly loud, it’s really hot and the diesel fumes are sickening. The small room at the back near the motors is filled with sweating backpackers that we end up feeling really sorry for before we hastily get to our luxury seats in the front with natural “air condition” and some nice cooling sprinkles of water now and then.
The boat ride is over in a mere 7 hours) and we reach Pakbeng around sunset. We find a reasonable place to stay and have our first encounter with cute colorful children’s bedding (definitely wasn’t our last).
The next morning we are to continue our way down the river and when we reach the pier it seems like we might not be as lucky as the day before, the boat looks pretty full already. We end up staying a bit on the pier hoping to wait it out and catch one of the other boats and be among the first to board and get some good seats. The people working on the boat keep telling us that this is the last boat leaving for Luang Prabang that day (at least three boats were used the day before) and in the end we board, just in case (when they start loading extra car- and plastic seats and fill up every single available space a short while later to accommodate all the people, we finally believe them).
At first it seems we are going to be consigned to the back room of the boat, but then we find some available seats spread around the boat and take them instead – anything is better than the back room. In the end we actually get a whole row where we can sit together.
Day two is pretty much a repeat of day one, we continue down the river, water passing by, mountains passing by, boats passing by, houses passing by, children bathing and waving, women washing clothes along the shore, men fishing – everything looking really tranquil and nice . We pick up and drop off some locals and rice sacks at a few small villages along the way, but mainly the boat is filled with travelers. The American guy sitting next to us ends up being quite entertaining, and he even manages to talk about bird watching in a funny way.
We gradually see more people, the villages start appearing at shorter intervals. We only had enough money for one sandwich each that morning, and after a while our stomachs are doing some serious growling, seven hours suddenly feels like a very long time. We finally reach Luang Prabang (and an ATM) around sunset.