The van came to a halt on the side of the road, followed by rapid fire Thai from our driver speaking loudly into her mobile phone in a tone suggesting urgency. Rice fields stretched out into the distance on either side, and we could see mountains in the distance. We were about 45 minutes into our journey towards the Thailand/Laos border, and without explanation, our diver turned the van around and headed back towards Chiang Rai.
Day 36 – A Slow Start to the Slow Boat
11 February 2020: Luke, Miriam and I awoke that morning at 5:00 AM in the Mercy Hostel and tried our best to vacate the 8-bunk room without waking everyone else up. The tour company van that was to take us to the border was scheduled to arrive between 6 and 6:30 AM. The van was a few minutes later than expected, but by my calculations, we had at most a two and half hour drive to the Thailand border town of Chiang Khong, leaving us at least a couple of hours to get through customs and to the 11:30 Slow Boat in Huay Xia on the other side of the border.
Of course, the fact that we were now turning around and driving back towards Chiang Rai destroyed whatever sense of calm we had about the timing of this morning. As the driver did not seem inclined to provide updates or explanations in English or any other language, we were left to speculate with the other passengers packed into the van as to the purpose of the detour. The van appeared to be running OK, so logically we assumed that we were running back to pick up a missed passenger. Or maybe the driver left the stove on in her house…I don’t know.
It turned out to be a missing customer. We had to drive back 30 minutes in the opposite direction, and though they sent the missing passenger outbound in a taxi to meet us midway, the original timeline was shot. This brought on the predictable litany of anxious questions from Luke regarding the likelihood of missing the boat, and what if we do miss the boat, where will we stay, what if we can’t find anywhere to stay, will we get our money back, will we take the boat the next day, etc. etc. And honestly, based on our last border experience, I wasn’t that confident about our chances of getting through customs and making the boat.
We arrived at the Thai border facility after 9:30 AM, which was making me nervous. Processing out of Thailand was very quick though, and we were being helped along by a new guide from the tour company who met us at the border and was cheerful and confident and happily answered our questions.
After exiting Thailand, a shuttle bus pulled up and took us through no-man’s land across the Chiang Khong-Huay Xai Friendship Bridge over the Mekong river and dropped us at the Laos inbound facility. It was at that moment that I became truly grateful for the guide who directed us through a variety of border crossing steps that I imagine would have otherwise been fairly confusing to navigate.
- Coronavirus temperature check (no coughing Luke!)
- Next, get in line to present your passport and Laos entry card. In this line they take your photo and take your passport and entry card from you.
- Get in the next line and wait for them to return your passport with the full-page Laos visa pasted into it. Also they give you a QR code to use for payment of the visa fee.
- Get in yet another line to make the visa fee payment. (About $52 AUD per person)
- Welcome to Laos!
I guess it was lucky for us that there weren’t many people crossing the border that morning. It was only slightly chaotic, and our guide, conscious of the time, moved our group through the lines efficiently. Soon enough, we were all in the back of a songthaew headed for Huay Xai, Laos. Before taking us to the docks, our tour company briefed us back at their headquarters, gave us the chance to change our Thai baht to Lao kip, and to buy snacks. We also took the opportunity to quickly buy some new SIM cards. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ll know that this has typically been a challenge for us, and we have been stranded without SIMs while wandering through malls in an endless search. Here they were offering Laos Telecom SIM cards, which I read was the best for coverage in the country, so we picked up 3 for the family along with a data-only plan to get us through the next few days.
There was a lot of confusion down at the longboat docks. Our guide had suggested that there would be assigned seats on this leg of the journey, but with the chaos of multiple tour groups and hundreds of people boarding, this was thrown out the window. Unfortunately, we were close to the back of the queue, and wound up quite far back in the boat, close to the raging boat motor, and wedged into some impossibly narrow seats that appeared to be ripped from an old bus and haphazardly installed on the boat.
I sat next to a tall Dutchman who looked quite concerned about the lack of leg space and what it might do to him over the next 7 hours. We were able to jockey the seats around a little bit to get enough leg space to at least sit down without contortions, though with packs and bags of food wedged in around us, it looked to be a snug journey indeed.
Once underway, after the stresses of the border crossing and fighting our way to seats, I began to relax. The roaring boat motor just behind us wasn’t exactly the peaceful accompaniment to the journey I had envisioned, but I did grow accustomed to it, and even found the dull roar hypnotic and eventually calming. All along the Mekong there were jutting rock formations pushing up diagonally from the water or lining the shores, interspersed with long sandy beaches.
Some of these beaches had cattle lounging about or going for a swim. Most of the Mekong shoreline we saw from the boat appeared empty of people, except for the occasional, isolated hill tribe with their shacks appearing within the trees high along the banks. Near these small villages we’d see people fishing with nets from the rocks or puttering about in little boats. Occasionally our long boat would stop and pick up locals who needed to jump down river.
The experience of the slow boat was not quite what I had pictured in my mind. I suppose I had this vision of a lazy, drifting boat, partly filled with colorful locals carrying produce or chickens or whatever. I know, stupid, but in fact it was jammed to capacity with over a hundred of us westerners, and I was surprised at how much of a party scene it was. Take Christian, for example, the backpacker bro’ sitting across from us- loud enough to be heard throughout the entire boat, mixing whisky in his drink bottle and offering it to every “mama” around him, puffing his cigarettes, and fist bumping everyone up and down the aisles.
There was a regular procession of repeat customers, increasingly inebriated, making their way to the back of the boat where they were selling large bottles of Beerlao. Worse yet, there were several unbelievably rude cigarette smokers puffing away in the middle of the crowded boat, oblivious to the poison they were spewing into everyone else’s air. One “polite” European did that thing where she would shoot the smoke kind of out of the side of her mouth, towards the railing of the boat, as if directing it away from everyone, but of course that smoke merely poured into the back of the boat choking everyone behind her.
Pak Beng arrival
We arrived at the midway point after maybe a 6 hour cruise. Christian was stumbling around looking for his shoes and cursing, “I can’t find any of my sh**t!” There was a great chaos of bags and backpacks being thrown from the boat, and a precarious plank to reach the shore.
Miriam had wisely already booked us lodging in Pak Beng, so we had only to weave our way through the many touts attempting to lure those disembarking to various guest houses and start up the hill. Our lodging for the night, The Pakbeng Guesthouse, was the very first guesthouse on the way up the hill, an easy walk, thus avoiding another trip in the back of a truck. We’ll just say the guesthouse was rustic, but the staff were very friendly, and the beds clean enough, though we were besieged by the usual swarms of mosquitoes.
Unfortunately, Miriam’s stomach and sleep woes were continuing. This had been going on for several days now, so we were ruling out a food-borne bug and worrying about other possibilities. Miriam crawled under the sheets and sent Luke and I out on our own for dinner. The main road in Pakbeng winds upward from the river forming a narrow lane of guest houses and restaurants.
Dad, can you rip it?
We found an ATM and used our new international charge-free card to withdraw a few million LAK (aka kip). We felt like millionaires for a minute, though really this only added up to a couple hundred dollars. Luke asked his usual first question after receiving the new money, “Dad, can you rip it?” He’s been impressed with the various currency technology, especially money that is durable and hard to rip.
After an Indian dinner surrounded by a few of our fellow boat passengers and several stray cats, Luke and I wound our way back down through the quiet little river town. We passed families eating their dinners cross-legged upon mats on the floor, their homes with wide open doors and windows, TVs glowing within, sometimes living right next to their motorbikes in what could be garages, many with open cook fires and steaming woks at the roadside. There were glowing lanterns hanging from the guesthouse eaves and bright stars above us, with the occasional puttering motorbike weaving its way through the streets, dodging the stray dogs who were seeking whatever scraps luck might afford them.
Day 37 – Packed Up in Pak Beng
12 February 2020: we were determined to not sit at the back of boat again, so I went on an early reconnaissance run to determine the new boat location and get a sense of the queue. A few people were wandering down even before 8AM for the 9:30 departure. We accelerated our departure preparations, and as Miriam and Luke packed up, I had the guesthouse staff pack up some to-go lunches for the ride.
We boarded the boat early enough to get seats about half way up the boat, and with considerably more leg-room. The second day, with its early start and its far-better seating, was much more enjoyable for us. I managed to do some blogging and some reading, while periodically looking up to see the jungle hills and limestone mountains going by.
The boat was generally more subdued on day two, perhaps due to the early start, or maybe having to do with hangovers. Even Christian was uncharacteristically quiet. We arrived in Luang Prabang after 7 pleasant hours on the Mekong, climbed the stairs up to the arrival point, and joined the queue for tuk-tuk tickets, after which we were hustled along to one of the many waiting drivers prepared to bring us downtown.
We were dropped at our lodging where we were greeted by Mr Bill, the chief of the Khoum Sieng Thong guesthouse. Mr Bill brought us some plates of fresh fruit and briefed us on the house and city. We were paying a little more than usual to stay in a private room in Luang Prabang, and the room was very nice indeed for the money. The lower patio featured a pond with some monstrous koi, and another with spotted rays. We wandered the evening streets of downtown Luang Prabang, through a seemingly endless night market, had a quick meal at a corner food stall, and circled back along the river. A charming town, but more on that later.