This last week I managed to make my way to Luang Prabang after taking a two day boat ride down the Mekong River. I had heard other backpackers mention the slow boat to Luang Prabang as being a cheap and scenic way to make your way through northern Laos from Thailand. Seeing as I have more time than money at this point, it sounded like a great idea. After reading a few so-so reviews of the slow boat journey online, I packed my bags and hopped onto the boat with lowish expectations of a cramped and uncomfortable journey.
Day 1: Getting into Laos from Chiang Khong and onto the Slow Boat
Day 1 started at 6 in the morning, with me waiting at the Chiang Rai bus station (conveniently located next to the night bazaar). I paid 65 baht ($2.50 CAD) for a bus ride lasting nearly 3 hours to get to the Chiang Kong border crossing. Because this is such a well traveled route, the bus driver announced when to get off for the Laos border crossing (which was good because otherwise I would have had no idea), and a tuk tuk was waiting to drive me (along with one other backpacker) to the Thai border crossing. I then had to pay another 20 or 30 baht here.
Once my passport had been stamped on the Thai side, I boarded a bus along with 20-30 other tourists to the Laotian immigration building. This part definitely felt very unorganized, and I was glad that we were only 20-30 people, otherwise I could have been waiting for a very long time. Instead, it took under an hour to fill out my visa application, hand over my passport, and get my visa.
Side note on what to bring to the border crossing: I came embarrassingly unprepared for this, as up until now almost every border crossing I’ve been to has been really simple (Thailand, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Bali, etc.). I didn’t bring cash in USD for my visa (it costs $42 for Canadians) and also didn’t bring a passport sized photo as required – oops! Luckily, it wasn’t a big deal and I was able to exchange my Thai baht to USD at the border crossing without any issues and also pay a small fee (about $2?) for them to scan my passport so I wouldn’t need a photo. Phewph!
Once that was over with, I headed outside to catch a songtaew to the slow boat pier. It took about 15 minutes to get there and cost 20,000 kip ($3.20 CAD). Finally, I had arrived! By this time I could feel my stomach starting to grumble, as I hadn’t ate anything since the night before! I grabbed a delicious looking sandwich from one of the stalls (Laos has bread? I’ve been eating nothing but rice and noodles for months now so this was a very welcome surprise) and made my way down a steep hill towards the pier.
Yet another example of lack of planning on my part: after paying for my Laos visa and everything else that morning, I had run out of enough money for the slow boat ticket (which was a whopping 210,000 kip ($35 CAD)). This was much more than I had planned for. Now I had to trudge back up the hill to the nearest ATM. I was also starting to worry that I would miss the boat, which was set to leave in fifteen minutes. Eeeep!
I finally made it on the boat, hot and sweaty, just before 11 am. All of the stress of rushing to get on had been for nothing, because we then sat in the pier for another hour, waiting for the boat to fill up with more people.
Finally, we took off! I was seated next to a nice young Laos man (or do you say Laotian?) who shared his cookies and took selfies of himself with me in the background. So obviously, I returned the favor by taking a few photos of my own. 😉
Also, I was happy to learn that for the first hour of the journey, I was close enough to the Thai border for my cellular data plan to still work! Yes, I know it’s sad but true that even in a place as beautiful as this I would still be tempted to scroll through the news feed on Facebook rather than looking out my window.
But luckily I didn’t miss scenery such as this.
The farther along we went down the Mekong River, the more beautiful the scenery became. My knitting (and phone) were cast to the side as I stared out at the beautiful hills and valleys passing me by. Every so often we would pass a speed boat, more slow boats, or just some locals watching us from the shore.
I was expecting the scenery to be nice … but not this nice! I was not at all prepared for the beauty that is Laos.
We arrived in Pak Beng at around 6 or 7, and I was exhausted. Luckily, it was super easy to find a guesthouse for the night. Once you stepped off the boat, there were about a dozen or so locals trying to convince you to come stay at their guesthouse for the night. I took one that cost me 100,000 kip ($16 CAD) and arrived at the guesthouse. Most of the guesthouses in Pak Beng also have a combined restaurant and can prepare you lunches for the following day. Although afterwards I found out that you can get lunches for much cheaper just by walking down towards the pier.
I had gotten a bit accustomed to “luxury hostel living” after staying at a few really nice hostels such as the Mercy hostel in Chiang Rai (really recommend it!), Thailand, and Sim CityStay in Penang, Malaysia (where I got to stay for free as I was volunteering through HelpX). In Pak Beng, however, I was introduced to the Laos style of guesthouse – it’s not terrible, but perhaps a step down from what I was used to. The shower spouted out water everywhere but where it should go, so that in order to take a proper shower you had to hold the handle. Other than that, I can’t complain too much. As long as it doesn’t have bedbugs or cockroaches, I’m happy!
Day 2: Pak Beng to Luang Prabang
The second day started almost as frazzled as the first. I made my way downstairs for some breakfast at around 8:30 to find several backpackers with backpacks on, ready to board the boat. Wait, what? The other two travelers at the hostel informed me that breakfast was actually supposed to be at 7 in the morning, but I guess that bit of info didn’t get through to me yesterday evening. I then quickly chowed down on my breakfast, packed up my bags, and raced out towards the pier in the pouring rain. You see, I wanted to get a window seat on the boat. The day before, I had been too late to snag one, and was a bit disappointed about having to miss out on a few great photo shots from my seat in the middle of the boat.
I arrived on the boat, this time soaking wet from the rain, at about 9:30. Once again, we were running on “Lao time”. Meaning that we’d be leaving an hour later than we were supposed to. Maybe they just tell you to to get to the boat at 9 and to have breakfast at 7 to keep you on your toes? Who knows.
Despite the outpour of rain, the scenery remained jawdroppingly beautiful. This time there were shrouds of mist floating between the hill peaks. It was cozy on the boat, not too warm and not too cold. A perfect opportunity for me to take out some knitting.
The Knitting Project
I haven’t taken too many photos of this project so far, but I’m working on a new hat pattern. It will have cables. Lots and lots of cables! I’m also working on the very handy skill of cabling without a cable needle, which helps to speed the process. It’s fun to knit, but I didn’t get nearly as much of it done as I would’ve hoped over the course of the two days. Mostly due to the fact that the views were just too beautiful to keep my eyes pulled away for long.
We arrived outside of Luang Prabang at around 5 pm. Despite the gorgeous views for the full two days, I was still a bit anxious to finally get off that boat and into a nice hostel where I could lay low for a while. Once again, that didn’t prove too difficult, and I set off in a van crammed with backpackers to the Sokdee Guesthouse.
I’ll leave the details on Luang Prabang for another post, but let me tell you that I think it is one of the most beautiful cities I have visited in Southeast Asia so far! The words I would describe this place with are: chic, green, foliage, trendy, beautiful, floral and laid back. I am loving it.
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