Boat trip along the mighty Mekong River
02.15.2012 - 02.16.2012 85 °F
Although the banks of the Mekong are about 30ft lower because we are in the dry season, this mighty river still flows strong. It creates part of the border between Laos and Thailand and is an excellent alternative to a bumpy bus road. We floated smoothly down the Mekong River from Chiang Khong Thailand into Luang Prabang Laos on what is commonly known as the “slow boat.” The trip takes two days with a stopover in Pakbeng for the night and has become a popular party boat with the backpackers drinking Beer Lao hours before our 10:30am schedule departure. The trip is beautiful and filled with exceptional scenery. Most people just hung out on the bow or off the sides of the boat, played cards, read books, or joined the mini party in the back with rice whiskey and Beer Lao.
Notes to prospective travelers:
In Chiang Rai there are numerous tour agents that will sell you a tour package that includes minibus transport to the Lao border, a river crossing, and a ticket + transportation to the slow boat dock for a cost of $3,000 baht ($100 USD) for both of us. In true DYI spirit we decided that we would do better on our own; we took the local bus, a tuk-tuk, the river ferry, and walked the 200m to the slow boat dock. In total, we paid only $2,060 ($68 USD) and easily beat all the tour groups through immigration. This may not seem like that much of a savings, but in Southeast Asia a few dollars can pay for full days’ worth of meals (in this case we saved enough for 17 large bottles of Beer Lao). Before you take the slow boat, we’d recommend looking into an elephant festival (sometime in February each year) somewhere between Pakbeng and Luang Prabang. We met a couple who were dropped off in a remote village and it seemed like it would be a great adventure.
We boarded the boat about 9am for our 10:30 scheduled departure… there are numerous horror stories online about how they over sell the tickets and how some people end up without a seat and have to sit on the hard wooden floor in the boiling hot engine room. To set the record straight, all of these rumors are true! Securing some good seats towards the front of the boat was well worth getting up a bit early.
Once 10:30am rolled around, half the boat was still empty. After assessing the situation, we determined that because we are in the off season there was only one boat leaving today and sticking true to Asian standards, the transport wouldn’t leave until the aisles were completely packed with passengers. It turned out that all of the tour groups were up the riverbank having some breakfast (one point for the tour groups). We quickly meet some fellow travelers from Seattle, Florida, New York, England, and Canada and cracked open a few bottles of Beer Laos while we waited for our boat to fill up.
At noon the tour groups flooded onto the boat, so many people were boarding that we exceeded the seat capacity by at least 20 passengers! This didn’t seem to phase the boat operators; for the next half hour they grabbed chairs from other boats and started filling the isles with more seats, finally departing around 1pm.
We arrived at Pakbeng at around 6pm, only to realize that we were at the front of the boat, and our backpacks were at the bottom of a huge pile at the very back of the boat. Imagine sitting in first class on an airplane yet storing your luggage behind row 46 and there’s only one exit at the front of the plane…. not easy. So began the awfully inefficient process of all 160 passengers trying to recover their luggage. After getting our bags we found a cute place to stay and dug into a well awaited meal.
We were told that the boat would leave at 9am the next day so not to be late. We showed up early again and scored a table and benches around it for us to play cards and work on the computer with our friends Elle (England) and Geneviève (Quebec). Note that on day one we were assigned seats, day 2 was a different boat without assigned seats.
Then the waiting began! At 9:30am, the captain and crew were drinking Beer Laos, without a sign of a departure nearing and of course with the language barrier we had no idea what was going on. Finally, at 12:00, a minivan drove down to the dock, and the mystery was solved; an additional 10 passengers with huge suitcases boarded the already full boat. We pushed off by 12:30 and those poor people had to sit in the engine room as we were already over capacity, but we certainly didn’t feel bad about it since we had been waiting for them for over three hours!
The second day on the river was even more beautiful than the first; we saw lots of cute villages, children playing in the water along the banks of the Mekong River, concluding the day with another beautiful sunset. All in all, we highly recommend this trip to anyone, just make sure to go with the flow and remember that you really don’t have any place to be.