Slow Boat to Luang Prabang
I am in a small boat, half-way across the Mekong River, heading towards Huay Xai in Laos. I alight from the boat with the group of people I had travelled with in a minibus from Chiang Mai.
Here, the illusion of group travel disintegrates. Its every person for themselves, getting papers processed, getting stamps and passing through immigration. Now through immigration I am whisked off, separately from the others, to a cafe and told to stay. Half an hour later I am moved across the street to another cafe, and once again am told to wait. Maybe they were hoping I would buy something, maybe it was disorganisation. Finally I am loaded into the back of a songthaw which takes me to the slow boat to Luang Prabang. Not China, China is in the opposite direction.
The boat, about sixty feet long and ten feet wide, has wooden bench seats. The few thin plastic cushions available were quickly acquired and greedily possessed. Provisions, not for us, are loaded aboard and at last we were on our way, going south, down the mighty Mekong.
During this day, the first day of a two day journey, most people are chirpy, interacting with each other, taking many photographs of the people, the banks, boats large and small. Some are large enough to carry freight to China, others small, only capable of carrying two or three people.
The novelty of it all. It quickly becomes apparent why the boats are long and narrow. The low water reveals jagged rocks. Located across and along the river in multiple locations they are rocks which can easily tear the bottom or side of any wooden boat.
Reaching Pakbeng, where we will spend the night, at dusk our packs are removed from the boat by young men whom we thought were porters. Big Mistake! Instead of setting them down on the shore for us to collect, they take them to guest houses of their choice and then expect to be paid for their unwanted service. As I had already booked my room for the night the whole episode was a time and money wasting annoyance. I pay the escape fee of 100baht to retrieve my pack, ok call me a wimp, and make my way to the guest house into which I had booked. The guesthouse dining area was on a balcony overlooking the river. Sleep, ah sleep was on a rock hard mattress!
Awoke refreshed after a surprisingly sound nights sleep. Breakfast is devoured quickly because the boat leaves at 8:00AM precisely! Many young men offer to take our packs to the boats for 100 baht. Few takers. Now I am abroad the boat which will complete the journey. More and more people board until the boat is what I would regard as full. Still they come, and I am having images of a boat sinking and the majority of us floating face down in the river to our destination. Finally good sense prevails and another boat is allocated. I alight and board the new boat. "It will be another half an hour before will leave, as we are waiting for people." As I can't be bothered going back to the original boat, I stay. I noticed some of the boats have the seats that are found on the VIP buses in Thailand. I look at my wooden bench, now I am envious. Though I didnt enquire, I think those boats are used on tours with considerably more expensive fares. Finally, finally we leave! This boat feels faster, a fast slow boat. Indeed within an hour we catch and pass the boat I first boarded.
Onwards we go, seeing people, often children, along the river bank where the rainforest gives way to a 'beach'. "Where do they come from, what do their parents do?"
The whole area seems to be river, a few beaches exposed by the low water levels and rain forest. Today, the passengers are not so chirpy. Is the novelty of river travel wearing? We know we are near the end of our journey when we cross the path of day trippers visiting the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas.
Arriving at dusk we are greeted by the crowds of tuk-tuk drivers keen to take us the hundred meters or so to the guest house of their choice. I walk a distance of fifty to hundred meters and find suitable accommodation for about $4/night.
"Was it worth it? Would you do it again?", are questions I have been asked. The answer to the first question is a resounding, "YES!" The answer to the second question depends upon time availabity. By the slow boat its a three day journey from Chiang Mai. Flying takes an hour. Yes, if time was not limited I would do it again. But I would take the much more comfortable VIP bus to Chiang Kong, possibly stopping off at Chiang Rai for a day or two. I would enquire what other options there are, a boat with a VIP seat; stops at villages along the river; dining options, for example, and then purchase the appropriate ticket. Another option for the river journey is the fast boat. However, the idea of being cramped on a noisy speed boat for six to eight hours does not appeal to me. Admittedly, some people would get a buzz out of it.