The slow boat to Laos

CURRENT LOCATION: Luang Prabang, Laos


At 5.50pm, I looked at my watch and thought, we should head down to the bus station soon. Of course, as I was thinking this, the heavens opened. Every time I thought it couldn't rain any harder, it did. We retrieved our bags and dug out our raincoats and pack covers. Then, we made a break for it. We dashed down the street, and arrived soaking wet. We dropped our bags in the van, ran to get some provisions for the journey, and climbed in the van. We were very excited to hear there were only 7 of us in the 12 seater van - usually there are around 15 people in a 12 seater van. And so began our three day trip to Laos.

We got to chatting with the other people in the van as we wound back through the mountains towards Chiang Mai. Remember how smug I was about the windy road on the way to Pai? Well that wore off pretty quickly. The next 3 hours were some of the longest of my life. The driver was actually doing a great job, but the road was wet, and as we wound through the mountains, no amount of anti-nausea medication was helping. I ended up spending about 2 of the hours clutching a plastic bag, unable to open my mouth for fear I would put the bag to good use. I kept thinking, "We have to stop for a break soon, surely.". Eventually, I was right. We pulled into a gas station to fill up, and the driver told us we'd be stopping for 10 minutes. I took the opportunity to lie on the concrete and recover. 

10 minutes later, we climbed back into the van. As it turns out, we had picked up 5 more folks at the gas station. They had come from Chiang Mai, and were joining us on our journey to Laos. By this stage, it was 9pm. We were due to arrive at our next destination of Chiang Khong, the town closest to the Thai border with Laos, at around midnight. The next few hours were more cramped, but less windy, so I was pretty pleased. I tried to get some sleep, but it was difficult in a crowded van on bumpy roads.

Each town we drove through, I thought excitedly must be Chiang Khong. Midnight came and went. As did 12.30am. At around 1am, we finally pulled up outside a guesthouse. A woman led us to a room, and in we went. The room was huge, with a fan and a bathroom, but honestly, I was too tired to care. We both basically passed out, knowing we were due to be on the road again at 8.30am.

At 7.15am, a knock on our door told us it was time to get up. We got dressed and headed out to find breakfast. The owner explained she would drive us to breakfast, on the way to the border. The 12 of us, plus all our luggage, piled into her ute. About 1km down the road, we piled back out, and went into another guest house for breakfast. Everyone visibly blanched when we were brought scrambled eggs on toast. Still, we choked them down. Just.

Soon enough, we were told that our taxi had arrived. Again, we all squeezed in. It was like a clown car. We had two more people now, so there were 14 of us, plus everyone's bags, shoved in the back of the shared taxi. We headed off, and puttered along the few kms to the border.

Out we climbed. Here, we cleared Thai customs, paid for a bus ticket, and jumped on the bus to the Laos border. At the Laos border, we did some quick money exchanging (Thai baht to Laos Kipp), filled out our forms, and got our visas. We very excitedly picked up our passports with a shiny new one page visa, and a new stamp. Yippee!

We had to hang around a while at the border to wait for our bus to the boat. There were about 50 of us, and it was a really interesting bunch of people - but we'll get to that later. Eventually the guide explained the programme for the next couple of days, we booked some accommodation for that night in Pakbeng, and we all jumped on the bus to the dock. While on the bus, they collected our passports to issue us tickets. Once at the other end, we waited to collect them back, then headed down to climb on board the boat.

There weren't many seats left on the boat when we got on, but we weren't worried, since we had seat numbers. This is probably a good time to mention that the seats were simple old van seats placed in the boat: not tied or strapped down, just placed into neat rows. Except it quickly became clear that our seat numbers didn't exist. The boat captain told us to sit wherever there were seats, so we grabbed two of the last remaining seats. From then, it devolved into a free for all. People were scrambling for seats, and they brought more on from outside. Eventually, there were about 5 people left without seats, so they were given cushions and buckets, and made themselves comfortable on the stairs.

Boat, Laos, Thailand

About 45 minutes later than scheduled, at 11.45am, we started cruising. It was then that we got a chance to really check out the people who would be our boat mates for the next two days. There were now about 70 of us on the boat, plus about 20 locals. We could have played some serious traveller cliche bingo on this boat. Among my favourite idiots: anyone wearing a singlet with a local beer on it; white people with dreadlocks; people with friendship brackets, necklaces and rings clearly bought from local markets hanging off any available body part; girls with hair wraps or braids; anyone wearing hippie clothing, especially with elephant prints on them; the guy travelling with his guitar; the guy travelling with his skateboard; and, top of the list, the guy wearing skinny jeans, a button up shirt, a dense, scraggly hipster beard, and to top it off, literally, a beanie, while it was 35°c. After about 15 minutes of cruising, a fair majority of the people on the boat decided it was time to hit the beer/rum/weed (especially one guy with a tattoo of a cross on one achilles, a Jesus fish in the other, and a tattoo of a crucifix on his arm - feels a bit like having your cake and eating it too? Hedonistic fun with the the promise of salvation!!). As the boat trip went on, the people watching got even more interesting. Most of the people on the boat would have been under 25, and there was some serious 'trying to be cool' going on. It made me realise a few things, but mainly, 1) I would have thought this was a lot more fun when I was 20, and 2) I was a dick when I was 20.

Zev and I settled in with our iPods and books, sat back and watched the scenery. The Laos countryside was stunning. Lots of lush green trees and hills, and cute little villages as we puttered down the river. At 6pm, we arrived in Pakbeng. Which was lucky, because one guy threw up his last 2 litres of beer immediately after getting off the boat, so I think the trip would have taken a serious downhill turn had we gone on much longer. For the record, he was Australian...

Boat, Laos, Thailand

We climbed off the boat, collected our bags, and jumped in yet another shared taxi to the hostel. I wasn't overly excited when we were all crammed in, and old drunky puker climbed in. I hoped he could last the ride to the hostel without another cheeky spew. Luckily we all made it unscathed, climbed out and check in. To the crappiest place we have stayed to date. The walls were basically made of paper, it was dirty (although not the sheets or anything), and the bathroom sucked. That said, I was so tired and desperate for a shower that I really couldn't have cared less. We headed down to the restaurant for dinner (where we were asked if we wanted any weed with our meal), where I enjoyed a delicious bacon pizza (clearly their menu was skewed to the stoner market). We hit the sack pretty early, still tired from the night before, and knowing we were off early again in the morning.

Another 7.15am knock woke us, so we headed down for breakfast and restocked our snacks. We opted to walk down to the wharf to avoid another shared taxi squeeze. Much to our delight, we were greeted by a bigger boat, which was only about 3/4 full when we arrived. We dropped our bags at the back of the boat and snagged a couple of seats. Slowly the rest of the travellers trickled on board, some looking a little worse for wear. Finally we puttered off at about 10am.

The second day was a much more sedate affair, perhaps down to some hangovers, although as the afternoon wore on, a few brave souls hit the sauce again. The atmosphere was still good though, with people playing cards and listening to music, sleeping and chatting to their neighbours.

Boat, Laos, Thailand

The scenery was still stunning, and at about 4.30pm we pulled up to the dock, about 10kms from Luang Prabang. We grabbed, you guessed it, yet another shared taxi into the city. I can't say I was too sorry to say goodbye to any of the folks from the boat. Luang Prabang city looked beautiful, but we were keen to get to the hotel and relax. From the city we managed to convince a friendly tuk tuk driver to take us the extra 1km to our hotel - for a fee, of course!

Boat, Laos, Thailand

We checked in, had long, enjoyable showers, grabbed some dinner at the hotel restaurant and went to bed, hoping to catch up on the sleep lost over the last few nights. We were very excited to check out what Laos has to offer!

Lots of love,
S & Z

(Original post date: 21st June 2015)