When we decided to add Laos to our whirlwind visit to Southeast Asia we earmarked two days to take the leisurely and reportedly scenic 2-day slow boat from the northern Laos border town of Houay Xai to one of the most visited cities in Laos, Luang Prabang. We kept a journal of our journey as it unfolded that we thought would be worth sharing. We opted to cross the Thailand/Laos border a day before we picked up the slow boat so we’ll start with that day.
Well, this voyage isn’t getting off to the world’s greatest start. I booked a night at one of the better guesthouses in Houay Xai according to Tripadvisor. Apparently, that is damning with faint praise. This place (Riverside Guesthouse Phonevitch) is a tourist trap, charging outrageous rates for mediocre rooms. Even the mediocre rooms are a crapshoot, as when I turned on the faucet in our first room hundreds of ants and other bugs fled out the drain ahead of the onrushing water. Our second room had been claimed by a family of geckos before we could unpack. But, kind of like Goldilocks, our third room was…a ripoff. But a bug (mostly) lizard free ripoff. On top of this, we paid $35 for the room, which is out-freaking-rageous for Laos.
So we went to the guesthouse’s bar/restaurant to get some food and much needed beer. After talking to the owner for about 5 minutes we suddenly longed for the less slimy company of the geckos. He proved his mastery of English to us by frequently and flagrantly misusing the word “fuck” and tried to convince us of his honesty by telling us about how he came to Laos to run this hotel as a money laundering operation for his sister. Charming. After hearing all of this it was very easy to turn down his “deal” for a river cruise ticket and accommodation for only $50/person. Lucky for us we had plenty of beer and some good company, as a group from the upriver slow boats were staying at this place too. The party lasted until they ran out of beer and the power went out, which were both great clues that it was time for bed. If nothing else, at least tomorrow will have to do very little to top today.
Thanks to yet another of our host’s lies, we woke up at 7 for breakfast so we could get good window seats on our boat that was supposed to depart at 8:30. Except it didn’t actually leave at 8:30. It left at 11. This was not the boat’s fault as they apparently always leave at 11. Why this clown told us (and another French couple with whom we shared our confusion) that the boats left at 8:30 remains a mystery. Anyway, after several card games and coffee we eventually boarded a nearly empty boat at 10:15.
Good thing, too, because the boat filled quickly.
While we were waiting for the boat to fill, some local boys wandered among the backpackers on board with ice in their hands and took turns surprising us with cold (and welcomed) ice on our necks and giggling at our surprised reactions. It was a nice, if somewhat creepy, way to keep cool until the boat launched.
When we finally left at 11:30 every former car seat on our boat was filled with a backpacker, and even some locals as well. We even had some chickens in a bamboo cage to boot!
Once we got moving, it was clear that the slow boat was the right call. The soft rain and the breeze made our ride pleasantly cool – a wonderful change from the everywhere else that was sweltering. The scenery was beautiful, too.
The muddy brown Mekong contrasted beautifully with the aggressively green hills running along the river. Frequently, the bugs in the surrounding forest (jungle?) made so much noise that they drowned out the boat’s loud, gurgling engine and made it feel like the trees were right on top of our boat. We passed small rural villages men in their underpants fishing with nets from their canoes while their children – frequently starkers – either took a cooling dip in the river or waved at the boat in a wonderfully non-self-conscious display. Although the river was mostly placid, there were points where the water resembled low-class rapids flowing around jagged rocks sticking some feet above the surface. For all 6 hours of our Day 1 voyage the scenery continued like this.
At about 3 many of our fellow passengers turned our boat into a floating bar, congregating in the back of the passenger compartment and apparently hell-bent on drinking the boat out of Beer Lao (they failed – probably because we didn’t help). It made for a fun on-board atmosphere, but conflicted with our moods. Not that the boat ride wasn’t relaxing and beautiful, but we were both reading books* about the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia, which muted our enthusiasm.
* Anna was reading The Killing Fields and I was reading First They Killed My Father.
Pakbeng: Our Halfway Stop
Chaos. The second we docked, touts from Pakbeng’s guesthouses and restaurants flooded on board trying to get our business while he passengers all queued up to retrieve their backpacks from the rear of the boat. One small Laotian man in a red shirt weaved through the crowd offering everyone “weed, dope, opium.” The other touts may have been selling more legally but less honestly. One told all of us that we had to get off the boat to get our bags (nope) while others promised us access to free WiFi and/or tvs showing all of the World Cup games (it started yesterday) which they clearly couldn’t promise. Eventually, we stomped through them, including one guy who guessed I was from Milwaukee (!) and up the hill into the “town” to find our own accommodation. It turned out to be a just fine guesthouse ($7/night) which was more tolerable after our ant massacre in the bathroom.
After a surprisingly good dinner during which we made friends with a black kitten (on Friday the 13th no less) who ate my leftovers, we hit the sack so we could get up early and get good seats for Day 2.
Ok, so our place was barely OK. We boarded our boat at 8:30 after suffering through the worst shower of our trip so far (that’s saying something): cold, too low for any adult, directly under a couple of curious ceiling spiders.
The crowd seemed more subdued today, probably because they were hungover from the night before. We noticed the liquor vendor in town had several gaps in her inventory that was noticeably full the previous evening. Many of them were also Europeans who stayed up to watch the World Cup matches which air here at 11 pm, 2 am, and 5 am. Although the passengers were more subdued there were also more of them, with many more local passengers than were aboard yesterday.
Thankfully, the scenery hadn’t changed much except for the addition of sunlight and some more dramatic sheer cliff faces replacing yesterday’s hills.
At breakfast this morning, the young daughter of our guesthouse owner underscored a disturbing trend we noticed yesterday. After she finished her yoghurt she just walked over to the ledge of the guesthouse and threw the plastic container over the side into the jungle below. While floating yesterday, we saw an alarming amount of garbage in the river, often clustering in whirlpools or near a cluster of rocks. Today was just as bad if not worse. It’s sad to see something so beautiful polluted like this, but as an American I probably shouldn’t be throwing stones in this glass house. Either way, it’s still sad.
The only major difference from yesterday was that today we stopped to pick up an ill elderly woman. Someone from one of the riverside villages waved a towel from the dock to get our captain’s attention while 3 villagers, the ill woman, and her husband (I assume) rowed toward our boat in a wooden canoe.
With some effort they grabbed our boat’s railing to steady their canoe while several Laotians on our boat went to help the woman onboard. Once she was safely aboard the canoe left, but not before pulling back up one more time because they forgot the sick woman’s sandals. She lay sideways near the front of the boat, apparently suffering from some type of back or abdominal pain while her husband gently knocked on her back with a balled fist. Nobody seemed too concerned with her condition so it didn’t feel like an emergency, but it was a unique opportunity for us to peek into the lifestyle of people living on the banks of the Mekong.
We arrived that afternoon at Luang Prabang after thoroughly enjoying both days of our trip down the Mekong and very happy that we chose the slow boat over the faster options. It gave us an opportunity to see a part of Laos we really couldn’t have seen any other way and a chance to see some spectacular scenery in a beautiful country. It seems appropriate to end with some more photos of that beautiful journey.