Hello everyone! So Emma left you all at the Thai/Laos border as we were about to take the slow boat to Luang Prabang. Just so you’re all aware, the mighty Mekong river flows into South East Asia from China in the North, it becomes the border between Thailand and Laos for some distance, so to enter Laos from Thailand you need to cross it. Once on the Laos side your passport is stamped and you can now get back on the river and head deeper into Laos. We would be taking the slow boat for two days down to Luang Prabang.
Enough of that, we got up, had some strange scrambled eggs on toast and then were shepherded onto the back of a Toyota pickup truck. The overnight accommodation had been kind enough to sell us all cushions for the gruelling journey ahead. They showed pictures of the hard wooden benches we’d be sitting on and told us there wouldn’t be seats for everyone. So 40 tourists buy a cushion each for 40 Thai Baht (about 80p) and stand around like muppets with their brightly coloured cushions covered in pictures of teddy bears. All of these extra cushions have to be loaded onto the pickup too, as well as the tourists and their luggage. The ladies got to ride in the cab but all the fellas clung on for dear life on the back whilst we were driven a mile or so to the Thai border. Our passports were stamped and we then boarded a long boat for the 5 minute journey to the Laos side of the river. The Laos border office is quite a confusing place, masses of tourists are milling around a few small windows and there are no obvious instructions listed anywhere (well there were, but people were stood in front of them). We eventually sussed out that we needed a visa form and an arrival/departure card, so we filled these in and handed them over with our passports. Half an hour later your name’s called, you pay the fee and you’re in. Lots of westerners were just milling around clueless without asking what they needed to do, I can’t imagine how long they would have been stood there for.
As we were travelling with a group, we stood about until everyone had their visas and stamps. We were then led to the office of the travel company we’d bought the tickets through. Now a nice chap who spoke excellent English gave us a ten minute speech on the trials and tribulations that would be ahead of us on our two day journey down the Mekong to the Laos town of Luang Prabang. The speech centred around the halfway town that we would be overnighting in, a little place called Pakbeng. Apparently it had no electricity, few guesthouses and nobody there accepts Thai Baht or US Dollar. Panic erupts as hoards of our party hear this, but thankfully this guy is able to book accommodation for us now AND we can change our foreign currency with him to Laos Kip. What a great guy everyone thought as they handed him their cash. Roughly half the group, thankfully including Emma and I this time, stood back realising the guy is scaring people into spending way over the odds through him. Next came one of those awkward moments where everyone was asked to hand over their passports. Everyone had to do it so we all just hoped that we’d see them again. Next we were ferried in a big pink golf cart a few miles to a shop, sure enough there would be no food or drink for sale on the slow boat so we needed to buy up now. I tried to use the local cashpoint to withdraw some Laos Kip but it wasn’t working, we were stuck with a few Baht and some Dollars. Luckily a kind Australian couple we’d met lent us some Kip so we bought a few baguettes for the journey (due to the French colonisation there are odd things like this available all over South East Asia). We breathed a sigh of relief as we were handed back our passports complete with a boat ticket and walked down to the docks. We boarded the boat and were surprised to see comfy seats that had been stripped from minivans fitted all over the boat, we wouldn’t be needing our fancy cushions after all! Our biggest worry was now settled, we wouldn’t be sat on the floor the whole way there and could now sit back, relax and enjoy what was going to be one of the best views of our lives. Oh and surprise surprise there was a well stocked bar selling snacks and drinks!
The time was now 12:30pm, the boat was supposed to have left at 10:30am, all times quoted in Laos generally need two hours adding on. We set off down the Mekong and watched as the towns disappeared and we headed deeper and deeper into the jungle. Dragonflies whizz through the boat and butterflies circle around as you go. What I hadn’t realised was that the Mekong was full of huge rocks and that the Captain has the most detailed map of the river in his head, able to position us perfectly so as to avoid them. For 6 hours we cruised along the muddy brown Mekong stopping occasionally to pickup or drop off some of the locals onboard or even the token smiling and smoking monk who was travelling with us. As we passed through small wooden-hut villages, children leapt into the water waving frantically. It seems the kids here have to learn to swim very quickly, the current in the river is so strong, most of us would drown if we attempted to swim it, these wiry little kids made it look easy. The whole way along the river we passed bamboo frames supporting fishermen’s nets, a few thrashing furiously where something big had been caught.
So we eventually arrive at some small steps carved into the stone, up the hill is Pakbeng, our halfway stop. Walking carefully with our huge packs on we made it up the steps and past the crowd of people trying to sell us a room for the night. We lied pretending we already had somewhere booked to get past them and walked up the hill towards a particular guesthouse we’d heard good things about. As we walked in, the owner exclaimed 200 Baht a room (I thought people here only accepted Kip??!), we checked it out and took it. Pakbeng is a tiny town that has sprung up out of nowhere to satisfy the groups of tourists arriving on the slow boat everyday. It’s a geographical coincidence that it exists as it’s roughly halfway to Luang Prabang and suitable for the boats to moor. We spent the night there enjoying some traditional Laos Larp, a fresh tasting minced chicken salad, it has mint in it which is a flavour we hadn’t come across in Thailand. We also enjoyed our first bottles of the lovely beer Lao, it’s just another lager but there’s something about it which sets it apart from all the other beers so far.
The next day we got back onto a different boat and headed off towards Luang Prabang. The second leg took 9 hours, passing through the same stunning scenery. Again we stopped occasionally in small villages while locals handed over boxes of produce, presumably for sale further down the river. We saw boxes of live chickens, snails and one guy had a two foot live lizard trussed up to a stick as he boarded. Sometime in the afternoon a horrendous smell arose. Everyone looked around to see where it was coming from, eventually we noticed a dead water buffalo floating past, bloated up and reeking.
Finally just as it had stared to rain we arrived at a slightly more impressive jetty and headed up the bank of Luang Prabang glad to be on solid ground. Next step was to find our hostel, doh I didn’t save a copy of the map on my phone! We walked into town ducking under the low awnings of what was to be the night market still being set up, and stopped for a coffee. Not just any coffee, but the thickest, blackest most gut rotting coffee you’ve ever chewed, served with sickeningly sweet condensed milk, apparently the Laos way. The restaurant’s wifi wasn’t working so we managed to find a tuk tuk driver who knew our hostel and we headed there eager to take off our backpacks.
I’ll leave you all there for now and will pick up the story soon.