For what seems like an eternity, Jamie and I have been thumbing through our Lonely Planet’s “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” guide and frequently re-reading the destinations that we’re especially excited about. One of those destinations, for me, was Laos. From the sounds of it, Laos had been hailed as the next big thing in Southeast Asia, second only to Myanmar (Burma), which every backpacker seems to be crapping their pants to see before it becomes just as touristy as most other spots on the continent. What struck me as most appealing about Laos was that it is becoming known as a bit of an eco-tourism gem. After spending about two weeks in Northern Thailand riding elephants, zip-lining, swimming in waterfalls, and cruising through country roads on a scooter, we were expecting more of the same and then some in Laos.
Our introduction to the newest country to be checked off on our bucket list was a slow boat ride down the Mekong River from the border town of Huay Xay (bordering northern Thailand) to Luang Prabang, by far my favourite city in Laos. Crossing the Mekong River from Thailand to the Laos customs at Huay Xay (which is also where you eventually hop on the slowboat for Luang Prabang) is one of the most apparent contrasts between first and third world that I’ve ever seen. On one side of the river you have somewhat decent buildings and shops (maybe a little shabby for Thai standards, but nice enough for the most part) as well as a pier that allows little longboats to dock and travellers the ability to easily board. The other side of the river is laden with garbage and the pier is nothing more than a single plank of wood. This is the only thing to keep you from sinking in to the muddy shore of the Mekong as you get off the long boat with your obnoxiously large backpack. Whereas the departure customs process on the Thai side of the border was orderly and efficient, the organization of the entrance customs on the Laos side are absolute chaos.
After handing our passports to a woman who looked like she was probably working for Laos customs and filling out 3 or 4 different pieces of paper that more or less all asked for the same information and waiting about half an hour, a German tourist shouted “Kyel – Tomus – Cameran – Fut?” He had been handed my passport, complete with the Laos entry VISA, by the same woman that I had originally given it to. I guess we all look alike? Jamie got hers not long after me, in much the same fashion, and we were off.
When entering Laos in Huay Xay, you have 3 options as to what will be your next move:
1) Wait until 5pm for the first mini-van that will haul you (overnight) to Luang Prabang. Every minibus that we were forced to endure in Laos had both Jamie and I on the verge of puking from motion sickness, and I honestly can’t imagine trying to handle one of them for an overnighter. Honestly, this isn’t even really an option.
2) Slowboat to Luang Prabang. This is a relaxing journey with great scenery and plenty of beer available for purchase. It’s what we did (as I mentioned previously) and we enjoyed it.
3) The Gibbons Experience. Huay Xay is where the headquarters (and starting point) for this 2-3 day zip-lining tour company is located. Most of the people we’ve met on our travels have loved it, and speak especially highly about sleeping in a treehouse more than 200 feet above ground, amidst the Laos jungle. I would have loved to have done this, but we just didn’t have the budget for it. If we had committed to it, it would be safe to say that we wouldn’t have been able to afford to do anything else in Laos. Can’t do everything, I suppose.
Before boarding for Luang Prabang, a man who claimed to be (and seemed likely to be) the manager of the slowboat company sat us all down for a briefing on what the journey would be like. It would consist of a 7 hour journey the first day, about the same the second day, broken up by an overnight stay in the isolated village of Pakbeng along the Mekong River. He gave us a pretty convincing little spiel on all of the scams to avoid while in Laos, and even offered some advice for booking our room in Pakbeng. He then followed that up with pitching the hotel that his tour agency “owned” and a few pictures of the rooms that were available. Not knowing exactly how big this Pakbeng place actually was and what condition most of the guesthouses were in, we decided that it couldn’t hurt to book a room with this guy’s hotel for about 150,000 kip total. As we were immediately nervous about upon booking the room, it was a total scam. Not a total dinge-pit, but definitely a partial one. Our free tuk-tuk ride to the hostel that the “manager” had touted as a major selling point was no longer than 50 seconds and could have been walked in less time considering how “chilled out” our driver proved to be. The mosquito net was decent enough, but our room’s walls were made of plywood and it was damn cold at night. Nice intro to Laos.
As for the actual slowboat, it was probably the coolest method of transport I’ve ever experienced while backpacking, mainly in that it was a relaxing trip down a murky river in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. Every hour or so a bamboo-hut village can be seen built on to the hills lining the Mekong River. If you didn’t know much about Laos before, you very quickly learn that it is a have-not state.
While the boat sailed us slowly toward Luang Prabang, I tried as hard as I could to keep my gaze on the mountains, as I really didn’t like what I was seeing in the river. Brown foam collects along the shores and pieces of litter float by almost constantly. At one point, every passenger’s head swiveled toward what was clearly a dead cow, legs up, bobbing lightly with the current as a rubber ducky might. It would be safe to say that you wouldn’t want to swim in the Mekong.
Despite the disturbing contents of the river, the boat ride was a good time for those in big groups. Our seats weren’t in the best spot as we were positioned near the front of the boat with no one opposite us on the first day, and on the second day near the back of the boat next to a couple of middle aged, pretentious people that we had heard the night previous refusing to pay for their dinner because it wasn’t “the right kind of spice.” I’d say that the way to go with the slow boat is to get in with a group of people in Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai and do it with them. We saw a group of people playing drinking games at the front of the boat and would have loved to have gotten in with them if there was room.
However, that’s not to say that we didn’t meet people on the boat. We actually met up with a girl who had been staying in our dorm in Pai as well as a number of French and Swiss people that we spent the majority of our time in Laos with, including tubing in Vang Vieng.
When the boat finally arrived in Luang Prabang, there was a bit of a kerfuffle. Everyone who had been reading their Lonely Planet guide (which was about 99% of the people on the boat) had read that there was a port for the longboats in downtown Luang Prabang. However, the driver parks the boat about 10km outside of the city so that each person is forced to pay a fixed rate of 20,000 kip (about $3 Canadian) for a tuk-tuk to the center of Luang Prabang. After everyone banded together and refused to get off the boat until we had actually arrived in Luang Prabang proper, the boat crew took it upon themselves to start heaving our luggage on the muddy banks of the Mekong, essentially destroying any leverage we may have thought we had.
The boat ride itself was a positive experience, and one that I would recommend. However, being scammed twice in our first two days in Laos would prove to be a rather accurate introduction to what would become the most frustrating country that Jamie or I have ever visited. It had its moments when it was incredible, but it certainly offered many more that had us tearing our hair out.