What’s the slow boat from Thailand to Laos like?
I asked this question of everybody that I met. I wanted to cross into Laos from Thailand in the north but I am scared of water and the thought of two days on a boat was unsettling me. Beautiful, peaceful, fun, boring, best trip ever, boats often capsize……there were a wide range of responses but the majority of comments were positive.
I decided that I had to give it a go – after all, if I promote a course which contains a series of personal challenges then I should push my own boundaries. Again! (read here about the time I took all my clothes off in public)
The day before my Thai visa expired I squashed into a minivan with my fellow travellers, some of whom would become good friends, for the journey to the small town of Chiang Khong which sits on the Thai side of the crossing point with Laos in the north. You have to love a country which names its land border crossings Friendship Bridges and I was very much looking forward to seeing what Laos was all about.
To accompany this series of articles on Laos, I have published a comprehensive 28 page travel itinerary of my month-long route around Laos. Simply enter your details in the box below to get your free guide.
The White Temple, Chiang Rai
But before leaving Thailand there was one more treat in store. We were allowed a very short stop at the White Temple in Chiang Rai. This temple positively dazzled in the strong sunlight with reflections glimmering off the water which surrounded it and starbursts bouncing off the mosaic tiles.
This was like no temple that I had seen before. After paying your money you cross a narrow arched bridge passing a cluster of stone hands which stretch out of the water as if they are reaching from the depths of hell. Disembodied heads grimly hang in trees and there are many statues and silver and gold trees scattered around the grounds.
Unlike other temples there was little here in the way of religious adornment – it was all about the building, its frescos and the surroundings. There is a small exhibition at the site but sadly, our driver had been very clear – we had twenty minutes and no more – so I joined my fellow travel companions and we climbed back into the minivan.
Several of the travel blogs that I follow have warned of the rather dubious quality of the accommodation on route to the slow boat – but I have to say that my hotel wasn’t bad at all. I had my own little wooden bungalow set in nice gardens and there was even a swimming pool. After checking in I wandered down the lane to get my first glimpse of the River Mekong.
At this point it was wide. There was quite a strong current flowing and the river resembled a thick brown hot chocolate drink. The sight of it did little to quell my nervousness – if we capsized in that I didn’t rate my chances of survival at all! I tried to ignore my bubbling feelings of anxiety and I returned to my hotel for dinner. The evening meal wasn’t anything special but it was edible and identifiable and then some of us settled down to watch a DVD before getting a good night’s sleep.
Crossing the border
The next day we were up early and breakfasted, given a small packed lunch and we were back in our minivan for Friendship Bridge #4 and the border crossing into Laos at the town of Huay Xai.
This was a VERY relaxed border crossing where you fill in the relevant form, add a passport photo, hand over the fee together with your passport and you wait around in the shade for your name to be called. Calling is not exactly accurate as the officials don’t call out your name but hold up each passport in turn at their window which prompts everybody in the small crowd to flow forwards to see the picture, somebody steps forward to claim their own and then everybody settles back down and chats until the next document is held up to the glass.
We were then loaded onto trucks and taken to another waiting point where people took the opportunity to sell us snacks, water and cushions as well as accommodation for that night and then, after another short truck ride we were at the river.
The slow boat from Thailand to Laos.
At the river people clambered carefully down the muddy banks laden down with rucksacks and wobbled over the rickety gang plank where a team of workers stowed the bags under the floorboards of the boat. I had little time to be nervous as I grabbed a seat and the engines fired up with a blast of noise, heat and fumes.
I was perfectly placed in the middle of the boat – which was interestingly fitted out with rows of old car seats cobbled together haphazardly. As our journey got underway, the back of the boat did indeed turn out to be very noisy and the front was where an impromptu party got going but I could read, work on my laptop and chat to my new friends in relative comfort.
The journey on the river through the mountains was beautiful. The river was mostly calm and wide, but every so often it would race faster past spiky rocks and bubble alarmingly in whirlpools. This was the dry season so many of the rocks were sticking up proud from the surface – it must be far more difficult to navigate when they are hidden under the water.
The boatmen must know every inch of the river although I was warned by many Thai’s not to ride on the fast boats as the drivers are reckless and can be careless. Those longtail boats would accelerate past us at high speed but they have a tendancy to hit hidden rocks and they capsize with alarming frequency.
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On the slow boat we had time to appreciate the huge cliffs hanging over the narrow chasms and we could watch the water buffalo bathing in the shallows. We could see how the farmers had reclaimed the silt beaches at low water to plant out rows of vegetables and small boys sat with herds of goats whose bells tinkled as they drank. We pulled over to rickety wooden jetties to pick up both parcels and people or we were met by dug-out canoes in the middle of the river that transferred ladies and babies to us for their journey south.
I spent my first night in Laos at the small riverside town of Pak Beng My new German friend Miriam and myself clambered into the back of a truck for the transfer to our hostel for the night. Pak Beng has grown up to service the tourists and villages who travel the river and is packed with guesthouses, bars and bakeries…and furtive guys who come out of the shadows and offer you weed and opium.
Choosing croissants and beer we had a good time at one of the bars before a good night’s sleep. We breakfasted on a deck overlooking the water and watched a couple of elephants chilling on the beach with their mahout before stowing our rucksacs on the (different) boat and grabbing some seats. This time, we weren’t so lucky and we had to sit on hard wooden benches so I was very glad that I had spent 40 pence on a cushion.
The scenery changed as we rounded every corner and we spent the day chatting and mixing with the other passengers, taking photos and generally relaxing.
The second day was a little bit cloudier and we did get a bit chilly as the wind funnelled along the river and I got a bit fed up of just eating snack food but I am very glad that I chose the slow boat to Laos, despite my fear of water.
Close to Luang Prabang we passed the caves high up in the cliffs – called Pak Ou this is the place where many pilgrims and tourists come by small boats to visit the 4000+ Buddha statues, and then we rounded a bend in the river and came to our final stop – a set of stone steps cut into the steep river bank and we were at the end of our two day transfer across the border on the slow boat from Thailand to Laos.
- Don’t be tempted to take the fast boat – their safety record is poor.
- Take a cushion, food and water and a good book or some music.
- Make sure that your camera battery is fully charged.
- You don’t need to pre-book accommodation in Pak Beng. It is a compact town with hostels and hotels to suit all budgets and where plenty of touts wait to greet you when the boat docks.
- Pak Beng has ATM’s, plenty of places to eat and drink and some really good street food
- You are not obliged to take the slow boat from the Friendship Bridge 4. You can head north once you cross the border and visit a very rural mountainous part of Laos or even branch off from Pak Beng after one day on the water.
- You may find yourself on a ‘party boat’ – you can choose to join in or the boats are large enough for you to distance yourself you want to sit and chat or read.
- The boats now moor up some distance from Luang Prabang so unless you want a long hike into the town I would recommend that you take one of the trucks. These have a fixed price with tickets issued from a little office on the river bank and they will drop you at the central roundabout in Luang Prabang
My favourite guidebooks are those from the Lonely Planet You can get your guidebook here
If you would like to know more about personal challenges and how you can push yourself out of your comfort zone, you can read more here
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