Crossing Borders: the slow boat to Laos

Aside from my journey to Brunei from Malaysia, I hadn’t done many long journeys of boats. Getting to Laos from Thailand is a relatively simple affair, you can fly in, catch a bus or get the boat.

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Note: Although this is a border crossing story, you don’t actually cross the border a boat as I once thought, the actual border in on land at Chiang Khong.
Cost: From Chiang Rai, I booked through my hostel for a through ticket to Luang Prabang costing 1550 THB (US $46 or £28)
It is possible to do this independently, by taking a local bus to Chiang Khong (the earliest leaves at 5am), then getting a tuk tuk to the border, then another to where the boat leaves at Houay Xai and then booking a boat. I’m unsure of how much all of this would cost, but the boat journey was 330,00 Lao Kip, which is US $41 or £25, so perhaps you don’t save a lot, and its a through ticket, so every stage of the journey is made fairly easy.

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I was picked up at my Hostel (Fun D – great, cheap hostel with free breakfast) at 5.30am, in a small minivan with 6 others; mainly Dutch guys. The journey to the border took 1 hour. Arriving at the border we were given a new ticket, and a Lanyard indicating that we were going to Pakbeng for the first day. Our rucksacks were taken off the minivan, and we went with them to the immigration building, which was large and nicely air conditioned. We showed our departure cards to an officer and went through to a huge hall were about 40 others were waiting for their visas to be processed.
There didn’t appear to be much of a structure of how to get a visa. Forms on nearby benches had to be filled in, then you lined up to see an immigration officer. Except there was another form to be filled in. The process was actually line up, collect a form, and fill it in with the other left on the bench, then line up again, in the same queue and hand over both forms, a passport and two passport photos.

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You then mull around in the area waiting for your name to be called out. Again, there was no order to this; you could have been the first person to put their passport in, but last to get it back. Once your name was called, you paid the fee, which for British passport holders, this was US $35 to be paid in US dollar notes, or in Thai Baht, but paying in Thai Baht works out as more with their currency conversion rate. Then off you went with a nice new label in your passport.

 

On the other side of the border, our bags were loaded onto a tuk tuk, and we were driven to the boat ticketing office. It took me 5 minutes of sitting on this tuk tuk to realise that we were driving on the other side of the road!

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At the ticket office, we were told the process of getting to Luang Prabang. We would be on the boat for day one for 6-7 hours, then stop in Pakbeng. On the second day, we’d again have another journey of 6-7 hours.

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We were also told that there is unlikely to be any food on the boat (LIE! There was food for sale and on the second day, there was even a bar). I had brought with me some crackers and fruit, so decided to buy a baguette, as this was a bit of a novelty for me, having not eaten a sandwich in months. This was the first of many in the heavily French influenced Laos and Cambodia.
We were also told that the boat was uncomfortable (wooden benches) and that a cushion was recommended. I was previously advised this from a traveller in Chiang Mai, so for 50 THB or US $1.50 (in most neighbouring countries they accept each others currencies) I bought one. It was pink with teddy bears on it. This remained with me until the end of my time in Cambodia, it made a good pillow on other long bus rides, until it got a bit grotty looking.
On both of the boats however, the seats were fine. I happened to get on board early and got a seat at the front, which is a good idea, as sometimes you can sit on the deck, but also the seats at the back are harder and have a lot of engine noise. On mentioning the seats, the ones at the front appeared to have been taken from an old car!

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The boat was due to depart at 11am, but we didn’t get going until nearly 12pm. The boats can comfortably hold 70 passengers, but they notoriously overbook and cram more people on. Most people had heard bat if you make enough noise, thy sometimes will charter another boat. However, after making some noise, we were told that this was the only boat due to leave for Pakbeng! So we had to suck it up, with about 100 of us on board.
The boat to Pakbeng passed relatively quickly. Many people chatted with others, played cards, read or listened to music. I appeared to be in be French/Dutch speaking section, with many chatting excitedly in different languages. So I passed the time by taking photographs, listening to music and sleeping on and off (I did have a 4am wake up!)
The scenery was just beautiful, and I’m glad I choose the boat over a bus or flight, as you got natural air conditioning and natural beauty. Along the way, we stopped off at some hill tribe village areas to pick up some locals, drop some off, or pick up and drop off cargo, including parcels and huge packs of rice. It was interesting seeing another way of life.

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When we reached Pakbeng, and before we had reached land, several locals were waiting for us, holding up laminated signs with pictures of accommodation and their prices. They shout at you, follow you and say ‘cheap price .. free wifi ..’. It is all a bit overwhelming. However, this is something that I have become accustomed to by travelling in South East Asia.

The night before, I looked up some options and noted the names of places to avoid, were bed bugs and thief were reported, but in the end, I picked one at random, and jumped in the back of a pick-up truck and driven to the top of the hill.

Pakbeng is a strange wee town, it appears to exist for the sole purpose of transient travellers. The main street is filled with guest houses and small shops or bakeries offering food for the morning boat ride.

P1020699My accommodation, (Vasanna Guest house) which cost 50,000 LAK (US$6 or £3.80). It was VERY basic. The room was dark, smelt a bit, and the electricity box in the corner looked as though it would kill me if I laid a finger on it. But. It was just for one night.
I wandered out to town, and found a restaurant recommended by another traveller. I had dinner sitting by the river, and ordered lunch from the bakery for the next morning.
Despite it only being the start of August, it got dark quickly and early in Laos (by 7pm), so I spent the night in my dark and dingy room, which got even more dark, with four power cuts sporadically throughout the night. I slept early, in the hope that I could renew my energy for the boat trip.
Day two on the boat was very much like day one, the scenery was beautiful and I enjoyed watching the real Laos life. I managed to score a seat at the front again, only this time I was surrounded by English speaking people. I met a couple from Christchurch, which always makes me glad, so we talked for a while. It was nice to hear the New Zealand accent again.

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After 7 hours on the boat, we docked at a small, unassuming area and were told “Luang Prabang, last stop.” However, we all knew that this was not Luang Prabang and that it was another 10km away (it pays to do research), however, even with a lot of protesting, we had to get off the boat. We were met by several skinny and unkempt children, begging for food and money, which broke my heart, so I gave them some leftover food I had from my journey.

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We were then ushered to a ticket office and told to buy a ticket to town, this cost 20,000LAK. Outrageous if you think about it, as we had paid to get all the way to Luang Prabang, but in another sense, its US$2.40 or £1.50!

 

We were driven the 10Km to the centre of town, to be met by more begging children, and people offering accommodation. A great welcome to Laos!
Despite the corruption, and misinformation, I enjoyed the boat ride. It was a great way to see local scenery and people.
Have you taken the slow boat to Laos? I’d love to hear about your experience.

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