You could be forgiven for questioning why I took a slow boat to Laos. In fact, why would anyone want to take a slow boat anywhere? The clue is in the name; it takes bloody ages.
Thankfully, time is something that I have on my side and having heard about the stunning views along the Mekong river I decided to book myself onto the slow boat for the two day trip to Luang Prabang in Laos. Anything beats a bus, right?
Rather predictably, it didn’t quite go to plan. My friends Millie and Ruth, who I met this time last year in Cairns, were also in Chiang Rai and booked on the boat for the same journey as me. We went out on the Friday night for some food, one thing led to another and I ended up waking up at 7.30am the next morning with a raging hangover. Sadly, I was due to be picked up at 6am that morning so after running down to reception and being justifiably laughed at by the staff, I rearranged my trip for the next day at no extra cost.
In hindsight, this was probably a good thing as a boat ride with that hangover would have been a recipe for disaster. Besides; my beloved Rochdale sealed promotion that night and, as I have since discovered, wifi coverage in Laos can be sketchy at best so it was nice to follow that match with a good connection. First world problems, eh?
Anyway, Sunday rolled around and I woke up on time so that was instantly an improvement on the previous day. I even had time for breakfast as the minibus was the customary Thai half an hour late. It was sod’s law that it wasn’t late the day before, but what can you do? We drove around two hours to the Thailand – Laos border, which I thought would be a great opportunity to catch a bit of extra sleep in preparation for the long day of travelling that lay ahead. Sadly, the driver had other plans and she proceeded to play cheesy Asian pop music as loudly as possible, much to the bemusement of me and the other 10 or so people on board.
We crossed the border without a hiccup and my visa was processed in about five minutes as I had filled in all the paperwork on the bus. I suppose I have the music to thank for that! The visa cost $36 for a month which wasn’t too bad, although it would have been a dollar cheaper on a weekday due to “overtime costs”. Ah well.
After the visas were sorted, we were taken to a travel agency where our tickets would be sorted and we would encounter one of the many scams I had read about online. The guy running the agency basically gave us some spiel about how there were to be no ATM’s before we arrived in Luang Prabang, so we should change any money with him. He proceeded to change money for people at a rate that wasn’t too bad, but hardly fair. What’s more – 10 minutes later we stopped at a shop which was around the corner from, you guessed it, an ATM!
The owner of said shop was the next to try his luck, as he reeled off a speech about how he wanted to warn us about a load of scams as he wants us to have a good time in Laos. After this, he pitched his guesthouse at Pak Beng where the boat would drop us for the night. He said it was a gamble turning up without a booking, as multiple boats would be arriving and lots of accommodation would be full so it was best to book through him. Thankfully, I had also read beforehand that there are enough guest houses to accommodate more people than you could ever imagine, so I was happy to take this particular gamble.
It was finally time to get on the boat itself, which was a hugely cramped longboat with loads of car seats on board. Unfortunately, these seats weren’t bolted to the floor so whenever the person in front decided to stretch their legs you were more than likely to get crushed knees. I’m a pretty small guy and I was very uncomfortable, so I urge anyone taller than 5ft7 to seriously consider their options!
Six hours actually passed pretty quickly with some lovely views. The on board bar probably helped this situation as I decided to raise a few delayed beers to Keith Hill and the lads after their promotion. We arrived at Pak Beng and were bombarded with people trying to get us into their guest houses – so much for them being full! After viewing a few rooms, myself and two Dutch guys I met on the boat – Ewout and Jeffrey – settled for a three bed fan room for 100 baht each. That’s about two quid per person!
Pak Beng is an interesting little place. It’s hard to imagine it without tourism, as everything seems completely catered towards it. All the restaurants are slightly ramped up in price and every man and his dog seems to own a guesthouse. It even has an ATM, despite the insistence of the travel agent.
After some food and a few beers, we decided to go for a wander to see what Pak Beng had to offer. Sadly, there wasn’t a great deal to write home about but we were intrigued by the huge inflatable slide around the corner from our guesthouse so we headed in that direction. Sadly, they were deflating it so we couldn’t go on it but this didn’t stop the kids asking us for 10,000 kip each to have a ride.
In the end, we decided to pass the time by joining in with some local guys who were gambling next to the slide. We had no idea what the hell they were playing but we picked it up fairly quickly. Essentially, there were three dice with animals on each side and you put your money on the picture of the animal you thought was going to land face up when the dice dropped. I made a cool 5,000 kip (37p) from the scorpion and decided to quit while I was ahead.
Sadly, this proved to be easier said than done as a group of blokes were betting on what looked like a game of darts next to us, and the northerner in me was naturally curious. The dart board spun, and you had to bet on what number the dart would hit. I didn’t have as much luck on this game, and lost my winnings. It’s the taking part that counts anyway.
That was it for the first night, and we were back on the boat by 9.30am the next morning for an eight hour slog down the river. The boat was different and felt a lot more cramped this time around, which was something I thought impossible after the previous day. Asia continues to amaze me on a daily basis! This journey was a lot less lively, as I think many people were a mix of hungover and generally fed up of travelling by this point.
We finally arrived in Luang Prabang and were dropped at a pier that was way out of the centre of town. The cynic in me would suggest that this was yet another money making ploy, as there happened to be a number of tuk tuks lined up ready to take people into the centre for 20,000 kip each. By this point, I think people just wanted to get to their accommodation so there was little resistance to paying the money.
As I was to arrive 24 hours later than my booking suggested, I emailed the hostel to ask if they could put my booking back by a day. I received no answer, so decided to just turn up and wing it. They hadn’t received my email, and I managed to snag the last bed in a 10 person dorm. Anyone who knows me knows I don’t need an invitation to be smug, so imagine my face when eight people turned up less than 30 seconds later looking for a bed!
To be perfectly honest, I was glad the journey was over. The second day really did drag and the lack of room did start to get annoying. Having said this, I really am glad I took the boat instead of flying or, heaven forbid, getting a bus. I don’t travel Asia for home comforts and I love experiencing new things – this journey certainly ticked the boxes. Having said that; I’m not sure it’s a journey I’m keen to repeat!