First uttered in that iconic film many years ago, these words had never resonated with me before – until now. As person after person made their way towards the back of the boat, resembling a scene from another nostalgic flashback – Lemmings, the only direction this boat was going, was down. Sinking at least 1 foot within 10 minutes of us getting on, then another foot 20 minutes later, followed by another within the hour – I knew all of us were thinking the same and it didn’t take long for some people to show signs of concern, with one man facetiously shouting the famous quote at the unnerved skipper:
“We’re gonna need a bigger boat!”
After much research and deliberation we opted for the two day river boat ride to Luang Prabang. It pipped the 7 hour bus ride as we had tired of buses travelling north in Thailand. The other option, was the fastest option, a speed boat trip along the same path, which got ousted soon after we found out – thanks to recent news articles – that it was a fully fledged deathtrap, with recent accidents and a fatal crash to its name. The 2 day tour, on the other hand, had some great reviews and with many fellow bloggers saying it was a must, our minds were made up.
A Must? No. Worth the money however, yes. Maybe our expectations were slightly exaggerated by the aforementioned blogs and various TripAdvisor reviews. We came looking for a tranquil stroll down the river, but for or all the beauty and relaxation 2 days on a boat offers you, you are still choosing to travel for 2 days (about 16 hours for us in total), which is a healthy recipe for cramp and irritation, no matter how you travel.
- Bus from Chiang Saen to Chiang Khong – $1
- Here you can stay overnight according to all the blogs we read, however we wouldn’t recommend this as you are still up to two hours away (step 2 to 6) from the two day boat and getting there early is imperative to your enjoyment… Apparently!
- Bus from Chiang Khong to the Friendship Bridge IV – $1
- Cross the border and get your Laos visa on arrival – $74
- Get from the Laos border to Huay Xuay town center, the departure point for the boats to Luang Prabang – $6
- Get on boat or stay the night and get on early the next day – $56
- We chose the latter as we opted for the early rise for a better chance of a good seat
A grand total of $69 or £45 per person (with Visa for Laos)Huay Xauy
You’ll find accommodation for around $4 for the night and with a couple of places to eat and drink you could make a good night from your stay in the little town. Our only sour experience was with the pharmacy we found in Huay Xuay. It seems being the only pharmacy in town their need of customer service skills are obsolete. Trying to order some antihistamines was stressful to say the least. The girl who I guess was pretending to be at work behind the counter did not once stray away from her chair, nor did she even avert her gaze away from her phone during our first attempts at catching her attention. Obviously there might be a language barrier meaning she might not wish to talk to me, but surely she could have attempted to decipher my mini episode of charades, clearly indicating my outbursts of sneezing and itching. Not being content with pissing us both off a little through pure ignorance, she then looked up at me, shrugged her head in disgust and walked away into the back room of the shop. After 6 minutes we discovered that she was not searching for anything, as I could see through the cupboard gaps that she was lying down on the sofa, again staring at her damn phone. So there I stood, fuming that I was going to spend the night scratching my eyes out thanks to some insolent young woman, either playing Angry Birds or pondering why her boyfriend hadn’t text her back yet… hmm I wonder why?Catching the boat
The boat wasn’t due to leave until 12pm, nonetheless we arrived at the boat departure point at 8am to bag ourselves a good seat, although as we arrived we were already queuing behind 10 people and from what we could see and hear, these were all British people, it seems we all love a good queue. Amongst the fellow early birds, determined to get good seats, we sat eating breakfast and munching into our snacks, waiting for the call to get on the boat. To no surprise any remnants of a queue had dispersed by 11am as new people arriving just made their way to the front – welcome to the party; the French, the Germans and the Italians.
Luckily being a couple, we teamed up, me with our bags and Mel, free of luggage and now lighter & nimble, ready to run down the steps and hop onto the boat. It worked! She was first on the boat. First on the boat felt great for all of… 10 seconds until, low and behold, we find that the seats are numbered and we wasted four hours sitting around like sun dried tomatoes. Needless to say we were the least bit pleased, the seats we wanted were in our reach, they were 7 rows back, obviously softer, offered more space and were mocking us as we sat there on a wooden bench that wouldn’t look a miss in any drab park. Yet we were trapped by these slips of paper flapping around on the headrest, scribbled on with black pen. So what should we do? Well of course we scrunched up the papers, tossed them over the sides, did the same to the new chairs’ labels and took our place on the comfy rows… Followed shortly by half of the boat.
12:45 pm came around slowly and we should have been somewhere down the Mekong by now, but instead we were waiting for the boat to fill up thanks to late backpackers and greedy ass boat operators who were still selling tickets. The boat sunk over an extra foot during then next 15 minutes as people were piled on. Then some harsh comedy took centre stage as one girl started calling out her seat number in an attempt to remove someone from her seat in the comfy rows. Instead of any movement though, she was met with giggles and instructions to find a new seat as no one was paying attention to seat numbers any longer. She started getting moody and looked visibly red as she realised she had no seat to take. “Shouldn’t have got here an hour late then love” she was told and yes, I shouldn’t have enjoyed that comment, but I did. She made her way to the back of the boat where at least 20 people were sitting on the floor by the motor and setting up their spot for the ride. Meanwhile we had started on the beers 🙂
The journey eventually began and throughout the 7 hours we enjoyed the beautiful scenery we were promised as the mountainous jungle areas continued to follow the path of the Mekong as it ran its own course, one which had begun in China and had already ran its way through Burma and Thailand.
Any one who has caught a local bus in Asia, will probably know that they also double as the local and national delivery service, stopping along the route to drop off parcels and packages to most parts of the country. Well so too do the boats, obviously Parcel Force and Royal Mail don’t run services to villages along the Mekong.
The boat ride was comfortable and offered a few snacks and beers keeping the majority of us happy. Mel and I ventured to the back half way through the day after seeing a couple of lads climbing from the side to the roof of the boat, we were intrigued. A mini disco on the poop deck confirmed what we were thinking, alcohol was the culprit. What we didn’t expect however was to see everybody blessing each other through the powers of the Mekong river water. We opted for the free beer on offer from some Austrian guy and declined the offer of a baptising on the Mekong although took pleasure in watching as a few people continuously came back for more dousing.
Pak Beng… The mid way point
Day one consists of about 8 hours of cruising before arriving in Pak Beng, and luckily we got to the half way stop just before sunset.
This was also where we would depart from one of our friends from Chiang Saen, who was to head north of Pak Beng the next day instead of joining us further. We stayed in a double room here for $8 which wasn’t too bad and had a pretty decent Indian round the corner from our guesthouse. Other than this though, all else you can do in Pak Beng is sleep and stack up on necessities for day two. Although after finding a small shop with some cheap beers, we enjoyed a night of drinking on our guesthouse steps.
Our breakfast the next morning consisted of what looked like luscious pastries and coffee to take with us for the ride. In reality they were inedible & stale and therefore, needless to say, they weren’t representative of the French cuisine we had been told was rife in Laos. To compact this misery it turned out the day two boat didn’t have the same selection of food from the previous day’s, instead this time only stocking up on some naff smelling pot noodles. Getting in the boat was the same story, but again we got on early thanks to some teamwork and grabbed some good looking seats. This time though it was less packed as there were two boats on offer, the result was a much more relaxed and quiet cruise for day two, thankfully.The final stop…Luang Prabang
Leaving Pak Beng at 9am was soon to be a blessing, as we got to arrive in Luang Prabang before sunset, meaning we got some great views before leaving the boat for the final time. As we stumbled off the boat a few opportunists waited on the edge to grasp at our bags, in the hope they could walk them up the few stairs in search of a tip. I insisted I could manage and grabbed both of our bags, only to be welcomed to Laos by a gentleman who decided the best way to respond was to spit at me. Lovely!Following this little upset, we walked up to tourist trap number two. Overpriced taxi tickets to the city center, which we thought we could bypass in search of some cheaper alternatives. Our advice however – just buy them quick as there is no other option and and if you doddle around like us, you’ll be left until last and waiting for almost an hour on the dusty road.
Great intro to Laos and Luang Prabang out of the way, we finally made our way to a guesthouse in Luang Prabang, one set amongst the fantastic French colonial streets and the Mekong river, ready to see what Luang Prabang had to offer….