Slow Boat to Laos

· by wendy · laos

Leaving Chiang Mai, Thailand was gonna be a chore. Looking back, maybe flying would have been the better way to get to Laos (pronounced without the s!), but then, what would become of this post? We would have missed out on this experience. One of those experiences that you wouldn’t subject yourself to ever again, but it makes for a good story.

Getting to Luang Prabang, pronounced Lou-ong Pra-bong, took three days. Why did we do this to ourselves? The first day was a 7 hour bus ride to the Thai border town of Chiang Khong. The next morning, the adventure began. You can read all you want about how to get somewhere and what it’s going to be like, but sometimes you can never really be prepared. This is where one needs to kick their patience into overdrive, muster up some level of trust that what people are telling you is the truth and drop all forms of expectations.

The morning of our departure from Thailand, our hostel owner packed about 10 of us into the bed of her small pickup and took us to the border. After receiving our exit stamps, we marched down the hill to the bank of the Mekong River where we took tiny boats across to Laos. After going through immigration, we were taxied to the waiting area where we would board our slow boat to Luang Prabang. With so many modes of transportation and transactions happening in a span of 30 minutes, it’s hard not to be on edge. People constantly telling you to go one place, pay for this, do that….you’re constantly looking for the person who is trying to screw you over.

While waiting much longer than anticipated for our slow boat, a coordinator of some sort gathered all of our passports for the slow boat. A huge stack in his hand, we figured it was legit. It was, fortunately, but nevertheless, our patience was wearing thin. Passports out of hand is never a good feeling.

Finally, an hour late, we boarded our slow boat which was quite comfortable. Dusty and I, plus Arlo and Oksana of Postcard Valet scored a table with two benches for the 7 hour “cruise” to Pak Beng. We would stay overnight there before another 7 hour trip to our final destination. I have to say we had it quite nice compared to those who chose to do speed boats. They might have gotten there in only one day compared to our two, but the fact that they had to wear life jackets and helmets (!!!) made our boat look like luxury. Once we got on the boat and got moving, it was smooth sailing. We were very happy reading, relaxing and chatting while watching Laos go by. Arlo and Oksana even thanked me for finding this nice trip. They were about to eat their words.

After a decent night in Pak Beng, the next morning we were surprised to find the town near empty. The boat wasn’t supposed to leave for another 2 hours or so. We hurried with breakfast and headed down at the time we were told to meet for launch. It was then we realized what was going on. Everyone had gone early to grab a good seat. This didn’t even occur to us because we had no problem grabbing great seats the prior day. Trick is…the previous day there had been 3 or 4 boats sailing us to Pak Beng. On the second day, they jammed every single passenger on just one boat. Check out the first day compared to the second.

There were no seats left, only floor space where the locals were forced to sit. There were plastic chairs set up in the aisle between the rows of chairs for more passengers. Some poor people sat in the back of the boat near the roaring engine. I could hardly stand 2 minutes back there it was so loud. I don’t know how they did it. I wonder if their teeth rattled out by the end.

We protested noting the obvious danger of so many people on one boat, not to mention there being only 4 (FOUR!) life jackets. Since all of the other tourists were able to score seats, we were viewed as nuisances for complaining. I could feel the glares as we gave in and found our floor seat where we would spend the next 7 hours.

Oh, and don’t let me forget to mention that we picked up more locals along the way! One came on with some of the smelliest food I’ve ever smelled. At one stop, a local bought several sticks of grilled fish which she was super pumped about and stashed in her bag, stinking the entire ride. At another stop, an older local came aboard and tried to use Arlo’s backpack as a seat. Again, we were the bad guys as Oksana protested her seat choice and asked her to find a floor space. A German tourist barked at her for being “mean to the locals” and declared that she should have gotten there earlier and gotten a seat. What a good idea, ass. We should be as considerate as he was when he let his cigarette ash blow all over us in steerage, burning a local woman in the process.

Seven hours on the floor seemed to be quite comfortable for the locals, however, my legs and Dusty’s back began to ache after a while. Bad idea to get up and stretch because our spots were instantly taken over by our neighbors. Dusty spent the final hours standing and taking pictures while I jammed out to some music on my iPod. Despite the inconvenience, the river was beautiful and we watched as kids, fisherman, other boats, and even elephants went by.

Just as we were pulling into Luang Prabang, I noticed that the local boy that had taken over my floor space, had peed his pants right on top of the cushion I had brought with me. I couldn’t help but laugh. It was all so surreal. While this was one of the most inconvenient and uncomfortable rides we have ever taken, it was also one of the most unbelievable. Thinking back at it, it seemed so frustrating. Surprisingly, I remember thinking, I should be annoyed right now but I’m not. It was just too ridiculous to be anything but amused.

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