As an alternative to a long bus, there’s a slow boat which takes you from the Laos/Thailand border along the Mekong river to Luang Prabang. It take two days. It sounded like the epitome of slow travel and I was of course planning to take it.
I caught the earliest possible bus from Chiang Rai, Thailand to the Laos border. The 2 hour journey took much longer. We arrived and got a tuktuk shuttle to the actual border. We exited Thailand with no issues, having to wait a while before getting another bus to the Laos border. Here I crossed with my e-visa with no problems, a part from the man asking me to pay 50 baht for the stamp in my passport. I refused, saying it didn’t say that anywhere and I’d already paid for the visa. After I stood my ground he just waved me through. Another tuktuk shuttle took me into the town of Huay Xai. I had hoped to catch the slow boat to Luang Prabang that day but it turned out there was only one at 9am and I’d definitely missed that, with it now being 12pm! So instead I found a hostel and spent the afternoon working on blog posts. The following morning I got myself on the slow boat at last, sat in the prime seat at the front of the boat. I’d bought a sandwich in the little town earlier and was armed with Rosaline’s left behind snacks to keep me going (a jar of peanut butter and a lot of raisons).
The boat was long and held around 80 passengers, mostly travellers but a fair number of locals too. The seats were ones clearly taken from cars. It was unbelievably hot, the boat moved just fast enough to create a breeze strong enough to make it bearable. But only just. I was clammy with sweat the entire journey. The 8 hours passed slowly but pleasantly. The boat hummed with conversations amongst the travellers, a few games of cards were played, but mostly people slept or kept to themselves. I personally finished my book, listened to a lot of music and spent a lot of time staring at the scenery slowly passing by. The river was wide and still. The banks were sandy and low. The land was green and alternated between marshy lowlands, jungle, and steeper hillsides. There were stretches of sand bars where there were often fisherman or children to spot and wave to. We made several stops at seemingly desolate areas, to drop off or collect parcels or people. I had a long and surprisingly deep afternoon nap, knelt on the floor with my head on my seat, that I never fully awoke from. We arrived into our resting spot for the night at around 5pm, a town called Pak Beng. A crowd of guesthouse owners waited for us at the top of the bank, offering up their business holding boards with pictures of the rooms on. With a friend I’d made in Chiang Rai, we found a cheap private room with aircon and agreed to take it, loading our bags onto the truck with the other travellers heading to the same place whilst we decided to walk the short distance. The town was more built up than I’d expected with lots of little restaurants and shops, all to service the slow boat. After checking in, having a very needed cold shower and lie down in the aircon, I ate a delicious curry along with three older couples from the boat. We laughed at the conversations we’d overheard from the 18/19 year old travellers and I felt happy that I wasn’t the only one secretly judging them.
Refreshed after a good sleep and a good breakfast we all returned to the boat. This time we had a slightly nicer vessel. The seats were arranged in little booths with tables. We bagged some good ones and I enjoyed being able to write comfortably. The effect of the changed seating was huge. Or perhaps everyone had just had a good night’s sleep too. Either way, the quiet hum of activity on yesterday’s journey became a chorus of life today. Travellers moved up and down the boat mingling, the aisle way was filled with jostling bodies. Rounds of cards were being played at most tables, with people subbing in and out constantly. A speaker appeared from someone’s bag and music blasted out. Conversation flowed throughout the entire 8 hour journey. As we came to our last hour on the boat the atmosphere was almost sad, we wished we had longer! I drank my first Beer Lao, the infamous beer seen absolutely everywhere here and we pulled into the bank shortly afterwards. We were on the outskirts of Luang Prabang and at a sort of tuktuk station. We grouped together by hostel and caught tuktuks the rest of the way. And so the two day slow boat journey was over! It was filled with cards and conversations and books, and also a whole lot of sweat! But the best part of it was still to come. By spending two days stuck on a boat with the same 80 people, all going to the same town, it created a readymade community. As I wandered the streets of Luang Prabang I was constantly stopping to say hello to friends from the boat. And it extended past the town, to any tourist attraction nearby and to subsequent destinations in Laos. It was such a lovely feeling, like you were in a place you had lived for several years, which is one rarely felt whilst travelling. For this reason alone I’d absolutely recommend the slow boat as a way to enter Laos.
Luang Prabang is a gorgeous city that stands out in Southeast Asia in its slowness and vibe. It is very small, more of a town, and it’s quiet. The streets are made up of french-style buildings in soft yellows and oranges, made even more beautiful by the vines and banana leaves that fall down their fronts. A reminder that despite the architecture, we’re definitely not in Europe. There’s a big hill that divides the centre, with a temple perched on top. I watched the sunset from here one evening and it was beautiful. There are several lovely cafes and eateries scattered around, alongside lots of local restaurants and handmade souvenir shops. Across a very narrow bridge that I did not enjoy driving over on a moped, there was a jewellery workshop where you could sit with your legs swinging from the balcony over the Mekong river, making a piece of jewellery yourself. I made a bracelet that I’m rather proud of. At 5am the day begins in the city. The monks begin their walk around as the sun rises, their orange robes contrasting with the darkness still clinging to the streets. In an act called ‘Alms’ the monks accept donations of food that they will eat that day. Locals and tourists line the pavements ready to empty handfuls of sticky rice and other treats into their urn-like containers. Around the corner of some busy streets we noticed that the roles were reversed, children sat on the pavement and received donations of the same food from the monks, plopped into plastic bags laid out in front of them. We secretly judged the monks that didn’t share any of theirs with the children. It was a special way to spend a morning, walking around the quiet streets, observing the trails of orange robes snaking around corners. We followed it up by going to the morning market where we saw all sorts of oddities for sale, including rats, frogs and riverweed. I bought some riverweed to try but left the rats and frogs for another time… Evenings in the city were spent at a slightly different pace, at a bowling alley on the outskirts. Yep, it’s as random as it sounds! A bowling alley in Laos. Filled with travellers getting drunk, smoking indoors, and reverting to their competitive youth. I’m sad to say I didn’t fare well at this back to basics alley, with no barriers on the gutters, coming almost last in every game. A lot of fun was had.
The main tourist attraction in Luang Prabang is actually an hour’s moped drive outside of it, the Kuang Si waterfall. Now I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls in my trip by this point, so I didn’t expect too much as a group of us drove over for the day. It was the most beautiful waterfall I’ve ever seen. Along the trail through the jungle there was a moon bear sanctuary and several moon bears to spot. You came to the river and the trail wound up past several waterfalls, some steady, some dramatic, some forming stepped pools of the turquoise water. There were two areas where the water was paused in an area wide enough to form a large pool, perfect for swimming and jumping in. The water was properly cold, well for southeast Asia standard anyway. It was refreshing and clear. At the top was a large, dramatic waterfall, with a bridge that crossed in front to give you a better view. All the way along the river the air was filled with collections of butterflies going about their business. It was stunning.
Accessible by bus or a snazzy new train from Luang Prabang. I opted for the train, wanting to try out this new Chinese built piece of transport. I found it to be incredibly strange but very comfortable. You entered one distinctly Chinese modern-style station in Luang Prabang and left via an identical one in Vang Vieng, giving the sensation that you’d actually travelled nowhere at all.
Vang Vieng itself was quite awful. The streets were dirty and unpleasant and there wasn’t a nice cafe insight. But you come here for the surrounding area, and it delivers on that. A group of us explored it by scooter, crossing a very dodgy looking bridge before zooming through open fields of karsts. It was similar to Ninh Binh in Vietnam. We hiked up no less than three viewpoints, getting sweaty to a level I have never experienced before. Rivers were running down my legs. Nathan looked like he’d jumped into a lake his clothes were so saturated. On top of the viewpoints we admired the views and the strange items placed up there: a motorbike, a huge pegasus statue, a plane. Our next stop was one of the many lagoons in the area. It was quite cool, with a little restaurant, a rope swing and zipline into the water and little wooden huts surrounding the water. The water was cold enough to be refreshing. There was also a huge cave here, which we explored at length, working our way down the ladders and through the tight squeezes, into chamber after chamber, until we reached the little lake deep inside. Emerging back into the outside world I felt like we’d been in there for hours when it was in fact only half an hour. We were covered in cave mud and scratches and carried a strange sense of achievement for making it to the underground lake.
The other activity in Vang Vieng is tipsy tubing: floating down a river in a rubber ring, stopping at bars and getting drunk. As a typical gap year activity I felt like I had to try it at least once this year, but I didn’t expect it to be quite as fun as it was! We had a great group of people which of course made it. Armed with bottles of homemade pinacolada we jumped into our rings and began the journey down the slow moving river, chatting and soaking up the sun. Men at the bars (of which there were only 2) would throw out a rope for us to grab onto and pull us into the side. If you missed the rope, a child would rapidly swim out and grab you instead. The 4 hours of floating passed impossibly quickly.
After some panic in Vang Vieng when I’d gotten my days mixed up, thinking it was the 14th when it was in fact the 13th (the hardships of travelling and having no concept of time!), I worked out a plan to get to my workaway. It required me getting a bus at 6am to Vientiane, then a bus from there which would take me 8 hours southeast to a town called Lak Sai. The only problem was that I did tipsy tubing the day before… I managed to get myself up and out by 6am, missing my planned bus but managing to get one at 7 instead. 2.5 hours later and I was on the side of the road, still feeling a bit drunk but beginning to become hungover. I had to wait almost an hour to get a shared tuktuk for 30 minutes across the city to the right bus station. Here I caught my onwards bus. The journey was long, hot and uncomfortable. One to be endured and not enjoyed. I was definitely tiring of these long journeys. I arrived at my workaway, teaching at a school. If you want to hear about that interesting experience, there’s a separate post on it.
My tolerance for long bus journeys was still at zero after the workaway, so I decided to try and hitchhike back to Vientiane instead. I stayed overnight in a little town called Na Hin. I had run out of Laos Kip so in the morning I visited the two ATMs in the town in the pouring rain to get some. Frustratingly, they were both out of action. I remembered I had some leftover Thai Baht in my bag and the guesthouse owner agreed to accept payment for my room in that, giving me change in Kip. I used this to buy some breakfast and then made my way to the main road begin my hitchhiking attempt. It seemed it wasn’t common to hitchhike in Laos so I had little success for the first 45 minutes, eventually giving in a paying a small amount for a lift in the back of a tuktuk/truck hybrid. It still beat the bus, with the fresh air (and dust) streaming in from all sides. It dropped me off in Paksan after 3.5 hours. I had much more luck here, with a car stopping immediately and offering to take me to Vientiane. It was driven by a pleasant young guy, Binly, returning Vientiane for work after a weekend visiting his family. The 3 hours passed quickly, chatting and listening to Ed Sheeran and Maroon 5 (not my music choices!). Binly was extra kind and dropped me right outside my hostel. The following evening he also invited me out for drinks with his friends which I accepted and had a very pleasant evening with them. All in all, much more preferable to another long bus journey!
Vientiane is the capital of Laos but it had nothing else going for it. It’s not pretty or interesting. I spent my time here doing errands like laundry and catching up on life admin and blog writing. When people say there’s nothing there, they’re being truthful for once.