When travelling most people choose to hop a flight to their next destination. This allows them to see more sights in a shorter amount of time and to squeeze more destinations into their itinerary. Sometimes, after too long on the popular tourist route, I prefer to slow down and to take my time. To interact with the local people, to see out of the way places and unspoiled countryside.
Taking the slow boat from Luang Prabang Laos to Chaing Kong Thailand is the perfect way to experience the Mekong river, to see the villagers that live along the river and to view the rolling landscape of Laos. We spent three days in the busy town of Luang Prabang. Being a world heritage sight, it is a stop on many package tours causing inflated prices for accommodation, handcrafts and dining. We searched for hours for a guesthouse that was reasonable and clean. Many were fully booked, more were out of our price range and others were just not in good condition.
After several hours, we were finally in our room recovering from searching the town for a decent room and from our long bus ride through the scenic mountains where we passed hill tribes and villages and saw gorgeous mountain vista’s which unfortunately are becoming the victims of deforestation.
We explored Luang Prabang's many temples, rented bicycles to explore the city, shopped at it’s impressive but over priced night market and we walked up to Wat Chom Phet to see an fiery sunset between the valley of two dark mountains overlooking the Mekong River.
It is a pretty town with charming streets and outdoor cafes, but with all of the well dressed tourists drinking lattes and eating pasta, I needed to see the country from a different perspective. We boarded our boat at 6:00 a, for Thailand. The sun had not burned off the early morning mist yet and we left Luang Prabang in a cool fog.
It was a basic boat with only planks of painted green plywood serving as benches. Luckily we had or travel pillows to cushion our seat and enjoyed a pleasant ride. We met our travelling companions for the next 2 days, a couple from Australia and two men from Holland, and two women from New york. The rest of the people on board were locals returning to their villages. They kept their distance from us sitting on the floor at the bough of the boat, but they were friendly and smiled when our eyes met.
At first we enjoyed animated conversations discussing where we had been and where we were going, but eventually we all relaxed in to the peaceful ride. We passed a man walking his elephant on the river bank, herds of water buffalo’s drinking it’s cool water, women doing their laundry and boats of fisherman seeking their catch.
The busy river was teeming with life. We would see monks walking in their deep burgandy robes and naked children waved as we drove by. Every once in a while, we would pull up to a village to let someone off and many people dressed in colourful clothing would be there to greet them. We would wave goodbye and be on our way.
We sailed for 8 hours that first day and then pulled up to the small village of Pakbeng where we stayed the night in basic, but clean accommodation. Grateful to stretch our legs, we dined with our new friends and retired early.
The next day was a little harder. We were put onto a smaller boats with even tinier seat that had two of their short legs cut off to balance on the side bar. It was this boat that we saw yesterday and said, “wouldn’t it be awful if we had to travel in that!” We spent our time squatting in our seats or laying on the floor trying to relax feeling sorry for ourselves. It was going to be a long ride.
Soon a deck of cards surfaced and we were all playing a rousing game of Barbi Uno. It brought life back into us all, and we were laughing and joking all over again. It was a mad dash to the border to make it by six o’clock.
Tuk Tuk fares had to be negotiated, we had to find our way off of the boat and go in the right direction yet try as we might, we missed the border by five minutes. We were all sure that it was a conspiracy to keep us in the country one more night. This second day of travel just had too many stops and the driver was taking his sweet time.
There was nothing that could be done though and we were stuck in a dead end border town with little to do but have our last Beer Lao while watching a melodramatic soap opera at the local eatery. We were out of Kip (the countries currency) and nobody would take the U.S. dollar even though it is used as a second currency throughout the rest of the land. We had to ask the nice Australian couple whom we had only met yesterday, to borrow money. We promised to pay them back as soon as we reached Thailand and everything worked out just time. They were very generous and we actually ended up travelling with them for the next week.
First thing in the morning we were back in Thailand taking a Songthaow to the bus station and eating banana pancakes for breakfast. Our time on the slow boat had come to an end, but we had made new friends and had a memorable experience on this vanishing form of travel. Now back to civilization and a need to hurry to our next destination. Time is ticking; and suddenly slowing down to feel the culture and rhythm of the land is unthinkable. We need to catch the next bus and move on to the next stop as soon as possible. Sights are waiting to be seen and places need to be ticked off the list. The more stamps on the passport the better! How quickly we fall back into old habits.