The slow boat to Thailand

Monday, April 22, 2013

We left Thailand in a hurry so in contrast we decided to return by slow boat. Having spent 4 days on a train in one stint a 2 day boat trip with an overnight stopover on route didn't phase us one bit.

Day 1

With a scheduled pick up from the guesthouse at 7.30am for our 8:30 boat we checked out and patiently waited..... and waited. The hotel staff kept reminding us don't worry they work on 'Lao time' but as we had just booked all of our hotels for the next 3 weeks missing the boat was not something we planned to do!

Luckily the tuk-tuk did turn up and whisked us to the boat which was much further out of town than we expected as it is the dry season. We did arrive in time but were the last 2 on the boat so had to sit near the back. A lot closer to the engine than we would have liked but at least we got a comfy seat. Since Lonely Planet wrote about the slow boat only having a few 'airline style' seats things have changed. Most boats now have old car and coach seats bolted to pieces of wood replacing the old wooden benches. Amusingly they are not fixed to the floor so they can adjust the seat pitch depending on how many people are on the boat. The boat is only 'full' when all seats are taken so it's simple you just add more seats. We even saw some boats with extra seats stored on the roof! We just hope Ryanair don't hear about it.

As we were at the back we were lucky enough to have 2 rows of seats to ourselves and we quickly turned the front row round giving us 4 seats. Plenty of places to put our daypacks and put our feet up :-)

We had a great day and a memorable experience sitting at the back of the boat swigging Beerloa watching the Mekong and the day slip by. We finally arrived at Pak Beng after 10 hours... it was scheduled as 8 hours but no surprises there; we are in Laos after all.

Overnight in Pak Beng

Probably the remotest place we have ever stayed. Apparently the town has a population of 20,000 but most of it must have been hidden away on the other side of the hill as the town near the slow boat station consisted of a single road lined with guesthouses and restaurants. 9 hours in one direction and 8 hours (scheduled times!) by boat from the next largest towns this is a seriously remote town. As we had no way to pre-book our accommodation before arriving we wanted to be the first tourists off the boat and even though we were at the back of the boat we were! We were also the first to arrive at the originally named Pak Beng guesthouse recommend by Lonely Planet. We wonder if they know how much influence they have over travellers choice as pretty much the whole boat headed to the same guesthouse until it was full when people started to spill out and wander further up the hill.

Unbelievably we nabbed a double private for just 50,000KIP approx £4.30 a night, the cheapest accommodation yet. It was basic but similar to many places we have stayed and we have learnt not be take too much notice of the dodgy wiring and make sure you don't touch anything metal when in the shower!

Day 2

We set off at 8:30am for another long day on the slow boat. As we slowly worked our way up the Mekong towards Thailand the day soon slipped by. We might be taking the leisurely trip as a way back to Thailand but when we stopped off at various places in the middle of nowhere so locals could get off; we were reminded the slow boat really is a way of life for connecting remote communities with slightly less remote towns. We have seen all sorts of goods being transport from food to live chicks!

About 2 hours from Huay Xai we came to the Thai border, with the Mekong now dividing the two countries. With Thailand on our left bank and Laos on the right bank we cruised the last bit as the sun slowly descended over the Thai hills.

As soon as Thailand was in sight we managed to pick up reception on our mobiles for the first time in two weeks. We managed to follow the London marathon on the BBC text service, it's amazing what you can do from the other side of the world. As we have been told by older travellers we have met 'you have it easy these days'

True, but you know what it's great!

We stopped over in Huay Xai at the Gateway Villa Hotel. Like Pak Beng we couldn't easily find a way to pre-book our accommodation before arriving, after a twenty minute walk we scoped out 5 hotels. We then managed to haggle the price down to 120,000KIP, (we only paid 100,000KIP after some confusion with the change!) for a double room with air con, free breakfast and Wi-Fi. This is on the upper end of prices in the town but we had a nice room and the hotel was in a great location, right at the end of the road to the ferry crossing to Thailand. In the morning we only had to walk approx. 100m to the border to be stamped out of Laos.

The slow boat experience

The slow boat was a great experience and certainly lived up to its name. We only averaged 9.4mph on day 1 and 8.9mph on day 2. We often felt like we were going much faster (maybe due to the Beerloa) as the scenery appeared to pass by quite quickly but when we got overtaken by a dragonfly it soon reminded us how slow we were actually going and that the Sat Nav wasn't lying.

If you can get a seat away from the engine it is recommended, although nowhere near as loud as a long tail boat the constant droning does get to you after several hours.

Laos our departing thoughts

We have only been in Laos for 12 days but have covered a significant distance during our short stay. Transport is atrociously slow and although we saw a lot of the country we couldn't stomach any more bus journeys and both feel we had just the right amount of time here. If we had come into the country directly from Cambodia and worked our way up to Vientiane approx. 24 hours by bus it might have been too much. As it was we spent 4 days of our time here just travelling!

As tourist destinations in South East Asia go there isn't a heck of a lot to see or do that isn't offered by one of the country's neighbours. Vientiane is a tiny capital and by far the least interesting we have visited so far, and if we didn't need to visit to get our Thailand tourist visas we probably would have knocked it off the itinerary.

We both enjoyed our time in Vang Vieng. The manic party scene might have moved on, if only for a short time but the locals seemed even more welcoming and friendly to see a Westerner. We had an amazing time at Pi Mai Lao a couple of days that will live long in our memories.

The country has some incredibly beautiful scenery and our eventful bus trip through the mountains and our slow boat trip down the Mekong took in some amazing sights which rival those we have seen in China and Vietnam.

Laos is rightly on the backpacker map and we have enjoyed our time here and we are glad we made more of the trip than a visa run.

Looking forward to a 'real' shop!

Although we have avoided being ripped off we both can't wait to get back to somewhere that has shops with prices as we haven't been in many shops with them since entering Vietnam. We don't mind paying a bit more than the locals, we just wished the price wasn't completely dependent on what you look like! For instance the slow boat has two prices one for Lao's and one for foreigners. We have no problem with this as it is clearly detailed for everyone to see and if you don't want to pay the foreigner price, don't travel. But we don't like going into a shop and the price is dependent on who is serving you, the time of day, what you look like and is different for one foreigner to the next. For instance we tried to buy a wet pack in Vang Vieng before we went tubing, one evening we were quoted a price but when we went back the next morning it was a different shop assistant and the price had jumped up, needless to say we didn't buy it. We thought we would never say it but we miss Tesco's. Another reason to get back to Thailand.

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