Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cruising the Mekong on a Slowboat to Luang Prabang

On Tuesday, we were up bright and early to cross the border from Thailand into Laos.  Although we’ve previously explored the southern portion of the country, we had missed several of the most common spots on the tourist path in northern Laos, including the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang. 

Instead of taking the easy way out and hopping on a short flight, we opted for the more scenic route: the two-day trip down the Mekong via slowboat.  There are plenty of the shallow and colorful slowboats plying this route up and down the Mekong.  However, many of them pack as many passengers in as possible, making for a pretty uncomfortable boat ride.  We weren’t eager to partake in this complete backpacker experience – is it too much to ask to have our own seats?  In the course of her research, though, Steph stumbled upon what we have termed the “bougie slowboat.”  For a slightly higher fee, we got comfortable seats, a delicious lunch, and a guide who met us at the border.  It was the perfect solution!

Before we could embark on our river cruise, we had to make our way to Laos, on the other side of the Mekong.  Not surprisingly, Stephanie had way over-estimated the amount of time it would take us to cross the Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge and arrive on the opposite side of the border.  In fact, we arrived so early that we had to wait until the customs officers decided to open for business.  Once we went through Thai customs around 7:15, we needed to pay the fee for the bus that would take us across the bridge.  It was then that we learned that the first bus of the morning would depart at 8:30 am (too late for us given we were expected in Laos at 8:30).  However, the bus driver was more than happy to arrange an express bus to accommodate us – for an extra fee, of course.  Aboard our express bus, we made it to the other side of the bridge and then had to wait for almost an hour for the rest of the boat’s passengers, who decided the 8:30 am pick up time was only a suggestion.  As we filled out the forms for a new Lao visa, Giorgio once again took some time to ponder his racial identity.

As we reached the dock and saw the crowds begin to gather for the many slowboats, we were happy with our decision to avoid the “dirty hippy boats.”  Once we were firmly ensconced on our slowboat, however, Giorgio looked around at our fellow passengers and determined that on our river cruise, we were actually the dirtiest hippies on board.

There is a third option to reach Luang Prabang that only takes six hours – via speedboat.  We had read these have a very high accident rate and decided against it.  As we saw the aquatic deathtraps zoom by we were once again quite happy with our chosen method of transportation.  The “speedboats” turned out to be small dugout canoes, modified to hold a big boat engine.  Passengers were all seated in single file and had to wear motorcycle helmets as they rocketed toward their imminent doom.

For those of us opting to avoid drowning in the Mekong, a stopover in the town of Pakbeng is necessary.  Pakbeng seems to be a town that has sprung up solely to service the boats travelling to and from Luang Prabang.  We spent some time wandering along the main street, which was full of guesthouses and shops catering to tourists.

As we sat down on our porch overlooking the Mekong with a Beerlao, many of the "non-bougie" boats started to dock.  Hordes of backpackers unloaded from their slowboats, confirming our suspicion that it must have been a very uncomfortable boat ride.

We enjoyed our quiet two days floating down the Mekong.  Rolling green hills rose up from the sandy banks bordering the river, which runs much faster than we had imagined.  We even encountered a few small sets of rapids! 

Since we had opted to take the fancy slowboat, we were able to stop at a few points along the way.  We got a glimpse of local village life in northern Laos after docking at one small town; we couldn’t help but feel that we were taking part in some sort of uncomfortable poverty tourism as our guide handed out school supplies to a clamoring group of local children.

In another small town, Giorgio was more than happy to try the local whiskey known as LaoLao (more like moonshine).  He refrained from purchasing one of the bottles that also included a cobra and/or scorpion, though.

At the Pak Ou caves, we found thousands of Buddhas of all shapes and sizes perched the caverns. 

We have now docked in the beautiful town of Luang Prabang.  Details about our explorations (and of Giorgio’s first anniversary celebration of his 29th birthday) coming soon!


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