Laos Pt. 1: The Slowboat Experience

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Laos was originally not on my itinerary, but it turned out to be one of my favorite countries in Southeast Asia. I traveled it from north to south and started with floating down the Mekong River for two days… quiet an adventure but also a great time to relax, to observe the passing scenery, to have some me-time or to talk with fellow travelers. 

“Passport-guessing” at the border

Before I got to the actual slowboat, I had to cross the Thai-Lao border, which was quiet an interesting matter: You have to hand in your passport at a little booth, go 10 meters to the left and wait there with dozens of other travelers – all standing very close together and starring at a tiny window in another booth – till the person inside holds up a passport and you ideally see your passport. To enhance the chances for the people standing further in the back, a little technique was instantly developed: people in the front who have a better look at the window shout out loud the description, like “blue passport, girl, glasses” or “red passport, older man, curly hair” – and with a bit of faith you recognize yourself, go to the booth, hand them the visa fee and get back your most important document in return.

Floating down the Mekong River

After managing that successfully we all jumped into a bus which dropped us off in the nearby town of Huay Xai – the place where the boat journey starts. The two day journey on the slowboat from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, including an overnight stay in Pakbeng is about 250,000 Kip (28€ / 30US$).

Generally people have two options: taking the slowboat, as I did, or the speedboat. With the speedboat you can make the journey to Luang Prabang only in one day, but it is supposingly very noisy and also quiet dangerous – there were some cases where the speedboats hit rocks or other boats because the speed made it impossible to brake. Also it is more expensive than the slow option.

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I am not a big fan of boats in general but also in hindsight I am very glad I took the slowboat. Not even did it save some money, but it also were two very nice days: The slowboat floats peacefully down the Mekong river, while you sit on old, but comfy car seats, observing the beautiful nature passing by left and right. Here and there the boat stops for a few minutes, so locals can go from board and you see exited kids running to the waterside and waving. A lovely day, that provided great conversations with the other people on board, a little private ukulele session, some time for day dreaming and the memo to myself, to always embrace the route as part of the journey.

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The boat arrived in Pakbeng just around sunset – a marvellous spectacle seeing the sky and clouds turning into a red-orange-yellow painting over the river and the mountains. We jumped on the loading area of a truck with our backpacks and went to a little guesthouse, where I ate something together with my new travelmates and then soon went to sleep – because the next day started early again and held another full day on the boat (and there is not much going on in that tiny village of Pakbeng anyway).

Bad weather and good company

This time the weather wasn’t as peaceful as the day before. It was way colder and super windy – which immediately caused problems with the balance of the boat, so the boatmen came several times yelling in Laotian (or I think it was Laotion… I didn’t understand a word) and gesturing that we should shift from one side to the other. They had to install provisional tarpaulins so the wind would not make the boat swinging to much. There it was, the adventure part of the trip… but everything worked out fine at the end.

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In times like that you realize, that there are no bad experiences with the right people around – together you just make the best out of it. So we were talking, jamming and playing charades all day while drinking some whisky (with dead snakes in it!!) – and suddenly it wasn’t feeling that cold anymore and quickly we arrived in Luang Prabang – a town with a loooot to offer, as I will point out in my next blogpost.

See also:
Laos Pt. 2: Luang Prabang – Buddhism meets Colonialism

Here are some more impressions of the Slowboat journey on the Mekong in Laos:

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