Mekong River, Laos
March 12, 2015 – March 13, 2015
After our brief stop back in Thailand, we boarded a slow boat a little ways into Laos for our two day ride down the Mekong to the city of Luang Prabang, Laos. Two days of great views and a bumpy ride avoiding rocks on our long, narrow and very crowded wooden boat. There are many ways to enter a country, but a long slow ride down a river was a new one for us and a memorable one as well.
After leaving Chiang Rai, we took a van to the border crossing. After getting our passports stamped it was another short van ride to the riverside in the city of Houayxay, Laos. Houayxay supposedly was the site of a massive secret United States heroine manufacturing site running during the Vietnam War, whether its true or not, there is no evidence of it now. Here at the Mekong river, with Thailand on one side and Laos on the other we boarded a long wooden riverboat with dozens of other tourists for the long ride into Laos.
The riverboats themselves are long and thin, traditionally made wooden boats with a motor, usually from a car, installed in the back. They are fairly basic, with little other than rows of seats along the deck and a makeshift roof built above you to block the elements. There is a primitive toilet on board however, and a modest drink selection from a cooler in the back. We learned that they once had uncomfortable wooden benches for seats, but now it appears that most boats have upgraded their benches to bucket seats from cars and are actually quite comfortable. The locals will however tell you before you see the boat that the seats are all hard wood and ask would you like to by a cushion for a couple dollars to save your backside from two days of hard benches. Don’t fall for the cushion sale, as every boat we saw has good seats now.
With the sky more clear than Thailand, thick jungle covered hills everywhere the ride would prove to be very scenic. Kids playing along the shore or in the water would often wave to us. There were also numerous large boat eating rocks sticking up out of the water, eyeing our boat hungrily as we passed by. Since it was dry season the river was running low and that meant large rocks and sometimes submerged islands were all visible and proved to obstacles for the fragile wooden boats. The boat pilots are very skilled however, though we came very close to many huge rocks, each promising sudden cold wet disaster, we never hit anything.
We left around mid day the first day and went as far as the small river town of Pak Beng, inside Laos about half way to Luang Prabang. You can reserve a room at one of the towns many guesthouses ahead of time or just show up. We chose to just show up and found plenty of options right near the docks with guesthouse owners who were ready to make deals to entice us to stay. Aside from the guesthouses and few restaurants overlooking the river there is little to do or see in Pak Beng and not worth staying longer than a single night. The next morning we hopped back on our boat for the final day on the river before reaching Luang Prabang, Laos.
Along the river we spotted only a few homes and farms, most of the land is just untouched jungle. There were many fisherman along the river, fishing with line, nets and even dynamite. A speed boat dropped explosives in the water about a hundred yards from our boat and after the startling explosion went back to catch all the fish which were stunned by the explosion.
We learned that the riverboats used to drop their passengers off right at the docks downtown, just a few blocks walk from all the hotels and guesthouses, but in a deal worked out with tuk-tuks and transportation companies the boats now drop passengers off on the shore a few kilometers out of town, forcing tourists to pay for an additional needless van ride into town. A scam we would become familiar with all over Laos as every form of transportation whether its boat, bus or van, between towns takes passengers almost all the way to their destination but then stops, sometimes randomly, outside of town and drops you off right where a few tuk-tuk drivers are waiting with big smiles and expensive rides.
We found the riverboat to Luang Prabang to be an enjoyable and relaxing way to spend a slow two days traveling. More relaxing and less cramped than a bus but much slower, though worth it if you have the time and want a change of scenery.