I heard great things about the Mekong River Slow boat ride from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang so I thought why not.
So like you I researched a little mingling with other backpackers and decided on it.What to expect, I had no idea? I heard about these long boats that packed people in like sardines like the trains of India. Then other people said it was so relaxed and plenty of space to lay down and they would do it again any day. I guess like anything in life there will be different experiences for different people. And this one I had to find out on my own.
What does the inside look like I thought. After getting to the border I had some time to spare so I went down to the riverbed to inspect these Mekong river long boats that people were living in. Like floating trailers, I imaged the United States Mississippi River having long floating double wide trailers. But these slow boats were elegant in a rustic style. You knew you were in for something different, and you knew at this point you were in the heart of Southeast Asia.
The day started out fine, I was first on board and picked out a really good seat by the window that allotted plenty of space out the window for 180 degrees of river and landscape. Not like on an airplane where you may be lucky to get your own small window the size of a human head. I recommend getting a seat along the side of course. I was three rows back on the left side shown in the photo above.
ALL ABOARD! So we waited and waited, the boat was to leave at 11am, but still we waited for more people. And to my expectations they packed the people in, put their luggage in the back in the engine room and shoved everyone locals and tourists alike wherever there was room. Joy.
Finally we left dock, backing out and heading down the river. The first two hours seems to be nice, that feeling of excitement you get when embarking on a new journey. Don’t get me wrong it was enjoyable. Then once the excitement passes I realized I was stuck in a boat. I thought maybe I could go up on top, but no. I am a large man six foot six stuck under a six foot ceiling of 8 hours. Also since my boat was packed, there was not much moving space. People were already sleeping on each other shoulders legs out the windows, people lying on the floor under seats. It was a packed mess. So I daydreamed looking out onto the Mekong River, soaking up the cool breeze.
Some weird noises and the crew of the boat yelling at each other, no one on the boat seemed to really understand what was going on, then some more yelling from the back to the front.
By this time the engine had shut down. We all knew then that our boat was floating without direction other than the mighty currents of the Mekong river. Some people sat up, others were still drunk from last night’s binge. My new found Chinese friends were curious with a touch of shock and anxiety. As for me, I laughed and thought this is just all part of the package deal that we pay for in life. As so it began.
What was happening is the engine jammed and shorted out and the crew could not control what happened they said we hit something under the boat. As it is dry season and the river water is low, it could have been anything. So from the sounds of it it jammed up and then stalled, but that’s not the best part we were floating out of control and needed to get to safety. The crew, which just a few men dressed in normal local attire and two ladies selling from the mini bar/ the folks who lived on the boat I assume were all doing something moving around. I watched as our boat started turning towards the rocks.
Then A few boats passed but no one stopped to help. Our skipper was on a walky-talky calling in speaking to someone. All the words were in Laos.
I reviewed and assessed the situation; I had my valuables in my backpack under my seat and put my back pack on in case i had to abandon ship in a hurry. Yes I was taking them with me. But my back pack was in the back luggage compartment. Meanwhile we were headed straight for the river bed I held onto the side. Finally in a slow motion we glided up and slammed into the river bed, scratching the bottom of the boat, I imaged the shrieking sounds the iceberg made on the Titanic. Although nothing in comparison it still made for a good crashing noise. Unexpected turbulence added extra excitement. I thought this is going to be a long day.
After the boat hit land they told us to “no worry” and so Bob Marley popped up in my head “no woman don’t cry” as I heard a few women in the back frantically making a fuse, I was busy with where to go, in case the current pulls us back out, I’d need to get off this ship wreck. I was the first one off the boat. I walked to the front and I knew we weren’t going to be moving for a while so I headed up to the bow, and jumped off onto dry land. I walked over to the side to snap a photo. Shown below.
After snapping this photo, I decided to go back onto the boat. I wanted to capture some photos from the scene.
Finally after about twenty minutes of sitting around the crew told everyone else to get off the boat. Then as the last people were getting out, the boat of course weighed less, and started to turn- and the current did just what I thought, it pushed the boats back end down the river, but in time the men had tied the front of the boat to a tree on the banks. So the boat then just turned with the current now facing upstream. The men directed what seemed like a soft landing with bamboo rods and a few of the jumped out into the water. It was all a symphony of frantic Laotian boat crew and a bunch of hung over tourist all trying to figure out what is next. After all the mess of exchanging baggage and now sitting in new seats on wooden benches we were ready to leave again.
But the rescue boat had too many people and it was stuck in the mud. Is this really happening I thought? So they asked for some of the people to go back onto the other boat that now flanked our rescue boat. Then The boat was able to float out of area but not before the others raced back on. Now everyone was on, the luggage was all aboard and we were ready to go to Huay Xai, Laos, short on time I didn’t really care, from this point on I was all about the scenery of what was to be seen outside.
For me it was great to see not only the landscapes but to stop at small villages and pick up or drop of locals. I was in awe of the simple of these people. Watching the men and women load and unload from thin fishing boats along the waters, seeing the young men out in the water throwing fishing lines. Women doing laundry on the banks and children waving with great pleasure to show of a back flip into the cool refresh waters of their summer.
Outside the boat was a completely different story. It was vast and open, mountainous and ridged rock formations shot up out of the river with exuberance. Masses of white sand dunes flanked over the shorelines and were met by the lush green landscapes that carpeted the Mekong River inland. Every so often you could spot a few bamboo huts, some villages and people in transition of their every day life on the Mekong.
The down fall was the farmer’s burning’s, it left the skies of a haze; the sun was just an orange ball floating in the sky. Not the most perfect picturesque you would ask for but I made lemonade out of the lemons, and tried to capture the journey.
We passed by many farmers that were burning their crop; the sky was filling with smoke and left the sunset to be an eerie orange ball floating in the sky.
Towards the end of the first day, we were now doing what is not allowed, on the Mekong River at night, floating down the river. These boats are not to be out on the river after dusk, as the liability of having so many tourists and people as a whole, with trying to steer through the unpredictable currants and low water line is a recipe for disaster. A few people were concerned with this, as so was I. But in a short amount of time they had a make shift lighting system for us to see in the boat… and some lights outside as headlights. What seems to be a long day- ended up with us arriving before anymore worries would transpire to the dock to PAKBENG.
Once docked at Pakbeng I was without accommodation but that is standard for me. I did some research asked around who had what for what price, then followed by some negotiating, and had a nice place with hot showers, and wifi for just over 3 bucks or 100 Thai Baht. At this point you can still pay in Thai Baht, or Laos Kip, and they would never turn down USD, but they give you Kip for your change.
My advice, do not buy any guesthouse tickets on the boat from a Vendor. Wait till you get there, Get your feet off the boat grab your bag and head up the hill. You will be met by at least 10 guest houses offering you room for special price. Tell them how much you want to pay and for what price and I can assure you that you can strike a deal within ten minutes. If you want make a deal with your new friends or old friends, the more the merrier for them as this small down depends on the stop over from the slow boats. A small rustic village that is the most modern in the area caters to you, the traveler It sells guest houses and over priced food. Enjoy it for a day, get up early and enjoy the sunrise.
The next day was a much more enjoyable ride for me and I think everyone else. No crashes or night vision needed. It was just an overall beautiful journey – but still cramped. I am sorry for the Europeans that had to sit on the luggage in the back. And the many people who had lay on the rumbling wood floor by the toilet. That must have been tough. But besides being sardines, I enjoyed it until the end.
But it wasn’t over. Before the Luang Prabang Port we were dropped off. There was mass confusion when they told us this was the end. But this was not the Luang Prabang port that was in everyone’s guidebook that they were flipping through frantically, nor was it the port that the travel agent showed me back in Thailand. Nor was it the map that was talked about at the ticket office back up stream at Huay Xai. People were puzzled and so was I.
There was mass confusion, everyone was getting off then getting on, sitting… then after thirty minutes we realized we had been doped. We needed to go up the bamboo rickety stairs to the top where there was a horde of Tuk-Tuk drivers all waiting to take us into town.
A scam or a way to increase the revenue being pumped into the town and local transport economy I was not sure. But the boats no longer seemed to go to port in Luang Prabang and they lied to us. To me it was “eh” another part of the trip.
But the part that was frustrating was that they charged us extra on top of our oat ticket, and it was non negotiable land transportation. Overall the experience was just that, an experience. It was hell in a boat. While it is was easy to feel uncomfortable in a small space on the Boat, falling into a daydream gaze while looking outside the boat could last for hours. The time seemed to have flashed by as I feel in love with wondering eyes across Laos made it a trip to remember. I hope that your experience is just that, an experience in the story of your life. All my Meta.