Our first night in Laos was incredibly hot. Our guesthouse air conditioner proved to be useless against the all-absorbing heat, it was radiating out the walls of our room. Later on that night the weather turned and a storm that had been pushing the hot weather ahead of it ensued. It arrived with lightning forks across the night-sky followed by almighty bangs of thunder. The wind was rattling our broken window frame and after a couple of hours of thunder and lightning the rain started to come down. Adam was sitting next to the window for most of the show, impressed by the might of the thunders. I was in bed with head under the duvet getting increasingly stressed out by the thought of having to get unto the Mekong for two solid days on a teeny-weeny boat in this weather….
As morning came, and it was still windy and rainy, we started preparing for the journey and I almost bottled it. In the end, after Adam’s encouragements of ‘Don’t be ridiculous’, I put my reservations behind me to embark on a journey that was meant to be one of the most epic ones of our time in South-East Asia.
We bought the slowboat tickets through our guesthouse for 245000 kips each (£20), a bargain by anyone’s standards! This was slightly more expensive than had we bought the tickets directly at the pier, but it also included our transfer in the morning, so for that and for the convenience, it was extra money well spent.
We shared a songthew (converted truck with two benches at the back) with a nice young All-American couple who had also just arrived from Northern Thailand and stayed in Huay Xai for one night to take the slowboat to Luang Prabang. This seems to be the popular route for a lot of travellers.
We got to the pier in persistent rain, checked in and got on the boat. The trip was originally scheduled to start at 10.30 am, but was put back to 11am to wait for a group of people running a bit late. We got there early and were given seats at the front of the boat, which weren’t great. The American lad asked the ticket office if it was possible to change the seats as there were hardly any people on the boat and he was told we could sit anywhere we wanted. So we did. This became a problem later on, when at 12pm the boat still hadn’t left the pier and was still taking passengers. Basically it was going to wait until it was full before leaving. A big surge of people half an hour later who now wanted to sit in their allocated seats. Most of them understood that you could sit wherever you wanted and most were happy with that except the middle-aged French man who was allocated the seat we had now been sitting in for the past three hours and he was adamant he wanted to sit there. So to avoid confrontation we moved. The boat was now pretty much full and started moving. The French man then proceeded to leave his seat and sit somewhere he deemed to be a more favourable one. I thought this was incredibly rude of him and I think he knew it as I looked at him with eyes like previous night’s thunder a good few times.
We put that behind us and strategically moved to an OK seat a bit further back. The boat slowly turned away from the pier, positioned itself in the middle of the wide river and then, with a mere 3 hour delay, we were off! Down the Mekong!!! For the next two days!!!
However it was still raining, so the covers came down and as a result there was no views to be had. As the rain eased off and the travellers wanted to enjoy the views the covers had to be rolled back on. Then it started raining again and the covers were rolled down again. And that carried on for a lot of the afternoon. Finally the rain stopped, but it was really windy, and it got pretty cold on the open boat. People got their jumpers on, their coats and hoods on and curled up in their seats to protect themselves from the chilly wind.
Apart from the weather another thing really irked me: there were smokers all around us who decided that social norms were out of the window in the middle of the Mekong river and started smoking without any regards to their fellow passengers! A French man was smoking in he seat in front of us and a British lad was smoking in the seat right next to us. With the wind factor, both of their exhaled smoke ended up in our faces! We must have collectively passive-smoked at least a packet of cigarettes in the space of a few hours as they were puffing away. Apparently this was a problem on the whole boat as rude smokers took advantage of the unregulated circumstances, free of their home countries rules and social conventions. Smokers please take note: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should!
As unpleasant as the weather was, and as inconsiderate as our smoking travelling companions were we still enjoyed the trip. How could you not, when you are surrounded by scenery like this?:
As well as taking a two day slowboat down the river, travellers can also opt to take a speed boat option which takes only one day. As great as this sounds we had been well-read and prepared about this so-called speedboat and didn’t even contemplate taking it for a second. Speedboats passed us by on the river many times and they looked terrifying. These are essentially skinny long-tail boats (the slowboats are much bigger converted cargo boats) with a massive engine attached and they looked like they were going with about 50 miles per hour!! This is the height of the dry season with river level at its lowest and there were sharp rocks and whirlpools all around us. I would not have fancied my chances in those teeny boats. Most of the passengers on them had to wear life jackets and helmets just in case. Whereas our journey was so leisurely, with relatively comfortable seats, a roof over our heads, a bar at the back, the low humming of the engine and a nice pace to admire the view and take some photographs and read our books.
After 7 hours on the boat we cast anchor at Pakbeng pier. Again we hadn’t booked accommodation, so we hastily bought a room off of a guy who came on the boat and was telling passengers how hard it will be to find accommodation once we are at Pakbeng. This turned out to be a scam! – do not fall for it like we did. The room turned out to be expensive, just about ok enough to stay in for a night and there were plenty of other cheaper options in town. These scamsters are so clever, and we are so easily fooled… But we are starting to wisen up to it…
We spent the night in Pakbeng – this is where all slowboats stop for the night and the town is completely sustained by the steady inflow of passengers. We got an early night in to try and get a good night sleep before Day 2 on the Mekong.
Read Day 2 of the trip here.