Slow Boat from Chaingkhong to Luang Prabang on the Mekong River

The Slow, Slow, Slow Boat to Luang Probang

Traveling from Thailand into Laos can be done by land or air but one of the popular ways to go is to take the 3 day “Slow Boat” trip from Chiangkhong Thailand. If you buy your ticket in Chaing Mai be sure and understand exactly what you’re getting yourself into. My friends advice to find a travel agent with good English went unheeded and I bought my package from an agency, even though the woman was not able to answer my questions but I liked the price.

DAY ONE:

Everything started well enough, we left on time in a passenger van, full but not cramped, and headed north through Chaing Rai to our first overnight stop in Chaingkhong. One of the selling points of this tour for me was the chance to stop in Chaing Rai at the White Temple, a spectacular place, part frosty icing, part lacy doily, part Disney, part Super Heroes and all curlicues. I loved it but it was thronging with people and hard to get a photo without people in it but somehow I managed. 

We arrived in Chiangkhong at the end of the day to the ‘guesthouse’ included in the package and it was disgusting. My first room had a cement slab bed with a mattress thrown on top that was equally as hard as the slab. Covered in a red polyester cigarette burned sheet it was finished with a lumpy pillow that looked like it had been dragged down the road.

Phased but determined to be a good sport, (I learned in Central America that you can rest easier if you throw down your beach wraps or sarongs and cover everything that will touch your skin). I was fighting the urge to flee until I opened the bathroom door, one peek and I launched back up two very steep flights of stairs to demand another room….which was worse and had ten bunks in it.

Upon fleeing the scene I ran into this lovely woman who had also freaked at the sight of the accommodation and she led to a hotel a few doors down where she and her friends had found a room. She even negotiated a lower price for me. Sheets, towels, comfy bed and a happy me for 28 cad.

Day 2

After a good nights sleep, the other deserters and myself returned to the the hotel and the poor folks who had touched it out in the dive. There were 20 of us traveling on to Laos to board the “slow boat”.

The guesthouse owner was in charge of getting us all transported across the Laos border and through the visitor visa process. Clearly, the guesthouse owner had his share of experience in getting tourists through the process which I am sure is like herding cats, but still no excuse for such crap accommodation.

First thing after breakfast, you are told to see him to exchange Thai Baht for USD to pay for the Lao visa because with this currency you pay the lowest price for the visa. Other currencies have steeper prices with the Canadian dollar being the highest. No explanation available. The owner checks your passport expiry date and ensures that you have a photo for the Lao officials to process your visa. When all is checked and ready you are given a lunch bag and handed 25 baht for your bus fare across the Friendship Bridge into Laos and then finally at long last you are given the nod to board a van to the boarder.

At the border you are stamped out of Thailand, loaded onto a bus, paying the 25 baht bus fair and arriving on the Laos side of the Friendship Bridge with crisp American bills (otherwise unacceptable) enough for the visa and one extra for “overtime” because the Lao officials have to work on Saturday (2$ if it’s a Sunday). Two forms, three wickets, the Lao visa safely glued inside your passport and a turnstile later, you board yet another van that takes you about 20 minutes up the river to the launching area. (Not going to call it a dock).

The wooden “Slow Boats” are about 50 meters long and 7 meters wide with loosely assigned seating in repurposed car seats, so of course, those that arrived first picked the ”best seats” and argued with the latecomers that it was meant to be first come first served. Our 20 person group was combined with a larger group so the boat we were on was quite full and we were the last to load. The local Lao sat at the front of the boat surrounded by their huge parcels and packages. Slow Boats have long been their mode of transport and now they find themselves surrounded by foreigners, who taking up most of the seats settled in and we were away. The Slow Boats are open sided but between the poles that hold up the roof, there are rolled up curtains for the rainy season.

The Captain sits in the very front of the boat and has to keep track of the great many meters of boat behind him. A huge diesel engine lurks deep inside the open bilge near the stern and makes its presence felt, clanking away, sputtering, coughing and spewing fumes as it pushes the Slow Boat along. Thin guard rails around the engine pit give a nod to safety and behind the engine area is a small back deck. The staff quarters on the boat appear to be the limited, noisy, oily space available around the engine pit. The bilge pumps tell the story of the hull as they spew a constant broad stream of bilge water shooting out the sides of the boat back into the river whence it came.

I met a whole gang of really fun, nice, easygoing people on the Slow Boat who shared stories, food and laughs. It was a good thing because it was a long day and in spite of its beauty the scenery became a little monotonous. Along the rocky banks of restless Mekong we watched Lao people go about their lives, farming, bathing, barbecuing, fishing, washing clothes, some even panning for gold and others swimming in the calmer waters. All of these scenes repeating themselves as we passed the small villages on the hillsides.

The Lao Mekong acts as an important supply and transportation route before it passes through Cambodia and empties into the Mekong Delta in Vietnam Nam. There are strong eddies and occasional rapids that the captain pilots around, sometimes squeezing between the huge rocks that stand menacingly in the boats path. The river widens and narrows and the navigational hazards mean than the Captain must know the river well to keep the “Slow Boats” afloat.

Sadly there were a group of tourist thugs (I’m not naming their country of origin because they could have been from anywhere) whose idea of a vacation involves commandeering a whole section of the boat, drinking copious amounts of beer (on day 2 they brought on 5 bottles of whiskey) and were as loud, obnoxious and profane as possible.

Just a few hours short of our stopover destination, Pak Beng, two of them decided to swing out from the open sides of the boat and up on to the roof. Only, one of them didn’t make it and he was man overboard, bouncing around in the eddies as the captain turned the very long, very slow boat around in a narrow rocky part of the river to retrieve him from a passing fisherman who had, luckily for him, rescued him before we could get back.

Most passengers were alarmed and on their feet watching the scene unfold but his drunken buddies thought it was hilarious but the poor Lao woman who worked the canteen was the one to alert the captain and she was in hysterics. Apparently Slow Boat owners/staff are held responsible if anything happens to the tourists and she could easily have landed in jail. Ugly! 

After some boat wide excitement, we carried on to Pak Beng, watching the sunset behind the mountains.

On our second day on the Mekong, we boarded a different boat. Not as cramped with old car seats it also had some nice wooden benches and although it seemed smaller than the first boat it also seemed more open and there was a nice breeze blowing in the open sides of the boat.

The canteen sold beer, water, pop, potato chips and noodles so that no one starved to death but most people wisely stocked up in Pak Beng where the French influence was evident in the number of bakeries selling brie and baguettes. 

Eight hours a day is a long time to spend onboard, sitting in the old car seats or on the hard wooden benches and frequent strolls up and down the aisle are necessary to eleviate butt pain. But my “gang” on the boat was fantastic, funny and non-complaining. It’s so great when you find a group that is compatible. The other passengers were a mix of retired types and young backpackers, who for the most part were pleasant to be around. I spoke to many interesting people and am constantly amazed at how well the Europeans in particular speak English. As we neared Luang Prabang we passed the famous Buddha Caves and watched a beautiful sunset.

I would say that if you want to take the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang, you should be prepared for some adversity. But, on the whole I had many magical moments where I was very glad to be there, watching the the people, the other boats, the mountain villages, the livestock, the banana groves, and in contrast the new “brought to you by The Government of the Peoples Republic of China” bridges and roads, and the giant grey green rocks standing guard over all the activity. All gliding by on the “Slow Boat” to Luang Prabang on the mighty Mekong River.

Cambodia Part 2: Phnom Penh

Crowded, fast-paced & interesting

Phnom Penh is a capital but in comparison to other SE Asian capitals it is still relatively easy to get to know and travelling about in Tuk Tuks, armed with google maps, proved an economic and efficient means of getting around through the crowds and traffic.

The city is situated along the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers which eventually empties itself into the Mekong delta in VietNam. The Okay Boutique Hotel our home for four nights was off a main artery, up a narrow alley and very close to the places you want to visit in Phnom Penh. The lobby of the hotel, heavy and dark with carved and filigreed highly polished wood and tiled floors glinting with gold coloured floral designs is quite elegant. The giant Buddha, leather furniture and water ponds with floating lotus combine to make you feel like you are snuggly inside an old wooden jewelry box.

We noticed a change in city folk right away, as one would expect. It took a little longer to get friendly service and the warm Cambodian smile, but generally we faired once we learned we had to bargain and make certain that we weren’t overcharged by the Tuk Tuk drivers that hangout in front of hotels. Money in Cambodia is interesting as the US dollar is dispensed in ATM’s, accepted everywhere, given as change and can be mixed at will when paying or getting change. The rate while for us was 4000 Cambodia Riel to 1USD. The mix of currencies was fairly fluid and easy to keep track of in the end.

Our hotel was close to most of the main attractions; the Royal Palace, the Royal Museum and the main Watt, the Silver Pagoda. We spent our mornings out and about but admittedly were driven back to our hotel and the pool by the afternoon heat. Up on the 14th floor the pool afforded a great view of the surrounding city, a patchwork of jumbled together shorter buildings, alleys main thoroughfare and an ever growing number of glassy modern towers. Cambodias main exports are agricultural products and fabrics/clothing. Tourism is growing and there is evidence of economic growth in the hustle and bustle.

The horror of the Khmer Rouge all but sent Cambodia, once one of the jewels of the orient, back to the stone ages. All commerce, religion, ownership, personal freedom or political choice were forbidden by Pol Pot and his regime and 25% of the population died between 1975 and 1979. By the time the Vietnamese Government helped establish a new style of communist government in the 80’s, not so cruel as the Khmer Rouge, all families had suffered loses and many had fled the country. Today you do not see a lot of old people in Cambodia with the largest population group being under 30. At the killing fields we saw large school groups being lead through the history of this dark time with a reminder never to let history repeat itself in the same way again.

We were warned frequently to watch our bags and we had read in our guide books that tourists had been robbed and even shot so we were very cautious at night, carrying only what was necessary and sticking mainly to the busy areas along the Mekong River or surrounding the markets.

The markets are worth visiting if only for the street food. The Night Market was our first and we ate barbecue at several stalls. You pick your food with tongs, place it in a basket and hand it over for cooking. Not as spicey as Thai food, Cambodian spicing is more subtle, lots of lemongrass and capsicum.

We visited the “Russian Market” as it is known, it is a newer market but the passage ways are very narrow and it is really crowded with food sellers in the middle and dry goods people surrounding them. Not easy to negotiate and we found most of the merchandise was low quality. We didn’t stay long were glad we went.

The Central Market is another story. A permanent dome structure covers the market and the passageways are wider and the stalls organized according to merchandise, it’s earlier to find what you’re looking for and seemingly you can buy just about anything but be prepared to barter.

Along the shore of the Tonle Sap River is the Sisowath Quay where Cambodians picnic, exercise and enjoy the cool night air surrounded by a vast array of coloured lights on boats and building. Very pretty and colourful. We ate and people watched in a few restaurants in this area and our last night at a seafood restaurant near the Russian market. It was a longer ride from our hotel, but well worth it. We dined on a wonderful lemongrass and shrimp stir fry with rice followed by a peppered crab stir fry with glass noodles. Very good. We have found that ordering two dishes and sharing family style works really well.

On the whole Cambodia is very inexpensive, a Tuk Tuk in the city is generally 2 or 3USD to get you where you’re going, and a meal with a beer or a G&T around 5USD. We stayed a little upmarket (50CAD) but it was worth it to have a quiet place off the main streets with a pool.

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