Though we weren’t quite ready to leave Thailand yet, we’d worked ourselves up to the northern border with Laos, so we decided to cross it.
After a quick boat across the Mekong River from Thailand to Laos (and our first of many baguette sandwiches – a culinary staple left from the days of French rule), we had another much longer boat ride ahead of us – from the border town of Huay Xai to the French colonial city of Luang Prabang. Until very recently, the only way to travel between these two cities was by boat. However, there is now a new highway connecting the two places providing a faster (10 hour overnight bus ride vs. a 2-day boat ride) and more financially intriguing option. But though the highway certainly has some factors in its favor, the boat ride is a helluva lot more fun.
So that is how we found ourselves on the “slow boat” with 68 other travelers and 5 locals heading down the Mekong, the largest un-dammed river in the world. There is indeed a “fast boat” alternative, but people are regularly killed on these dangerous journeys. One must wear a helmet while the driver dodges rocks, rapids, and whirlpools, and they are so incredibly fast and dangerous that the guidebooks strongly advise against them due to the frequency of accidents. Ummm…no thanks.
As the slow boat is no longer the fastest or least expensive option, the appeal is the experience itself. The two-day boat ride with an overnight stop in the remote village of Pak Beng was quite a treat. It is pretty fantastic to be cruising along one of the world’s most famous and mighty rivers with nothing to do that day but appreciate the scenery. On the boat, we cruised through dense, lush, green forest, witnessing fantastic unique-shaped mountains, temples built into sheer rock walls, remote villages inaccessible by road, and even elephants coming down to the river to drink! It was a great way to get introduced to the landscapes and the pace of life in Laos.
Though this may all sound idyllic and serene, what I have yet to mention is that the average age of our fellow boat riders was approximately 23, and having two days to cruise down a river is an excellent opportunity to drink a lot of BeerLao. So as you can imagine, the slow boat became a bit of a booze cruise as the day went on. The good news is that we both like to drink beers too and the great part is that we met incredibly fun people from all over the world that we proceeded to run into throughout the rest of our time in Laos. Even if we didn’t say a word to one another on the boat, recognition of being on the same vessel was grounds for striking up a conversation when we crossed paths 2 weeks later!
When we rolled into Luang Prabang late in the afternoon on our second day of cruising, we felt like seasoned riverboat travelers. The slow boat was certainly an experience – definitely not a cultural one nor necessarily one we’d need to do again – but ultimately a great time.