As we are heading westwards to Thailand, we chose to cruise river Mekong by boat, the most in a straight-line and fast way, whereas the road twists around the nearby mountains (and we had enough of bus trips!).
Yesterday we went by bike to the new pier, moved recently 8 km north of Luang Prabang (it used to be on the Mekong banks in town), to make sure how far it is (we don’t want to be ripped off by the tuk-tuk driver the next morning) and above all to check schedule and prices: there is no option to buy a direct ticket to Huay Xai, on the border with Thailand, but they tell us there’s no problem to buy a ticket at Pak Beng’s pier.
So the day after at 7 am we bargain a 40,000 kip ride and we purchase the slowboat ticket to Pak Beng for 105,000 kip (13$), as stated on big clear tables, with the usual 2 different prices for Laotians and discriminated foreigners… In town the cheapest price we found through agencies was 280,000 kip (35$) straight to Huay Xai, but after reading a few reviews online we decided to try and get the separate tickets at the pier ourselves, which revealed to be the best deal for us.
SLOW-BOAT VS SPEED-BOAT
The boat leaves at about 9. All the locals sit at the front, by now we’ve learned to follow them, there is always a reason: at the back, where the other 6 tourists are, the engine noise is deafening, and it won’t be pleasant for all those hours.
Seats are quite comfortable, they are actually taken off a minivan and fixed on the boat! After all that bus rides, where it’s basically impossible to do anything due to lack of space and frequent bumps, we enjoy the time on the slow boat, writing, reading, relaxing, watching the spectacular landscapes and daily routines all around.
The Mekong river is majestic, and still we are just entering the rainy season: in fact rocks and small islets come out from the waters, as the skilled captain twists and turns all over the width of the river, avoiding the centre and staying close to the banks most of the time. Every now and then noisy and loud speedboats rocket beside us, passengers sit with their heads down protected by helmets…
We reach Pak Beng at about 5 pm. The town is nothing but a stop-over, we are immediately approached by a few guesthouse owners who will share us 8 foreigners for the night. Accomodation prices in Pak Beng are very cheap, we get a spartan room for 50,000 kip and the well prepared woman asks us if we want breakfast and/or sandwiches for the day after. As always, they are so damn ready to host tourists, even in the middle of nowhere.
At dinner, we meet a group of 15-20 guys doing the opposite trip to Luang Prabang, which seems to be more crowded; probably stories we heard about overcrowded boats regard this route and not ours.
The following day we get back to the pier at 7.30, way too early as the boat won’t leave before 8.50 again. We easily buy the ticket on board for another 105,000, making it 210,000 kip (26$) altogether. We paid our room and lunch with the money saved without going through agencies.
Another relaxing trip brings us along the Mekong, everything is fine, the weather is nice, we enjoy our sandwiches, admire the view, until one of the many stops the captain makes to drop passengers, transforms into a definitive breakdown of the engine. Children swimming in the brown waters distract us during our wait, we don’t realize what’s about to happen when suddenly the rumble of 4 speedboats shakes us, approaching our boat.
It’s time for us to move on them and challenge fate: our backpacks are tied at the front of the boats, we try to fit in them, we are more than 30 for 4 crafts that in normal condition host 5-6 people, and there are only 2 helmets! We have no choice but to go, the speedboat is fast and tight as hell, the noise is loud as hell, and the bounces on the water surface are hard as hell.
We safely reach Huay Xai pier at 5.30 pm, the time lost waiting for rescue, we got it back thanks to the speedboat, but still never again on that kind of craft please!
Our plan at first was to stay for the night in Huay Xai, we had read that the Laos/Thai border shuts at 6 pm and we didn’t feel to risk it. But 3 new friends (Marc from USA, George from Northern Ireland and his girlfriend Fabi from Venezuela) convince us to go further to the border.
And they were right, still open until 9 pm as one official tells me. We handle the procedures, exit Laos after a quick 5-day visit, cross the new friendship bridge that makes the traverse more easy (before you needed another boat to get to the other side) and enter Thailand again, 4 months later.
Once there, they warn us there are no more buses to Chiang Rai, our next destination. A tuk-tuk drives us into Chiang Khong centre, where there’s pretty much nothing. Marc tries one more attempt, bargaining on the phone for a 2000 baht minivan ride to Chiang Rai. That works for us (10$ each, we would have spent 5$ the day after with normal price, but of course we are gaining time), and at about 9.30 pm we reach Chiang Rai. Edo’s foot is still painful, and we stop at the closest place we find, saying goodbye to our companions. Many guesthouses in Chiang Rai are close around the main street and the night bazaar area.
A quick visit and meal around the night bazaar late at night, and we go back to sleep, after a long day of travel: we left from Pak Beng planning to reach the last town before the border, and we ended up sleeping in Chiang Rai, already deep in northern Thailand. And we even had to get on an infamous speedboat on which we would never ever step!
Having no fixed plans and changing them suddenly, leaving in the morning without knowing where you will be at night, makes travels even more exciting and wonderfully unexpected!
WHERE TO STAY:
- Pak Beng guesthouses: negotiate your price between 50,000/100,000 kip/night, for a spartan room;
- Ann Guesthouse, Chiang Rai: starting from 250 baht/night, AC, basic room, shared bathroom.
- Hi Chiangrai Hotel: modern rooms and close to centre and bazaar area.
- You can pre-book all your accommodation in Laos and Thai with free cancellation here.
HOW TO REACH CHIANG RAI:
- Luang Prabang to Chiang Mai, boat+van, ask agencies in town for prices;
- slowboat, Luang Prabang-Pak Beng: 105,000kip/person, leave at 8.30, arrive at 4.30pm;
- slowboat, Pak Beng-Huay Xai: 100,000kip/person, leave at 8.30, arrive at 4.30 (maybe…);
- private minivan, Chiang Khong-Chiang Rai: 2,000baht/van.
- book your tickets to travel in Laos and Thailand on amt.12go.asia
- Never leave home without a reliable travel insurance. Even if you trust yourself, you can’t always trust others. Better safe than sorry! Get your quote here.