Monday, 8 October 2012

The Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

23rd-28th September 2012

After leaving the stunning scenery around the Bamboo Nest, we made our way by bus up to the Thai-Lao border at Chiang Khong. Our research had already told us that there were a number of options for getting the boat to Luang Prabang, so we decided to spend a day or two investigating them. We quickly ruled out the ‘fast boat’ (too dangerous) which left us with a couple of variations on the slow boat. We could either take the public boat – cheap but reputedly crowded – or one of the more expensive, but more comfortable options.

After reading one too many scare stories about the amount of people they cram on to the public boat, and hearing one first-hand account from Sheena and Adam, we plumped for a slightly more expensive trip but one which included some stops at points of interest along the way (run by Nagi of Mekong).

The boat we chose only runs three times a week (Sun, Wed and Fri) so first we had a couple of days to kill in Chiang Khong. There’s a couple of nice walks you can do along the river and, it being the weekend, we managed to find a bar showing the football: Liverpool vs Man U! To take our minds off the football (and the less said about that game, the better), the bar owner - a big Liverpool fan with tattoos to prove it - had various bar games at our disposal. These included board games, a putting mat (which I was useless at) and best of all, Duelling Hammers!

“What’s Duelling Hammers?” I hear you say.

Dead simple: two men, one tree stump, two nails, two hammers and a pile of drink. The first to hammer their nail flat wins. To make it more difficult, we were playing the peen-only variation (we were using tournament-approved cross-peen hammers, since you asked).

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I just need a couple more drinks to get my eye in...
We should totally play this game outside pubs in the UK. What could possibly go wrong?

Having exhausted all the fun to be had in Chiang Khong, it was time to go to Laos. We got up bright and early and were taken by the tour company to the jetty to be whisked across the Mekong and into Huay Xai in Laos. Getting our visas on the other side was quick and easy although it helps to have dollars to hand: for some reason paying in baht or Lao kip is more expensive. We then grabbed some of the local currency and were shepherded onto our boat.

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The seats are all lifted straight out of old minibuses - not as comfy as they look!
The boats are built for about 40 people; the tour we were on regularly take 20-plus but this time there were only about a dozen of us, including the crew, so there was plenty of space for all.

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The boat
On day one, we stopped mid-morning for a visit to a typical Lao village.

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Small Lao village
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Village school
Lunch was served on the boat at around midday. The food was simple but delicious. My favourite was the spicy papaya salad which is fast becoming an addiction of mine: crisp, juicy and refreshing but with a chilli-kick that could fell a shire horse.

We arrived at Pak Beng quite early at around 4pm. Despite having read various less-than-savoury descriptions of Pak Beng, it’s actually quite nice. One of the perks of booking the trip this was was our hotel was pre-arranged and whoever chose it did a very good job: the view from our balcony was stunning.

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View of the Mekong from Pak Beng
About an hour after we arrived, we saw the public boat pull-up next to the jetty. If we wondering whether we'd made the right decision booking the tour boat, any lingering doubts were quickly dispelled as we watched at least 60 people pour off the public boat (designed for 40) and make the dash up the hill to try and get a good hotel.

The next morning we were up nice and early to find clouds clinging to the surrounding hills in quite a picturesque manner.

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Early morning in Pak Beng
The second day was punctuated by two more stops. First at another Lao village.

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View of the village from the river
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The village school
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Bath time
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Chillies drying in the midday sun
Our second stop was at the Pak Ou caves, only an hour or so short of Luang Prabang itself. To be honest, they were nothing special, just a couple of medium-sized limestone caves stuffed with Buddha statues. Because they were on our way, it was nice to see them and it made sense to stop. But, as we found out later, you can visit them as a day-trip from Luang Prabang which would have been a bit of a disappointment. They're certainly not worth going out your way for.

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Entrance to the Pak Ou caves from the river

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Buddha statues in the dark
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View across the river from the Pak Ou caves - nicer than the caves themselves

Then, finally, we arrived in Luang Prabang.

If you're considering going to Luang Prabang and if you've got the time, I can heartily recommend taking the slow boat from Huay Xai. If you've got short legs and a teflon bum then I'm sure the public boat would be fine, but I think we got more out of the journey by taking the tour boat. We had the space to properly relax and appreciate the wonderful scenery, and also the opportunity to stop along the way and experience how some of the local Lao villagers live their lives.

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Life in the slow lane
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Mekong river
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View of the Mekong from the upper cave at Pak Ou
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Heading into the sunset
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Greyscale hills
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Arriving at Luang Prabang
Next up: Luang Prabang, sunsets and more fun with waterfalls...

Current location: Kuala Lumpur until tomorrow
Next stop: Kochi, India

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