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Taro's Travels

Luang... Prabang... by... Boat

LAOS | Thursday, 20 July 2006 | Views [4204] | Comments [4]

Farewell Thailand
There wasn't much to border town Chiang Khong: an internet cafe that closed at 11pm, turning me out into the waiting thunderstorm; a main street terminating at the Mekong - not long, but long enough for a wet bike-ride home; a few cheapish hotels and restaurants; and stores offering Laotian visas. The morning, grey but dry, brought a 9 o'clock pick up by (naturally) a pickup truck. A hundred metres' drive brought my fellow travellers and I to a waiting boat. We crossed the river to Laos.

Huay Xai
There didn't appear to be much to Laotian border town Huay Xai, either, but we'd only a brief stop there - just time enough to change some currency and buy food for the boat while waiting to be transported to the 'port'. This grandly-titled location consisted of a concrete ticket office, a road down to the water, and a slope - more mud than grass - down to where a dozen roofed longboats were tied up. A bunch of people had arrived before our group, and over the next few minutes more groups disgorged from arriving vehicles. We walked down the slick slope, across a plank, through one longboat and onto ours.

Slow Boats
It's possible to get to Luang Prabang from Northern Thailand in a number of ways, but the two-day slow boat is not necessarily the wrong option even for those of us who (*cough*) dislike long unbroken journeys. Speedboats do the journey in only one day, but their contents need to wear crash helmets, raincoats, and earplugs. An airplane from Chiang Rai is relatively expensive. A mini bus to Luang Nam Tha enables access to northern Laos, but Luang Prabang still requires another day's journey over northern Laotian roads. Despite the overcrowding and the discomfort of its cramped wooden seats (even the padding quickly becomes uncomfortable), a slow boat allows you to stretch your legs and use the toilet. Thatched open-sided workers' huts, perched with model-like appearance on the Mekong valley's steep partially-wooded slopes, drift by. It also gives you time to read, meet people, and play fun silly games.

I bought a cheese and salad baguette for the boattrip. It was awful: salad here means tomato and cucumber, the cheese may well have come from a can, and the actual baguette was greasy. I got another cheese and salad baguette on the second day (different seller) and it was better but still poor. I had yet another baguette for breakfast in Luang Prabang, which was merely disappointing. I think I'll wait until I get to France for my next.

There wasn't much to Pakbeng either. Its two roads (one meets the other near the 'port') have restaurants, some rudimentary stalls selling water and junkfood, a couple of temples, a tiny market, a dozen guesthouses charging a few US dollars a night, a steam room, a verandah with three pool tables, a pair skinning a dog, and a resort charging many tens of US dollars a night. The number of satellite dishes in a village reliant on generator power suggest that its position as the rest stop between Huay Xai and Luang Prabang brings reasonable prosperity. Cut logs lay stacked near the water, but there weren't a lot of them and there wasn't any evidence of recent logging on the surrounding partially-wooded slopes so they may have come from elsewhere. A handful of buildings were concrete but the attractive ones were wooden and traditional in style. The guesthouse where I stayed was one of these, as was the Indian restaurant where we ate dinner.

I met Jim in Chiang Khong while waiting for others to be processed by Thai immigration. He's a paramedic from Tamworth (the UK one near Birmingham), which is just far enough away from Birmingham for him not to sound like a Brummie. He's another traveller who's having an extended period off work - being nine months into a year's travel, mostly in South America. He drove from Melbourne to Perth while in Australia, which I found amusingly insane since he was only there for three weeks!

So we ended up travelling companions for a few days - at the same guesthouses in Pakbeng and Luang Prabang, and sharing some meals, and some welcome conversation. I had a Beer Lao with him in Pakbeng, sitting on the balcony of our guesthouse overlooking the rapidly darkening Mekong and shooting the breeze. Beer Lao is a most drinkable beer (a most drinkable drink) but just one longneck had me a little Cadburied - I haven't had much alcohol lately. We parted ways after Luang Prabang - he stopped at Viang Vieng, home of river-tubing and reportedly the "Khao San Road of Laos" and I continued on to Vientiane.

Luang Prabang
We arrived in Luang Prabang in late afternoon. The old part of Luang Prabang is pleasant and pretty during the day - it's classified by UNESCO as a heritage area and filled with traditional Lao, colonial French, and fusionally-designed buildings. The resulting melange is slightly disconcerting, but it works -- and it's thoroughly charming when illuminated after dark. Even an excess of travel agents, each offering the same two half-day trips, doesn't mar Luang Prabang's charm. Many commercial buildings are old-fashioned/traditional in style, and those occupied by travel agents are no exception.

By the time I'd found accomodation in the silversmithing district, showered, and identified a likely spot to find an Internet cafe, the night market was in full swing in the main street. Most stalls at the night market are at ground-level, with local craftwork (mainly textiles) laid out on mats and lit by pendulous lightglobes. Quite a few stalls and shops sell lamps, which add even more illumination to the area.

Marleen and Elmer
I first saw them at the travel agent in Chiang Khong; they were using the internet there, as was I. They assumed that I was Thai, and I assumed that Elmer was from somewhere in the region - in fact they were both from the Netherlands (though Elmer's family was from the Moluccas). They took the same boat from Chiang Khong. And then we actually met at the guesthouse in Pakbeng. Another day on a boat passed.

As we pulled into Luang Prabang, they said that they'd have to go back to Chiang Mai as soon as possible: They'd only a couple of weeks left, they really wanted to do Thailand's beaches, and they'd just learned that flights out of Laos - and Luang Prabang - were infrequent and could be difficult to obtain because of this. There was talk of going straight to the airport... I found this amusingly insane since they'd just spent two days on a boat to get here, and Luang Prabang was reputedly one of the nicest cities in Southeast Asia. But they were pretty adamant that they had to leave.

I saw them later that night after they'd actually set foot in the place, and they'd decided to stay until Tuesday. I saw them the next night and they weren't leaving until Wednesday... [Not exactly coincidence (Luang Prabang is compact) but a minor alignment of patterns - there were people on the boat I never saw again, and others who I only saw again on the bus to Vientiane/Viang Vieng]

Lao Food
With the exception of the baguettes, Lao food has been rather good - but not nearly as heavily spiced as Thai food. On one morning in Luang Prabang, our guesthouse proprietress invited us to try sticky rice - you grab a small chunk of rice, roll it into a ball, and dip it in one of the accompanying dishes. It's been a lot easier to get a good range of vegetarian food here than in Thailand - there's a couple of buffet stalls here, and one is excellent (they do spring rolls using rice-paper skins, with the best lime-chilli dipping sauce I've had ).

Tags: General



Elephants! elephants! where are the elephants?

You sound like you are having a great time. Can't believe you didn't have the deep fried grasshoppers in Thailand. Apparently they taste like sweet cashews. Do insects count as vegetarian??

may the road rise to meet you

  Bronson Jul 23, 2006 4:50 PM



Wonderful narrative and it sounds like your adventure is become very fulfilling. Reading your excerpts it makes me visualize many various movies of the areas you are visiting. However, nothing could compare to being there!

Stay safe

  Gary Page Jul 24, 2006 9:22 AM


Bronson (and Gary too), hi,
> Elephants! elephants! where are the elephants?
Sheeeeesh - I've given you an elephant legend, an elephant cave temple and an elephant ?joke?. What more do you want? Real elephants? [If I ever write up the River Khwae it'll have me not riding a real elephant there]

> Can't believe you didn't have the deep fried
> grasshoppers in Thailand. Apparently they taste
> like sweet cashews.
Ah well... next time ;-)

> Do insects count as vegetarian??
Yes, much like chickens are vegetables.

> may the road rise to meet you
Preferably not while coming off a a motorbike...


  taroso Jul 24, 2006 7:52 PM


Wow, we are famous now aren't we?? Luang Prabang really was beautiful, stupid of us to want to leave so sone. Enjoy your trip en see ya in Utrecht or Groningen!

  Marleen en Elmer Aug 1, 2006 5:03 PM

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