Rolling on the Mekong River

Today’s forecast: 36°C, smoky 🔥

Mosquito bite tally: Still 5!

Waking up to a smoky sunrise

We stayed the night in the border town of Chiang Khong as we approached our entry into Laos. A quiet afternoon and evening was spent preparing for our upcoming trip on the Mekong River slow boat, enjoying a final Thai dinner and beers at our riverside guesthouse.

In the morning, I woke up early and watched an eery looking sunrise. Burning season is ongoing although is expected to settle down around mid-April with the Thai and Lao New Years (Songkran and Pi Mai). Right now however, it’s still quite smoky up in the northern regions of these countries, to the point that we later had bits of ash falling onto us as we headed down the Mekong.

Saying goodbye to Thailand (for now)

After a quick breakfast, we were driven to the Thailand-Laos land border to cross over into Laos. The customs process was fairly seamless and quick, as there wasn’t much of a line due to it being low season for tourism in this area. We learned that the Lao government continues to charge Canadians the highest visa fees at $42 USD versus about $30 to 35 for most other countries. 🤷🏻‍♀️

After getting our requisite stamps and picking up some Lao kips from the ATM, we loaded into a tuk tuk and were taken to the slow boat dock.

All aboard the slow boat

To cross into Laos via the Mekong River, you can either take the long tail slow boat or a speedboat. The slow boat is the much safer and more comfortable option. We spotted several of the speedboats passing us by during our ride down the river, and they did not look pleasant. You basically have about a dozen people cramped into a little motorized boat, and apparently they need to sit like this for upwards of 6 hours to make the trip to Luang Prabang, Laos. I’ll take a pass on that.

In preparation for our trip, I had done some research to figure out what to expect with the slow boat journey. I found varying accounts of the boat conditions and found that there appear to be two options. The first type of slow boat is the one that the locals and some foreign backpackers take; a long tail boat with rows of two seats, quite crowded. The second type is more like a river cruise, also a long tail boat but with a dining area and loungers. I was pleasantly surprised that Intrepid booked us into the second option. We have only 4 travelers in our group, so along with our 2 tour guides (our Lao guide joined us today), we basically had a huge VIP boat for only the 6 of us!

Our boat has a set of loungers that are a perfect spot for a nap. There’s a clean restroom in the back of the boat and also a bar/kitchen. Our guide told us that a boat like this is typically owned by a husband/wife team, with the husband serving as captain and wife as cook. The very back portion of the boat is divided off into their sleeping quarters and kitchen.

Going down the river

Over the next two days, we’ll be traveling down the Mekong River with our final stop in Luang Prabang, Laos. The first day is about 6 hours on the boat followed by an overnight stop in Pakbeng, Laos. The second day is a bit longer, probably around 7 to 8 hours as we reach Luang Prabang.

The Mekong is the world’s 12th longest river with an estimated length of 4350 kilometres, extending across multiple countries. It starts in the Tibetan plateau running across China’s Yunnan Province, and continues on through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. For Laos, it serves as an important passage of travel and allows for transportation of the many imported goods it requires due to it being a landlocked country.

The slow boat ride was really very lovely. We felt a nice breeze and the views were pretty magnificent despite it being smoky season. It’s probably even more impressive when the hills are lush with greenery.

I had fun spotting people along the shore going about their daily lives too.

I did some reading and fell asleep for a good couple hours while Mr. Chuckles and our travel mates played cards. We enjoyed our first traditional Lao meal and beer for lunch.

Docking in Pakbeng

We arrived in Pakbeng, Laos in the late afternoon after a 6 hour boat journey. Pakbeng is a tiny Laos town that everyone on the slow boat passes through. It has essentially one street and is mostly lined with guest houses. We stayed at Phonemany Guest House which was actually pretty decent accommodation. Our room was basic but clean and had air conditioning.

Our guide took us on a short walk around town before dinner. We explored the local market and learned that although Laos needs to import much of its produce, the local people do a lot of foraging and home gardening for herbs and seasoning for their meals. The meat storage conditions made me a little queasy; that stuff is definitely for people with hardy stomachs.

We walked further down the main street and uphill to see an overhead view of the Mekong.

We had dinner back at the guesthouse where I tried Lao Laap with sticky rice, a classic Lao dish. This was accompanied by some moonshine and several beers, followed by a weird night involving Thai tourists and karaoke, but that’s not my story to tell.

Tomorrow we’ll be back on the boat and moving onto Luang Prabang.

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