Three days & two nights, over 800km and 1700 B.
I started my adventure towards Laos from Chiang Mai, after deciding to skip the famous backpacker mecca of Pai. There were different options of traveling to Luang Prabang and I opted for the slow boat since I didn’t want to spend such a long time on a bus or risk my life on a speed boat. I booked directly at The Living Place Hostel where I was staying in Chiang Mai. The trip was well organized and the time schedule (which was followed almost meticulously).
Day 1: 10.30 pick up hotel, 12.00 Visit Wat Ronghun (White temple), 17.00 Arrive in Chiang Khong
I got picked up by a 10 seat minivan and seated next to some Australian guys. I was surprised to seeing that there were only young backpackers (turned out I was the only one without a travel companion) on the bus since I had feared of encountering couples and old people. We briefly stopped half-way to the temple in an expensive café: thank God I had my Swiss crackers & some banana bread with me! Make sure to buy some snacks at 7 Eleven before leaving for the trip. Second stop was in Chiang Rai for the Wat Rongkhun (White temple): out of the bus, quick walk around the temple, back in the bus – all in hectic 30 minutes. The temple was beautiful, it’s been built with little mirror pieces and seemed to be made out of porcelain. The most interesting aspect was that it has been built less than 20 years ago and has a lot of modern components (such as Transformers figures, skulls & devils who aim to scare people off from consuming alcohol & cigarettes) and lots of other interesting details I wouldn’t have expected by a Buddhist temple next to Buddhas!
After hopping on again on the bus we rode about 4h towards Chiang Khong with no break (my lunch consisted in the delicious Swiss crackers I had brought from home..there wasn’t much else to buy besides cup noodles and chips). In Chiang Khong we arrived in front of some sort of motel, where we had the night included in our package (costed 200B/ person for a single room). The rooms didn’t have keys, you could lock them either from the inside or from the outside with a padlock. Fortunately we arrived before sunset and could enjoy a nice walk down by the Mekong river before dinner and found a very nice temple hidden on a side street. It was extremely cold up there and I was glad to have brought with me a cashmere pullover and a hoodie (a jacket would have been nice). The included dinner consisted in some weird looking soup and fried rice – it didn’t seem that bad until the next morning when I woke up with a light food poisoning (I’ll spare you the details – in case you end up there I’d recommend the classic cup noodles from 7 Eleven for dinner). Of course the only time when you get food poisoning and feel like a wreck is when you have 2 days and 16h of slow boat ahead of you! The first night on the trip was way better than I had expected – I met a really nice group of backpackers from Australia, USA and Canada with whom I travelled for the whole week up to Vang Vieng. I was really glad to having met so many nice people to travel with. We talked for hours about traveling and our lives while playing card games and sipping our Changs. It’s amazing how when you’re traveling you get close to people so much faster than back home since you’re with them on a 24/7 basis.
Day 2: 7.00 Breakfast/ Check Out, Bus to border, 8.00 Cross border to Laos (Huay Xai), 11.00-18.00 Slow boat to Pakbeng, overnight stay in Pakbeng (not included)
Day 2 started off terribly since I felt pretty sick due to the food I had eaten the night before. I woke up around 5.30 to get down to the “reception” (which was just a table outside the “hotel”). We had breakfast included, but the last thing I wanted to see in that moment was food. Unfortunately I had to get pictures taken for my visa, since I didn’t bring any with me (remember to always have 1-2 spare pictures with you), so now I have a great souvenir of my pale and sick face. After a short bus ride we crossed the border to Lao at Huay Xay and had to cue for 2-3h to get the visa on arrival. It was getting warmer again, but I felt very sick and the waiting in line in the heat with lots of warm clothes and a heavy backpack wasn’t really great. The visa office was quite special: the would take your passport and a 35$ fee and hand it into the back office. Then once the had sticked the visa on it, they would yell out names and hold up the passport from another counter. Once we had gotten into Lao a bus picked us up to take us to the slow boat to Pakbeng. We had a brief stop for snacks (soft drinks, fruit, sandwiches, cookies, crackers & chips seemed to be all they had) and then headed towards the boat. Fortunately we could all sit next to each other in the middle of the boat. The boat was made out of wood and had old car seats in it – guess it wouldn’t have passed European security standards, but it was quite enjoyable! The boat was packed with backpackers, older couples and some locals (which were picked up at villages on the way there). Most people were drinking, playing cards and writing in their journals. I still felt quite weak, probably because I didn’t eat much besides some crackers and little bananas. I was really grad to having brought a blanket and a hoodie since there was some fresh breeze in the boat (not sure though if it wasn’t just me being a bit sick or if it was really cold). The boat ride itself was quite enjoyable since I got to meet the guys from the night before better and also met other travelers.
Once we arrived in Pakbeng, a little village in the middle of nowhere, we were greeted by little children, who wanted our food (they were so happy about the few spare bananas I had, I wished I had more food to give them since they looked very dirty and hungry) and wild hotel owners yelling for the best deals in town. Fortunately we hadn’t booked any place in advance and went with a lady to her guesthouse. For a shared room we payed 150 B each in a small place with very thin walls which resembled a little bit a Swiss chalet. That night the power went off in the whole town, right when we were having dinner. It wasn’t such a big deal, we just had a nice candlelight dinner, an ice-cold/ boiling shower in the dark (thank you Steve Jobs for adding the flashlight to the iPhone!) and no power for the fan (it was cool anyway) and to charge our electronics (this is where an electronically charger comes in handy). The end of day 2 had come, and it was way better than it had started/ I had imagined: I had survived!
Day 3: 8-17 Slow boat to Luang Prabang
Programm of the day: Wake up – shower – dress – buy supplies – back on the boat – survive ride – arrive in LP. The second day on the boat wasn’t less interesting, even though the scenery was pretty much the same. I finished my supplies of crackers and banana bread and still wasn’t feeling like eating anything proper due to the food poisoning. I guess it would be a good idea to grab some food/ beers before getting on the boat. We finally arrived in LP, but on the other side of the island where we had to take Tuc Tucs to head to the main part of town.
Total cost: 2177 B (package tour, food, hotel Pakbeng) + 35 US$ (Lao Visa on arrival)
Advice: Slow boat is fun, but make sure to bring some food (there’s only a limited range of food/ drinks on board), sit as far upfront as possible (lots of noise from the engine behind), bring books/ games or other things to entertain yourself since 16h on a boat are a long time! Also book a hostel in Luang Prabang – we arrived at high season and wondered around for at least 2h before we found something..! Pakbeng was really expensive compared to the rest of Laos when you’re paying in Baht. There’s an ATM located at the end of the village.