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April 14, 2012

Welcome to Laos: Taking the slow-boat down the Mekong

Asha Mekong Slow Boat Luang Prabang

The boat which took us 380 km's down the Mekong

In ‘The Art of Travel’, Philosopher and author Alain De Botton talks about the beauty of rail travel, and how it allows people to break away from their normal patterns of thought.

Sunset on the Mekong

Sunset on the Mekong

“Of all the modes of transport, the train is perhaps the best aid to thought: the views have none of the potential monotony of those on a ship or plane, they move fast enough for us not to get exasperated but slowly enough to allow us to identify objects.”

“Every time the mind goes blank, having hit on a difficult idea, the flow of my consciousness is assisted by the possibility of looking out the window, locking on to an object and following it for a few seconds, until a new coil of thought is ready to form and can unravel without pressure.”

Had De Botton taken the 2 day slow-boat down the Mekong river, from Huay Xai to the fabled city of Luang Prabang, he would surely have included river boats along with trains.Wedged between two countries, with the banks on our left belonging to People’s Democratic Republic of Laos and those on the right belonging to the Kingdom of Thailand, the boat cruises along, past tiny villages, forrests and men fishing in canoes. Kids run down to the water to wave as we pass by.

I’m a huge fan of rail travel, but this trip down the Mekong is something very special.

this kid loves rivers.

Arriving at the Thailand/Laos border the day before, we were given our first glimpse of the mighty Mekong. Although its the dry season and we are a long way upstream, the river still seems full and wide. We wave goodbye to Thailand and cross the Mekong (and the border) in a small boat, before stepping ashore in Laos.

Laos seems pretty much like Thailand, however we soon discover the highly-regarded Beer Laos is as good as the say (and about $1.20 for a longneck) and that baguettes are sold everywhere. After 2 months in Thailand, we welcome bread back into our lives with gusto.

After a night spent in the border town of Huay Xai, we get up SUPER early the next morning to get some good seats on the slow boat that will carry us downstream to Luang Prabang (2 days, about $30).

Mekong Slow Boat Huay Xai

The boat which took us 380 kms down the Mekong

All of the travel books, blogs and guides warn travellers that they must get in early and get a good seat, lest you be crammed on the floor or near the diesel engine for the whole journey. If you are taking the journey – this is not the case!

Lots of smelly backpackers

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Sometime recently the ticket office has started selling numbered seat tickets (unbeknownst to us). Make sure you drop past the official ticket office at the dock on the way to your boat and they will sort it out. So, we were on our boat almost 2 hours before everyone else – Russell Witcombe would be proud.

Other good news for travellers – the old, hard wooden seats have been stripped out of the boats and replaced with chairs from old cars – comfy and cushioned! Our boat was full, but there was plenty of room to walk about, and a lady selling chips and BeerLaos and other food.

mekong banks

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The first day saw us slowly making our way 180kms downriver to the town of Pak Beng – a tiny, isolated town full of surprises. We stayed in a beautiful bungalow overlooking the river, and ate some amazing indian food at the restaurant across the road. I expected the riverside version of a strip of motels.

We got to eat breakfast on our balcony overlooking the river in the morning, watching the fog slowly lift and the boat crews get ready for the day.

Breakfast in Pak Beng

Our bungalow in Pak Beng

Kids on the Mekong

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The next morning at 9 our boat set off again, destined for Luang Prabang. We spent most of the day sitting on the nose of the boat (there has got to be a proper nautical word for nose), watching the Laos countryside pass us by, before pulling into Luang Prabang at 6pm.

As far as a introduction to a country, I’m not sure I have had to many that compare to this, and its the perfect way to arrive in the UNESCO World Heritage city of Luang Prabang.

I can see how things could go wrong on the journey, and how some travellers might find it all a bit too much, but our two days spent lazily making our way down one of the world’s great rivers was definately one of the highlights of our journey so far.

the banks of the mekong

the banks of the mekong

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