Before we left Chiang Mai for Chiang Rai, we researched the different ways to travel into Laos. We planned on the bus from Chiang Rai into Huay Xai, Laos (which is just across the border), but we needed to make a decision on how to get from Huay Xai to the Capital City of Luang Prabang. There are 4 options that are most often used by travelers to get from the border of Laos/Thailand to Luang Prabang – they are:
- “Speed” Boat – takes about 6 hours down the Mekong – You must make sure to waterproof bags and wear a helmet. They are considered dangerous as some have been known to hit rocks and disintegrate into tiny pieces.
- Public Ferry/slow boat – takes 2 days/14-16 hours. Stops for 1 night in Pakbeng where you must find accommodation. This boat also carries locals and can get quite crowded, however this is the cheapest option.
- Bus – takes anywhere from 12 – 15 hours by “VIP” or local bus. Surprisingly not the cheapest, however if you don’t like boats it is an option. (Not recommended) The bus would be painfully long, and we believe that there’s a bus change once in Huay Xai as well. You’re basically just giving yourself a long, crappy day of travel.
- Cruise/Private longboat – takes 2 days, (usually) includes accommodation for 1 night in Pakbeng. Also includes breakfast and lunch both days on the boat and stops at a local village and whisky village for some sightseeing options. It is more leisurely and comfortable as it is less crowded.
After quite a bit of Google and TripAdvisor, Sarah found the Mekong Smile Cruise website which was advertising a 1/2 price sale on a cruise just a day after our arrival into Chiang Rai. Emailing the cruise company to see if they still had room on the 28th cruise, we received a positive response and booked.
Having spent a very busy day in Chiang Rai, we left from the bus terminal at the end of our last post,and arrived late afternoon at Bokeo Bus Terminal in Huay Xai, Laos. We booked a stay at the Sabaydee Guesthouse upon arrival as it was in a good location on the main street (and the TripAdvisor reviews weren’t terrible). We sent a quick email Mekong Smile Cruise with our hotel pick-up location and crossed the road for a quick dinner.
Morning pick-up was loosely at 8am for a 9am departure. Our accommodation also included what they described as “breakfast”. Sarah had Nutella crepes, and I had spam (?), an egg and some mini hot dogs. Could’ve been worse!
Arriving at the boat we were greeted warmly and found the boat to be a pleasant surprise! It was a longboat with tables on both sides, two bathrooms and a “kitchenette” area. We also were happy to note it was to be a small group tour with 3 more couples and 2 gentleman, for a total of 10 of us, our tour guide and boat crew. We were ready for our “cruise”!
As we headed off down the river, the crew served up some delicious fruit and breakfast items for us. Our first stop along the river was to be a traditional Highlander village called Pak Tha, which was 3-4 hours away.
Our longboat was big and comfy, and the gorgeous sunshine lead to a lot of relaxing and lying around on the boat. It was a great way to pass the time as the scenery rolled by. You can see the size of the boats that travel this river. Fully loaded, some of these sink all the way down to the water line. The gentlemen with the poles are pushing their boat back out into the current, and knocking into the boat beside it on the way. The river has a strong current, and the long boats have a bad turning circle. Keep that in mind for later 😉
Arriving at Pak Tha, we jumped off the boat with a few young children greeting us. We discovered that it is quite common for the tourist visitors to bring gifts for the kids. We didn’t know this (or have any), but some of our thoughtful tour mates, Sue and Phil brought a collection of pens and pencils for them. Phil even took the time to teach some of the children how to play tic-tac-toe in the sand with the pencils. It was a wonderful thing to watch as the children were trying so hard to follow Phil’s instructions. Overall though, we felt very out-of-place wandering through their village, and their home area, looking in at their lives. It did not feel polite to take photos, and making eye contact also felt awkward. Our tour guide told us that for the majority of them, the average monthly wage was less than $100 USD. (Interesting to note, that most houses still had a satellite dish and a colour TV though!) On a sadder note, Laos is a country that does still raise dogs for meat consumption. We are told it is still very common in the hill-tribes. 🙁
Back on the boat for a few more hours until we arrived at our stop for the first night, Pakbeng. As it was low season, the tour company had booked great rooms over-looking the Mekong river perched atop the hill! We were told that if we looked out early enough the next morning, we would see the elephants come down to the water to bathe.
Our guide took us for a quick walk around town, and then let us know that if we met outside at 6am the next morning, he would take us up to the market as it opened. We had a quick dinner before we headed to the Happy bar with Phil and Sue, and Sarah and Sam our Pommie (British) cruise mates. More than a few drinks later, and we all slept pretty soundly! (Well…except for Sam, who maybe got a dodgy cocktail)
While Sarah slept in the next morning, Zac elected to go on the market tour to see the (potentially) weird and wacky food. May we present the following pictures…Monkey meat, fresh (live) frogs at the bargain price of 3 for $2 USD, grilled rats and chicken! Delicious! (according to Zac)
Back to the room where Sarah was just waking up, we managed to capture a picture of the elephants coming down to bathe. Unfortunately our mobile/cell phone cameras are pretty limited, so this is the best shot we have.
Remember the comment made earlier about the boats trying to turn…Here’s a sequence of photos that Zac captured of them coming into dock. This takes some practice we imagine!
Back to the boat for some more cruising to our next tour stop, Laos Whiskey Village – otherwise called Ban Xang Hai.
Laos Whiskey Village was another local Highlander village, but this place had a lot more of the locals trying to sell us hand-crafted goods, including bracelets made by the children. It turns out Laos-laos, as the whiskey is called, is distilled in a large tin barrel (like the old metal trash bins). It is definitely not for the fainthearted to try (as it’s basically ethanol). It was an interesting stop, but mainly a tourist trap, and of course Sarah left with a bracelet. 🙂
The next and last tour stop, was the Pak Ou Caves, otherwise known as the Buddha Caves. These caves have over 4,000 different types and sizes of Buddha statues/figurines in them! It is believed that some of the statues have been in the caves for hundreds of years. Locals and others make a pilgrimage here and it is used as a shrine and place to worship Buddha. The most popular time for this is April, when Laos’ New Year is. There is a lower and upper cave and the upper is definitely darker. People have gone there for hundreds of years to worship! It’s just off the river and the only access is by boat. It’s picturesque, but still quite touristy.
We re-boarded the boat and continued our relaxing cruise to our destination of Luang Prabang, the second biggest city in Laos.