Meandering on the Mighty Mekong
03.06.2012 - 06.06.2012 33 °C
The Mekong is one of the big rivers. It starts up in the high plateau of Tibet and passing through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before reaching the sea via the Mekong Delta. We had a good experience on the Amazon slow boat last year so we were looking forward to something similar here.
Before we could meander our way down river we had to negotiate our first overland border crossing for a while. Overland crossings are more renowned for being at the mercy of officials who are looking for a small bribe to make your passing an easier process. As it turned out, getting into Laos was no problem. We did do a bit of internet research but couldn’t find much clear cut information about what to expect and even what we would need to do at the border. In case you are reading this wondering the same thing, we will outline the process below.
We started off in Chiang Rai in Thailand, we spent 2 nights there and had plans of getting out and seeing the sights (which all seem to be out of town) although once we were there, we just didn’t have the energy to drive around seeing more temples and Wats. Instead we had a weekend day. You need these every so often when on the road. A day to do nothing but a bit of admin work, watch a movie, have a few cool drinks and relax. We did make it out at night though to visit the local markets which were one of the better ones we have seen. They had a lot of market food including the odd plate of insects if that takes your fancy.
So onto the Thailand / Laos border crossing:
• Busses leave every hour, on the hour from the bus station in the centre of town heading to Chiang Kong at the border. The ride is 2 hrs long and costs 65THB each (advertised on the pillar at platform 4)
• At Chiang Kong, the bus stops on the roadside and from there you need to pay 30THB each for a tuktuk to take you a kilometre further up the road to the border crossing by the river
• Customs is on the left, make sure you have completed your departure card.
• Walk downhill a few meters then pay a lady under a tarpaulin 40THB each to take a rickety boat across the Mekong to Huay Xai.
• Up and on your right, you can apply for a ‘Visa on Arrival’. Pick up 2 forms for completion, hand them in with your passport and a passport photo then wait. Once your visas are ready (maybe 10 to 20mins) you will need to pay US$30 or $35 (depending on your nationality). There is a fee of $1 for weekends and evenings (4-6pm).
We left Chiang Rai at 8am considering that after the bus ride we would be at the border by 10am and have an hour then to cross and get on a slow boat. However the visa processing and crossing time meant that we were finally walking up the road away from Laos customs at 11am. We thought that we had probably missed the boat by that stage as the boat should be leaving around 11am as it takes around 6 hours to get to the first stop, and the boats don’t travel on the river at night. We asked at a ticket office and after phoning to see if the boat was still in town, we got the all clear and were taken to the slow boat departure point (quite a distance up river – not walkable as we had expected). The slow boat was 950THB each and a little cheaper if paid for in Lao Kips, but we were only carrying baht at that point.
It turned out that we weren’t in that much of a hurry because it wasn’t until just after 12 that the boat finally set off. Our first impressions of the slow boat weren’t as we had hoped. Whereas the Amazon was relaxing in a hammock all day long, the Mekong was perched on seats. And the Amazon was a local transport option where we were the rarity on board, the Mekong is a tourist transport option with the odd Lao on board. Overhearing conversations about peoples Full Moon parties in Koh Pha-Ngan and drunken scooter riding it was clear that we were definitely on the Gap Year trail. Although this was the first time we really felt like this since getting to South East Asia, despite having been to many a popular destination already.
It wasn’t too bad though, and the Northern Laos landscape around the Mekong was impressive scenery as the boat chugged down the chocolaty waters. In fact looking down on the river, it looked more like the river in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I half expected to see a fat kid float by! We watched as Thai children swam in the water on one side of the boat and Lao children the other as we snaked along the border before the Mekong swings further inland to Laos.
Our safety in the hands of our 13yr old captain
It was 5 and a half hours before we pulled into PakBeng, a small little river town apparently only there to service the river travellers as every place in town was a guesthouse and restaurant. We got a place for a cheap price of 150THB for the night (food on the boat and everything in PakBeng can be paid in Baht at a very reasonable exchange rate – only about 1% over the official rate) and had dinner overlooking the Mekong.
The boat left again at 9.30am and we returned to 9 hours of reading and watching the world go by. So many times we got to see everyday life on the river. Children are always playing and splashing around, fishermen trying to catch their dinner in bamboo fish traps and women washing the family clothes.
We finally arrived at Luang Prabang and immediately felt the laid back atmosphere of the town.
Daniel – Given the choice between the boat and a bus, the slow boat was the right move as we did get to see daily life ticking by on the river. However don’t expect the boat journey to be as much of a cultural experience as the sights on the river.
Tanya – The car seats fitted into the slow boat made the long journey bearable. We had a lovely stay at the half way point. The guesthouse did some great takeaway food for us which helped us get thought the following 9 hour day.