Run the equator: The longest boat ride

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The longest boat ride

Burning land
Click photo to see slideshow
or here for all Mekong trip photos

The major attractions of the Laos tourist track are strung like beads on a rope along Route 13, which spans the whole length of the north-south axis of this country shaped somewhat like a deformed cooking pan or a spiked battle axe. Once you’ve seen the south and followed the Mekong northwards through the “panhandle” to Vientiane, once you’re done with tubing and partying in Vang Vieng and got your share of temple photos in Luang Prabang, you have a choice: you can either continue the arduous land journey north, to the remote highlands in the Phongsali province, or you can return to Thailand - which is what most tourists do. It wouldn’t be much fun to backtrack your steps all the way to Vientiane in order to cross the border; no traveler likes seeing the same roads again on their way home. Fortunately, there’s a better alternative: the Mekong.

A cozy spot

From Luang Prabang to Huay Xai on the Thai border, the river journey takes two days by slow-boat. These are long, low-floating, single-deck covered boats capable of transporting a few dozen passengers. Called slow-boats for the obvious reason that there are also fast boats on the same route, most tourist prefer them to the faster alternative for reasons related to comfort and safety - the fast boats are minuscule, ultra-light contraptions that can only seat a few cramped passengers and move at break-neck speed; they have been known to flip over occasionally, with deadly consequences. The level of comfort on the slow boat varies with the number of people and the quality of the seats. Most boats have a few rows of reclining seats that look like they have just been ripped out of a minibus – in fact they are just that: minibus seats whose metal railings have been mounted on pieces of wood so they won’t damage the lacquered wooden floor planks. In addition to those, the boats hold a number of movable small wooden benches who look - and are - very uncomfortable; in the long run, the coziest spot for resting may end up being the floor. There is a bathroom on board and drinks are can be purchased. You can walk around, stretch your legs or lie down if you chose, and with the right company, be that people you like or a good book, you can spend the time pleasantly. And time you have, if nothing else; each day, for 10 hours, the boat munches its way against the current through the never-ending jungle-covered hills, through swats of land fallen victim to the yearly slash-and-burn agricultural ritual, through mountains of layered sediment brought downstream by past floods and millions of monsoon seasons.

Sunset on the river

There is a travel agency in every house on the main street in Luang Prabang; all of them sell tickets for the slow boat - at a charge. They seem to be doing a good business of it - few tourists bother going down to the slow-boat landing to check the prices at the ticket office. The fare to Pak Beng - a riverside village where you must spend the first night, half-way between Luang Prabang and the Thai border - is 110,000 kip for foreigners (about $12.50), but the more brazen agencies will slap an extra 30,000 kip ($3.50) on your back – one of those rackets is right near the ticket booth! In Pak Beng the ticket for the second leg of the trip costs 115,000 for foreigners, but if you fall for the tricks of the few Luang Prabang agencies who sell the ticket all the way to the border, you’ll pay a lot more. As usual, it’s worth checking prices in advance - buy the ticket at the pier or negotiate with the travel agencies. Sadly, the complacent attitude of many tourists, “oh, it’s only three more dollars, never mind,” works against everybody’s interest giving a blank check to businesses’ greed. It only helps drive prices higher for both locals and tourists.

  “How many hours to Pak Beng?” I ask the lady behind the desk at the travel agency.
  “6 or 7. Boat leaves at 8:30 in the morning.”
  “On the second day, are we going to arrive at the border before it closes?” I wanted to know if we had to spend two more nights in Laos or just one.
  “Yes.” I realize I just asked a question leading to the answer that I wanted to hear, so I rephrase:
  “What time do we arrive at the border on the second day?”
  “At three o’clock,” she assures me. The border closes at 6PM, so we may make it to the Thai side the same day. Three different agencies give me similar answers.

Slash and burn

But we didn’t make it in time. The first day of traveling, we took 9 hours to Pak Beng. The second day we spent 10 hours afloat and we arrived in Huay Xai after dark. What is this worldwide tendency of travel agents to lie to their customers about arrival times? They know how long the trip really takes, don’t they?! We would have taken the boat anyway, even if they had told us the truth... Spending a last night in Laos wasn’t bad at all. I enjoyed the last few Beerlao (one of my favorite lagers on this trip) with Craig, Rae and Jordan, some Aussies we had met on the boat, and spent our last kip which were going to become useless once we arrived in Thailand – you can pay for almost everything in Thai baht on the Lao side of the border but you cannot use kip anywhere else.

And so the next day we crossed the river into Thailand and took a minibus to Chiang Mai. We had reached the last destination of our year-long journey.

Posted from Hat Sai Khao beach, Ko Chang island, Thailand.


Anonymous said...

Congrats! Did you guys cut it short? HK & China are still listed in your itinerary. I enjoyed your blog!

angeleek1 said...

Wow! You guys are coming home!

Hope to be able to catch up with you when you return! Been an interesting year. Some things have changed and some things to overcome.

Don't know the reason why you are not visiting China, but I wouldn't want to go to China myself now a days...

Wishing you safe travels back to Seattle...

Big Fat Rat said...

We dropped China long ago for reasons related to time and money. We'll be back home very soon. We're already worrying about finding jobs and digging into the storage room for some decent clothes.