I cursed foully when my friends electronically forced me to take the two day riverboat up the Mekong.
“You’ve taken every other form of transport!” hollered one chum. “Another bus would just be boring for us to read about.”
“Grr, then,” I grumbled, and fearfully hopped aboard.
Today, however, emerging from an absolutely delicious two days on the water, I bless you, oh prophetic souls, for your forceful mandate!
I HIGHLY recommend taking the slow boat from Luang Prabang, Laos, upstream to the Thai border at Huay Xai.
Why? Let’s see what flowed over the past few days…
8:20 am: I climb onto the honey-colored wood boat and instantly befriend the most lovely British-Australian couple on earth. We realize joyfully that, while most of the boat consists of hard benches to sit on, the front area contains ten cushy airplane-style seats! There is no extra charge for this derriere comfort; you just need to show up early.
We drop our shoes on the front deck, nest our backpacks behind the captain and his fancy navigational wheel, and snuggle right in as the boat’s motor whirls to life.
10:00 am and beyond: Utter bliss. Being on the slow boat is essentially like spending two days on the patio of an airy cafe with a stunning view that keeps changing. As a trio, Rebecca, Luke and I devoured five novels (Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller was my fave), thirty crossword puzzles, and a whooole lot of bananas and mangos over the two days. Yum!
1:00 pm: The boat is a really sweet mix of Laotians and tourists, since the price is, happily, lower for locals. The five British boys in very short red shorts play a lovely game of catch with a Lao toddler while her mother chats shyly with the scantily-clad men.
2:00 pm: I take my first trip to the “toilet”, and it’s no fun. There is “water” and “dirt” all over the floor next to the hole in the ground, and I don’t have my shoes. Squish squish! When I tell Rebecca the situation she puts her bladder on lock and miraculously remains pee-free for the rest of the ten-hour voyage.
3:30 pm: Holy heaven I am STARVING. I was in a rush in the morning and carelessly brought no victuals.
Luke and Rebecca take mercy and pass me Oreos and “Artificial Chicken Namtog” flavored chips. “Mmm, taste that Namtog!” purrs Luke, “…whatever it is.”
3:32 pm: I realize that four middle-aged German women have stolen and guzzled my large bottle of water in the frenzy of their card game on the floor. Harumph!
4:45 pm: We stop to let a woman off at a beach where there are ELEPHANTS cavorting! “Well, that was unexpected,” gasps Rebecca in her poetic English accent.
6:00 pm: After a stunning sunset, we glide into Pak Beng, a tiny village halfway to Thailand. We all gorge ourselves on an Indian feast, then pass out early at the nearest cheap guesthouse, which tries to feed us free Lao Lao whiskey. Oh heavens! We politely decline.
7:30 am: I thoroughly repress the fact that I am going up a river for ten hours on Friday the Thirteenth and proceed to spend a ridiculous amount of Laotian Kip on all the food I WISHED I’d packed yesterday: most importantly, a giant dragonfruit.
11:00 am: Rebecca and Luke try to give me help on crossword clues and fail. Luke is mortified that he missed the Electric clue (“Q: What Omega stands for” A: “Ohm”), given that he is an electrician, and we vow to never let him live it down.
1:00 pm: We are becoming friendlier with everyone on the boat, and I get derided up and down the deck for stuffing a mammoth Dragonfruit in my mouth, in its entirety. I pass around bananas and the Scotsman dying of hunger blesses me.
2:00 pm Onward: We nap, we read, we chat, we take photos (thoughts on ethics of photographing strangers here), we watch the changing sun and how it paints the colors around us… we ponder existence. The sun blazes the orange of the life jacket in front of me into neon. Happiness!!!
6:01 pm: We arrive in Huay Xai one minute too late to cross the Thai border to Chiang Kong, which is fine with all of us because we just want to eat and sleep. Everyone from the boat showers at our $3 hotel, spiffs up, and meets at a riverside restaurant (which looks suspiciously like the boat we just left… Sad to leave, much?). We eat a ton and utterly (unintentionally!) stress out the waitress by the fact that our table contains roughly the population of Huay Xai.
8:00 pm: We chat through the night, and I am particularly fascinated by the Australian and Scotsman’s tales of backpacking for cheap through the hostels of the U.S.A. They saw amazing things in my country that I never saw myself.
(Part of this was due to the fact that $15 International Hostels in America apparently sometimes don’t allow in Americans, and are in the deepest ghettos, and part was because the boys took over 400 hours of Greyhound buses up and down my country! Wowza. Who knew it was possible?)
In the morning we exchanged emails and went our separate ways across the border, but I have already run into two people from the boat on a sidewalk here in Thailand! We shared a special two days together, we did, and it was bonding.
In closing, here are some concrete tips, if you take the awesome Luang Prabang – Huay Xai riverboat:
1. You’re doing the right thing! It is such a fantastic change from the bumpy, crowded bus.
2. Bring plenty of snacks (both sweet AND savory, because I began to crave salt after so many packed cakes), water, toilet paper, and hand sanitizer.
3. Arrive early to get the best (cushy) seats.
4. Stock up on wonderful books and other amusements, and prepare to meet great folks.
5. Make sure you have enough Laotian Kip to pay for three days without an ATM, and have some Thai Baht, too, if you can.
6. See if you can plan your journey to take the riverboat in the upstream direction rather than downstream, as the Laos to Thailand route is much more wonderfully uncrowded.
5. Enjoy! I certainly did!
The author, Lillie Marshall, is 6-foot-tall National Board Certified Teacher of English, fitness fan, and mother of two who has been a public school educator since 2003. She launched Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog in 2009, and over 4.2 million readers have now visited this site. Lillie also runs TeachingTraveling.com and DrawingsOf.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, and follow @WorldLillie on social media!