Slow boat cruising – Chiang Rai to Luang Prabang

The end of our month long adventure through Thailand was bittersweet. Bitter because we’d had such a good time we didn’t want to leave, sweet because we were pretty stoked to be heading to the second country of our trip, Laos. We knew before we left home that we definitely wanted to do the two day slow boat into Laos, so we’d planned to round out our Thailand stay in Chiang Rai in the country’s north, making it easy to get to the Thai – Laos border crossing in Houy-Xai, and from here catch the slow boat south to Luang Prabang.

Slow boats at the ready

Slow boats at the ready

Before we left we read loads of blog posts and reviews about the slow boat experience. Some offered dire warnings, many offered conflicting information and the degree between the good and truly awful were vast. We were prepared for the worst but hoping for the best. Honestly though, we couldn’t have had a more chilled trip down the Mekong. The whole process was easy and the experience of cruising the Mekong for two days was so unforgettable I’m going to go ahead and call it a must do.

definitely must see views

definitely must see views

First thing first. You can pay someone to arrange your entire slow boat experience for you. We saw tour operatorators offering slow boat packages out of Chiang Mai, Pai and Chiang Rai. If you want to let someone else do the work you can, it’ll be more expensive but if you’re the kind of person who prefers to have things organised and you’re not too worried about the $, this option will allow you to do nothing much except show up. We decided to go it alone. Our philosophy is that half the fun of travelling is the journey, plus we’re on the road for a while so saving those $ where ever we can helps extend our travels.

The first leg of our trip was to actually get from Chiang Rai to the border town of Chiang Kong/Huay-Xai. After all the horror stories online we decided to do the border crossing the day before catching the slow boat allowing us plenty of time to figure things out and since we’re never overly organised, account for any stuff ups along the way. #eventplannergoesrogueplansnothing

We stayed at a guesthouse run by possibly the most nicest and most helpful guy in Thailand who advised us to take one of the cheaper local buses. The local buses leave every hour and cost just 65BHT, you can pay on the bus and don’t need to book in advance. We took his word for it, packed our backpacks and walked to the old bus station. We arrived at the bus station and saw a bus with a sign to Chiang Khong, paid our 65BHT and we were on our way, easy as that. You do need to set your expectations up front, it’s far from a luxury ride. It’s a dusty old bus with no aircon so the windows and doors are thrown wide open the entire trip. The fresh air and breeze cool you while you get lost in the rolling mountains and small villages along the way. They stop along the way to drop off and pick up locals and might even stop to let someone run into the bushes for a pee #BYOtoiletpaper. The whole trip took 2 hours and made for a colourful, pleasant and authentic experience. If your opting for total comfort though and want to pay around 240BHT you can book an air-conditioned bus.

a rickety old bus, that's the door thrown wide open for our entire 2 hour journey coz #safety

a rickety old bus, that’s the door thrown wide open for our entire 2 hour journey coz #safety

Tip – The bus is scheduled to go to Chiang Kong but you will want to go to the Thai Immigration which is a few kilometres away. The bus operators are well aware of this and will offer you to pay an extra 35BHT to be dropped off at Immigration so the total trip will cost 100BHT.

Going through immigration at a land crossing is generally less painful and more relaxed than at airports around South east Asia. Exiting Thai immigration took about five minutes. It was a pretty slow day at the border, so much so that the guy at the customs booth was having a little nap! After we made a few discrete noises he woke with a big grin, we all had a chuckle, then he took our passport for the exit stamp and just like that we were through Thai Immigration.

Tip- When you get to Laos Immigration you will need to pay the visa in USD, you can pay in Thai Baht but they will charge you more. The Thai Immigration Officer said he was giving us a deal and we exchanged 2400BHT for 60USD which he pulled out of his top pocket. We knew we weren’t getting a good deal but didn’t have any USD and I guess he needs to earn his weekend overtime somehow.

Once through Thai Immigration you’ll need to get a ticket for the shuttle bus to take you across the border to the Laos immigration, the shuttle bus is 25BHT pp and you can also exchange Baht for Kip. Being unorganised we didn’t have any kip so once again took a ‘good’ deal to exchange our left over Baht to Kip. We waited for about 10 mins and then boarded the bus for the 2 min ride over the bridge to Laos Immigration.

a bridge between two nations literally. That's Laos to the right and Thailand on your left

a bridge between two nations literally. That’s Laos to the right and Thailand on your left

We hadn’t organised a visa previously so we went straight to the Visa on arrival office where you simply fill in two forms and hand them over with your passport. After a 10 minute wait we were called over to collect our passports and pay the 30USD visa fee. The fees seemed slightly different for each country but it’s 30USD for Aussies. We also got hit up for a 10,000 Kip weekend overtime fee. We don’t know if this is really legit but after reading horror stories of travellers made to pay exorbitant ádmin’ fees we were cool with paying $1USD extra! The staff were very friendly and were joking around trying to pronounce English names. Ironically they’re ok with Estelle but struggle with Shane, he’s known as Shine in Laos. Passports in hand, we headed through customs for another stamp and that was that. We weren’t asked any questions, our bags weren’t checked and we didn’t walk through any metal detectors. It was very laid back, quick and painless.

doing all the paperwork

doing all the paperwork and looking very happy about it

We were now in Houy-Xai, Laos! Houy-Xai is the border town on the Laos side of the river, it’s about a 15 mins drive from the immigration office so you’ll need to jump in a Songthaw, there’s always one around though and they’ll charge you anywhere from 60 – 100k kip depending on how good your negotiating skills are.

We booked our ticket for the slow boat the day prior. We did this through our guesthouse for 240k Kip which included a tuk tuk to the pier. You can easily walk down to the pier and do it yourself and the price for the boat alone will be 220k Kip. The tickets had a seat number so the earlier you book the closer to the front you’ll be. Ideally you want to be closer to the front than the back. The back is noisy with the motor and busy with people walking back and forth for the toilets and bar. There are a few places at the pier where you board which offer a decent breakfast and lots of shops to buy drinks and snacks. Food and drinks are pricey and limited on the boat so definitely try to bring your own.

allllll the slow boats

allllll the slow boats

Tip- Once everyone is on board a guy will stand up and say something along the lines of ‘there’s so many people and not enough rooms in Pakbeng! If you don’t have a room I will give you a room for special price 120k kip’. Don’t fall for this. Pakbeng is full of guesthouses catering to the slow boat, they will not run out of rooms. When you arrive loads of locals will be waiting at the pier trying to sell rooms in their guesthouse again at inflated prices, but just walk up the hill a bit and you can take a look and find one much cheaper. We found a perfectly decent one for 60k Kip and about 7 other people who hadn’t booked anything also got rooms here, trust us, there are plenty!

All up we cruised on day one for about 5 ½ hours until we reached Pakbeng where we stopped for the night. We were up and on the boat again by 9am for day two and spent about 6 ½ hours floating our way into Luang Prabang. The scenery is equally impressive the entire way and Davis’ only complaint was that there were no fishing rods (I did not mind this at all).

Pakbeng village

Pakbeng village

Tip- On day two we arrived at the pier at 8:45am for a 9am departure. #rookiemistake. We were almost the last to arrive and consequently had to sit at the back of the boat. Your seat number does not carry over to the second day, it’s a free, for all we didn’t mind too much but be aware that it is first in best dressed so don’t sleep in and insist you need a coffee, instead arrive early if you want a good seat. #stellasnotamorningperson

passing villages

passing villages

fisherman

fisherman

Mekong scenes

Mekong scenes

The boat arrives at Luang Prabang at a pier a little out of town and you will have to pay 20k kip for a tuk-tuk which drops you in the centre of town, there’s no point bartering with these drivers, unless you want to walk you just pay the 20k kip, realistically it’s only about $3 AUD. Side note- our driver tried to drop us off god knows where but luckily we had a young couple with us who knew the area and argued with him until he took us somewhere a little more central, we found this was a pretty common occurrence in Laos, so be prepared to stand your ground and ensure the driver takes you to where you want to go.

Overall the slow boat was an amazing way to not only get to Luang Prabang but to see Laos. To see the way that people live on and depend on the river for their livelihood. From washing, bathing and cooking to fishing and transport, we saw that the Mekong really is the lifeline of Laos for so many. I’ll admit that I was a little worried about spending two whole days on a boat, but I loved the lazy trawl of cruising down the Mekong, reading a book, sipping a beer and just taking some time out to really appreciate what’s around you – because I don’t know about you but I certainly don’t do that enough.

Mekong sunsets

Mekong sunsets

Advertisements

luang prabang magic

Luang Prabang makes a great first impression. It has all the ingredients to satisfy visitors– a bustling but not crazy street scene, a lively night market, a variety of restaurants, those magical Mekong sunsets and a romantic fusion of east meets west architecture. The old town is UNESCO heritage listed boasting beautiful street scapes combining a strong French colonial influence mixed with traditional Lanna temples whose secrets are guarded by ornately carved dragons. Add in the mystical sound of banging drums calling the monks to prayer and you have one of Asia most charming towns.

Luang Prabang has a large and lively night market every evening

Luang Prabang has a large and lively night market every evening

After two days on the slow boat from Chiang Rai we finally arrived in Luang Prabang. The slow boat dropped us about 15km out of town and from there you have basically no choice but to take a tuk tuk into town. The only thing I remember about that ride into town was that school was out for the day and it seemed every child in Laos were riding their bicycles, sometimes 3 on one bike, home. These kids must do this every day but we were astonished, this was no quite country lane, this was a very busy, very crazy main road and these kids were sharing the road with trucks, motorbikes and cars – we experienced one of those ‘oh my god, kids would never be allowed to do this in back home’ moments, but that’s Asia for you and no one bats an eye. We arrived in town, thankfully without witnessing any accidents, said our goodbyes to our travel companions and set off to find home for the next few days. Side note- our driver tried to drop us off god knows where but luckily we had a young couple with us who knew the area and argued with him until he took us somewhere a little more central, we found this was a pretty common occurrence in Laos, so be prepared to stand your ground and ensure drivers take you to where you want to go.

strolling along these streets never gets old

strolling along these streets never gets old

One of the first things we learnt was that Laos is more expensive than neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam. This was something we weren’t expecting, if anything we expected it to be on the cheaper scale. But while we found accommodation to be relatively on par things like food, transport and tours were definitely pricier. There’s also not as much room to haggle, I don’t know if they just don’t have that culture yet but I bought a few things at the markets and came ready to test my haggling skills, skills I’d spent the previous month honing in Thailand, only to find that they didn’t really get it. I still managed to get a slightly cheaper price but it was nothing like the fun, fast paced bargaining I’d encountered in other SE Asian countries. Laos is still cheap though and if you head off the tourist strip away from restaurants that serve western food you’ll be able to find some cheap eats. We should also remember that Laos is a developing country, one that is 20 odd years behind its neighbours in this tourism thing, and while we say more expensive, realistically it’s still ridiculously cheap.

We started and ended our time in Laos in Luang Prabang, this wasn’t really planned it was just the way things worked out. We spent eight days’ total here and honestly, I think it was a few days too many, you could easily round out the highlights in two or three days. We saw a lot of incredible things in and around Luang Prabang and enjoyed our time in the city touted as the ‘most romantic city in Asia. I’m a bit behind on the blog so I honestly can’t remember everything we did while we were there but have pulled together some of our highlights-

Waterfalls

Luang Prabang tuk tuk drivers are relentless. I swear I started dreaming of tuk tuk drivers chasing me asking over and over ‘waterfall?’ ‘waterfall?’ ‘waterfall?’. Regardless, if you do nothing else, at least go to Kuang Si Waterfall and if you have time you should try and squeeze in Tad Sae as well. You may have guessed that waterfalls are big business in Luang Prabang so of course there are numerous ways to get there. You can hire a moto and make your own way, book a private tour, book a minivan transfer or go with a tuk tuk driver. You can do the tuk tuk either privately or if there are a few people you can split the cost so it’s cheaper. After getting the biggest bruise on my butt (I bruise like a peach on a regular day but this was epic) from bouncing around the back of a tuk tuk in Thailand, I suggested we go for a minivan transfer. This was a great decision as roads in Laos are rough, like crazy rough, sometimes you’ll be driving along and then one side of the road is just gone – #cray.

The incredible turquoise pools at the bottom of Kuang Si waterfall

The incredible turquoise pools at the bottom of Kuang Si waterfall

We paid 45,000 kip for the ride there and back. It took about an hour to drive there, an hour to drive back and we had 3 hours at the waterfall itself. When you arrive you’ll have to pay the entrance fee of 20,000 kip pp before starting the short walk up to the waterfall. Along the way you’ll go past the Free the bears project, an organisation that rescues bears from poachers and traffickers. You can view the bears in their enclosures and read about their plight and the fantastic work being done to help them and if you feel so inclined you can support them by buying a t-shirt or simply leaving a small donation in the boxes provided.

Keep walking along the easy, flat path and you’ll come to Kuang Si’s lower pools. You will stop. You will gape in wonder. The view is so indescribably beautiful and the water such an inviting shade of turquoise that you won’t believe it is real. While it’s tempting to stop and get lost in these never ending pools, trust us and keep walking up the path. Keep walking for about 800m, past more cascading pools and you will be rewarding at the end with a stunning waterfall gushing water, creating a hazy mist with the sun just peeking through. If you’re feeling energetic and have brought along appropriate footwear you can climb to the top of the falls, or you can simply head back down to one of the alluring pools for a swim. We opted for the later, or at least Shane did, I got in awkwardly fell over, decided it was too cold and promptly got out. Shane insists it was lovely, though I’m not so sure.

The cascading waterfall at the end of the trail

The cascading waterfall at the end of the trail

The Living Land

nom-nom who knew so many yummy things could be made from rice!

nom-nom who knew so many yummy things could be made from rice!

Anyone who has spent any length of time in South East Asia will no doubt have memories of rice fields stretching far and wide. We realised though we had seen what felt like hundreds of rice fields and eaten more rice than we could remember, we really didn’t know much about how rice farming worked. This seemed like a pretty big oversight for people spending so much time in Asia so we booked ourselves into a day at The Living Land Farm. The tour was slightly pricier than those we’d normally book but the experience was well worth it. We went through all of the stages of rice farming, from ploughing with a reticent water buffalo named Rudolph, to planting, harvesting and milling, right through to husking and grinding the rice to make rice flour. The whole thing was interactive so you could try your hand at each step or not if squishing through the mud freaked you out and best of all they brought out a whole host of yummy rice products for tasting at the end!

Shane and Rudolph, hard at it

Shane and Rudolph, hard at it

Mekong

Luang Prabang is at the confluence of two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan. There are a multitude of tour operators offering boat tours to the caves and whisky village both of which we avoided as it just sounded like too much of a tourist trap. We also felt like after two days on the slow boat, we’d seen enough of the Mekong for now but if you wander down to the river near Wat Xieng Thong you’ll find various boat operators, if you’re keen on a boat trip try to take one at sunset, few things I’ve seen in life compare to those Mekong sunsets.

just wow

just wow

If Boats aren’t you’re thing and you still want to catch a sunset over the Mekong there are loads of restaurants along the water front. All of them are more than happy to let you sit for a few hours sipping a beer Lao and taking in the views. We did this one night and met some of the friendliest locals who invited us to join them for a few drinks, absolutely gorgeous people and one of my fav memories of Luang Prabang.

Mekong and beers- yes please!

Mekong and beers- yes please!

Temples

Apparently there are 34 temples in Luang Prabang. By the time we arrived we felt complete temple exhaustion. We did see a couple and honestly I was a little more intrigued by the Laos temples than the one’s I’d seen in Thailand. Wat Xieng Thong seems to be the must see and I can certainly see why. Considered one of the most import Wat’s it was built in the 1559 and was the site for many import historical events in Laos history including coronations and religious events. The detailed mosaics scenes, gold stencil design and tiered red roof make this temple a standout and one of the most beautiful I’ve seen so far.

The incredible mosaics at Wat Xieng Thong

The incredible mosaics at Wat Xieng Thong

Mt Phousi

At the top of some 300 odd steps sits the temple on top of Mount Phousi. After a hot and crowded walk to the top we joined about a hundred other people who all had the same idea. The temple itself is nothing special, what people pay their 20,000 kip entrance fee for is the view. Come at sunrise or sunset and you’ll be jostling with crowds of tourists, but when the light hits at just the right moment you’ll be glad you came. A panoramic view over Luang Prabang on one side and a stunning view of the Mekong on the other at sunset is hard to beat, so despite the crowds I’d recommend this one.

View from the top, def worth battling the crowds

View from the top, def worth battling the crowds

Royal Palace & Museum

Shane is not that keen on museums so I took myself to this one for a few hours to feed my inner nerd. I love museums and history, I love learning about something I know nothing about and Laos is a country I really didn’t know much about, so naturally I jumped at the chance to visit the museum. What made it all the more interesting is that it wasn’t that long ago that the monarchy was over thrown, with the last King being booted out in just 1975, there’s something I find fascinating about the way these communist governments and monarchies existed until the inevitable overthrow. I wandered through the museum viewing royal life as it was in the 70’s, looking through reception halls, the throne room and royal sleeping chambers. There is a reception room which features murals depicting everyday Laos life and a really intriguing series of works depicting Laos folk stories which were brilliant.

Royal Palace Museum

Royal Palace Museum

Tak Bat- Alms giving ceremony

We got up before the dawn to see the traditional alms giving ceremony on our last day in Luang Prabang. It was somewhere in the 5am’s and Shane kept trying to chat to me, clearly forgetting that I do not function at all before 7am. After a few grumbled responses, he got the hint and led me down to Wat Mai to sit and wait quietly for the monks to arrive. We waited for about 15 minutes and then the barefoot, brilliant saffron robe clad monks began their silent walk with baskets to collect the days’ offerings. This is a religious ceremony that takes place each day at around 6am, it’s a beautiful ceremony to witness as the sun slowly blankets the still sleeping town and was very much worth the early start. Unfortunately, it’s no longer as special as it should be, as Luang Prabang becomes a more popular destination, people are forgetting that it is a very meaningful experience for those involved, not just an opportunity for a photo for your Instagram page. As such they’ve had to develop some guidelines on how people should behave when attending Tak Bat which you can see here – these guidelines are up at every hotel and while most people are respectful there are still quite a few numpty’s around, honestly people there’s a time and place for your selfie stick!

Tak bat

Tak bat

Overall, we had really liked Luang Prabang. It is a gorgeous place to spend a few days, it’s easy, nice, and there is much to entertain but Luang Prabang is not real Laos. Maybe 10 years ago it was but these days? – it’s basically the glossy travel brochure version. Luang Prabang does not offer a true depiction of Laos and the lifestyle of typical Laos people, it basically shows you what happens when tourists come to town so while we definitely recommend going, don’t be surprised by a somewhat less than authentic experience in the tourist centre. Go there, enjoy it for what it is, a shiny version of Laos, but then get out and explore the rest of the country! Real Laos is just as lovely if not quite as shiny.