Two days on a Mekong river boat: Laos to Thailand

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At a Mekong village stop

It was time to leave Luang Prabang and time for the biggest question mark of this long trip. Months ago, I’d booked us on a 2-day Mekong river cruise to Thailand in a big, open-air traditional wooden river boat. At $130 each, this was big money in Laos, but substantially cheaper and way more interesting than some sleep-aboard river boats I’d seen. These same type boats do a much, much cheaper “slow boat” between Luang Prabang and Huay Xai, Laos, but with frequent crowds, unreserved seats (so if the boat is full, you may have to wait a day) and a bus-like atmosphere, they sounded way less comfortable than I was willing to do. The company I chose, Mekong Smile Cruises, got good reviews and sounded like just the level of adventure I was up for. Lunch onboard was included, we stopped at a cave filled with Buddha statues and a local village en route. The overnight happened in Pakbeng, Laos, a village or small town that Google Images led me to believe was no great shakes…but online posts indicated that guest rooms were easy to come by and ridiculously cheap. I scanned Tripadvisor, seeing a few guesthouses listed and one “upscale” hotel at around $100. After his initial impulse that I should “throw money at it” and get the hotel, David came around to my way of thinking that we should try one of the guest houses. I made note of a few recommended names and posts saying that prices doubled if you book in advance, so why bother. Alright, we’d wing it. God, I hope I’m not getting us into a mess! I say this in present tense because I’m onboard the boat as I write this.

“Mr. Joy” from Mekong Smile Cruises met us at My Dream last night to fill us in on details and tell us he’d be back this morning at 6:30am to pick us up. He put my mind at ease about leaving our luggage onboard overnight since the captain and his wife sleep aboard. So, we only need to take a small over night bag. One worry checked off. He also told us we’d be the only guests for the cruise. On a 40-seat boat. Wow.

True to his word, Mr. Joy was waiting when we got to the lobby. It turns out that his name is more like “Choy” (pronounced with a sound somewhere between a “j” and a “ch”), a nickname meaning “skinny.” Since “Mr. Joy” sounds kind of creepy, it’ll be “Choy” from here on out.

Our lovely hosts at My Dream had packed us breakfast to go and the friendly young man who’d helped us with alms-giving and the tuk tuk to the waterfall walked us to the minivan. As the morning parade of monks filed by, he stood and waved until we pulled away. Did I mention I really, really like My Dream?

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A friendly send-off and the morning monk procession

A ten minute ride deposited us at a fair-sized navigation office building where we descended a long flight of stairs down the riverbank to where a small fleet of river boats were parked. Our captain came out to meet us and help with the luggage before ushering us aboard.

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The captain helps with the luggage

The boat is pretty, low-slung with a gently scooped roof, ornate carvings above and below its many open-air “windows,” curtains and 2 carved daybeds and 2 pillowed benches in the front section of the guest area. David and I immediately stretched out on the daybeds, and I felt like Cleopatra cruising down the Nile as we pulled away in the early light to glide past mountains thick with greenery, villages, beaches with wading water buffalo, low rapids and more. When the writing mood hit me, I left my daybed to set up a little office space and one of the many tables fronting pairs of chairs that looks as if they might have been lifted from a retired bus.

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This does not suck!
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Not a bad place to blog either!
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Water buffalo

We reached the cave shrine an hour out of Luang Prabang. Our boat docked at a woven bamboo pier below the steps to the cave. The cave is filled with Buddha statues of all sizes dating back to the 1600’s. I made a 20,000 kip donation to get a flower cone offering with candles and incense. Choy instructed me in the details of presenting my offering as my Korean Buddhist teaching didn’t apply to Laotian customs. We’ve had lots of time to chat as our boat makes its 10-hour journey today. Choy tells me that while Laos is 68% Buddhist, it’s 28% animist and that most people worship and observe important events like weddings and births in a fashion that’s a blend of the two.

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Approaching the Buddha cave
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Arriving at the Buddha cave dock
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Lighting the candles and incense for my offering
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Inside the Buddha cave
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The main cave shrine overlooking the river

Lunch, cooked by the captain’s wife, was served buffet-style and we dined at 4-seater tables way to the back of our floating domain. We had thick-crusted fried chicken legs, stir-fried chicken and onions, stir-fried vegetables, vegetable soup in a thin broth, steamed rice and fresh pineapple. She went light on the spices, but served the meal with a sauce of chopped red chilies that could set your mouth afire.

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Lunch aboard
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Buffet and bar space on the boat; 2 toilets are in the hall in the rear left, behind which is the engine room, then the captain’s living quarters in the very back. (There’s no electricity for the fan or anything else when not docked.)

So now, I’m actually caught up with this blog and the daybed is beckoning for an after-lunch nap. There are other past things I’ve been meaning to blog about, but the world can live without I’m sure and David shouldn’t have to nap alone. 🙂

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* * *

We’re back on our Mekong river boat after our night in Pakbeng so I can report on our overnight stay:

Choy walked with us to help negotiate a guest room for the night and to show us the local market. I really appreciated his helpfulness as this night had been a nagging worry. We got off to a poor start when the first few guesthouses we talked to were fully booked by Thai group tours that had yet to arrive. I started to wonder about all that online advice about lots of rooms being available. Also, music was blaring from one guesthouse and an outdoor party tent set up in the middle of the road. I’d heard noise could be a problem and had brought earplugs, but this wasn’t looking good…and it was hot despite the setting sun.

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Pakbeng “port”
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Pakbeng, Laos: not much
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Pakbeng, Laos: Main Street

As we wandered uphill on the main street, a lady asked us to look at her small guesthouse, Vassana, just across from Phonesony (one of the guesthouses I’d read about, but that was booked). At first asking 150,000 kip, she dropped her price to 120,000 when I said I’d read the cost was usually 100,000 kip in the area. Clearly, things were busy, so we were happy with the price. (I actually felt a little sheepish when I focused later on how little money we were haggling over: Our room came out to $14.81, give or take a fraction of a cent.) The rooms turned out to be simple, but very clean. There was no ornamentation or artwork save pretty new gold brocade patterned curtains, clean and crisply pleated. One heavy wooden chair served as a bedside table, while a wall mirror with small wooden shelf and a row of knobs served as the hanging space. The proprietress showed us two similar ground-floor rooms and we opted for the one farthest from the road. The room was hot and stuffy, but had an a/c. We started the a/c and I wasn’t sure that it was cooling much, but we crossed our fingers and left it running and headed out to dinner at an Indian restaurant, Hasan, that got great reviews.

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Guest room at Vassana: simple, but clean and comfortable (and less than $15)

The food at Hasan was good save for the naan and roti which, as David put it, were the “saltine crackers of the naan world.” We had a corner table of their outdoor balcony with a pretty view overlooking the Mekong. Chicken tikka masala, aloo gobi and palak “paneer” (made with tofu rather than the usual paneer cheese) were all well-seasoned and spicy. A Beer Lao rounded out the meal.

Tired, with an early morning in our future and with David feeling a little under the weather, we called it an early night and headed back to our room, hoping the a/c had done its job, but feeling doubtful. I can’t describe the thrill of opening that door to a delightfully cool room.

We showered quickly in the tiny bathroom, with a handheld shower mounted on the wall and open to the room. Drains in the floor drained not only the shower water, but also water from the sink which ran directly onto the floor from an open pipe. Basic, but again, very clean and plenty of hot water (although I was happy with cool water). The bed was big and comfortable with good pillows (an uncertain thing in Asia). The room was dark, the music had stopped outside and the “turbo” feature of the wall-mounted a/c drowned out any remaining noise. Despite my earlier misgivings, I slept like a stone for nearly 9 hours. Awesome!

Up at 6am, we packed our meager belongs and bought a huge chocolate chip “croissant” to share and coffee at Monsovanh Bakery on the road to the boat. We chatted with several other travelers who’d arrived on other “slow boats” from both directions. I’d looked at these boats before I chose our boat with Mekong Smile Cruises. Veritable river buses, they run on a first come, first served basis and are often crowded. People’s description of the heat and crowds convinced me I’d been right to go with the booked cruise, although the price was just over 3x that of the regular slow boat. For our extra money, we got lots of space and the ability to move around as our whims and incoming sunshine dictated, personalized service, lunch and no hassles. Well worth the extra $80 apiece, in our opinion, to turn 2 days of misery into 2 extraordinary days on the Mekong. [There could have been more people on our boat (up to a max of 30, which would have been too many), but everyone I’ve read about or talked to who’s done it this way reports much smaller groups.]

As we pulled away from the dock this morning, we watched handlers bringing two elephants down to the riverbank opposite Pakbeng. Beautiful in the morning mist.

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Five hours flew by as we lounged on our daybeds, watching the passing scenery (and drifting off to sleep from time to time). Clouds blocked the direct sun and a breeze kept us cool and comfortable. Our boat pulled in to a sandy beach around 12:30pm where a boy and girl were digging with long poles. Choy led us up the bank pointing out holes in the sandy earth where the children had been digging for crickets, a local delicacy.

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Children digging for crickets
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Holes in a dirt bank made by much cricket hunting

Choy led us a bit further up the hill to their village which consisted mostly of woven bamboo homes interspersed with 1 or 2 wooden and cement block buildings. Piglets, ducks and chickens roamed freely while women washed clothes in a village well.

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Making a gun
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A “taxi” dropping off in the village

Electricity had recently been supplied to the village, which itself was only established there in 2009 when the government moved these ethnic Khmu people (one of the largest minority groups in Laos and related to the Khmer of Cambodia) down from the mountains to try to curb slash-and-burn practices. Unfortunately, along with electricity came techno music blaring from one house. About 300 people live in the village and we felt pretty sure there must be some complaints to the village chief about the noise. We might have thought the Khmu village abysmally poor and dirty if we hadn’t been to the floating village in Kompong Khleang which, while larger, won hands down in the lack-of-sanitation department. (And, according to Choy, this was a “5-star” village, displaying signs attesting to its superiority in development, access to health care, youth programs, gender equality and such.)

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Children were friendly, waving and smiling. Three small boys clustered around David, laughing when he started a high-five routine with them. There was no village temple as these people are animist (like nearly 30% of Laotians), looking to a village shaman for spiritual matters and healing. While Mekong Smile Cruise boats stop here as part of the journey, there wasn’t anything to buy and no one asking for handouts.

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The little guy in the back wasn’t sure what he thought about David’s high-five…
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…but then he gave it a try…
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…and was mighty tickled by the whole business, as were his friends. 😀

Lunch was ready when we got back on the boat: fried fish; chicken curry soup; shredded bamboo, noodle and chicken salad; steamed rice; red chili salsa and fresh fruit.

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Having just finished that moveable feast, I’m off to the daybed for my afternoon viewing and relaxation. Have I mentioned that I’m really enjoying this boat ride?

* * *

After lunch, it was time for more reclining and river-watching as we listened to audiobooks or dozed in the fresh breeze. We came to a provincial border line and our boat had to stop to get a stamp. Another boat was also stopped and we got a glimpse, close-up of one of the crowded bus-like slow boats. This boat was heading downstream towards Luang Prabang, and we heard later that the boats going that faster route were often the most crowded. As we tried to pull away, the swift current caught the stern of our boat and pushed it into a small shoal. When our captain had trouble getting us off, two boatmen from yet another boat ran over to help, joining the captain on the roof to push off with long bamboo poles stored on every river boat while Choy and the captain’s wife tended to the bow. There seemed to be a real camraderie among the boatmen of the Mekong River, and we saw them calling greetings as they passed and springing to help each other and each other’s passengers when needed.

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Crowded slow boat stopped at the province line
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Three poles in the water to push us off a small shoal

The landscape changed as we neared Thailand, with the mountains and hills flattening. On the Thai side of the river, stones had been hauled in to fight erosion.

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Approaching Thailand
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Passing under the Friendship Bridge between Laos (on the right) and Thailand (on the left) near our debarkation point in Huay Xai, Laos

Docking at our destination, Huay Xai (“hway sigh”) was a final adventure: We arrived to a mass of sister boats crammed together like…well, like sardines. There was nowhere in sight for our boat. After a few calls from our captain to his fellows, one of the boats fired up its engine and we assumed it was pulling out and we’d take its place, although it seemed thinner than our boat. Our captain did not back up, though, and we wondered why he wasn’t giving the other boat room. Then, a small wedge began to appear between the sterns of that boat and the one to its right. We were going to try to fit between the two!

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We docked BETWEEN the two green boats to the left of the blue one. The engine is running on the green boat 2 from the blue boat as it begins to move to its left to make room for us. Unbelievable!

There was literally no room whatsoever. Nevertheless, out came the long bamboo poles and the other boatmen began trying to make space as we kept creeping forward. Choy and the captain’s wife pushed with both hands and soon the captain abandoned his wheel and David joined in. We scraped against our neighbors, knocking two thick wooden poles loose. Boats creaked and groaned as we were squeezed on both sides. Boatmen called or yelled to each other as they scampered about, pushing and trying to restore the wooden poles to their original place. Eventually, by some miracle, we wedged ourselves in. Surprisingly, no one seemed upset about the potential damage to their vessels and there was laughter all around.

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Near the end of our docking maneuver

Now, we were faced with a nearly vertical wall of grass. How were we supposed to get up that with our luggage? No problem: walk across the bow of our neighbor, hop out onto some grass and let our captain and his friends shoulder our suitcases and climb up to a waiting minivan.

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The captain’s wife on our bow just after docking…now for the steep grass embankment…

The 3-year old Friendship Bridge immigration point is lovely and modern, but a 15 to 20 minute van ride (included with our cruise) back from the dock. Choy rode with us, directing us through emigration (There’s an extra $1 charge for exiting Laos on weekends and after hours.) and buying our bus ticket to the other, Thai, side of the bridge. We bid him a very grateful farewell as he head off to an overnight bus back to Luang Prabang. There was a man who earned his tip!

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At the Friendship Bridge border crossing
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On the Lao side of the Friendship Bridge at Huay Xai
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Bus for the last bit of our trip–across the bridge into Thailand

We entered an almost empty Thai immigration building on the other side of the bridge at dusk. A super friendly immigration officer (a rarity on the trip) asked where we were staying, then left his post to take us to the tuk tuk taxi stand and make sure we were off to our hotel in Chiang Khong with no hassles. It was a nice end to our river cruise and an auspicious start to the Thai portion of our trip.

We paid $130 each for our Mekong Smile Cruise. Upstream cruises like our take about 10 hours each day. Find out more at http://www.mekongsmilecruise.com/

Comments and questions are welcome!