Having my booked my trip to Laos through the lady on the front desk at my hostel, I was to catch a bus at 9am, which would take me to a town on the Thailand/Laos border (called Chiang Khong) for the night with a stop at the famous White Temple in Chiang Rai along the way. The next morning, I would cross the border and get my visa for Laos before boarding a slow boat to a town called Pakbeng for the night (a 6 hour journey). On the third day, I would get back on the slow boat for another 8 hours for the rest of the trip to Luang Prabang, my final destination.
When I was still back home planning this trip, the website I used to plan my transportation between destinations (Rome2Rio) gave me the bus/boat route saying it took 18 hours. It wasn’t until I booked the journey from my hostel in Chiang Mai that I realized that wasn’t a continuous 18 hours but would be spread out over 3 days/2 nights. Between this lapse in research and my extended stay in Chiang Mai waiting for my debit card, I was so behind schedule that the day I would arrive in Luang Prabang (June 9) was the day I had a flight booked to Hanoi. In the end, I wasn’t too upset about this as I’m still hoping the month-long boat journey to Cambodia with Simon, Alex and Cecile comes to fruition, which would change my entire trip anyway.
The van that picked me up at my hostel was quite small, but there was only one other person on it so I was optimistic about having a decent seat for the 4 hour ride. My options were to have a seat by itself, a spot in a 3-seat bench, or sit in the back next to the luggage. I decided to risk it and take the seat by the luggage – it was technically two seats, but with the luggage encroaching on the second seat’s space, I figured no one would sit by me and I’d have some extra space to sleep. All was going well, one person getting on the bus every 10 minutes or so until we were up to about 5 people on a 20 seat van. I was priding myself on my risky but wise decision, until the last stop, when we pulled up to a huge group of people with backpacks… And they got on the van, leaving me with a blonde girl in my second seat.
I spent the first hour or so secretly (and unreasonably) hating this girl for basically sitting on my lap. For some reason I thought she was French, and I just kept thinking, “this French bitch doesn’t even care that she’s taking up a bunch of space and I’m up against the window.” Once I finally started talking to her, though, I found out she’s from
Calgary and actually really nice. Her name is Dana. We’ve spent every day together since.
Chiang Rai was underwhelming – I had read that there was nothing of interest aside from the temple, so I had planned on skipping this common backpacker stop, so I’m glad I had the opportunity to see it without spending more than 30 minutes there. Chiang Rai is where the famous White Temple is located, so I got my obligatory photo of that and then wandered. The most exciting part of this stop on the journey was that I came across my first squat toilet (I came expecting to find nothing but these in Asia, but was lucky enough to have nothing but Western style toilets up until this point) and used it successfully.
Some of the people in our van got off in Chiang Rai as their final destination, so Dana got to move to a real seat and I finally got my seat and a half to myself the rest of the way to Chiang Khong. Once we arrived in Chiang Khong, we checked into our hostel (our night’s stay was included in the price of the trip) with Dana and I sharing a room with a British girl named Rosie. After showering, the three of us went to sit on the balcony of the hostel and enjoy some beers until our complimentary dinner was served. The view from the balcony was absolutely gorgeous, overlooking the Mekong river with Laos literally on the opposite bank. While sitting up there, we acquired a third member of what would become our “LP” crew – Giulia, from San Francisco. The group chat that we use to keep in touch is called “LP crew,” because none of us know how to pronounce the name of the city we were heading to, Luang Prabang, so we decided to just keep referring to it as LP (;
Our complimentary dinner was a small serving of green curry, and all four of us were still hungry after we finished. The staff at the hostel told us there was a night market that night only in a big open field, so we headed that way. Unfortunately, by the time we got there it was beginning to close and there wasn’t much food left. It was still really cool to see a night market in such a small village that isn’t yet overrun by tourism. The locals
would pull up their cars and play Thai music from their stereos with the doors open, and each stall had fresh fruits or homemade Thai foods that could be carried away in plastic bags (even the liquids).
Since we were leaving Thailand the next morning, Giulia was determined to find her favorite Thai dish one last time – Khao Soy. Khao Soy is a Thai noodle soup with a sloppy joe type flavor; in bigger cities, when a foreigner asks for Khao Soy, locals understand what they’re looking for. However, since we were in a small village where little to no English was spoken, they kept mistaking what we were asking for and showing us rice with confused looks on their faces. We found out later that there’s a slight difference in pronunciation (still can’t tell the difference) and the way we were pronouncing it translates literally to “beautiful rice.” Everyone thought we were walking up and asking for beautiful rice. Eventually we settled for regular noodle soup and retired for the night.
The next morning we had to wake up pretty early to begin the process of getting our visas for Laos. A bus took us to the boarder, where we had to fill out our paperwork, hand over our extra passport photos (good thing I bought 20 extra… haha), and pay the fee. The visa itself is exciting to me because it takes up a whole page of my passport – I paid extra to have twice as many pages in my passport than normal, because before my trip around Europe I didn’t realize I wouldn’t be getting ANY stamps traveling within the Schengen zone, so my passport is pathetically empty. And large.
The whole process took about an hour and then we boarded a second bus to drive us to the part of the Mekong where our slow boat would depart from. We were given about 30 minutes there to stock up on enough food, water, and beer to last us the 8 hour day on the boat. We did a good job of that, and even found some Laos whiskey to try out.
The boat wasn’t exactly what I’d imagined – as soon as we boarded, we realized it was going to be a long, uncomfortable two days. The seats we got were van-style bench seats that ran up each side of the front half of the boat, with a very narrow walkway between the to sides to the back of the boat that had airplane style side-by-side seats (all full already). Luckily, our seats ended up being the best on the boat for socializing and we made some friends to spend the day playing cards, drinking, and enjoying the beautiful scenery along the river.
By the time we arrived in the village of Pakbeng, we were slightly tipsy and exhausted. As soon as we got off the boat, we were ambushed by locals trying to sell us food, hotel rooms, and drugs and children begging for our food and water. Before we left Thailand, we were told to walk past all of this and just up the hill we would find cheaper prices for rooms. Being exhausted and hot, and having our backpacks with us, we didn’t have the energy and actually found a great deal on a room with four beds that would cost us $2
each for the night. No point in bargain shopping when the price is already right. The room was nice enough and close to the port where we would have to be early the next morning.
We checked in, took short naps, called our boyfriends and let our families know we were safe, then set out in search of an ATM and dinner. I had been the only person with the US dollars needed for our visa fees at the boarder, so it was nice that everyone then paid me back in the local currency – enough to last me several days. The spot we found for dinner served free whiskey shots, which was actually the last thing any of us wanted. We’d drank enough early enough that we could feel our mild hangovers setting in before the day even ended – but we obliged and then went right back to the hotel for a good night’s rest (for me, at least – everyone else told me the next morning that I talked in my sleep all night. Oops).
We again loaded up on food and water (this time no alcohol) before another long boat ride. The second day on the boat was much less fun – no one was drinking and having a good time, everyone was tired and uncomfortable, and it was pouring rain the whole time. We were very happy to arrive in Luang Prabang that evening. We all had different hostels booked, but started our group messaging chat to keep in touch while in Luang Prabang, and throughout our travels in case any of us were in the same place again at some point. We were all too exhausted to explore that night, and I went to bed by 7:30. Overall, an awesome experience to check off my bucket list and to give me an idea of what it might be like to spend a month making my way down that river with the Simon crew.