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“No no–you don’t come! No paper in passport!”
The Thai man at the border between Thailand and Laos had begun shouting at a Canadian girl at our table. He had been organizing all of our passports, and preparing our visas, when those very unfortunate words sliced the air.
Her jaw dropped open as her eyes welled in disbelief. Hell, I almost couldn’t believe it either.
“You go back Thailand. Come later!”
This poor girl.
We were in Chiang Kong, Thailand, the entry point for the Mekong River. After a month in Thailand, our crew was coming together in preparation for a two day boat ride into Luang Prabang, Laos. The slow boat is the most scenic and enjoyable way to get from Thailand to Laos…or so I had been told.
Tears swam down her cheeks and filled her dimples. It was Thursday and the closest US Embassy was a two day bus ride away. That would be a five day journey there and back and, since Embassies are closed on the weekends, she was looking at a solid week of travel, destroyed. Her passport had been completely filled with stamps, to the point where there were no more pages left.
I stopped feeling quite so bad for the girl.
The rest of the group collected their passports and were herded over the border and down the street. Like a flock of sheep, we were to pile into the back of a truck which would lead us onto the slow boat to Laos.
But me? I hung behind. The girl.
Being no stranger to travel plans gone awry, I knew it was worth trying something. Anything. Plus, if I got locked up for trying to bribe the border patrol, I knew it would be just another great story to tell. It’s not like I would get deported or anything…would I?
I told the group I’d meet them in a few minutes and I rallied with the girl who could barely even compose herself. She stuffed a $50 bill in between the pages of her passport and we walked to the border.
They looked at my passport and waved me right through but, with almost zero recognition of the money inside the girl’s passport, they waved her away in the same way one shoo’s a fly from the face.
“No no,” I insisted, becoming slightly more obvious. “This is for you! We’re going this way!” and I pointed towards the border.
She grabbed some more money from her wallet, but the border patrol was less than interested. “Aren’t these guys supposed to be corrupt?” I thought. Isn’t this how it works?
As terrible as it is, all throughout Southeast Asia, the dynamic is simple: foreigners give the locals money and the locals make things happen. Not to mention all the stories I had heard about corrupt government officials. I was sure some US currency would fix everything.
But apparently, it doesn’t.
After further failed attempts with the border patrol, and even the officers at the official visa window, I had to say goodbye to the Canadian so I could catch my ride.
I felt bad for the girl, but it’s not like I was going to spend the next week riding buses with her when my visa had already been approved!
“Sorry,” I proclaimed, and disappeared.
Taking the Slow Boat from Thailand to Laos
As Laos has become more of a tourist destination for those looking to explore beyond Thailand, this two day journey down the Mekong River has become another one of the worlds “can’t miss” activities for backpackers.
Beginning in Chiang Khong, on the border of northeastern Thailand, the slow boat to Laos herds hoards of travelers down the river to the UNESCO World Heritage Destination of Luang Prabang. It’s quite the adventure and, the whole journey, beginning to end, is no easy task.
By some miracle of the universe, the private bus that I had booked from Chiang Mai left early and, since I was strictly on time, I was left stranded without a ride. “No problem,” I was assured, and I was pawned off to the public transport system.
Arriving in Chiang Khong at some ungodly hour of the night, I was told to find my way to a hostel of some nondescript name. As luck would have it, this luxurious accommodation had previously held function as a prison, yet it had been painted pastel pinks and greens to liven the mood.
I could tell I was in for a treat.
A poor cup of coffee and rubbery eggs awaited my groggy awakening the next morning. The whole group of us piled into a van which took us to the border patrol in Chiang Khong. We stamped out of Thailand (I paid my two day overstay fee), walked down to the bank of the Mekong, and took a two minute wooden boat ride across the river to Huay Xai, Laos.
Pro tip: check your passport pages before you leave Thailand.
In Huay Xai, the man in charge of our group collected our passports, retrieved our visas, and sent the group (minus one girl) through border patrol and down the street to the next meeting place, where we’d pile into ANOTHER van which would bring us to the loading dock for the slow boat.
We boarded the boat from here and spent the day traveling down the river before arriving in the small town of Pakbeng for the evening.
Accommodation in Pakbeng
Prior to our departure from Huay Xai, our shepherd indicated that there would be touts trying to scam us and provide poor accommodation options at inflated prices.
As we were all familiar with the incessant nagging of the touts all over Southeast Asia, we decided to book as a group at the hostel he had recommended. Of course, he would receive a commission, but we didn’t mind. And it was only for one night.
How bad could it be?
The door wouldn’t latch properly, the mattresses were made of wood, the sink was falling off the wall and the shower barely even turned on. But hey, it’s nothing a few beers can’t solve! And it’s all a part of the adventure.
I’ve since heard of quality accommodations in Pakbeng, but you may have to talk to some other travelers to find out what they are. Or, just go with the flow and see what happens!
Greed and a Mutiny
A poor plate of fried rice began our last day on the Mekong, as we checked out of the hostel and made our way to the boat. Our adventure, though, was nowhere close to finished.
Approaching the evening hours, the boat began to slow and, almost out of the blue, the announcement was made that we had arrived. Something didn’t seem quite right, though.
I checked the map on my iPhone which indicated we were still a good 10km outside of the Luang Prabang.
Many of the locals on board the boat stayed still, while the foreigners began to unload. I inquired why they weren’t moving, and they explained that this was the foreigner stop. We were going to have to pay another 20,000LAK (Laotian Kip) to take a tuk-tuk into town, while they were going to be dropped off in the center of town.
Sure, it was only an extra $2.50USD, but it was the principle. We had paid for a ride to Luang Prabang, and we were not receiving what we were promised. The local businessmen had found a way to squeeze a few extra dollars out of the travelers, which led to greed amongst the locals and anger amongst the travelers.
This arrangement creates a massive juxtaposition between the travelers and the locals, and makes for a very hostile dynamic. This is a poor tourism tactic and, rather than working to create a harmonious and beneficial environment for all, it creates resentment and dissidence.
But, what could we do in a strange land? Coming from a Western culture, we are brought up with the understanding that we have inalienable rights in our every day lives. When you’re abroad, however, these rights do not travel with you. You are at the mercy of the world and the people around you.
We banded together and refused to leave the boat, demanding that the captain take us the rest of the way. We formed a mutiny. We were told, however, that there was no port in Luang Prabang, and thus we would not be able to dock.
This was a complete lie. It was also the end of the road.
The crew began throwing our bags on shore and, when we realized our upheaval was becoming a lost cause, we abandoned hope and decided to do the only thing we could. We exited the boat and each paid 20,000LAK for a ride into town.
Welcome to Laos.
Tips for Taking the Slow Boat to Laos
Bring entertainment—A good book, a pack of cards and wireless speakers will be your best friend. I even cranked out a blog post on the slow boat to Laos. Or, bring beer. A lot of it.
Carry a pillow or cushion–Not every seat is cushioned, and you might even end up sitting on the floor. Some comfort for your tush might come in handy.
Arrive early–Seating is on a first come first serve basis. Arrive early to secure the seats you want.
Pack your own food–Food in Huay Xia and Pakbeng is overpriced. There is food available on the boat, too, but again, the prices are inflated. Go shopping in town the day before and prepare some dry goods for your trip down the Mekong.
Bring American dollars–If you choose to pay for your Laotian visa in any currency except American dollars, you will be charged an absurd conversion rate. Make sure you come prepared with enough American dollars.
Now let’s hear from you! Have you ever taken the slow boat to Laos? What was your experience like? Would you consider riding it?