26.12.2011 - 28.12.2011
After our Christmas fun, we took a bus from Pai to the Thailand-Laos border. The memory of travel sickness had not yet left us; we were still in the hills and needed to get back down. This time it would be at night, on dark roads. We arrived early and selfishly nabbed the front seats to better our chances. We popped a travel sickness pill each for good measure. Sophia wondered why she hadn’t found the strength to resist the chocolate covered pancake before boarding the bus. You only live once!
7 hours later, at 3 in the morning, we arrived at the border town where we were given a bed in a small hotel so that we could sleep until the next morning when the border reopened. We woke at 7 after only 4 hours’ sleep on a mattress as hard as concrete. We had that feeling of dread at not knowing how the day would pan out. We were in a rush to cross the border so that we could catch a boat on the other side, they leave early in the morning and we didn’t want to waste a day in the dreary Laos border town waiting for another one. We had also overstayed our Thai Visa limit and were keen to get out quickly.
After various points in the right direction, we found the border crossing and were first to arrive at the immigration desk. As soon as it opened at 8am we were ushered through to an office to pay our fine for staying too long. The VISA had only given us 15 days in Thailand and we had stayed 16. The fine was $15 each, just enough to keep the border control workers in donuts for the next week.
Once we had passed the borderline, we walked down to the Mekong river where we got a small wooden rowing boat across to the Laos side. With our feet firmly on Laos soil we queued for our VISA and passed through into a street full of travel agents and touts. It was 9am so we were late for the boat we wanted, but we found out that it wasn’t running anyway. Our plan B was to take a slow boat, it would take two full days to get us from the border town to our destination; Luang Prabang.
The boat we had originally wanted was relatively comfortable. The slow boat, we had heard, was the opposite. They were notorious for being overcrowded (over 100 people) with uncomfortable wooden seats and a hole in the back as a toilet. We had read too that the engine at the back was deafening and that ear plugs were required to make it bearable. We unenthusiastically purchased our tickets. We couldn’t really afford the other boat anyway, who were we kidding!
On the upside, we were now early for our boat and the first ones through the border so we had plenty of time to board the boat and pick the best seats away from the engine. Rushing for the best seats has now become a new part of our travelling experience. We were pleased to find that, although there were many wooden benches, there were also softer seats which would make the 7 hours a day more comfortable. These seats were in fact old bus seats that had been placed onto the boat in rows, with an aisle down the middle. The seats weren’t attached to the boat so moved around when you sat on them. Still, they were soft and they were not at the front.
Given that we were 2 hours early for the boat’s departure and with seats secured, Sophia ventured back up into the town to purchase breakfast, snacks and the illusive toilet roll. Breakfast was hot pancakes to take away; just what we needed after the morning rush and given the lack of sleep. Arriving early for the boat meant that we would be sitting on there for 9 hours instead of 7. Sully was already bored and decided he would sleep the whole day.
The boat filled with more and more people. They were mostly tourists of all nationalities but there were plenty of locals too. For some reason, the locals kept being moved to give the seats to tourists instead. We felt quite bad for them. Not bad enough to give up our own soft seats, mind. Eventually the boat left, an hour late. Patience comes in quite handy here.
Despite the horror stories we had heard, the journey was relatively comfortable. A lady at the back of the boat was selling tea and coffee and there were real toilets available too. The discomforts were made bearable by the amazing scenery that we passed by on both sides and we sailed downstream on the Mekong. We passed rock karsts jutting out of the water, sand banks, small wooden villages, huge green hills, fishing boats. We stopped many times along the way to drop off items or local people or to collect new passengers who would see us approaching and wave their arms for us to stop. At each stop, young children would run into the water and climb onto the boat to sell us snacks. They were living in a remote riverside village and yet they speak very good English.
On the first night, as the sun was setting, we arrived at Pakbeng, a small town high up on the hill above the river. The locals had seen us coming and by the time we docked and scrambled off the boat and up the rocky hillside, they were all there shouting the name of their hotels and restaurants. This town receives over 200 people a day from boats travelling in each direction on the river. They had a captive audience! Sully had already seen some wooden buildings hanging over the edge of the hillside and had decided he wanted to stay in those so we climbed up the hill and negotiated a room for the night. We were told that the boat would leave at 8 the next morning but we agreed that we would go down at 7 to nab some good seats again. Survival of the fittest!
The next morning we had breakfast at our hotel, overlooking the river at the boats below. By 6.30 there were already other people boarding the boat with the same idea as us. We arrived down there at 7 and secured a decent seat and sat and watched the other people arriving for the boat. There is no safe, easy or graceful way to get back down to the river side with big bags. The hillside is steep, uneven and rocky and it is hard work trying not to fall, whilst at the same time trying to dodge the locals with their food and snacks for sale, with their prices steeper than the hill itself.
When we got to the boat that morning, we noted that it was smaller version of the previous day’s boat. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the same amount of people from yesterday’s cramped boat were not going to fit back onto today’s smaller boat. As more and more people arrived, the last ones with wet hair and holding coffee whilst scrambling down the hill, it became evident that all the seats were gone. There wasn’t even enough space to stand, not that anyone would want to stand for the next 8 hours! Eventually, a number of tourists began to complain, requesting a larger or additional boat and the staff just refused, asking them to sit on tyres that they had placed near the front! The complaints turned into a protest with chanting and many of the passengers got off the boat so that it couldn’t leave. After a two hour stand-off (where we, again, didn’t budge from our soft seats!), the rebels got their way and a second boat was chartered in and we set off. At this point we had already been sitting on the boat for 3 hours and hadn’t yet moved!
The second day’s journey was much the same as the first, there were beautiful views and we alternated between reading, taking photos, playing cards, sleeping and eating snacks. Eventually we arrived in Luang Prabang. A much anticipated destination of which we had heard many good things.