We made it. The border crossing was a bit painful, but we did get across and back up the river in time for the slow boat. Leaving the guesthouse at 8.30, I was sat on top of the bags in the back of a pick up truck, with the hostel owner chatting to me and getting excited about the new border. The two towns we were going to and from are just a couple of hundred metres apart across the river, and yet we had to travel around 15km south, across the bridge and back north.
After paying 40 baht for the ride to the bridge (they wanted 50, but the older Dutch couple we were with, and who were doing the trip mainly to write about it on travelfish, were having none of that), we queued up and 3 people took our passport details in order to get the 25 baht bus across the new bridge. Getting stamped out of Thailand was quick and easy, and then we rode the bus through no-mans-land to the new border checkpoint on the Laos side. It was fairly disorganised, with groups piling off the bus, and then mobbing around a small office. There were no signs up, so it took a while to work out which way to go, but we finally got it right; queue for forms, go away and fill out the forms, queue back up to hand them in, wait for everyone’s passports to be passed around the small office with 5 people copying things out, then pay the $35 for the visa. Finally, we just had to deal the “tuk tuk mafia” outside, and haggle down from 80 baht per person to around 40.
Eventually though, we made it to the slow boat port in Huay Xai, and were actually among the first people there. The ticket office staff were pretty relaxed about the new border situation, and just laughed when I asked what time the boat would leave. It finally left around 2 hours later than normal, and we were off into Laos down the Mekong.
The slow boats are long, thin, cargo and passenger boats that float down the river at a relaxed speed, hence the name. Around 80 people were on ours, mostly tourists, and it was a mix of independent and group travellers. It seems like car or bus seats have been taken out of their original homes and placed in rows up the boat, and there isn’t a huge amount to do other than sit and watch the spectacular scenery pass by. Law described it as a cross between Lord of the Rings and Jurassic Park – she is awesome.
Jungles, mountains and bamboo villages dot the shore, and the six hours passed quite pleasantly. Just after dark on the first day the boat stops at a small village called Pakbeng, where touts practically jump aboard to get you into their guesthouse – we had a plan though, so while I waited for the bags Law zipped up the hill to get a nice room for a good price. The second day we woke up early and headed off around 9 down the river, and it was more of the same. Amazing countryside, and a good opportunity to read a lot.
We arrived almost at Luang Prabang at about 5.30, but actually stopped about 10km up river from the town. This is a fairly recent thing, where they now drop off all the passengers and then charge an extra 20,000 kip (about £1.50) for a tuk tuk into the city. It’s clearly a scam, but there is an actual ticket office and this is just what happens now. I’d read about it online so we were a bit prepared, but a lot of people were mad and tried to stick it out on the boat until it moved. We saw one couple later who’d waited another 30 mins and still ended up getting the tuk tuk.
Luang Prabang is a very nice city. It’s another odd of mix European cafe style architecture (thanks France) and temples and pagodas. It is a bit pricier here than elsewhere in Laos, but it’s a cool place to just wander round in and the market is full of great cheap street food. Beer Lao is also very cheap, and it might be my favourite beer of Asia so far. As well as visiting the various Wats and temples, we’ve also been to Kuang Si falls, an amazing set of pools and waterfalls outside the city – the water is bright turquoise and even the rain didn’t take away from it’s beauty.
After a couple of days chilling in LP, we made our way to the bus station to spend the day winding around the mountains to get to Phonsavan and the famous and mysterious Plain of Jars.