Up next was our scheme to take the slow boat from Northern Thailand to Luang Prabang. Floating down the Mekong on a boat turned out to be a blast. The children entertained the like-minded travellers, while it was a chance for the parents to be social with other adults again. Upon reflection, we spent two awesome days recapturing some of our old backpacking glory.
Our journey from Chiang Rai started with a local bus to the border town of Chiang Khong. It was a beater of a bus with the doors open the entire journey. This was necessary as the driver would periodically stop to make deliveries. The kids loved it, with the wind and exhaust whipping through the bus. Paige rolled her eyes at me as we sat with the automotive parts being delivered. Chiang Kong was a border town with little going on. When that happens, we revert to schooling so we passed the time on a geography lesson. Paige had created an entire unit about rivers to make the upcoming boat tour more educational.
The next day was the official crossing into Laos. We cracked at the last minute and opted for a private group tour down the Mekong instead of the “public” boats. It wasn’t luxury by any stretch. But it promised our own table and chairs and a couple meals. First thing in the morning, we were in our hotel lobby meeting our group. The kids gravitated to an elderly gentleman named David, who they nicknamed Les.
The ten-minute ride to the border ensured we arrived just when it opened. The tour guide apologized for the delays, as it took about ninety minutes to clear both sides of the border. The girls (and some others on the bus) exchanged high-fives at the midpoint of the friendship bridge. There, the flags change from Thai to Laos, with my girls spotting the Laos flags before us. We were welcomed to Laos by a praying mantis the kids caught in the parking lot, which they then used to scare group members as they cleared immigration.
Our drive to the actual boat took an eventful twenty minutes. We witnessed a car crash and a separate cycling accident. Unfortunately, we watched a cyclist fall hard and knock himself out. Our van stopped and then raced ahead to notify a police officer. After some yelling, an ambulance was summoned, and we continued on our way in a more sombre mood.
Paige breathed a sigh of relief when we boarded the boat as it delivered on its promises. We were welcomed by the hospitable staff and shown to our table with wooden benches and cushions. The boat pushed off as soon as we boarded, and we drifted past our hotel and the friendship bridge. It had taken us over 2 hours to get back to where we had started the journey earlier that day. But soon, it was just us and the river and the countryside. We saw people both panning and sluicing for gold. We saw real pink buffaloes and weirdly placed fishing nets and rods. We saw the terrifying fast boats ripping down the river with the driver having a crash helmet but no one else. We passed by an ultra-luxury cruise boat with cabins and loungers that kicked up a wake that rocked our boat. The children waved at everyone and everything we passed. It was a great day of travelling and letting the scenery roll by.
The journey down the Mekong to Luang Prabang is split across two days requiring you to overnight in the town of Pak Beng. The boat arrived in Pak Beng late in the afternoon, and we were dropped off at our 1-star hotel for the night. Pak Beng doesn’t have much, but we found a SIM card store and loaded up the phone (surprised at how well that worked). The atm didn’t work for so we set off for a restaurant that would accept Thai baht (they all do as foreign currency is in high demand in Laos). At dinner, Isabella entertained a Chinese couple who sat next to us and took pictures. Later, they almost crashed their truck waving to us and taking more photos. The funny thing about the town is you bump into the same people everywhere as everybody is killing the same amount of time.
An advantage of the tour boat vs. the public boat is it makes a tourist stop on the second day. At the Pak Ou caves, we joined the other tourist boats and explored caves filled with statues of the Buddha. However, we found the main site too packed and walked the 200 steps up to the upper caves. Along the way, we noticed locals selling captured birds and fish. We also saw something we thought was a mole in a tiny bamboo enclosure. We fretted about it and then thought we would buy and release one. Ultimately, we decided not to buy any of them as it would just lead to them catching more creatures. Back on the boat, we were told the mole-like creature was actually a field mouse. That is one helluva big mouse. I still laugh at what would have happened if we had purchased it, opened the cage and been stuck with a mouse staring at us!
We continued on the journey, passing the few remaining sites. The future hydro dam (which is contentious between Thailand and Vietnam), the high-speed train line (built by China) and then eventually the slow boat pier. The kids hugged the staff and we departed to begin our adventure in Luang Prabang.
Up next is our off-the-grid homestay.
Where we stayed:
- Chiang Kong Teak Garden Riverfront Hotel: Skywalk, Views of the Mekong
- BKC Villa Pak Beng: What do you expect? Rough!
By the numbers:
- Height of the skywalk at our hotel in Chiang Kong: 15ft – easily the most bizarre amenity at any hotel we have stayed at
- Number of secret snacks offered to our girls on the boat: 5 – the cook just kept wanting to feed them every two minutes
- Pictures taken of the girls by Chinese tourists in Pak Beng: 2 – this was our first real experience with people asking to take photos of the kids
- Playing cards that got blown into the Mekong: 0 – no idea how, as so many came so close
- Number of times Isabella was warned to be careful on the boat: 2 – everyone looked out for her!
Ciao for now,