23/11/14 – 24/11/14
After successfully crossing the border I was once again in Huay Xai. Two years ago I only stayed for lunch and went straight to Luang Namtha. This time I had different plans. Joining others in a full Tuk Tuk we headed into town – it is a 20 – 30 minute ride.
During the journey recommendations for guesthouses were shared, and I headed with a fellow German to the Sabaidee Guesthouse. To save some money we took a room with two beds – for 90,000 Kip. Room looked fine – and having an own bathroom was nice after the last two places. In the back is a terrace overlooking the Mekong as well. So this is a good place to stay
Leaving our bags Nils and I headed out to have our first Beer Lao – 11 month since I had my last one I was rather looking forward to it. I can happily state that this is my favourite beer outside of Germany!!!
Settling in a bar called BAP (which reminded me strongly of Cologne) two large bottle were quickly in front of us. As usual, the first sip was rather long – and it felt good. We were joined by Dutch girl Mauri, and we checked with the owner of the bar, who we had to call Mamma (she explained in a ‘lovely’ manner that reminded me of a Koebes in Cologne that we couldn’t call her by her first name we were no friends yet – and Mamma was obviously less personal!!!), about getting tickets for the slow boat. ‘No problem I have tickets. 240,000 Kip per person’. Apparently she could offer everything. We booked the ticket with her, and also ordered baguettes for the morning so they are ready when we get there at 9am. At least this was the plan in theory – the reality was slightly more different.
Having the trip sorted we took a quick walk to the Mekong where the old border crossing. Life was easier with that crossing – at least for tourist. It is still a nice spot to drink a beer and watch the sun set.
It was then time for dinner, and instead of going to one of the restaurants we just walked on the main road until we found a little street stall where you could get some noodle dishes or the usual bbq meat on skewers. Cheap and very tasty…
We finished the night in a bar / restaurant on the other side of the guesthouse to have a final beer. The interesting thing of this bar is that it has several jars of Lao Lao whisky (rice whisky) with different flavours. The owner infuses the flavours himself by putting spices or fruit into the jars, and the cinnamon was actually good. In addition a local sitting on another table gave us some if his Lao Lao whisky – which was def not as nice. At the end of the night I was hoping that drinking beer and Lao Lao whisky was a good idea prior to a long boat ride….
Well, I have felt better before, but all set to take the boat to Luang Prabang the next morning. As advised we turned up at the BAP guesthouse at 9am, looking forward to our baguette we ordered the night before. Unfortunately it seems everyone got their order but us. And so the a range of conversation started between me and Mamma (who looked more and more confused every time we had the same conversation) that was repeated four times… ‘Are our baguettes ready?’ – ‘What is your room number?’ – ‘We didn’t stay here but we ordered baguettes when we bought the boat tickets’ – ‘What’s the name?’ – looking through her booklet, and I pointed at the entry from last night – ‘Ok, will be ready soon’. Soon apparently means over an hour later, and asking several times. I started to worry (how can I miss my well deserved food – I was HUNGRY…) and in the end I personally delievered our order the 3 meter from Mamma to the counter where the baguettes are prepared – without receiving a discount. A Lean team would have a field day there…
We finally got our food just as the first load of people went onto a tuk tuk. Everyone but the three of us and another Dutch girl and an Austrian. We had the pleasure to wait another 20 minutes. The boat will wait for us – surely.
So maybe ordering tickets in a busy guesthouse is not the best option. Choose one that looks less busy.
Also, the boat ticket at the boat landing cost 220,000 Kip, but considering you need a Tuk Tuk 240,000 was a fair price.
Arriving at the boat landing we goit our tickets with seat number, and had a chance to buy some last minute food and drinks. I should have bought more than just more pineapples and my 1 baguette as I was finding out very soon.
The boat was already busy, and clearly no one took notice of the seat number. Making myself comfortable in an aisle seat we waited…and waited…and waited. Until the bus coming from Chiang Khong finally arrived after 11:30. Their reward for being the last on the boat? Sitting on some plastic chairs putting up in the rear of the boat. So it is an advantage to cross the border the day before.
After everyone got comfortable or rather ready, the journey started. You got to talk to the people around you very quickly. One couple from Poland had a nice idea for a wedding gift for friends who get marry a week later – a book where all other tourists were asked to add a message for the happy couple – and nothing obscene. For a change I behaved, and only asked what I get from writing something nice. I was promised a cookie – good enough for me. She was busy throughout the journey getting everyone on the boat adding a message to the book.
In addition of chatting to others the boat is a perfect place to relax. People were reading, listening to music, or just sleeping – wherever they could find a comfortable place. Or you could enjoy the beautiful scenery.
Not having breakfast I had my baguette quite early, and realised that more food would have been nice. But you could only buy beer, crisps and cookies on board. Obviously to fair prices!!!! One big beer Lao was only 25,000 Kip – normal is 15,000. Lesson learned – buy beer before boarding the boat.
However, people took pity on me and I was fed cookies throughout the journey – for two days. I felt like the cookie monster. Had worst names I guess….
One advantage of the boat was you could walk a bit around as well. There was a amoking area at the rear, and you could get some nice views at the front. For such a long journey it is good to be able to stretch your legs.
After 6 hours we arrived in our first destination – Pakbeng. As I have read in advance, there is a nice trick going on. When you arrive on the boat, one guide advises that it will be difficult to get rooms and that you can pre-book via him a room for 500 Baht. It seems quite a few people did that. But when you arrive in Pakbeng you are met by quite a few touts offering their rooms. The group of five of us (the Dutch girls, Nils and our new Austrian friend) just walked past the touts and got a room offered for 90,000 Kip at the first guesthouse – they kindly would put in a matrass in the guys room so we can share it with three of us. Of course they also advised us that there are no other rooms available, but this is obviously not correct. Not fancy to walk too far from the boat landing we took the rooms. They were nothing special, and our toilet didn’t work properly the next morning – thankfully we didn’t have to deal with it afterwards!!!!! I am sure you can get something better for that money, but we literally only spend a few hours there.
Pakbeng seems to exist only of guesthouses and restaurants, with locals living further up the one road we saw. Most restaurant offer similar food, and we settled in one that offered a free shot of Lao vodka. Food was good, and the place was busy with people from the boat. For some reason I got fed more cookies when walking into the restaurant….apparently I look like someone who needs more food…
Next morning everyone follows the same routine.
1) Have breakfast
2) Order baguettes for the journey (this time I learned my lesson and got two…)
3) Buying water, cookies or other bits (i.e. some beer).
4) Heading to the boat landing
For the second part of the journey we had smaller boats – which meant we required two. Obviously we got the boat that contained the one selfish tourist who doesn’t care about everyone else. While the first boat departed one woman decided to leave the boat…and we waited and waited. After 10 minute the woman returned with a coffee and a water in her hand. If I would be the captain, I would have left her behind – or throw her from board to entertain everyone else. I was hoping that the coffee was at least horrible or she choked on it. Well, I am allowed to have some hope for justice, right?!?!
The journey on day two was similar as day 1. Nice scenery, time to relax, read, sleep – and more cookies for me!!! Despite being a bit smaller you could still stretch your legs on board, buying the essential like beer (not needed this time), and had a toilet – this one was worse though. At the end it was flooded with water….not very pleasant.
I used the time wisely again, and continued reading my first book. It was actually nice to just sit back and do nothing and relax. If you cannot find time to relax during the two day, I am not sure where else you could.
An hour from Luang Prabang I recognised the scenery from the boat ride from Nong Khiaw to LP 2 years ago, and I was really looking forward to be back in Luang Prabang.
Soon we arrived at the boat landing for Luang Prabang. Unfortunately it wasn’t the one used two years ago in the Old Town, but a new one 10km away from LP. People suggest this was done for the local Tuk Tuk drivers, but maybe it also had something to do with reducing the boat traffic from Luang Prabang. But who really knows.
Unfortunately, despite being active as landing point for a year now, it is not in good condition. You either have to take a very large step or get wet feet. Considering you are packed with a heavy backpack, it is not optimal. On top of some steep stairs you can buy your Tuk Tuk ticket for 20,000. I have heard that in the past some tourist organised a strike on the boat to avoid a fee, or walk away and hope for a reduction. Well, not strike happened on the boat (I would have walked out anyway, not wasting time for the sake of $2.50), and the five of us got one straight away.
The boat landing is actually quite a bit away, it felt more than 10km. After 30 minutes or so the Tuk Tuk let us off at the start of the Night Market next to the Tourist Information, and the for me the boat adventure was officially over.
This boat trip is a long journey, and the bus from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang is faster. Also I heard a few fellow passengers stating they got bored by the scenery on day two. Personally I enjoyed it as you meet a lot of new people, enjoy mountains, hills and villages as you slowly pass them, and it is a great way to put your feet up and just be able to switch off and relax. I needed that and therefore really enjoyed the trip. It is something I would highly recommend to do when arriving in Huay Xai
In Pakbeng you have a wide choice, but as you might not spend a lot of time there you should just take one not too far from the boat landing – less walking with your luggagge. And do NOT fall for the trick to book something before arriving, you will pay more than necessary.
First one, when booking tickets check how busy the place looks. They use their own driver and you have some waiting time (not that it really matters as you either wait in the hotel or on the boat).
In Huay Xai maybe pre-order your baguettes at one of the shops. They seemed to be much better organised and prepared. Also make sure you bring water, other drinks (i.e. beer) and enough food with you. 6-7 hour on a boat could make you hungry. You will pay more on the boat.
In Pakbeng there is a bakery. If you want to order baguettes there, do it the evening before, it can get very busy in the morning. And again make sure you have enough drinks and food with you.
Bring a book along or some music to enjoy the free time on board.
And final recommendation, if you wear normal shoes, I would bring some flip flops along – you have to take off your shoes when entering the boats. And it wouldn’t be nice to go bare feet to the toilet.