The Slow Boat into Laos

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Waking early enough for a quick breakfast before doing one final pack of our bags, we make sure everything is in order and make our way down the dusty path toward the dock. The literal border ‘crossing’ is done in a small canoe powered by an outboard motor, just strong enough to fight the currents of the Mekong River.

Once on the other side, the usual formalities take place regarding stamps and visa payments, only this time something strikes us as a little strange. Posted in plain sight is a list of roughly 60 different countries and the associated price for a visa into Laos; there are two countries tied for most expensive – at $42US – Canada and Afghanistan. Curious.

The Longboats of the Mekong

A short while later we make our way to the longboat to begin our two day trip downriver to Luang Prabang. While waiting to depart, several children – can’t be more than 10 years old – pop up along the side of the boat selling big bags of weed. Dom, a German on our boat casually picks up a half-ounce for $5 and stuffs it into his backpack. A few minutes later and the boat slowly pulls away from the shore and spins around with the diesel engine chugging heavily against the strong currents. We soon find ourselves comfortable floating down one of the greatest rivers on earth.

Bottle of Beer Lao on the side of a boat

A Cold BeerLao helps tame the heat

Aside from having to shit through a hole in the floor in the “washroom”, the boat was fairly enjoyable. The seats themselves were painfully uncomfortable, but with such a smooth ride, most people walked around and mingled while passing Beerlao back and fourth.

Slow and Easy

The whole first day was smooth and easy, given the 7 or so hours to PakBeng, the midway point of the journey. Upon arriving late in the afternoon, we all find whatever cheap accommodation is available in the tiny village, Kylee and I opting for a tiny backroom in a small house. A quick dinner of fried noodles from a cart on the single road through town, and we picked up a few bottles of Beerlao to bring down to the docks for sunset.

We spend the next few hours sharing drinks with two laid-back Americans from Seattle until 10pm comes, and everything turns to black. The village of PakBeng is so remote, the entire town runs off of a diesel generator which turns off at 10, leaving everything in the dark of the jungle. Thankfully, knowing this ahead of time, we brought a few candles and kept the evening going for another round of drinks before heading to our rooms.

Three people enjoy beer in the dark in Laos

Drinks by the Mekong under Candlelight

An Unfortunate Loss for One

Before boarding the following day, we each grab a bánh mì for breakfast en route. Waiting for one final traveller who finally returned to the boat visibly upset, as the night previous he left his camera at the restaurant he was eating at, and it’s now gone. He wasn’t as upset about the camera itself as he was the several weeks worth of unsaved photos he lost along with it. I couldn’t imagine the feeling.

On it’s way now the boat was moving once again, slowly chugging along with the currents of the mighty river towards our destination. Shortly before noon the beer started flowing once again as there was little else to do while on board but throw a little party. Several of the travellers were having less of a time than others as a result of the night before, but we weren’t part of that group thankfully enough.

Nearing Luang Prabang, during the final hour of our two-day journey, a great rain storm opened up and came down in sheets. However it only seemed to be coming from a single dark cloud in a clear blue sky, so as the rain poured down around us, the sunlight kept cutting through it all for the entire remainder of the trip. While during wet season in the region, this was nothing new to us, but from the boat it was a new perspective. The boats themselves being roofed, there was no concern to any of us, it was just a beautiful scene to bring our trip to a close.

A Slow Ride over so Quickly

Upon arrival in Luang Prabang, we gather our packs and disembark as quickly as possible in the still-heavy rain. I can’t think of a better entry into a country than that. Spending two days on a slow boat floating down a monstrous river, through mountain valleys and passing tiny villages in the hills; crossing a border should always come with such a welcome!

Sun shining through the rain over the Mekong

Mid-Day Showers in Laos are a thing of Beauty


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About the Author

Mark Stewart

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Mark is the co-founder, photographer, author, and part-time editor of These Foreign Roads. A former chef, he left the professional kitchen in search of interesting experiences and unique cuisines from around the world.

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