Posted by: adventuressetravels | September 28, 2012

Slow Boat Day 2 – Border Crossings and Chocolate Rivers

Day 2 – Border Crossings and Slow Boats

Canoe along side of the Slow Boat

Early the next morning there was a knock at the door and we were sitting by the Mekong enjoying a breakfast of eggs and rice by 8:00 for our (vile) complimentary breakfast.  We had just enough time to grab our bags, and the complimentary boxed “lunch” left in our rooms before piling into two pickup trucks that took us to the Thai border.

After getting our exit stamps for Thailand our guide handed us tickets and we split up into groups of 3-4.  We each waited to climb into slim canoe-like motorboats which ferry passengers back and forth between the Thai banks of the river across the unclaimed Mekong waters and the Laos soil.

Our guide met us after we had crossed the border and took us to a shop where we could buy snacks for the boat ride in case the boxed lunch wasn’t enough.  I highly recommend getting something.  Though there are snacks on the boat they are expensive and the boxed lunch is dreadful.

Lonely planet tells horror stories about unscrupulous guides who try to scare passengers into getting a room at their guest house.  While waiting for the boat our guide did recommend it, and most of us paired up again and signed up for rooms in Pak Beng because it was more convenient to get to our connecting boat on time the next morning, not to mention sharing a room for 200 baht was cheaper for me than getting one alone.  However, if you are on a tight budget there are options available in Pak Beng as low as 100 baht.

If you can avoid it, do not change money until you reach Luang Prabang.  Though Huay Xai is Laos, it is still a border town and there are scam artists.  Withdrawing Laos Kip at an ATM would be fine but money changers should not be trusted.  Unfortunately several fellow passengers fell victim to painfully bad exchange rates.  Guest houses and many restaurants in Pak Beng, the town that the boat stops in for the night will gladly take Thai Baht as will most places in Huay Xai so it is fine to wait to change money until reaching Luang Prabang.

Fishing village

By 10:30 I was handing my travel backpack to the person storing bags in the back, I stepped into the long, covered slow boat.  Looking at the seats I started to laugh:  this was a water-bus!  Rather than the hard benches I had been dreading, the seats were car seats, upholstered in grey fabric, and nailed to boards on the floor.  They weren’t attached any more than dining room chairs around a table are nailed to the floor.  It made sense: the car seats were more comfortable than hard benches and if need be they could be slid or even picked up and moved to create more space.

One of the boat workers pulled a 15-foot bamboo pole off of the roof of the boat and pushed us off the dock and guiding us into the river.   I watched him incredulously as he skillfully maneuvered the boat into the middle of the river where the engines took over.

Putting slowly along the sleepy molten chocolate expanse of the Mekong in a slow boat, watching the wooded hills rise higher and higher, fading to dusky blues in the distance is mesmerizing.  Fishing nets stretched across boulders trapping their prey in pockets of the immense river.  A few collections of houses, so rural they could barely be called fishing villages, were sprinkled haphazardly along the banks, but other than these and the occasional boat the route was untouched by human hand.

Late in the afternoon, I gasped.  Passengers crowded by the windows to watch as a train of three elephants hauled lumber along the riverbank.  I really was in the land of 1,000,000 elephants.

It was almost dusk by the time I heard the pole scrape the top of the boat as it was moved into position. I looked at my phone: 6:00 pm.  We were arriving right on time.  Pak Beng was a small village.  A press people crowded around the boat as we docked asking if we wanted rooms, but as many of us already had reservations we pushed past them to our guest house.

After being on the breezy boat all day I was thankful to take a piping hot shower and put on some warmer clothes.  I was surprised that there was a bit in the chill night air:  Laos was noticeably colder than Thailand.  A group of us walked around exploring the sleepy streets of Pak Beng and got an unexceptional dinner.  So far Laos was not scoring high as far as culinary excellence.

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