There are many ways to get into Laos from Northern Thailand. A few options were: a super sketchy plane ride (ya... nope), a speed boat that sounded so fucking terrifying that it can't really even be considered an option, a bus (booo) or a gorgeous luxury slow boat taking two days along the Mekong River into Luang Prabang. It was a really tough decision to go with the slow boat.
The slow boat picks you up in Chiang Khong, Thailand which is a highly frequented town by travellers en route to Laos. Getting to Chiang Khong is an interesting experience. Luxury bus (similar to a Greyhound) from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai... and a very... shall we say... local bus from Chiang Rai to Chiang Khong. The buses to Chiang Khong are small, old, and leave every hour. It is very confusing to know which bus actually will take you to Chiang Khong and the drivers of the bus attempt to fit as many people as possible on board for each trip. Once they have squeezed in as many people as possible onto the seats of the bus... out come the plastic stools that get set up in the central aisle to fit a dozen or so more (might I mention...this is a very small bus with a very narrow aisle). The crowding makes the bus VERY hot.... and the ceiling fans blowing in circles do little to quench the heat. As much as its uncomfortable, its incredibly cheap. Like 60 baht/person cheap ($2 Canadian). Also, it was such a new experience, I would prefer the memory over a comfortable bus ride any day. Kris thinks I am crazy for saying this.
There are many options for slow boats from Chiang Khong which will take you into Luang Prabang, Laos. Luang Prabang is Laos 4th largest city and a hotspot for travellers due to its many temples, gorgeous views of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, and 33 out of the 58 villages that make up Luang Prabang comprise a UNESCO world heritage site. We chose the Nagi of Mekong (website here http://www.nagiofmekong.com ) which was a luxury boat trip and included pick up from our hotel in Chiang Khong, crossing of the border (though we did have to pay for our own visas at the border which were $1720 baht each or $63 CAD), accommodation for our overnight stay at the half-way point, breakfast, lunch and transport to our guesthouse in Luang Prabang.
The bus picked us up from our guesthouse in Chiang Khong and brought us to the Thai/Laos border. Once we purchased our visas at the border (make sure you get visa photos in advance!) and were across, we arrived at the boat dock and boarded our boat. The boat was GORGEOUS. There were rows and rows of padded benches with tables and the front of the boat hosted a handful of chaise lounges. Our group consisted of four (Kris & I, and my sister Nikki and her boyfriend Dave), and there were only 3 others on our boat made for 50. That was nice.
Our journey began and I do not know how else to describe the Mekong other than magical. You pass gorgeous greenery, other boats full of locals and/or fellow travellers journeying between Thailand and Laos, wildlife, and the occasional bouncing speedboat full of wide eyed, petrified passengers (in which we waved our encouragement and tried not to look too pleased with our choice of transport). The food on the boat was vegetarian (by request), light, and delicious. Thai yellow curried potatoes on a bed of rice, papaya and glass noodle salads, and all the coffee you can drink (win!). There was also free cold water bottles and beer & pop available for purchase.
The boat stops once per day at a local village along the Mekong... which is an experience I have very mixed feelings about. The boat pulls up to the shore of the village, and local children swarm around...desperately trying to sell homemade bracelets for $20,000 Laos Kip per bracelet ($3 CAD). As our tour guide led us up the sand riverbank into the village, you are torn between being fascinated about how these people live (which is a cool, though selfish experience) and by being horrified that you are being this intrusive into their daily lives. It felt like the village was a being treated as a tourist destination for westerners to look at people living in poverty. I am the first one to say that I would much rather be living with very little than wasting away working 40 hours a week at a desk job... but this just felt horrible. I watched other tourists on our boat taking photos and Go Pro videos of these children who were chasing them around, begging for their money. It felt so sick to me. I only had $20,000 Kip on me, but I wanted to buy a bracelet from every single child crowded around me. I could only buy one. I chose to buy from a bold and persistent little girl who was so determined to sell me a bracelet I had to honour her fire-y little spirit. I knew that her family would eat well that night, and that perhaps the other children's families may not. We got back on the boat and Kris and I sat in disturbed silence for hours afterwards.
The halfway point arrived and we cheered up. Our boat was one of the first to dock among the many tourist boats that would dock over the course of the evening. Our hotel was a hut that overlooked the Mekong with a full view of the dock... and it was pretty and cozy. I loved watching the tourist boats flocking in, each time a sea of people with their loose pants and backpacks would trudge up the hill. I love the backpacking culture of SE Asia! The town itself had many restaurants and was really nice to walk around. The Buddhist New Year (the biggest holiday in SE Asia) was around the corner and some local children decided to practice their water gun skills on us as we passed. We had an amazing spread of Indian curries and fresh naan for dinner... and a few cold beers (obviously)... it was such a fun night!
We got back on the boat in the morning... and enjoyed another happy, lazy day on the river. We read, drank coffee, played cards, drank a few beer, and had a lot of laughs. The boat stopped again at another river village. This one was much larger, and we were a bit better prepared for what we were to see. While seeing a malnourished, naked toddler playing with a machete wasn't exactly fun... this village was a textile village that seemed to have a relatively good economy from the tourists coming in, so this village was a little easier to stomach than the first. All the ladies of the village laid out their scarves and rugs, begging for us to purchase from them vs. the ladies set up on either side of them. All of these women had children behind them and clearly families to feed. I really wish the boat companies would approach the village visits differently. Perhaps pay the village for tourists to observe their way of life and for the locals to show us how they make (for example) their textiles, and then have the village share the money that comes in amongst the residents. I genuinely hope something like this approach is adopted in the future so that the experience seems less...intrusive. And less overall... icky.
The final stop before our slow boat journey into Luang Prabang was over was at the famous Pak Ou Cave outside of Luang Prabang. This cave is so special. After docking and walking up a steep set of stairs, you enter a cave that overlooks the Mekong, and is filled with hundreds of statues of Buddha. Collected over many years, the image is so stunning and something you will be sure to never forget. It feels so calm and serene inside the cave...and of course... it makes for beautiful photos.
All in all the slow boat experience is one I would highly recommend. Stunning scenery, delicious food, comfortable accommodation and only dampened a bit by awkward and intrusive visits (that are still a good experience, though selfish, for us) to riverside villages.
Highly recommended! Be sure to check out our youtube videos that documented two amazing days on the river.