Entering Laos: Going down the mighty Mekong

Laos_Mekong-1681 Having spent three more days in Chiang Mai after the Mae Hong Song Loop, I decided it is about time to go to Laos. So I took the bus to Chiang Rai and from there straight to the border town of Chiang Khong. I arrived at about 2 o’ clock and wasn’t sure if I should go directly to Laos or spend another night in Thailand. I finally decided to do the latter and I can now say it was a good decision. First of all, Chiang Khong was nice, set at the mighty Mekong River with a great view over to Laos and being blessed with a relaxed atmosphere. Second of all, it was good to spend one last night in Thailand, enjoying m last Thai food, having my last Thai massage and writing some post cards at the end of the day reminiscing about the good times I had. I calmed down and mentally prepared for Laos.

My last day in Thailand - the lazy and laid back border town of Chiang Khong

My last day in Thailand – the lazy and laid back border town of Chiang Khong

A not so warm welcome to Laos
The next day started rainy – the first I saw rain since I arrived in Asia. Once on the other side of the Mekong it started pouring. What a warm welcome to Laos I thought. I crossed the river with a friendly Chinese grill named Bao Xun. We mastered the immigration procedure and tried to wait out the rain with a warm coffee. We ended up taking a Tuk Tuk to the pier, since it didn’t stop pouring. When we got there, we were completely soaked. After getting some snacks for the 7 hour trip to Pakbeng, we boarded the slowboat and couldn’t wait to take off.

The mighty river Mekong – the lifeline of a a whole region
The boat ride was brilliant. By the time we left he Houy Xai pier, it had topped raining and the sun came out. So here I was, going down the mighty Mekong in a slow boat – an adventure I always dreamed of. To be honest though, it wasn’t really that adventurous – the boats nowadays are mostly used by tourists and only a few locals make still use of them. Yet I enjoyed it and shortly after departing I left my seat beside Bao Xun to sit at the front behind the captain. The view was fantastic and I spend hours just looking left and right at what was going on only interrupted by a nap here and there.

The first of two slowboats heading downriver to Pakbeng.

The first of two slowboats heading downriver to Pakbeng.

Bends, currents, karst rocks and so much life long the river.

The Mekong is truly the lifeline of South East Asia and the life of the people and the river seem to have a symbiotic and relationship. The river seems to dictate the rhythm of the peoples lives and they happily accept it. Children play in the river, old men fish and in the evening families and communities gather for a collective bath. It was so interesting to see all of these situations while slowly chugging along – I couldn’t take my eyes of the river banks.

At the same time the Mekong showed it’s many faces more than once. At one point lazily and calmly flowing, almost meditative, and only a minute afterwards bubbling and fierce with currents demanding the captains greatest maneuvering skills. I could watch him from behind and was very impressed. It must take years to learn how to steer a boat like that through the currents and past razor sharp karst rocks.

The captain constantly working the rudder. He had to concentrate for the whole 7 hour ride.

The captain constantly working the rudder. He had to concentrate for the whole 7 hour ride.

We arrived safely in Pakbeng and found a nice guest house right away. Bao Xun and I didn’t fall for the offers on the boat, arguing that there won’t be enough rooms in Pakbeng for every passenger. Of course there was and I reckon we got a pretty good deal. Again, sometimes it just pays off to get out of your comfort zone and taking your chances. We finished the night at a local restaurant where I had my first beer lao.

Almost there . the last few miles to Pakbeng...

Almost there . the last few miles to Pakbeng…

Pakbeng pier by dusk - peaceful and not much left of the previous hustle and bustle of people getting off the boats.

Pakbeng pier by dusk – peaceful and not much left of the previous hustle and bustle of people getting off the boats.

Getting off the tourist track in Pakbeng
The next day 99% of the tourists continued the boat journey to Luang Prabang. I decided not to do so and stayed in Pakbeng to catch a local bus to Oudomxai at around 12 pm. I would be in Luang Prabang later and read, that the second boat ride is just like the first, only a couple of hours longer. By the time the boats left, it felt like I was the only tourist left in town. Quite enjoyable I have to say. I had breakfast at the best bakery in town with an unbeatable view and used the time to reply to the comments on my last blog post. At 11:30 I got a Tuk Tuk ride to the bus station, bought a ticket and off I was. Bus rides in Laos is a different story though …

There are worse places to blog from ... enjoyed that banana muffin a lot.

There are worse places to blog from … enjoyed that banana muffin a lot.

Last thoughts…
Right after entering Laos I realized, that this leg of the journey will be different from the last in Thailand. The dramatic change of weather was only part of the story. Laos seems to be much less developed and a lot poorer than Thailand. The country also seems to be more rugged and wild. The overcast weather, the cloud covered mountains, the thick and dark jungle left an almost mystic impression and were a striking contrast to colorful and happy Thailand. I liked the change and I am excited to see if these impressions will be reinforced during the course of this trip.
Once again I realized that it doesn’t take much to get off the tourist track. It seemed like literally everyone is gong straight from Houayxai to Luang Prabang. There were two boats full with mostly tourists going that direction. It was easy to escape the flip flop caravan by just doing the boat trip to Pakbeng and continuing the journey by bus. Strangely, most people like to go with the crowd. For me it was the perfect mix and I can highly recommend the trip like that.

Categories: Laos | Tags: , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Entering Laos: Going down the mighty Mekong

  1. Great post. I traveled the other way from Luang Prabang north to Thailand on the boat several years ago, and it remains one of my favorite things I’ve ever done.

    • Hey Jeff,
      thanks for your feedback, I really appreciate that. Going up the river must be even nicer because there are usually less people doing it that way. Must be even more relaxed than going down. I wasn’t sure whether to take the boat or go straight up to Luang Namtha. Now I am happy that I decided to do it. It was a great experience. Do you have any plans coming back to this area?

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