I’m sitting in a slowboat traveling up the Mekong river. We left Luang Prabang at 8.30am, Pakbeng is today’s destination. Pakbeng itself is only a halfway town, an overnight stop before a second boat leg to Huay Xai, the last stop before crossing into Thailand at Chiang Khong.
The boat is a long, traditional slowboat. It has seating for about 60 people, but it’s only half full. The loud Diesel engine rumbles down the back of the boat pretty loudly. Today’s journey was quoted as 7 hours, but it might be more like 9 hours.
We make a few stops at tiny villages along the way. Some locals leave with a few supplies. These little villages surely have no electricity, they’re nestled deep in the jungle here. In fact since leaving Luang Prabang, we haven’t seen much more than a few stick homes, a few boats on the water and local kids swimming nearby. But this has been limited to only a few locations. Mostly it’s sandy or rocky riverbank, backed by dense jungle and high mountains.
I’ve met a few other travelers on the boat. We’ve passed the time playing cards, trading stories and reading books, but also just enjoying the journey and the remoteness of the area. Two others are on their way to Luang Namtha, while myself and another are on our way to Chiang Rai in Thailand.
We are getting close to the area known as the golden triangle, where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar all meet. This is an area infamous for drug production, though there are no visible signs of it.
We arrived at Pakbeng around 5.30pm. The ‘pier’ (a rocky bank with some hastily constructed steep concrete stairs) led up to the only road in town, where we were hassled by young and old to stay at their guesthouse. We accepted the offer of a young guy named Peng, for a twin room for 80,000 kip ($10) in Phonemany Guesthouse. The room was nice and the best bed I’ve slept on in months. The guesthouse also had the best WIFI I’ve found in Laos. Pre-booking the guesthouse online will set you back $40, it’s the sort of town where walk-ins are the best way to go.
This morning at 7am I went down to the pier to try and get a ticket for day two on the boat to Huay Xai. They told me to come back at 8am, so after breakfast I returned and they pointed me to the boat heading upstream, another 9 hour journey.
The landscape was similar heading north of Pakbeng. Jungle, mountains and beaches. A bit less rocky and the villages a little more frequent the closer we get to Huay Xai and the Thai border. Powerlines have appeared and now follow a road along the riverside. The Thai border is approaching, where Laos is on one side of the river and Thailand on the other.
I stretch out across a few seats and have a nap in the sun. When I wake, the development of the riverbank on one side is now unmistakably Thailand, or to be more accurate, unmistakeably not Laos. The Thai riverbank is steeped high with carefully placed rocks, with concrete steps running down to the waters edge every hundred metres. On the Laos side, its more untouched beaches and grasslands replacing the dense jungle of earlier.
We finally arrive at Huay Xai around 5pm. A group of six of us all piled into a tuk-tuk to go directly to the Thai border crossing. There was only one border official working, but it wasn’t a problem, we were basically the only ones there at this time (now 6pm). We were through the Lao departure and onto a bus to take us to the Thai entry on the other side of the river within 15 minutes. We did however have to pay US$1 for Lao overtime (!) and 40THB for the bus ticket (15THB for overtime!).
Once at the Thai entry we were again through in only a few minutes. Four of us together arrranged a private vehicle transfer to Chiang Rai (2hrs, 2,000THB) and my time in Thailand had started!